[Paleopsych] New Criterion: Pundits & panjandrums by Anthony Daniels

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Pundits & panjandrums by Anthony Daniels

    One of the temptations of world fame (I suppose), especially when it
    is gained early in life, must be to treat one's own utterances with
    undue reverence. Their provenance becomes the guarantee not only of
    their truth but also of their profundity, and even the most casual
    meanderings or off-scourings of the mind, once expressed in public,
    are invested with ineffable preciousness.

    Since I consort but rarely with the world-famous, this is something
    that I discovered comparatively late in life. I happened to be in
    Buenos Aires when Elie Wiesel was there. He was to give a public
    address, followed by questions and answers. I attended along with a
    large and expectant audience. A man who had survived the Holocaust
    would surely have something worthwhile to say about the wellsprings of
    human evil and the purpose of life, two subjects that could scarcely
    be more important or interesting. It didn't occur to me that one can't
    go humping profundity about the world as if it were a piece of
    luggage. Neither, apparently, did Elie Wiesel.

    Buenos Aires is, of course, a city with one of the largest Jewish
    populations in the world. The audience was therefore unlikely to be
    uninformed about the Holocaust, but Wiesel spoke to it, impromptu, as
    if it were composed of twelve year olds of limited knowledge and less
    ability. Perhaps he had come to the conclusion that the world, having
    taken him at his own estimate, was composed exclusively of fools. He
    was oblivious to the restlessness of the audience that he treated in
    this fashion, and when at the end of his rambling discourse he was
    asked what he considered to be specifically Jewish characteristics, he
    thought for a moment, or rather made as if he thought for a moment
    (after all, it was not a straightforward question), and said something
    like, "Jews sing and dance."

    Did he mean that all Jews sing and dance? Or that only Jews sing and
    dance? Or both, perhaps? Just as I once drank whisky to great excess
    at the age of nineteen, and have never been able to drink it since
    without a rising feeling of nausea, so I have never been able to
    listen to a world-famous person without a prejudice against him since
    I listened to Elie Wiesel. I concede that this is not entirely
    logical, but neither is my aversion to whisky.

    I tried again in Calcutta to cure myself of my prejudice against
    world-famous panjandrums. This time it was Günter Grass, another Nobel
    Prize winner, though for literature rather than peace. He was in a
    panel discussion on "The Segregation of Cultures in the Contemporary
    World: Clash, Convergence or Co-operation?" For some reason, the very
    subject matter conjured up images of hot-air balloons in my mind, of
    which I was not able entirely to disembarrass myself.

    The audience was composed of Calcutta's concerned intellectuals:
    concerned, that is, with where they were to have dinner afterwards.
    Some of them had come with the clear intention of asking a question in
    public, which is to say, of making a speech. The real star of the show
    was the moderator, a writer and actor called Girish Karnad, who
    refused to allow them to do so, interrupting them not in mid-sentence
    but in mid-word, when it became obvious that they were more interested
    in airing their opinions than in asking a question on the
    subject--diffuse enough as it was. Rarely have I heard a more
    intellectually incisive chairman, simultaneously ruthless, witty, and
    charming. He disallowed at least half of those who spoke from the
    floor, but amateur windbags are not to be deterred by the prospect of
    humiliation, any more than professional ones are by the prospect of

    Among the other panelists was Amitav Ghosh, billed as "the most
    important Indian author in English," and Najam Sethi, a Pakistani
    journalist from Lahore. Ghosh spoke of an Anglophone conspiracy to
    dominate the world, physically, economically, and culturally, dating
    back at least three centuries: I half-expected him to refer to the
    Protocols of the Elders of Oxford. He saw the European Union--the
    apparatchiks' new paradise--as the hope of the world, the one possible
    counterweight to the hegemony of the United States. Needless to say,
    as a holder of such views he lives part of his time in the United
    States, where there is a strong market for them, at least on
    university campuses, which is what counts for writers.

    For Sethi I conceived a great respect. It was not that I agreed with
    everything he said, much to the contrary; he illustrated his belief in
    the possibility of genuine multiculturalism by reference to the
    different kinds of restaurant to be found in most large cities
    nowadays. (I have always suspected that, at root, multiculturalism
    means, at least for westerners, tapas today, tom kha kai tomorrow, and
    tarte tatin the day after. This is to take the idea that we are what
    we eat a little too seriously.) But when Sethi compared his own
    country, Pakistan, unfavorably with India in the matter of
    intellectual freedom, it was impossible not to admire his deep moral
    courage. By saying such a thing in a public forum, however obvious its
    truth, deep in the enemy country, he was taking a personal risk of the
    kind that Günter Grass--or any of us--has thankfully never had to
    take. Of course, our freedom makes any dishonesty on our part all the
    more reprehensible.

    Grass ambled, bear-like, onto the stage, which had been arranged like
    the set of a comfortable living room in a well-made play, complete
    with sofas and bookshelves. His manner was attractively fragile,
    ordinary and modest, and I warm to a man who dyes his hair at the age
    of seventy-eight. He still cares what figure he cuts in the world,
    which is an all-too-human failing.

    I can't say I'm an admirer of his prose, though: his kind of
    picaresque exaggeration is an open invitation to self-indulgence and
    imprecision. Improbability is made to stand for essence. And nothing
    Mr. Grass said in Calcutta rose very high above the level of cliché.
    The picaresque and the utterly conventional, it seems, can coexist
    comfortably in the same mind.

    He spoke of the dangers of globalization and "economic flattening,"
    and of the common people as the victims of this process. He spoke of
    the need to resist the unique power in the world--the United States.
    He recalled the happy days of Willy Brandt's famous commission on the
    Third World, with its prophecy that the conflict between the
    capitalist West and the Communist East would be replaced by that
    between the rich north and the poor south. And he asked what
    literature could do in the current circumstances. It could draw
    attention to issues such as global warming, the shortage of water, and
    the reasons for terrorism (needless to say, he wasn't thinking here of
    Dostoyevsky). Indeed, he said, writers would be superfluous if they
    didn't address such issues. And writers were always on the side of the

    Always and everywhere? On the side of the Nazis, for example? And is a
    writer who is not interested in hydrology ipso facto superfluous? This
    is not to say that an imaginative writer could never legitimately
    treat of a poor person's struggle to secure a water supply in
    conditions of shortage, but surely it is going a little far (indeed,
    it is profoundly totalitarian) to say that he must do so, or risk
    superfluity, like members of the Russian intelligentsia in the 1840s.
    The indiscipline of Grass's prose is symptomatic of the indiscipline
    of his mind.

    Grass has a special relationship with Calcutta. This was his fourth
    visit and he lived there for a few months in 1987 and 1988, writing a
    book (containing many of his pen and ink sketches) about his
    experiences, published in English as Show Your Tongue. The various
    predictions he made in that book have done nothing whatever to reduce
    the certainty of his current opinions and prognoses. This is the
    hallmark of the true panjandrum.

    In a paragraph alluding to Subhas Chandra Bose, the Bengali Indian
    nationalist who broke with Gandhi and threw in his lot first with
    Hitler and then the Japanese, and to the fact that Bengal, like
    Germany, was divided between East and West, Grass says:

      A little later, during a brief trip to Bangladesh, the mere mention
      of the Bengali Führer will unleash almost fanatical hymns of
      allegiance. What a good thing that at present there is no unifier
      (living or dead) standing at the German door.

    This was published in 1989. The timing could hardly have been worse.
    Whatever one's temptation to laugh, one cannot blame Grass for failing
    to foresee what others likewise failed to foresee, but it might with
    decency have instilled in him a certain modesty concerning his powers
    of political analysis and clairvoyance.

    Many of his other judgments seem hardly any better. He tells us that
    all the statistics concerning India in general and Calcutta in
    particular point to a catastrophe or even an apocalypse (one senses
    that he derives an illicit pleasure from this, as highly moral and
    respectable masochists derive pleasure from being whipped or beaten by
    a dominatrix). According to Grass, the city could only get poorer and
    poorer and poorer until--presumably--everyone starved to death.

    I have been visiting Calcutta for nearly thirty years. The reverse is
    actually the truth. When I first came to Calcutta, lepers waved their
    shrivelled and deformed limbs in your face through open taxi windows
    every time the taxis stopped at intersections. Paying them to go away
    was no solution, for it merely encouraged the others. You learned to
    trip over human forms on the sidewalks without inquiring too closely
    whether the forms were alive or dead. At night, every doorway, every
    nook and cranny became a dormitory, and the municipality arranged for
    the dead, of whom the dawn always revealed a few, to be swept up

    It is true that Calcutta still has the power to shock. One can still
    see people sifting through horrible rotting garbage for something of
    value. A taxi drew up beside mine and inside I saw something that
    brought back the memory of a previous epoch, that I thought I had
    forgotten, and the swiftness of whose recognition surprised me: a face
    deeply pitted by smallpox.

    But the last case of smallpox in Calcutta was in 1972, and the man
    whom I saw whose face was pitted by it was well into his thirties. For
    those who have visited Calcutta over a period of years, the signs of
    increasing prosperity are everywhere: far fewer rickshaws, for
    example, and practically no beggars. All the children who play cricket
    (about which Indians are fanatical), even in the most restricted of
    spaces, now have real bats and balls instead of equipment fashioned
    out of scraps of wood and cloth, as they did formerly. I should guess
    that India is by far the largest market for cricket bats in the world.

    Grass predicted that the old and gracious buildings of Calcutta would
    disappear and yield to hovels as the city grew ever poorer, ever more
    desperate. (He also seemed to think this was a good thing, because
    hovels were authentic. "Once back in Germany," he wrote, "[I] measure
    everything, myself included, by Calcutta.")

    Well, he was right about the disappearance of the gracious buildings,
    but quite wrong about the reasons for it. Next to the place I stayed
    in Calcutta was a wonderful old Indo-Palladian villa, literally
    falling into ruins before one's eyes. To enter it was to risk death by
    stucco. There was one protected tenant still living in it--I could
    watch her at night through the dilapidated shutters moving about in
    the crumbling interior--but the owner wanted the building to collapse
    utterly so that he could avoid the city's preservation regulations
    without having to pay too great a bribe to the regulators, and build a
    block of luxury apartments on the site instead. He would make a
    fortune, even if it meant the city became even uglier. Increasing
    wealth, not poverty, now threatens to destroy the city's architectural
    heritage, a process that was started by demagogic pseudo-egalitarian

    Of course, there is no gain without loss. You don't have to be an
    inveterate anti-globalist to have reservations, mainly of an aesthetic
    nature, about India's headlong rush into modernity. Calcutta now has
    shopping malls, and its middle class can't wait to consume western
    gewgaws (usually manufactured by the cheap labor of the East) that are
    grossly inferior, aesthetically, to India's own traditional
    productions. One of the great pleasures of India used to be its
    comparative immunity to the cultural hegemony--to coin a phrase--of
    Anglo-American pop music, but not only does its own popular music
    increasingly approximate that horrible and savage noise, but its
    shopping malls positively throb with it. Sensitive Indians themselves
    are alarmed by the process, though they know that it is unstoppable
    and that their country's indefinable charms--as well as its more
    easily defined horrors--will inevitably yield to it. It will take some
    time, and the old and new India will coexist for years to come.
    Emerging from a Calcutta shopping mall, where consumerism reigned in
    all its garish vulgarity, I noticed a large placard attached to the
    nearest lamppost: Female foeticide is illegal. Once in India, I saw a
    holy cow grazing on a pile of computer printout. But there is no
    denying that globalization is lifting Indian cities from the most
    abject poverty (the countryside might be different, I don't know),
    even if at the cost of a loss of aesthetic refinement.

    The duty of intellectuals is to spell out proper distinctions as
    clearly and honestly as possible. The condition of being a pundit
    stands in the way of this, for it lends authority to a person rather
    than to evidence and argument. (Appropriately enough, "pundit" is a
    word of Indian origin referring to a Brahmin who knows the Sanskrit
    prayers that accompany the arcane rituals of Hindu puja, or prayer. I
    once asked a highly educated Indian friend of mine to explain the
    prayers and ritual to me at a wedding, to which he replied, "I don't
    know, it's all Greek to me.")

    The temptations of punditry are great. I have on occasion succumbed to
    them myself. Once the United Nations Development Program invited me,
    heaven knows why, to a colloquium in Bamako, Mali, on how the press
    might improve the image of Africa. (Improving Africa itself was, of
    course, quite beyond anyone's powers, as a brief glance outside the
    hotel's entrance made clear. Besides, what is reality set against the
    power of public relations?) Everyone at the meeting had a certain
    number of minutes to hold forth, and then there was a discussion
    afterwards. A captive audience, each member of which is awaiting his
    ten minutes at the podium, is an attentive audience.

    I was only a minor pundit, of course. The most senior present was
    Nadine Gordimer, another Nobel Prize winner. After a Ghanaian woman in
    national costume had spoken, Miss Gordimer took the floor. "As my
    sister Susan has said," she began. "Actually," interrupted Susan, "my
    name's Gloria."

    I am glad to say that so trivial a detail was not permitted to stand
    in the way of the important abstract point that the pundit was then
    trying to make.

    Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer whose most recent books are
    "Utopias Elsewhere" and "Monrovia Mon Amour".


              From The New Criterion Vol. 23, No. 7, March 2005


    1. http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/23/mar05/daniels.htm

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