Hesse’s Arrested Development


December 14, 2018

 Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’ ” But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him. His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”

That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young. “Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”

Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reënactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide. The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

 

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly. Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

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The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression.

This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

 

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”

A Tribute to Krishen Jit–The Doyen of Malaysian Theater


June 1, 2018

A Tribute to Krishen Jit–The Doyen of Malaysian Theater

by Johan Jaafar

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“Krishen was the best drama critic the country has ever known. To label him just a “critic” is almost a misdemeanour. He was in fact a keen observer, a chronicler and a commentator.”–Dato’ Johan Jaafar

Marion D’Cruz was among friends last Saturday. They came from all over to celebrate the publication of a book on the late Krishen Jit. That morning, Five Arts Centre was the venue where friends of Krishen and Marion converged reminiscing about the man they knew well.

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The book Excavations, Interrogations, Krishen Jit & Contemporary Malaysian Theatre is one of a kind. It is basically a compilation of essays by 14 writers of different backgrounds and disciplines on the life and works of Krishen.

It stems from a conference held in January 2015. With an illuminating introduction by the editors (Charlene Rajendran, Ken Takiguchi and Carmen Nge), the collection unveils the various layers of Krishen’s works and his personality.

It is like peeling the layers one by one, “excavating” if you like, and with lots of critical studies and analysis (thus the “interrogations”), Krishen surfaces but not all. There are many more layers to be uncovered for Krishen was no ordinary bloke, nor his works easy to be “appropriated.”

For many of us who have known Krishen, he was simple and forthright as a person. But the complexity lies in his works and especially his writings.

I have edited some of his essays in Bahasa Malaysia in Dewan Sastera, the literary journal published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). I have collaborated with him in a few essays.

I have been following his columns in the New Straits Times for years. He has written about me and my works, some I liked, others I didn’t and I told him so.

Krishen was the best drama critic the country has ever known. To label him just a “critic” is almost a misdemeanour. He was in fact a keen observer, a chronicler and a commentator.

To many who have acted under his direction or listened to his talks, he was a guru and mentor. He can be exceptionally harsh, even brutally critical in his writings.

But theatre activists of his generation took note and paid attention. Being reviewed by Krishen was in itself an honour.

For 22 years (1972 to 1994) his nom de guerre, “Utih”, was writing for the New Straits Times. When he started the column in 1972, a lot of things were happening on the Malaysian stage.

Theatre in Bahasa Malaysia was alighted with new works by the likes of Syed Alwi, Nordin Hassan and Dinsman. Theatre in English, once the flagbearer of excellence suffered because many of its stalwarts were migrating to theatre in Bahasa Malaysia.

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Datuk Baha Zain joined The University of Malaya in 1960 and was my Second Residential College (Kolej Tuanku Bahiyah) mate. –Din Merican

In fact Krishen was the bridge between the two, as argued by Literary Laureate, Datuk Baharuddin Zainal, another of his close friend.

Two years later, I joined the University of Malaya and was part of the vibrant student and theatre activism in the campus. Hatta Azad Khan was at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Mana Sikana was at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

All three of us were, together with Nordin and Dinsman according to Krishen and other critics, the pioneers of the “absurd theatre” in the country.

I knew Krishen through his writings as a student. He was a lecturer at the History Department when I joined the UM.

When I joined DBP in 1977, I had already befriended Krishen. In 1979, he was entrusted to organise a theatre festival for the Malay Studies Department of the UM.

It was to be called “Festival Teater Jabatan Pengajian Melayu” in conjuction with the 25th year of the department’s existence.

He selected seven plays to represent the various stages of contemporary Malay theatre. My play, “Angin Kering” was chosen to represent the experimental era of the 1970s.

I was to direct the “oldest” play, a transitional play (sandiwara) entitled “Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri” written by Shaharom Husain. It was a tough assignment for Krishen.

I was given the task to assist him by my employer DBP. For many months we worked on the project. We even collaborated in an essay on Shaharom Hussain for the March issue of Dewan Sastera in 1979.

On his own he wrote a two-part essay as a retrospective of Malay theatre in the same edition and in the following month.

I got to know Krishen up, close and personal. He was a voracious eater, I can vouch that. He enjoyed being in my car, for I drove fast and perhaps a little reckless back then.

“I feel safe in a fast but cheap car!” he told everyone who cared to listen to his agony. He was combing details of the works of Shaharom relentlessly.

We met Shaharom a few times and marvelled at his collection of books and newspaper cuttings. As a historian Krishen probed the history of the genre, sandiwara.

As a theatre enthusiast he engrossed himself with the workings of the already dying genre. We met actors and stage hands who were involved in the first production of “Si Bongkok Tanjung Puteri.”

It was an enlightening experience working with Krishen. In 1992, I joined the Utusan Melayu Group as the Chief Editor.

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Datin Marion D’Cruz, a Theater Icon in her own right, was a tower of strength behind my University of Malaya contemporary, Krishen Jit. I remember Krishen as an intellectual.–Din Merican

 

I became a restless spectator for years, for I was busy as a journalist and later in the corporate world. I heard Krishen started Five Arts Centre with his wife Marion in 1984. We met occasionally over teh tarik when time permitted. I was abroad when I heard of his demise.

This book is written with passion and understanding in trying to excavate and interrogate his body of works, his disciples, his work ethics and more so his contribution to the world of theatre.

He was a perfectionist, no doubt. And he was a man driven by his obsession to raise the bar of Malaysian theatre. He was never selfish, but uncompromising yes, and he was perfecting his art all the time.

Many who have worked with him understand his demanding pace and exactitude. He expected the best. He was lucky to have Marion and some of the best and dedicated stage people at Five Arts Centre.

This publication is a fitting tribute to Krishen Jit.

 

 Johan Jaaffar has just published a book, Jejak Seni, about his 50-year incredible journey as an actor, playwright, director and later chairman of the country’s largest media company. He was a journalist and a former chairman of DBP.

https://www.thestar.com.my

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”


December 18, 2017

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

by David Hutt

http://www.newmandala.org/gopal-baratham-orwell-orient/

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The Late Singaporean Novelist Dr. Gopal Baratham

The late Singaporean novelist Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun, published in 1991, is rightly regarded as one of the finest works of literature to come out of the city-state (though probably not according to its government). Politically-minded, and not afraid to amble along a storyline of repression and state-enforced victimhood, it is small wonder Baratham’s writing was often compared to George Orwell’s.

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A Time magazine’s review of A Candle or the Sun states that it “picks up where George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four left off.” In the negative, both authors’ styles are admittedly a little too heavy with caricature and requisite pathos, especially when it comes to life’s victims. Indeed, A Candle or the Sun might initially catch one’s eye as a Southeast Asian transmutation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Baratham would say in an interview, he wanted to complete the book by 1984 “for Orwell” but couldn’t finish it until the end of 1985. The book is set in 1983. It took another six years to find a publisher, which was Serpent’s Tail, of London.

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A more discernible reader, however, might also notice the traces of Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A bored salesman and failing amateur writer (a la Gordon Comstock), Baratham’s protagonist, Hernie Perera, gives up on his artistic dreams, though with the promise of literary success, when he accepts a job offer from an old friend to work at the Ministry of Culture producing propaganda. Both Comstock and Perera are susceptible to hypocrisy gilded in justification, mistreatment of their lovers for their own advancement, and an overestimation of their own literary merits.

Perera’s self-respect is lost (though later redeemed) when he betrays to his new employers his lover Su-May, a member of anti-government Christian sect that is printing a “street paper.” This oppressive state is ominously distant from the story, however. (The setting is clearly Singapore, despite the book’s forewarning that “any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”) Perera does muse on how the state wants a say in even the most minute points of life (“your masters kennel you in neat boxes, doctor your females, control litter size according to pedigree and tell you what names you can give your pups,” to give one example.) And Perera is later chided by the lover of his friend: “Did they never tell you that on this island of paradise of ours trade is a matter of security, education is a matter of security, health is a matter of security, how you wash your underwear is a matter of security.”

The Singaporean academic Ban Kah Choon apparently once described him as a “magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written.” Ignore the pretentiousness and incoherence of this statement; Baratham, after all, was fictionalising fact in A Candle or the Sun: specifically, Operation Spectrum, the Singaporean government’s attempt at McCarthyism. But he was certainly charting a new course in Singaporean literature. And instigators often have to be more obvious. Baratham was at his best when he was at his subtlest, though he often had the habit of repeating his understatements so often they become glaring. Indeed, re-reading A Candle or the Sun in light of the more recent politically-natured novels from Singapore (I’m thinking in particular of Jeremy Tiang’s understated State of Emergency, published in May) one gets the sense that Baratham subscribes to the hammer-to-crack-a-nut cliché.

Three years after A Candle or the Sun was published, Catherine Lim, another Singaporean writer, earned a rebuke from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for her articles in the Straits Times. Writers on the fringe must not challenge the government, the Prime Minister said. There were suspicions, during the ‘90s, of Baratham being the city-state’s “token liberal,” an author who avoided the sort of criticism and censorship others faced. “You should criticize the faults if you care for the society,” he said in 1996. “Some people say I’m the government’s token liberal. What can I say?”

His background, perhaps, afforded him some protection. Born in 1935, decades before Singapore became an independent nation, he followed his parents’ footsteps into the medical profession. At 36, he finally graduated from the University of Edinburgh, specialising in neurosurgery, after training at the Royal London Hospital. He would later return to Singapore, eventually becoming the head of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s neurosurgery department. In 1991, the same year A Candle or the Sun was published, he was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons.

His prominence in the medical field, at least in Southeast Asia, was not quite equalled by his literary recognition. A Candle or the Sun became his first published novel, after two collections of short stories, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992, which he reportedly turned down because, he said, it was awarded based on the panel looking for a “Singapore style of writing” when he considered his work international (most of his work was published by British publishing house, not Singaporean ones). He attempted another novel and a non-fiction book after A Candle or the Sun but it was that work that kept his name in alive among the talking classes.

His death, in 2002, gave chance for his reappraisal as an interlocutor for free speech in Singapore. Teng Qian Xi, writing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore at the time, offered a retrospective: “The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun.”

Freedom from speech

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Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner–Hong Lim Park

I do not know how widely A Candle or the Sun is still read in Singapore. I am told anecdotally that, like Nineteen Eighty-Four is around the world, it’s known by many but read by few. I hope not. Nonetheless, it remains an easy-to-hand reference for free speech matters. Indeed, how little things seem to have changed since it was published. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is still in power, as it has been since Singapore gained its statehood. The country’s media remains closed. MediaCorp dominates television and radio, and is the only terrestrial TV broadcaster. It happens to be controlled by the government-owned investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the CEO of which is Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As for the newspapers, the Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings. Its current CEO is Alan Chan, who previously served in several government positions, and its chairman Lee Boon Yang, who served as an MP for the ruling party from 1984 until 2011, and held Cabinet positions during that time.

When Baratham was interviewed after the publication of A Candle or the Sun, he laconically defended himself: “It’s not that I want to irritate, but I just speak my mind… You should criticize the faults if you care for the society.” But this is a concept that still doesn’t find ear among the ruling elite, despite its rhetoric. In February, the Prime Minister commented: “If all you have are people who say, ‘Three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them, and that is disastrous.” On the same day, as the Economist pointed out, a respected former diplomat who now runs a public-policy institute at the National University of Singapore, said Singapore needs “more naysayers [who] attack and challenge every sacred cow.”

Singapore is now a 21st century economy propped up by 20th century politics. And the Sedition Act, on the books since the late 1940s, is still brought out to slap down those naysayers, especially those who criticise the sacred cows, namely religion and race. PM Lee Hsien Loong has defended Singapore’s limits on free expression as a means to safeguard social stability. “In our society, which is multiracial and multi-religious, giving offence to another religious or ethnic group, race, language or religion, is always a very serious matter,” he said. This has been the case since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (and the current PM’s father), promised in 1965 to build a multiracial nation. “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion,” he commented that year.

Today, Indeed, Singapore is a multiracial state. And a heavy dose of state-enforcement has gone into defending this idea. Singapore celebrates Racial Harmony Day—July 21, the day when the riots broke out in 1964—and schoolchildren are taught about religion and ethnicity. But the idea that by suppressing “hate-speech” one can improve society reveals hidden impulses behind those who call from restraints. It is, at the same time, utopian and nihilistic.

I’ll take a fairly positive-slanted story from the Straits Times, dated November 8, 2015, as an example. The article’s author describes Singapore as a microcosm, “which pledges to be color-blind in its meritocracy and economic growth by providing opportunities for all”. From these, and numerous other reports, one gets the sense that perhaps the government is justified in trying to silence what it considers hate speech.

But a number of commentators are quoted as saying that Singapore is “nowhere near being a race-blind society” because racist undertones are hidden under the surface of a seemingly cohesive society. They also said that “some people and groups are downright ignorant and biased, others merely tolerate, but others are proactive in understanding and being appreciative”. One sociologist opined that “bubbling beneath our civil veneer, there are prejudices and stereotypes which occasionally surface to trigger bouts of soul-searching”. Indeed, the death of a foreign worker in Little India in 2013 led to a riot of more than 300 people, during which 54 officers and eight civilians were injured.

But silencing any public discourse on race or religion doesn’t seem to have done much good (just as banning mention of food isn’t a cure for malnutrition). As seen over the decades, while tensions remain dormant most of the time, they do have the recurrent habit of bubbling up. Moreover, not talking about the issue doesn’t always mean it will go away. A 2013 survey found that almost half of Singaporeans didn’t have a close friend of another race.

At some point in A Candle or the Sun, Perera is warned: “culture is a matter of security.” So, too, is culture a matter of free speech. While “hate-speech” does exist, all too often free speech is curtailed in Singapore over claims that individuals have offended a religion or race, when what they have really done is criticise the government. A casual glance over the cases of people recently prosecuted for free speech reveals that courts tend to find some facet of religious or racial offence in the person’s comments.

Take the case of the blogger Amos Yee, who was prosecuted twice for wounding religious feeling, not for criticising the government. As Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, said in 2015, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians…Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.” Indeed, from this comment one can denote the legal contortionism of the Singaporean government: its citizens have the right of freedom from speech, which, to the government, is more important than freedom of speech. Yee might have gone on a tirade against religion, but his main target for criticism was the government, specifically the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. He called the late leader “a horrible person”, an “awful leader” and a “dictator,” as the Economist reported. Indeed, the American government was clearly of opinion that Yee was persecuted for his political views when it offered him asylum this year. “This is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions,” one American immigration judge wrote during Yee’s asylum ruling. To which the Singaporean government responded that America allows “hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech.”

It is often too easy to defend the freedom of speech for the likes of Baratham, a learned doctor and adroit novelist. Harder, though, to defend the uncouth ramblings of someone like Yee. As I wrote in the Diplomat at the time: “It is clear that most of [Yee’s] comments were crude and inarticulate and, befitting his age, childish. This doesn’t mean, however, he ought not be defended for merely uttering an opinion.”

Taking the candle

George Orwell once described Speakers Corner, in London’s Hyde Park, as “one of the minor wonders of the world.” On my last visit to Singapore, last year, a reposeful afternoon provided me with a moment to visit the city-state’s own attempt at a Speakers Corner, located in Hong Lim Park. Oh, how imitations are inferior. The Economist described it thusly:

[A] spot set up for Singaporeans to exercise their freedom of speech without any restriction whatsoever, beyond the obligation to apply for permission to speak and to comply with the 13 pages of terms and conditions upon which such permissions are predicated, as well as all the relevant laws and constitutional clauses.

That article was about the prosecution of blogger Han Hui Hui who, in 2014, journeyed to Speakers’ Corner to protest the management of the Central Provident Fund, the city-states compulsory social security fund. She was found guilty and fined more than $2,000 last year not for voicing her opinion, a government spokesperson said, but for “loutishly barging into a performance by a group of special-education-needs children, frightening them and denying them the right to be heard.”

But what’s surprising about Speakers’ Corner is that Singapore would even attempt a parody. But, then again, Baratham understood the importance of the masquerade. The real heft of A Candle or the Sun is not in how an oppressive state operates but how people are so ready to sacrifice (and justify sacrificing) freedom for “good housing, safe streets, schools for your children and… three square meals a day and a colour TV,” as Perera says. Indeed, principles are sacrificed with only the slightest enticement by the state, unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In 2013, a survey of 4,000 Singaporeans asked whether they preferred “limits on freedom of expression to prevent social tensions” or “complete freedom of expression even at risk of social tensions.” 40% of respondents went for limits and 37% said complete freedom. The remaining 23 percent had no opinion on the matter, which perhaps says something about public participation in Singaporean society.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel that represents what Orwell described as “the dirty-handkerchief side of life” then Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published 17 years earlier, is its saccharine facsimile. Huxley in a letter to Orwell shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

A Candle or the Sun serves somewhat as a synthesis between the censorial warning of both dystopias. Baratham understood that too much jack-booting, never the first port of call for the Singaporean repressors anyway, couldn’t last. (A Candle or the Sun happened to be published the year the Soviet Union collapsed). Equally, permissiveness, unlike in Brave New World, had to be carefully managed: provide a glimpse but never the real thing. Perera, an intelligent man, understands the cognitive dissonance one needs to survive in such a world. A noted passage in A Candle or the Sun finds him musing over whether to take the censorial job. He compares his position to that of a prostitute. “Once I’ve accepted Sam’s job,” he thinks, “I was sure I would have to do things distasteful… I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with.” But as he soliloquises, he swiftly talks himself round to a justification:

The analogy with prostitutes was a good one. There must be prostitutes who are wives and mothers, who ran families, loved their husbands. Their salvation must lie in an ability to separate in their minds acts which were physically identical.

The psychically identical act, for Perera, was to be able to write artistically and censorially at the same time. In short, selling something that one doesn’t want to, nor believes in. Indeed, from his days running a furniture store, Perera reflects that salesmanship “consisted not of providing people with what they needed, but with that was essential to their dreams.” Shortly afterwards, he comments: “The possibility of winter is essential to the happiness of people living in the tropics.” Dreams, Perera realises, are all too willingly indulged and what people really need (freedom and autonomy) sacrificed. Indeed, do people want the candle (the intimation of freedom) or the sun (the real thing)? The government’s art of salesmanship, as Singapore’s history has shown, makes sure people readily opt for the candle.

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Editor’s note: readers interesting in buying The Candle and the Sun can find copies available through Marshall Cavendish or at AbeBooks.

 

Being Exceptional the right way


November 15, 2017

Being Exceptional the right way

by Azmi Sharom@www.thestar.com.my

Image result for Azmi Sharom

Mustafa Akyol and Azmi Sharom

I WAS very surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent writer. Believe it or not, I do occasionally read things other than football reports, and I have enjoyed Ishiguro’s work tremendously.

 

However, I always thought that the Nobel Prize for literature was given to authors who are so complex and hyper intelligent that they seem to be from another planet. I have tried to read the books of some of these folks – Naipaul, Saramago and Gao, to name a few. And I haven’t managed more than 20 or 40 pages. It’s not because the books were awful. It’s just that they were too difficult.

Contrast this to Ishiguro’s breakthrough book The Remains of the Day. My Japanese mate introduced it to me and I read it in one night. It was a jolly good read, but it wasn’t particularly challenging.

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But then, can we be surprised? After all, Bob blinking Dylan won the prize last year. Seriously? “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? …The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Seriously?

Again, I am not dissing Bob. I think that Blood on the Tracks is an awesome album; it’s the best break-up album money can buy. And I remember fondly hearing him sing unintelligibly at, of all places, the Putra World Trade Centre. But is he up there with Neruda?

Image result for Bob DylanMusical Genius Bob Dylan and a Man of Peace

 

Okay, at this point, you may be saying that I am being elitist. Maybe I am, but not in the way that you may think. After all, I freely admit that I am not smart enough to get the works of the Nobel winners that I have tried to read. How can I be elitist when I clearly don’t understand them?

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is good to have some crazy mad high standard of human achievement; something to look up to and admire. A gold standard that perhaps in our own small way we can aspire to.

The same goes for sport. As sweet as it is to see the Falkland Islands badminton team huff and puff away at the Commonwealth Games, it is the elite in sport that truly captures the imagination.

It is when we bring things down to a lower or in the case of television, the lowest, common denominator that we start to lose that aspirational element of human endeavour. Why train and work hard to be a good actor when you can simply be obnoxious and have your own reality TV show?

And so it is in politics. I want leaders who are smarter and more able than me. They should be people who have a grasp of the world that I don’t have, in order for problems to be solved and governance to be good. If we just go for the popular and the lowest common denominator, then any Tom, Dick or Donald can be a leader and that could be disastrous.

All people are created equal. That is something I believe in. But not everybody can achieve equally. Some are just stronger or smarter or more talented.

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It is one thing to acknowledge those who can be appreciated by a wider audience, who are more like “one of us”. But if we do that all the time, then what is there to aspire to? What is there to inspire?

Azmi Sharom (azmi.sharom@gmail.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

The Work You Do, the Person You Are–Self Esteem


October 30, 2017

The Work You Do, the Person You Are

The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed.

By Toni Morrison

http://www.newyorker.com

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

All I had to do for the two dollars was clean her house for a few hours after school. It was a beautiful house, too, with a plastic-covered sofa and chairs, wall-to-wall blue-and-white carpeting, a white enamel stove, a washing machine and a dryer—things that were common in Her neighborhood, absent in mine. In the middle of the war, She had butter, sugar, steaks, and seam-up-the-back stockings.

I knew how to scrub floors on my knees and how to wash clothes in our zinc tub, but I had never seen a Hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron that wasn’t heated by fire.

Part of my pride in working for jer was earning money I could squander: on movies, candy, paddleballs, jacks, ice-cream cones. But a larger part of my pride was based on the fact that I gave half my wages to my mother, which meant that some of my earnings were used for real things—an insurance-policy payment or what was owed to the milkman or the iceman. The pleasure of being necessary to my parents was profound. I was not like the children in folktales: burdensome mouths to feed, nuisances to be corrected, problems so severe that they were abandoned to the forest. I had a status that doing routine chores in my house did not provide—and it earned me a slow smile, an approving nod from an adult. Confirmations that I was adultlike, not childlike.

In those days, the forties, children were not just loved or liked; they were needed. They could earn money; they could care for children younger than themselves; they could work the farm, take care of the herd, run errands, and much more. I suspect that children aren’t needed in that way now. They are loved, doted on, protected, and helped. Fine, and yet . . .

Image result for Toni Morrison Toni Morrison receives Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison, the renowned author and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Princeton University, was named by President Barack Obama a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Little by little, I got better at cleaning her house—good enough to be given more to do, much more. I was ordered to carry bookcases upstairs and, once, to move a piano from one side of a room to the other. I fell carrying the bookcases. And after pushing the piano my arms and legs hurt so badly. I wanted to refuse, or at least to complain, but I was afraid she would fire me, and I would lose the freedom the dollar gave me, as well as the standing I had at home—although both were slowly being eroded. She began to offer me her clothes, for a price. Impressed by these worn things, which looked simply gorgeous to a little girl who had only two dresses to wear to school, I bought a few. Until my mother asked me if I really wanted to work for castoffs. So I learned to say “No, thank you” to a faded sweater offered for a quarter of a week’s pay.

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“Make a difference about something other than yourselves.”– Toni Morrison– https://www.brainyquote.com

Still, I had trouble summoning the courage to discuss or object to the increasing demands she made. And I knew that if I told my mother how unhappy I was she would tell me to quit. Then one day, alone in the kitchen with my father, I let drop a few whines about the job. I gave him details, examples of what troubled me, yet although he listened intently, I saw no sympathy in his eyes. No “Oh, you poor little thing.” Perhaps he understood that what I wanted was a solution to the job, not an escape from it. In any case, he put down his cup of coffee and said, “Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

  3. Your real life is with us, your family.

  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

I have worked for all sorts of people since then, geniuses and morons, quick-witted and dull, bighearted and narrow. I’ve had many kinds of jobs, but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself, and I have never placed the security of a job above the value of home. ♦