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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Posted in General by Karthick RM on January 19, 2017

In Absolute Recoil, Zizek makes extensive reference to Hayden White’s Metahistory. I recollected that this was a core reading in my MA history course at JNU. However, JNU was an ‘infantile disorder’ phase for me (a phase that several of my ex-comrades have been unable to grow out of). To me at that time, White along with several other critical historiographers were bourgeois and I studiously avoided studying them, gorging instead on Mao. To be honest, anyone whose language was too complicated was bourgeois to me. Though I grew out of juvenile ultra-leftist leanings by the last semester at JNU, this anti-intellectualist leaning continued into my PhD. Fortunately, a good friend and a great activist advised me to take theory seriously – in quite harsh words. It was the sting I required, without which I might have been immersed in effete activism and not have finished my PhD in time. Of course, I do not regret the experience gained by activism, but I think I got that at the cost of valuable knowledge in the classroom. Of my very few regrets in life, the top most would be not reading Lacan when I had the time and chance! I guess I understood my true calling a bit late, but early enough to make amends. I am an academic with a cause, not an academic in a cause. And as my guru Zizek advised many a time, I have fully overcome the seduction to act! So I think…

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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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A Few Good Men like the American Liberal and the Indian Liberal

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on November 3, 2016

14907093_1007164592726355_5738480194756239295_nIt is a shame to confess this, but I watched A Few Good Men for the first time only a few days back. The American courtroom drama captures the political drama between the American Liberal and the American Right-Winger that has been playing out for several decades now. If Jack Nicholson militarist diatribe in the famous “You cant handle the truth” scene was powerful, so was Tom Cruise’s prosecution of the accused. Both men stood for the American ideal; they just interpreted it differently. But the American Liberal is willing to fight for his ideals, even though he might not understand the nature of the same. The transformation of Cruise’s character in the movie from frivolous to serious is a commentary on how the liberal would rise up to the occasion to save the system from its unwanted (but necessary) elements. And as much as we may find them annoying, many American liberals are serious in their opposition to the Right.

14568087_1007164549393026_1664785442703190775_nFlashback to Shaurya. I watched this movie a few years back, knowing that it was a remake of the above flick. Now this is an Indian courtroom drama with Rahul Bose playing Cruise and Kay Kay Menon playing Nicholson. Menon was spellbinding; every frame he appears in reeks of power. His militarist rant, with a mixture of blind patriotism and personal tragedy, effectively shows him as a man of principles, however bad they may be. (Kay Kay Menon is a dangerous actor: In Gulaal, he had my support for free Rajputana!) Menon was a worthy choice to play Nicholson’s role. On the other hand, Rahul Bose had not 1% of the passion or intensity of Cruise’s character. Like the Indian liberal, his character is visibly – politically incorrect terms ahead – emasculated and impotent. And yet he wins by trickery, and proceeds to give a banal monologue about Indian secular values, which even he doesnt seem to be convinced about. But in reality, the Indian liberal will never put up a fight against the Indian militarist because, like Bose’s character, they have no conviction and reality is no courtroom drama where such easy victories are scored.

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Trump, Clinton, and Jurassic World

Posted in International by Karthick RM on August 19, 2016

How to understand the ‘to defeat Trump, we need to ally with Clinton’ argument? Through Hollywood of course!

In Jurassic World, you have the cruel genetically altered mega-monster Indominus Rex which goes on an indiscriminate killing spree of anyone in its path. So, to defeat it, the humans ‘strategically ally’ with Tyrannosaurus Rex (which is also a genetically altered monster that wreaked havoc in earlier movies, but that history is conveniently forgotten). In the climax, T Rex saves the humans from Indominus Rex and rules over Jurassic World like a triumphant, well um, liberal democrat. But a radical ending to this movie would have been to show T Rex defeating Indominus Rex and proceeding to eat the humans.

That would have been a fitting commentary on the Clinton supporters. Because in real life, the ‘humans’ are Bernie Sanders and co.

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A little tribute to Vidrohi

Posted in General by Karthick RM on August 14, 2016

I believe there are two really smart decisions I have taken in my life – joining JNU for my Masters, leaving JNU immediately after my Masters. Jawaharlal Nehru University is always a Dickensian scenario. You meet the best of people and the worst of people there; inevitably both will be from the left. Imagine 1968 Paris being repeated over and over again – the slogans, the sexual liberation, the orgasmic enthusiasm for revolution, the wild dreams… and just like the 1968 revolutionaries, the Guevaras of JNU too succeeded in doing absolutely nothing to change the system. But then, JNU’s biggest magic trick is the illusion that it gives you that you are actually doing something. Much like the five star hotel in Chennai that promises to give you an authentic fisherman’s cuisine, JNU too allures you with the promise of being part of an authentic revolutionary event.

But once a while you run into a really genuine character who really believes in the JNU dream. Vidrohi was one of those rare characters. This humble unassuming man was a powerful poet, speaker and a treasure-trove of knowledge. Vidrohi could be seen at several protests, offering his poetry to add color to the demonstrations. His admirers would clap and cheer. But most of his admirers had clear career plans. To them, JNU was a stepping stone to something higher. I know quite some ultraleftists who believed armed struggle was the only way who later joined NGOs, earning good money. But Vidrohi’s universe was the university.

Vidrohi genuinely believed in the JNU dream. He died poor.

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Some Thoughts on Love

Posted in Society and Culture by Karthick RM on February 14, 2015

‘Is Love a tender thing?’ asked Romeo. ‘It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn,’ he concluded.

If someone were to say in contemporary Western society that they were willing to suffer, maybe even die for Love, they would be looked on as a mad person. Yet there exist men and women in Third World societies who defy the primitive cultural diktats of caste, tribe, religion and community, who dare to transgress boundaries, who dare to Love. Some of them succeed. Others are lynched in grotesque rituals that goes by the name of ‘honor killings’. And in their suffering, they become flesh and blood monuments to this thing called Unconditional Love.

I find it hard not to believe that it is easier to find Unconditional Love in restrictive societies than in societies that are excessively permissive. It appears to be easier here in the West to say ‘You know, I slept around with four people on the same day’ than to say ‘This is the one person I want to be with all my life.’ The latter, not the former, is the test of passion. Indeed, the word passion itself has been corrupted in popular parlance to mean some excess of desire. On the contrary, passion, derived from the Latin patere means to embrace suffering. The Passion of the Christ was the man’s willingness to undergo torment for the sake of the object of his Love, universal humanity. The closest thing to Christ in the previous century, Martin Luther King Jr, spoke about how absolute and Unconditional Love alone could guarantee the creation of a human and a humane community. Was not King’s martyrdom yet another sacrifice for the sublime cause of Love?

But to talk about sacrifice is something too much, too dangerous for the liberal. The problem with our liberal society is the moral nihilism that infects it, corrupts it from within. I look at nihilism here not as an urge to destroy all icons, but rather as the lack of firm belief in anything of value, a reluctance for passion, an unwillingness to commit. Sex, to our liberal nihilist, has no deeper value. It is a mere contract for mutual pleasure between two (or more) persons. And with the multicultural baggage, you can have sexual experiments with people of different races and genders and boast to yourself about your supposed transgressiveness, your fling with an exotic person.

And there are these ridiculous ’empirical’ studies of what men like in women and vice versa. Sizes of breasts, noses, penises and vaginas. Women with short or long hair. Clean shaven or bearded men. The skin color that attracts most. It is as if Love is to be reduced to an object on a human body that has no meaning by itself. Down the years, we might also have such enlightening empirical studies on whether the possession of an Apple iPad increases your prospects for sex and if the use of robots for threesomes can save your marriage… This is particularism at its cheapest. You do not desire a person for what they are in their totality (a matter of soul) but for some specific aspect which they have (a matter of body, and other extra fittings). Frank Sinatra in his inimitable style rubbished these fetishes in My Funny Valentine where he sings that though his lover might not have all the perfect bodily features, she is his ‘favorite work of art’, beseeching her not change even a hair, for he loves her as she is.

Is this prioritization of sex over Love not the logical conclusion of the so-called sexual revolution of the swinging 60s? I believe a popular slogan in May 68 Paris was ‘Making revolution is like making love’. After the initial orgasmic outburst of having multiple sexual partners on one hand and putting up fashionable street protests on the other, things just went back to normal in the system. It is as if the activists’ lack of absolute commitment while screwing each other prevented them from being absolutely committed to screwing the system…

This is not an indictment of Western society. Nay, in my opinion, the best accounts of Unconditional Love were produced by Western novelists, poets, dramatists and philosophers. A real life Love story that moved me the most was that of Austrian thinker-cum-activist Andre Gorz and his English wife Dorine. Political students of Sartre and Beauvoir and active participants in May 68 protests, the couple believed in radical freedom. But they also believed that they found radical freedom in their unswerving commitment and fidelity to each other. In his tribute to the Love he had for his wife, a fascinating little book called Letter to D, Gorz writes ‘being passionately in love is a way of resonating with the other, body and soul, and with her or him alone.’

Decades after a life well-lived together, Dorine was diagnosed with a deadly cancer. Not willing to ‘outlive the other’, Andre took his own life on the same day that Dorine passed away. This sort of a relationship might appear as a miracle in our cynical times. But precisely because these are cynical times, it is a miracle worth believing in, one worth fighting for.

Yes, Love is rough and it pricks like thorn. It strikes at your ontological core and mutilates your identity, your sense of Self. It calls for commitment, sacrifice and suffering. It involves a leap of faith into the Other, a willingness to embrace her/him in her totality, in a journey that creates different conjoined individuals of both. It involves seeing the Universality of humanity in the beloved, rather than a fetish for particularities (ooh, I like your hair, I like your skin color etc). The pleasure of such Love is beyond trivial physical releases; It is, as Gorz wrote, ‘a way of giving yourself and calling forth the gift of self from the other person.’

Happy Valentine’s Day to all those who can relate to what I am talking about.

To others, miracles exist.

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Reflections in a Second-hand Bookstore in the UK

Posted in General, Society and Culture by Karthick RM on October 29, 2012

Walking back to the bus stop from Colchester Castle Park, I stumbled on a second-hand bookstore. Bookstores in general pick my curiosity – this one claimed to sell “Rare and Secondhand” books. I had to take a peek.

Exchanging greetings with the person at the desk, a warm old lady who I believe is also manager and owner of the bookstore, I proceeded to browse through the store’s wares. Rare collections indeed! It had books of Dickens that I could not recognize. Works of Dante that I have not encountered on any other shelf before. The finest Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus and of course, Homer, and Roman epic-poetry of Virgil and Ovid. The plays of Beckett and Ibsen. A breathtaking assortment of the finest English poetry, be it those of the classical romantic tradition of Byron or those in the free verse styles a la Whitman. And yes, the entire works of Shakespeare. (Is not any good book collection incomplete without him?)

I was compelled to buy something.

The bookstore is of two floors, divided into sections according to subject. The collections on history and politics are decent, but can be expanded. I found some pretty interesting books there – ancient social and economic history specialist M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Greeks for two quid, R.H. Barrow’s The Romans for 1.50, JS Mill’s ‘Three Essays’ for 3… and I even bought Robert Service’s Lenin, only because the founder of the USSR was the only big guy in the Marxist-Leninist pantheon on whom I did not have a biography on and because it was being sold for the absurd price of 5 quid. The philosophy section didn’t have much to offer – the only book I found to my liking was Patrick Gardiner’s Kierkegaard, a concise work on the core aspects of the Danish intellectual’s philosophical thought.

The literature section is the star of the store, having an entire room unto itself. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was the smell. The distinct musty odour that one gets from old or aging books was dominant in the densely packed room. If a bibliophile’s love for old books included the smell they emit, this room was a wet dream. Books collected over 30 years, the manager told me. ‘How could they bear to part with it?’ I thought instinctively. Yes, I have always loathed even lending my books, even to close friends. It would have been a nightmare for me to be on the desk of such a shop and watch on as books such as these are taken away, lost to my touch forever.

When reading a good book, for me at least, physical touch is important – especially if it is a work of philosophy or literature. No greater pleasure than sitting down with an engrossing text that reflects on humankind, with a cup of fine tea, in a pleasant evening, in the company of fresh air, in solitude, in tranquillity. Holding the book, folding pages, leaving notes, scribbling in the margins, underlining, all of these gives the owner an intimacy with not just the content of the book, but its physicality as well. That sort of intimacy is needed when one reads literature or philosophy, which can of course never be experienced while reading a pdf file on a computer screen or on gadgets like kindle, no matter how much they try to make it appear ‘book like’. Those who understand the difference between making love and what Zizek calls “the usual masturbation with a living partner” will understand this difference as well and, I hope, will share my righteous indignation at a friend of mine who told me that he read Crime and Punishment on his laptop.

From the perspective of possessing books as a passion, I categorize book collectors of this age of late modernity in two camps – the faithful and the infidel. The former adhere to certain rules in the manner of receiving and reading a book while the latter are indifferent to the same. Note that these categories are fluid and at times the faithful, are persuaded by circumstances to step into the other camp, even if they do it unwillingly. Isn’t it the case that the pure has the greatest potential to be corrupted? Anyway, the friend of mine who read Dostoevsky on a laptop is, and I would like to believe that others agree, an infidel of a particular type. The uncaring disciple – that is, one who would love to the read the work of a great master but is not concerned about the medium through which the master’s message should reach him.

Similar to the uncaring disciple is the copier. The copier’s case is rather sad. He does not have the resources to get the original copy of the classic or the time to sit in a library to read. But he would not read a classic on a computer screen, because he loves the feel of paper. So, he goes for the next best thing to the original. A photocopy. Again, the difference between a photocopy and the original will not be evident to those but the faithful – the feel of the binding, the cover, and the smell of the original is always lost in a copy. To confess, I have also been guilty of this type of infidelity. I read Goethe’s Faust in photocopy.

The first book that caught my eye as I stepped into the literature section in the bookstore was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a brilliant tale of terrible vengeance of an individual who had been treated badly by people and circumstances. It was being sold for 3 pounds! Not far from Dumas was a hardbound early 20th Century copy of Upton Sinclair’s A World to Win. Being familiar with his more famous novel The Jungle and intrigued by the title of this book and its smell of an age that I have only read of in history books, I took it – for a fiver. Near it was the Victorian-age English novelist Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which was also published in the same period as the former. The novel came out in public posthumously because of the controversial anti-establishment tenor of the prose. Flipping through the pages I found something like a visiting card which contained only a message, but a message that was rather ironical considering the book it was in – “His majesty greatly loveth courageous souls. St. Teresa.”

Browsing the collection, I hopped on from one delightful author to another, from Chesterton to Flaubert, from Somerset Maugham to Solzhenitsyn, Sophocles to Ovid via Virgil, and so, purchasing their classic works for a pittance. And yes, as I reached the Shakespeare section, I took a copy of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter purely for the paper it was printed on. Shopping for books in a good store or browsing in the library is a pleasure in itself. Not only do you find other books in the area of your interest, you also stumble upon other interesting books that would elicit attraction in the bibliophile – the journey enlightens you as much as the destination. The faithful appreciates the art of book shopping/browsing. Even if he cannot buy all that interests him, he takes in the titles, authors, scrambles through the book, appreciates words and sentences, absorbs the essence; and the memory of the book, its feel, its touch, its soul is locked away in the head of the faithful, subject to recall at a later date.

Yes, there is a feeling of ‘fear and trembling’ that the faithful feel as they leave a library or a bookstore. The pain that the place you are leaving has a lot more than you can fully appreciate, the apprehension that you are missing out on many other hidden treasures, the pang of jealousy that your collection will always be incomplete without the dozens of books that you are leaving behind, the melancholic sensation of a desire unfulfilled. All bibliophiles undergo this feeling every time they step into a place that has a book collection larger than theirs. Umberto Eco, a bibliophile I admire, envy and hope to equal one day (his collection is of over 50000 books. If we were to allot a day in a person’s life for one book, Eco’s life span would be over 135 years!), opined in an interview on diacritics that to him, libraries were paradise but that he kept away from them as they drove him crazy if they ensnared him. Thus, the faithful book collector is always an unsafe browser. Every minute he is in a bookstore, he places great risk not just to his purse, but also to his senses. His eyes wander all over, his mouth goes dry while picking some work he adores but whose price he cannot afford, his heart pulsates being surrounded by objects of his desire, many of which he cannot possess. It can be said that no bibliophile ever leaves a library or a bookstore without a heavy heart, but he accepts this risk before stepping in.

So here’s the other infidel – the safe browser. He has a book in mind about which he has heard of from elsewhere and he is interested in getting that book alone. Years earlier, he would have had no option but to visit a bookstore and search for the object of his pursuit, but now, with the proliferation of online retailers, his purchase is but a few clicks away. What is wrong with this? Simply that you are not exposed to as many other books as you would be in a bookshop or library which, of course, is a risk as mentioned in the above paragraph. The safe browser does not appreciate the delight of that risk and is saved the tensions that the faithful endure. His options, however, are not vast. The best online retailer can at most give you a list of related books that you might be interested in. But only in a library or bookstore can you find non-related books that you would be interested in. The limited options provided online place you in a comfortable box which you will not cross. Pray, do tell me, how many sites are there that would take you from an autobiography of Sartre to the history of medieval South India? A little bookshop in New Delhi did that for me.

All bibliophiles, at some point of time in their lives, do run into a particular breed of philistines – I have been fortunate to have been visited by only one till now. I refer to the ones who drop by on a fine day, look at your book collection and ask you that insipid question “Have you read them all?” I found the apt reply to this question in the following lines

    Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”

That was Walter Benjamin, another admirable bibliophile, citing a bibliophile he admired.

Of the books I purchased, I don’t think I’ll be reading any one fully any time soon. Should time permit, I might try to read The Theban Plays sometime next year. The rest are for much, much later. There is one I will never read fully, CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, an annoying liberal Christian interpretation of love. I’ll probably glimpse through a few pages to remind myself that such annoying opinions and such annoying people exist. I do possess other books, some extraordinarily mundane, in my collection which I will never read. For instance, books like The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui, who was supposedly Mao’s close friend and physician, and The Immortal Contributions of Chairman Mao by Bob Avakian, American Maoist and ‘Chairman’ of Revolutionary Communist Party, two extreme accounts on the same person.

I should state that neither do I have anything against extreme positions nor do I shun books with such positions as useless – I don’t think there is anything called a ‘useless book’. Even right/liberal/left propaganda pamphlets have something to be analyzed and even something as intentionally naive and childish as Harry Potter has implications to be read into. Just that the tediousness of certain texts gets to me, and if I will not read them fully, I might ruffle their pages on occasions to humour myself. Book collecting is a passion, but needn’t always be a serious one.

It requires fidelity though.

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A Grave in Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Posted in General by Karthick RM on June 6, 2011

It’s a place where famous personalities are buried. A renowned writer and his, if I may take the liberty of using the term, ‘soul mate’ were also interred there. Rebels throughout their lives, they challenged established norms of relationships and family. Probably, they were the most famous polyamorous couple in modern times. They felt that the ‘normal’ monogamous relationship restricted individual freedom, lovers of the concept that they were when they were alive. When the female died six years after the male’s passing away she was buried together with him. Posterity would care less for their other relationships. The grave makes us ponder the intensity of the love and respect they had for each other (that far surpassed the feelings they had for other people in their lives). That is how I shall remember Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as theorists of freedom who were bonded to each other in life and in death. Sartre said that the living choose the dead. So do we choose the images of death and give it meaning. The stone grave of Sartre and Beauvoir reminds me that love, freedom and responsibility are not empty terms, not matter how hard cynics may try to conceive of them as such. They are lifestyles.

Together in Life and Death

Sartre died on April 15th, 1980. Beauvoir got a nervous breakdown after that. She writes in her farewell to Sartre “I lay down for a moment by the side of his dead body, knowing that we would never meet again.” This rather sentimental and irrational act, from the author of several books that deconstructed existing ideas of gender and love, should be witness to the greatness of the person to whom it was directed at and the nature of bonding she shared with him. This testimonial of affection from the mother of feminism should melt even the coldest heart of those who claim to be ‘feminists’ in her path but are sceptical of the Beauvoir-Sartre relationship, often disparaging the latter. I don’t think either would have thought much of their ‘criticisms’ though. Sartre himself admitted that Beauvoir was “the only critic who mattered.” Indeed, his adoration and immense respect for her was such that he would discard hundreds of pages of his work should she raise objections against them. This short man who was a giant in the philosophy of ontology found his greatest strength in the company of the tallest figure of feminist thought. Their grave sends us that message.

John Gerassi called Sartre the hated conscience of his century. This was a man, to use a clichéd phrase, that all loved to despise. The Catholic Church passed an order prohibiting the reading of any of his works in 1948. Around the same period, a church of a different kind, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also banned Sartre’s works, irked over his play Dirty Hands that was critical of the functioning style of the Communists. French nationalists made two attempts on his life owing to his vocal support of the Algerian cause. Liberals like Raymond Aron and Camus, who eventually became hits in the US academia, hated his guts. Structuralists like Strauss, who stood for completely depoliticized academics, condemned him. Foucault and Derrida, the grand champions of anti-humanism, rejected Sartre. So did defenders of a kind of Marxism, that kind that believed in structures like an astrologer believes in stars, like Althusser and co. Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize in 1964 on ethical grounds also added him to the hate list of many others.

Sartre really didn’t care. He knew the intellectual-academicians and the politics that they upheld. He knew that people who treated humans like ants in their study would never take their message beyond a classroom of elites. And he was right. Imagine a mass movement or radical activism propelled by an Althusserian or Foucauldian understanding of politics. Besides, he had his own crowd too. In his heyday, Sartre’s name was popular in the costliest restaurant in Paris and in its cheapest brothel. His books were carried by students of the best universities in town and by blacks working on pavements. And wherever he was, he shocked and he stimulated. One of the foremost theorists of decolonization and identity, referred to Sartre as ‘a living god’ – probably the greatest compliment a thinker could get from a contemporary who was also his critic, an iconoclast like Frantz Fanon.

When Sartre died, his funeral was attended by about 50,000 people, probably the largest in history for a philosopher. It was attended by students, activists, intellectuals, writers and poets. Frenchmen, Germans, Blacks and Mulattos participated. The crowd contained homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, petty criminals and all those ‘abnormals’ on whom Foucault gave extensive lectures on in his career, along with large numbers of Althusser’s beloved working class. Few of these people would mourn Foucault’s or Althusser’s demise. The loss of these intellectuals was felt only in the spaces where they had created most impact – among NGO activists and academics – while the loss of Sartre’s was felt by a diverse section of people even after his political thought fell out of fashion in academic circles. That a philosopher should have left such an impact should speak volumes about the dynamism of his philosophy.

If one considers an intellectual to be someone who has written and reflected on a wide variety of complex issues, in a complex manner, then probably Foucault is the better intellectual than Sartre. One can spend years studying the works of Foucault but manage to grasp only a part of his thought. One needs to spend twenty minutes reading Sartre’s preface to The Wretched of the Earth, with something akin to a conscience, for one’s own thoughts to be radically altered. Foucault may be the better intellectual; Sartre was the better man.

And what a preface it was! A better text to claim humanity for the oppressed could not be found and a better preface could not have been written. Sartre’s words to French citizens condemning their silence on their state’s crimes in Algeria “It is not right, my fellow countrymen, you who know all the crimes committed in our name, it is really not right not to breathe a word about them to anybody, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to pass judgements on yourselves” are still as applicable to citizens of so many oppressor regimes today. Sri Lankans, Indians, Turks, Israelis, Chinese can place this statement in the right context today, provided they have an iota of sensitivity. One can see the Sartrean spirit operating through a Jude Fernando or a Viraj Mendis, Sri Lankan intellectuals who faced death threats and had to undergo exile for standing by the struggle of the Eelam Tamils. But the world that we live in now, such intellectuals who have made enormous personal sacrifices to stand by an ethical position are rarely highlighted in the news. Only the shrill-tone empty-content kind catch eyes and ears. Maybe this is somewhere connected to the general amnesia prevailing among the intelligentsia of the existence of a man called Sartre…

I have told quite some of my friends that there are no post-modern intellectuals. Only post-Sartrean intellectuals. You had those post-structuralists who talked about everything but took a position on nothing. You had those on the ‘left’ taking positions only on those issues that would give them instant attention in the media. You had those Marxists giving moral lectures on the bankruptcy of capitalism and imperialism but rarely turning a critical eye towards themselves and their own positions in society. Intellectual activity became a matter of convenience when it should have been of responsibility. Sartre, with the kind of intellectual courage that only an anarchist could possess, was never shy of making his position clear. Even should it alienate him from his fellow people. A trenchant critic of capitalism, Sartre, along with his partner, knew that socialism was meaningless without individual freedom. He realized that irrationality and emotions were as powerful forces as reason and logic in driving political movements. He gave theoretical justification to the violence of the oppressed, even if it was on identitarian lines, and acted in their support while others on the left were toying with terms or were just weak-kneed to take a stand. He had neither the comfort of a party like the communists nor the company of the elites like the liberals. As a person, he was alone but for Beauvoir. And that was his integrity.

We need to remember Sartre today. We need to remember him to remind intellectuals of their role in a world where there is such rampant oppression and few credible solutions. We need to remember him if we are ever to understand why in certain circumstances terrorism needs to be defended. We need to remember him to frame out a human and humane alternative to a world pillaged by capitalist machinery, an alternative that would not further dehumanize man under the illusion of taking him to some predestined goal. We need to remember him to make ethical choices in politics, in life and in literature.

We need to remember Sartre because we writers live in his shadow.

To his memory…

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