Tag Archives: history

This Awful Silence

4 Mar

O Alibi of Chronology, in what script
in your ledger will this narrative be lost?

This week I published an essay that was sparked into premature life by the JNU protests. Umar Khalid gave his speech on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s murder—the two links showed up nearly simultaneously on my TL—and I remembered, instantaneously, Malcolm X’s prophecy, made two days before he was assassinated: “it is a time for martyrs now.” No, my brain revolted, we have had enough martyrs. Pondering that on the subway, I looked up, and the six train’s “Heaven” caught my eye. It will be the past. We’ll all go back together.  That reminded me, as ever, of my very favorite poem in motion, Mary Ruefle’s “Voyager.” Memory, what can I make of it now that might please you—this life, already wasted and still strewn with miracles? 

From that constellation of strange associations was this essay made.

star-of-the-hero-1932-1

Roerich, Star of the Hero.

A Map of Lost Longings was argued on the basis of an intuition that I’ve nurtured for a long while—that the crisis on the left is primarily epistemological. The ways in which we produce knowledge in the western academy make it incredibly difficult to theorize a politics of solidarity. That intuition is why I resigned myself to graduate school, and I haven’t gotten very far in thinking through what I want to say or how to say it. This brief essay was my first attempt to begin a public conversation, and the proposal I make for transversal history both terrifies and exhilarates me. The potential for violent erasure and cheap homologies inherent to the method I suggest is almost limitless; there is a reason fascism is so fond of mythology. Can I, with my big brahmin brain, rescue myth-making? Almost certainly not. Can I try? I certainly intend to, because there is also a reason that fascism so often wins. Is it contradictory to deploy failure and demand success? It is, but no more so than turning a theory of abstract labour against political economy. The paradox of good theory worked then, and fuck, it might again. (I know, I know, I’m not Marx, but Marx wasn’t Marx either, you know, until he was. He was just a broke bro in exile.)

Continue reading

Advertisements

Lately Said.

4 Dec

My favourite new book this year was Manan Ahmed’s Where the Wild Frontiers Are. A review of the book and another (infinitely worse) book is part of the Sunday Guardian’s cover package today. It was what initiated all the suicidal gloom I inflicted you with last week, and why I began reading Said below. Writing this review was very glee makin’, which has been relatively rare this year, and if it weren’t terribly rude I’d crosspost in a jiffy.

We shall have to settle for essay(s) on Said instead, both published in early November. I compare Manan to him in my review (v. grandiloquent, agreed, I hope he forgives me) and it might be amusing to read them together? ‘Tis a good excuse to put it up, anyway, and an updating bogey needs little else.

The Late Edward Said

November offers caramels of granite.

Unpredictable!

Like world history

Laughing at the wrong place.

Tomas Tranströrmer, November in the Former DDR

 “November is a mournful month in the history of Palestine” begins Edward Said’s obituary for the venerable Isaiah Berlin.   November, he continues, frames the Palestinian tragedy.  The Balfour Declaration began the British policy of “demographic transformation” within mandate Palestine on November 2, 1917. The U.N. partitioned Palestine in November 1947; the Yom Kippur war ruined Palestine forever by November 1973.  In less than sixty years, four million people became refugees, both at home and in exile.  Edward Said, emblem of this diaspora, was born in Jerusalem eighteen years after Balfour began eroding his country.

 Edward Said’s life was devoted to dispelling cobwebs. He was destined to be a stranger in many strange lands, growing up a Christian in Cairo and dying an Arab in America. This eclectic heritage fashioned a thinker willing to probe every truth, and skepticism was the cornerstone of his advice to aspiring intellectuals.  Be alert, he warns descendants, to the threat of seizure.  Never allow your conscience to be subsumed in service to illusions.  He elaborates upon this duty in Representations of the Intellectual:

“That this involves a steady realism, an almost athletic rational energy, and a complicated struggle to balance the problems of one’s own selfhood against the demands of publishing and speaking out in the public sphere is what makes it an everlasting effort, constitutively unfinished and necessarily imperfect.”

We are a wound, Said is saying, a wound that fights.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: