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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What really mattered?

Time magazine completed sixty years of its existence in 1983. They brought out a special anniversary issue on that birthday. I remember that the editor-in-chief had with many a backward glance written a weighty column to mark the occasion; given the solemnity of the moment and the seriousness of the subject it bore more than a faint whiff of philosophizing. The great man said a lot of things, brought up a wide variety of issues; all I recall today is the title of the editorial: ‘What really mattered?’

Over one of the most happening epochs in history this renowned journal had with one hand collected the ‘most important’ news and views from all over the world and distributed them among a huge and scattered readership with the other. After sixty years of that relentless pursuit, at a juncture when well-deserved celebration and self-congratulation was well in order, it must have occurred to the editor, glancing once at the years gone by and again at the misty future ahead, that he should organize and put down on paper his views on what had transpired during this interval of time that would eventually leave permanent marks on history. Let the erudite reader figure out for himself how difficult a task that must have been. It was a well-written column, and my readers can find and read it for themselves: it was not to discuss that article that I started on this essay. For me, it is only the thought encapsulated in the title that is worth pondering over, because several years have rolled by since it was written, we are now poised at the fin de siècle, our perspective is now the whole of the 20th century C.E. – can we not today think once more, and more comprehensively, about what really mattered?

I am not trying to compare with anybody, but I do feel that it was a remarkably early age when I first started wondering about this. In every age thoughtful people have indeed pondered over the question, and the need for pondering has not diminished in the present day. Since childhood my chief field of inquiry was the world of books, so naturally that is where I began to look for answers. Within a relatively short while I discovered that savants in every land and age have struggled to find satisfactory answers, and the results of their labours have filled countless shelves in the world’s great libraries. The thing that occurred to me then was that I should read up all or most of that stuff if I were to be successful in that quest. I am sure any wise and experienced reader would smile to think what a callow fool I was, with no idea of what I was letting myself in for. Be that as it may, I had no such mentor then to warn me, and I had convinced myself that the task might be long and hard but not impossible. Surely in time ‘enough’ knowledge would have been acquired, and then I would be well-equipped to formulate a good answer for myself. So I took the plunge quite eagerly. Years passed, rivers of midnight oil were burnt, my health greatly impaired, much important work left forever unattended, an enormous number of books read. I reached beyond school and college textbooks to encyclopedias and biographies of the great and famous. The little familiarity that I gained with world literature also became grist to my mill. I also read all kinds of ‘special histories’ – the history of weapons and war, of art, of economics and politics and literature itself, of science, and crime, of cinema and sports and transport and religions, of education and law and slavery and women’s liberation and environmental activism and so much more that I cannot even recall clearly any longer.

As I kept on reading, it slowly dawned on me that ‘facts’ are infinite in number and variety. Just as the truly inquisitive mind can never turn away from them for good (nor is it right to do so), so also it has to admit to itself, reconcile itself calmly to the reality that in the world of facts, there is literally no end to learning, either for the individual or for mankind as a whole. Facts will keep on accumulating with the passage of time – perhaps that is not only necessary but even a sign of a healthy civilization – but man will have to square with the understanding that he will always have to think, judge, talk, work and make decisions on the basis of incomplete data. On the other hand, the amount of information that has already been accumulated is so vast that we frequently feel at a loss as to how to handle it; the ocean of ‘just facts’ begins to seem meaningless, incoherent, all of a riddle: therefore we try to classify and organize and tame facts into orderly and rational theories. Like others I too felt this urgent need by and by, and it was a pretty coincidence that I began to study formal theory just around the time when I had begun to feel a great need for it. Over time, I got acquainted with theories of a very wide range of tastes, aromas and hues. Little by little, I began to realize that the world of theories is itself a vast and bewildering maze! Theory is a powerful narcotic; little by little it swallows whole the weary and dazed seeker like a python its prey. Gradually his vision dims, he takes leave of common sense, countless subconscious mischiefs, selfish interests, blind weaknesses of the heart, all kinds of dormant fears, infatuations and bigoted instincts unnoticeably corrupt his vaunted dedication to empirical facts. Goaded by the increasingly desperate urge to unravel all the mysteries of the universe, to lay to rest all doubts once and for all, answer every nagging question, find explanations for every last puzzle, provide easy solutions to all possible problems, he grows more and more frantic, and in step with this urgency he becomes more and more impatient and weary of the endless quantity, variety, self-contradictoriness and mutability of the world of facts that assails and mocks at him, until eventually he commits the ultimate sin: he begins to try to fit in, Procrustes style, all of the knowable universe into the little cage of his pet theory, and inevitably, this insane and stupid aim forces him to deny everything about reality that does not fit in. He starts looking at the world through blinkers, and works ever harder to convince himself that nothing that is not captured through his particular brand of tunnel vision is really interesting or important enough to take note of (think about Marxists dealing with religion, or allopaths talking about homeopathy). Thus truth-worshipping Man slowly imposes his weaknesses upon the world; myriad different kinds of coloured glasses are invented to study the world with.

The wonderful thing about this is that all such philosophies have marshalled mountains of facts in their own support, every one of them can draw upon elaborate and closely argued justifications (though it is also to be noted that none can ultimately stand on the footing of logic and facts alone: they all sooner or later demand that you commit a degree of blind faith – consider the free market orthodoxy in economics), and every one of them has attracted legions of disciples in every land and age. Some philosophies are relatively weak and short-lived, but many – sometimes it seems most – are immortal and indestructible; they temporarily vanish into the dark vortex of oblivion, but only to be resurrected with renewed vigour centuries or even millennia later, and spread all over the world like viruses to conquer minds anew.  No matter how odd or unpleasant this assertion sounds, its truth is beyond doubt. It is applicable even to the so-called ‘hard’ sciences (you will be amazed, if you consider yourself to be a ‘normal’ person, to find out how many people still believe in Ptolemaic astronomy, and dismiss Darwinism as nonsense), and in the field of history and other social sciences, of course, it is only too evident. On that battleground virtually not one fundamental question has been permanently resolved, not one theory has won a final decisive victory over all its rivals; none of the great controversies dating back to Manu and Plato have been laid to rest forever, nor seem likely to be in the foreseeable future. – Once you look again at the world with unprejudiced eyes, you can see that the huge accretion of man-made theories is itself a part of the vast ocean of facts, indeed, another wave on the surface of the ocean, not much more. In different epochs particular theories are revived (and often newly garbed) under the ministrations of some particularly charismatic ideologue or the pressure of particular circumstances. On the other hand, the common man takes refuge in this or that ideology on the basis of personal tastes, unconscious beliefs, fears or dreams, special experiences, self interest or social persuasion: he might then try very hard to convince himself and others that he has made his choice only after independent inquiry into all available facts and reasoning, but that is usually no more than a convenient rationalization. Which family one is born into, which community he is bred in, which mentor takes him under the wing early in his life, what existential troubles he has to cope with, what profession he enters, what kind of company he chooses or is forced to keep – these things have varied and wondrous influences on his innate nature, and that eventually decides what theoretical framework he will absorb as his own; how much noise he makes afterwards to claim the support of facts and reason for doing so makes not the least difference.

Hard on the heels of this realization comes another, very uncomfortable one. If one surveys the world with some particular theoretician as his chaperon, the job of ‘understanding’ the world becomes quick and easy indeed, but anyone who can accept such a very partial and angular vision as a holistic explanation of reality does great wrong both to the world and to his own intellect. The fact is, any institution-dependent intellectual (and you’d be hard put to find one who is not these days) gradually loses the habit of looking at the world with unblinkered eyes, he actually begins to avoid that exercise because it makes him uneasy; if he ever opens the windows of his mind a little to look out, it is only to find new confirmation of his pet theory – whatever does not he quickly turns away from, shuts the window once more, and goes back to the comforting refuge of his certain, simplified, unchanging world of the imagination – there is little difference between trying to figure out the real world by studying it through his glasses and accepting fairy tales as true. If that is how 20th century history is going to be commented upon, one will say it was primarily an age of unprecedented technological progress, another will say that the biggest event was the worldwide spread of democratic and egalitarian ideas with the receding tide of imperialism; one will notice little other than the all-round decay of morals, directionlessness in philosophy, social unrest and violence on an unrelenting and global scale, yet another will point to the doom all mankind is hurtling towards as a result of boundless growth in numbers, material greed and environmental damage, while someone else will insist that in the cauldron of all this violence and chaos was being born the first true and global civilization. To one observer the most remarkable fact about this epoch would remain that so many geniuses, from Tagore to Einstein to Charlie Chaplin worked side by side on the world’s stage, another would insist that future generations would only remember us for how far and how quickly we delved into Nature’s deepest mysteries during this short interval, from the innards of the atom to the farthest reaches of the starry heavens, from the mysteries of DNA to the wonders of the human brain. In this way we could go on lengthening the list forever, and as a rule the votary of any one of these points of view dismisses the claims of all the others offhand – and what choice do we have? If we admit that all of these were true and important, how can we answer, without losing our heads completely, what really mattered?

If now I venture to say that this was only one problem and there are many others waiting to be addressed, the reader might want to assault me, or throw up his hands in despair. But I have no choice: I have myself had to learn the very hard way how real the complexity is. Anyway, I do not wish to elaborate endlessly, so I shall move on to another issue after mentioning just one other problem. There are as many varieties of life experience as there are people on this planet, as many different tastes, so this is another reason why there will always be differences big and small between the way different people see and judge the world. The urge to impose one’s point of view lock, stock and barrel on others is always strong in savant and layman alike, but we cannot honestly deny that many people if not all have a right as well as a justification to hold views different from those of others (maybe ants worldwide share one common, objective world-view, but we cannot become ants nor should want to do so, should we?), therefore this variety must be acknowledged and factored in as a datum, no matter how difficult it makes it for us to find an answer to our question. If a mother loses all her sons on the same day in some ghastly accident, will she remember the day as that on which a world war began or man landed on the moon? And what shall we call the man who calls her sense of history misguided, weak and biased – great scientist, or monster, or just a fool? If a Kurosawa or Ray holds the opinion that the development of the cinema was the biggest event of this era, does it not become necessary to look at reality closely from their chosen point of view? The man who made the Long March with Mao ze Dong quite understandably remembers that as the biggest thing that happened in his lifetime, while the man who first ran a mile in less than four minutes remembers that event in a similar way with equal justification. While the horror of the First World War was unfolding, Anna Pavlova bewitched mankind with her dancing, and Laurence Olivier played Shakespearean leads as never before during the Second: how can we let history remember the killing fields along the Somme and the Normandy invasion but let Pavlova and Olivier slide into oblivion? If the countless famous and less-known people who devoted their whole lives to the fulfillment of some great dream or establishment of some noble ideal – be that equal rights for women or conservation of wildlife or taking care of handicapped children – believe that their lives’ work is what really marked the age, how can we lightly dismiss them? The truth is, we habitually ignore so much only because, as the poet said, ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’.

So in the end this is how matters stood: this odyssey of mine did not lead me to the answer to my question; instead, the possibility of ever finding an answer became nebulous and remote. Looked at in this way, my quest of nearly half a lifetime ended in failure. And yet the failure did not leave me deeply frustrated – because in the course of my long journey I had found a kind of awareness which made the sorrow of failure insignificant. I haven’t seen the end of the road, but the journey itself has brought such a profound satisfaction that I no longer feel that desperate urge to reach the end. I have learnt that if you do not specify the context and the circumstances, the question ‘what really mattered’ does not begin to make sense at all; rather, it can be either silly or dangerous – that, I believe, is not a minor realization. We love to use words like ‘comprehensive’ and ‘holistic’ lightly and often, but a truly comprehensive consciousness of history is probably beyond human power – when Sri Krishna  tried to dissuade Arjuna from seeing the vishwaroop  by saying he could not bear it, He was probably not exaggerating. I also realized that without a boundless innate inquisitiveness and a certain impatient arrogance there can be no real learning. When Yogavashistha said ‘Listen to the fool who speaks wisely rather than to the savant who talks like a fool’, he was probably encouraging this sort of fearless and insatiable hunger for learning. But on this arduous quest men grow tired and smug too soon, that is why it is always good to remember what they say about a little learning, so the quest must go on forever, until, at last capable of juxtaposing the infinitude of the cosmos with one’s own pathetic littleness one learns true humility and can say, with Socrates, ‘All I know well is that I know nothing’ – and still the quest must go on, till one dies, so that he is not shrouded once more by the darkness of arrogance that has benighted pundits of every land and age. It is not yet time to fold up your wings… orey bihongo more/ akhoni ondho bondho koro na pakha.

[This too was written in mid-1989, originally in Bangla]


Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I really enjoyed reading this article. The question of 'What really matters?' has come up now and then over pitchers of beer or while discussing plans for the future. They have always been in a very specific context though. In this post, however, you made it so much more encompassing. I clearly remember you mentioning in class, some of the things you've written here (for instance, different things being important to different people).

Your own experience with the quest for the answer reminded me of the character Siddhartha from the novel by the same name. The letter written by the young lawyer in Chekhov's The Bet also came to mind. Of course, the very last line did come as a twist of sorts because I couldn't find any hint of the article being that old, at least not when I read it for the first time.


sayantika said...

"Theory is a powerful narcotic; little by little it swallows whole the weary and dazed seeker like a python its prey. Gradually his vision dims, he takes leave of common sense, countless subconscious mischiefs, selfish interests, blind weaknesses of the heart, all kinds of dormant fears, infatuations and bigoted instincts unnoticeably corrupt his vaunted dedication to empirical facts."
I have often felt the same, but could never have expressed the thought even quarter as well as you have put it here.
After reading the post, I am never going to look at history in the same way again. My vision has been broadened considerably and I am certainly going to wonder about differing perspectives when I read about any event again.