She died. I hung her up like a second skin on the peg by the door. In the half-light she looked like an old bag or an empty poncho. My pallet was on the other side of the room. I didn’t need her every day. I had others who said they cried out my name. When I went out I wore her memory like a fragrant face. But perhaps it was she who walked and I stayed, flayed and looking sideways at the twin echoes of my groans. I disappeared when she/I went into the light and the shepherd died. We are body companions now, naked without each other.
The Tale of Kings, Rajkahini, (2015), has a song of warning. And its warning is meant to rise above the complex dialectic of opinions on why audiences will listen to it and why they should not.
Some will say, with painstaking accuracy, that the song ‘Bharot bhagyo bidhaata’ is not the Indian National Anthem. The Anthem is comprised of the few lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s original poem, this song in the film is the rest of the poem. Artistes will stress they are producing culture, Bengal, music, Tagore, mela-mesha, aman ki asha, tolerance, even warning, and certainly they are not promoting nationalism. India is not their focus, Bengal is, Bangladesh is. What will be heard of their fine distinction?
Some will listen and be roused by the familiar notes of an anthem they had forgotten to sing, and then felt forbidden to sing (it is surely too parochial, too unmodern, too jingoistic to sing for a nation whose structure gives you the mediocre benefits of its citizenship) and all in conjunction with the faces and names of singers and actors they admire.
Some will be moved to tears by the beauty of the words and the symbolism of the music, in which they will hear longing and belonging to a home, see memories of a fair place, a distant ‘city on a hill,’ and remember a time before the intensification of religious and ethnic tensions in the subcontinent. They won’t stand to attention and salute a flag or a symbol, but they will feel the pull of love and longing for the spaces they call ‘bharot’ in the same place in their hearts where they keep all songs of lost innocence. Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.
And some others will see a critique of nations. They will see the blood and corpses that built the wall of the Partition of Bengal in 1947, and will warn the masses that such are nations. At least, such are nations whose boundaries were drawn by modern colonizers, and that is why, they will say, we must seek to re-draw those lines to suit better the nations and tribes and kingdoms and dreams we had before the world entered the age of nations. We need to re-order and keep re-ordering our world for the ‘better.’ Let’s start with the concept of ‘India.’
This is a time of confronting the nation, accepting it or rejecting it, a time of denunciations, and a time for the making of art about it. A time when nationalist sentiment roused by wayward echoes of anthems can be denounced as negative, and people can be taught what to think of the fate of the land beneath their feet. They will be taught to choose against whatever primal defense they will be roused to by the echoes of the Anthem. And many will do so. This is still a safe time.
Some others, good audiences, will see a warning of what happens when too many divided peoples begin to fight for what they want with axe and gun and knife. Perhaps they think that films and scenes such as these will tell people to turn away from militant nationalism.
I think yet some others will look at the path to a separate nation, will see it made possible by a bridge of corpses, and will think they can pay the price and do it.
Nation, god and fate are powerful words to put into any memory, any song.
We had imagined that everyone had wanted bright lights and running water, music halls and conveniences. But ultimately, the nature of the pressure generated from being crammed into smaller spaces than humans had ever been in before was different from the ecological and infrastructural pressures we had predicted.
They became pressures of preserving an identity, of keeping privacy and separateness, of keeping apart. They became problems of assimilation, of integration, of a pressing need to say ‘who am I? And who are you?’
Ultimately, it became a distinction by identification of ‘what are you?’
Questions of worth, keeping up, matching what one has to the rest of the pack one desires to be in, deliberately differentiating oneself from the larger group, a proud distinction in the crowd. The pressure of strangers was perceived as pressure to move away from what one was, what one had brought with or saved of oneself when one came to the new place and the crowd. So we pushed back. Strangers not welcome. They intruded on our dreams of what we had thought our future would be.
Trouble was, those dreams had been based on the characteristics of a past that was already changing under our feet. You cannot enlarge and project the past into a realistic future; the past is the known, the smaller and more contained world, and the future is by definition the threshold of the unknown.
Some say we don’t have our backs to the past and our faces to the future. Rather, we have our backs to the future and faces to the past, so that all of time and experience is an unrolling ribbon of inclusive history. We look over our shoulders at the unknown. But that inclusive vision must still use the combat tools of modern historiography in order to secure change in every new moment of the present (or the past).
And even in that, the strange past intrudes like a morphing virus. What we dislike about the intrusion of the strange into our consciousness — the stranger, the new odd neighbor, the strange dresses and customs, the disaster, the irritating actions of others that force us to change our route to heaven or hell — is the way they spoil our dreams.
And the new ones who enter old spaces, the migrants wanted by one group and not another, at one time and not another? Their lives are also attempts at historiography. They also come into new spaces and hope to keep some parts of the old they left behind, and they try to re-create from the seeds in their memories, in a petri-dish as it were, a new entity: the reborn old world that they fled from or that they watched sicken and change or simply abandoned for better prospects.
All these worlds and their thought-bubble Edens, jostling in the same space. And not enough earth to let all be full-grown entities.
There cannot ever be those old worlds again. Nor even nouveau ones. Each group of people has grown far beyond what their past was, what their past had once made possible. But the earth has not grown. We are tree-tops choking each other in the slow fight to air or death. Look to our roots.
September 9, 2015: On ignorance.
A NYT article that many are reading now picks up on and advocates for an old course from the 1980’s, “Ignorance 101 ” in scientific practice, and on a 2012 book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” in order to argue for the breakdown of the cognitive binary of ignorance & knowledge.
People, the article argues, “tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.” In reality and in practice, “The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”
Why is this important? Because humans and their inventions have gathered a constantly increasing body of knowledge that is now impossible for any single human being to master. If the command of knowledge 3000 years ago was about knowing what the rest of your class and city-state knew, now it is about being able to ask relevant questions. Our work, across the world, is now ‘knowledge work,’ constantly changing in scope and definition. Part of our job is to know what we need to know for the task at hand, and how to ask about what we do not know.
In medical practice in the United States, most practicing doctors do not declare at the outset to their patients that ‘medical science may have spent billions of dollars and hundreds of years but it still does not know much about the human body or its biological environment. At best, we have best practice models.’ Why not? Partly because the power to discover and treat illness and thereby hold off death is still a potent thing, and most people want their doctors to know how to deal with the specters of illness and death. They also want quick solutions, not ongoing and incremental life-style changes. Doctors have become specialists in an industry called healthcare, they are experts, and they are paid to know. And the patients want the doctors to be able to assure them that their own ignorance will not mean the high cost of life. In between the insurance companies want better rules for practice; the smaller the margin of practical error the easier to find its correlation to money gained or lost. Also, it is not the American way to be still and watchful in the face of ambiguity. Americans like to ‘do’ things, get things ‘done,’ measure and match and mark the gains. They are not comfortable with public acceptance of the idea that the more we know the more we do not know.
Why am I not surprised by this? Because this is milk and water for people with my kind of training in literature and culture. I have argued endlessly with my scientific and technological family members on the idea that ambiguity, uncertainty, interpretative openness and lack of closure can be useful and productive things when we deal with clusters of interacting human beings (society), human relationships (family, business, politics) and human motivations. Most of the time, I could not ‘prove’ my points with facts and data to those who do not trust the reasoning of words and perceptions, so I ‘lost’ the debates.
However, performing artists everywhere, and the art and literature of the last thousand years in every culture will testify to the productive space of not knowing. This learning of ignorance and its uses in a public and open way is something new for the generations of scientific practitioners and for their acolytes, not necessarily for those who work with art.
All artists start the day with a blank canvas, a blank page, a blank score, an empty stage. And every day they create something out of their attention to and interaction with that ignorance of what will come. They brush away the old cues and they allow you to make a space for not knowing. They allow a rhythm of knowing and not knowing, until something else emerges, and each actor and participant and listener and witness can find a settling point for the time being. Fold their wings. Watch and listen, and begin anew. One example is Peter Sellars’ work on Handel’s Hercules (here ).
This call for the use of ‘ignorance’ is therefore better understood as a use of ‘not knowing.’
A redefinition of expertise as something to be constantly mapped, an understanding of knowledge as exploration, and a sort of re-framing of the attitude of the scientific practitioner to the field and subject of knowledge. The new and desirable attitude is presented as one of humility where the previous attitudes had been those of mastery and overcoming. This sort of public discourse about disciplinary changes and modifications in how practitioners of science approach the everyday anomalous human they encounter is in line with our temporal (still nascent) shift from the stance of the ‘anthropomorphic master of his age’ to the ‘human as intelligent inter-actor’ with his still-unpredictable environment. And so we may, at the end of the century, see science take note of anecdote and anomaly before they can be processed into data-systems.
Allow me to be the heretic heathen humanist, though: I still think the change in attitude indicated above (desirable for practitioners of science especially in their interaction with the humans they practice their science upon) will face stiff competition from the human desire to pin down what we know and can prove. The love of certainty goes deep in human beings. That’s why we love religion, with its laws and punishments and certain promises of this or that heaven. And those who need something more concrete for their sceptical minds, they turn to science and fact, to the promise of human capacity to discover more and more about this wondrous cosmos we exist in through tools and methods invisible to the naked eye and improbable to the everyday mind. Has the surge of scientific advancement in the last century and this not been met with an increasing religiosity and political piety? I wonder if, now that science in practice and theory has entered realms of knowledge that it cannot prove or show to the obstinate person on the street (microbiology or the Large Hadron collider, anyone?), the same audience obstinately makes an equivalence of both types of ‘magic’ — science now and religion as it always wanted to be. Their reasoning is magically simple (and I mean the pun): if we are seeing things that were impossible before, why not the miracles in religion? The trouble is, this sort of thinking makes a binary out of what we know (science) and what we cannot prove (religion) and considers the space between them a body of water that has to be conquered by the expanding islands of each. And that’s a fallacy.
I will speak to you in another’s voice. Because I fear you will miss my meaning if I speak in mine. Individual stories are anecdotes, representative stories are easier to bear as half-truth.
“I am afraid to speak.
Because I am afraid to speak, I speak all the time, cloaking and filling that central darkness that could be the productive void but is merely soul-chilling frightening emptiness.
Because I must not speak I catch hold of people and talk, and ask and laugh and am merry. It is proof that I can speak, this babble.
Because I am told I cannot speak, I speak in secret, in allusions and circumlocutions that baffle people and secretly amuse me. If I do not speak so that they listen, then I have not spoken at all.
Because I am afraid to speak, I do not say what I mean. If I do not say it, can they ever catch me?
Because I am told I cannot speak I turn inward and tell myself I cannot, should not, could not, must not. I become two people, one dumb child and one scolding authoritative woman. Neither turns to the world, the world looks in through her eyes.
I must not speak. Instead I do. I work, I act, I have done to me. I build, card-towers of actions, proof of silent concentration, evidence of the inutility of the solitary imagination. I prove, with every gesture, that I accept I cannot speak. And I half-learn to wait, until I can be told that I can.
But I cannot commit, cannot vow, cannot prove my allegiance to non-speaking. In a way, this is going on. For if I was bade to speak, I might speak and be silenced forever.
There is only one authority, one judgment, one chance. I would rather not have it. So I am afraid to speak.”