UNCEASING WAVES

Some Comments on The Purananuru

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 2, 2017

1. On Amazon.in, the cheapest copy of the best English translation of The Purananuru (Trans. George L Hart and Hank Heifetz. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) available is at Rs. 1670 (last time I checked). I got my as-good-as-new copy at a second hand book store in the UK for 2.50 £, roughly Rs. 220. Lucky me!

2. This work of poetry is also a passageway into the world of the ancient Tamils, a people who celebrated war, love, meat-eating, wine, knowledge, and generosity. And the poems indicate a strong sense of ‘Tamilness’ in terms of a people and a geography.

3. Martial ferocity is praised. So is compassion, charity & righteousness. The strong and wealthy are urged to provide for the weak and needy.

4. Providing for agrarian prosperity, building dams, protecting order in trade and society and curtailing banditry are considered desirable qualities of kings. And the Sovereign is considered ‘the life of the world’.

5. The poems are thoroughly secular in nature, though there are occasional references to gods, including Brahminical ones like Rama – Ravanan is referred to as an ‘arakkan’, translated as ‘demon’. The first poem is an ode to Shiva. Murugan is the most referenced god in the poems.

6. There is clear reference to Brahmins who are learned in the Vedas, who are considered as holy as cows, and who are deserving of protection and gifts. Likewise, there are also vague references to the ‘low born’. (But a Tamil scholar recently told me that the system of caste in the Tamil land as we know it today originated only after the fall of Cholas.)

7. Chastity and purity of ‘women of the house’ is glorified. At least one poem attests to the practice of Sati.

8. Though it appears that war and wealth are praised, a closer reading also suggests a stoic asceticism of the poets.

9. The most celebrated animal in these poems is the Tiger. No wonder…

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What is Transgressive? What is Offensive?

Posted in General by Karthick RM on November 23, 2017

There is this collection of short stories called “Little Birds” which is quite explicit in its treatment of sex and sexuality. And there is one particular story where a woman describes being taken by a man in a crowd as she goes to witness a public execution, without the man ever asking for her consent; she first submits passively, and eventually enjoys it. Then there is this other story of a bisexual woman more or less drugging her lesbian friend to get the latter to have intercourse with a man. And another about a married man fantasizing about and eventually exposing himself to schoolgirls. Other stories too are filled with stuff which would greatly offend the campus liberal’s mind.

Here is a thought experiment: should one introduce this collection to a lib-left student crowd and say that it was written by Bataille, there would be explicit disgust, if not outrage at coarseness and vulgarity and, of course, white cis-gendered male entitlement.

But reveal that these stories were written by Anais Nin, and the stories become transgressive feminist erotica.

Should art be evaluated by its content or by the identity of the artist? Can transgressive content be only the prerogative of those who have had the actual experience of transgression? Can artistic creativity be reduced to one’s immediate or obvious identification? If one’s representation of others is constructed, isn’t one’s representation of self equally so? And if representation is to be critiqued, again, shouldn’t the focus be on the content and form of the art rather than on which race or gender the creator was born into?

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The Ainkurunuru

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on September 1, 2017

9780231150651A fascinating work. Though the poems are concerned with the ‘interior landscape’ of individuals – love, sex, the home, the family, separation, longing, ecstasy, frustration, contentment – they also throw light on the geography of the Tamil world two millennia back. Centered around the heterosexual couple, a key character in these poems is the “thozhi”, or the female friend of the heroine, who not only acts as messenger between the couple in times of distress, but also functions as a sort of a marriage and relationship counselor. (The vulgar modern day equivalent of the thozhi of course is the “nanben da”, the duffer-friend of the hero of Tamil cinema who crudely takes on the role of the thozhi. Remember Vivek or Santhanam.)

Selby has done a brilliant translation of the Ainkurunuru. Tamils should be eternally grateful to these ‘westerners’ who have taken our classics to the wider world, and have also opened windows to the aesthetics of the ancient Tamil world to those Tamils who have lost touch with their language (I partially include myself in this list) but are keen to learn about their own culture. Anyone interested in Tamil history, anyone interested in poetry, and anyone interested in love must own a copy of this book.

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Finishing Don Quixote!

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on December 29, 2016

Akira Kurosawa says somewhere that to have lived on the earth without having seen a Satyajit Ray movie is to have lived without seeing the sun and the moon. I would use this quite hyperbolic statement for a person who has lived a literate life without reading Cervantes’ masterpiece. I began reading Don Quixote in November 2015 – I finally finished it today! Reading this book was like working on my dissertation’s chapters, most of which I began working on just 2 weeks before the deadline. I had ample time to complete reading this classic novel. But in between, I read several other shorter books and short stories, cleared my viva and got my PhD, got my first peer-reviewed journal article published, presented at two big conferences, wrote book reviews, got a job, shifted my home to another city, and fell in love and got married!

Eventually in November this year, after only finishing about 400 pages of a 932 page book, I decided I will close this novel and get back to it later in life, having not completed it for over a year. However, when it comes to reading novels, there is nothing I detest as much as closing a book without finishing it (the only exception to this rule is James Joyce’s Ulysses – I tried reading it during the 2nd year of my PhD but decided after 30 pages that it was a novel for me when I am 40). So, in the last two weeks, I managed to finish the remainder of the book. Really, reading such a work requires commitment to continuity and discipline. And what a novel! While my general mood is misanthropic, it is works like these that makes one root for human civilization.

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Unpacking My Library

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 12, 2016

Read full essay at Outlook.  

“Even with help from my partner, it took me two full days to unpack and arrange my books. While surveying them in the process of writing this article, I couldn’t help but wonder why some books were placed here and not there, why have I purchased the same book twice, why have I not yet opened some books, why have I not yet finished the books I have opened, why are there some books still on the market and not on my shelf… The book collecting passion is not just a “chaos of memories” as Benjamin said; it is also a chaos of the future. Gaps in my bookracks gape at me, demanding to be filled. The last book to be added to my philosophy shelf and thereby filling it was Leszek Kolakowski’s Is God Happy? And now, I need to create more space for future philosophy books without disturbing the order that I have established. Or maybe I will introduce a little anarchy…”

 

 

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Excerpt From my Review of Christopher J Lee’s “Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

See full review at Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

““Concerning Violence”, a recent documentary by Goran Olsson, a Swedish filmmaker too reinforces the ‘angry black man’ stereotype, albeit unwittingly. Olsson’s documentary takes select passages from The Wretched of the Earth to make a case against European colonialism. The Fanon we see here is an anti-European, who rejected all that Europe stood for. Yes, Fanon was genuinely angry towards the brutality of European colonialism, but he nevertheless believed that there was something worthy of redeeming in the European tradition.

Fanon writes in the Conclusion of WOTE – and this is a passage that the documentary conveniently missed – “All the elements for a solution to the major problems of humanity existed at one time or another in European thought. But the Europeans did not act on the mission that was designated by them.” These are not the words of a man who hated Europe; these are the words of a man who accused Europe of not living up to its own egalitarian values. This is a Fanon that neither the Right nor the Left recognize, and this is the Fanon desperately needed now. The “prophet of violence” who allegedly hated all things Europe is a person whom Fanon would have loathed. But one can suppose this is the fate that befalls all great thinkers. Nietzsche remarked that a martyr’s disciples suffer more than the martyr. What he should have added is that a martyr’s principles suffer most in the hands of his disciples.

Lee’s reading of Fanon provides a much needed nuance that is often missing when dealing with Fanon. “Fanon must be viewed not only as a critic of colonialism but a critic of postcolonialism.” (175) Arguably, Fanonism provides not just a compelling condemnation of the brutalities of European colonialism, but also a pre-emptive critique of the postcolony. While Fanon is most prominently used by the postcolonialists to denounce the alleged arrogance of European universalism, often they produce a narrative that excuses the worst excesses of nation-states in the Third World by attributing it to a hangover of colonial ideology. But this is an approach that Fanon scrupulously avoided, if the last chapters of WOTE are read diligently. And it is this Fanon that needs to be retrieved now – his “radical empathy” and universalist humanism do provide crucial insights on the several problems of identity that plague this century.”

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Excerpt From my Review of Roland Boer’s “Lenin, Religion, and Theology”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

See full review at Marx and Philosophy Review of Books

“Boer is also quick to point out the loophole of the blind optimism of inevitability that lies in the Christian eschatological narrative, something Lenin was also sensitive to despite his great regard for Lunacharsky. Lenin must be read here as an atheist Christian: Christian, in so far as he inherited the radical tradition of liberation theology, atheist, since he opposed the deification of any material or immaterial category, be it the proletariat or the revolution. The Revolution might be a miracle, one of a touching point between “spontaneity and organization, between the unexpected and the expected” (135), yet, without a professional vanguard – the Jesuits of Communism – no revolutionary movement could capture and retain power.

This book is important at a time when matters of religion, especially Islam, are the hottest topic of debate in Western media. While the extreme Right is happy to portray all followers of that religion as potential terrorists, some sections of the Left treat any criticism of Islam or cultural practices of Muslim communities as Islamophobic. Which is the wrong side here? To use Stalinist rhetoric, both right-wing deviation and left-wing deviation are wrong!”

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Excerpt From my Review of Simone de Beauvoir’s “Political Writings”

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on April 13, 2015

See full review at Marx and Philosophy Review of Books 

Beauvoir’s essays on Israel provide a sober and ethical approach to a contentious issue. As the recipient of the Jerusalem Prize in 1975, at a time when several left-wing French intellectuals were vociferously condemning Israel, Beauvoir argued that her acceptance of this award was a symbolic act because there existed in political discourse ‘a deliberate will to symbolically do away with Israel, and a symbolic elimination is very dangerous because it implies a profound desire, conscious or subconscious, for real annihilation.’ (314) While being sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians and their demand for statehood, Beauvoir, taking into account the historical persecution of the Jews, believes that Israel too has a right to exist and that any solution, to be valid, must recognize the state of Israel. (316)

Contemporary debates on Israel are often so polarized – with right-wingers in the West dubbing the whole Palestinian movement as terroristic while the left-wingers make rather exaggerated allegations against Israel –that both obscure the truth and frustrate attempts for a solution that can guarantee peace and co-existence. The disproportionate media coverage and condemnation of Israel’s war crimes, at times when similar or worse crimes happen in other parts of the world, does contribute to a Jewish sense of insecurity. For instance, when the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict was going on, thousands of left-wing activists took to the streets across the world condemning Israel, and, in some cases, even supporting the Islamist Hamas. About the same time, the Islamic State massacred hundreds of Yezidi Kurds in Northern Iraq and captured over a thousand Yezidi women as sex-slaves. These incidents, however, did not provoke the same outrage as Israel did. Apprehensive of trends in the left that selectively targeted Israel, Beauvoir astutely notes how this only contributes to the militarization of that state as ‘fear and isolation lead to a rigid attitude of refusing any measure that is not immediately a security measure.’ (317) Her perspicacious writings on the subject are a must read for Israelis and Palestinians and their respective supporters today.

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Excerpt from my review of Chomsky’s On Anarchism

Posted in International, Liberation Struggles, Politics by Karthick RM on December 8, 2014

Read full review at The Oxonian Review

Inspired by anarchist ideas, the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliated groups is a particularly successful and spectacular movement. Though initially conceived as a Kurdish nationalist-cum-Marxist-Leninist movement, it evolved into a movement that seeks to transcend barriers of nations and states, and seeks instead to establish autonomous sovereign communes of peoples based on equitable distribution of resources, mutual recognition, and tolerance. The PKK-led Kurdish struggle, under the theoretical guidance of its founder-leader Abdullah Ocalan, is based on direct democracy and grassroots participation. It is of note here that Ocalan was greatly influenced by the ideas of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. The latter’s idea of “libertarian municipalism”, the creation of local level democratic bodies as opposed to a centralised state apparatus, contributed to the development of Ocalan’s idea of “democratic confederalism” which forms the theoretical basis for the praxis of the PKK. Even though a critical situation like the one with which the Kurds are now faced—confronting ISIS—requires strict military discipline, the vanguard of the Kurdish struggle has not established a vertical decision-making process, choosing instead a more horizontal approach to cultivating cadres and leaders.

The effects of such an approach can be seen in the enthusiastic participation of Kurdish women in the struggle. Unlike most nationalist movements that symbolically use the bodies of women in the peak of a military campaign but send them “back to the kitchen” once the goals are achieved, the Kurdish struggle in Kobane involves women as an integral, organic part. Kurdish women in Kobane are the agents of their own liberation, and are as politically equipped at resisting chauvinism within their own communities as they are fierce in resisting the brutalities of ISIS. Few movements in the world have been able to rival the PKK when it comes to gender parity. And, while Chomsky himself has written little on the Kurdish struggle, it might actually be the best contemporary example to validate his own position on the moral superiority of anarchism.

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A Reading List for Political Activists

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on June 22, 2014

Below, I have compiled a list of 35 must read texts for activists involved in radical political projects. I have selected works on political positions of all types, philosophy, history, military strategy, literature, which I believe would greatly assist activists in their understanding of the world today. I have arranged them in no particular order – I just listed them as they came to my mind. So you might be surprised to find Hitler placed along with Gramsci, Huntington with Marx, and Arendt with Sartre. Each of these texts are, in my opinion, the best representations of certain political/ethical/philosophical perspectives that activists need to be familiar with. For instance, a good understanding of fascism, right-wing propaganda, and the idea of the ‘authoritarian personality’ is totally impossible without being familiar with Mein Kampf. Likewise, Civil War in France provides an excellent account of how a ruling class can and will deal with a crisis, especially if the oppressed are not willing to go the extra-mile to overthrow the powers that reign. Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen informs us what true political heroism is in the figure of Adrian Veidt. Each of the texts that I have selected provides a unique perspective on practical and ethical political questions that confront activists today. I hope it is of some assistance. If you have any suggestions, feel free to comment.

1. 36 Stratagems

2. Thomas Kempis – The Imitation of Christ

3. Alain Badiou – Philosophy for Militants

4. Carl von Clausewitz – On War

5. Sun Tzu – The Art of War

6. BH Liddell Hart – Strategy

7. Slavoj Zizek – Violence: Six Sideways Reflections

8. Frantz Fanon – The Wretched of the Earth (With Sartre’s Preface)

9. Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil

10. Maximillien Robespierre – Speech on “The Principles of Political Morality”

11. VI Lenin – What is to be done?

12. Louis Althusser – On Ideology

13. Antonio Gramsci – Prison Notebooks

14. Adolf Hitler – Mein Kampf

15. Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince

16. Mao Tse-Tung – On Contradictions

17. Paolo Friere – Pedagogy of the Oppressed

18. Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan

19. Sigmund Freud – Civilization and its Discontents

20. Carl Schmitt – The Concept of the Political

21. Samuel P. Huntington – The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

22. Karl Marx – The Civil War in France

23. Reinhold Niebuhr – The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

24. Alexandre Kojeve – Introduction to the Reading of Hegel

25. Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

26. Jean-Paul Sartre – Colonialism and Neo-colonialism

27. Martin van Creveld – The Transformation of War

28. Walter Benjamin – Critique of Violence

29. D. Sivaram – Essays on Tamil Militarism

30. Thucydides – History of the Peloponnesian War

31. Amilcar Cabral – Speech on “National Liberation and Culture”

32. Plato – The Republic

33. Oscar Wilde – The Soul of Man under Socialism

34. William Shakespeare – Julius Caesar

35. Alan Moore – Watchmen

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