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.


Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

December 18, 2017

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

by David Hutt


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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

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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


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. ♦

NY Times Book Review: What the Greek Myths Teach Us About Anger in Troubled Times

September 7, 2017

Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths
By Emily Katz Anhalt
268 pp. Yale University Press. $30.

The very first word in the history of Western literature is “rage” or “wrath.” For that is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed some time in the eighth century B.C., it starts with a call to the Muse, the goddess of inspiration, to help tell the story of the “wrath” of Achilles (menin in the original Greek) — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the mythical war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers. What happens, the poem asks, when your best warrior is so furious at a personal insult that he withdraws from the war and simply refuses to fight? What are the costs, to use the modern coinage, of “Achilles sulking in his tent”?

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In “Enraged,” Emily Katz Anhalt, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the “Iliad.” Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The “Iliad” is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.

The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had been stolen by — or had run off with — a Trojan prince. It must always have been very hard to listen to the “Iliad” (it was originally delivered orally) without wondering whether being “best” really should mean deploying almost unlimited resources and sacrificing the lives of countless friends and allies to avenge such a personal slight. Or, to put it in our terms, was the military response proportionate to the provocation? The dilemma in Homer’s plot, which focused on a few days’ slice of the action, is similar. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him. “Was he justified?” is the obvious and, in terms of traditional heroic codes of honor, the radical question.


No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”

Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the “Iliad” and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.

She has some powerful words too on the modern unreflective complacency about the democratic political process, as if so-called free and fair elections were its only touchstone. One of her chosen tragedies, Sophocles’ “Ajax,” explores the consequences of a popular group decision that was morally wrong: After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important, even if she is occasionally unfair to some human political achievements. “In many parts of the world today,” Anhalt writes, “slavery and ethnic inequality persist and women still lack equal rights and cannot vote” — which in some general sense is true, though the last part is misleading. It is certainly the case that in some places voting may not amount to much, and that women face all kinds of political disadvantage almost everywhere, but to my knowledge it is only in Vatican City that women are allowed nowhere near a ballot box.

But as the title “Enraged” suggests, fury and anger are at the center of Anhalt’s agenda. If, she claims, we were to take a lesson from the “Iliad” and from the human costs of Achilles’ anger, we would now be trying much more determinedly to move away from the politics of violence, vengeance and reprisals, to the politics of debate and verbal persuasion. “As we face the domestic, international, and global crises of our own times we have to resist the seductions of rage,” she writes.

Ancient literature can certainly be eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many modern assumptions that we take too much for granted. But I am very doubtful that it has any particularly useful direct lessons for us. It is slightly disappointing to find that, after many fine observations, the book’s central conclusion lies somewhere between a liberal truism (essentially: It is better to talk about things than fight) and a misleading oversimplification. As Anhalt more or less concedes, the final verdict on anger, whether political or personal, must come down to what we are angry about and how we act as a consequence. Rage, as shown in the “Iliad” and some modern geopolitical debate, can be petty and corrosive, but I doubt that Homer was advocating that we should live entirely without it. It is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary. Do we want to live in a world in which we don’t get furious at slavery, racism, or any number of other global injustices — or even at some of the dreadful truths of the human condition? When more than two millenniums after Homer the poet Dylan Thomas wrote of facing death with the words “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” it was the kind of rage that many of us understandably cherish.


Edward Said–A Tribute

August 12, 2017

Edward Said–A Tribute

by A.C. Grayling

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Edward Said (pic above) was a much interviewed man, partly because he stood in a unique cross-cultural place at a painful historical juncture, and could speak about it with intelligence and eloquence,thus attracting the persistent attention of journalists and fellow intellectuals, and partly because he agreed so often to be interviewed , doubtless out of the intellectual’s need for expression, but almost  certainly also because there was more than a tincture of vanity in that handsome man who derived so much from so many places–Palestine, the Western literary tradition, the East, America, the British public school tradition,the Arab world, the East Coast Ivy League tradition, Cairo, Jerusalem,New York, well lit European television studios, the border with Israel at whose fence he could throw stones–because he claim to belong to none of them though benefiting massively from them all.

The many interviews he gave between them beautifully manifest these paradoxical  self-positionings and deep ambiguities, and in the process offer a portrait–all the more striking for being so unselfconsciously self-conscious–of a vitally interesting individual. A volume collecting his interviews was ready for publication shortly before his lamented death, and he therefore read it;  one wonders whether he saw how chameleon-like he was, taking on colours of the side from which his interviewers  came: an Arab for Arabs, a ‘colonial’ when talking to other ‘colonials’ (for example the Indian editor of the volume), and a culturally conservative four-square Western-educated intellectual for Western academic colleagues. He even went so far as to say to Israel’s Ha’aretz magazine, “I’m the last Jewish intellectual…I’m a Jewish-Palestinian.”

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He was, of course, nothing of the sort, and not much of the other thing either. Born a Protestant Christian in West Jerusalem of wealthy Christian Arab parents, he spent his early life in Cairo being educated at a famous English public school there along with later King Hussein of Jordan and the famous bridge player-actor Omar Sharif, and then went to university in America. After taking his PhD in English Literature he joined the faculty of Columbia University in the early 1960s, and New York remained his home until his death in 2003.

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Although his chosen milieu was American academia, the accident of his origins gave him a stake in the tragedy of the Middle East, and he became an indefatigable and powerful advocate of the Palestinian cause. Fame came with his book Orientalism , whose argument is that Europeans deal with the Orient through a process of colonisation premised on the Orient as ‘Other’ expressed in many ways, from literature and art to scholarship and thence colonial bureaucracy. He saw the Occident-Orient relationship as deriving  not in fact from alienation but from historical closeness, although at its fullest it takes the form of power, dominance, and varying degrees of hegemony in Gramsci’s of ‘cultural domination’. This important idea, and its extension into Said’s views about the relation of culture and imperialism generally, is discussed repeatedly and from a variety of angles in the interviews he gave, which between them therefore constitute a work in itself, and an excellent introduction to hie thought.

For all that Said was a campaigner for Palestine and enemy of Zionism in unequivocal terms (he disliked Martin Luther King Jr. and King was pro-Israel), he was otherwise a small conservative in cultural terms. Despite everything he said about Orientalism, his most abiding loyalty was to Western High Culture ( he loved serious music and opera, and wrote about it frequently) and the literature of the English tongue. Claiming that even Jane Austen embodies the imperialising thrust of English literature–Mansfield Park is paid for by a slave plantation in Antigua, a passingly mentioned item which for Said, as for the many engaged in the industry of ‘postcolonial literary studies’, is an endless resource–Said  was able to be a prophet among avant-garde lit.-crit. fraternity, and yet at the same time he came early to despise them.

“One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it”.–A.C. Grayling

Refreshingly, he was sometimes dismissive of ‘literary theory’ and the jargon-laden ‘auto-tinkering’ of the academy,  in which literary criticism  is a cheap form of philosophy done by waving banners  with ‘Derrida’ and ‘Heidegger’ on them, resulting in salaried logorrhoea, a thick stream of indecipherable nonsense that has spewed, like outfall from a main sewer, into an intellectually polluted sea of futility.

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But interviews with him show  that he never quite escaped the grip of this intellectual disease. When speaking to fellow lit.-crit. academics he falls easily into the jargon: ‘As (Michel) Foucault said…As  (Jacques) Derrida said…’is the familiar refrain, and, like his colleagues he misquotes  and misrepresents (as when he shows unfamiliarity with what for example (Thomas) Hobbes and (Karl) Popper really meant, though airily invoking their names in that lit.-crt.way, which is like a verbal twic or twitch: ‘…as Popper said…’)

As just one of many  ambiguities that cluster around Said’s intellectual persona,though, his divided attitude  to his academic discipline is understandable enough. Often pressed in interviews on  the question of how he can regard (Jane) Austen and (Joseph) Conrad as great writers and their works as great literature while at the same time viewing them as imperialist producers of texts not merely expressing but embodying the very process of colonisation and therefore diminishment of the Other, Said had to navigate carefully between emphasising  now on one side of the dilemma and now the other, trying to show that a work can be great literature even if it is, because it is of its time and place, an instrument of a form of harm. To perceptions which catch less shiftingly grey nuances, this seems like having a cake and eating it; much of what Said tried to do in interviews was to show how that can be done.

One thing that everyone can agree with Said about–and it is  a point he often  and eloquently made–is that academy should not be disengaged from the real world and especially the injustices it contains. His own life is a monument to that conviction, and deserves praise for it.

Source: A.C. Grayling, The Heart of Things: Applying Philosophy to the 21st Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), Edward Said, 1935-2003, pp 226-229