Modern literature recorded its peak in 1922. Ulysses and The Waste Land came out of the printing press. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, a year after its publication in German, saw its English version. The works of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ludwig Wittgenstein epitomise the modern novel, poetry and linguistics. That year also saw the birth of the USSR, which was not a liberal democracy, but embodied the grand dream of a modern, secular, progressive state that hypnotised generations.
2022 is far off. But loud signals have emerged from two significant democracies that regard themselves to be the proud custodian of the planet. The election to the most powerful office on the planet and the economic project that enveloped the life of every citizen of the second most populous country were based not on reason, but harnessed popular anxieties and insecurities. To call this politics “post-truth” is half-truth, perhaps no truth at all. Such politics never had to go past the truth. It aspired not for reason or rationality, but myths and legends. Demonetisation is a mythical construction. It does not build an argument, but weaves a myth. Its champions are mythmakers.
What does all this signify for modernity? Modernity has been given countless obituaries in arts and literature, but still holds fort in bureaucracy and politics — it’s firmly embedded in the notion of a constitutional state. A modern state would have to be an upholder of “due process of law”. But if modern values are being contested in various spheres of human life, it is foolhardy to assume that the state, an institution comprising its subjects, would continue to remain unaffected.
Where did modernity falter? It dismissed myths and legends, which were once self-validating modes of knowledge, as inferior and inaccurate methods of comprehending the world. Essentially a gift of the West, modernity has had its share in building credible institutions but it also evaluated the entire human civilisation on a set of values and delivered verdicts on whom it believed were savages. Instead of addressing their nervousness, it termed them diseased who could only be cured by its medicines.
The binaries modernity created carried their pathologies within. The contemptuous superiority of the secular over religious, contemporary over traditional, history over myths, GDP growth over contended peace, city over village, Anglo-Saxon languages over vernaculars created a divide between two forms of lives and eventually generated hostility between them. These two forms could have co-existed peacefully, without any hierarchical order. The failure to do so marked a major failure of modernity.
Ernest Hemingway could write glorious texts on bullfighting and go on to win a Nobel, Pedro Almodovar could make marvelous cinema on matadors and bulls (Talk To Her) and become among the most decorated filmmakers, but a Tamilian having an annual field day with bulls is a savage, who deserves to be condemned and chastised. Modernity envisaged an equal society, but instead of recognising diversities, it often pushes its subjects into a grand homogenous pot.
Scratch the surface of what is termed “post-truth” and there is insecurity, a constant fear of being marginalised and invaded by a seemingly omnipotent other — a scared self having a belief that its pride cannot be restored without constructing a temple or enjoying bullfight or choosing a man who held unmatched contempt for opponents but offered national redemption. Modernity teaches that this self is diseased, should be condemned. The politics of the present order, the occupants of the top offices on two sides of the globe, is a revolt against that condemnation— against modernity.
Modern liberal thought must introspect its own contempt towards what it believed was its inferior other. As the grand project of modernity is being contested, often trashed, its champions need to examine the uncomfortable truths and guilt they had buried in their subconscious. The present modern state is a bearer and product of this accumulated guilt. Much before the supposed savages threatened to overtook the state, its architects had failed it.
In 1922, Lenin had quietly packed some 200 “undesirable” writers, philosophers and religious conservatives in steamers and dispatched them to distant shores under the pretext of building a grand state. The government that recorded the biggest electoral victory in India’s history usurped the rights of a fighting Muslim woman. Slavoj Zizek, in a possible sequel to Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, might also tell us that the last US election is a necessary culmination of events that began with the first Gulf War.
The year 1922 offers two more illustrations. Italy was taken over by an outfit this year, which eventually defined the last century, and whose sway once moved even Hemingway. When Hemingway first interviewed its leader in 1922, he wrote: “Mussolini was a great surprise. He is not the monster he has been pictured.” The journalist-novelist found the Italian’s “face intellectual” and vividly detailed his expressions and his work desk. Hemingway, of course, revised his opinion later but not without confirming that the seeds of “post-truth” go much deeper than is presumed. The second instance is more instructive. Defying the mood within his organisation, M.K. Gandhi called off the non-cooperation movement just at the moment it had galvanised the masses and threatened British rule. It was a symbol of modern politics, an assertion of reason over popular passions, a firm belief that unless guided by rationality emotions can turn uncontrolled and create havoc. And this came from a deeply religious man who cherished myths, was not a supporter of the modern state, and spent life fiercely confronting the values and tools of modernity.
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