October 30, 2010

By the Way (musings on heroes, artists, culture, and writing)

I am not a hero. I am not unafraid. I am not a protector. I cannot really say that I will, in the hour of distress, be able to stand above it all and supremely marshall my fears.


As a teenager, I remember thinking upon the question: is it the hour that produces the hero, or is it the hero latent in an individual that emerges in the hour? It was during discussions in an English literature class at school, perhaps after a story we read which featured the heroism of a person at an hour of crisis. I thought of this question and I could not answer it to myself with any degree of certainty.


When things fall apart, who would I be? Years later, I stumbled upon this thought again during a line of Proust in ‘A shadow of young girls in flower’, vol. 2 of In search of Lost Time, (by the way, I am not too keen on Proust popularising, the idea smacks of a recipe for self-help masquerading as literary democratisation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of Alain De Botton when I first set my eyes on and fell in love with Proust. I am not averse to De Botton per se, and much liked the ‘Art of Travel’ by him; the book has a good cover photo of the skies through a plane window. Just the kind of abstract image that books should have on their covers instead of the endless series of legs and feet that most ficiton books seem to have – do an eyeball survey in a big bookstore to test this. And while at the bookstore, you might want to pick something by Adam Phillips, he’s introspective, beautifully crafted and analytically gifted), so, brackets done, coming back to the line in Proust, it was a phrase where the narrator is praising Andree’s acts of kindness as opposed to Albertine’s manner just then. Nothing that might overtly trigger the question in me that it did. Imagine an original metaphysical situation — who would I be?


Not the hero. Much as I like their brave composure. Thankfully, not the villain either. I could not scheme to save my life. I could not be an onlooker or a disinterested participant. Perforce, I would be drawn into things that unfold around me (if it is around me, it is in me).   I would be…I thought…an artist. In a specific sense of the term.


An artist if not necessarily in deed, then in thought. For even thought-artists must be. I would observe the situation with the manic intensity of someone who is unable to distinguish between the trivial and the profound, because everything that is, is. I would perhaps see the big fire bringing the big structure down, and worry for the tiny wings of the little bird that must be singed in this spectacle. It is a response that refuses to recognise proportion and propriety. In that it is artistic. It refuses to recognise the constraints that proportion and propriety can impose upon a freewheeling subjectivity that is committed to being true to an exploration of itself through encounters that may come.


For this reason, the artist is never a hero. And never should be. Heroism is fettersome. Remaking heroism is like thinking of birds flying underwater as they would in air — dragged and artificial. The world needs heroes. And it needs its artists. There must be sparrows and zebras both.


It is the outsides, the peripherals that remain the preserve of the artist’s consciousness. An artist is the phenomenologist of the peripherals. The one who can chose to stay engaged with an unfolding reality without becoming a mystic or a recluse.


In the singed wings of the little bird is the big fire reflected in another way.


Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. It is a legend, of course. But, think of it literally for a moment. Nero the synaesthete who saw divinity in fires and heard tones in crackles. Nero the arsonist. Nero the infamous. Nero, not ever a hero. But, just maybe a good artist, a musician.


In The Dark Knight, the Batman movie by Christopher Nolan (by the way, Nolan’s film ‘Following’ from the early 1980s was one of the best too, and The Dark Knight is gripping, the joker says ‘what does not kill you, makes you stranger’ – a line Albert Camus might have had Meursault say in his novel ‘The Stranger’ 🙂 – how I would love to have a conversation with the scriptwriter of this film! – And you thought Winston Churchill was profound when, referring to his parents, he said solitary trees if at all they grow, grow strong. Batman beats Churchill. Note also that Batman, incidentally, seems to have become ‘harder’ as Bond has become ‘softer’ over time. ‘The hardening Batman and the softening Bond: representing the sociocultural ethics of our times’ here is a topic for an essay that looks at the changing depictions of good versus evil in relation to identity such as class, race, gender, sexuality), so, brackets done, Batman’s butler says to him, ‘Some people just want to watch the world burn’. An impressive dialogue, especially within the context of the Burmese tale in the movie, yet, it is incomplete. The logic of the line in the film is that not everything can be reasoned with, and one cannot really ask: Why do some people just want to watch the world burn? Fine. But, that realisation should not stall us from asking: How would a burning world change things?


A magpie sits alone on a television antenna atop a roof. Birds, I notice, always fly from my right to my left across the window as I face it. If only one could be privy to the specialisms of others, albeit for a day (Primo Levi’s book ‘Other people’s trades’ is good); if I could be an ornithologist for a day, I’d know why they fly like that. Or if there is a pattern to their ordinary wanderings across these ethereal autumn skies.


I speak thoughts aloud. The orality of a primitive tradition, where there was sound and music before there was The Word, appeals to me. The written mark – Bible, logocentrism and Derrida (by the way, once he and I spoke for six hours on the phone in a dream, imagine all those copper wires rolled up, carrying sounds like in early telephony, memories transmitted through current in a metal, wonderously quixotic) cited in passing – is the beginning. It is before the Beginning that I want to re-turn (retrace even; Alejo Carpentier’s 1950s book ‘The Lost Steps’ is beautiful in its evocation of an ethnomusicologist’s journey into the past of time in a present continent). I speak these sounds into memory. I am made to fret that I must write them down. Continents of rich and unrivalled oral traditions are condemned to be ‘without history’ – Huntington the political scientist said the world has ‘seven or maybe eight’ civilisations, meaning Africa ‘may’ have one – and violence is routinely imposed by Knowledge arbiters on such oral lives and histories.


I am Africa, I say. Impulsively. What I want to say is that Africa’s history and its many civilisations don’t need the validation of Huntington. But I know, epistemic erasures cause real hardships. Representations in narrative cause real sufferings. It is important, at a petty level, to scheme. In other words, to write memories. I prefer the fictional way of Roland Gant who in his book ‘The World in a Jug’ has the narrator – a white blues musician in segregation era – speak his life and memories of music into a record player. The speech and sound of memory is transcribed by the publisher (in the novel). (By the way, that book had a stance, the narrator sounded a bit like the author in his stance to taking things easy, in preferring to experience the world instead of scheming to get ahead. Maybe he, like his character, lived his life hearing, seeing speaking and sensing it, not just writing it furiously).


I did end up writing this though.






  1. Good analogy with the Dark Knight…Some men cannot be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with…some men just want to watcht teh world burn…BLISS…
    But on the contrary I felt that Bale did soften during the movie, that’s why the his constant whinings about being a failure and not being able to stand upto the Joker…that’s when Alfred reminds him that who he is..that he can take decisions no1 else can..The right ones..He can be the villian and still be the hero!!

    Comment by Upneet — September 2, 2011 @ 5:17 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Nitasha, my name is Arushi and I am contacting you on behalf of Siyahi Literary agency. Would it be possible for you to send me your email id so that we can contact you regarding our books and possible reviews?

    Comment by Arushi Pareek — August 4, 2012 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

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