G C Lichtenberg: “It is as if our languages were confounded: when we want a thought, they bring us a word; when we ask for a word, they give us a dash; and when we expect a dash, there comes a piece of bawdy.”

Shel Silverstein : “Talked my head off Worked my tail off Cried my eyes out Walked my feet off Sang my heart out So you see, There’s really not much left of me.” ~

Martin Amis: “Gogol is funny, Tolstoy in his merciless clarity is funny, and Dostoyevsky, funnily enough, is very funny indeed; moreover, the final generation of Russian literature, before it was destroyed by Lenin and Stalin, remained emphatically comic — Bunin, Bely, Bulgakov, Zamyatin. The novel is comic because life is comic (until the inevitable tragedy of the fifth act);...”

Werner Herzog: “We are surrounded by worn-out, banal, useless and exhausted images, limping and dragging themselves behind the rest of our cultural evolution.”

John Gray: "Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter. What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness."

Justin E.H. Smith: “One should of course take seriously serious efforts to improve society. But when these efforts fail, in whole or in part, it is only humor that offers redemption. So far, human expectations have always been strained, and have always come, give or take a bit, to nothing. In this respect reality itself has the form of a joke, and humor the force of truth.”

विलास सारंग: "… . . 1000 नंतर ज्या प्रकारची संस्कृती रुढ झाली , त्यामध्ये साधारणत्व विश्वात्मकता हे गुण प्राय: लुप्त झाले...आपली संस्कृती अकाली विश्वात्मक साधारणतेला मुकली आहे."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What is a Real Oriental, Edward Said?

Do only insiders can know the truth about their societies? Edward Said’s much-discussed Orientalism (1978) thought so.

About it, David S. Landes said his classic “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” (1998):

“Insofar as one uses this claim to discredit the work of intellectual adversaries, it is polemical and antiscientific. But insofar as it points to the instrumental value and power of information, for good and for bad, it makes an important point.”

While reviewing 'The Great Transformation' by Karen Armstrong, JOHN WILSON said:

“…In our own time of "great fear and pain,"Armstrong proposes that we look to the Axial sages for "two important pieces of advice," both of which turn out to be quite uncontroversial: We should practice self-criticism (amen), and we should "take practical, effective action" against excessively aggressive tendencies in our own traditions (amen again).

But after 400 pages of historical argument, the banality of such declarations is staggering.

Yes, we need to learn to see things from other points of view. But once we have done that, once indifference and ignorance and prejudice and other obstacles are cleared away, real differences — political, religious, and cultural — remain. “ (NYT, April 30, 2006)

Wilson sounds as if it is easy to clear indifference and ignorance.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to clear it considering following state of affairs in USA.

Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason”:

“Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.” She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.” (NYT February 14, 2008)


“… Most people at the CIA don't speak foreign languages, so communications between and within other nations go untranslated…” (Doug Brown’s review of “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner). (Powells.com February 16,2008)

Why just middle-east? In the West, I feel, quality of scholarship about India was better in 19th century than today. Many India based 'popular' Indian historians don't read Indian language books to source their material.
I have already written about ignorance of likes of V S Naipaul when it comes to India. For the same reason, even many educated and well-off Indians- living in India and abroad- are ignorant about India.


Artist: Ned Hilton The New Yorker 5 September 1936

2 comments:

Chetan said...

I think both perspectives, one from an insider and the other from an outsider help to form a complete picture. I used to be resentful myself about Indian-Americans', mostly right wing perspective, about India when I was here. Now. when I am away from my country, I am able to at least empathise, if not appreciate that perspective even though I still don't agree with its opinions/implications.

I think Edward Said was right but from what I have read of Bernard Lewis, he isn't that wrong either. Probably, I am the same personality type as you, and tend to agree with two contradictory/incompatible viewpoints. But I think your statement that, "In the West, I feel, quality of scholarship about India was better in 19th century than today.," is a bit presumptive.

Despite my computer science background, I studied Journalism in this country and I came across many academics who had more insights about South Asia than someone like me who has spent my entire lifetime in India. Amongst the South Asia scholars, I met people who knew Urdu enough to understand Ghalib's poetry, who could converse with me in Hindi despite their American accent.

Why go far to America? Look at James Laine, the guy behind the Shivaji sired by Dadoji Kondev controversy. He did study Marathi and got his info from Marathi historians about the rumours.

What I am trying to say is that despite the widespread concern in other countries, the American academics/scholars (I am not referring to the general public) is more aware about the world than the smug Indians pretending to be know-alls.

In fact, the reading habits of Americans not only admirable but exemplary. The college education here is worth emulating because of its multi-disciplinary approach. And college educated people do know a lot about this world, even though they may be biased, than an average college educated person in India. Yes, there are Indians whose general knowledge is not as 'general' as an average American, but on a purely percentage basis American college educated kids are far more knowlegable about the world than average Indian college educated kids.

One of the reasons why this prejudice about ill-informed Americans persists is because of the power structure in the world. Since Americans' actions affect anyone in any remote corner of the world, everyone in every remote corner is concerned even if a single American voter isn't completely aware of their situation. This onus, you will have to agree, never bothers Indians or people from other parts of the world and hence their newspaper, (case in point, Times Of India) can publish stories about surveys claiming American ignorance about not being able to point out Iraq on a map, without ever realising that an average person from a public school in India would not be able to accomplish that task either.

Anyways, all I want to say is that both the things, the ones you noted in your Amazon review about Naipaul's observations and the views in this post about his not reading vernacular are not that incompatible. Both may be true, yet his perspective is still valid in its own regard. And yes I would like to empathically state that I did take the perspective of an India hand at an present day American think tank not any less than Edmund Burke's perspective about visiting the Nawab of 'Oude' and Warren Hastings.

aniruddha g. kulkarni said...

Thanks Chetan.

More thanks for noticing that there is no inconsistency in what I feel is good about Naipaul and bad.

Example of Laine is wrong though. Laine is a bad historian because he distorted the facts. Wherever he sourced them from doesn't matter.

I have seen too many examples of bad scholarship of Indian historians based in India. To write about 19th-early 20th century Maharashtra, you must read sources in Marathi because most of the material is available only in Marathi. It's as simple as that.

I too tend to think that American education is more wholesome but more and more reports come out every day how badly Americans in decision making positions are read. Compare that with scholarship of some one like Elphistone of early 19th century Britain-India. No wonder Elphistone was one of the best administrators India had and Britain perhaps was a better coloniser (if something like that exists).

Therefore, although it's likely that Americans are better informed than "know-alls" Indians, it's still not good enough because they are trying to rule the world while "know-alls" Indians are just warming up the air of their drawing rooms!

Big difference.

By the way I agree with a lot of both Bernard Lewis and Edward Said!

I will soon write about "trouble with inspirational history".