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Sunday, September 09, 2012

A riot of Calibans

The subtitle of this article is ‘Why can’t scholars write more clearly?’ The author has pointed out some reasons already, but I should like to add a few more. a) Most people are not taught these days that it is important to write well, nor what good writing means, b) a lot of language teachers are themselves confused, and imagine that jargon, prolixity and opaqueness are actually marks of ‘good-’, meaning learned writing (the disease starts being spread in high school, I have discovered), c) a lot of people in academia secretly know that what they are writing, expressed in plain English, would be little more than blah, so they are desperate to cover it up (‘If you cannot convince, confuse’!), d) In the world outside academia, there is a kind of negative snobbery at work here, assisted by vastness of numbers – I am proud of the fact that I cannot write good English (or Hindi or Mandarin or French for that matter), since that puts me on par with my friends on Facebook, and we are the world, aren’t we? e) Most engineer-turned-MBA types understand little more by communication beyond quarrelling with spouses, haggling with shopkeepers and displaying charts, maps, tables and diagrams on Powerpoint, for which you really do not need more than elementary-school language skills anyway (most of these types find reading P.G. Wodehouse too challenging, think Richard Dawkins is an intellectual, and would break their teeth on Bertrand Russell…) 

When it comes to Caliban proper, that’s another story. I have taught The Tempest, so I know a little better than the average man what this writer is talking about, and I must confess I am in two minds. Prospero did disdain Caliban from the beginning, and used him like a slave: his hatred and contempt might have intensified after Caliban tried to rape his daughter, but maybe the post colonialist scholars are right, C was just trying to pay him back in the only coin he knew. How much P really exerted himself to make C a better human being remains an open question: we have only his word for it. Besides, Shakespeare, true to his style, has put at least one passage in C’s mouth that hints at a strong stirring of a poetic soul in him, which justifies the suspicion that he is more sinned against than sinning. But the lines in question, ‘You taught me language, and my only profit on’t  is/ I know how to curse’, has a peculiarly poignant ring for those of us who have been teaching language all our lives. I have known far too many Calibans myself, alas, ones unredeemed by any hint of having human souls. Truly, they have little use for language except to curse everyone they should be respectful and grateful to. I am sure I am not the only one at whom they spit upwards whenever they feel particularly unhappy with their lives. I wish Shakespeare could have met some of them, for I’d have loved to savour whatever he might have said about these monsters (this and this are links to two related posts I wrote some time ago).


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

As always, this is another nice and thoughtful post from you. I will try to express my views on the issues raised by you.

1> Who cares about good writing when our curriculum is designed in such a way that we can blindly learn and quote verbatim from text-books and pass easily in examinations...we can bid essays a goodbye too if we opt for science after tenth standard.
2> As Ryan T. Anderson,the editor of Public Discourse has pointed out that we live in a sound-bite age where rhetoric appeals to our senses more than reason, it is no surprise that people appreciate jargon based essays even if they do not understand a bit of it. People are baffled by this 'confuse if you can't convince' philosophy (I have experienced it myself, be it while attending lecture classes in a so called premier institute or buying a digital camera) and yet people don't realize they are being fooled. Remember what you observed (and rightly so) about a typical student's reaction (one who attends the IIT batch of a certain maths teacher of Durgapur) that " Sir-ta ki darun hi-fi porai, tai na...kichu bujhte parlam na." .
3> Bertrand Russell wrote that the doctrine of equality of all men applies only upwards, not downwards. We are of the opinion that nobody is superior to us but then that also means that nobody is socially inferior to us which we find difficult to accept. This warped notion of democracy makes fragile egos out of petty minds that thinks they deserve the same respect as a polymath.

I hope I haven't wandered away from the theme of your post. Take care, Sir.

With regards,

Debarshi Saha said...

Dear Sir,

I agree with you in entirety when you point out the fact that most people aren't taught to write well,and neither can they appreciate writing of the finer sort.More words necessarily do not lend themselves to illuminating the truth of an axiom or conjecture,and brevity does not take away anything from a write-up,well thought out and lucidly executed.

It is truly the Calibans who are pillaging our culture,and wreaking havoc with language-But then again,Sir,how can they feel the extent of the damage done,when they do not perceive it as damage,but as progress,albeit in a very cruelly twisted sense of the term?

Warm regards,

Ria Pariksha said...

I agree that most people today are not taught what good writing means. Most of the students (right from high school as you pointed out) are of the opinion that an ornate style of writing is the hallmark of a scholar. It isn't difficult for me to understand because I had been one of the persons sharing the same opinion! But I have been lucky enough, unlike many others of my age, to be taught how to write well right when I had submitted my first essay to you.
I have observed a few things in this regard- complexity of language in essays at school fetches one good marks, prolix words on Facebook comments get the maximum 'Likes' although it may make the comment totally meaningless, giving the commenter a feeling of pride in his 'literary genius'! So I deduced that many students and teachers are at par in this regard!
Using weighty, abstruse words and ideas makes one 'cool' these days! Needless to say, words without vowels also make for the 'in-thing'!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

But the reason is all too obvious, Ria! Most people - including, shamefully, most teachers - are pathetically poorly read these days, as anybody who is well-read herself should be able to find out very quickly on interacting with any teacher! For instance, if someone never had Shakespeare in her syllabus, she has probably never read Shakespeare at all; if someone did have one of his plays to read, she has in all probability read only that particular book as text (or, more likely, only notes on that text!) and passed an examination and forgotten 90% of what she has read, besides never having bothered to read any other play of his at all; so when she has to 'teach' something else, she has to rely blindly on whatever 'notes' she can lay her hands on, and naturally she either uses big words to bamboozle her students (most of whom, in turn, are idiots who never touch books on their own) or talk nonsense - as you should know from so many years of classroom experience. And you can find out from your friends whether 'teachers' of science are in general any better...education worldwide, but even more so in India, is in an unholy mess, and things are only getting worse with the passage of years. Imagine some of your classmates as teachers/lecturers in ten years' time, and you will know what makes me shudder. Most highly educated people of your generation will be self-taught, as they used to be once upon a time in the past, I guarantee you that, and with them will co-exist millions of degree-holding morons who know nothing at all...

Ria Pariksha said...

I thank God wholeheartedly that I wasn't born a generation later. I have had the opportunity to know some of the best teachers both in the science and the humanities field.
As you had said in one of your classes, when there is always 'Google' to help, most teachers don't bother to put their little grey cells to much use, and of course, notes of tuition teachers are at service too (though laying hands on them involves going through a bit of shame!). No doubt the next generation of teachers is going to follow the same trail.

I had a question, though it may seem foolish! Can Captain Haddock be called a Caliban because he uses big words to curse people around when he is in a fit of rage? Nevertheless it makes the character adorable to me!

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
In college, many of our professors wanted us to quote the jargon of the critics in answers rather than write a coherent answer in a simple language. Often I had written the same thing in different ways to fill the pages and I used to remember your distinct red 'R' in my essays, indicating repetition. Only one or two professors could explain the basic concept behind a story or a poem in simple language, most indulged in incomprehensible jargon. I can explain the text of Julius Caesar, which I learnt in your class, much better than what I can do with Macbeth, which I learnt in second year. Once I was discussing with a classmate that why I memorised your notes; it wasn't that I wouldn't be able to write an answer of my own, but because I wouldn't be able to write anything so simple, yet so strikingly beautiful. Thanks for being such a great teacher.
With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am grateful for the kind words, Sayantika.