The Humanities Need Wonder, Not Consecration

The building blocks of modernity are under attack. Uncertainty, doubt, capacity for abstraction, wonder, utopia, irony – we are temporarily retreating from these tendencies that have historically driven the humanities.

The building blocks of modernity are under attack. Uncertainty, doubt, capacity for abstraction, wonder, utopia, irony – we are temporarily retreating from these tendencies that have historically driven the humanities.

What is humanities without enquiry? Credit: Sarah Ross/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I had recently ventured into a straightforward reading of a short lyric by the doyen of contemporary Hindi poetry, the late Viren Dangwal. This was a poem about the nature of the filial relationship on which a father speculates, after his death, with his son. Dangwal punctures the ritualised and static relationship between the father and the son by taking on the motives behind the 16-day lunar period in the Hindu diurnal calendar, the pitr-paksha, when believers pay homage to their ancestors through certain specified food offerings.

He turns the fixity of such a relationship based on this particular ritual-practice on its head by highlighting how fatherhood is not a matter of wish-fulfilment but is rather, a moisture like principle that lingers within the progeny – both in happiness and suffering. It is a loving and giving trace that abides, especially since the relationship ought to rely more on a certain critical and combative banter between the two, rather than on any superfluous reverence. The significant point is that Dangwal wrests the filial away from a relationship of likeness between the father and the son. The son cannot afford to be propitiatory in his encounters with his irreverent father. Instead of actively teaching his son the virtues of humility, prudence, patience and planning, Dangwal takes a mock-serious, tentative and self-reflective route. The filial/vatsalya thus turns modern. And democratic.

The poem itself and my interpretation of it, offended the sensibility of a well-known young contemporary poet, who is also a scholar and teacher of literature. Since I value her poetical craft, I was intrigued by the nature of her disquiet. The underlying charge against Dangwal was that he lacked any serious investment in tradition and that he had used it merely to make a detached anthropological point and this was characteristic of a progressive liberal way of thinking – that it abandons all things solid and enduring only to replace them with vacuous abstractions. I suspect this was not a stray reaction but represents a tendency that marks our time. This critique of critique is a sensibility widespread among the young. It is also at the heart of a certain proclivity that we are currently witnessing in the humanities establishment. The building blocks of modernity are under attack. Uncertainty, doubt, capacity for abstraction, wonder, utopia, irony – human beings seem to be temporarily retreating from these tendencies that have historically driven the humanities.

Wonder, that ‘unprocessed and immobilising encounter’, in the eloquent words of Elaine Scarry, is fundamental to the act of artistic creation and the act of receiving such a creation – as a spectator, scholar or a critic. I am using wonder as an expansive metaphor here, holding in its breadth fortitude, anguish, dejection, ridiculousness, even revulsion. Wonder could lead to curiosity, to inspiration, to doubt, to questioning, to indignation, to a seeking of justice. What is unprecedented or vivid could also make you bask in the very inspiration itself that catalyses art, the marvel when an art object synchronises perfectly with the visionary leap of the artist and the capacity of the connoisseur to assimilate that inspiration.

On the other hand, a thin line divides wonder from reverence. Art could take one to a domain where credulity and belief may override creation itself. The significant point is that such a turn could very well ensue from a serious investment in wonder, reflected as certain cosmological signatures in our existence – linguistic suggestivity, mystical excess, space-time depth, conditions of being, attachment to our animal existence – all ways through which poiesis, the act of artistic creation, receives a certain stratified density. And a certain freedom too – one that only a wanderer or a pilgrim can have. But such literary or artistic density could also very quickly turn into a reverence for revelation or a belief in consecrated objects, if we are not careful about the thin line that rests between poeisis and faith. What may seem like wandering may turn into a firm belief, an anchorage in the art object as a holy relic that requires no further enquiry. And without enquiry, what humanities? Or is enquiry itself as a phenomenon related only to some cultures and time periods in history?

“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” was the question posed by the church father Tertullian a long time ago. Indeed, humanities have to grapple with this question at certain junctures in history. Now is such a moment in history. The shape and contour of literary studies shall depend on how the coming generations maintain this delicate balance among inspiration, doubt and faith.

How is faith and decidability entering our college premises? A mood, in fact, percolates gradually, stabilises itself and then gets institutionalised over a period of time. The percolation of wonder into faith, an angry neoconservative ambience, has not happened overnight but has taken shape materially over the last three decades at least. Much has to do with the change in the geopolitical scenario after the demise of the socialist bloc and with it, the academisation of a culture of debate and felicity.

As the world turned populist and the ground shifted slowly, the humanities academia gradually moved inward and cut itself away from the literary and artistic practice, nay, the very life outside. The humanities trade has rarely been a revolutionary creed, as Bruce Robbins has recently iterated while discussing the politics of close reading. Fair enough. But the inward looking creed used to hone a tentative humility, a kind of grounded austerity and a detachment that scholarship demands. That is the only way through which this class nurtures cultural capital. And refinement. The tentative liberal is bewildered now to see such anger and faith all around him and he cowers to see the world outside entering his reading room. He either tries to make amends by playing to radicalism. Or else seeks a refuge in new shops, where there are none.

But what exactly constitutes the new demand-supply chain that suggests the humanities have not been able to chart a career path for the young? What kind of defined career path is being tomtomed by the new seminaries of humanities studies that act as a conduit to industry – now engaged in producing a horde of fideistic, supine, glossy work force? How is a humanities major fostered on a consecrated, value-based system going to be better off than someone who has been nurtured on critical reading, doubt and banter, that is to say, been able to marry wonder with skepticism, rather than seeking obedience and anchorage?

Humanities shall remain a rigorous study in uselessness and wonder, with its own rules and possibilities. Since Horace, its social use is being debated. The times now seek material and spiritual stability. The political class is solidly behind such a wish. A consecrated humanities is good for their own existence. If the irreverent and the justice-seeking have to make any headway, they have to start afresh. It is going to be long, arduous and non-negotiated a trek.

Prasanta Chakravarty edits the web journal Humanities Underground and teaches English at Delhi University.

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