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The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

Journalism’s Ethical Paradox: The Canker at the Heart of the Rose

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 “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of non-fiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”― Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer.

The long shadow looming over The Journalist and the Murderer was from Malcolm’s previous work ‘In the Freud Archives’ for which she was sued by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson—the defamation suit dragged on for years before a jury finally found against Masson in 1994. Malcolm’s pieces were first published as two-part essays in The New Yorker and later as non-fiction books by Knopf. The reportage is classic Malcolm, facts and characteristically rich observations, a classic yet unique style where reportage of the subject-matter is also rooted in the specificity of the clock, dates, and the atmosphere—Malcolm makes it a point to describe whether an interview, a double check, or a chance encounter leading to a new discovery takes place in a dimly lit, dingy basement office or in a snowed under New York park.

The press response to The Journalist and the Murderer was split between puzzled indignation and defensive fury. The indignation was encapsulated by John Taylor in a New York magazine broadside headlined ‘Houlier Than Thou’. The defensive fury was completely off-centre as in dozens of pieces for various publications writers enumerated names of journalists they knew who had excellent ethics and a New York Times editorial writer took umbrage at Malcolm’s “sweeping indictment of all journalists.” Fred Friendly, the renowned broadcaster, took up this theme the next year [1990] in his review of the book. Convinced that Malcolm was trying to put her finger on “what ails journalism,” he complained that her conclusion that “all journalists are guilty” was “distorted by a crabbed vision of the profession and her own place in it.” Of course not. The Journalist and the Murderer is not an attack on the ethics of journalists it engages with the central problem of the profession—the fraught relationship between the subject and the journalist. The journalist-subject relationship, like the analyst-patient relationship, is fraught with “abnormality, contradictoriness, and strain,” but—in a further paradox—these disquieting qualities are what give it its value. Just as therapeutic progress is predicated on the mutual miseries of the transference, “the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism” is what, in Malcolm’s view, “gives journalism its authenticity and vitality.” And she capped her argument with a zinger: “Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.”

“Malcolm is hard on her subjects. Why is she so hard on these people? I think it has something to do with a blurring of the line between reportage and criticism… Malcolm loves purists. Her heroes, Freud not least among them, rigidly refuse compromise, sometimes badly to their own detriment. She nods approvingly, in a review of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” at Milan Kundera’s observation that “none among us is superhuman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.” Yet she has remorseless radar for the kitsch in her subjects’ lives, and she uses it against them.

The elusiveness of truth, the paucity of the means [therapeutic, journalistic, biographical] we pursue it with, and the unreliability of narrative—the stories we tell to pin it down, which are always incomplete and [consciously or otherwise] self-serving—underlie nearly all of Malcolm’s writing. The psychoanalytic books pose the narrativising consciousness against the Aleph of the unconscious; “The Journalist and the Murderer” and “The Silent Woman” are about conflicting narratives. Having explored the therapeutic, journalistic and biographical avenues by which we try, however futilely, to make our muddled way to truth, with the 1999 published “The Crime of Sheila McGough” she took up the even more inadequate legal one.

But Sheila is a recalcitrant heroine. Unlike Jeffrey Masson, a fountain of eloquence before whom all a journalist needed to do was park herself and turn on the tape, Sheila spoke in the “guileless and incontinent” drone of the bore who has to recount every last detail of an excruciatingly tangled story:

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more irritating subject. I know I have never before behaved so badly to a subject. I have never before interrupted, lost patience with, spoken so unpleasantly to a subject as I have to Sheila–to my shame and vexation afterward. I have never before dreaded calling a subject on the telephone as I have dreaded calling Sheila. To my simplest question she would give an answer of such relentless length and tediousness and uncomprehending irrelevance that I could almost have wept with impatience. I took notes of these phone calls, and among them I have found little cries of despair. One of them was: “Help, help! I’m trapped talking to Sheila. She won’t stop. Save me.”

What she sees when she looks at her heroine is “the impossible purity of her position,” and it makes Sheila “rather magnificent.” At last — an honest woman! A lunatic, granted, but a truthful one.

And not only that. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Malcolm’s affection for Sheila owes a great deal to her identification with a fellow purist who bollixed her career while acting under the delusion that she was sticking to the straight and narrow. Of Sheila’s trial she writes, “It was like one of those nightmares of guilt, where everyone you have ever known has gathered to accuse you of wrongdoing.” Notice the universalizing second person; she might as well have used the first, having suffered this nightmare herself, not just in her humiliating trial but, more bewilderingly, in the press crusade against her that left her in the minds of many, as she wryly phrased it, “a kind of fallen woman of journalism.” This been-there empathy lies behind her bitter observation, in “Sheila McGough,” that

in a sense, everyone who is brought to trial, criminal or civil, is framed. For while the law speaks of a presumption of innocence, it knows full well that the accused is weighed down under a burden extremely difficult to get out from under. The deck is stacked against the accused. An accusation has enormous psychological clout. Once someone is accused of a crime or misdeed, he begins to burn with a kind of radioactivity. The story of wrongdoing that the prosecutor or the plaintiff’s lawyer tells the jury is a fleshing out of the jury’s preconception. The task of the defense is not to clear the accused [that is impossible; it is too late for that] but to attack the accusers — to show that the plaintiff or the government’s witnesses are even worse than the accused.

“Judging from the outcome of the libel trial and from their later careers, it seems safe to say [but “safe” is dicey — you have to take account of my own bias, which should be clear by now] that the plaintiff in Masson v. Malcolm came out looking worse than the defendant,” writer Craig Seligman wrote in a long piece covering Malcolm’s work and the conflicts she got embroiled in till end-February 2000.

Decades later, all that has changed and The Journalist and the Murderer is for many years now in a standard reading list if not in the course for American journalism students. Her 10-plus provocative books, including The Journalist and the MurdererPsychoanalysis: The Impossible ProfessionThe Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted HughesIn the Freud Archives, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, are ­simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold, high­brow, and controversial. Many people have pointed out that her writing, which is often called journalism, is in fact some other wholly original form of art, some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both. 

Malcolm was born in prewar Prague in 1934 and the family of secular Jews got out of Europe just in time in 1939. Her father was, not surprisingly, a psychiatrist. She met her first husband Donald Malcolm in the University of Michigan. He contributed to The New Yorker on theater and book criticisms–with whom she eventually separated–from the late 1950s to his early death in 1975. In the 1960s she began writing for The New Yorker on interior decoration, Christmas shopping, and what was then considered to be ‘the woman’s space’. In the mid-1970s, she married her editor at the magazine Gardner Botsford—a legend in his own right at The New Yorker and belonging to a wealthy family that had funded Harold Ross’ original New Yorker. By then she had found her mature voice and was writing about photography. She devoted two of the 12 articles collected in her first book, “Diana and Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography” (1980), to the portrait master Richard Avedon. “Avedon does not try to make people look bad,” she writes; “he simply doesn’t do anything to make them look good … Avedon’s pictures of men without props present an unpalatable truth. They show us that we are ugly creatures.” If that passage weren’t dated 1975–several years before Malcolm began her own series of great, cruel portraits–she might have been writing about herself.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills came out on April 26, 2011 in The New Yorker with the small strap saying Anatomy of a Murder Trial. The stellar work of Malcolm began when she is in her late forties and she would have been 76 or 77 when Iphigenia in Forest Hills was published. Unlike the book on Shiela where the narrative falters as the ins and outs of the case are impossible to capture by someone who relates too much, this one is a taut exceptional account of a trial where a woman is accused of hiring an assassin to kill her husband—a long ongoing divorce was the backdrop and the custody of a baby girl Michelle was a thorny subject with charged in-laws from both sides. Malcolm pursued even after the case and did two pieces for the New York Review of Books on Michelle [The child was removed from the grandparents’ house and sent to foster care] in November and December of 2012—What happened to Michelle in Forest Hills? and Michelle: Surviving in a Fixed World.

The start, like all good writers, is what Malcolm has expressed is the most important and difficult part. “If you don’t have a start, you don’t have anything.” Once that is there, everything falls in place. Alluding to Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Aleph,” in which the storyteller goes down into a cellar where he experiences a vision of everything in the world, Malcolm comments, “Writer’s block derives from the mad ambition to enter that cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is ‘running through his mind,’ and to accept that it may not—cannot—be wholly true, to risk that it will be misunderstood.” The problem, she goes on, is narrative itself, for narrative, in being of necessity selective, is always incomplete and thus never wholly true.

She starts the complicated murder trial in the most simple manner: “At around three in the afternoon on March 3, 2009, in the fifth week of the trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova—a thirty-five-year-old physician accused of murdering her husband—the judge turned to Borukhova’s attorney, Stephen Scaring, and asked a pro-forma question. “Do you have anything else, Mr. Scaring?” The trial was winding down. Two defense witnesses had just testified to Borukhova’s good character, and Scaring was expected to rest his case with their modest, believable testimony. Scaring replied, without any special emphasis, “Yes, Your Honor. I think Dr. Borukhova will testify in her own defense.

There was no immediate reaction in the half-filled courtroom on the third floor of Queens Supreme Court, in Kew Gardens. Only after Borukhova had walked to the witness stand and taken the oath did the shock of Scaring’s announcement register. The mouth of one of the spectators—that of the victim’s younger brother—fell open, as if to mime the astonishment that ran through the room.”

There is such brilliance in Malcolm’s writing and reportage that part of a paragraph, a metaphor, an observation or some essence stays with the reader even years after reading any of her works. I was searching for an essence that had stayed with me some eight years after reading the long-form piece but I remembered no special word or phrase to search for it in the document before I stumbled upon it. It was at the end of a conversation and I intend to give the details that Malcolm recorded before coming to it.

“As time went on, though, when lunchtime came I found myself gravitating toward a bench in a corridor off the courthouse lobby, where I waited for a woman named Alla Lupyan-Grafman. She was the Russian-speaker who sat at the defense table throughout the trial as a court-appointed interpreter for the defendants. Both defendants spoke English—Borukhova in particular had no need of an interpreter—but the court had made the appointment to be on the safe side, to insure that no issue of language interfered with the smooth whirring of the wheels of justice. Alla was a slender, stylishly dressed, exceptionally friendly woman in her late forties, with a mane of curly platinum-blond hair, with whom, by the end of the trial, every lawyer, court officer, journalist, and even some spectators were on ecstatic hugging terms. She, too, was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, but not a Bukharan; she was an Ashkenazi Jew from Minsk.

…….Alla had a complaint of her own about the Bukharans—a linguistic one. She said that the older generation had never learned proper Russian, even though it was an official language under the Soviets. When Khaika Malakov testified—with an interpreter simultaneously translating—she was highly critical of his Russian. She was uncritical of Borukhova’s Russian—and she was sympathetic to Borukhova herself. She and I offered each other tastes of the sandwiches and fruit we had brought from home, and struggled with the enigma of the case: she couldn’t have done it and she must have done it.

Katie Roiphe in her interview of Malcolm for The Paris Review, perhaps the only journalist to be interviewed by the nonpareil literary quarterly, says: “No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm. Whether she is writing about biography or a trial or psychoanalysis or Gertrude Stein, her story is the construction of the story, and her ­influence is so vast that much of the writing world has begun to think in the charged, analytic terms of a Janet Malcolm passage. She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level. Personally, though, she exhibits none of the flamboyance of her prose.”

Someone who likes to stay in the background would hardly write an autobiography although Malcolm gave it a wonderful try with a small piece called Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography. I quote the last paragraph of the four-paragraph piece:

Another obstacle in the way of the journalist turned autobiographer is the pose of objectivity into which journalists habitually, almost mechanically, fall when they write. The “I” of journalism is a kind of ultra-reliable narrator and impossibly rational and disinterested person, whose relationship to the subject more often than not resembles the relationship of a judge pronouncing sentence on a guilty defendent. This “I” is unsuited to autobiography. Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. The observing “I” of autobiography tells the story of the observed “I” not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might. The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins. I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love. Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection. In what follows I will try to see myself less coldly, be less fearful of writing a puff piece. But it may be too late to change my spots.

Seligman was, as it has proved subsequently, on the mark when he wrote that: “As much as Malcolm may think she hates the spotlight—she almost never gives interviews [The rare exceptions are rare]—on the page she is helplessly forthcoming, a peculiarity that goes some way toward explaining why the issue of privacy [“life’s most precious possession,” she calls it in her New Yorker essay on Chekhov] runs through her work like a nerve.”  

It was a different time, a different game, and a different manner of upholding journalistic ethics. These days the time in front of the camera and causing a flutter on Twitter everyday seems more important for journalism’s ‘big guns than their hopelessly non-forthcoming work on the page.

[Based largely on a 2000 essay on Janet Malcolm by Craig Seligman and the Spring 2011 issue of The Paris Review plus my inputs from having been her reader for over over a decade]

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 16, 2021 at 7:16 pm

Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom

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One of the freedom that comes with a free blog is to post articles by other people that are illuminating and entertaining. This is one such piece on the 19th Century master Fyodor Dostoevsky. While working on Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky said: “I’m convinced that not one of our writers, past or living, wrote under the conditions in which I constantly write. Turgenev would die from the very thought. But if you only knew how distressing it is to spoil an idea that has been born in you, made you enthusiastic, of which you know that it’s good–and to be forced to spoil it consciously!”—–[Letters II, pp. 200-1]

In his Introduction for Wordsworth Classics Keith Carbine said: “Dostoevsky’s boastful lament in June 1866 as he struggled to keep up with the serialisation of Crime and Punishment in the Russian Herald, is, I think, both understated and inaccurate: no writer in the history of literature composed such a great book under such appalling ‘conditions’. That summer, as he explains in the same letter, he was in a terrible state because the previous year, desperate for ready cash in order to ward off the ever-present threat of debtor’s prison, he had accepted three thousand roubles from an unscrupulous publisher, Stellovsky, on conditions that he wrote ‘a novel of no fewer than than twelve signatures to be published by him, and if I don’t deliver it by November 1, 1866 [the last deadline] he, Stellovsky, is allowed to publish, free, as he pleases, anything I write, without any remuneration for me at all’ [Letters II, p 200]. He escaped this ugly deal by a hair’s breadth because of a wonderful stroke of luck–on October 4 he hired a 17-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna, to whom he dictated The Gambler [for Stellovsky] and the last episodes of Crime and Punishment and who soon became his loyal and devoted wife.

Gary Saul Morson

On the political and moral lessons of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

On December 22, 1849, a group of political radicals were taken from their prison cells in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress, where they had been interrogated for eight months. Led to the Semenovsky Square, they heard a sentence of death by firing squad. They were given long white peasant blouses and nightcaps—their funeral shrouds—and offered last rites. The first three prisoners were seized by the arms and tied to the stake. One prisoner refused a blindfold and stared defiantly into the guns trained on them. At the last possible moment, the guns were lowered as a courier galloped up with an imperial decree reducing death sentences to imprisonment in a Siberian prison camp followed by service as a private in the army. The last-minute rescue was in fact planned in advance as part of the punishment, an aspect of social life that Russians understand especially well.

Accounts affirm: of the young men who endured this terrible ordeal, one had his hair turn white; a second went mad and never recovered his sanity; a third, whose two-hundredth birthday we celebrate in 2021, went on to write Crime and Punishment.

The mock-execution and the years in Siberian prison—thinly fictionalized in his novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1860)—changed Dostoevsky forever. His naive, hopeful romanticism disappeared. His religious faith deepened. The sadism of both prisoners and guards taught him that the sunny view of human nature presumed by utilitarianism, liberalism, and socialism were preposterous. Real human beings differed fundamentally from what these philosophies presumed.

At the last possible moment, the guns were lowered as a courier galloped up.

People do not live by bread—or, what philosophers called the maximalization of “advantage”—alone. All utopian ideologies presuppose that human nature is fundamentally good and simple: evil and apparent complexity result from a corrupt social order. Eliminate want and you eliminate crime. For many intellectuals, science itself had proven these contentions and indicated the way to the best of all possible worlds. Dostoevsky rejected all these ideas as pernicious nonsense. “It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness,” he wrote in a review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “that evil lies deeper in human beings than our social-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it always has been . . . and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges” except God Himself.

Dostoevsky’s characters astonish by their complexity. Their unpredictable but believable behaviour reminds us of experiences beyond the reach of “scientific” theories. We appreciate that people, far from maximizing their own advantage, sometimes deliberately make victims of themselves in order, for example, to feel morally superior. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Father Zosima observes that it can be very pleasant to take offense, and Fyodor Pavlovich replies that it can even be positively distinguished.

People are not just material objects, and will do anything, no matter how self-destructive, to prove they are not.

In fact, people harm themselves for many reasons. They tear at their own wounds and derive a peculiar pleasure from doing so. They deliberately humiliate themselves. To their own surprise, they experience impulses stemming from resentments long suppressed and, as a result, create scandalous scenes or commit horrible crimes. Freud particularly appreciated Dostoevsky’s exploration of the dynamics of guilt. But neither Freud nor most Western readers have grasped that Dostoevsky intended his descriptions of human complexity to convey political lessons. If people are so surprising, so “undefined and mysterious,” then social engineers are bound to cause more harm than good.

The narrator of The House of the Dead describes how prisoners sometimes, for no apparent reason, suddenly do something highly self-destructive. They may attack a guard, even though the punishment—running a gauntlet of thousands of blows—usually proves fatal. Why? The answer is that the essence of humanness lies in the possibility of surprise. The behavior of material objects can be fully explained by natural laws, and for materialists the same is true of people, if not yet, then in the near future. But people are not just material objects, and will do anything, no matter how self-destructive, to prove they are not.

The whole point of prison, as Dostoevsky experienced it, is to restrict people’s ability to make their own choices. But choice is what makes us human. Those prisoners lash out because of their ineradicable craving to have a will of their own, and that craving is ultimately more important than their own well-being and, indeed, than life itself.

The nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella Notes from Underground [usually called “the underground man”] insists that the aspiration of social sciences to discover the iron laws of human behaviour threatens to reduce people to “piano keys or organ stops.” If such laws exist, if “some day they truly discover a formula for all our desires and caprices,” he reasons, then each person will realize that “everything is done by itself according to the laws of nature.” As soon as those laws are discovered, people will no longer be responsible for their actions. What’s more,

All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000. . . . there would be published certain edifying works like the present encyclopedia lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and designated that there will be no more . . . adventures in the world. . . . Then the crystal palace [utopia] will be built.

There will be no more adventures because adventures involve suspense, and suspense entails moments that are truly momentous: depending on what one does, more than one outcome is possible. But for a determinist, the laws of nature ensure that at any given moment only one thing can happen. Suspense is just an illusion resulting from ignorance of what must be.

If so, then all agonies of choice are pointless. So are guilt and regret, since both emotions depend on the possibility that we could have done something else. We experience what we must, but we accomplish nothing. As Tolstoy expressed the point in War and Peace, “If we concede that human life can be [exhaustively] governed by reason, then the possibility of life is destroyed.”

“They call me a psychologist; this is not true,” Dostoevsky wrote. “I am merely a realist in the higher sense.”

The supposedly “scientific” view of humanity turns people into objects—literally dehumanizes them—and there can be no greater insult. “All my life I have been offended by the laws of nature,” the underground man wryly observes, and concludes that people will rebel against any denial of their humanness. They will engage in what he calls “spite,” action undertaken “just because,” for no reason except to show they can act against their own advantage and contrary to whatever so-called laws of human psychology predict.

“They call me a psychologist; this is not true,” Dostoevsky wrote. “I am merely a realist in the higher sense, that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.” Dostoevsky denied being a psychologist because he, unlike practitioners of this science, acknowledged that people are truly agents, who make real choices for which they can properly be held responsible. No matter how thoroughly one describes the psychological or sociological forces that act on a person, there is always something left over—some “surplus of humanness,” as the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin paraphrased Dostoevsky’s idea. We cherish that surplus, “the man in man” as Dostoevsky called it, and will defend it at all costs.

A passage in Notes from Underground looks forward to modern dystopian novels, works like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920–21) or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), where heroes rebel against guaranteed happiness. They want their lives to be their own. Put man in utopia, the underground man observes, and he will devise “destruction and chaos,” do something perverse, and, if given the chance, return to the world of suffering. In short, “the whole work of man seems really to consist in nothing but proving to himself continually that he is a man and not an organ stop. It may be at the cost of his skin; but he has proved it.”

In an essay ostensibly devoted to the Russian craze for séances and communication with demons, Dostoevsky addresses the skeptical objection that since these devils could easily prove their existence by giving us some fabulous inventions, they couldn’t exist. They are just a fraud perpetrated on the gullible. With tongue in cheek, Dostoevsky replies that this argument fails because devils (that is, if there are devils) would foresee the hatred people would eventually feel towards the resulting utopia and the devils who enabled it.

To be sure, people would at first be ecstatic that, “as our socialists dream,” all needs were satisfied, the “corrupting [social] environment, once the source of all flaws,” had vanished, and there was nothing more to wish for. But within a generation,

People would suddenly see that they had no more life left, that they had no freedom of spirit, no will, no personality. . . . they would see that their human image had disappeared . . . that their lives had been taken away for the sake of bread, for “stones turned into bread.” People would realize that there is no happiness in inactivity, that the mind which does not labor will wither, that it is not possible to love one’s neighbor without sacrificing something to him of one’s labor . . . and that happiness lies not in happiness but only in the attempt to achieve it.

Or as the underground man observes, social engineers imagine a world that is “completed,” a perfect finished product. In fact, “an amazing edifice of that type” already exists: “the anthill.” The anthill became Dostoevsky’s favorite image of socialism.

Humanness, as opposed to formicness, requires not just product but process. Effort has value only when it can fail, while choices matter only if the world is vulnerable and depends in part on our doing one thing rather than another. Ants do not make choices. “With the anthill, the respectable race of ants began and with the anthill they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and staidness. But man is a frivolous creature, and perhaps, like a chessplayer, loves only the process of the game, not the end itself.”

When you multiply two by two the result is always the same: there is no suspense, no uncertainty, no surprise. 

Perhaps, the underground man reasons, “the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in the incessant process of attaining, or in other words, in life itself, and not particularly in the goal which, of course, must always be ‘twice two makes four,’ that is, a formula, and after all, twice two makes four is no longer life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.” When you multiply two by two the result is always the same: there is no suspense, no uncertainty, no surprise. You don’t have to wait and see what those multiplying digits will come up with this time. If life is like that, it is senseless. In a paroxysm of angry wit, the underground man famously concludes:

Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a fop standing with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes also a very charming little thing.

In the same spirit, a character in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (1869) remarks: “Oh, you may be sure that Columbus was not happy when he had discovered America, but while he was discovering it. It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, and not the discovery itself.”

People are always in the making or, as Bakhtin expressed the point, they are “unfinalizable.” They retain the capacity “to render untrue any externalizing and finalizing definition of them. As long as a person is alive he lives by the fact that he is not yet finalized, that he has not yet uttered his ultimate word.”

Ethics demands that we treat people as people, not as objects, and that means we must treat them as endowed with “surprisingness.” One must never be too certain about others, collectively or individually. In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha explains to Lise that the impoverished and humiliated Captain Snegiryov, who in his pride has refused a large sum of money offered him, will certainly take it if offered again. Having saved his human dignity, he will surely accept the gift he so badly needs. Lise replies:

Listen, Alexey Fyodorovich. Isn’t there in all our analysis . . . aren’t we showing contempt for him, for that poor man—in analyzing his soul like this, as it were, from above, eh? In being so certain that he will take the money?

Dostoevsky understood not only our need for freedom but also our desire to rid ourselves of it. Freedom comes with a terrible cost, and social movements that promise to relieve us of it will always command a following. That is the theme of the most famous pages Dostoevsky ever wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor,” a chapter in Karamazov. The intellectual Ivan narrates his unwritten “poem” in prose to his saintly brother Alyosha to explain his deepest anxieties.

Set in Spain during the Inquisition, the story opens with the Grand Inquisitor burning heretics in an auto-da-fé. As the flames scent air already rich with laurel and lemon, the people, like sheep, witness the terrifying spectacle with cowed reverence. It has been fifteen centuries since Jesus promised to return quickly, and they yearn for some sign from Him. With His infinite pity, He decides to show Himself to them. Softly, silently, He moves among them, and they recognize Him at once. “That might be one of the best passages in the poem, I mean, how they recognized Him,” Ivan remarks with wry self-deprecation. How do they know he is not an imposter? The answer is that when you see divine goodness, it is so beautiful that one cannot doubt.

The Inquisitor also knows who the stranger is—and promptly orders his arrest! Christ’s vicar arrests Him! Why? And why do the guards obey and the people not resist? We learn the answer to these questions when the Inquisitor visits the Prisoner in His cell and unburdens his heart to him.

Dmitri remarks: “Man is broad, too broad; I’d have him narrower!”

Throughout human history, the Inquisitor explains, two views of life and human nature have contended with each other. Each changes its name and specific dogmas to suit time and place, but remains the same in essence. One view, which the Inquisitor rejects, is Jesus’s: human beings are free and goodness has meaning only when freely chosen. The other view, maintained by the Inquisitor, is that freedom is an insufferable burden because it leads to endless guilt, regret, anxiety, and unresolvable doubts. The goal of life is not freedom, but happiness, and to be happy people must rid themselves of freedom and adopt some philosophy claiming to have all the answers. The third Karamazov brother, Dmitri, has remarked: “Man is broad, too broad; I’d have him narrower!,” and the Inquisitor would ensure human happiness by “narrowing” human nature.

Medieval Catholicism speaks in the name of Christ, but in fact it represents the Inquisitor’s philosophy. That is why the Inquisitor has arrested Jesus and intends to burn him as the greatest of heretics. In our time, Dostoevsky makes clear, the Inquisitor’s view of life takes the form of socialism. As with medieval Catholicism, people surrender freedom for security and trade the agonies of choice for the contentment of certainty. In so doing, they give up their humanness, but the bargain is well worth it.

To explain his position, the Inquisitor retells the Biblical story of Jesus’s three temptations, a story that, in his view, expresses the essential problems of human existence as only a divine intelligence could. Could you imagine, he asks rhetorically, that if those questions had been lost, any group of sages could have re-created them?

In the Inquisitor’s paraphrase, the devil first demands:

Thou wouldst go into the world . . . with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity . . . cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has even been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep.

Jesus answers: “man does not live by bread alone.” Just so, the Inquisitor replies, but that is why Jesus should have accepted the devil’s temptation. People do indeed crave the meaningful, but they can never be sure they distinguish the truly meaningful from its counterfeits. That is why they persecute nonbelievers and try to convert or conquer nations of a different faith, as if universal agreement were itself a proof. There is only one thing that no one can doubt: material power. When we suffer great pain, that, at least, is indubitable. In other words, the appeal of materialism is spiritual! People accept it because it is certain.

“Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.”

Instead of making people happy by taking away the burden of freedom, the Inquisitor reproaches Jesus, You increased it! “Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.” People want to call themselves free, not to be free, and so, the Inquisitor reasons, the right course is to call unfreedom freedom of a higher kind, as socialists, of course, usually do.

To make people happy, one must banish all doubt. People do not want to be presented with information that, as we would say today, contradicts their “narrative.” They will do anything to preclude unwanted facts from coming to their attention. The plot of Karamazov, in fact, turns on Ivan’s desire not to admit to himself that he desires his father’s death. Without allowing himself to realize it, he makes the wished-for murder possible. One cannot begin to understand either individual people or society unless one grasps the many forms of what might be called preventive epistemology.

The devil next tempts Jesus to prove His divinity by casting Himself down from a high place so God will save him by a miracle, but Jesus refuses. The reason, according to the Inquisitor, is to show that faith must not be based on miracles. Once one witnesses a miracle, one is so overawed that doubt is impossible, and that means faith is impossible. Properly understood, faith does not resemble scientific knowledge or mathematical proof, and it is nothing like accepting Newton’s laws or the Pythagorean theorem. It is possible only in a world of uncertainty, because only then can it be freely chosen.

For the same reason, one should behave morally not to be rewarded, whether in this world or the next, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Behaving morally to earn a heavenly reward transforms goodness into prudence, like saving for retirement. To be sure, Jesus performed miracles, but if you believe because of them, then—despite what many churches say—you are not a Christian.

Finally the devil offers Jesus the empire of the world, which He rejects, but, according to the Inquisitor, should have accepted. The only way to keep people from doubt, he tells Jesus, is by miracle, mystery (just believe us, we know), and authority, which universal empire would ensure. Only a few strong people are capable of freedom, the Inquisitor explains, so your philosophy condemns the overwhelming portion of humanity to misery. And so, the Inquisitor chillingly concludes, we “have corrected Thy work.”

In The Possessed (1871), Dostoevsky predicts with astonishing accuracy what totalitarianism would be in practice. In Karamazov he asks whether the socialist idea is good even in theory. The revolutionaries in The Possessed are despicable, but the Inquisitor, on the contrary, is entirely selfless. He knows that he will go to hell for corrupting Jesus’s teaching, but he is willing to do so out of love for humanity. In short, he betrays Christ for Christian reasons! Indeed, he outdoes Christ, who gave his earthly life, by sacrificing his eternal life. Dostoevsky sharpens these paradoxes as much as possible. With his unmatched intellectual integrity, he portrays the best possible socialist while elucidating arguments for socialism more profoundly than real socialists ever did.

Would you choose to surrender all choice in exchange for a guarantee of happiness?

Alyosha at last exclaims: “your poem is in praise of Jesus, not in blame of him, as you meant it to be!” Since all the arguments have come from the Inquisitor, and Jesus has uttered not a word in response, how can that be? Ask yourself: having heard the Inquisitor’s arguments, would you choose to surrender all choice in exchange for a guarantee of happiness? Would you have everything decided for you by some wise substitute for parents and remain a perpetual child? Or is there something higher than mere contentment? I have asked my students this question for years, and none has agreed to accept the Inquisitor’s bargain.

We live in a world where the Inquisitor’s way of thinking grows increasingly attractive. Social scientists and philosophers assume that people are simply complicated material objects, no more capable of genuine surprise than the laws of nature are capable of suspending themselves. Intellectuals, ever more certain that they know how to achieve justice and make people happy, find the freedom of others an obstacle to human well-being. For Dostoevsky, by contrast, freedom, responsibility, and the potential for surprise define the human essence. That essence makes possible everything of value. The human soul is “so little known, so obscure to science, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges,” only unfinalizable people under the God who made them free.

[Link to the original piece in The New Criterion]

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 14, 2021 at 3:46 pm

A Tale of Captaincy—Prospective and Retrospective

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“Paradoxically, to be fun, cricket must be serious.”—Christopher Martin-Jenkins

“Captaincy is 10 per cent skill and 90 per cent luck, but don’t try it without the 10 per cent.”—Richie Benaud 

The Boxing Day Test at the MCG to some extent validated my previous piece which had this ending: “Rahane is a wonderful captain and he now has the opportunity to show what he did in securing a win against Australia in Dhramshala. If he can retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy, then apart from removing Shastri the selectors will also have a pleasant headache in terms of choices for the Indian captain.”

This was a prospective statement as it was made around 3 pm the day before the Boxing Day Test—even after the debacle of 36 not out, there was no problem saying this about Rahane’s captaincy as the one evidence in Dhramshala to win a hard-fought series against Australia was enough. The idea has been with me since then and there just wasn’t a window to address it in writing. The 36 at Adelaide and Kohli’s return to India on paternity leave gave me the opportunity.    

I ended the piece saying that this is a great opportunity for Rahane to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy and of course that is not news as who am I? The news was that “spin legend Shane Warne believes Australia will ‘blow away’ India in the Boxing Day Test as the visitors are still a ‘bit shocked’ by the Adelaide humiliation.”  The expert problem. We are shown by a class of expert-busting researchers such as Paul Meehl and Robyn Dawes that the “expert” is the closest thing to a fraud, performing no better than a computer using a single metric, their intuition getting in the way and blinding them. [As an example of a computer using a single metric, the ratio of liquid assets to debt fares better than the majority of credit analysts.] On the other hand, there is abundant literature showing that many people can beat computers thanks to their intuition. Which one is correct?

One can always go wrong in sporting predictions, the only area where I think forecasting is not a problem as there is no skin in the game—it leads to no damaging problems unlike the ones in many social areas where the problem of forecasting is endemic.

We cannot truly plan, because we do not understand the future—but this is not necessarily a bad news. We could plan while bearing in mind such limitations. It just takes guts. That is the 10% that Rahane has and the luck follows as we saw with the catches going to the fielders, none of them being dropped in contrast to the first game, the bowling changes working, and all the replacements contributing. 

Ian Chappell didn’t waste a day to say that India is lucky to have Rahane when India won the match and the Test series 2-1 in Dhramshala. The momentum after the brilliant fightback in Ranchi, for which a lot of Kohli’s decisions on the last day were critisised, was with the Australians and the series was 1-1 and Rahane had his first match as a captain with Kohli injured. He picked five bowlers and the unconventional selection turned the match in India’s favour.     

A first innings fight ensured that both sides were in the game and then India made quick work of Australia and had to chase just 106 for a series win. Murali Vijay and Pujara fell for 8 and 0 with India at 46 for 2 when Rahane walked in at the end of the 14th over and that was the moment to show intent and he walked the talk. The remaining 60 runs came in 59 balls with Rahane blasting 38 of 27 balls with four fours and two sixes.   Ranchi led to criticism of Kohli and Dhramshala led to heaps of praise for Rahane but the mass media misses nuance and more so these days when whatever trends on Twitter is news. How netizens respond is going to be a major big beat in journalism if it isn’t already.

His decision to pick the XI for MCG was also criticised as former players argued that after 36 all out the thinking should have been to bolster the batting rather than having one more bowler. Selection decisions are extremely complicated even in normal circumstances and imagine how difficult they would be when the best batsman in the world in Virat Kohli [Kane Williamson at par] is unavailable and your nose has been rubbed to the ground. The elements that inform the choice in selection are not obvious, you need a subliminal intelligence that is working in the background. And the rules governing the choice are extremely delicate and they have to be felt rather than formulated. All the replacements worked and India were on the attack from the moment they went in to field after losing the toss.

I have been discussing [although I haven’t written] with my friends for a few years now that Rahane is a much better captain than Kohli but the decision to make him the Test captain is extremely complicated because of the personality of Virat Kohli. It wasn’t that much of an issue with Tendulkar. Tendulkar was the captain of the Indian Test team for just 25 matches in two distinct stints out of the 200 Tests he played. The batting average is almost the same—just a little bit more when he has not been the captain. The devil lies in the details as a large majority of the spectacular performances, the big hundreds, the dominating hundreds, the crucial bowling spells have come when he was not the captain. The fielding was always as safe as you can get—and he was versatile and could field in the slips, at long-off or long-on, and I haven’t seen a better pair of hands at third-man. The comforting factor for him was that whether he was the captain or not the captain he was always special and was viewed as one and he was always in on the decision-making with the team looking up to him for the better part of his career.                   

Kohli is by far the best batsman in the team—and by far I mean really by far—and he’s got the skills for all formats and he loves the challenge as a batsman. The problem is that Kohli feeds on himself and from his aggression and if a change in captaincy leads to a dip in his performance as a batsman or in his confidence as a cricketer then it defeats the purpose and the decision should not even be contemplated. There is no doubt that Rahane has a more astute cricketing brain in getting performances out of his teammates. A calm captain leads to the players giving their best and it shows a lot in fielding as your nerves are calm. Under too much aggression the nerves get frayed and players are worried about dropping a catch rather than being eager and confident of contributing more than they are capable of. Kohli is also brilliant as a fielder and I have no idea about the inner dynamics of how the players feel or respond under him. On selection I can say that he and Shastri have got it wrong a lot of times. In January 2018 in South Africa, we had to chase 208 to win in Cape Town. We conceded a lead of 77 runs when we were bowled out for 209 in the first innings [SA: 286]. We bowled them out for 130 with Bumrah removing Faf du Plessis and de Kock in successive overs and claiming de Villiers as the last wicket in his debut match. India’s best overseas batsman Rahane was warming the bench. We collapsed for 130. We lost at Centurion as well and brought Rahane for the final Test. On a minefield of a wicket, Rahane made an attacking 48 in the second innings and took India past 200 with the bowlers as companions and we set them 241 to win and got them for 177. The selection issues in the England tour can be addressed some other time.   

I stayed away from commenting on Kohli’s decision to come back from Australia although in my view he should have stayed. My reasons though are completely different from the one given by former cricketer Dilip Doshi, who said that he should have stayed as it is national duty and nothing comes before national duty. That for me is bollocks. The reason is what former South African cricketer Mark Boucher once said about himself: “I play for my mates in the dressing room.” Your teammates travel, practice, lose, win, and go through the ups and downs of the game with you and if you have any obligation then it is to them.             

Sydney is going to be a very engaging contest as the Australians have their brilliant attack intact. Starc, Cummins, and Hazelwood are exceptional and very different from each other and Lyon is a good spinner. David Warner is back and would open with the highly anticipated debutant Will Pucovski. Matthew Wade would return to his preferred position in the middle order. If that is the line-up, the batting unit looks a bit less fragile.

India would be concerned about their bowling attack. Their first choice attack had one man in Ishant Sharma down before the series, they lost the second man in the first choice attack in Shami after the first Test and they have now lost an experienced first replacement in Umesh Yadav after the second. So Bumrah would be accompanied by two bowlers who have the experience of 1 Test between them—Saini is most likely going to play his debut Test. Marshaling one debutant in the pace attack is tough but marshaling two is going to be a massive challenge for Rahane. Fingers crossed on how this goes. There is good news on the batting front as Rohit Sharma comes in for Agarwal. The problem is that Sharma doesn’t have a good overseas record and whatever he has is not as an opener. He has never opened away from home. Would Rahane take the gamble to open with Pujara? Or will it be as he said that they have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C? Can he spring a surprise to begin with a Plan D? He’s not lost a Test as a captain as yet and it would take some doing to keep it that way.

Written by Deepan Joshi

January 7, 2021 at 12:16 am

The Adelaide Madness in Test Cricket’s History

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“In other sports, people have no time to think; a cricket match is a storehouse of thought, of thought occasioned by the game itself, by the beauty, wit, or intelligence of one’s companion, or simply a private unravelling of problems, personal, political, moral.”—Writer and journalist Alan Ross

A scrutiny of the history of Test cricket starting with the first Test played between England and Australia starting on March 15, 1877, in Melbourne to the recently concluded Test No. 2396 between India and Australia in Adelaide belies all the statements made by India’s captain Virat Kohli in his detailed post match press conference.

I know that all of you know but still pause and think that a Test on most occasions has two innings for each side [Excluding follow-ons and other elemental problems] and yet in the 143-odd years [A very loose linear calculation as years have been lost during the two World Wars and perhaps due to pandemics like the one we are witnessing now, political problems, and all the other problems of the world] of the game’s history only 22 times before this disaster has a Test team been dismissed for less than 50 runs. If I assume that 1500 Tests would have gone the distance—not in terms of results but with both sides getting a crack at two innings—then it is 23 times in 6000 Test innings in which a side has been bowled out for less than 50. It is a very unlikely likelihood [0.38%] going by the history of the game. The significance of this low cannot be overstated especially after the explanations given by the Indian captain and the rediculous statements made over a period of time by Coach Ravi Shastri that this is the best Indian team in terms of overseas performance and results. It could be close statistically as we routed Sri Lanka—literally overseas—in ODIs, T-20s, and Tests and won every game in that tour.  

India had a pretty good standing in that 22 as the 42 in 1974 in Lord’s against England was not only the team’s lowest score but also its sole under 50 collapse in its entire cricketing history. South Africa heads the list with seven scores of under 50 but all of them are from before 1932 when it wasn’t 10 per cent of the team that reentered Test cricket in 1991 or 1% of the one that was isolated in 1970 when they had become a fearsome force and demolished Australia 4-0 in a 4-Test series at home. New Zealand is there four times and tops the list with 26 all out against England in Auckland in 1955.

That 42 of India doesn’t appear to be that much of an embarrassment. England had put 629 on the board and in the first essay India responded with 302 and were asked to follow on. The runs, the pressure, the fatigue and distress of having to go in again, and perhaps the deteriorating wicket all played a part. They were chasing the game from Day 1.

Australia has been dismissed under 50 four times with the most significant one [by recency, as most of the low scores are in the early decades of cricket] being the first Test of the 2011 series against South Africa in Cape Town. It bears resemblence to what happened to India here. Australia put 284 on the board with an attacking 151 by Michael Clarke and a 44 by Shaun Marsh in an otherwise bedragged scorecard. They got South Africa for 96. And began the second essay with a 188-run lead. They were reduced to 21 for 9 with Philander, Steyn, and Morkel making the top order look like rabbits and it had names like Hughes, Watson, Ponting, Clarke, Hussey, and Haddin. It could have been the lowest score ever to the relief of the Kiwis but Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle added 26 for the last wicket—exactly what the Kiwis had managed as a team. England is there in the list twice, Pakistan with 49 once in 2013 against South Africa which gave Shoaib Akhtar the ammunition to say that the best batting side going down for 36 is an embarassment but I am happy that at least our record is broken—perhaps he meant the last team to score less than 50.                 

Kohli’s press conference is a compelling study of contradictions and a better specimen of bullshit would be difficult to find. I quote the operative part.

“A bit of lead can always be tricky because as a batting unit you can go into a headspace where you feel like we are just 50 or 60 ahead and you don’t want to lose early wickets and allow [sic: the] opposition back into the game. So you always have to be positive and you can’t think like that. Hence I said we lacked intent because we should have just seen where the game has to go rather than where it has come to till now and move the game forward, which we were not able to do. I think the way we batted allowed them to look more potent than they were in the morning to be honest. They bowled similarly in the first innings and we batted way, way better.”

That’s such a brilliant explanation. It has never occurred to me in my over 35 years of watching Test cricket that a bit of a lead in the first innings can be a problem for the team that has the lead. And on a surface like this in a low scoring game the captain thought of 53 as a problem. And if there was no problem with the wicket and they bowled almost the same as they did in the first innings then why were all the Indian batsmen shitting bricks in the middle. They went back on the second day with 62 for 1 effectively and were ambushed. The highest partnership in the Indian innings was actually the one where intent was the last thing that could be exercised as there was a tailender in the middle. Agarwal and Buhrah added 8 runs in 29 balls for the first wicket and the next best were two partnerships of 7 runs: the opening one of 7 in 19 balls and the 7 between Saha and Vihari in 30 balls when we were 19 for 6.   

Let’s check how the wickets fell and what could have been done differently. 

There is no point discussing how Prithvi Shaw fell as there was no point why he should have been there in the first place. It is the selectors and the team management that failed and not Shaw. Jasprit Bumrah had come in as a nightwatchman after 3.1 overs the previous evening and hung around till the last ball of the eighth over. He kept some very good balls out in the 17 he faced and had an avoidable dismassal. He pushed at the ball rather than allowing it to just come to him and gave a simple caught and bowled. By all means he had done his job very well but this was a significant blow and had he stayed for another 30 minutes even if he scored just a couple of runs in it the momentum would have been with India. With India at 15 for 2, three maidens followed. Two by Starc that Agarwal negotiated and one from Cummins by Pujara. And then began the madness. A ripper from Cummins in the 12th over ended Pujara’s eigth ball vigil. He went for a duck with the score reading 15 for 3. And 15 has a very good chance for being the number that will haunt India for years. It was a brilliant ball but it wasn’t unplayable. Wonderful length, angling into off and middle and straighening. Pujara had to play and he was foxed as he played the angle and the ball straigttned ever so slightly to take the edge rather than beating him comprehensively. Pujara played close to the body and full marks for that but his feet went nowhere and the bat face was slightly closed as he played for the initial angle. And in this case Kohli’s critism was correct, as Pujara was Pujara, not trying at all to move the game forward but hanging in trusting his defence. Could he have done something different? Perhaps not. But in light of coach Shastri and captain Kohli calling this unit as one that never gives up, it could have been played. Many sports give the impression that it is the hands or the hand-eye coordination that is the primary skill. Nothing could be further from the truth as it is the feet and the foot movement that is the key skill. In Tennis, Cricket, Boxing, Basketball, Table Tennis, and Formula 1 where it appears that the action is above the torso the fact is that you can’t hit a great ball in tennis unless you have your feet in a good position. Balance is the key in almost all sports and that springs from your feet. Watching a Mohammad Ali bout is a delight both in terms of how he executes his punches and how well he moves with his feet. Football should not even be mentioned as the feet are used for the execution and balance while the upper body and hands play a bit more of a role of keeping the player in balance.

The 13th over, the first of the second innings by Josh Hazelwood pushed India to the edge of the cliff. The first ball from Josh Hazelwood was unplayable. It was the ball of the innings. Great length, extra bounce, coming inward and straightening with Mayank squared up. Luck could have been the only way anyone could have survived that ball. 15 for 4. And a double wicket over with Rahane nicking a very full ball made it 15 for 5. Terrible dismassal at that stage to a decent ball. An intelligent batting unit should have processed the fact by this time that Australia was keeping it full and relying on the fact that the movement was not too much and any ball that started by coming in and straightened or moved away was causing the blood loss. Rahane is an extremely intelligent Test cricketer who is capable of shifting the momentum. Alas he could not process the fact that when things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. The Australians did not even allow the Indian batsmen to have the luxury of two batsmen having a chat in the middle, discussing the situation, the bowling, and seperating by a solid punch with each others gloves. I don’t know if they discussed the fact that standing a bit outside the crease and playing with a good stride and being alert enough to go all the way back from that position if need be would have given scoring opportunities as well as avoided a complete slide. Rahane did nothing other than edging the ball with a half hearted foot movement and a poke. If one awful dismissal has to be picked then it has to be that of Rahane and if two are to be picked then the next is Kohli.       

India lost four wickets without adding a run and went from 15-1 to 15-5 in 24 balls, and after having faced six balls Kohli hit a boundary and perished going after a wide one from Cummins the very next ball to be caught at gully leaving India at 19 for 6.

If 15 for 5 was the moment when Kohli decided to show intent then it was daft timing as at that scoreline you don’t need too much intent, you need to keep the good ones out, punish the odd bad one and get a partnership going. No matter how positive or how strong is your intent, you cannot score runs in the dressing room. A surfeit of ODIs and T-20s has led to players forgetting that the key skill to to protect your wicket. And forgetting that the defination of a specialist batsman at any level [Especially at the highest] is someone who can win or save the game single-handedly. This team is way short of being the best to travel overseas, its not even in the list. Look at these players in one unit: Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, and Ganguly. I am not talking of capability but the fact that all of them have on numerous occasions bailed the team out single-handedly or played a gem in the rubble of a collapse. They have won from unwinnable positions and avoided a certain defeat on many others.   

Kohli hit a boundary and the 15 was crossed and he then went for a wide one without full conviction and perished to Cummins. 19 for 6. A good shot is sometimes more dangerous than a solid defensive shot. Kohli had Vihari, Saha, and Ashwin to follow and the strategy should have been to ride the storm and get as many as possible. Three overs accounted for four wickets: Pujara, Agarwal, Rahane, and Kohli. That killed India. Going for a wide one wasn’t a bad idea but at that stage you had to play strokes that went along the carpet as unlike the Indian team the Australians don’t grass too many. The number of catches India dropped is how good viewers don’t like their Test cricket and the ones India dropped were not screamers but catches you would expect to be taken 100 out of 100 times. It could have meant a lead of over a hundred unless Kohli though that too would have been a problem. This team has failed to chase an easy under 200 score in England and lost from a winning position in South Africa that would have given us the series. They allow the tail to wag more often than not and they have formed a habit of losing from winning positions. If nothing else, the least that should be done is to get a coach like Gary Kirsten. I have my contrarian views on Kohli returning home but it is a very personal and important decision and so I am not going to make a meal of it. Rahane is a wonderful captain and he now has the opportunity to show what he did in securing a win against Australia in Dhramshala. If he can ratain the Border-Gavaskar trophy, apart from removing Shastri the selectors will also have a pleasant headache in terms of choices for the captain.              

Written by Deepan Joshi

December 25, 2020 at 3:21 pm

Roland Vernon on Krishnamurti at Brockwood Park

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It was Roland Vernon’s biography that was the backbone for my two-part essay on Jiddu Krishnamurti for The Times of India. Star in the East was Vernon’s first non-fiction biography for adults and it is an amazing achievement keeping in mind that there were several biographies on Krishnamurti before his came out. His three subsequent novels are A Dark Enchantment, The Maestro’s Voice, and The Good Wife’s Castle and the plots are fascinating. This talk at the Krishnamurti Centre in Brockwood Park was sent just for my interest recently by Vernon and I thought it would be great to have it online for people who have a more than passing interest in the life of Krishnamurti.

Brockwood Park School


Founded by educator philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, in 1969, Brockwood Park School is an international boarding school for 14-19 year olds, in the heart of the Hampshire countryside. It provides an holistic education for around 75 students and is the only school of its kind in Europe.

Brockwood Park talk for 2nd June 2019

I’m here today to talk about Krishnamurti in a historical context, because it was the story above anything else that attracted me to the subject. When I decided to write my book, I had no intention of offering a commentary on his teachings, because a book like that would be a pale shadow beside the teachings themselves; but the story – its huge timespan, its canvas of characters and territories, its bridging of a sepia-tinted old world with the modern, computer-driven age, its scent of mystery, its leaps of faith, its whispered hints of supernatural entities at work, its saints and occasional villains; and its narrative pull, centred on a man who dedicated his long life, without respite, to what was a consistently articulated mission to bring about radical change in the world and save mankind – this was romance, I thought, of a breath-taking nature.

And I had to do something different to what had been done before. Previous biographers (with one notable exception) had been personal friends or sworn devotees, and it became clear that in order to contribute something original and impartial I might have to risk stepping on a few toes. There were certain individuals, including some of my sources, whose blinkered defence of Krishnamurti’s memory bordered on the kind of discipleship that he spent his life rejecting. Not that I had any intention of doing a hatchet job, but I sought to allow clear daylight and fresh air into some rooms that had been boarded up too long. Most particularly, I wanted to do justice to the remarkable events and machinations that underpinned his early years, which, I believed, most certainly did affect the rest of his life, even though he later claimed to have forgotten them and that they were an irrelevance. He had good reason to do this because that early life was so dazzling and sensational, it would inevitably interfere with a modern audience’s ability to focus on the important things he had to say, here and now. Yet, a detached and historical perspective of the story showed that, despite the passage of time, the changes in the cast of characters and the transformation of the world in which he lived, Krishnamurti departed the public stage in 1986, not so very different in message or profile to the man he had been sixty years earlier – as a teacher of the world, or, dare I use the term, the World Teacher, one who, to quote words of those who first presented him to the public, when just a boy, would ‘be able to work for the good of humanity, and to pour out at these levels influence which otherwise could not descend thereto.’ What attracted me to Krishnamurti’s story was not the saintly end product, but the tenacity and consistency that he displayed over such an extraordinarily long period of time. And I maintain that this single mission, to which he dedicated his entire life, evolved out of, through, and beyond the circumstances of his early life. None of it would have been achieved without the exposure established for him in his early years and which remained intact to the end. I am talking principally about the platform, the mechanics of distributing the teachings, which was created by certain individuals who in turn were propelled by a number of converging circumstantial, historical, and cultural influences. I feel that an understanding of these influences, including the religious and philosophical currents that gave rise to the messianic adventure of his early life, is not irrelevant but throws light on and enriches the story of the man he would later become.

Roland’s three novels are A Dark Enchantment, The Maestro’s Voice, and The Good Wife’s Castle and the plots are fascinating and dark.

In support of this approach, let me offer a musical analogy. Anyone like me, who is enthralled by the music of Mozart, will feel something unique when they hear his work. Nothing else has the same magic, nothing quite raises the goose bumps in the same way. But, leaving aside his inspiration, Mozart was very much the product of his past and his times. He composed within a very particular set of constraints: he inherited a prescribed system of notation, he used a small range of musical instruments, which were built to conventional specifications, and he could not venture beyond a musical vocabulary that was palatable to his patrons, his audiences, the period and the culture in which he operated. And of course, we do not neglect his early work just because his later was richer and more sophisticated. Had he lived a couple of centuries earlier or later, or on the other side of the world, his music would have sounded wholly different, or may not even have sounded at all. See how important the historical context and circumstantial platform were in his case. Why then should we ignore those of Krishnamurti?

I first came across Krishnamurti in early adulthood when some slightly alternative friends of my parents lent me a copy of his book, The Flight of the Eagle. The text rather baffled me, but I was intrigued with its plain-speaking logic, its authority, absence of literary ornamentation or pretence. I was also captivated by the photograph on the cover, which showed the author in profile, after he had begun to lose his hair but before he attempted to conceal it with that sweep-over. It was a noble, erudite face, with a neat beak of a nose and an intensity of concentration in its features. Not unlike – in fact incredibly similar to – a bust of Julius Caesar, I thought. After that, I barely thought about Krishnamurti again for a decade, until I stumbled across the story of Annie Besant, the grande dame of nineteenth century secularism, socialism, and women’s rights. I was seriously thinking about writing a book on her, and read that in later life she moved to India, championed the cause of Indian nationalism, became head of pseudo-religious organisation called the Theosophical Society, and dedicated herself to promoting a Brahmin boy called Jiddu Krishnamurti as nothing less than the new messiah. I read of the so-called discovery of this boy on a beach at Adyar, near Madras in 1909; how a group of cavorting English Theosophist gentleman were bathing in the sea late one afternoon, when one of their number, a former Anglican clergyman called Charles Leadbeater, now a self-professed clairvoyant spiritual authority, was entranced by the sight the boy, captivated by what he described as an etheric substance of gorgeous luminescence surrounding him. The body of this child, he claimed, housed an ancient soul, the result of multiple reincarnations, one for whom human desires and feelings were but petty abstractions in comparison to the great spiritual work he was destined to undertake. Leaving off for a moment these extraordinary claims, I turned a page and saw that famous 1910 photograph of the boy, long-haired, beautiful beyond words, with a fathomless ocean calm in his eyes, and after a moment or two I realized that, yes, this was the very same person who would later turn into the Julius Caesar on the cover of my now tatty Flight of the Eagle. From that moment I was swept away by the tale.

As everyone familiar with Krishnamurti knows, Besant, Leadbeater, and the Theosophical Society provided the immediate catalyst that served to propel him, as a young man, into public life. But they were pawns carried on a tide of several coexistent historical trends, such as the rise of orientalism in the west, the birth of the Bohemian movement, popularist challenges to the Established Church, extraordinarily rapid advances of science, a revolution in printing and publishing, the rise of political radicalism, the birth of an avante garde in the arts, and the diplomatic mess that ultimately led to the First World War. All these interlinking historical circumstances prepared the soil for Theosophy’s increasingly outrageous claims to take root. Central to these claims was a proposition that the Lord Maitreya, a divine avatar, was soon to become incarnate within a human vehicle, as he had been in the person of Jesus, and that mankind would behold a new saviour. Excitement bordering on hysteria was rife in certain Theosophical circles, and had been, even before the discovery of Krishnamurti; but once the leaders had settled on a candidate (and it should be said that Krishnamurti was not actually the first) it became known as the World Teacher project. And a public stage was born.

So what was this Theosophical Society that whipped up such fervour in the early years of the twentieth century, and where did it spring from?

Theosophy literally means divine wisdom, and although the term is nowadays associated with the organisation founded in 1875, it has been connected to philosophical schools dating back to antiquity. At the root of it lies the conviction that everything, manifested and unmanifested, created and uncreated, divine or material, emanates from a state of unity, immeasurable, incomprehensible to the intellect, yet all pervasive. This transcendent reality, or godhead, can be accessed by man through a process of mystical realisation or union; furthermore, it is only within the experience of this unity that true wisdom is to be found, primordial wisdom, the ground upon which all the religions of the world have been modelled, and in pursuit of this, Theosophists through the centuries were led into experimentating with the occult and supernatural.

Theosophical thought blossomed and declined throughout the course of western history, according to the level of threat it posed to the ecclesiastical establishment, but by the 18th century we begin to see a cultural climate within which it could flourish, usually at the expense of Christian orthodoxy. Corruption within the monstrously powerful Roman Catholic Church became a target of particular derision, and there began a movement to seek spiritual truths in cultures beyond the reach of Christianity, both historically and geographically. At the same time, the rise of Freemasonary around Europe encouraged a pursuit of esoteric philosophy, unfettered by loyalty to any organised religion.

Meanwhile, esoteric traditions, incorporating the recognizably Theosophical ideas of Pythagoras, Plato, Jakob Boehme, Immanuel Swedenborg and the Austrian physician Anton Mesmer, were practised within secret societies, such as the Rosicrucians. They caught the British public’s imagination through the occult fiction of statesman and hugely popular mid-century novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who became one of the key forerunners of modern Theosophy, and whose direct descendants – Emily Lutyens, née Lytton, and her daughter, Mary, were to have such important roles in the life of Krishnamurti.

Breakthroughs in science and technology were beginning to light up some of the dimmer recesses of cultural mythology, particularly with regard to the creation story. Darwin and the geologist Charles Lyell undermined the literal interpretations of Genesis and belief in an anthropomorphic God who was directing the affairs of the world for the benefit of mankind. Mounting nonconformism, together with this new tide of scientific scepticism, was paving the way for a secularist revival. Atheist organisations were formed, some of them like parodies of the contemporary chapel movements, with fund-raising fetes and banners, with zealous members assembling in halls on Sundays, singing secular hymns, and listening to heretical sermons denying the existence of God.

The fall of Napoleon marked a return to more conservative values, but the unstopped bottle of political reform and popular unrest now led to the birth of alternative, experimental denominations, often nominally within the embrace of the mother church, but occasionally so far removed as to be labelled blasphemous. A broader range of religious choice became available. Established seats of theological authority, which in Britain resided at the universities, were challenged to defend the supremacy of the single, older church, while rapidly changing social conditions undermined their credibility. Nonconformism was in the air, and excitable congregations were easily led by tub-thumping tirades from the pulpit. The age of religious opportunists was commencing.

But it was the work of one individual in particular that put modern Theosophy firmly on the map, a woman whose magnetic personality, exoticism and learning made her one of the most controversial spiritual adventurers to have challenged the authority of mainstream religion: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Foul-mouthed, volatile, grotesquely fat and reeking of the cigarettes she smoked incessantly, Madame Blavatsky was seminal to the development of New Age thinking, and her influence runs deep. Her claim, in the 1870s was that she had rediscovered a primordial wisdom, the key to life and divinity, which predated and superseded all religions. Her revelation of what she called this ‘secret doctrine’ (which was also the title of her most famous book) she maintained would transform religious consciousness in the west and signal a new era in the history of humanity. But it was her breathtaking demonstrations of spiritualist phenomena that gave spice to her public appearances. She was the archetypal occultist, swathed in black shawls, bulbous-eyed, gravel-voiced, sporting a thick eastern-European accent, part witch, part priestess, with a dash of the eccentric academic, a woman who combined showmanship with scholarship, and although swamped by scandal and accusations of fraudulence, possessed the force of personality to silence would-be critics face-to-face. No stranger to coarse manners, she enjoyed the challenge of confrontation, obliterating her opponents, lashing them with her intellect, which, unlike the virtually immobile hulk of her body, was agile and lucid.

In September 1875, Blavatsky, along with her American collaborator, Henry Steel Olcott, officially founded the Theosophical Society, tapping the nineteenth century spirit of adventurism while bringing together several strands of religious and intellectual enquiry, much of it rooted in ancient philosophy and modern advances in science. The Society was a melting pot and its catchment was wide, encompassing spiritualists, dissenting Christians, atheists, agnostics, political liberals, freemasons and occultists. Their common ground was millenarian, a shared belief that the old order was passing and that human consciousness was on the cusp of a golden new age, whose principal concern would be to create a universal brotherhood of mankind. Although four decades were to pass before the rise of the World Teacher Movement, which propelled the young Krishnamurti to fame, it was these tenets, upheld by Blavatsky and rooted in earlier movements, that underpinned it. More esoteric, was her belief in a semi-metaphysical occult brotherhood of ‘Masters’, ancient spiritual adepts, who resided in the Himalayas and appeared astrally to her and an increasing number of disciples. A defining point in the Theosophical movement, and one which was to create divisions in the Society, came with Blavatsky’s insistence that her Masters’ philosophy was fundamentally that of the east, and that members who sought true wisdom should turn their attention to the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism. To this end, in 1882, Blavatsky and Olcott moved the international headquarters of their Society to an estate that they acquired at Adyar, a suburb of Madras. This was later to become Krishnamurti’s home and where he was schooled in Theosophy, complete with its bedrock dogma of the Masters. Throughout his life he would mention the sense of encountering metaphysical entities – whom he early-on called Masters, because that was the terminology he inherited, but would later be less distinct about identifying.

Blavatsky’s heirs, Krishnamurti’s direct sponsors, were to develop her tenets into a new, more complex, in some ways more rigid and narrow system of belief, but the core ambition to achieve universal brotherhood through spreading the word of an enlightening wisdom, based on eastern philosophy, and spear-headed by a god-incarnate figure, personally chosen by the Masters, would remain central to everything.

And then spiritualism burst onto the scene, first in America, and then quickly taking root in Britain. The public, members of the aristocracy and even royalty, were intoxicated with the prospect of communicating with dead spirits, not least because it might provide the answer to one of the oldest curiosities at the core of religious enquiry: is there life after death? A fuse had been lit, leading people to question how humankind, the natural world and all material creation might be interwoven with a spiritually, perhaps scientifically, accessible, previously hidden super-power. It would not have been inconceivable in those heady times to have speculated about the day when newspapers might even pronounce a plausible theory for the universe, one that proclaimed empirical proof for the existence of angels, spirits, the afterlife and even God; and this would not necessarily conflict with Christianity but might remodel humanity’s approach to it for the long term good of all. This spirit of scientific confidence, occult curiosity, political choice and challenging of the establishment, opened the gates for exciting new religious and philosophical alternatives and directly contributed to the rise of Theosophy.

The intent may have been beneficent, even noble, but unfortunately, one of the principal individuals who set himself up to achieve it was less so. And so we come to the person of Charles Webster Leadbeater.

When I wrote my book, I tried to give both sides of the Charles Leadbeater debate. I probably painted a picture of him as a slippery manipulator and spinner of tall tales, as well as being someone who got up to some questionable things with young boys, and who possessed a number of other unattractive personality traits, such as being dismissive of women in general, but particularly unkind to the many elderly ladies who travelled to India to join his organisation with the best intentions. But at the same time, in a spirit of fairness, I gave mention of the high regard in which he was held by many of his colleagues, not least the magnificent Annie Besant, and he has supporters to this day who keep his work in print and defend his reputation. My book, however, was written at a time when the benefit of the doubt was too often given to predators of this sort, many of whom have fallen from grace with a force that has left us all rather more hardened and with a readjusted perspective on such matters. Since the revelations about Jimmy Saville, Michael Jackson, a whole string of senior clergymen and others, and seeing how they managed to cover their tracks for so long, dupe even the people closest to them and die with their reputations still more or less intact, I have reevaluated the level of tolerance that should be allowed Charles Leadbeater. We do not have evidence of the very worst that we can imagine – how could we, because whatever happened took place a century ago and behind closed bedroom doors, and, when given the opportunity to testify against him to the police, Krishnamurti denied any impropriety. He was certainly under pressure from his mentors to quell the scandal, and a denunciation of Leadbeater would have spelt the end of the World Teacher movement and disillusionment for hundreds of thousands of devotees. But we should not necessarily doubt the truth of his testimony. However, in the case of several other Leadbeater boys we read of investigations, first-hand reports and confessions enough to be confident that he was a serial paedophile of the most heinous kind, a self-obsessed monster who used spiritual teaching as a means of gaining access to and sharing beds with children for decades, who never acknowledged the harm he was causing, and who in today’s climate would never be allowed close to minors, let alone set himself up as their religious, intellectual and physical mentor. He would in all likelihood be behind bars. He was lucky to have escaped major prosecutions, first in England, then India and ultimately Australia. This was the man to whom the boy Krishnamurti was entrusted at the age of fourteen and who would be his guiding influence for much of the next twenty years. Can it be any wonder that Krishnamurti wanted to jettison his past?

Charles Webster Leadbeater was born in 1854, the son of a railway bookkeeper in Stockport, though he later fabricated a far more romantic childhood, claiming to have been born in 1847 – so as to make him equal in age to Annie Besant – to have been brought up in South America and to have been involved in all sorts of swashbuckling adventures, which included being held captive by Indians in the jungle, being roasted over a fire, watching his brother being executed, diving under water to a stockpile of hidden Inca treasure, stabbing a werewolf, etc etc. All lies. He later claimed to have attended Queens College Cambridge but in fact never went to any university. He became a curate in the small village of Bramshott (close to here, actually) in 1878, and it was here that he first began to organize clubs and holidays with young boys. It only took 5 years for him to start doubting traditional Anglicanism and in 1883 he joined the Theosophical Society, falling under Madame Blavatsky’s spell. He travelled to India and Ceylon as a footsoldier for the Society and lived there for 4 years, consolidating his belief in the Masters, his own clairvoyant abilities and sharpening what he considered his unique astral consciousness. He then returned to Britain with the first of many young boys who were to become his inseparable proteges, and there became a close collaborator with Annie Besant, the well-known social reformer, once religious fundamentalist now turned secularist, and hero of workers’ and women’s rights. After Blavatsky’s death, Besant became her successor as leader of the Theosophical Society and was fired by the idea of bringing about universal brotherhood. While Leadbeater provided the supernatural speculations and spiritual authority, Besant possessed the confidence, passion, social connections and oratorical skills to turn their joint concept into a serious mission with concrete international goals. She had found a new purpose and grew determined to change the world in her own lifetime, by whatever means. As her close friend Bernard Shaw said of her, ‘She was a born actress. She was successively a Puseyite Evangelical, an Atheist bible-smasher, a Darwinian secularist, a Fabian socialist, a Strike leader and finally a Theosophist, exactly as Mrs Siddons was a Lady Macbeth, Lady Randolph, Beatrice, Rosalind, and Volumnia. She saw herself as a priestess above all. That was how Theosophy held her to the end.’

In retrospect, it is astonishing how so tremendous a force for social good as Annie Besant could have been so taken in by Charles Leadbeater and the system he proposed; and she never wavered in her defence of him personally, despite the far-fetched nature of the visions that only he experienced, together with the multiple scandals and recurrent evidence of paedophilia. Yet join forces she did, and in the closing years of the nineteenth century they forged together the structural matrix of a new religion that claimed knowledge of the solar system, the subatomic and chemical make-up of creation,  the spirit world, the far reaches of history and the unveiled mysteries of the future. They created and preached a dogma that proposed the evolution of a new, superior and enlightened master race, the emergence of great land masses from out of the sea, which would be colonized by the new race, and above everything else, the realisation that eastern philosophy and India were the cradle of the new world religion, to be led, as I’ve mentioned, by a new saviour. An affiliated organisation was formed around the person of Krishnamurti to spread the word: the Order of the Star in the East, later abbreviated to just Order of the Star. This was too much for many Theosophists, including Rudolf Steiner and those who adhered to a more conservative interpretation of Blavatsky, and many of them resigned or formed other societies. But for tens of thousands of others it was thrilling, and a fitting culmination to many years of cultural readjustment in the west. They signed up in their legions. A footnote illustration of this came home to me recently when I was writing a history of my own family. My great great grandfather, Sir William Vernon, an industrialist in Liverpool, who was the son of Primitive Methodist preachers and a devout Christian, wrote in his diaries of travelling large distances to see Annie Besant giving lectures, and in 1895 coincidentally shared a journey with her, by land and sea all the way from Charing Cross to Bombay, and got to know her quite well. Indefatigable, she gave several lectures at sea, which he of course attended, and was so taken that he arranged his travelling schedule in India so as to go to her talks there, once or twice sitting beside her on the speaker’s platform.

To my mind, a crucial milestone in the creation of the platform which Krishnamurti climbed as a young man and never lost, was the 1914 court decision to make him and his brother Nitya the legal wards of Annie Besant. Their father – fearing the worst about Leadbeater – had fought tooth and nail to have the boys separated from the Theosophists. Besant reveals a degree of duplicity in assuring him that the boys would be kept apart from Leadbeater and persuading him to sign a document giving his permission for them to go to England purely for their education. Once out of India, however, she gave orders for the father to be banished from the Theosophical estate at Adyar and made immediate arrangements for the boys to be reunited with Leadbeater in Sicily. A huge and widely publicized legal battle for custody now erupted, which the father won at every stage, even after appeal, until Besant, who would never accept defeat, took the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, the most powerful legal body in the British Empire. Some of the senior Law Lords present at the hearing, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Haldane, were old personal friends from her political days, and the informal proceedings at Downing Street were over almost before they began. Custody of the boys was given to Annie.

Again, by today’s standards we may think that justice was not served, especially given Leadbeater’s record of child abuse and the history of falsehoods fed to the boys’ father. Nevertheless, had Krishnamurti been returned to his family at this stage, aged 19, he would probably have disappeared into obscurity. Instead, he was educated, cultivated, allowed to tap whatever extraordinary resource he was beginning to discover within himself (albeit shrouded, at this stage, in Theosophical terminology), and presented to audiences around the world, both on the speaker’s platform and through a huge number of published magazines, pamphlets and books produced and distributed by the Society. The decidedly dodgy custody settlement made all this possible. There were ups and downs in his later relationship with Leadbeater, who was to emigrate to Australia, find new favourites, and to some extent lose interest in the increasingly rebellious Krishnamurti, but Annie Besant was a genuinely loving adoptive mother, and his bond with her remained strong until the end.

As the 1920s progressed, something very interesting happened. True, his platform had been established by the Theosophical Society – their organisation, their funding, their publishing house. And their public relations machinery had established his audience on three continents, Europe, America, and India. But the more entrenched and exclusive the Societies and organisations around him became, the more they seemed alien both to Krishnamurti and to the young, idealistic post-World War 1 crowds that were beginning to flock to him. Other movements and cultural influences were now coalescing which did not necessarily concur with Theosophy’s complex pantheons of astral masters, its racist pedagogy, esoteric rituals, exclusive secret societies, and its reliance on the occult testimony of an old spiritual martinet well past his prime, with a shady reputation.

Krishnamurti’s public platform therefore underwent a metamorphosis and his profile shifted away from traditional Theosophy and more towards what could be described as an alternative, philosophically liberal culture which in some ways foreshadowed the hippy movement of the 1960s. There were summer camp meetings with gatherings around great campfires, there were sandal-wearing men with long hair, trousered women with short, there were vegetarians, pacifists, nature lovers, young intellectuals, artists. A romantic scent of optimism was in the air, of rebirth after the horror of the war, and following the disillusionment with the ruling establishment that had led the world into that catastrophe. Krishnamurti was a young man of this generation and he answered its call. Already famous as a potential saviour of mankind, whose appearances as a young adult had never been short of theatricals, and imbued with the fashionable mystery of the orient, he was now feted by the young and by a sophisticated, experimental avante garde, who were feeling their way into a new system of values. They included inheritors of the Bohemian and ‘Back to Nature’ movements of northern Europe, which had been a reaction against the devastation of industrialisation and urban living. Baden-Powell’s Scout Movement was part of this new interest in retrieving a lost closeness to nature. A sense of practical teamwork and recreational pioneering infused Krishnamurti’s camp gatherings. Then, there was the spirit of humanitarian compassion, epitomised at that time by the birth of the League of Nations and the liberal diplomacy of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Fridtjof Nansen. This was the World Teacher’s message of Universal Brotherhood being put into practice, and the new generation wanted more. Political reformers joined the movement. The future Labour Party Leader and campaigner for disarmament, George Lansbury, a spokesman for new liberal values, became a prominent member of the Order of the Star, sitting with Krishnamurti on the speaker’s platform; and other distinguished advocates of democratic values and international cooperation joined his circle, like the philosopher, Hermann Keyserling.

Krishnamurti was, of course going through a remarkable awakening of his own, instigated by, what has become known as, his mysterious spiritual ‘process’ of 1922, which increasingly breathed something new, original and authoritative into his public statements. Although he did not formerly abandon Theosophy and dissolve the Order of the Star until 1929, I believe he achieved maturity in his teaching and formed the message which was to be at the core of his teachings for the remainder of his life as early as 1926 or 1927. So that, crucially, when he did declare his independence of the Society that had nurtured him, he took his audience and his platform with him. The sixteen thousand people who went to hear him at the Hollywood Bowl in 1927 were fully aware of his status as Theosophy’s messiah for the new age, but they were not going to abandon him two years later just because he distanced himself from an anachronistic organisation. ‘If the water tastes good,’ he would say, ‘drink it.’ They drank their fill, but found it difficult to abandon the personality cult that was already in place. Quite aside from his message, of course, the young teacher was by now extremely handsome, especially with his Savile Row clothes and Rudolf Valentino haircut. He himself recognised that the glamour of his profile was a distraction, and spent the remainder of his life trying to deflect an audience’s worship away from ‘the speaker’, but in the 1930s it was part of the package.

The style of delivery and a lot of the terminology were to change over the next six decades, but the core of the message was the same, because he had realized something pure and immutable, and that was that. There were, of course, practical considerations to be faced after his dissolution of the Order of the Star, and a constant flow of talks and publications was needed to ensure a continuance of the stage so well-established by 1929. This was largely handled by Krishnamurti’s associate – another former Leadbeater boy – Rajagopal. The future relationship between these two men opens up another whole story that we cannot enter into today, but suffice to say that Rajagopal possessed the practical know-how and business acumen to ensure the continued distribution of Krishnamurti’s work and the generation of funds to support his and his immediate circle’s lifestyle. The gatherings in Europe, California and India went on as before, the publications flourished, and the teachings, if anything, began to reach an even wider audience than they had in the days when they were restricted to members of the Order of the Star.

The World Teacher project certainly did not disappear after 1929, and although the term was tactfully withdrawn, much messianic speculation continued to be centred on the figure of Krishnamurti well beyond the 1930s. The Great Depression and the dark political times that followed, fuelled people’s hopes for a saviour. At the same time, in the cultural climate of the 30s, with the rise of Abstract and Expressionist art, when previously revered laws of form and harmony were tossed aside in the name of experimentalism, Krishnamurti’s nihilistic stance and his denials of authority were fashionably modern. And so his stage continued to prosper until the Second World War, when travel became impossible, communication restricted, and he spent these years holed up in California.

He burst back on to the scene in 1947 with a long trip to India, where he was received as if he had never been away, the reputation of his remarkable Theosophical past and connections with the now legendary Annie Besant still intact, ensuring that people flocked to his talks and revered him as a spiritual master. For some, it was not the words he spoke that were as important as the invigoration that came from beholding and sharing the presence of the master, which is the Indian concept of darshan.

His reemergence as an eminent speaker in the west had less to do with his Theosophical past, but was very much connected to cultural circumstances of the 1950s and 60s, many of which were a recapitulation and thus an inheritance of what had occurred in the 20s and 30s. A younger generation was attracted to non-conformism and religious alternatives, it was fashionable to deny authority, to doubt received opinion and to question orthodoxy. Patriotism and war had been stripped of glamour and it seemed more urgent to debate issues of racial equality and the brotherhood of man. Secularisation and social emancipation were in the air. The stage was set, once again for a world teacher with a message that would liberate mankind. Krishnamurti was again the man of the moment and became a key player in the 1960s spiritual upheaval. Nothing had changed in what he had to say, except the occasional term and a slight difference in delivery style.

Astonishingly, the remainder of Krishnamurt’s life saw him fulfil his role as a world teacher – not, perhaps, in the way his Theosophical sponsors had prophesied, but in effect, not so very different. Did this come about because Leadbeater’s visions and speculative ramblings were right all along? Or was it a role he achieved through the acquisition of skills learnt early in life and riding a wave of cultural circumstances that continually propelled him into the spotlight? Without wanting to evade the question, I believe there that both may be true. Which brings us to the most intriguing question: what was the source of Krishnamurti’s inspiration, who or what was the entity or entities to which he alluded repeatedly, as being ‘present,’ sometimes purging him in the so-called ‘processes’, at others just there, immanent, like a scent in the room, an immeasurable sacredness that imbues everything it touches with benediction? He refused to label it because he knew that people would leap on the concept of a spiritual agency and enslave themselves to it. He naturally also rejected Theosophy’s system of Masters, but did say in later life that, ‘there is a force which the Theosophists touched but then tried to translate into their own symbols and vocabulary and so lost it.’ So, again, a hint of a mysterious ‘force’ operating in some manner upon the material world. Shortly before his death he said that while his body was alive he was still the World Teacher. That term. He also recorded his famous statement about the immense energy, the intelligence that had been using his body for 70 years and which would not return to another body for many hundreds of years. This notion of a human being touching the source of enlightenment and thus embodying something which some would label divine, is close to Steiner’s principle of the Second Coming, which was not a physical reincarnation of Christ, but the potential in any one of us for mystical union with the Christ-principle. This is what orthodox Theosophy had been proposing for centuries. I do not wish to dwell on all this more than to say that the mystery of Krishnamurti’s source, in a historical sense, over a period of more than 60 years, was something others continually  longed to put a contextual label on, and wanted to attach themselves to – Besant and Leadbeater as much as their successors in Ojai, Ommen and perhaps even here, too. His Theosophical sponsors cannot be blamed for interpreting his gift in the light of their own immediate history and the context of their intellectual speculations. Had he lived on a mountain in some remote corner of India, who knows, he may never have travelled west, but might have become one in a long line of Eastern holy men, the inheritor of an age-old wisdom tradition. As it was, and despite some negative influences and coercive treatment, he was given a voice, presented with a public and educated in such a way as to articulate himself to them with concision and eloquence. Which he continued to do with extraordinary consistency and passion for a lifetime.

Written by Deepan Joshi

December 13, 2020 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Books and Ideas

What the dog saw

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Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read”
—Groucho Marx 

The Irish are fascinating people. Ireland has a population of just 5 million but there is something special about it. Sigmund Freud, the Austrian who founded psychoanalysis, observed, “The Irish are the only people who are impervious to psychoanalysis.”

The small population has produced giants that have left an imprint on the consciousness of humankind. The veterinary surgeon Noel Fitzpatrick is one more addition to an already impressive list. Fitzpatrick and his team star in the Channel 4 series The Supervet in which pets that otherwise might be beyond saving receive cutting-edge treatments and surgery.

Fitzpatrick penned a memoir of his journey starting as a 10-year-old boy, growing up on a family farm in Ballyfin, Ireland, in 1978.

He used to check on the sheep in the night shift throughout the lambing season in spring and his father always did the morning shift.

It is perfectly normal for an Irish to write a book called Listening to the Animals and it is even more normal to visualise the Irish author doing it. The 11-year-old Border terrier Keira is the love of the supervet’s life.

Fitzpatrick’s simple prose generates an atmosphere of almost palpable authenticity; one reads the book in a kind of trance of trust, certain that the writer is incapable of pretence and falseness. The Sunday Times bestseller is not about runaway specialisation and marks and degrees, it is a book that shows the reader the love of a craft.

Fitzpatrick’s father wanted his son to work at a farm and his wish got answered as the young man’s first jobs after vet school were at farm animal practices in Ireland. Farm animal practice taught him to be resourceful and to make the most out of what he had. He worked for three vets during that time. He says that that taught him much more than could ever be learned from a book — how to “sense” what was wrong with the animal.

Fitzpatrick learned from them that all of the tests in the world cannot replace a good clinical examination. The longest period he spent in farm animal practice was with David Smyth in West Cork and he considers that time to be the most formative period of training in his life.

He learned how to be an effective clinician, divorced from instruments. “David absolutely possessed a sixth sense. He could tell the difference between a cow with ketosis, hypomagnesemia tetany or hypocalcaemia, just by the look and smell of her. Some of this rubbed off on me, too.”

The farmers were initially averse towards the new kid on the block, but Fitzpatrick likes to think that he was accepted in his own capacity because of being at ease with the animals, and to some extent sensing what was wrong with them, since that’s what farmers do all the time, without any formal training at all.

“I have my daddy to thank, too, for much of this ‘perception’ training by apprenticeship.” Fitzpatrick moved to Guildford, Surrey, in 1993, where he is director and managing clinician at Fitzpatrick Referrals.

He often yearns for those early days on behalf of his interns and residents. “Back in the early 1990s, you needed to become sympatico, in harmony with the animal because often you were in the middle of a field with a stethoscope in your ears, a thermometer in one hand and palpating with the other, smelling the animal’s breath and observing its behaviour. In other words, you really did have to listen to the animal to diagnose the problem.”

The book is suffused with Irishness. Fitzpatrick knew what he was going to do but his eyes were opened by emotive poetry and descriptive prose, and he thought that he would like to study literature because he wanted to understand why Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, John Steinbeck or James Joyce could move him to tears. In music he loves U2. For the world’s best beer you have to travel to Dublin and perhaps order a Guinness.

The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell in one of his pieces wrote a profile of Cesar Millan, the so-called dog whisperer. Millan can calm the angriest and most troubled of dogs with the touch of his hand or a nudge, he just knows what to do.

Millan runs the Dog Psychology Center in South-Central Los Angeles. He is the host of Dog Whisperer, on the National Geographic television channel. In every episode, he arrives amid canine chaos and leaves behind peace.

Millan has that indefinable thing called presence. What goes on inside Millan’s head as he does that? That was what inspired Gladwell to do the piece. But after he got halfway through his reporting, he realised there was an even better question: When Millan performs his magic, what goes on inside the dog’s head? That’s what we really want to know — what the dog saw.

Perhaps that is the reason why the Irish greats are a cut above the rest as they see the story differently. James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered to be the greatest novel of the 20th Century, can be extremely confounding as there is no narrator, no one to tell you what’s going on as Joyce’s main characters — Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom — are locked in their heads and you hear what they hear and see what they see, it’s all subjective.

That’s the last clue why I am positive that Noel Fitzpatrick can listen to the animals. It sounds like an Irish thing.

This was first published in Down To Earth‘s print edition (dated 16-31 October, 2019)

Written by Deepan Joshi

September 19, 2020 at 9:41 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Francis Bacon: The Painter’s Brutal Gesture

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“I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being.”—Francis Bacon


The Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera is a rare artist in the sense that he has a deep understanding of all the three major art forms—the novel, paintings, and music. Kundera’s father was an important Czech musicologist and pianist who served as the head of the Janacek Music Academy in Brno from 1948 to 1961—the author started learning the piano from an early age. 

Apart from his novels, Kundera has written numerous essays and four non-fiction books—The Art of the Novel, Testaments Betrayed, The Curtain, and Encounter—where he lucidly destroys conventional interpretations of art, enriches the reader with the aesthetic and the history of the novel, and talks with authority on paintings and music. One can easily figure out the artists he admires the most as even if he has discussed them at length in one work they still find reasonable space in all his other works—the novelists Franz Kafka, Cervantes, Rebalias, Jaroslav Hasek, Doestovesky, Flaubert, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil; the composers Leos Janecek, Stravinsky, and Bach; the painters Picasso and Francis Bacon. This essay is about British painter Francis Bacon.

When Michel Archimbaud was planning his collection of Francis Bacon’s portraits and self-portraits, he asked Kundera to write the book’s introduction. He assured Kundera that the invitation was Bacon’s own wish. He reminded Kundera of a short piece of his, published long ago in the periodical L’Arc, a piece he said the painter had considered one of the few in which he could recognise himself. “I will not deny my emotion at this message arriving, after years, from an artist I had never met and loved so much,” Kundera wrote. 

The best commentaries on Bacon’s work are by Bacon himself in two series of interviews: with David Sylvester between 1962 and published in the later year, and with Archimbaud between October 1991 and April 1992. In both he speaks admiringly of Picasso, especially of the 1926-1932 period, the only one to which he feels truly close; he saw “an area there… which in a way has been unexplored, of organic form that relates to the human image but is a complete distortion of it.” With this very precise remark, he defines the realm whose exploration is actually his alone.

Aside from that short period Bacon mentions, one could say that Picasso’s light gesture transforms human body motifs into two-dimensional and autonomous pictorial reality. With Bacon we are in another world: there, playful Picassian (or Matissian) euphoria is replaced by an amazement (if not a shock) at what we are, what we are materially, physically. Impelled by that amazement, the painter’s hand comes down with a ‘brutal gesture’ on a body, on a face, “in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there”.

But what is hidden there? It’s self? Every portrait ever painted seeks to uncover the subject’s self. But Bacon lived in a time when the self inevitably eludes detection. Indeed, our most common personal experience teaches us (especially if the life behind us is very long) that faces are lamentably alike (the insane demographic avalanche further enhancing that sense), that they are easy to confuse, that they only differ one from the next by some very tiny, barely perceptible detail, which mathematically often represents only a few millimetres’ difference in the various proportions. Add to that our historical experience, which teaches us that men mimic one another, that their attitudes are statistically calculable, their opinions manipulable, and that man is therefore less an individual (a subject) than an element of a mass.

What is new in that Baconian quest is, first (to use his expression), the ‘organic’ nature of those forms in ‘a complete distortion’. Which means that the forms in his paintings are meant to resemble living beings, to recall their bodily existence, their flesh, and thus always to retain their three-dimensional nature. The second innovation is the principle of variations. In Bacon the variations differ but yet retain something common to them all; the thing they have in common is ‘that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond’, namely, the sought-for essence of a theme or, in Bacon’s case, the self of a face.

“Looking at Bacon’s portraits, I am amazed that, despite their ‘distortion’, they all look like their subject. But how can an image look like a subject of which it is consciously, programmatically, a distortion? And yet it does look like the subject; photos of the persons portrayed bear that out; and even if I did not know those photos, it is clear that in all the triptychs, the various deformations of the face resemble one another, so that one recognises in them the same person. However ‘distorted’, these portraits are faithful. That is what I find miraculous.”

Bacon never worked with the subject of the portrait sitting in his studio and he never painted strangers. He was fascinated by photography and by X-rays. “I’ve had photographs taken for portraits because I very much prefer working from the photographs than from models… I couldn’t attempt to do a portrait from photographs of somebody I didn’t know…” What is Bacon trying to tell us, what is he doing, and how is he able to achieve that. He gives another clue, “If my people look as if they’re in a dreadful fix, it’s because I can’t get them out of a technical dilemma.” He can’t paint strangers, he can do self-portraits and portraits of his friends or those he regularly drinks with. In the broader sense he says about his art, “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime.” He paints people he knows as he understands them as human beings, so even if the brutal hand of the painter botches up the face the diamond lying underneath is still recognisable, the precious nugget, the self of the subject.

Bacon’s portraits are the interrogation on the limits of the self. Up to what degree of distortion does an individual still remain himself? To what degree of distortion does a beloved being still remain a beloved being? For how long does a cherished face growing remote through illness, through madness, through hatred, through death still remain recognisable? Where lies the border beyond which a self ceases to be a self?

Then I read the Archimbaud interview: ‘‘In painting, we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough, but in Beckett I have often had the sense that as a result of seeking to eliminate, nothing was left anymore , and nothingness finally sounded hollow…”

When one artist talks about another one, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgment. In talking about Beckett, what is Bacon telling us about himself?

That he is refusing to be categorised. That he wants to protect his work against clichés. The similarity though is that in the history of art, Bacon and Beckett are not there to open the door, they are the ones who close it. 

.“In painting, we always leave in too much that is habit, we never eliminate enough…’ . Too much that is habit, which is to say: everything in painting that is not the painter’s own discovery, his fresh contribution, his originality; everything that is inherited, routine, fill up, elaboration considered to be technical necessity. That describes, for example, in the sonata form (of even the greatest—Mozart, Beethoven) all the (often very conventional) transitions from one theme to another. Almost all great modern artists mean to do away with ‘filler’, do away with whatever comes from habit, from technical routine, whatever keeps them from getting directly and exclusively at the essential (the essential: the thing the artist himself, and only he, is able to say).”

So it is with Bacon: the backgrounds of his paintings are super-simple, flat colour; but: in the foreground, the bodies are treated with the richness of colours and form that is all the denser. Now, that (Shakespearean) richness is what matters to him. For without that richness (richness contrasting with the flat colour background), the beauty would be ascetic, as if ‘put on a diet’, as if diminished, and for Bacon the issue always and above all is beauty, the explosion of beauty, because even if the word seems nowadays to be hackneyed, out of date, it is what links him to Shakespeare.

And that is why he is irritated by the word ‘horror’ that is persistently applied to his painting. Tolstoy said to Leonid Andreyev and of his tales of terror: ‘He is trying to frighten me, but I’m not scared’. Now a days there are too many paintings trying to frighten us, and they annoy us instead. Terror is not an aesthetic sensation, and the horror found in Tolstoy’s novels is never there to frighten us; the harrowing scene in which they operate on the mortally wounded Andrei Bolkonsky without anaesthesia is not lacking in beauty; as no scene in Shakespeare lacks it; as no picture by Bacon lacks it. Butcher shops are horrible, but speaking of them, Bacon does not neglect to remark that, “for a painter, there is this great beauty of the colour of meat.”

When Archimbaud asks Bacon which contemporary artists are important to him, he says: “After Picasso I don’t really know. There’s an exhibition of pop art at the Royal academy at the moment… [But] when you see all those pictures collected together, you do not see anything. To me there is nothing in it, it’s empty, completely empty’. And Warhol. He isn’t important to me.’ And abstract art? Oh no, he doesn’t like it.

‘After Picasso, I don’t really know’. He talks like an orphan. And he is one. He is one even in the very concrete sense of the life he lived: the people who opened the way were surrendered by colleagues, by commentators, by worshipers, by sympathisers, by fellow travellers, by an entire gang. But Bacon is alone. As Beckett is. In one of the Sylvester interviews: ‘I think it would be more exciting to be one of a number of artists working together…I think it would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to. Today there is absolutely nobody to talk to’.

For their modernism, the modernism that closes down the way, no longer matches the ‘modernity’ around them: a modernity of fashions propelled by the marketing of art. (Sylvester: ‘If abstract painting is no more than pattern-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have the same sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative works?’. Bacon: “Fashion.”) Being modern at the moment when the great modernism is closing down the way is an entirely different thing from being modern in Picasso’s time. Bacon is isolated (“There is absolutely nobody to talk to”); isolated from both the past and the future.

Like Bacon, Beckett had no illusions about the future either of the world or of art. And that moment in the last days of illusions, both men show the same immensely interesting and significant reaction: wars, revolutions and their setbacks, massacres, the democratic imposture, all these subjects are absent from their works. In his Rhinoceros, Ionesco is still interested in the great political questions. Nothing like that in Beckett. Picasso paints Massacre in Korea. An inconceivable subject for Bacon. Living through the end of a civilisation (as Beckett and Bacon were or thought they were), the ultimate brutal confrontation is not with a society, with a state, with a politics, but with the physiological materiality of man. That is why even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which in past times concentrated within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a mere physiological scandal. “I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death…’

To link Jesus nailed to the cross with slaughterhouses and an animal’s fear might seem sacrilegious. But Bacon is a non-believer, and the notion of sacrilege has no place in his way of thinking; according to him, “Man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.” Seen from the angle, Jesus is that accident who, without reason, played out the game. The cross: the final point of the game played out to the end without reason.

No, not sacrilege; rather a clearsighted, sorrowing, thoughtful gaze that tries to penetrate to the essential. And what essential thing is revealed when all the social dreams have evaporated and man sees “religious possibilities… completely cancelled out for him”? The body. Only ecce homo, visible, touching, concrete. For “Certainly we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.”

This is neither pessimism nor despair, it is only obvious fact, but a fact that is veiled by our membership in a collectivity that blinds us with its dreams, its excitements, its projects, its illusions, its struggles, its causes, its religions, its ideologies, its passions. And then one day the veil falls and we are left stranded with the body, at the mercy of the body.

Bacon often spied on that workshop of the Creator; it can be seen, for instance, in the picture called Studies of the Human Body, in which he unmasks the body as a mere ‘accident’, an accident that could easily have been fashioned some other way—for instance, I don’t know—with three hands, or with the eyes set in the knees. These are the only pictures of his that fill me with horror. But is ‘horror’ the right word? No. For the sensation these pictures provoke, there is no right word. What they provoke is not the horror we know, the one we feel in response to the insanities of history, to torture, persecution, war, massacres, suffering. No. This is a different horror: it comes from the accidental nature, suddenly unveiled by the painter, of the human body. 

What is left to us when we have come down to that?

The face;

the face that harbours “that treasure, that nugget of gold, that hidden diamond” that is the infinitely fragile self shivering in a body;

the face I gaze upon to seek in it a reason for living the “senseless accident” that is life.

Written by Deepan Joshi

July 3, 2020 at 10:38 pm

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Madness and Civilisation—2

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pirsig-with-chris

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

And what is good Phaedrus,

And what is not good—

Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig is an unforgettable journey. It is a narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son that turns into a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. Pirsig, who died in April 2017 at 88, wrote this eerie classic where the narrator’s relationship with his 12-year-old son leads to a powerful self-reckoning and the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

The strangeness of the book is that the narrator remembers a ghost called Phaedrus and there is a conflict between the two and admission to an asylum and electric shocks form the backdrop. The zenith of sanity can be mistaken for insanity. Phaedrus hates the narrator for being a sellout, a coward, who has abandoned truth for popularity and social acceptance by his psychiatrists, his family, his employers, and his social acquaintances. The narrator is cautious as he knows what happened to Phaedrus. No more shock treatment for him. Only at one point the narrator confesses his secret: that he is a heretic who is congratulated by everyone for having saved his soul but who knows secretly that all he has saved is his skin. There are only two others who know or sense this. The son Chris is one. He is going to pieces with confusion and grief as he looks for the father he remembers and loves and can’t find anymore. Phaedrus is the other. He knows what the narrator is up to and despises him for it. Phaedrus was dominated by intellectual values and didn’t give a damn who liked or didn’t like him. Now he had been socially destroyed—silenced. But the residue of what he knew still lingered in the narrator’s brain, and that was the source of the conflict. The son is in a quiet anguish throughout the book despite the calm and rational father. In the end it is Chris’s agony that releases Phaedrus. The climax is marvellous as for the first time in the trip, the narrator realises what is happening and what had happened. When Chris asks, “Were you really insane,” and the answer is “No,” it is not the narrator but Phaedrus who answers. And when Chris says, “I knew it,” he also understands that for the first time in the whole trip he is talking to his long-lost father again. They have won it. The dissembling narrator has vanished. “It’s going to get better now,” Phaedrus says. “You can sort of tell these things.”

Many people complained about the ending. It’s a book in first person and this powerful way of writing has a limitation as you only see what the writer or the character sees. Much later Pirsig illustrated this through a writing seminar he had attended in early 1950s by Allen Tate with the subject for many sessions being Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess tries to shield her two protégés from a ghostly presence but in the end fails, and they are killed. Pirsig was convinced that it was a straightforward ghost story, but Tate said no, Henry James is up to more than that. The governess is not the heroine of the story. She is the villainess. It is not the ghost who kills the children but the governess’s hysterical belief that a ghost exists. Pirsig reread it and thought how could I have missed it. Tate said that the first person is the most difficult form as the writer is locked in the brain of the narrator. He can’t say “meanwhile, back at the ranch” as a transition to another subject because he is imprisoned forever inside the narrator. But so is the reader. The reader does not see that the governess is the villainess because what the governess sees is all the reader ever sees. Now come back to Motorcycle Maintenance and note the similarities. There is a narrator whose mind you never leave. He refers to an evil ghost named Phaedrus, but the only way you know that this ghost is evil is because the narrator tells you so. During the story, Phaedrus appears in the narrator’s dreams in such a way that you begin to see that not is the narrator pursuing Phaedrus in order to destroy him but Phaedrus is also pursuing the narrator for the same purpose. Who will win?

PirsigThere is a divided personality here: two minds fighting for the same body, a condition that inspired the original meaning of “schizophrenia.” Obviously the narrator was Phaedrus before they locked him up for inhuman treatment. After 121 publishers had rejected the book, a lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, Pirsig should not be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

But then came publishing day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, movie offers, and endless offers to speak, and fan mail. The letters were full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? They want to hear all. The book’s constant theme is Quality. And Pirsig replied that there hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it. But as the perspective around the book grew larger with the passage of time, a detailed answer became possible.

There is a Swedish word, kulturbarer, which can be translated as ‘culture-bearer’. A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down and write one deliberately—they occur accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are an important part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren’t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that’s the standard cultural attitude. But they don’t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy. The involuntary shock treatment described in the book is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed. The insanely rational wins over the merely confirming rational in this epic that continues to inspire millions. As writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb says: “I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”

The question of sanity and insanity or of right and wrong to what the novelists call as the lyrical souls, especially the ones educated in places so elite that they and the students have no connect with terra nostra (Our earth), is never a conundrum. The lyrical souls fall for the spirit of their times, the ones who respond with enthusiasm to slogans of building a better future even when the stink of a purge in the present has become the odour of air. The Joke by Milan Kundera, his first novel, is always in my top 10 despite the immense popularity of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The thoughtful, melancholy intellectual Ludvik is the protagonist. A joke meant to tease Marketa, a beautiful but credulous woman in the University who opts to go for a two-week training course in Socialism, changes the course of Ludvik’s life. Talking of himself before the incident Ludvik says: “When the Comrades classified my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times), I actually came to believe them because I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong and I, an individual, might be right.”

Bosch-NarrenschiffComing back to madness, something new appears in the imaginary landscape of the Renaissance; soon it will occupy a privileged place there: the Ship of Fools, a strange “drunken boat” that glides along the calm rivers of the Rhineland and the Flemish canals. Bosch’s painting, of course, belongs to this dream fleet. But of all the romantic or satiric vessels, the Narrenschiff is the only one that had a real existence—for they did exist, these boats that conveyed their insane cargo from town to town. Madmen then led an easy wandering existence. In learned literature, too, Madness or Folly was at work, at the very heart of reason and truth. Folly also has its academic pastimes; it is the object of argument, it contends against itself; it is denounced, and defends itself by claiming that it is closer to happiness and truth than reason, that it is closer to reason than reason itself.

Written by Deepan Joshi

March 28, 2020 at 9:59 pm

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Madness and Civilisation–I

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Bedlam

Pascal: “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”

And Dostoevsky, in his Diary of a Writer: “It is not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.”

We have yet to write the history of that other form of madness by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbours, and communicate and recognise each other through the merciless language of non-madness; to define the moment of this conspiracy before it was permanently established in the realm of truth. 

In the mountains and in ancient cultures there is complete communication and natural acceptance of people, who in the cities have been condemned as ‘mad’ and put away as ‘others’. The hills are also changing slowly and characters are vanishing: When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, the towns were full of jolly rogues and eccentric people who were never bereft of an audience. The language was far from merciless; it was, in fact, illuminating. The pahari (hill) way of referring was beautiful: “light aayi ree bhai joo” or “light aayi ree aisjoo” (the word for the ‘other’ was light; a literal translation is difficult but an approximation is that light has come to the brother or he’s possessed by light or light has come to him. Ironically, the word for the ‘goners’ is almost the same as that for the enlightened). Whatever the aberration, people not only listened but enjoyed their soliloquy’s or any other peculiarity. Laughter was a reaction but isolation or a sense of superiority was never there. Some of them repeated the same joke for years and for years people laughed at it as it wasn’t the joke but the endless repetition and its acceptance that brought out the laughter. 

Ira Pande, one of the daughters of the inspirational Kumaoni writer Shivani was in a talk show some 15-odd-years ago and spoke about their family home in Almora. The context would have been Ira’s memoir based on her mother that came out in 2005, Diddi My Mother’s Voice. Diddi is elder sister and that is what Shivani was to her four children—Mrinal Pande and Ira are established writers and the other two are Veena Joshi and Micky Pant. Ira described the complete ease with chaos in the household. That undivided state where reason and madness have not yet been relegated to one side or the other. There was an uncle who used to come and play table tennis in the house all by himself, every time he had to go to the other side to pick the ball. No one found that to be odd is what Ira said. As they say about the place: Almora mein 99 per cent literacy aur ‘cent per cent’ lunacy.

Madness has in our age become some sort of lost truth. Truth, perhaps, is not so much a matter of coherence of related meanings, and it is certainly not a simplistic conjunction of pseudo-fact and pseudo-experience. Madness, as Michel Foucault made so impressively-clear in his remarkable book Madness and Civilization, is a way of seizing in extremis the racinating groundwork of the truth that underlies our more specific realisations of what we are about. The truth of madness is what madness is.

Foucault makes it quite clear that the invention of madness as a disease is in fact nothing less than a peculiar disease of our civilisation. We choose to conjure up this disease in order to evade a certain moment of our own existence—the moment of disturbance, of penetrating vision into the depths of ourselves that we prefer to externalise into others. Others are elected to live out the chaos that we refuse to confront in ourselves. By this means we escape a certain anxiety, but only at a price that is as immense as it is unrecognised.

Ironically, Don Quixote’s insane life pursues and immortalises him only by his insanity; madness is still the imperishable life of death. To put it another way, madness is the false punishment of a false solution, but by its own virtue it brings to light the real problem, which can then be truly resolved. It conceals beneath error the secret enterprise of truth. Madness is also the most rigorously-necessary form of quid pro quo in the dramatic economy, for it needs no external element to reach a true resolution. It has merely to carry its illusion to the point of truth. Thus it is, at the very heart of the structure, in its mechanical centre, both a feigned conclusion, pregnant with a secret “starting over,” and the first step toward what will turn out to be the reconciliation with reason and truth. Madness rules all that is easy, joyous, frivolous in the world. It is madness, folly, which makes men “sport and rejoice,” as it has given the gods “Genius, Beauty, Bacchus, Silenus, and the gentle guardian of gardens.” All within it is brilliant surface: no enigma is concealed. 

Recent psychiatric—or perhaps anti-psychiatric—research into the origins of the major form of madness in our age, schizophrenia, has moved round to the position that people do not in fact go mad, but are driven mad by others who are driven into the position of driving them mad by a peculiar convergence of social pressures. A long brilliant piece that I read last year showed the complete guesswork and insensitivity of pharmaceutical companies and the interventionism of doctors. People on medications that helped the release of the happiness hormone serotonin became more and more dependent after years and years—the dosage kept increasing alarmingly while the underlying condition was getting more and more severe. 

 

Cruel experiments have been conducted on misfits and those considered to be odd.

In the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: on one hand, the man of reason delegates the physician to madness, thereby authorising a relation only through the abstract universality of disease; on the other, the man of madness communicates with society only by the intermediary of an equally abstract reason which is order, physical and moral constraint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the requirements of conformity. As for a common language, there is no such thing; or rather, there is no such thing any longer; the constitution of madness as a mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, affords the evidence of a broken dialogue, posits the separation as already effected, and thrusts into oblivion all those stammered, imperfect words without fixed syntax in which the exchange between madness and reason was made. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue of reason about madness, has been established only on the basis of such a silence. Foucault has not tried to write the history of that language, but rather the archaeology of that silence. 

This series would have many anecdotes from my growing up in the mountains and several other relevant stories; like the fact that the most insanely rational book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has an eerie atmosphere where a ghost called Phaedrus haunts the brilliant narrator and schizophrenia, electric shocks and other forms of treatment form the backdrop. The corporatisation of our culture and particularly that of journalism would find a special mention. 

An anecdote to end this part: Mandi, my hometown in Himachal Pradesh, holds a famous Shivratri Fair every year for a week or so. In the evenings there is a cultural programme lasting about four hours and since the budget is there some renowned artists are always there as a highlight. This is a story of how legends are made, a single act of bravado or madness and a person can enter the town’s hall of fame. Fame and money made in the big cities are not what entertain friends and family by the fireplace, it is the hilarious stories of near-insane bravado.

I was 19 or 20 and the open-air amphitheatre in Mandi can accommodate about 30,000 people and Hema Malani was performing that evening. The first row had sofas and chairs for ministers and dignitaries and the 20 rows of chairs behind were either dignitaries or people having paid a handsome amount. At the back is a cascading permanent structure of cement made in a way that everyone can see the stage. Someone our age, from our neighbourhood and a friend too, was in a chair where had he got up everyone could have seen him. 

Hema Malani came to the stage and did a classical namaskar, balancing on just one leg and bowing a bit, to the audience. With perfect timing, our neighbour climbed on top of his chair, lifted his right arm and shouted, “Basanti, en kutton key samney mat nachna.” He was bruised as the police took him away, less because of the actress but more because the CM and other dignitaries had been called dogs. No matter how much he fails in life, he became a legend that day and will remain so.  

Thinking with too much clarity has also been a major problem in human history and we’ll explore that as well as other unexamined facts in the next part…

Facebook’s wild and severe side effects

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Book Review: Facebook is undermining democracies and leading to shallow and degraded public discourse

The Dark Side of Facebook

Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health—Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In some ways, Facebook is like Mary Shelley’s fictional character Frankenstein’s monster in the author’s 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein. It is an experiment of chemistry and alchemy where the creature takes a life of its own and turns against the creator Victor Frankenstein. That is where the similarities end as Victor and the world hate the hideously ugly but sensitive and emotional “monster”. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg defends his platform like a stoic even when there is evidence to show how easily the connector of over 2 billion people can and has been manipulated for vested interests far from sinister than the use of personal data to gather insights for the company’s profitability.

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Antisocial Media charts the journey of Facebook from an innocent social site built by Harvard students into a force that, “while it may make personal life just a little more pleasurable, makes democracy a lot more challenging. It’s an account of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems”.

Facebook is magnificent when you get in touch with long-lost friends from the past, or when you can share family photographs with people who matter. Almost everything else is a problem on Facebook. It certainly qualifies for the as-yet-unsettled dilemma over whether any system that is “too big to fail” is robust and good for the planet. As Nassim Taleb, the author of the vastly popular The Black Swan and of recent titles Antifragile and Skin in the Game says, “The internet allows the small guy a global marketplace. But technology is harmful in the sense that we get too much information from it. Because of the web we get 10 times the amount of noise we ever got, which makes harmful fallacies far more likely. I can’t imagine situations in which social networks could be useful except to arrange to have dinner with someone, and they clearly can be very destructive.”

Vaidhyanathan is more succinct with his first phrase of the book: “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” In early 2017, Zuckerberg wrote a wide-ranging manifesto on his page that marked a shift for him and his firm. He was coming to terms with the fact that through 2016 Facebook had hosted and promoted propaganda that influenced the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Facebook also faced flak for its video streaming service after multiple people used it to publicise suicides and homicides they were committing. As criticisms mounted, Zuckerberg promised to do better, to explain the problems in the most general terms and, more pertinently, to shift blame where he could.

The central nerve of the book is how Facebook rather than connecting us creates bigger barriers and makes it impossible to have genuine debate. “Those who follow the rise of authoritarianism…would by 2017 list India, Indonesia, Kenya, Poland, Hungary, and the United States as sites of Facebook’s direct contribution to violent ethnic and religious nationalism, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and a sort of mediated cacophony that would hinder public deliberation about important issues, thus undermining trust in institutions and experts. Somehow, Zuckerberg missed all of that,” writes Vaidhyanathan. By November 2017, Zuckerberg was left with no defence but to investigate and reveal the extent of Russian interference with the US elections through advertisements purchased on Facebook and Instagram and targeted precisely to reach at least 126 million US citizens.

Vaidhyanathan informs that the culture of Silicon Valley is explicitly cosmopolitan and tolerant of difference and dissent. “So how did the greatest Silicon Valley success story end up hosting radical, nationalist, anti-Enlightenment movements that revolt against civic institutions and cosmopolitans? How did such an enlightened firm become complicit in the rise of nationalists such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and ISIS? How did the mission go so wrong?” These are some of the complex questions Vaidhyanathan asks upfront, and tries to answer with simplicity subsequently.

The roping in and the role played by Alexander Nix, the CEO of a market research firm called Cambridge Analytica, came out of obscurity and explained both the Brexit and the Trump upsets. This part reads like a spy thriller that is gripping as well as deeply unsettling for anyone concerned with the extreme direction the world has taken and how Facebook facilitates it just by being itself. Investigative and fearless journalists and reputed newspapers find less space in this fast-paced world ruled by trolls.

The rise and consolidation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Modi has been given due importance. Facebook staff worked with BJP officials during the Modi campaign. India has more Facebook users than any other country, with more than 250 million in 2018, about 30 million more than the US. That 250 million is less than one-quarter of India’s population, while the 220 million Americans constitute more than 60 per cent of the US population. So not only is the future of Facebook in India, the present of Facebook is as well. “As the BJP solidifies its political standing the overall political culture of India has degraded through social media harassment and intimidation,” writes Vaidhyanathan.

The problems that come with new technologies replacing old ones and causing narrowness is not new, Robert M. Pirsig wrote about it in his eerie 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I quote at length. “What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua…like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America…an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks…‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question ‘What is best?’ A question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream…Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.” Antisocial Media is an example of taking on a largely nonsensical behemoth and calling for some channel deepening.

(This article was first published in the 16-31st October issue of Down To Earth).

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