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Updated: May 21, 2013 11:36 IST

The idea of despair

Murali Sivaramakrishnan
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Ashis Nandy identifies despair and narcissism as the predominant psychological states in the prevailing political culture

Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair

Ashis Nandy; Oxford University Press,

YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road,

New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.

That in our own times the fate of an individual lies in the politics of interest groups which could determine not only the general quality of his/her life but also the mode of termination of both individual and community — either self-willed or inflicted from without — is surprisingly a fact quite well-known. In India today, much like in the rest of Southern Asia — what he calls the South as opposed to the developed countries of North America and Europe — Ashis Nandy identifies in the prevailing political culture two predominant psychological states: narcissism and despair. To characterise their institutionalised forms and inner dynamics, he dubs them regimes of narcissism and regimes of despair. This book close-examines compelling socio-political issues in terms of mass ideologies and as vectors in the inner life of individuals.

The social flux and moral anomie we see around have condemned large sections of men and women to live on with a vague sense of loss, anxiety and repressed anger. When ethical and moral values are invalidated and abandoned, many are blind to the hand of any agencies in these, and learn to contain anger through forms of consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment — which often goes by the name of normality. Living in a hedonic, secularised world, quite unable to decipher the reason why its hedonism seems evil to others, the cultural sensitivities of the globalised middle class, as Nandy points out, have further narrowed in recent times. In the essay “Terror, Counter-Terror, and Self-Destruction”, Nandy underscores Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire.” As suicide bombers have made their presence felt in over 12 countries now, their act appears as wanton terrorism declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. The former as he points out, thrives on a theology of martyrdom, the latter on a psychology of this-worldly individualism and narcissism. In some contexts the idea of despair too has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities much in line with the early hard-hitting modernist writers and artists like Kafka, Camus and Van Gogh. Even Nietzsche and Dostoevsky cannot be understood without this corollary of despair.

Eight essays ranging from issues of nationalism through terrorism and counter-terrorism, ideologies of humiliation and happiness, notions of the sacred in religion, ideas of tradition and modernity — wrought together in terms of a common interrogative stance relating to the individual and the nation constitute Ashish Nandy’s book. The range and reach of these interrogatives is indeed massive and for readers used to Nandy’s earlier works, proffer prolific views on an equally broad socio-political and intellectual span. In “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious”, he engages with the political position of Tagore and Gandhi vis-a-vis nationalism in the early part of the 20th century. Obviously not having access to a vast array of socio-political terminology available today both Tagore and Gandhi have phrased out their positions in different ways, and Nationalism, in their eyes, as Nandy proposes, is an ideology while patriotism, as he distinguishes the term, is a sentiment and thus an emotional state. Tagore used something like 12 to 15 expressions to denote one’s love for one’s country, ranging from deshabhiman and swadesiprem to deshbahakti and swadesh chetana. But he used none of these as an equivalent of nationalism. Gandhi too appears to have recognised in the version of nationalism a touch of the shadow of Europe. However, despite these visionaries, versions of nationalism became part of the social evolutionist baggage exported to and internalised by a defeated civilisation veritably open to globalisation and exploitation.

Controversial figures

In two essays “ The Demonic and Seductive in Religious Nationalism” and “Coming Home” Nandy resorts to the biographies of two controversial political figures — Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madanlal Pahwa — in order to explore the deeper psychological reaches of violence and religious nationalism. Both Savarkar and Pahwa were victims of a perverted social order. “Savarkar is the name of a blown-up, grotesque temptation inherent in the Southern world’s encounter with the global nation state system and with religious traditions that facilitate internalisation of the core principles of western nationalism.”Pahwa’s life history on the other hand is read as “the story of a person battling memories of loss and exile through violence”; “and an unapologetic killer…who also was a victim of the ethnic cleansing in Punjab during 1946-48, seething with anger at what had befallen him and the Hindus in Punjab.” The process of dehumanisation is deliberately effected through hate-propaganda, and benumbing the victims as dangerous and contaminating. In many ways humiliation achieves the pathological substitute for dominance and genocide. The essay “Humiliation” explores among other things the consequence of colonial burden and shame and their impact on the political culture; it bespeaks of rape victims, blacks, dalits and the spectrum of dehumanisation in political history. This technique of pathologisation is fast becoming a post-colonial version of the colonial technique of infantilisation.

“Happiness,”likewise is a unique exploration of the contexts of this psychological state that holds tremendous implications for the present consumer culture. “The presently dominant idea of happiness,” Nandy writes, “being subject to individual volition and effort, ensures that the search for happiness has a linear trajectory… Perfect happiness comes when one eliminates all unhappiness.” Nandy’s essay focuses on the emerging idea of happiness as an autonomous manageable psychological variable in the global middle-class culture.

“Return of the Sacred” and “Modernity and the Sense of Loss” enquire into the political geography of religion, and dwell on the process of how the modernity of traditions has become a source of cultural pride, a prop for cultural nationalism. In a time when religions have apparently regained their popularity, and the compatibility between Vedanta and quantum Physics, Zen and psychotherapy are now subjects of bestsellers, “few dare to reverse the process and justify or criticise nuclear power or stem cell research from within the frame of Islamic ethics or Shaiva Siddhanta”.

The book is well produced and indexed in handy format no doubt, but one hopes that the proof-reading could have been a little more meticulous, taking care to avoid silly spelling errors and omissions in an important document by a senior academic. Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, is not Nandy at his best, though, but the eight essays would serve to transfer the incessant critical spirit and irresistible inquiry of a socio-political intellectual attempting to interrogate a fast changing present, looking at politics and society through the prism of persons and their selves in order to ensure that the intelligent human is not overwhelmed by impersonal institutional structures and invisible movements of history. As Nandy himself notes: “these essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades.” The critical minded reader is in the end left questing for more.

(Murali Sivarama-krishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)

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