Monday, April 18, 2005

Professors under Siege: Githa Hariharan and A.S. Byatt

[Cross-posted at The Valve]

I recently taught, in parallel, two books about relatively unassuming professors whose lives actually become a little bit interesting. One was Githa Hariharan's In Times of Siege, and the other A.S. Byatt's Possession. As novels about academic life, both deal with academic controversies associated with the politicization of academic work in England in the 1970s and 80s, and India in the 1990s, respectively. As both Hariharan and Byatt have taught at universities on and off, they include a fair bit of direct discussion of the issues; both novels have "lectures" alongside straightfoward narration. I have been meditating on whether the self-conscious intellectualism of the novels crosses the line into academicism (Bad Writing). Below, I say some critical things about In Times of Siege, but conclude that Hariharan finds a way of doing it that works. On the other hand, I say some nice things about Possession, but conclude that its theory about history actually doesn't work.

I also do a fair bit of plot-summary of In Times of Siege (bear with me), but not of Possession, which is a much-better known story.

* * * * *

This is Hariharan's fourth novel. Even though she won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for The Thousand Faces of Night, In Times of Siege is the first book of hers to appear on a major U.S. publishing house (Vintage). It's a worthy debut; the novel is at once nicely executed (short and to the point), and clearly distinct from the kinds of novels published by Indian authors in the past decade. Professor Shiv Murthy is a professor of medieval Indian history at a correspondence university in New Delhi. He is also in some sense deeply emotionally stunted by a childhood experience, the sudden disappearance of a father who had been a frustrated Indian freedom-fighter. Shiv finds himself in hot water when the Hindu right picks up on a series of lessons he's written on a 12th century reform figure named Basava (or Basavanna, depending on how you spell it). Basava was a critic of religious orthodoxies in his day, but also a bit of a religious prophet himself. He is credited with starting a sect, the Veerashaivas (Warriors of Shiva), but he is nevertheless held up by some Indian secularists as an early example of a critic of Brahminical authority, religious dogma in general, and all manner of other backwardness in India. To religious Hindus, however, he can be seen as a religious hero.

Shiv's lectures, Hariharan informs us, are a bit slanted towards the progressive, secularist interpretation, and a loud group of critics (the "Itihas Suraksha Manch," or "History Protection Platform") publicly calls for an apology, a revised lesson, and a more "balanced" syllabus. (Ring some bells?) The Chair of the department and the Dean are spooked by the national media attention, and attempt to strong-arm Shiv to revise the lesson and sign the apology. The Chair's complaint against Shiv is a nice parody of bureaucratic absurdity. Here's a short bit from the Department Chair's list of phrases in Shiv's lesson that were deemed objectionable: "One: Backward looking. Two: Contradictory accounts of Basava's life, conflicting narratives. Three: Birth legends fabricated. Four: Called a bigoted revolutionary by temple priests. Also called a dangerous man, a threat to structure, stability, and religion. Five: The comfort of faith was not enough for Basava." I like this list because it shows how the censorious side of Political Correctness, traditionally a hallmark of the left, can just as easily be deployed by the right. The words "backward looking" in a lesson on Medieval Indian history might in fact suggest a sloppy conception of history, but here they are being censored because they are too progressive.

Normally for Shiv, the response to such coercion would be a bit of a no-brainer -- you sign the apology, change the lesson, and keep your job -- but at the time this controversy happens the daugther of an old friend is staying with him, recuperating from a broken leg. Meena is a campus radical from a different (better) university, and her presence in his life completely transforms Shiv's sense of his role as a historian. She eggs him on as he resists the History Protection Movement. Along the way he also fall a little bit in love with her, even though her age is less than his daughter's (Shiv's wife is away for a time in Seattle). In case you were worried about where this is going, Hariharan handles this part of the story with psychological realism and grace; she keeps the potential for sexual scandal from hijacking a story that is at essence about the professor, Shiv Murthy.

The defining problem, in both novels, is more or less same: what does history mean to us? Ideologically, it can be a chain that binds us to the past, forever constraining our visions of the kind of society we might have. History can be conservative: if people were divided along religious, caste, and class lines in the past, so it must always be. But for most young people today it is much easier to be a kind of Intentionally Naive Radical: who cares? It's not just the 12th century that's old news, it's the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. What matters is what's Big News, today, right now, this very moment.

The protagonists of both of these novels live a very different relationship to history. Even if history's riddles aren't completely decipherable to them, its concerns are animating and open to interpretation. Thinking about history is the kind of thing that can help you get over the loss of your father (Hariharan). Or, discovering history can make you fall in love (Byatt). The theory of history in (serious) historical fiction might be generalized as follows: an engagement with the recesses of the past has the potential to utterly transform the present at every level. History, in short, is the very best kind of 'long tail'.

Of course, this is easier to say than it is to do. In working out her novel's theory of history, Hariharan does have a few moments of professorial geekiness. At one point, for instance, she writes:

Each of us carries within ourselves a history, an encyclopedia of images, a landscape with its distinct patterns of mutilation. A dictionary that speaks the languages of several pasts, that moves across borders, back and forth between different times. Some biographers date Basava's death--or the presumption of death-- as January 1168. But in Shiv's mind, this tentative date creeps forward insidiously. Not to June 7, 1962, when his father disappeared, but to its medieval counterpart, June 7, 1168.

Like Shiv's father, Basava disappeared. He was presumed dead. His end would always be shrouded by mysterious circumstances and speculation. Speculative narratives. Narratives of love or faith or revolution. But is all narrative doomed to be inconclusive?

To my taste, this is all good until the last sentence, which is a bit like a rhetorical question you ask the class near the end of the hour, which falls flat. The question, which might sound weighty and grave to the ears of professors, reeks of academicism to students. (And perhaps readers as well...)

[To be fair, Hariharan's novel has many moments where the crisis in history is dealt with that don't go this route. I won't quote them here; hopefully some of you will trust me when I say that this novel is worth a read for anyone who has ever worried about academic freedom.]

For some, the essayistic drift one often sees in novels about academics might be a problem in and of itself. One is reminded of the old dictum to "show, don't tell." Fortunately or unfortunately, books that have professors for protagonists tend to do a lot of self-conscious telling alongside unconcious showing.

I think academic novels can work, though it depends on how it's done. Despite the passages on Basava and the sacking of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar (another source of controversy amongst Indian historians and history-writers), Hariharan's novel still feels light, whereas Byatt's Possession has a weighted-down feel. With all the different voices in play, it becomes difficult to sit with it and just read the damn book. Byatt's narration via diaries, letters, and snippets of 'reconstructed' poetry are evidence of a comprehensive, richly textured knowledge of the knowledge Victorian era, but they make Possession seem like a bit of a textbook, rather than a "story."

Of course, one could argue that that's the point of the book: no story worth knowing is ever just one person's story. The emphasis on the individual protagonist and the fixed viewpoint (individuated) narrator who in some sense mirrors the protagonist, is a convention of the modern novel. In passages like the following, Byatt seems to be protesting the trend:

Might there not, he professionally asked himself, be an element of superstitious dread in any self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game or plot-coil that recognises that it has got out of hand? That recognises that connections proliferate apparently at random, apparently in response to some ferocious ordering principle, require the aleatory or the multivalent or the "free," but structuring, but controlling, but driving to some--to what?--end. Coherence nad closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable.

This seems to be a bit of conservative nostalgia for the "old-fashioned" novel where a man and woman fall in love and get married, but the fragmentary structure of the novel in which this quote appears makes it hard to quite believe she means what she says. Byatt's more experimental recent stories seem to make a case for aesthetic seriousness critics attach to the words "postmodern" and "metafiction," while maintaining a more-than-sentimental attachment to the elements of storytelling that postmodernism has, supposedly, rendered passé.

In parallel with the different approaches to the idea of history in their novels are differences in epistemology along modern/postmodern lines. Hariharan's take on Basava leans postmodernist: the final truth about this 12th century figure's relationship to religion will never be definitively known, but the lack of closure can actually be a lesson for the always polarized, ideologically volatile contemporary moment. In contrast, Byatt's English professors recoil against the dicta of the postmodernist era, as they are propelled by a desire to know the Whole Story about the scandalous Victorian romance they are investigating. There is no question in Byatt's novel as to whether there is a Whole Story to be objectively known and explained; there most certainly is. And presumably alongside the "deep human desire" for the Whole Story comes a hunger for a series of other ontologically incorrect terms: Totality, Essence, and Truth.


Anonymous Chris Dyczek said...

I disagree with this account of Byatt. Her two poets are Victorian characters immersed in the historicism debates of that period, flagged up with mentions of Michelet (especially), Renan, Ruskin, Goethe, Emerson, etc. These debates about how effective science can be in revealing the past reality of things 'as the really happened' (Von Ranke, not mentioned) are also debates about how much reality is ever passed on in written forms at all. Byatt's whole novel does question whether any Whole Story can be objectivel known, or even subjectively known. More to the point, can any student of the origins of a genre called 'romance' ever 'possess' the full reality of a person who gives birth to romance? The challenge is not to say whether this might be objective (as Cropper supposes), but to have a sufficiently focussed intersubjective irony about all human expressions of the mystery of life!
Chris Dyczek 19th Mar 09.

6:51 PM  

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