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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Three Shades of an Intellectual

Kanchah Ilaih Shepherd must be a learned man.
So is Ravish Kumar,I suppose.
Together they share the self image of “intellectuals”, leading the dangerous crusade against right wing retrograde and authoritarian forces out to vanquish rationalism and spread darkness all around. A compulsive letter writer, Ravish Kumar has cried wolf so often in his epistles that one has ceased to take him seriously.(He reminds me of the protagonist in Saul Bellow’s famous novel Herzog who keeps writing letters to all and sundry, including God). This time round his paranoia has taken him one step further; he fears for his job, which would mean the dissolution of his identity? What would Ravish Kumar be without his very private pulpit to which he retires every evening, to deliver long sermons to the faithful of similar political persuasion? About the making of this unique intellectual later! Let us first address ourselves the concern of two very, very scared intellectuals. If Mr. Modi is following me, my earnest appeal to him is to accord them z+ security. Let them ignite their revolution with police help lest history gripe at the lost opportunity. And yet!
The image of the intellectual in our minds, however , is that of a courageous individual on whom lies a moral onus -to “speak”- in the Biblical phrase popularized by Julian Benda (Traihon de Clerics, The Treason of Intellectuals) “truth to power”. A contrarian figure and an eternal nay sayer, an intellectual is indifferent to the lure of material advantages or personal glory. His convictions do not admit fear of death. Socrates is the archetypal figure; the escape route was available to him but he accepted the cup of hemlock casting derision on death.
Emilie Zola championing the Dreyfus case carved another role for the intellectual (as also the coinage of the word) ; a political activist, an honorary spokesperson for truth and justice for all seasons. In short for an intellectual (in Voltaire’s famous dictum) “Moi, je ne propose rien. J’expose”. ( I proposed nothing , I expose) Zola’s “J’accuse” ( I accuse ) came to symbolize the war cry. He has a full blooded engagement with the vulgate world of politics and yet remains absolutely unaffected by its evil ways.
The political activism of the intellectual was accorded some kind of inevitability by the Bolshevik Revolution. The Revolution was largely made by vanguard fighters, a small band of intellectuals under the direction of Lenin, whom he called “dead men on furlough”. Their fearlessness lent a modish charm to the idea of the soldier- activist- intellectual.
Martyrdom and honour go together. But some intellectuals forsook personal honour; courted infamy, wallowed in filth and mud to advance the cause of revolution as immortalized in Arthur Koestlers famous novel Darkness At Noon. It was clear that the Revolution was not going the way it was expected to and to admit the defeat of the idea would be detrimental to the cause of the Party. So like Rubashov (modeled possibly on  Leon Trotsky and Nikolai Bukharin) the protagonist of the novel Darkness At Noon, which foreshadows the horror of the Stalinist shadow trials, confesses to the most absurd charges because he is made to believe that it would help the cause of the party to be told that the failure of the revolution was not due to any fatal flaw in the design but to the treasonable activities of its leaders.
In case the examples seem remote and distant in context, let us remind ourselves of Lasantha Wickramatunga who is very close to us - temporally and spatially. His Letter To Grave shows a philosophical detachment at the prospect of his own death which he embraced with equanimity, because he knew he had a choice.
There are of course other stripes of intellectuals who were being run in 50s and 60s by a middle level police officer and funded by the CIA to think progressive thoughts ; not one but the entire non communist left and liberals which could boast of names like Isaiah Berlin , and Hannah Arendt, Trevor Rooper and Mary McCarthy , Edward Shills and Stephen Spender . You name it they figured there. Any one who has closely followed Frances Stonor Saunders’s detailed investigation into the funding of ENCOUNTER and DER MONET (two of the finest intellectual magazines of their time to which all those named above contributed,) cannot be blamed for wondering WHO PAID THE PIPER?
Which company do you keep gentlemen?

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