“It was the best of times,” Dickens’s novel famously opens, “it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us… in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received…in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
The similarity to our own noisy time — here, now — is too obvious to be missed. The clamorous farce that passes for TV “debate” is an eloquent illustration of our predicament, in which we are in the grip of matched opposites, good versus evil, monster versus saint, nationalism versus sedition, black versus white. Both the poles of these dichotomous complementarities are clung to so vociferously that there is little possibility of civilised discourse. We are being hustled into a world of instant understandings. No question is ever open; there is nothing that is uncertain, needing to be thought about. All that needs to be understood has been understood already and is readily available in capsule form from political hawkers. This is the age of the pamphlet and the slogan, and, I fear, when even that seems insufficient, of outright violence.
The search for historical parallels has drawn many in the direction of the European Thirties; the rampant furies of “nationalism”, the emergence of populist demagogues assiduously cultivating the cult of the Hero, the fragile international consensus, trembling on the edge of full-scale strife — the big similarities are too easy. What is truly alarming is the depth to which the comparison goes; the voluntaristic longing to transcend, in one deadly move, the clinging miseries of the present; “Jews”, “Muslims”, “the poor”, whatever; the temptation to escape from the obduracy of history into the fluid flexibility of myth; the flagrant resort to vigilante violence as a means of silencing dissent, even the minimal scepticism which is the precondition for thinking itself. All this is only too evident, even when — perhaps even because — it is becoming unutterable in the public space.
The resulting condition is one of a peculiar kind of hysterical boredom, constituted by melodramatically counterposed contraries, pregnant with desperately suppressed anxieties that threaten to tear apart carefully tended complacencies. This brings to mind an older parallel. France in the 1830s, between the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, as rendered by Stendhal in Le Rouge et le Noir, best described by Erich Auerbach: “This… is no ordinary boredom. It does not arise from the fortuitous personal dullness of the people who are brought together… Rather, we are confronted, in [this] boredom, by a phenomenon politically and ideologically characteristic of the Restoration period.”
Auerbach was writing his masterly work, Mimesis, while living in forced exile from his native war-torn Germany, deprived of access to his books, but perhaps particularly well-positioned therefore to develop his insights into the cultural desolation that preceded and underpinned the descent into fascism.
Auerbach identifies further, “an atmosphere of pure convention, of limitation, of constraint and lack of freedom, against which the intelligence and good will of the persons involved are powerless. In these salons the things which interest everyone… political and religious problems of the present… could not be discussed… As these people are conscious that they no longer believe in the thing they represent, and… are bound to be defeated in any public argument, they choose to talk of nothing but the weather, music, and court gossip.” And when that proves insufficient, to shout, lather themselves up into abusive, then violent “nationalisms”.
Is there a way back from this brink, this cacophonous desert of radical contrariety in which we find ourselves? Frankly, I’m not hopeful. Piyush Goyal’s breezy dismissal of Paul Krugman’s nuanced scepticism regarding the gasp-inducing notebandi initiative — pah, Nobel-Schobel, so he might know some economics, but we have 300 seats in Parliament! — is illustrative of a populist arrogance that does not make for good politics.
Indeed, one consequence of polarisation is the death of nuance, of distinction. Having alternative visions for our shared condition is of the essence in democratic politics. Dissent is not sedition and giving reasons to each other, persuasion, conversation, is a good index of a democracy. By that token, I’m afraid — for all the carnivalesque aspects of our elections, the colourful diversity which we celebrate even as the ruling ideology acts in multiple ways to suppress and subvert it — we are not doing so well.
The choice of villains varies, but the cacophony of our polarised political discourse produces a growing cynicism about the political class full of dangerous portents. The gap opening between what is genuinely popular — of, by and for the people — and what is populist, generating volatile majorities, should be a matter of concern to all of us, across the great divides.
The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University