Monday, November 3, 2014

The strange case of William Blake

I know a person, not too personally but well enough to understand her stance on various issues, who can't stand it if asked to distill anything political from a work of art. Like my mother, she considers Nanda Malini's Pavana as a slogan-ridden song collection. Just the other day, we were talking about Dharmasena Pathiraja. To my friend, he is a director who managed to construe a new cinema for Sri Lanka in keeping with a changing social order. She doesn't want to dissect him beyond this reading of him.

I on the other hand have always felt that if a political film culture did come to Sri Lanka, it was through Pathiraja. She flatly refuses to subscribe to this, naturally enough. Then we got to Bambaru Avith, arguably his single greatest achievement which balanced the needs of conventional narrative with political commentary. I put it to her just how political that film was.

"What's 'political' about that?" she asked me, "You give me an example from it to support your argument."

I went through the plot of that film in my mind quickly, and mentioned the penultimate sequence in the story, where Vijaya Kumaratunge, playing the haute-bourgeois antihero Victor, enforces his ruling class' dominance over the fishing community by calling in a contingent of police officers. This happens after his servant (played by Daya Tennakoon) kills his rival Anton (Joe Abeywickrema), and is in turn killed by a vengeful community that had practically worshiped him.

"Aiyo child," she answered (she's older than my mother), "You can read that any way you want. Why must you put politics into every sequence of a film or work of art? There's enough and more ways you can 'read' that scene." She still believes that we're yet to see a completely political film, by the way.

The moral of that encounter, at least for me, was this: it all depends on the way you see something. That lady quite obviously abhorred the overly political in any work of art, discounted the Soviet-styled socialist realism school as pure propaganda, and (again like my mother) believed that many of our people weren't mature or disciplined enough to "get" the political out of a work of art. According to her, this applied to criticism as well: for her, the best mode of criticism was one which "went beyond political boundaries and explained a felt experience in the work being assessed". Having come from academic jargon-laden essays and critiques, I couldn't probably have agreed more with her.

The truth is that some of us did something wrong. We mis-defined certain things. We mistook on-the-moment rhetoric for art. We wanted revolution, badly, and hence we reflected this in song, painting, play, and film. We decided that the best way we could light the fire and start a revolution was through art. Of course we were wrong, but it took some time to realise this. In the meantime, we learnt some lessons. They were hard to bear initially, but soon we came to understand that what we were doing, to put things plainly, was wrong.

We realised, for one thing, that our assessments of art all really boiled down to the personal and political sympathies of the artist. The creator rather than the creation occupied the critic, to the point where the creator's art was being subject to his or her political credentials. This could only have been a sign of bankruptcy, and perhaps this was what Regi Siriwardena criticised when he wrote these prophetic words: "To dismiss indiscriminately every film that is not directly concerned with an economic or political theme as 'elitist' betrays, I think, a very simplified notion of the relations between the economic and political structure and the rest of life."

Siriwardena was critiquing two things in that essay: one was the criticism by certain writers of Lester James Peries' Ahasin Polawata as being out of touch with that same political structure, and the other was the selective criticism of Bambaru Avith itself as not being political enough. He was spot on with those words. Perhaps this trend, viz to condemn every non-political work of art to the dust, was symptomatic of the 1970s and 1980s, at a time of deep social revolt. Which is what makes me all the more sad when realising that certain sections of our intelligentsia continue doing this. I am compelled to call critics who prefer to hide behind slogans and abstractions as frogs in the well.

But I don't see why this should always be the case. I don't see why revolution and art should be clean different. There have been cases, after all, of artists dabbling in the political and still maintaining an artistic grip over their works.

Take William Blake, for instance. It was once considered fashionable to patronise him as a self-taught artisan-poet. Even T. S. Eliot had this to write of his poetry: "it betrays a certain meanness of style". But Regi Siriwardena, in what I consider to be among the best essay written on Blake, sheds some important light on his craft.

E. P. Thompson
This is not the time for an academic reading of a poet. But I will mention a few things here to highlight what I'm talking about in this essay. William Blake was no fiery-eyed, tigerish revolutionary. Yet the verses he wrote went by putting the social ills of his time and the injustices of class divisions into heart-rendering and pithy allegories. In an essay entitled "Blake, Religion, and Revolution: in Memory of E. P. Thompson", Siriwardena observes that he was as much the artist as he was a revolutionary. He also identifies a curious anomaly in Blake's poetry. I quote in full:

“The fundamental problem for the interpreter of Blake is to explain the union within him of a revolutionary critic of society and a visionary who saw life in terms of his religious illumination. Or, to put the question in another form, how is it that the ardent enthusiast for the political upheaval of the French Revolution could reject wholly the Enlightenment  not only Newton and Locke but even Rousseau and Voltaire, supposedly the intellectual fathers of the Revolution?”

The paradox echoed in that statement is obvious. How could the same poet who wrote about revolution, who could so heartily embrace those unjustly treated, whether worker, child, or woman, at the same time turn his horns against Revolution itself? How could this man, who wrote about "Satanic mills", who deplored industrialisation, at the same time write about the "Atoms of Democritus" being mere "sands upon the Red Sea shore / Where Israel's tents do shine so bright"? Had Blake merely become disillusioned with what happened in France and abandoned his former revolutionary zeal? Had he become a turncoat?

Regi Siriwardena has one answer to all these problems. He first establishes that Blake was no identity-less revolutionary. His vision of life was moulded by his religious views. He was an antinomian, who was opposed to the Church of England and rejected organised Christianity as the way to salvation. The antinomians, as you will remember, contested the Church's emphasis on moral law and divine grace, instead claiming that their "Everlasting Gospel", i.e. a gospel based on love and charity, would guide Christians into salvation. I am most definitely neither a Christian nor a religious scholar, so I won't go any further with this argument.

William Blake was considered a heretic in his time. This wasn't because he was anti-religion. That's the first anomaly which, doubtless, won't appeal to many "heretics" today. Blake was merely opposed to organised religion, and not religion per se. He embraced Christian ideology while berating the way it had been contorted through the Church, with its undue emphasis on indulgences and moral law. It was this which allied his Christian worldview with his revolutionary zeal, as witness for instance in this passage from his Proverbs of Hell: "Just as the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys."

Nonetheless, this doesn't make Blake the anarchist cum rebel many found it fashionable to regard him as in later decades. Some critics found it uncomfortable to tag the "revolutionary" label on him, because, in his later writings, after the French Revolution passed, he condemned the Enlightenment. Now to those accustomed to Cartesian "black-or-white" logic, a person can't be religious and revolutionary at the same time. I'll write more on this presently, but before that, let's return to Blake. I mentioned somewhere that he belonged to the anti-Church antinomian sect in 18th century England. This meant that he was embracive of Christianity.

Whither Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity?
This also means that he was against the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, but not for the reasons many would prefer to follow. He was no fanatic, despite those visions he claimed he saw. His views on the Enlightenment and all its secular rhetoric, I feel and I believe, are best summed up in this line: "One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression". Regi Siriwardena, in his essay, concedes that this utterance can be read in more ways than one. Accordingly, one way of paraphrasing this would be that Blake was writing of "an exposure of the fiction of equality before the law, which conceals the real inequality of people in their social situation" (Siriwardena's words).

The way I see it, the French Revolution was about "secularism" and "equality" only as far as "the moment" was concerned, i.e. the upheaval of the Bourbon dynasty. Beyond this moment, a system of oppression institutionalised through "law and order" was quickly enforced by the same men who lead the Revolution. I am thinking of the conflict between the Girondins and the Jacobins, and of Robespierre and Danton in particular. Perhaps even more shrewdly than the Enlightenment-era thinkers, Blake saw the falseness of secular rhetoric, and how in the inevitable "purge" and reign of terror that followed, a system of repression no different to that of the Bourbon monarchy was established.

But I'm going a little too far ahead here. Let me come back to the subject at hand.

Regi Siriwardena quotes Joseph Needham in his essay, rightly. Needham was less Anglo-centric than E. P. Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class, which talks about William Blake, Siriwardena refers to. In his Science and Civilisation in China (Volume II), Needham asks us the following: "The question may then be asked, under what social conditions do mysticism and rationalism have respectively the role of progressive social forces?" In other words, according to the dominant paradigm that views religion as an "opiate of the masses" and hence opposed to progressivism, where does it fit in an exceptional case as with William Blake? A problem to which not many will have palatable answers. I can only try.

What Blake was opposed to was neither revolution nor religion per se. He was opposed to an organised structure which contorted both. He was no slogan-parroting revolutionary, but a gentle humanist who genuinely believed in Christian ethical thinking and laid emphasis on it even when critiquing the Church. In other words, he never took a side in the religion/revolution divide. He saw injustice and berated it, but not to the point of hailing a rebellion which created a "fiction of equality" to hide up another form of inequality.

Kumari Jayawardena, in her book Nobodies to Somebodies, records the transition from feudal aristocracy to capitalist accumulation remarkably. She puts this transition in these few words: "from the old Mudliyars to the new Misters". This is it. Politics and revolution is about a changing of the guard, but only so far as the illusion of the colour-change that goes with it is concerned. Beyond that, as you and I would say, it's the "same old sh*t". Perhaps this was what Blake was criticising, and perhaps this was why critics on both sides of the political/religious divide in turn criticised him.

I think I've written enough. Time for the conclusion.

Anagarika Dharmapala
There are some intellectuals here who think that Sinhala Buddhist nationalism isn't coterminous with their warped version of anti-imperialism. According to them, it's only leftism, feminism, and a lot of other -isms (including their version of nationalism) which can challenge colonialism (which is also another -ism, by the way). Perhaps this is why they champion the likes of Henry Steel Olcott while vilifying both Tibet S. Mahinda Thero and Anagarika Dharmapala. To them, Olcott was the epitome of an organised frontal assault on the British Raj, while Dharmapala was a "nobody" who challenged the political structure of the day by whipping up extreme (how does one measure "extreme", I wonder) and slipshod nationalist sentiment in the lay people.

It's the same argument I've put above. Being politically rebellious doesn't mean you're always a leftist. Being a leftist doesn't automatically make you anti-colonialist. Things don't work that way. Perhaps that lady who challenged me on my reading of Bambaru Avith got it right. Perhaps she didn't. That's not the point here. The point is that art-appraisal has embraced the same "black-or-white" Cartesian logic our culture has succumbed to.

I don't see why we should continue this trend. To put things plainly: being black doesn't always mean you're not white. Or let's be more specific. A "reading" of a work of art, whether it be a poem or a film, is as political as you see it. Beyond that, it's just symptomatic of what someone once referred to as the "bankruptcy of art and art-appraisal". Those who have seen Bambaru Avith, no doubt, will agree with this. After all, isn't part of that film in itself critical of left-wing revolutionary rhetoric and the misconception that taking a stand against exploitation automatically makes you a slogan-parroting radical?

Let's put things into perspective, hence. Not too difficult. I think William Blake showed us how to, 300 years ago.