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The general drift of society

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan  

The troubled intellectual in India today is being asked to choose between free speech that can lead to intellectual murder or a silence that can end in intellectual suicide

“Write as you speak,” a wise old man once told me, “and speak as you think.” The advice, intended to guard writing from verbosity and artifice, was sound. The urge to be ‘word-perfect’ and ‘pitch-right’ can make writing an endless and self-defeating exercise. Rather like turning and turning a pencil in the sharpener’s groove to bring the lead-end to its ultimate piercing point can actually break the tip. Much the best to say it fast, keep it blunt.

Good writing has to make good reading.

All of us have admired some writers, preferred their work over that of others for their writing style as much as for the content of their work. One writer who has, for more than half a century, been admired for his searing honesty is George Orwell. He is never recondite, but he is never trite. He says it as it is and yet says it as it has not been said before.

The polemics of Orwell

Seven decades ago, Orwell wrote a clutch of essays for the post-World War II British journal Polemic. The brave effort lived for a mere three years — 1945-1947. But what a journal it was! Described as a “Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics”, it aimed to be a periodical for the non-specialist intellectual. Founded by the ex-communist and Spanish Civil War fighter Humphrey “Hugh” Slater, its first issue came out as a book and only seven more issues ran. But its leaden type-settings were, each of them, worth their weight in gold. On the surface, Polemic was anti-Soviet which in varying degrees seemed like being anti-communism. But it was essentially against totalitarianism, not just of the Stalinist variety but of all types, including that of intolerant majorities. Its contributors included the iconic iconoclast Bertrand Russell (“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”), the celebrated American author Henry Miller (“I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion”), the philosopher A.J. Ayer (“... when one buys a pair of shoes, one is buying three things, the right shoe, the left shoe and the pair”), the British poet-novelist Stephen Spender (“Great poetry is always written by somebody straining to go beyond what he can do”), the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night”) , the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (“The function of a genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions which time and mediocrity can resolve”), the controversial thinker C.E.M. Joad (“Some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”) and Orwell.

Of the five essays that Orwell contributed to Polemic, the most famous is ‘Notes on Nationalism’, the most important is ‘The Prevention of Literature’. The essay is about what its title says, namely, the enemies of intellectual liberty. But Orwell is never predictable. He includes among the threats to freedom of thought in the England of that time the concentration of the press in a few hands, monopoly of radio, the bureaucracy and, curiously, the unwillingness of the public to buy books. He uses a remarkable phrase — direct and terse — to describe this threat as “… the general drift of society”. “In our age,” he writes, “the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, practical enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution.”

Resonance, seven decades on

Orwell’s 1946 essay, written with frank fluency, is disturbingly valuable to us today, both as a piece of masterful writing and as a warning. One look at the just-appeared volume, Words Matter: Writings against Silence, edited by K. Satchidanandan, and published by Penguin-Viking which includes essays by Nayantara Sahgal, Romila Thapar, Gopal Guru, Githa Hariharan, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Ananya Vajpeyi and others, with selections from the writings of the slain freethinkers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and Malleshappa Kalburgi, will tell us why it is so. The book is, in fact, a contemporary Indian avatar of Polemic.

The current Indian establishment’s priorities do not include the independence of writers. They do not place freedom of thought and expression high on its list. But no less worrisome for the defenders of free expression is the “general drift of society” today. The troubled intellectual in India today is being asked to choose between free speech that can lead to intellectual murder or a silence that can end in intellectual suicide. And who is demanding this? Not the state, not directly anyway. It is what Orwell called the ‘general drift of society’.

In his essay Orwell says that some 15 years earlier, Conservatives and Catholics were attacking freedom but that at the time of his writing a new political orthodoxy of the Russophile intelligentsia in tandem with the monopolist mindset in the bureaucracy was crippling intellectual liberty. “The journalist,” writes Orwell, “is unfree, and is conscious of un-freedom, when he is forced to write lies or suppress what seems to him important news: the imaginative writer is unfree when he has to falsify his subjective feelings…”

This is staggeringly true of us in India today. The thirty per cent of India’s electorate that has voted the ruling party into office reflects the desire, often inchoate but not unclear, of the ‘general drift’ towards blind conformity, hero worship and the narrowest of narrow nationalisms.

Totalitarianism is not always operated by diktat. It is insinuated by suggestion and replication. A political dictatorship is not in operation in India. But a political orthodoxy has certainly crept into our national life. That political orthodoxy genuflects in supremo worship, sees Hindus as India’s master race of the purest Aryan descent and the goal of India’s Reich-like dispensation as being a superpower status. Pride is cousin to fear. And fear does not have to be proclaimed by the state. It can be set going as a public flotation.

The self-censoring silence

Artistic expression does not have to be gagged by the state if there are self-appointed vigilantes to bully it into silence. Dissent does not have to be banned if it is countered by orchestrated mass promo rallies, hypnotising oratory. The ‘non-intellectual’ public can be mesmerised through mega events in which celebrity stars participate; intellectuals can be immobilised through the twin ploys of preferment and ostracism. Supremo establishments do not need to turn Hitlerian any more. All they need to do is to let the Reich chemistry work. Self-regulation and self-censorship will click in. Monopoly and the bureaucracy (which includes, very particularly, the techno-scientific, diplomatic and economic bureaucracy) are ever at hand to ‘do the needful’ and the three bagsful.

Raghuram Rajan, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, is a thinking man, a strong man — a much-needed and scarce combination. The country’s central banking institution needs a resilient brain, not a programmed robot to guide the fortunes of the rupee. Dr. Rajan’s is such a brain which, in addition, has the humour needed to protect it from robotising. But even as he shrugs criticisms off with a laugh, a great many if not most from the class of ‘intellectual India’ have led themselves into a self-censoring silence over Big Brotherisms. “Political writing in our time,” says Orwell in the Polemic essay, “consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.”

Guardians of intellectual liberty must stand four square against the tyranny of the state. But they must not spare the tyranny of a political orthodoxy banking on our inability to write as we think and speak as we think, with the class and style of Polemic. Words matter, words count.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal, is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 4:28:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-general-drift-of-society/article14424181.ece

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