Dead on arrival – Anis Shivani


Anis Shivani

BY now, anyone who knows anything about the literary world is aware of the almost daily incidents that roil us in America. To outsiders having nothing to do with the literary world, these frequent outbursts of indignation about something insulting someone has said about someone else, followed by a wave of abject apologies by the accused, seem to have something of the ceremonial feel of Stalinist or Maoist purges. The literary world cannot seem to work itself into a pure enough froth to get on with the actual business of writing.

Let me briefly mention a few incidents to provide a taste of what’s been going on.

American writer Lionel Shriver, who likes to write about cultures and peoples other than her own, put on a sombrero hat to provoke the audience at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September. She railed against those who are offended by “cultural appropriation” — the idea that writers should not imagine characters and incidents outside their own immediate experience. An activist in attendance named Yassmin Abdel-Magied got so angry that she walked out of the lecture after 20 minutes, writing in the Guardian that Shriver’s words are just the kind of thing that lead to “genocide.” Abdel-Magied argued that Shriver did not have the right to “exploit” other cultures for fictional purposes.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programmes (AWP), the leading literary association of the US, draws upwards of 10,000 people to its convention each year, offering hundreds of panels and presentations, most of which seem to be about political correctness in some form or the other — writing, learning, and teaching seen from the point of view of different racial or sexual minorities. Publisher Kate Gale of the Red Hen Press in Los Angeles wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in the Huffington Post, satirising the insatiable demands made upon AWP by those living and dying by identity politics. Her own writers of colour withdrew their manuscripts from the press or otherwise disassociated themselves from her.

Calvin Trillin has been writing on politics and penning terrible ‘humorous’ verse for the New Yorker, The Nation, and other liberal magazines for more than half a century. He saw fit to write an ironic poem about the multicultural cuisine choices overwhelming the typical white American bourgeois. Though he is a respected food critic, he was charged with racism evoking the darkest fears of the “yellow peril,” as calls went up for firing this harmless octogenarian versifier.

A white Midwestern male writer named Michael Derrick Hudson had the notion that he’d have a better chance of publication if he passed himself off as a Chinese writer named Yi-Fen Chou. Indeed, he got into The Best American Poetry anthology, a most prestigious annual compendium, guest-edited by Sherman Alexie, a Native American writer. Alexie was in a bind once Hudson revealed his deception, twisting himself into a pretzel with his apologies. But he was accused of having played an insidious role in a racial crime, depriving a deserving author of colour of his rightful place in the anthology. Hudson was charged with benefiting from stereotypes of Asians; he was racist anyway for thinking that minorities have an easier time getting published.

Not only are these frequent call-outs and ritual self-criticisms and purges limited to the literary world, but they now constitute a major part of all public discourse.

I have been warning for about 15 years that identity politics, divorced from economic issues, was a deadly game that was bound to lead to the white majority eventually claiming for itself victim status and engineering a neo-fascist revolution. Precisely this outcome, which I have been consistently predicting, has now come about in Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The economically insecure white majority feels that it, too, should play identity politics because it is the only game in town.

Indeed, liberals tried to convert the 2016 election into a national referendum on ‘rape culture’— the signature issue in the literary world for quite some time now — but it backfired badly; the country was not in the mood to put aside genuine economic grievances. The white working class was excluded from liberal discourse as irredeemable deplorables, and they duly extracted their revenge by electing someone who claimed to be their tribune. The entire reactionary campaign was based on political incorrectness personified.

So identity politics in the literary and intellectual world is no mere sideshow. It has already had dire consequences for the health of the body politic. It has become self-fulfilling, as minorities have chosen to segregate themselves intellectually, feeling that to empathise with their condition, even in literature, is an act of racism or cultural appropriation.

To appreciate literature today, one need not be concerned with any traditional aesthetic criteria — whatever has been the substance of criticism from Aristotle to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to T.S. Eliot. The only thing that matters today in judging literature is how well it performs the rhetorical functions of political correctness, if it provides minorities with the boost of self-esteem that they deserve. And since, by definition, a writer of a particular identity cannot possibly empathise with someone of another identity, writers should only write about themselves.

Following from cultural appropriation, there have been such developments as mansplaining, whitesplaining, and straightsplaining. The idea is that any member of a dominant culture cannot possibly speak to someone of an opposed minority, and if they do so it is only to assert their intellectual superiority.

There is the pervasive worry about microaggressions. These refer to subtle, unconscious, deeply rooted stereotypical insults in every discourse; the only issue is to identify and root them out.

Trigger warnings are multiplying everywhere, for example the argument that in order to create safe spaces, or educational environments free of hostility, students should be warned any time something likely to trigger trauma — discussion of rape, sexual assault, or violence — is about to come up in the classroom. Indeed, students at liberal arts colleges have been demanding that trigger warnings be affixed to classic literary works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (suicide trigger warning) or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby(domestic abuse trigger warning).

One notices that trigger warnings are never demanded for discussions on hunger, malnutrition, economic violence, imperialism, environmental destruction, or even death. Only personal sexual traumas seem to get people worked up. Now imagine that any new piece of writing has to contend with this matrix of assessments: it must not trigger any negative feelings in the reader, it must not unconsciously offend any sensibility, it must present likeable characters ascending the neo-liberal economic order with their hard work and personability and optimism, and so on.

The first thing to understand about how this terrible state of affairs has come to pass is that literary writing has been almost completely assimilated into academia. Most literary writers do not make their living from selling books in the marketplace; they live by teaching would-be writers in creative writing programmes numbering in the hundreds. So if academia, over the last 30 years, has been transformed into a bastion of cultural diversity, and has been riven by controversies over speech codes and censorship, literary writing, too, finds itself remade into the platform the liberal academy has conjured up. Again, call-out culture never engages with class issues. When dealing with aggrieved subjects, such as undocumented Hispanic immigrants, the issue of class injustice of any sort is never the focus of liberal tirades. This is not coincidental.

I have long held that multiculturalism (or identity politics or political correctness — the terms have indistinguishably blended into each other) is a devil’s bargain offered to previously excluded minorities: you shut up about class, and we will give you formal cultural recognition so that you can move ahead economically, provided you follow the example of quiescent model minorities everywhere. Just don’t ever bring up economic revolution, or even economic justice.

The first wave of political correctness took off on American campuses around the time the Cold War was ending, reaching critical mass in the 1989-1992 period — precisely the period when the Soviet Union and its satellites were unravelling and putting the dream of socialism to rest in our lifetimes. I believe it was the helplessness, the sheer impotence and powerlessness of liberal academic elites including authors and artists, which compelled them to make the linguistic turn at that time.

Literary deconstruction had already put in place a theoretical framework for the wider academic world to latch on to. Instead of action on the streets or in the workplace, instead of demands for economic equality, the literary world turned to demands for linguistic fairness, rhetorical justice acted out in the classroom or the textbook, novel or poem. In the succeeding quarter-century, as identitarians threw in their lot completely with the neo-liberal Democratic party, they staked everything — the health and vitality of democracy itself — on this one gamble of identity politics, shunning any traditional political economy ideals.

During the George W. Bush years, political correctness reached new heights in writing and in the classroom, even as immigrants, Muslims and minorities were being assaulted in real life on a massive scale. In the age of Trump, too, political correctness, the only weapon of the defeated, will escalate to new levels. Crimes against humanity will begin anew, while literary folks will feel righteous as they wear safety pins to acknowledge solidarity with Muslims and immigrants, volunteer to register as Muslims should there be a registry, and hunt out every linguistic offence among the avant-garde.

It is usually not the conservative troglodytes who are the targets of the call-out culture — they are irredeemable, after all — but those whom one expects to be sympathetic to the cause of racial and economic justice. It is always the truest of believers — writers, editors, critics — who come in for the worst expressions of rage on the part of the literary vultures.

This is no longer a harmless fad restricted to the literary world. Political correctness in the Obama years expanded wildly and prolifically. Having elected the first black president, liberals took a pass on economic or social justice because white guilt was easily assuaged. This is the kind of trap identity politics leads to: the drone warrior par excellence who refused to close Guantanamo and who did not wish to pursue war crimes retribution, was given a free pass because of who he was, not what he did.

The same thing happened with Hillary Clinton. The entire literary world (and I mean everyone who’s anyone vocally supported her) fell in line with the warmongering neo-liberal candidate. She stood for for mass incarceration, banking deregulation, illiberal trade agreements, the erosion of welfare, anti-immigrant and anti-terrorist paranoia, and she never met a war or an assassination or a surveillance tool she didn’t like. But to criticise Hillary was to be a misogynist, or even a sexual predator by default since she was taking on the “sexual predator” Trump. Meanwhile, the literary world mocked the genuine democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. Playing the convoluted game of identity politics, which reminds one of nothing so much as communist doctrinal labyrinths, has life or death consequences.

It is important to talk about what just happened in politics because literature in America has volunteered to be a handmaiden of politics. In its university incarnation it explicitly claims to have no objective independence, no aesthetic ideals, aside from the pursuit of certain pre-designated neo-liberal Democratic-party goals.

You may still be an independent writer, particularly in the genre of fiction, or you may be one of the last remaining literary writers operating outside the academy, in which case you are free to pursue any aesthetic vision that strikes your fancy. But if you’re like most literary writers, established in the academy and deriving your livelihood from teaching, then you cannot go against the identity politics consensus; you cannot help but support the neo-liberal narrative.

This is a desperate, increasingly totalitarian situation for the arts in America. The entire establishment thinks as one. The force of public condemnation immediately descends, violently and unforgivingly, upon anyone who dares to question the orthodoxy. If the ritual purgations, confessions, and rehabilitations sound eerily similar to what went on in Stalinist and Maoist cultures, it is not coincidental — this is the pattern such upheavals follow.

The political economy of writing, the sociological grid in which writers are caught up, explains why there have been hardly any American novels of note in the last decade. Mohsin Hamid, Joseph O’Neill, Aleksandar Hemon and some others have done excellent work, but they tend not to have been born and raised in America. They tend to be ‘foreigners’ who have a tough time with political correctness, which they see as too close for comfort with the authoritarian political systems they may have left behind or are familiar with.

Consider the novels and poetry collections from Muslims or Hispanics or African Americans that come down the pike from the country’s big and small publishers. The subtext for approval seems to be this: I, the writer, have rooted out every element of false consciousness, every subterranean prejudice and hankering. I have considered my moral options vis-à-vis our public consensus and here I take my stance, via this text I am offering you.

The texts in question offer clear dividing lines between the good and the bad (immigrants, Muslims, various sexualities), setting up juxtapositions and conflicts to arrive at the ‘right choices’ to progress in a neo-liberal meritocracy. In effect, it’s a colossal propaganda effort, the vast publishing and media apparatus shunning the complexity of human reality. The neo-liberal corporate overseers couldn’t be more pleased.

The aesthetic values of the actual text have ceased to matter; what matters is the verbal performance of ritualised loyalty to politically correct ideals that precedes and follows publication. Publication lives in oral memory, if you will; writing is almost besides the point. What matters is the politically correct persona of the author vouching for his or her text, vouching for the ‘marginalised’ communities for whom the author speaks.

So the next time you hear of a calling out, a burst of moral righteousness — as if human desire could be reduced to politically correct regulations, minutely defined for possible violations of code — know that this is not something benign or of limited application. It is the rude, hard, clashing sound of a dead intellectual culture coming up against its own limits, rising in anger at its own impotence, mocking and harassing and condemning, in a spirit that seems to me the antithesis of why anyone would want to get into the forgiving, humane, open-minded vocation of writing in the first place.

These are very scary people, these politically correct social-justice warriors. I, for one, want to stay as far away as possible from their madness if I am to have any hope of not having my imagination crushed, infected by their fantasies of a totalitarian order where the only words that can be heard are the ones duly approved by the moral authorities, and the only texts written are the ones that are censored before the fact, offending no one, and therefore dead on arrival.

Anis Shivani is the author of Karachi Raj and Soraya: Sonnets. His next book of criticism, Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations, will appear in early 2017.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016


Essay: “What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

Syed Nomanul Haq

An article published in Dawn newspaper on 24th August 2014 speaks about the exchange of ideas between civilisations over a long period of history. Fantastic educating stuff.

Syed Nomanul Haq is Professor and Adviser of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.

“What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

One ought to be thankful to postmodernists for making us aware of the fact, at once oppressive and liberating, that we live largely in a constructed world — a world that is on most counts ontologically empty.

Before going any further, let me sew a historical patch to this: postmodernism, insofar as it is a particular genre of a complex and rigorous analytical attitude, is not restricted to those who in the standard narrative are called “postmodernists,” living in our own times, and of European provenance. This attitude is to be found in other world literatures too, especially Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literatures; and it lurks about way before the 20th century. It was Shakespeare, not Jacques Derrida, who exclaimed that the best poem lies most; and it was not Michel Foucault, but Ghalib’s mentor Mirza Bedil, who said what seems to be an absurdity — “good poetry has no meaning,” he once wrote, no fixed meaning that is, but a multiplicity of meanings that can even be mutually contradictory.

But back to our constructed world. One recalls that Foucault had demonstrated that many of our contemporary operative notions, concepts, and ideas are manufactured — and that they are manufactured in a workshop of power structures. The modern (better: Victorian) notion of sexuality, for example, is the topic of an extensive Foucauldian work. Drawing a parallel between modern control of criminality and modern control of sexuality, the French postmodernist observes that making the latter, like the former, an object of allegedly scientific discipline, is an act that offers both knowledge and domination of the object. And here we learn something highly intriguing — that this control is two-pronged and reflexive: Foucault shows us that, on the one hand, control is exercised by means of others’ knowledge of individuals. But then, on the other, individuals consider the norms laid down by the sciences of sexuality to be fixed and true, and so they try to conform to these norms. Thus, “they are controlled not only as objects of disciplines but also as self-scrutinising and self-forming subjects.”

Focusing on the subject side of control, we notice a ubiquitous tendency on the part of the present-day public of the formerly colonised societies. This is the tendency to readjust their self-image in order to bring it in conformity with a received narrative of what they are, a narrative that is conceived elsewhere, and which can often be malicious and factually false. Having lost in the colonial process both the linguistic ability and the will to read their own primary sources, this public can easily be lost in confusion exactly where the received narratives are confused.

One manifestation of the tendency to take the artificial for the real is deeming political boundaries as natural boundaries, deeming them forever fixed by virtue of some eternal cosmic law. The “nation-state” political borders of much of the globe, let’s recall, have been drawn and redrawn in the early 20th century in a colonial milieu, often in haste, in a shifting power dynamics, under intense pressures of war, and typically without regard to local cultures and traditions, guided solely by a will to control and dominate. The poet Iqbal once made the divine voice alert us that nature had made the whole world from the very same elements — from the same water and earth. But we, the humans, atomised it into Iran and Tartary and Nubia!

Living in a manufactured world of constructs, we forget something crucial: that what we call “modernity” is a convergence — a convergence in which many peoples and civilisations have participated, despite its European locus. In this historical process the Arabo-Islamic world has loomed large. Indeed, it is not possible to narrate the intellectual or literary history of the Greeks or the Latin West without recourse to Arabic sources. The converse is true too: Arabic intellectual history cannot be told in the absence of Greek and Latin legacy either. In the realm of ideas the boundaries between them break down — and here we see a continuity in world culture, a Greek-Arabic-Latin continuity that falls into perspective only if we heal the malady of confusing the artificial with the real, and thereby free ourselves from Foucauldian controls.

Let me move from this rather long-winded prologue to concrete history. It comes to us as a surprise, for example, that the Arabo-Islamic world (call it “Islamicate” or “Muslim” or even “X”) played a decisive role in the discovery of America; and that European Romance poetry — more specifically Provençal poetry — and the songs of French troubadours have their origins in Hispano-Arabic literature; and that the author of the classic novel Don Quixote, considered to be the greatest European work of fiction, says that his was an Arabic tale translated for him by a Moor, that is, an Arabic-speaking Muslim of the region. I have chosen all of these examples from Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, a cultural milieu that has been given a metaphysical permanence by Washington Irving and Iqbal.

Muslim Spain is in many ways intriguingly unique in world culture. It was here that we see a coming together not only of Europe and Islam, but also the entry of a third decisive element — the New World, America. Note that “all four historical voyages [of Columbus] were conceived, organised, provisioned, launched and ultimately concluded within the triangle comprising Palos, Seville, and Cádiz.” So all of this happened in al-Andalus. But more, there exists a paradox here: Columbus was motivated and animated essentially by a crusading zeal — to take Christianity to the East, destroying the perceived Muslim enemy in the process. Yet, ironically, he depended squarely on Arabo-Islamic geographical knowledge, on Arabic cosmology, cartography, and navigational expertise. J. H. Kramers, a known scholar of Islam, had declared a while ago that “[t]he Islamic geographical theory may claim a share in the discovery of the New World.” And further: Arabic geographical knowledge kept “alive the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth … without which the discovery of America would have been an impossibility.” The story is richer and more complex, but let’s move on to poetry.

It was in Muslim Spain too, some distance away from Damascus and Baghdad and Oxus, that two new genres of Arabic poetry were born. A far cry from Arabic classical verse, these genres embody a delightful deviation from the language, diction, form, and — most intriguingly — the metrical structure of standard Arabic poetics. The standard form is familiar to the readers through its naturalisation into Persian and Urdu poetry — a series of half-verses (misra‘), making up so many she‘rs, of which the first half-verse is blank and the second monorhymes, except for the opening she‘r(s) (matla‘) in which both half-verses rhyme. Further, in the standard poem, all verses are composed in the same meter. Here it is important to note that all classical Arabic poems, and practically all Persian and Urdu poems, are based on quantitative meters, as opposed to stress-based meters of English poetry — quantitative meters whose numeric system was codified by the arithmetician-prosodist Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the eighth century.

All of this is flouted in the two Hispano-Arabic genres — the muwashshaha, and the zajal. Both these are meant to be sung, both have stanzas that are all set to the same music, carrying a refrain, and both incorporate vernacular diction. The muwashshaha is in classical Arabic, but the final element, two half-verses that are always placed in the mouth of a woman, is normally in the vernacular — it can be in colloquial Arabic or in Romance, or a combination of the two. Zajal, on the other hand, is entirely in the vernacular Arabic dialect with Hispano-Romance words and phrases thrown in here and there.

The rhyming scheme, complex as it happens to be, has nothing to do with the monorhyme of Arabic, Urdu or Persian ghazal or qasida, nor the aa/bb/cc … scheme of the masnavi. But the most riveting thing about the two Andalusi genres is their metrical structure — generally they have no quantitative meter; rather, they embody distortions, mixtures, or truncations of classical Arabic meters to acquire stress-rhythm, close to the stress-syllabic metrics of European poetry. The resounding question is, who has influenced whom? Do we have here an expansion of Arabic metrics and rhythmic structures that is subsequently transmitted to European poetry, or is it the Andalusi espousal of European stress-based meters and poetic styles?

There certainly is to be found a striking parallel between the songs of French troubadours and Hispano-Arabic poetry. Apart from analogous styles, structures, and colloquialisms of the Andalusi tradition, the troubadours also propagated the well-known idea of Courtly Love: the unconditional submission of the lover, the coquetry, sovereignty and unattainability of the beloved, the secrecy of love and the fear of notoriety, the sprouting forth of poetry out of love — all of this is until this day the stuff of Urdu ghazal and needs no elaboration. This Courtly Love has been described as a “comprehensive cultural phenomenon,” running through European literature between the 12th to 14th centuries and informing nearly all major poets and fiction writers of the period — Wolfram von Eschenbach, Dante, Chaucer, and Malroy among them.

Many important contemporary scholars claim that it is the Hispano-Arabic poetry, especially the muwashshaha and the zajal, to which Romance poetics and the magnificent songs of the troubadours owe their birth and constitution. But certainly there are others who have reservations about this claim, arguing that the transmission may well be the other way around, or there may have been an exchange. But does it matter which way the traffic went? The important thing is to carve it in our consciousness that we have here an indelible record of the meeting of cultures. Whatever the constructed entities the Occident and the Orient happen to be, ideas have not recognised these borders. Cultural mores, literary themes, artistic motifs, scientific knowledge — all of these have moved freely without let or hindrance between political divisions. And let’s remember: ideas are not passive entities; no, they have their own autonomy, and they are animated and efficacious like the many arms of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Foucault has made us uncomfortable: we have now become conscious of the fact that there is something wrong with the received narrative that we have of ourselves. There is something rattling underneath this narrative, “What is it that rattles?”

The first citation is from Gary Gutting, ‘Michel Foucault,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition); the second is from K. Nebenzahl, quoted by A. Hamdani in his chapter in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, S.K. Jayyusi ed., Leiden, 1992. J. H. Kramers too is quoted by Hamdani.


Essay: Mind the Generation Gap by Zulfikar Ghose

Zulfikar Ghose

A very interesting essay I came across in Dawn newspaper on 28th April 2013. Was the past better than the present? Zulfikar Ghose tries to answer the question in his peculiar way.

Ghose is a poet, novelist and literary critic. Apart from criticism and poetry, he has also written many novels, including the trilogy, The Incredible Brazilian. He is Professor Emeritus in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mind the Generation Gap

“I was visiting Christopher Middleton, the English poet now in his 86th year, and he remarked that he’d recently had a telephone conversation with a contemporary writer friend in France who had said that our generation of old writers comprised the last witnesses — meaning that in this, the second decade of the 21st century, we are the sole surviving witnesses of the end of a form of western civilization which for at least two millennia has generated progressive political institutions and produced an advanced culture in which art of a very high aesthetic quality has flourished.

As inheritors of that culture, we did our utmost to preserve it by attempting to create new work that drew its inspiration from the best that tradition had passed down to us. But now that it’s our turn to pass on the baton, the next generation is not even present on the track in front of us, and we’re left witnessing an abrupt end to our race in an empty stadium. It’s sad to be the only surviving witnesses of the end. When our ageing generation is no more, there will be no one to observe the corruption of values because the generation following us has become disconnected from our ideals, and consequently future generations, raised to think of mediocrity as high art, will not even have an awareness of the precious treasure they have lost.

Decadence has done its job — so the argument goes with us old writers: people today would rather see a third-rate movie than read a book. Or, if they read a book, it is more likely to be some gossipy memoir than a work of some literary significance. Besides, who reads books? Everywhere nowadays you see young people walking with their heads bowed, or sitting in a café, eyes glued to the screen of their iPhone or iPod, their fingers busily dancing on the tiny keyboard to text some frivolous message to a person who, for all they know, so absorbed are they in their social networking, might be walking or sitting right next to them and very possibly texting them. And so the sad truth is repeated when we old men get together and tragically shake our heads that the youth of today does not have the serious intellectual interest and love of art that we had when young.

But wait a minute, I say. Have I not heard this sort of mournful lamentation before? Yes, of course! Chekhov pointed this out over a hundred years ago when he commented on Tolstoy’s writing on art: “Old men have always been inclined to envisage the end of the world and say that morality had fallen to its lowest level, that art had degenerated, had played out, that people had become feeble, and so on, and so on. In his book, Tolstoy wants to convince us that art has now entered its final phase and is in a blind alley.” (Letter to A. I. Ertel, April 17, 1897).

Chekhov gets it exactly right. Surely, old men — excuse my political incorrectness, but as an old man I cannot presume to represent the views of old women — express their deep pessimism about the world’s future because very soon the world will literally have no space for them; and psychologically it must be more gratifying to see the world as a rotten place not worth living in any more instead of seeing it as an earthly paradise in which wonderful new inventions are making life so interesting that it will be sad to be excluded from an exciting extension of life.

Faced with the imminence of that eternal exclusion, it is a consolation to believe that the people who will have the misfortune to live after us will have to endure a wretched existence in an increasingly violent and morally degenerate world empty of anything beautiful, a world which mercifully we will not have to witness. Images in stories and movies representing apocalyptic reality show it to be ugly, filthy, smelly and unimaginably vile, and we old men are comforted by the conviction that this is what the future has in store for the unfortunates who will survive us.

Oh, yes, let’s face it: there’s no denying the contemporary decadence, for as another old writer states, “we have sold our souls for profit at any price, slaves that we all are to our greed,” and adds: “what wastes the talents of the present generation is the idleness in which all but a few of us pass our lives”. Now, as they say in Texas, isn’t that right on the money? The rest of this author’s book is extraordinarily enlightening, too; he couldn’t be more correct about art and what his pathetic contemporaries are doing to it.

But hold on, wait another minute! Who is this writer moaning about the present generation, accusing it of suffering from heavy-duty greed and laziness? He’s old, no doubt about it, he’s really old. The quotation is from a book titled On the Sublime, and its author is known simply as Longinus (one of two: Dionysius or Cassius), and were he alive today he would be about 1,700 years old.

The French have a phrase for the temporal illusions that confound the human mind: Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same, and, as Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is ever “the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and to depreciate the present,” for each succeeding generation thinks the past it has been privileged to experience has been incomparably superior to the abject present to which the next generation has been condemned.

What the elderly do not appreciate, however, is that what gives the next generation its intellectual vigour is the belief nature instills in the minds of the young that they are supremely gifted to effect radical change, that it is their destiny to shape a glitteringly beautiful new reality.

From their point of view, the old have had their turn and have failed, which is the opposite of what the old believe, that they were the creators of beauty while the young are too lazy and untalented to follow the brilliant example they’ve been set by their elders.

In 1960, when I was 25, I remember saying to another poet my age, “This is going to be our decade!” And so it was. While the older generation in London, from T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender to Harold Pinter, were still producing new work, we were the ones receiving a good deal of attention. A new work by Eliot — he was writing plays then — was an event; but a new work by a writer from the rising generation (e.g., the poems in Lupercal by Ted Hughes, 1960; the strikingly original forms of B. S. Johnson’s novels Travelling People, 1963, and Albert Angelo, 1964; the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, 1966) were occasions for celebration, as attested by the superlative praise received by these works from the most respected reviewers of the time.

Midway through the decade, we, the younger writers, had become prominent in London’s literary scene. Several of us, each with three or four well-received books behind us, were invited to review books in important newspapers and journals — The TLS, The Guardian, The Spectator, New Statesman. It being a human instinct to protect and glorify one’s particular tribe, our taste naturally favoured the new generation and belittled the older.

There is a silent killer in all of us writers who review books that wears various masks, now presenting itself as learned and scholarly, now as a disinterested arbiter of the true value of things; its real name is envy. A writer reviewing an older contemporary composes his criticism with the ink of envy, unconscious that the sub-text of his cutting review is to transmit the idea of his own work’s superiority. When, a decade later, younger emerging writers took over as book reviewers, it was inevitable that they should reserve their worst criticism for those of us who preceded them and appeared the most successful, and by doing so, establish themselves. They became the present, we the past. It is a natural progression.

Present time is a problematical concept. There is a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost that I often quote, “We know no time when we were not as now,” which, I believe, cannot be refuted. But within that now we have a consciousness of a time that is not-now, without which the complex we identify as the self would have no substance. It is the dilemma that Borges addresses in his A New Refutation of Time, which is an essay of timeless beauty, where he states, “All language is of a successive nature; it does not lend itself to reasoning on eternal, in temporal matters.”

There is perhaps some absolute reality out there in which faceless clocks keep the hours of warped time and where space is an eruption of fractals out of a black hole continually releasing a chaos of quarks, but we mortals are trapped between the square bracket of birth and death where we crawl in the persistent now, like Pim and Bom, through a sea of mud in Beckett’s novel, How It Is. Our poor successive language, with its subject-verb-object simplicity, expressed in a sequence of minutes, can never define that reality. We can only construct hypothetical pictures and theories about it in our arts and sciences. And in that shifting time zone with its perpetual now, where we are both the first and last witnesses bent on converting the transitoriness of perception into some eternal truth, Longinus and Chekhov are our contemporaries, our true witnesses.

Longinus defines the rottenness of the present which for each succeeding age seems to be a period of insecurity, turmoil, and an anarchic disregard for traditional values. Such a view results from seeing only the immediate daily drama in which, for example, there is feverish excitement over a new writer accorded stellar status, whose sudden rise inevitably diminishes popular interest in the work of one who had only recently been raised to that shining level. Yesterday’s star is abandoned for tomorrow’s meteor.

Learning from Hollywood’s promotional techniques based on the assumption that it is not talent alone but clever public relations that persuades the popular audience it is looking at a supreme artist, publishers will sometimes launch a work by spreading some unsubstantiated news about the writer that prompts general curiosity. The proliferation of literary prizes and festivals, the creation of lists, book tours and book signings are all part of the promotional hype to create stars that glitter, not in the eternal firmament of canonical literature but as gold in the publisher’s pocket.

That creation of instant celebrities generates a need that there be newer ones, a continuing parade of the famous for whose signature we line up at book signings. Where literary prizes used to announce a short list, now they announce a long list first; where newspapers used to print one weekly best-seller list of 10 books, now they list 20 in each of several categories, including such bizarre ones as the best-selling books aimed at young adults — and perhaps there will soon be another for middle-aged adults. The parade gets longer and longer. Most of the literature produced at any one time is of the throwaway variety, however much light is forced to flash at us from the celebrities of the day. This has always been the case.

Guy de Maupassant wrote in his introduction to Prévost’s Manon Lescaut: “What a number of other novels of the same epoch have disappeared! All that the ingenious writers invented to amuse their contemporaries have been consigned to oblivion. We scarcely know the titles of the most celebrated, and we cannot recall their subjects.”

Chekhov, who witnessed a similar parade towards oblivion in his own time, would have agreed. It’s just that the throwaway literature of one’s own time seems to get taken seriously and, driven by publishers’ promotional tactics and their own pushiness, some mediocre writers receive high honours. Another contemporary in this eternal present, Shakespeare, would have agreed too, for he makes Hamlet, in his famous speech, refer to “the spurns / That patient merit of th’unworthy takes”. It’s enough to make one think we’re witnessing the end.”