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(Full text of a lecture delivered in edited versions at the Punjab University, Lahore, the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, and referred to in discussions at Beacon House University, Lahore, and at Karachi University by the Sialkot-born poet and novelist during his visit to Pakistan in November 2008 when Oxford University Press launched his new book of selected essays titled Beckett’s)
I OFTEN thought of you, the students at universities in Pakistan, when, for 38 years, I was a professor at the University of Texas. During my earlier years in Texas, in the 1970s, all my students were exclusively of AngloSaxon or European origin and sometimes, seeing their eyes light up when some interesting idea had been expressed, I would think of you, the thought vaguely crossing my mind that I could be sharing with you the ideas which were arousing the enthusiasm of my American students. By the early 21st century, during my last few years at the university, the complexion of the American population had changed; the names in my class rosters were no longer just John and Mary, Paul and Sarah, but also Ameena and Rahman, Ayesha and Qureishi. This sometimes encouraged the illusion that I was in Karachi or Lahore, not in Austin, Texas, and left me oddly disappointed that it was only an illusion. I felt a sense of regret that if there was anything valuable in my teaching it was not being transmitted to my fellow countrymen and women. Over the years I have received poems and stories from many a young person in Pakistan who has sought my opinion and hoped that I could somehow get them published. Almost invariably, the work has been very poor. Whenever possible, I have written back detailed criticism; but one does not always have the luxury of sufficient free time to reply to everyone. Again, I have been left feeling a sense of regret that I have not been with you so that we can discuss what it is we do when we write poet ry and fiction. Now that I am here, allow me to address a few remarks concerning literature and writing. Young Pakistani writers have struck me as no different from young American writers in the shortcomings that their early work reveals. They are keen to have their own work published but neglect to read much of what has already been published. They seem to believe that they have important ideas which will astonish the world but do not realize that literature, as Mallarmé said to Degas, is not made up of ideas but of words. The young writers’ acquaintance with literature, what little there is of it, has been in the classroom where the discussion centers upon socio-political ideas or an interpretation passionately argued in the jargon of some trendy French guru. Therefore, I say to you: your writing comes from your experience of the world and your special place in it; your experience comes to you through your senses and what your senses receive are not ideas but a complex perception of things; ideas are a function of language, not of reality, and when you create an interesting language to represent that reality then, and only then, you will have created
interesting ideas. This has been said by many other writers, it is to them a selfevident truth. Writers, states Roberto Calasso in his book Literature and the Gods, ‘are the only ones who know the territory well’ and giving a long list of them, which includes Baudelaire, Proust, Valéry, Auden, Yeats, Borges, Nabokov and Calvino, a remarkably diverse international group, Calasso adds: ‘we immediately sense… that they are all talking about the same thing... they know that the literature they’re talking about is not to be recognised by its observance of any theory, but rather by a certain vibration or luminescence of the sentence’ — a glorious phrase that, lumines cence of the sentence. Conrad talks about ‘the shape and ring of sentences’ in the preface to one his novels; Flaubert refers to ‘sentences that make me swoon’ — two variations of luminescence. Nabokov said in his Lectures on Don Quixote, ‘the only thing that really matters in this business of literature — the mysterious thrill of art, the impact of aesthetic bliss.’ Flaubert wrote in a letter, ‘As for me, I fail to understand how those people exist who are not from morning to night in an aesthetic state. I have enjoyed more than many the pleasures of family, as much as any man my age the pleasures of the senses, more than many the pleasures of love. But I know of no delight to compare by that given me by some of the illustrious dead whose works I have read or seen.’ (To Louise Colet: Oct 3, 1846). The pleasure that Flaubert and Nabokov are referring to is that of language itself, that moment of ecstasy experienced by the mind when an expression, an image or a rhythm brings to it a sudden surge of pleasure. Longinus, writing his treatise On the Sublime almost 2,000 years ago, stated that ‘the Sublime consists in a consummate excellence and distinction of language, and that this alone gave to the greatest poets and prose writers their preeminence.’ In 1815, Goethe stated, ‘An art attains to supreme heights when its subject is a matter of indifference and the art itself truly absolute, with the subject-matter merely its vehicle.’ In 1858, George Eliot wrote in a letter to her publisher: ‘The soul of art lies in its treatment and not in its subject.’ Eight years later, in another letter, she wrote, ‘I think aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity. But if it ceases to be purely aesthetic — if it lapses anywhere from the picture to the diagram — it becomes the most offensive of all teaching.’ It is not ideas, not merely the content, but style, what we call the writer’s unique voice when it uses language in a compellingly distinctive form, which generates the aesthetic bliss. No one can give a young writer a formula for acquiring a distinctive style. It is an evolutionary process dependent upon wide reading; the more you read the more your mind is engaged in a natural selection of those forms which the peculiar
constitution of your unique brain finds most desirable. To be an original writer you have to be a highly learned person: originality is not a gift but a function of knowledge: an original form is a new combination of older forms as can be seen in the work of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot. In his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Eliot remarks that we value a poet’s originality when we observe ‘those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else’; but, adds Eliot, ‘we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’ You cannot be a writer without first immersing yourself in tradition, and tradition, says Eliot, ‘cannot be inherited,… you must obtain it by great labour.’ Writing his essay early in the 20th century, Eliot expected the new poet ‘to write not merely with his own generation in his bones’ but with the knowledge that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer had to be an essential component of his training. Nearly a century later, we would not wish to confine ourselves to the literature of Europe as our inherited tradition (though I would add as an important aside that, of course, for writers in the English language the European tradition is the primary one); today our concept of tradition is global and there are works of great beauty that have originated from a non-European background which it would be foolish to ignore. It is only by exposing one’s mind to the greatest possible variety of forms in which literature has been produced in the past and by experimenting with forms that attract one that a writer can discover that form which most appropriately captures and projects that imagistic content of that writer’s subject matter. After Virginia Woolf had already published Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she hit upon the original form of The Waves and after completing it she recorded in her diary: ‘I think I am about to embody at last the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this begin ning — if The Waves is my first work in my own style!’ Your brain is unique. Locked within it is your unique way of seeing reality. You cannot release that unique perception by repeating a previously established formula. You have to find, as Flaubert said of himself ‘the special language of which I alone have the key’. Proust expresses the same idea when he says, ‘Every writer is obliged to create his own language, just as every violinist is obliged to create his own sound’.’ And you do not do that by following the prescriptions of creative writing textbooks or of teachers. Prescriptions are for a whole class of people and have an implied aim of turning you to a conformist. Your are not a conformist, you are an individual. Dissent, rejection of current trends, rebellion against any tyranny are your inviolable rights. Laurence Sterne, Diderot, Pushkin… a long list of writers we now accept as irrefutably great, right down to Beckett, were non-conformist, but it is to them that we owe our delight in literature, which is essentially a delight in envisioning new forms in which reality is depicted.
Roberto Calasso says of form that it is ‘the base beneath all bases when one speaks of literature’. He calls it an ‘elusive base’ which is ‘intrinsically incapable of being translated into some definition’. Yet it is the principal obsession of all human beings — to give to the mysterious reality in which we find ourselves a form that makes it, at least provisionally, acceptable as meaningful experience. Whether we are painters, composers, writers, physicists, astronomers or just plain ordinary folk, we are all engaged in assembling, sometimes in a traditional formula that is prescribed by religious dogma and sometimes in a radically new rearrangement that begins by questioning established beliefs, the images that constitute our reality. Proust says in his great novel: ‘We have of the universe only inchoate, fragmentary visions, which we complement by arbitrary associations of ideas, creative of dangerous illusions.’ The painter Sean Scully has said of his remarkable abstract work, ‘I’m con stantly trying to create a sense of physical certainty in a slipping, sliding reality.’ We are constantly reshaping the world. Our intellect is excited when a scientist comes up with a new theory about the universe or when a Beckett or a Borges produces a new literary form; our imagination is thrilled when the scene before us is represented in a new form. The ideas that I have been expressing had become commonplace by the mid 20th century. By 1960 it was taken for granted by any serious young writer that it was ludicrous to write fiction as if Joyce had never existed. Alain Robbe-Grillet had laid the 19th century to rest in his 1957 essay, ‘On Several Obsolete Notions’, and advanced the post-Joycean aesthetic of the new novel. What was commonplace almost 50 years ago seems to have been overtaken by a sort of intellectual amnesia brought about by the aggressive marketing of the products of popular culture, the importance of which has been inflated by television because of its mass appeal and selling potential. We are supposed to appreciate popular culture because it is presented as an art form relevant to our time and what used to be considered serious art is now labelled ‘elitist’, a word presumed to be pejorative. Far from being a disqualification, ignorance is lauded as a democratic virtue. Well, it is your choice, whether you wish to write because the example of a Woolf or a Beckett has filled you with an ambition to emulate them or because you have a craving for fame and will be content to produce hack work to achieve it. Your freedom to be an artist of whatever kind is a sacred principle which no one may challenge. Indeed, the quality of your work will bear a relationship with how deliberately, stubbornly and unwaveringly you resist ideological pressure and assert your freedom to serve no cause, to accept no censorship, but only to be yourself. Listen to what Chekhov said back in 1888: ‘I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a gradualist, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more…. I hate lying and violence, whatever form they take... stupidity and tyranny reign not in shopkeepers’ homes and in lock-ups alone: I see them in science, in literature… I
regard trademarks and labels as prejudicial. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom — freedom from force and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.’ Chekhov made that statement when Russia was ruled by a czar, when monarchy and absolute freedom were contradictory terms; then came the revolution, then came the Soviet Union, and we all know what happened then: any writer or thinker who did not toe the party line, who did not follow the official religion of Communism, was punished — Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov: we will never forget the names of the writers who suffered abuse, humiliation and exile because they refused to compromise their intellectual freedom, but we have already forgotten the scores of writers who slavishly wrote according to the formula prescribed by the state that had made Communism a strictly enforced religion. Chekhov was remarkably prescient, for in another letter from 1888 we read: ‘Under the banner of science, art, and a protest against the suppression of free thought, among us in Russia there will reign toads and crocodiles of a sort that even Spain did not know at the time of the Inquisition. Well, you will see it! Narrow-mindedness, great pretensions, inordinate self-love, and complete absence of a literary and social conscience will do their work.’ That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union. And, I regret to say, it continues to happen in some countries where the state takes on a piously patrician role to keep the people within the narrow confines of an absolutist ideology. As if some prelapsarian integrity had to be maintained! On the contrary, we should welcome dissent, for just as there is no progress in science without some orthodoxy being challenged, so in art, and indeed in any civilised society, however distasteful or obnoxious a heresy might at first appear, we may scorn it or even ignore it but we must never question the right of the individual to express it. Hart Crane wrote in a letter in 1924: ‘the freedom of my imagination is the most precious thing that life holds for me, — and the only reason I can see for living.’ I trust that the idea of absolute freedom is universally accepted as the starting point for any artist setting out to create some meaningful new work. Turn now to the other great master, Henry James, also writing in the 1880s, and also asserting the notion of the artist’s freedom. He wrote in his The Art of Fiction: ‘The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel… is that it be interesting... The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result… strike me as innumerable, and such as can only suffer from being marked out or fenced in by prescription.’ Henry James insists that you have to be free to say whatever you wish to say. Your work, writes James, will have ‘no intensity at all, and therefore no value, unless there is freedom to feel and say.’ It is you who is the maker, you who create the new form to present your vision of reality, and, says James, there should be ‘no limit’ to what you may attempt, no limit to your ‘possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes.’ It is after you have done your bit of creation that the reader estimates your quality and applies ‘the test of execution’: the question always is — how well have you done it, do you surprise
us with your vision of the mystery of reality while at the same time affirming our idea of it? Whatever you say, whatever the formal experiment you are attempting, your work must always have ‘the air of reality’, there must be in it a ‘solidity of specification’, you must always produce ‘the illusion of life’. That, says James, is ‘the beginning and the end of the art of the novelist’. James dismisses those who maintain that the writer must serve some cause or that the novel should preach some pre-packaged morality. With the wonderful defiance of the great writer, he declares: ‘There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning.’ As for different kinds of novels, ‘the only classification of the novel,’ says James, ‘that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not’. The novel, or indeed any work of art, which has life is the one that comes from the individual self attempting to comprehend what Milan Kundera calls ‘the enigma of the self’, and it is only in the context of a complete freedom from any ideological prescription or censor ship that the individual can best make that attempt. Even an affiliation to some school of thought with its loudly proclaimed manifesto — be it Futurism, Cubism, Surrealism, Naturalism — prevents the individual from discovering the forms particular to its own self. Form and style are difficult concepts to define, yet they are the constant preoccupation of writers. Nabokov says that ‘Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of an author’s personality. Thus when we speak of style we mean an individual artist’s peculiar nature, and way it expresses itself in his artistic output. It is essential to remember that though every living person may have his or her style, it is the style peculiar to this or that individual writer of genius that is alone worth discussion.’ (Lectures on Literature). The problem for the teacher of literature, however, is what to say when discussing a writer’s style. T. S. Eliot said of Dante that all we can do is to point to him as at a monument and remain silent. Nabokov himself, when he was teaching Dickens, said in a lecture: ‘I would like to devote the 50 minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration and admiration of Dickens.…All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science.’ Because a discussion of a writer’s style leads to a sort of pious silence in which the initiates sit smiling benignly at one another in a communal glow, or to unhelpful remarks like Nabokov’s about artistic delight, teachers therefore submit the work to a theoretical analysis or start talking about its socio-political context. But as Nabokov says, ‘The study of the sociological or political impact of
literature has to be devised mainly for those who are by temperament or education immune to the aesthetic vibrancy of authentic literature.’ William Faulkner says that all a writer can do is ‘to portray the human heart in some simple struggle with itself, with others, or with its environment’, and as to the great questions of one’s time, he says, ‘The sociological qualities are only, in my opinion, coincidental to the story — the story is still the story of the human being, the human heart struggling.’ (Faulkner at West Point). For the writer, it is the pattern, the structure, ‘the inner weave’ that matters. It is not ideas, but design that interests the writer. Nabokov states this emphatically and memorably: ‘Literature consists, in fact, not of general ideas but of particular revelations, not of schools of thought but of individuals of genius.’ And lecturing on Gogol he says, ‘[Gogol’s] work, as all great literary achievements, is a phenomenon of language and not one of ideas.’ Now I would like to address a few remarks to those among you who write poems in the English language. An important aspect of English poetry that you might observe is how, beginning with Chaucer who was indebted to Italian sources, it is nourished by the poetry of other languages. Western literature thrives on discovering the new. Englishlanguage poets, especially in the 20th century, have accessed the new by accepting cross-cultural pollination, and when we study the great poets — Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and some more recent contemporaries — we find that without exception each one of them owes his or her strength to the absorption of a wide range of international influences. Secondly, the history of English poetry is a history of a succession of revolutions. ‘Tradition’, says Octavio Paz, ‘is no longer a continuity but a series of sharp breaks.’ We have a succession of –isms: Romanticism, Naturalism, Symbolism, Surrealism, etc. Each break is a new generation’s revolt against the previous one and is seen as progress. And with each new group we value most the originators with whom that movement is identified: Pope and Dryden, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Eliot and Pound: they made it new for their time and their formal approach was followed by a host of imitators who derived their temporary high reputation from having the appearance of modernity. Now, if you, wherever you live, are writing poems in English, then your first obligation to yourself is to do what Chaucer or Eliot did: read the best literature of your time wherever it comes from and see if you cannot take some old form and make it new for your time. Next, the fact that you were born where you were and live where you do is, of course, important because much of your character and thinking is shaped by your environment. There is a complex of memories in your unconscious, the universal racial archetypes that Jung describes as well as memories of local association. Next, the fact that you were born in Pakistan not only gives you the memories I refer to, but also places you in a particular cultural context. And that is what gives you that extra dimension which is uniquely yours.
To give you an example of what I mean. Unlike the English used by Eliot and Pound, who lived mostly in Europe and drew on European cosmopolitan culture, William Carlos Williams used American speech rhythms in his poems, Hart Crane wanted jazz rhythms in his poem, ‘The Bridge’ as did Jack Kerouac in his novel, On the Road, and some of the Beat poets also wanted to be distinctively American in their use of English. I was listening, as I often do, to a disc of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The words of the song began, ‘Tum agar yuhi nazren milate rahen’, sung in a very compelling rhythm, and I asked myself, why hadn’t Pakistani poets in English attempted creating such a rhythm in their poems? I am ignorant of Urdu prosody but listening to that song I thought the rhythm was not unlike the sound of dactylic metre in English. There is an interrelation between poetry and music. The famous modern example is Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ where each of the four poems has five movements, each movement in a different rhythm. I was drawn to that idea when I was a schoolboy in London in the early 1950s and had become so attracted to western classical music that I spent my pocket money going to the Proms at Albert Hall in the summer. I remember being impressed by a horn concerto and writing a poem in which its rhythms are supposed to be echoed. I don’t think it worked, but the idea of experimenting with musical forms remained an obsession. A few years later, I wrote one of my first successful poems, the one called ‘This Landscape, These People’. It is in three parts, like a symphony in three movements. The second part is so written as to be faster than the other two. The choice of words, the use of metrical devices, the usual tricks of rhymes, halfrhymes and off-rhymes, and assonance and dissonance, a lot of techniques in fact are there to be experimented with to create the particular music of a poem. Experimentation is the lifeblood of discovery and I’ve seen little evidence of Pakistani writers experimenting. No, I’m not asking for those quaint little phrases which have a Pakistani ‘flavour’; nor for the occasional Urdu word, which often ends up by sounding like fake authenticity; ethnic dressing up is an awful form of sentimentality. What I’m suggesting is a rigorous working out of a form in a carefully built rhythm that, derived from techniques in Urdu literature, is a new and persuasive sound in the ear listening to English. You should also try your hand at such traditional forms as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina; play with stanza forms such as terza rima and Spenserian stanzas; and so on. Of course, no one is asking you to write in ancient forms, but your mastery of those forms will make you a superior poet. Robert Lowell trained himself rigorously and then let himself loose, so that the freedom he thus discovered led to the creation of neatly restrained measures which yet have the appearance of being formally unconstrained and perfectly natural.
Imagistic content comprises the heart of English literature. When we create an image, we dive into the interior lake of the self where our memories are stored and occasionally bring up a pearl. ‘Memory,’ said Paul Valéry, is the substance of all thought.’ And in his book Symbols of Transformation, Jung presents his theory of the universal prevalence of racial archetypes which appear as images in our dreams and mythologies. People in Pakistan often ask me why I do not write more about Pakistan, why my novels are not set here. If I may offer a personal explanation: I was born in Sialkot and spent my first seven years there, the next 10 in Bombay. The rest of my life has been spent in the West. Most people in Pakistan see me as someone who has become disconnected from Pakistan, and they point to several of my novels as confirmation of my alienation because the novels are set in South America. But look again. Yes, the surface is that of South America (though not always). But look a little more closely at the language, at the images. Most, if not all, of the stories are inventions and the characters are also inventions. But still my attempt to create a fiction, because the transmission of the story is coming via my brain, is necessarily going to have layers of meaning that come out of my unconscious. And my unconscious is filled with a great deal of reading and with those images which are the archetypes particular to people where I was born. And what are they? You’ve only got to review the history of the Punjab to answer that. A Punjabi’s history did not begin in 1947; as with any other human being on the planet, his history began thousands of years ago, and where I was born it would be the height of ignorance to think that among my ancestors there were no Greeks, Mongols, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Mughals, Persians, Afghans, and God knows who else. You don’t have to be a Jungian to believe that a Punjabi’s collective unconscious may well have traces of some or all of those sources. Just look at the crazy, surprising, wildly improbable, and often inexplicable images in your dreams. A good deal of such unconscious matter is there in my novels wherever they are set. If you look at my novel, The Triple Mirror of the Self, you will, even when you might be looking at an Andean view, be seeing something else. I describe a strange episode in that novel in a strange place called Kailost. Look again, dear reader; so far only one person I know has noticed that the letters that make up the name Kailost also make up the name of another city. In the same episode I have a character whom I call Mokhwa Jaghès; the accent on the e might distract the reader, but you might notice that the first name ends with ‘khwa’ and the surname begins with ‘ja’, and the combination produces ‘Khwaja’; at this point you might remember that the author’s surname is spelled ‘Ghose’, and that might alert you to the presence of those letters in ‘Mokhwa Jaghès’, which will thus give you ‘Khwaja M. Ghose’, which happens to be my
father’s name, the ‘M’ standing for ‘Mohammed’. All of this was not pre-planned, it just developed as I was writing. These archetypal images are there in all of us, but how are you to access them in your poems and stories? The worst approach is to do so self-consciously. That is like going around with a label on your chest telling people who you are. The best approach is to concentrate on the imagistic content of your language. You let it happen naturally, spontaneously. If you make a deliberate attempt to fill your lines or your sentences with sharply drawn and fresh images (as opposed to dead metaphors) the unconscious part of you will naturally come into play and suggest surprising and unexpected ideas, and that is where the richest part of literature is to be found, that is when we are dazzled by a luminescence so intense it is a sort of spiritual beauty. One final plea to you the future writers and teachers of Pakistan. Political freedom, freedom from any form of repression or censorship, is a precondition for the flourishing of any art or science. No one is going to be morally corrupted by any expression of the human intellect or imagination, be it a new theory of the universe that rejects some established dogma, be it a painting of a naked person, or be it a novel that mocks or ridicules or satirises a society’s received ideas. No one has anything to lose from such perceptions of reality. As Faulkner said, ‘If the mind has got to be protected by the law from what will harm it, then it can’t be very much of a mind to begin with.’ The very concept of blasphemy has become redundant and irrelevant in civilised countries; that any country should have a law against it would be laughable and indicative of acute anxiety and insecurity about what was being protected were the consequences of such a restriction of human liberty not so awfully tragic. We should celebrate the human intellect, rejoice at what it produces; not proscribe it, not flaunt the barbarian’s attachment to ignorance and doctrinal prejudice in gleeful book-burning frenzies. Perhaps the younger generation might need reminding of examples from recent history — of the horrors that transpired in the Soviet Union and its satellites in the name of its official religion, Communism, of the terror inflicted by military dictators in Argentina, Brazil and Chile in the mid-20th century that drove intellectuals and artists into exile if they escaped being tortured and killed. Too often in history the worst enemy of a people has been its government. You are the custodians of the pure air of learning and of the creative spirit. Don’t let the soot of bigotry and the noxious gas of entrenched orthodoxy pollute that precious air.