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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, April 18, 2005

Professors Under Siege: Hariharan and Byatt

Posted by Amardeep Singh on 04/18/05 at 02:14 PM

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 they are 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. Also, 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 do quite what Byatt says it does.

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.

In Times of Siege 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. By the other side, however, he is held up as a heroic religious icon.

Shiv’s lectures, Hariharan informs us, are a bit slanted towards the progressive, secularist interpretation, and a loud group of critics (the “History Protection Movement") 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 phrase “backward looking” in a lesson on Medieval Indian history might in fact suggest a sloppy conception of history, but here the phrase is being censored because it is too progressive-sounding.

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. Meena eggs him on as he resists the Histor Protection Movement, and her presence in his life ultimately transforms Shiv’s sense of his role as a historian . 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 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 with someone 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, public and private. 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.

[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 as much self-conscious telling as they do the more happily unconcious kind of 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 and effective, 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 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 passe.

In parallel with the different approaches to the idea of history in their novels are differences in epistemology along modern/postmodern lines. Though her novel is structurally quite conventional, Hariharan’s thematic 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, in the midst of a novel with a decidedly postmodern shape, Byatt’s English professors (thematically) 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.


I haven’t read Hariharan yet, though you whet the appetite.

You’ve put your finger on something I find irksome about Byatt but hadn’t really articulated: the way that some of her novels gesture toward complexity and ambiguity, but then seem to snap shut. Possession, as you say, and also Babel Tower, I would argue. Perhaps others; the only other novel of hers that I’ve read is Angels and Insects, which, with its double-narrative and lack of “closure,” to quote the bit from Possession you offer here, avoids this trap. I think Angels and Insects is the best of the three; I enjoyed Possession, but more for its take on the academy than anything else, and Babel Tower was memorable, but shapeless (and Frederica, the protagonist, is irritating. When I found out that she features in three other novels, I almost had kittens. Though now that I am writing this, I am remembering more and more of the novel, and how gripping it is. Dammit!).

But what I started to say, was that your post reminded me of some of the conversations around Zhang Yimou’s Hero: specifically, the frequent comparisons with Kurosawa’s Rashomon, when it is in fact an anti-Rashomon because the “truth” is finally revealed through the three retellings of the tale, whereas in Rashomon we are left with the four conflicting stories, none of them entirely trustworthy.

By Miriam Jones on 04/18/05 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As someone immensely interested in narrative structure especially complex, ambiguous and layered structures (of the modernist or postmodernist variety--take your pick), I certainly agree with what you are saying.

But do we want to necessarily priviledge lack-of-closure in a narrative as superior to closure? Or, if not “superior,” then at least holding closure as suspiciously pointing to notions of Truth, Essentialism, etc (which in the strong capitalized version very few people seriously adhere to anyway).

I must admit that I am frequently guilty of doing just that--particularly in writing about film where a standard rhetorical maneuver is to show how some film diverges from the “closure” narrative model of Hollywood cinema and through this very act of divergence is in some way radical or subversive (which really is not always the case).

I’d like to be able to somewhat move past this way of thinking about narrative and allow narratives with closure, with some expressed truths (lower case truths) to retain complexity even ambiguity in parts and not automatically be suspicious of it.

BTW, I’m not saying that that is what Amardeep and Miriam are doing here, but it’s been something I have been thinking about independent of the post.

By on 04/19/05 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James, you make a good point. I don’t think that closure or expressed truths are in and of themselves bad; not by any means. But when a narrative is set up to be “radical or subversive” and then reneges, then it seems fair game. (Though to be fair, perhaps Hero didn’t set itself up, as much as it was set up by critics. I don’t know.)

By Miriam Jones on 04/19/05 at 10:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

James, I think Miriam’s response is right on. And with Byatt, at least, my problem is more that she sets us up for one thing and then does another. (Also: she ends the novel on a restoration of paternity.)

And I also agree that it’s smarter to move to ‘lower case thinking’ if at all possible, where the different terms in play are de-linked from one another.

By Amardeep on 04/19/05 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

> > Coherence and 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

This is a real-life test of any critical theory: Does it provide for the existence of novels about people falling in love that don’t make me go all googly from my theory? What shapes of novels-about-love are permitted by my theory?

I’d like to be able to somewhat move past this way of thinking about narrative and allow narratives with closure, with some expressed truths (lower case truths) to retain complexity even ambiguity in parts and not automatically be suspicious of it.

How can you have closure without admitting the possibility of Truths? (How can you have any pudding if you dinna eat yer meat?) I’m suggesting that the hypothetical existence of Truths is the best explanation for the aesthetic experience of closure, ("A Christmas Carol”; “Terminator 2") but refraining from identifying any particular Truths.

By pierre on 04/19/05 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Possession (and unfortunately the uninspired film version is fresher in my memory), but if Byatt is professing that some “truths” can be found out by her literary detective characters why would a closure to the narrative renege rather than support her assertion? (and I don’t mean support its truth-value in the real world, but rather in the context of the story).

Is she reneging just because she uses a complex, “postmodern-type” narrative throughout the novel but ends with formal and thematic closure?

Isn’t the narrative closure also somewhat in-line with, or at least justified by, the generic implications of a classic detective story? (which I think Byatt is playing around with in the novel).

On another note, I must also admit to be fully enamored with academic or campus novels, but perhaps it is in a manner more akin to watching car wrecks or something along the lines of MTV’s The Surreal Life!

By on 04/19/05 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe more importantly: Does the dichotomy that we are speaking of here, “closure vs. ambiguity”, refer to a formal characteristic of the structure of the book, or to an aesthetic experience for the reader? And what relationship is there between the two? The answers to these questions may strongly determine what can be meant by the troublesome word “truth”.

By pierre on 04/19/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(James, our comments crossed—I meant to say my second comment may be more importantly than my first comment, not more importantly than your comment!)

By pierre on 04/19/05 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Checking back in, I am totally unsatisfied with my remarks in this thread. These issues

alongside the “deep human desire” for the Whole Story comes a hunger for a series of other ontologically incorrect terms: Totality, Essence, and Truth.

have been problematic for so long that there’s not necessarily even a shared base of assumptions in place that supports close inquiry in certain directions. It’s like there’s a demilitarized zone between Neo-Platonism and Post-Structuralism, and I just want to be able to talk about contemporary literature using the same terms that can explain why “Nicholas Nickleby” makes me so happy.

By pierre on 04/19/05 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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