Archive | September, 2010

The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

The unfolding of the Logos introduced directionality into history

Such as do build their faith upon
The Holy Text of pike and gun
Decide all controversy by
Infallible Artillery
And prove their doctrine orthodox
By Apostolic blows and knocks
call Fire and Sword and Desolation
A godly-thorough-Reformation.

Samuel Butler.

This monster-post, inspired by the book The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch,  has been in the works for a long time. I have been reading it for an even longer time (it is not quite a book one finishes). The history he tells bursts with anecdotes, people and ideas; they combine headily during a heady time. Writing about it was intended to illustrate the principle of Fortitude, eleventh in the Tarot; that one must practice what one preaches.  Often in the reading I felt like a lone sailor lost upon a vast vessel, nipping between coasts and trading information: had the priests became pastors and wives replaced concubines? Were they likely to? Who was invading whom? Had the Habsburgs blitzed through yet?

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Storm At Sea, Bruegel

I am caught within the wave of the large book. There are primarily two reasons people read non-fiction, discounting the obvious motive of pleasure: one is to figure out a ‘position’ to a specific question/ related set of questions (what can you do about a problem like Sarah?), the hunt-for-data; the other is to get an inkling of perspective, context, the hunt-for-the-idea (How is American Conservatism different today from 100 years ago?). I defy you to find anyone willing to undertake a book longer than 300 pages for the former cause. If polemic cannot be condensed down to that size, it has no right for exist: any heft will simply be more excuses for the opinion, all the more suspect for being disguised. Passionate manifestos, incendiary reporting, pithy histories, reasoned commentary — these are all excellent reasons to read a book, but they are limited by the demand for relevancy, this devotion to defining the conventional wisdom of the times.

The pleasures of weighty tomes are that they allow detail and deliberation to build rather than argue.  A long history, a sustained piece of philosophy, these are written with the desire to enable the fashioning of an autonomous hypothesis from the broad welter of fact.  An essayist marshals facts that suit her story, a historian marshals stories that surround her every “fact”.

McCulloch’s history, in keeping with his tradition, doesn’t short-circuit by telling you who to side with in the multifaceted debates of his chosen time: it just lays them all out, in sometimes interminable detail, within a complex web of shared relationships and assumptions. He describes events and their ripples, ideas and their diaspora, people and their migrations; all set within a narrative best described as Transylvania talking to Scotland.   He demonstrates how the same scriptures led to many forms of worship in one city even as they’re being hacked down to meet the partisan requirements of its neighbour. It is this meandering quality that makes large books, especially those that aren’t anthologies, so damnably hard to write about. They pool in the shadows and form backdrops, but are rarely showpieces. It is impossible to pinpoint what such a book made you think about, which hunches it confirmed and which it dismissed, for the journey is made between amorphous hunches and nebulous conclusions.  I don’t know what I thought about the Reformation before I read this book: I began the book because I didn’t know what to think.

I can tell you, instead, why I am reading about the Reformation. First, as devoted readers (hullo parents) know, I am interested in the ways divinity interacts with humanity.  Not very much survives the tumult of human passage, save two truths: there are ideas, and there is matter; only a very few entities may transcend both. I am fascinated by the divine as a bridge between human eras: constantly evolving, yet always retaining the core kernel of faith every religion needs to survive.

Does one trick people into believing in the power of the metaphysical; persuade, coerce, or reason? Does one contemplate or act or purify one’s way into a happy immortality? Is there an insurance policy for the family we can invest in while alive?   Religion, it is easy to forget in our era of theocrats and evangelists, is the purest free market that exists. It is a barometer of human madness, as variable and contrarian as the spirit it seeks to channel. It is the fallacy of fundamentalism and rationalism alike to imagine that religion can shape the zeitgeist, rather than be shaped by it. Slavery was legalised by Papal Rome while Dominicans in Spain were reviving jus gentium and inventing the concept of human rights.

We live in an era the most determined humans call postmodern; which is unlucky for those of us who only achieved modernity meagre decades ago. Then again, perhaps we ought to be glad to have made the goalpost when so many others are consigned to the pre-modern. In any case, I felt it was time to get to the root of the uprising, back to when modernity was first fashioned. And thus we come to the Reformation, one bridge across time in one small part of the world. Pick any modern ill you find strewn across our conversations- nationalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, fascism, colonialism, liberalism- and you will find analogues or antecedents in the Latin Reformation, that brutal, cold time in history.  So, really, my question is: why aren’t you reading 800 pages about that?

Which is my way of saying I can’t think of any earthly reason you would want to know this stuff, so I shall just plug along and hope that I am entertaining enough to reward the effort this enterprise involves. If I must have fortitude, after all, so must you. What follows is my mini-history of the Reformation, for the curious, the insane, and the bored. It’s the broad outline of an infectious revolt, beaten back here and then there but never everywhere.

My aim is to sketch how this time folds into ours: how movements born with radical visions were trapped in fresh prisons woven out of ‘purity’, patriarchy, and racial pride. The Reformation is a study in how rights can grow broader even as the communities they accrue to grow ever narrower. My perspective diverges slightly from MacCulloch’s. He observes, with a tinge of triumph, the birth of tolerance amidst all the sectarian violence. You will forgive me for being less impressed by the miracle of pluralism. As with ‘plural’ Hinduism, tactical freedom was accessible only to the elite, not the general mass of humanity, upon whom most behaviours are imposed. MacCulloch, to give him due credit, ably argues that most lives were increasingly constrained by the renewed interest everyone had in their private life and souls.  The “Reformation of Manners” had a dramatic impact on longstanding social and sexual practices, and steadily degraded the rights of women. Many Free Cities, for instance, revoked the right to female citizenship during this era, as women began to be considered legal chattel.

Patriarchy was ceasing to be a microcosm of the God’s purpose and an expression of what was considered the the natural make-up of a mechanical universe… Society, once integrated by the cosmology of humours and by Galen’s theories, with gender a continuum, was from around 1700 conceived in terms of rigidly divided opposites- especially gender. By 1800, men were told that they must exercise rigid self-control and never shed tears; women that, after all, they were not uncontrollable and lustful like Eve, just passive and gentle crybabies, to be shielded from life’s brutalities.

Church weddings and the legitimacy of children rose in importance, as every Church rushed to exert their influence among the faithful, and marriage was now seen as a necessary sacrament, a ‘holy contract’. Cohabitation and premarital sex, once encouraged by the practice of long engagements, came under much fire in this era, as the clergy discovered the pleasures of marriages and insisted everyone ought join their state of bliss. Brothels found their licenses revoked across cities (rampant and fatal syphilis probably helped that along).  In the protestant world, clerical wives replaced nuns as the apogee of a pious woman’s ambition; the brides of god had become wives of men.  The growth of nuclear families proceeded apace in these lands, and the new justification that marriage was the ‘natural state of man’ made the social stigma surrounding homosexuality worse.  The patriarchal order within the family was emphasised even by so-called humanists, who would, one might think, feel compelled to ‘humanise’ women simply to be consistent.  Not a bit of it:

A good example [of humanist scholarship] is Mary I of England’s tutor Juan Luis Vives. He wrote the popular treatise The Education of a Christian Woman, which did indeed recommend education for all women, but that thought was overwhelmed by a good deal of talk about women’s need to control their passions, battle against their weak nature and obey their husbands. Vives also made explicit a double standard in chastity: ‘human laws do not require the same chastity of the man as the woman’, he said reassuringly, ‘men have to look after many things; women only for their chastity’

Yet, for all such instances of subtly reorganised dogma, it remains a revelation to learn how inexhaustibly diverse people are, even within close confines. What could more claustrophobic than the  revealed scripture of the Only God? Yet the ruckus, once raised, took two centuries to resolve.   Some bits of this story, it must be said, are right out of the plot of Lost: consider Martin Luther stamping out of the Diet at Worms in fury, declaring the Pope to be the Devil masquerading as the Saviour (the original ‘AntiChrist’) and suggesting that the faithful ought to follow his own example, stampede the false Church, and recreate the true Church. Substitute Jack Shepherd  for Luther, John Locke for Pope, and the Island for the Church, and tell me that isn’t the final season in a nutshell. Here I stand, and I can do no other, like the man (apocryphally) said.

This being a long essay, I divided it into pages. Look below the little facebook and twitter icons below to go further.

The Training of Trapeze Artists.

15 Sep

The first installment of my Rep Ipsa Loquitor column for mylaw.net, which talks about Aamir Khan, monkeys, and Midas. Do check out the website, especially if you’re in the legal field: it has all sorts of oddities and amusements.

The Bibliotheque Nationale.

“The diploma gives society a phantom guarantee and its holders phantom rights. The holder of the diploma passes officially for possessing knowledge, and comes to believe, in turn, that society owes him something. Never has a convention been created which is more unfortunate for everyone- the state, the individual, and in particular, society.”

Paul Valery

This Independence Day, a friend studying at NLSIU wrote an exam on Private International Law. The special repeat in question (more on those in a minute) was scheduled for the previous afternoon and postponed at the last minute at the request (presumably) of Rahul Gandhi’s security detail, which occupied NLSIU’s academic block all afternoon. ‘We figured the exam was cancelled’, said my amused friend that evening, ‘when we were waved away from the building by a guy with a gun’. Mr. Gandhi was coming later that day to address a student body directed to bedeck and bejewel themselves in his honour whilst refraining from spontaneous displays of political acuity.

That a politician could halt and censor the administration of the best legal school in the country isn’t the amazing part of this story (though is it only alumni who remember when Yasin Mallik was to be found waiting to give his talk at tea-shops outside law school?). Of the four people who wrote the exam the following morning, a final roadblock for the weary, only three passed. It was a somnolent public holiday, not to mention the Sabbath, yet the college revived itself from the festivities long enough to shaft someone. Maybe I reread Little Women a few too many times growing up, but does this sound like an allegory of Pilgrim’s Progress already? And I’m just getting started. If only a German professor could come rescue us.

The culturally appropriate reference here is probably 3 Idiots. Its themes will be familiar to anyone who spends time in institutes across the country: the suicides we avoid, the intellectual tyranny we try escape, vindictive and petty teachers, the formalisation of an education system focused more on job training and less on creativity. In science circles, this means the invention-cycle gets derailed and we expend our brains to help other people make discoveries; in legal circles, it means we care less about policy and big pictures and more about dodging regulation and honing the company line. Other elements in the movie are clearly theatrical. Colleges punish slackers, true, but they punish the genius maverick just as much. Rather, they define and distort such people until either the genius or the maverick in them is burned out. Perhaps, though, that is only my college. Did yours happen to fail anyone on Independence Day?

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Divine Malarkey

1 Sep

The Hindu sense of time is intense; the importance of time as an agency for change, the sense that things that happen come to fruition at a particular moment- now- pervades the great history called the Mahabharata

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternate History

SouthAsia emerges from prehistory in the grip of two equally frustrating protagonists. On the one hand is the ‘Indus Valley Civilization’ , rich in symbolism but spare on meaning till the script is deciphered. With the fading of the Indus cities ride in the pastoral tribes popularly called ‘Aryan’, who left little to account for their existence save a literary tradition. This juxtaposition of those who speak against those who act is a prototype for subsequent Indian history, with the literati firmly secluded and policed behind caste lines.

The Hindus takes on that complacent literati with its own arsenal, and she spends much of the book pointing out instances in Indian mythology and philosophy where the brahmins denounce interesting folk in their society. Her choice of texts (apart from a digression into Tantra, albeit a domesticated Tantra) is the orthodox combination of the Shruti and Smriti, a Pujari couldn’t ask for better. Considerable energy has been devoted in Indian historiography towards freedom from their hegemony, and the paradox of Doniger’s work is that it bolsters the  very orthodoxy she challenges. It is a challenge from inside the tradition of authorized texts, which raises the hackles of its conservators while the rest of us doze, or revel in the anarchy.

All art in this post is by the gorgeous Antoine Helbert, and thank you bluefloppyhat for bringing him to my attention by downloading his stuff onto my laptop.

Doniger is unflaggingly affectionate, but rarely indulgent, towards the people she calls “Hindus”. The book extends into modern times, and includes a chapter on Hindu-Americans, the identity at the nub of the latest diaspora, but the real meat of the book is pre-colonial India. Many reviewers have derided this incompleteness, I think it’s apt. Doniger’s project is to let the texts speak for themselves, and the rough outlines of a canon were in place around the period her narrative begins winding down.  The heated theological ‘scene’ Doniger describes evolves into the classical texts the British and then the nationalists were so keen on.

Somewhere between colonialism and modernity, Indian historiography lost the pulse of “itihas”- history by and of the precolonial subcontinent. I’m proof of this bias: with its lack of interest in linearity and frequent fatalism, ‘itihas’ had me flummoxed. How can respectable history loop around endlessly and accommodate centaurs, bird-women, ambiguous reptiles, immortal sages? Doniger helped me understand that ellipses are easier patterns to trace than straight lines. Texts in her telling shadow one another, defying modern epistemology. So much was forgotten and relearned, yet people managed to debate across millennia, and things that were forgotten in Magadha were remembered in Madras (imperial organization, for instance).

There is no category for the sacerdotal in most Hinduisms; ritual literature (Atharva Veda, the Brahmanas) was irrelevant to popular praxis before Christ was born. The rest of the canon is poetry (the Rig Veda), philosophy (Upanishads), technical treatises (Shastras, Sutras) and mythological history (Puranas). The epics- the Ramayana and the Mahabharata- are poems, histories, morality tales, philosophical debates and political charters. But in Hinduism these distinct “subjects” blend: the Brahmanas have their share of mythology, the Puranas and the Tantras their distinct philosophies, the Upanishads their share of political controversy: each supplementing the others, spawning countless commentaries in a dialogue across history. The basic element of the ‘Hindu’ heuristic arsenal is the story, with everything embedded into narrative: sermonising, dissent, change, disapproval, quandaries, riddles. Stories were bastardised, purged, overhauled; evolving into an intertwined tapestry of ideas that survives better than any ruin from prehistory.

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