Nature Narratives

The Betrayal of the Intellectuals


The greatest disgrace in the present is to continue to be an intellectual and still be alive! I mean it, believe me! Many years ago I came across Julian Benda’s great work of that name– The Betrayal of the Intellectuals —a friend drew my attention to it. The title itself was quite catchy, and I consumed it with the passion of an Indian intellectual of the seventies! I could not disagree with Benda’s arguments although couched in the logic and rationality of another culture, another generation. Nevertheless, how is the situation different in the present? Those who know are also those who keep up with the rest and in perfect silence. Those who know just toe the line of conventional living. Yet, after such knowledge what forgiveness?

I recall that it was Sir Herbert Read who introduced Julian Benda’s book to the British reading public. Read who had authored such great works like The Meaning of Art and The Philosophy of Modern Art, himself, might have felt the pressing need to reread the book in his own times! Benda’s main point was that the intellectuals were willfully subscribing to the signs of the times, and toeing the line of the established order despite their conscience. And that’s the greatest betrayal of all! I guess that is the order of the day even in the dismal present. Perhaps it is the spirit of the times that demand perfect compliance and acquiescence! After all, it is easy to accede. Much madness is the divinest sense/ Much sense the starkest madness, writes the American poet Emily Dickinson. Dissent, she says, then you are considered dangerous, and straightaway handled with a chain!

I am perfectly aware that I can recourse to the tremendous energy of Sri Aurobindo’s action! Remembering the life and times of an extraordinary intellectual, mystic and rishi, who gazed unflinchingly at the face of truth, history, reason and life. But however, how am I to act in troubled times like the present? Aren’t I also an accomplice in betraying the people? Knowing fully well the consequence of my silence I continue to exist in poignant silence and watch all the misdeeds and atrocities of the cut-throats who parade the present day world’s active stage. Perhaps, my role is simply to bear witness to tragedy and misdeeds? Like Ceslaw Milosz, who wrote A witness to Poetry? I, a poet and painter, simply bearing witness to all the acts and misdeeds of the present, silently, compliantly? Can I act? Need I? What is action?

Troubled times, these, no doubt. People are floundering without radical guidance and leadership. They dance to the tune of idiots and scoundrels who somehow manage to stray into the lime light through lobbying, cold shouldering and hobnobbing. They meekly follow the strange gods of science and technology without bothering to stop to think for themselves and seek the truth.  Without bothering to ask the right questions. Without critical inquiry.

Take the case of development and urbanization: things are happening at such a brisk pace that no one knows when our cities are going to collapse! We live such un-ecofriendly and uncaring a life that we are not sure wither we are heading or at what extreme cost. Development has come to be synonymous with excessive urbanization and westernization, in more ways than one—Americanisation! Our younger generation is floundering on the brink of chaos and unreason not knowing or even caring wither they are headed. Our so-called self-styled experts are as yet unsure of their own lives and are absolutely incapable of showing any directions to even their own off-springs let alone the others who simply follow them unquestioningly. The world is shrinking day by day, the resources are fast depleting in an awfully geometrical scale, and the earth’s atmosphere is becoming so dreadfully contaminated and polluted. All this despite the professed claims of the ubiquitous IT experts to information revolution! [ Whose information, what sort of information, who benefits from what—these are apparently irrelevant questions!] Our very air, water and earth are all poisoned! Death prowls about and around us. There is hardly any escape for us from this our lonely planet.  And now over and above all these we do not cease fighting among ourselves for such silly reasons like religion and skin colour! Our identities, as Amartya Sen aptly pointed out, apparently revolve simply round our religion and skin colour in the present! Where does it all lead? What is terrorist action but the blind self exterminating action of a generation that has lost its footing, a generation that does not even recognize that it is mislead and has already allowed itself to be trapped in the jaws of hell? We blame religion and science for our own silliness. We blame nature and environment for our own misdeeds. We blame the other for what are essentially our own mistakes and culpabilities. No one among us stops to look in. Well, no one has the time to either.  And of course no one tells one to look in before looking without! This is where the betrayal of the intellectuals occurs. Those who know should necessarily tell those who do not know. It is their duty. If needs be those who know should enlighten those who are ignorant.  Tasmat jagrata, jagrata, said the wise Sankaracharaya, therefore, be aware, aware!  [I feel like reading it as beware beware!] If they remain silent, the people would be led astray by the prophets of evil and doom. And the silly people are always eager to be led rather than remain free and think.

It is the intellectual’s bounden duty to scream the truth at the top of his/her voice, like the child in the story of the emperor’s new clothes! Bold and committed to uttering the truth and nothing but the truth!  However in these dragon-ridden days the very foundations of our culture and living are shattered and apparently lie in shambles beyond redemption. Who will take the pains to reassemble the broken order? Who is there to bell the proverbial cat, at any great risk?

Culture is not something monolithic or single—it is multifaceted and dynamic. A people’s culture is equally well-rooted in their history and land. It transforms their lives with the times and is transformed in turn. So, how could one speak of a wrong cultural turn, which needs to be corrected and re-directed? Isn’t it a sign of the totalitarian state and its belief that lies at the root of such an argument?  If the people choose to live in one way and follow that path for what it is worth, it is their choice and destiny! Woe befalls the one who stops to redirect the turn and tides of popular history. Arguments like these are, however, theoretically unsophisticated and simplistic. There is always history and history! What is apparent to the common folk at the outside is not always the force that controls and manipulates the movements of their history. Nevertheless the common man and woman behold the surface factors and believe they see everything! Take the simple instance of popular culture and taste—in fashion, cinema and television. Those who do not stop to think and exercise their critical acumen, would fall easy prey to the vile and guile of the surface being that betokens the very existence of these aspects of popular culture. They would simply be mass-consumers of these poisonous byproducts of our market consumerist culture! This is not to demean the significance of either fashion or cinema—they are definitely important.  My attempt is only to highlight the uncritical consumption of these. If the contemporary gurus proffer these collective dream tokens as panacea for all the evils of worldly suffering our unthinking consumers do not even pause to observe the hidden agenda of global capitalism and market economy. The entertainment industry as it is called hides behind the mesmerizing dragons of tomfoolery that are paraded on the most popular media screens—be they contemporary popular cinema, television or on the Internet. The thinking individual is dead and a thing of the past!  Even literature, art, and the theatre—those very media by virtue of their very existence should be the beacons of hope for the continued living of human beings—apparently have lost their directions and are fumbling on the edge of consumerism. Thinking as a human being has been simply dislodged as meaningless act—the history of unreason that Capitalism and its market strategy has unleashed in this world has managed to drive the last nail on the coffin of humanism.  Granted, the vagaries of European and American history have revealed the hollowness behind the visage of the human being. Nevertheless how could one stop thinking as a human being? History has shown us the devils of cunning that have led our thinking astray, how even communism—that last hope of the human being—could evolve into meaningless fascism and totalitarianism. The capitalist gurus take delight in drawing our attention to this fact—they glot over the death of global Marxism, forgetting that those experiments that failed signify but the erroneous ways of implementation of a profound ideology, not the ideology per se! The times are now ripe as always for the wrong gurus to take lead, where angels fear to tread! Fundamentalist forces sweep the globe, amateur gurus parade shamelessly as experts and miracle sellers, offering instant cure through yoga, religion, and worldly (certainly expensive!) advice. All the while the knowing ones play dodo and remain concealed in the background, relishing the profits of a pleasure-oriented culture!  Julian Benda is quite relevant. What could be more poisonous than this deception? Where is the hemlock?

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