The Dawn: Sep 25, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Literary critic: tradition and denial of intellectual independence

Mushtaq Soofi 

Written word carries a stamp of prestige in our culture. It is venerated, learnt and transmitted from generation to generation. But sadly the ones who compose words are generally neglected. What we know about our classical writers is derived from hagiographic accounts and heresy which tell us more about their miraculous powers than their real life struggle, creative pursuits, artistic ordeals and literary expressions.

The case of our contemporary writers is worse. Details of their artistic lives are little known which make it difficult for people to understand their intellectual ordeals and elusive processes underlying their creative endeavours.

A literary critic faces a challenging situation whenever he tries to sift fact from fiction and evaluate with a measure of objectivity the expressions of our writers, past and present.

Critic especially has a historically created problem with classical poets and writers that squeezes space for him; they, nearly most of them, have been beautified.

The Punjabi literary tradition is unique in the sense that a large number of classical intellectuals of which it is rightfully proud happened to be poet-saints.

It’s difficult to determine whether it was their saintliness that inspired their expressions or poetic talent that inspired their spiritual quest.

Anyhow they have achieved the status of icons as far as tradition and people’s imagination are concerned. And icons have to be venerated, not to be looked at critically.

Public perception holds that anyone catapulted to such a height cannot be questioned whether it’s their acts or utterances. Critical examination or assessment of their works is tantamount to sacrilege. So literary critic hasn’t much of freedom needed to conduct independent exploration and inquiry. He has to walk a tight rope like Nietzsche’s hero.

A misstep can plunge him into an abyss of darkness and infamy in the public eye. Reverence and objectivity are poles apart especially in our culture with a morally conditioned way of looking at things in black and white. Critical analysis of any poetic work for all the wrong reasons is invariably considered to be an attempt to expose a poet-saint to contumely.

There can be no doubt for instance about the saintliness and wisdom of a great poet-saint but can a critic say without the risk of incurring the wrath of spiritualists and hoi polloi that at times he may sound like a highly conservative Mullah.

It shocks you when a poet-saint says that a person not observing certain religious ritual deserves to be beheaded. How a critic is going to interpret this?

A critical remark if passed can in no way reduce his high stature as a spiritually profound master and socially conscious poet with inclusive vision and imaginative insight. But if a critic dares to do so, all the hell will break loose. Why? Because challenging a poet-saint’s view will be taken as a mark of extreme impiety and unbearable insolence.

Can a critic with a modicum of contemporary consciousness ignore gender bias we come across in the verses of another celebrated poet-saint who is otherwise highly robust and man of wisdom?

What is one to make of his view when he likens the world to a woman in menstruation that in no way can purify itself? The gender bias borders on contempt for female.

One is puzzled as to how a poet who is a humanist and believes in human equality can have reductionist approach towards woman. What were the sub-conscious forces at work in his psyche that prompted him to employ a biological phenomenon specific to female in order to evoke the revulsion of the world and its ways?

Now a word about the bard of the Punjab! It has been pointed out in recent times though in a hushed manner that he, despite being a great visionary and exponent of human emancipation especially that of woman, at places expresses caste bias in unambiguous terms.

He discretely glorifies his ‘caste’ of Arabian origin and portrays other indigenous castes in disparaging colours gleefully, even ridicules them in thinly concealed words.

The problem is compounded when you find that he generally debunks the myth of caste including the high or low status associated with it. If a critic tries to unearth the phenomenon of how and why the caste bias sneaks into his verses, he is accused of undermining the genius of our greatest poet.

Literary criticism is a thankless job the world over but more so in our tradition driven culture which values authority rather than intellectual independence. So what is to be done to create a breathing space for literary critic?

There is no need to dull the ambiance of sacredness that surrounds our poet-saints which is well-earned. But what can be done is to try to distinguish between the saintly and creative dimensions of these genuinely great personalities which hitherto remains intertwined. Sentimental devotion will not automatically segue into enlightened tolerance.

Conscious intervention can help corral the deep-seated superstitious urges which do not allow our poets to be seen and enjoyed as poets. What can be better tool than literary criticism to liberate our poets from the imprisonment of their holier than thou followers.

Poetry and what it evokes can only be understood and appreciated if treated as a creative expression not entirely dependent on the mystical and miraculous, real and imagined. —

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