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Counter Culture

Art - or dull propaganda?

Print edition : Jun 14, 2022 T+T-

Art - or dull propaganda?

Salman Rushdie. At the Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers at the United Nations in New York, he eloquently claimed, “A poem will not stop a bullet, a novel cannot defuse a bomb”, but writers can still “sing the truth, and name the lies”.

Salman Rushdie. At the Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers at the United Nations in New York, he eloquently claimed, “A poem will not stop a bullet, a novel cannot defuse a bomb”, but writers can still “sing the truth, and name the lies”. | Photo Credit: Rhea Joseph

Art can be respite, it can be raging, it can be reckless. But when it is reduced to elegant pamphleteering with moral certitude, it becomes dull propaganda.

On the 13th of May, 80 writers from across the world—Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Brazil, among others—came together for the Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers at the United Nations. This is not the first time, and given our steep-sloped descent into hellfire and moral bedlam, nor will this be the last time, that writers gather in vaulted halls to discuss the Armageddon. In 1939, too, Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist who was expelled from Germany for spotlighting the Nazi regime’s rise and violent tilt, cobbled together over 500 writers to discuss the escalating situation in Europe. The war and genocide still happened, and the anger was mutated into a memory of solidarity, a compendium of worried rhetoric.

At the recent event in New York, Salman Rushdie eloquently claimed, “A poem will not stop a bullet, a novel cannot defuse a bomb”, but writers can still “sing the truth, and name the lies”, similar to what the author Amitava Kumar said while promoting his latest novel A Time Outside This Time: “You can’t save the world, but you must record it.” Luiza Fazio, a Brazilian screenwriter, blamed the bloodletting in Ukraine—the fulcral event being discussed—on superhero movies “glamorising violence… normalising war”.

For all the charm, there is something silly, delusional, idealistic, and flattening about these claims, these hopes. These poetic platitudes and perfumed flushes of barren promises are fast becoming a fixture in the way the literary culture is engaging with our broken world, turning artists into archivists, writers into rhetoricians.

Rushdie’s latest collection of essays is besotted with the idea of literary truth being the essence of good writing.
Rushdie’s latest collection of essays is besotted with the idea of literary truth being the essence of good writing. | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan B @ Chennai

Take Rushdie’s Languages Of Truth, his latest collection of essays, which is so besotted with the idea of literary truth being the essence of good writing that it forgets to even consider what this truth means, and how to contend with the subjective edge that truth can have. What is this ‘truth’ that Rushdie insists poets sing about? It is a kind of false comfort, a condescending category that saps the vigour, violence, and valium from art. It gives it a sure-footed purpose. As though it needs to exist for the world to go on. As though it needs a reason to exist. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his posthumous tome Aesthetic Theory, writes, “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Then why are writers and readers (and reviewers) so enthusiastic about labelling literature as a response to themes, as a vindication of narrow moral preoccupations, as though the connection between progressive thinking and powerful literature was implied and obvious? It isn’t. As G.N. Devy wrote in Mahabharata: The Epic And The Nation, “Literary greatness is not a matter of any fixed values.”

For the longest time there was this trite belief that reading makes you more empathetic, a statement made with such casual confidence, the causal link was assumed as fact. Such grand pronouncements, similar to the rhetoric around writing, stinks of a desperation for these acts—reading, writing—to mean something more than the pleasure and reprieve and rapture and frustration and fatigue it gives us. As though that pleasure and reprieve and rapture and frustration and fatigue were not enough. What is with this delusion of a greater purpose? This discomfort with something being inadequate to pulling down fascism? The poet Mahmoud Darwish understood that this belief that poetry—and by extension, art—could change the world was, everything said and done, an illusion that helps artists and art lovers and art critics continue their involvement, “Poetry changes only the poet.”

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.
‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.

It is the easiest thing to believe that art can change the world, that we are spiralling around, asymptotically lunging towards, but eventually grasping at the truth; that writers need to have a purpose to write, one that is dictated by the world they write for. Sit with this claim a little longer, and the riddled logic comes apart. Art has always existed alongside the violence it reeks of. It can validate, vindicate, or vitiate the world it is thrown into. Art can be respite, it can be raging, it can be reckless. But when it is reduced to elegant pamphleteering with moral certitude, it becomes dull propaganda—on either side of the political and power spectrum. Maybe it is the grotesque, somewhat bleak place we are in today, that when someone throws rhetoric at a problem, both the futility and the arrogance of the act feels frustrating, like flinging a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird at a KKK recruit. It feels like what the late Gary Indiana, gay American art critic and provocateur, called “the self-righteous revolutionary anger of those who toil in capitalism’s luxury industries.”

Writers of political fiction—just in the past year Amitava Kumar, Kunal Basu, Anindita Ghose, and Pankaj Mishra have come up with novels whose purpose and palette is entirely derivative of our political discourse—seem to have assumed the role of some sort of moral crusader. Their novels are refashioned as a contested site of reform, as opposed to what literature is—what literary critic Tobi Haslett calls “a mere ripple in the superstructure”.

Inflated sense of purpose

The craft often crumples under the weight of this inflated sense of purpose—in the interviews they give, in the tone of the text. Think of Amitav Ghosh’s novel Gun Island, where he followed his own advice of bringing in climate change front and centre in literature. The ambitious book sculpts lives and events across time and geography, which, according to critic Vaishna Roy, feels as though they are “obliged to make a point”. The texture of these novels tries to explain a life, reason a conviction, extract a moral. They have mistaken interiority for an all-knowing condition, where characters become receptacles for the writer’s and reader’s conscience, wavering emotionally but steady politically. You are always at an emotional remove from any person with a different political proclivity, reduced as they are to caricatures of violence, ambition, or delusion.

Amitav Ghosh. In his novel Gun Island, he followed his own advice of bringing in climate change front and centre in literature. 
Amitav Ghosh. In his novel Gun Island, he followed his own advice of bringing in climate change front and centre in literature.  | Photo Credit: Pietro S. D'Aprano

Pankaj Mishra, while promoting his novel Run And Hide, has spoken in interviews about his return to fiction as a desire to capture what is going on in the moral and emotional lives of people. Like Arundhati Roy, there was a two-decade gap—no, not a gap, a chasm—between the first and second novel, where he was penning a slew of political, historical essays, all polemical, sharp, scalding, researched, thorough, provocative, eloquent takes. But more worrying is that much like Arundhati Roy, his second novel is unable to shake off the decades of political long-form, producing characters with a flatness of a magazine profile, whose lives are better explained than narrated. Pay attention to this biographical sentence from his book, sketching the childhood of the narrator, born into a lower caste, without the soft compulsions of fiction, world-hurling instead of world-building, “At some point in our early teens, when our school grades started to show promise, our parents had decided that they would go into debt, skimp on clothes and food, and deny education to our siblings, in order to put their sons in the Indian Institute of Technology and on the path to redemption from scarcity and indignity.”

Pankaj Mishra. While promoting his novel Run And Hide, he has spoken about his return to fiction as a desire to capture what is going on in the moral and emotional lives of people. 
Pankaj Mishra. While promoting his novel Run And Hide, he has spoken about his return to fiction as a desire to capture what is going on in the moral and emotional lives of people.  | Photo Credit: PHOTO: MAYA MISHRA

To be fair, these are writers who fashion sentences like filigrees, detailed, sharp, scalding, sometimes too lush for their own good. Take Amitava Kumar and Kunal Basu’s vivid meaning-producing metaphors—“Reason was a dumb mule that could carry the load of any ideology or any fool with his eye on power”, “You are like the cork of a wine bottle—one side wet, the other bone dry”; or Pankaj Mishra’s muffled existential screams—“What I took to be normal life depended too much on a continuous exaggeration of my identity and significance.” It is when these sentences are in service of a project as opposed to the amoebic intensity with which we ebb and flow, one where we are not always sure even if we always seem sure, that the book’s tone assumes something of a teacher’s cane.

Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time, like Chandan Pandey’s Legal Fiction, like Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, like Kunal Basu’s In An Ideal World, plots itself so closely alongside reality, so obviously with the newspaper and newsletter horrors that broadcast into our lives with invasive ease, it seems the urgency, the potency, comes from merely existing. It is extremely tedious, not just because it feels like a polished repetition of our lives, not just because it is flattened by its moral assumptions on good and bad people. But because in doing so, it has the dullness of certainty. Is this because the events of the book are so temporally close to the events in real life? Perhaps it needed a calmer, more considered retrospective gaze to be of artistic importance. As a thought experiment, what if Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was written during the Emergency, what if Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was written during Partition? What does distance enable?

Political fiction

Amitava’s narrator notes, “The writer’s job is to reveal where the experiment in living goes wrong”, even as he recognises that the distinction between what is right and wrong, between truth and lies, “is a naive one”. It is the naivete, this assumption that our subjective grasp of the world is, in fact, objective, unshaken, true, and inspired, that political fiction is constantly being tempted by.

How to, then, think of political art? Not to create something that will gild the dagger plunged into our consciousness, but to twist it further, complicate our certainty, infuse doubt into our moral domination. Can we tell stories of our time in a way that ravages our assumptions?

A poster of Malayalam film ‘Jana Gana Mana’.
A poster of Malayalam film ‘Jana Gana Mana’. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Take Jana Gana Mana, a Malayalam film that just dropped on Netflix that begins with the phrase “Satyameva Jayate”, the truth alone triumphs. It ropes in the hijab row, Rohith Vemula’s death, the JNU violence concocted by the ABVP, and produces a stunningly subversive drama that disorients the viewer. It begins with the murder of a Muslim college professor, and the students rumbling around the response and the investigation. While the film establishes its characters’ morality first, a slow complication brews.

At the intermission, the men who murdered the professor are killed in a police encounter killing. The tone of the film is jubilant, and even those of us who throw sour stares at the police apparatus are somewhat softened. It is in the second half that the film contradicts this jubilance with caste and subterfuge. Suddenly, the joy you felt as a viewer during the intermission is put to test. Because truth—what you assumed you knew in the first half—is an evasive, sometimes subtle idea. As the common saying, attributed to both Anaïs Nin and the Talmud goes, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

The writer of the film Sharis Mohammad, himself a lecturer, notes in an interview, “As a teacher, I find no value in a student being obedient”, and similarly, there is no desire to treat the audience as willing vessels to contain whatever moral schema is being concocted. This is because it assumes that the moral schema is complicated, gets twisted through generations, through context, is challenged, renewed, and is always a contestable fabric of thought.