Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair

Ashis Nandy identifies despair and narcissism as the predominant psychological states in the prevailing political culture

Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair Ashis Nandy; Oxford University Press,YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road,New Delhi-110001. Rs. 595.

That in our own times the fate of an individual lies in the politics of interest groups which could determine not only the general quality of his/her life but also the mode of termination of both individual and community — either self-willed or inflicted from without — is surprisingly a fact quite well-known. In India today, much like in the rest of Southern Asia — what he calls the South as opposed to the developed countries of North America and Europe — Ashis Nandy identifies in the prevailing political culture two predominant psychological states: narcissism and despair. To characterise their institutionalised forms and inner dynamics, he dubs them regimes of narcissism and regimes of despair. This book close-examines compelling socio-political issues in terms of mass ideologies and as vectors in the inner life of individuals.

The social flux and moral anomie we see around have condemned large sections of men and women to live on with a vague sense of loss, anxiety and repressed anger. When ethical and moral values are invalidated and abandoned, many are blind to the hand of any agencies in these, and learn to contain anger through forms of consumerism and immersion in the world of total entertainment — which often goes by the name of normality. Living in a hedonic, secularised world, quite unable to decipher the reason why its hedonism seems evil to others, the cultural sensitivities of the globalised middle class, as Nandy points out, have further narrowed in recent times. In the essay “Terror, Counter-Terror, and Self-Destruction”Nandy underscores Jean Baudrillard’s observation that “evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire.” As suicide bombers have made their presence felt in over 12 countries now, their act appears as wanton terrorism declared by the death-defying on the death-denying. The former as he points out, thrives on a theology of martyrdom, the latter on a psychology of this-worldly individualism and narcissism. In some contexts the idea of despair too has become central to our understanding of contemporary subjectivities much in line with the early hard-hitting modernist writers and artists like Kafka, Camus and Van Gogh. Even Nietzsche and Dostoevsky cannot be understood without this corollary of despair.

Eight essays ranging from issues of nationalism through terrorism and counter-terrorism, ideologies of humiliation and happiness, notions of the sacred in religion, ideas of tradition and modernity — wrought together in terms of a common interrogative stance relating to the individual and the nation constitute Ashish Nandy’s book. The range and reach of these interrogatives is indeed massive and for readers used to Nandy’s earlier works, proffer prolific views on an equally broad socio-political and intellectual span. In “Nationalism, Genuine and Spurious”, he engages with the political position of Tagore and Gandhi vis-a-vis nationalism in the early part of the 20th century. Obviously not having access to a vast array of socio-political terminology available today both Tagore and Gandhi have phrased out their positions in different ways, and Nationalism, in their eyes, as Nandy proposes, is an ideology while patriotism, as he distinguishes the term, is a sentiment and thus an emotional state. Tagore used something like 12 to 15 expressions to denote one’s love for one’s country, ranging fromdeshabhiman and swadesiprem to deshbahakti and swadesh chetana. But he used none of these as an equivalent of nationalism. Gandhi too appears to have recognised in the version of nationalism a touch of the shadow of Europe. However, despite these visionaries, versions of nationalism became part of the social evolutionist baggage exported to and internalised by a defeated civilisation veritably open to globalisation and exploitation.

Controversial figures

In two essays “ The Demonic and Seductive in Religious Nationalism” and “Coming Home” Nandy resorts to the biographies of two controversial political figures — Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madanlal Pahwa — in order to explore the deeper psychological reaches of violence and religious nationalism. Both Savarkar and Pahwa were victims of a perverted social order. “Savarkar is the name of a blown-up, grotesque temptation inherent in the Southern world’s encounter with the global nation state system and with religious traditions that facilitate internalisation of the core principles of western nationalism.”Pahwa’s life history on the other hand is read as “the story of a person battling memories of loss and exile through violence”; “and an unapologetic killer…who also was a victim of the ethnic cleansing in Punjab during 1946-48, seething with anger at what had befallen him and the Hindus in Punjab.” The process of dehumanisation is deliberately effected through hate-propaganda, and benumbing the victims as dangerous and contaminating. In many ways humiliation achieves the pathological substitute for dominance and genocide. The essay “Humiliation” explores among other things the consequence of colonial burden and shame and their impact on the political culture; it bespeaks of rape victims, blacks, dalits and the spectrum of dehumanisation in political history. This technique of pathologisation is fast becoming a post-colonial version of the colonial technique of infantilisation.

“Happiness,”likewise is a unique exploration of the contexts of this psychological state that holds tremendous implications for the present consumer culture. “The presently dominant idea of happiness,” Nandy writes, “being subject to individual volition and effort, ensures that the search for happiness has a linear trajectory… Perfect happiness comes when one eliminates all unhappiness.” Nandy’s essay focuses on the emerging idea of happiness as an autonomous manageable psychological variable in the global middle-class culture.

“Return of the Sacred” and “Modernity and the Sense of Loss” enquire into the political geography of religion, and dwell on the process of how the modernity of traditions has become a source of cultural pride, a prop for cultural nationalism. In a time when religions have apparently regained their popularity, and the compatibility between Vedanta and quantum Physics, Zen and psychotherapy are now subjects of bestsellers, “few dare to reverse the process and justify or criticise nuclear power or stem cell research from within the frame of Islamic ethics or Shaiva Siddhanta”.

The book is well produced and indexed in handy format no doubt, but one hopes that the proof-reading could have been a little more meticulous, taking care to avoid silly spelling errors and omissions in an important document by a senior academic. Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, is not Nandy at his best, though, but the eight essays would serve to transfer the incessant critical spirit and irresistible inquiry of a socio-political intellectual attempting to interrogate a fast changing present, looking at politics and society through the prism of persons and their selves in order to ensure that the intelligent human is not overwhelmed by impersonal institutional structures and invisible movements of history. As Nandy himself notes: “these essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades.” The critical minded reader is in the end left questing for more.

(Murali Sivarama-krishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)

Gish Jen:Tiger Writing– A Review

Tiger Writing by Gish Jen
Tiger Writing by Gish Jen

If there is one major aspect of writing the self then it is located between seeking independence and experiencing interdependence . The entire history of Anglo-American Modernism has been the formulation of the work of art and literature as an autotelic object, or an independent being initself , quite distinct from the interdependency that constitutes raw life. Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust desired independence from all and everything — including culture, family, and language — and the great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual — one of Europe’s finest illusions — blossomed forth. The aesthetic of the Modern was conceived in such a desire to be independent. Nevertheless in the contexts of writing that has changed over the years, multicultural issues and pluralistic perceptions in the fast lane of life in the present have altered the concerns of the evolving narrative self as fully evidenced in Gish Jen’s exploration of her own writing and the cultural phenomenon of literature in America. Gish Jen is a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of four novels including the acclaimed Typical American andWorld and Town .

Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self , is a three-part lecture she delivered as part of the Massey Lecture series in Harvard. The forum obviously offered for this second generation Chinese writer in English a specific reason to delve into herself and close-examine her own cultural and literary situation. The book is thus a testament and a manifesto for interrogating the closure of the self in the context of the West and the cultural necessity of opening up to the larger issues of interdependency in a globalising present.

In his essay Why I Write , George Orwell confidently gave “four great motives for writing” that he feels exists in every writer. The first of these is sheer egotism — to be talked about, to be remembered after death etc. The second is aesthetic enthusiasm — an investment “in the impact of one sound over another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” Then there is historical impulse — the “desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” And finally, political purpose — a “desire to push the world in a certain direction,” which he finds in every person. For Gish Jen there is another motive: the fascination with the western narrative per se . She discovers that the novel is fundamentally a western form, and her fascination with the classics of modernist writing she had encountered even from her childhood helped her locate the narrative strands as drifting toward a sort of narcissistic solipsism, as quite distinct from her own Chinese roots that she soon identified.

Tiger Writing is a remarkable achievement on account of its sobriety and unique perception of difference between what Gish Jen considers as the West and Asian narratives. The novel needs to be located within the ambit of anguish and joy and not constrained in terms of a narrow self-exploration as she desires.


Growing up in America as the second daughter of a Chinese immigrant Engineer, Gish Jen was well exposed to the wealth of classical modernist writing. Eventually with her discerning critical eye she was able to discriminate the appalling casualness of pronouncements like Lionel Trilling’s about how Thomas Mann “said that all his work could be understood as an effort to free himself from the middle class, and this of course, will serve to describe the chief intention of all modern literature.” With a characteristic Chinese clarity recalling Confucian insight, she dismisses this as ever being true of all times despite the special evocation of the radical political agenda in both Mann and Trilling.

Further there is a distinction in the interior exploration of Mann and Kafka and eventually Milan Kundera as she discovers. Gish Jen cites Kundera: “For Proust, a man’s interior universe comprises a miracle, an infinity that never ceases to amaze us. But that is not what amazes Kafka.” It is the involvement with history that discriminates the Kafkaesque.

Gish Jen’s thesis is that there is a distinct trait to individualism in the aesthetic of the West, while its Asian counterpart is one that liberates the self from its own mundane-ness through its involvement with the everyday and the rest. Individualism intensifies from the East to West, as pointed out by Richard Nisbett, she says.

In the end, what is ultimately required is an integration of the individualist and the interdependentvisions — “a balance of independence and interdependence, I might say today.” “We need both interdependent and the independent self. But how interdependent of me to see them as two poles of human experience that cannot be disengaged!”

Gish Jen, we must remember, is a second generation Chinese American western writer — and she thinks critically and thinks at times in terms of even us and them . However her sensitivity to her own roots and the transparency with which she focuses on these textures is what makes Tiger Writingremarkably interesting.

The book as we have it now is divided into three sections, and the first section is entirely devoted to her father’s autobiography which he wrote when he was 85. Here the focus is entirely on non-episodic experiences and what we could term as personal history. The items described are external objects and the narrative reads like a map of external experience.

The second section is an exploration of art, culture and the self in western especially white middle class intellectual tradition. The third is suitably entitled “What Comes of All That”, and is a critical exploration of the integration of interdependence and independence. Gish Jen cites John Updike’s use of a “fervent relationship with the world” as a critical touchstone, Updike “affirming with this a nose-pressed-to-the-glass-ness that seemed to me the opposite of nose-pressed-to-the-mirror-ness .”

In conclusion the author resorts to an observation from Czeslaw Milosz on poetry which could be true for fiction as well and which lends the title to this book:

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent;

A thing brought forth that

we didn’t know we had in us,

So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out

And stood in the light, las ing his tail.

This element of surprise and discovery that takes place in a work of art that leaps straight at both the reader and the writer is in the end that which matters, and Gish Jen’s translucency as a novelist with an astute critical sense is that which leads us through the pages of this extremely interesting narrative. Tiger Writing is thus at once a text of critical exploration and a manifesto.

( Murali Sivaramakrishnan teaches English at the Pondicherry Central University )

“Why I chose Pondicherry University to pursue a PhD” –By Mark A. Shryock

Choosing a university for Ph.D. Research is a daunting task which is made all the more difficult if you are considering universities outside your own country of origin. Although I am an American, I have been a professor of English at a South Korean university the last four years. I wanted to pursue a PhD in English specializing in the study of literature and the environment from an interdisciplinary point of view or what is called ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a new a field and there are only a handful of universities in the world that have strong English departments in this area. Most are in the United States with the University of Nevada Reno arguably being at the forefront with its strong ecocriticism faculty and involvement with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE).

Mark A. Shryock
Mark A. Shryock

In the Eastern half of the world there are five universities that are heavily involved with ASLE, located in Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Japan, and India. Pondicherry University is the intellectual home of Ecocriticism Studies and the ASLE in India. This is largely due to the work of Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan who heads the English Department at Pondicherry University and is founder and president of ASLE India. The fact that Pondicherry University is one of five universities in the East associated with ecocriticism and the ASLE is in and of itself a profound and compelling reason for me to choose Pondicherry University for PhD research.

But for me, the main reason for choosing Pondicherry was the strong English Department that has developed and the chance to work directly with Dr. Murali. One of my deep interests is consciousness studies involving the ecology and evolutionary dynamics of whole systems. I was already familiar with a small part of Dr. Murali’s broad and interdisciplinary work when I cited his paper, ‘Involution and Evolution: Some Conceptual Issues in the Contexts of Indian Discourses’ in an earlier paper I did during my MA research. Dr. Murali has written numerous books across several areas, has lectured worldwide, and has created paintings, photographs, sculptures, and poems of world renown. He is well known at University of Nevada, Reno, and the ASLE, having won a Fulbright Postdoctoral Travel Grant to teach and do research there in 2006-2007. I especially love his new book “Learning to Think Like Myself” which left me stunned for a couple of days after reading it because it echoed so closely some of my own thoughts and doubts about the cost to my family for wandering the world in search of wisdom and understanding, and the loss of rootedness and home you trade for this privilege. For me, the opportunity to study under Dr. Murali is the most fortunate opportunity of my lifetime. When people ask me why I am studying at Pondicherry, I know I cannot really explain to them how blessed and fortunate I feel, but I always have the thought “My God, why would I study anywhere else!”

There is an intellectual excellence at Pondicherry I have never seen or felt anywhere else. Recently, at the India National ASLE Conference at Pondicherry I was amazed at the depth of articulation and understanding in the research presented. I had been used to presenting in a much more informal manner. I was outshined by every other paper presented. That Pondicherry has such academic rigor and passionite students and faculty only deepens my belief there is no better place in the world for me to pursue my research than Pondicherry University. Combine this with the warmth of the students and faculty, the beauty and location of the campus, and the low cost of an education that I do not feel I could get anywhere else in the world, why would I go anywhere else?

–Mark A. Shryock —

Review of Conversations with Children

Conversations with Children  by S. Murali.  Puducherry Co-op Book Society, 9, Jeevantham Street, Ashok Nagar, Pondicherry 605008. 2005. 38pp. Paperback. Rs.60.00. ISBN 81-87299-10-06.

S. Murali is a painter of repute, and a literary critic who has specialised in Indian literary theory and aesthetics. He is Reader in the Department of English, PondicherryUniversity.  Conversations with Children, his second collection of poems, lives up to the promise of  his first collection, Night Heron (1998); however, unlike Night Heron, it has no illustrations.

The twenty-five poems here have a variety of themes — the title poem deals with the problem of communication, while “My Father and R.K.Narayan” is a moving tribute, mourning both his father and the eminent writer,  who “died a few days before R.K.Narayan did.” As in the earlier collection, love of nature is an important theme; “The Bleeding Tree” which laments over deforestation has an allegorical quality about it. Some poems, such as “I Like to let the word fly about”, “There’s no Wisdom in Poetry” and “Afterward” deal with the art and craft of poetry. Some poems are based on the Puranas. There are five poems about Krishna, and his miraculous childhood exploits. There are poems expressing the feelings of Eklavya, Garuda, Krishna, Karna and Kaikeyi. “Amba Upanishad” expresses the anguish of Amba, the princess forcibly brought to Hastinapur by Bhishma to be his brother’s bride; she confesses, “I had not known enough of hate/ Before now, to hate so much . . .” In “I, Bahuka”, the protagonist wonders who he really is, the glorious King Nala, husband of the beautiful Damayanti, or the dark, ugly Bahuka he became when bitten by a serpent. Murali’s poems are characterized by careful craftsmanship. His free verse  experiments with a number of stanza forms, such as four-line stanzas and three-line stanzas. Some poems have a refrain, but  he avoids rhyme.

The title poem is representative of his work – there is deep thought, a feel for human relationships, closeness to nature,  and striking imagery. “Conversations with Children” is a meditation on the way children casually avoid listening to adults and their sermons about “general rules of behaviour”, and  “dos and don’ts”. The imagery is  concrete, and original:

Like cows in the mid-stream of highway traffic

nonchalant they stand, letting each word

glide by; dodging and ducking, or with a simple

toss of the head disengaging artha from sabda


as simple as peeling bananas.

Waste water cascade.


Most Indians will respond to the unusual image, as the picture of a cow placidly chewing its cud in the middle of the road springs to mind.  The next image, of peeling a banana, starts on a new line, to highlight the ease with which unpleasant conversation is side-stepped, for it is considered only “waste water”.   Two lines are used as a kind of refrain, occurring thrice in the poem:

Fly away, fly away word –

there’s just not any  space for you.

But the poem is not a facile condemnation of the younger generation; it is only after “long years of wandering” that the poet has realized that “Conversation is all”, earlier he was among those who thought that “it’s all conversation”.  “Now my children beside me” indicates that it is an older (and wiser) man who is speaking. There is a note of hope as he sits with his children;  communication can take the form of responding together to nature, its fury and its beauty:

Now my children beside me, I sit and watch

the slow fading of light in the new monsoon

trees all agog with words, the wind

and lightning; thunder calls across the sky.

So much meaning being tossed about

in the open. Shall we reach out

and clutch? Conversation is all


But they do not understand the importance of  conversation, the response to the plea for reaching out and clutching is negative:

and clutch? Conversation is all

empty dispensation of words

a loose cloud over all


And  the poem ends with the refrain: Fly away, fly away word –/ there’s just not any  space for you.”

One does not know (and the  poet probably does not care) how a non-Indian reader would respond to such imagery. Would they slot the cow or the monsoon into the category of the “exotic Other”? Would they be able to understand the reference to “artha from sabda” (and the implied allusion to Kalidasa)? The same questions could be asked about Murali’s poems about figures from Indian mythology. But there is no doubt that these poems are a rewarding experience for the Indian reader; they are thought provoking, and present fresh perspectives on characters like Kaikeyi.

Prof. Shyamala A. Narayan

Journal of Indian Writing in English  14.3.2007