Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Gubhagat Singh's "Love, Divine Love, Love Infinite"

Comment on Gurbhagat Singh’s “Love, Divine Love, Love Infinite” (Published in the Punjabi Tribune of May 18)

Gurbhagat Singh’s article ends with strong words for “the so-called intellectuals of Punjab”. They are mute witnesses, he says, to the erosion of love which has been the defining and life-sustaining ideal of their culture. He obviously feels deeply for Punjabi culture that he thinks has been let down by its “intellectuals”. That he desires them to play a more interventionist role is more than evident. What is not so evident, however, is that he takes the possibility and efficacy of intellectual intervention rather unproblematically at a time when, for various reasons, no serious thinker is inclined to take such intervention for granted. We are no longer in the kind of world that Sartre inhabited; intervention today often risks sliding into a political-cultural commodity. Another thing that is not evident in his castigation, because it is implied, is that he has a certain firm picture of the correct Punjabi intellectual and that he identifies himself quite sincerely with that picture.

Such preliminary considerations apart, there are other, more troubling aspects to his argument and method. His opening declaration that every culture essentially evolves and revolves around a single predominant sign begs the more fundamental question of whose verdict will decide which sign is the sign of a given culture. Any demagogue or self-proclaimed intellectual with a dash of political ambition would aspire to sell his particular sign as the defining sign of the culture. Moreover, the very notion of a single-sign dominated culture is an imperialist, closed and totalitarian notion.

Intellectual engagement with matters of culture has to be conducted in an open and liberal spirit. It cannot afford to be like the ardent but naive commitment of school children to their respective positions in a debate. It must not operate at the level of ‘mine is better than yours because it is mine’. Can the innumerable sublime expressions of love in several cultures of the world be ignored just to inflate one’s cultural superiority complex? Homer, Dante, Kalidas, Shakespeare, Rilke, Tugenev, Dostoyevsky, Emile Bronte, Michelangelo, Browning, Ghalib, Nirala, Prasad, Llosa, Marquez . . . the history of literature and the arts is filled with uncountable instances that can only be denied out of a fanatical zeal for what is narrowly thought to be “one’s own”. These instances can escape notice only if one chooses not to acknowledge their existence or if one is deluded enough to think that the world will see just as much as he tells it to see. It is one thing to cite the priest of otherness Levinas to make a point but it is quite another to conduct oneself in the light of his insights. How can one invoke his supreme ethical authority that is founded on unbounded respect for the other and, in the same breath, state that one’s own culture is the greatest? What sort of openness and respect for the other is it?

It hardly need stating that serious intellectual engagement always shies away from pleasant and self-flattering speculation. To ascribe a so-called unique intensity of the passion of love to some putative genes in the Punjabis is the worst havoc that can be committed upon the modern intellectual landscape of the world. The vacuous but dangerous notion of some gene-based special faculty fed the racist death factories of the Nazis not very long ago. What confounds Gurbhagat Singh’s attempt even further is the praise he lavishes upon the Punjabis for having “achieved” this “genetic faculty”. Even if, for a moment, we presume it to be “genetic”, can the Punjabis be congratulated for it? To do so would mean that they can be given the credit for having consciously cultivated it. Have they done it in some underground eugenic laboratories? One should curb the tendency to such speculation in view of what the world has suffered at the hands of various kinds of fascism. The Punjabis in particular can ill afford to indulge in such speculation.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

1 comment:

Paramjit Ramana said...

Dear Rajesh,

Saw your blog. Congratulations. I particularly liked the straightforwardness and courage of your presentation. Gurbhagat Singh has always been like that. Nirlep was also very impressed by your blog.

Keep it up.

Paramjit Ramana