DAWN The Review, April
& Twentieth Century Literature
The twentieth century was
that of Freud, Picasso and James Joyce. It was the age of Naturalism, when small
was beautiful and ordinary was exquisite. Should it have been?
only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or
non-existence," says Ayn Rand, the most outspoken Romantic, and hence
diametrically opposed to Naturalism. Following her beyond her own days and
towards the end of the century, one can see the face of nuclear destruction
grinning on the eve of the twentieth century as a product of the ideas that have
dominated every field of human expression throughout the century.
The loss of pride in the individual was obvious in almost all areas of social
expression in the twentieth century. In political science it gave currency to
fascism, socialism, Nazism and the twentieth century democracy which in so many
ways was "a tyranny of the majority." What was common in all these
ideologies was the notion that an individual cannot trust his/her own mind. The
ideals of democracy developed in the previous age to maintain the freedom of
conscience were now twisted to convince the individual that whatever is not
agreed upon by others is insignificant. Whether it was military dictatorship,
communism or democracy, the message was clear: the idea of an individual is of
no consequence until it meets approval from another authority. That authority
could be a Fuhrer, a Comrade, or an undistinguished mass of people.
The ideology of the twentieth century liberal had no connection with the ideals
of nineteenth century liberals such as J.S. Mill. People like Mill had advocated
that even if the human race was to agree on a point of view and a single
individual disagreed with them, they all would be just as wrong in imposing
their whim on that person as that individual would be wrong in imposing her/his
whim on them! Such a stand could not be justified if it were to be believed that
no human choice is of much consequence anyway. These are two very different
ideologies, although both were sanctioned in the name of democracy. The first
was heaven where everybody could mind their own business. The second leads to
hell where everybody's business is everybody else's too.
This was incidentally supported by the new wave psychology. The tremendous
obsession with the 'unconscious' was a practical joke on the human mind: to
believe that our actions are prompted not by what we choose, but precisely by
what we decide not to choose - and even that insignificant choice is made by our
instincts and not our morality. The honourable duty of telling us 'how' we think
fell upon those who told us that we do not think! If an academic fad was
required to convince us that having a mind is not a privilege but a liability,
then the theory of the 'unconscious' was the answer.
The notable psychologists who objected to it went mostly unheard until the end
of this century, such as Viktor Frankl, who suggested that human beings were
driven, not by the refuse of their soul but by an innate search for meaning.
Others were covered up by means of token patronization, such as Abraham Maslow,
who raised the fundamental question: Freud has told us about mental illness,
would someone please define mental health. But the dominant trends were not
concerned with health, especially mental health, they were only interested in
disease, especially mental disease.
Art had already made progress in the same direction, even independent of modern
psychology. Thomas Hardy, the last exponent of the great age of the novel had
been representing a world where chance, and not human actions, was responsible
for evil or noble consequences. With the advent of James Joyce, narrative art
received the finest tool required to overthrow reason and morality: therefore we
were now witness to a stream of consciousness. It shifted the stage of human
action from the realm of consciousness, where moral choices are made, to the
realm of the unconscious, where neither morality nor reasoning is relevant. The
story became, not a procession of plausible events based on the moral choices of
characters, but a jumble of unrelated words which went beyond and below the
scope of story, morality or reason.
Joyce proclaimed that his so-called great achievement Ulysses, took him
seventeen years to write but it would take his readers a lifetime to understand
it! Merely fifty years ago, a statement like this could have been heard only in
a madhouse or a pub and yet here it was coming from someone regarded as the
greatest narrative genius of his times. Nothing could be a greater affront to
the art of narrative, leave alone the self-respect of the reader. Hidden between
the lines was the credo of the new mainstream: "Don't bother to understand,
because nothing can be understood. Don't expect us to be interesting because
nothing in life is worth taking an interest in."
A baker would have lost his sales if he were to say that he was selling cakes
that nobody could find palatable. Or an architect, if he were to say that he was
building a house in which the residents could not figure out how to live! But it
was the new intellectual's privilege to be rewarded for refusing the goods.
Consequently, the 'new' aesthetics demanded that a piece of art should be
expected to deliver ugliness rather than beauty, formlessness rather than
perfection, boredom rather than interest, and pain rather than happiness.
Picasso painted human bodies as if they were decapitated corpses. The abstract
painters, underground filmmakers, and artists in every field glorified
themselves in doing away with the most essential attribute of all life: form.
This hijacking of the human senses was taken lightly as a mere change and could
not be seen as what it really was, a celebration of non-existence against
existence. Because form, interest and happiness are agents of life while their
opposites are the agents of death.
The difference between the twentieth century Romantics and their opponents was
not a difference of taste or opinion: it was the difference of life and death.
The final defence of those who upheld a death premise was that random events
rather than ideas, shape the history of humanity - which sounds like a guilty
child's plea, "I didn't break the glass, it was already broken." One
of the leading minds of this school today is Charles Handy, whose seminal work
(if non-existence could be seminal!) is aptly titled The Age Of Unreason
(1989). It overlooks the flaw inherent in this type of thinking: how do you
propose to 'reason' about unreason. Generations of such thinkers have been
arguing that the course taken by human history hasn't been shaped by 'ideas' but
by random changes in the lives of people, such as the advent of railroads or
computers. But, how did the railroad and computers come into being, if not due
to the ideas of those who knew what they were thinking about. To argue otherwise
is to take a stand on death rather than life.
What then, was the cause of this sudden rise of the 'death premise' at the
beginning of the twentieth century? The Romantics themselves disagreed on this
point. Perhaps they were looking at it too closely. Iqbal named the dominance of
machines over human life as the cause of pessimism in European art. Ayn Rand,
the boldest spokesperson for the Romantics, argued on the opposing side. What
seems a plausible explanation today is that the human mind in the nineteenth
century had reached a peak of achievement unknown and unimagined in the entire
history of mankind. And these achievements were made possible by men and women
of great mental ability. More prominently, by men and women who 'knew' their
abilities and displayed a rightly felt pride in themselves. (It is not a
coincidence which turns the Victorian mannerism into a superfluous
self-consciousness and the 'modern' mannerism into a deplorable
self-effacement). It was probably natural, and should have been expected, that
the other type of minds, the ones opposed to the idea of achievement and to the
idea of life itself, would stand up in opposition. Hand in hand, bound by
'universal brotherhood' (or sisterhood) of inefficiency.
Inefficiency can be understood, and pitied, if not forgiven. But how can one
explain an attraction to inefficiency? The only explanation is a 'death
premise,' an evil attraction to death rather than life. And this was the evil
unleashed upon the twentieth century consciousness in every field of human life.
The jealousy of the achievement-hater was transported into a complex system of
standards that demanded that a story need not be interesting, a painting need
not be beautiful, a value need not be moral. In fact, a story doesn't need to be
a story, a painting doesn't need to be a painting and morality doesn't need to
be morality. The farther the split between essence and product,the better.
The credo of the Romantics against this was defined by Ayn Rand in her famous
line, "I swear - by my life and my love of it - that I will never live for
the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." Iqbal had
put it more metaphorically when he said, "Moses against Pharoah, Husain
against Yazid: these are the only two forces brought forth by life." The
one living by himself or herself, against the one who lives upon others and at
Strictly speaking, politics lies outside the realm of literature. However, in
loyalty to their credo, "What you think determines how you live," the
Romantics have seldom stayed away from the political debates of their times.
Naturally averse to tyranny, the Romantics of the Age of Enlightenment, such as
Byron and Beethoven, stood up against personal tyranny. The Romantics opposed
both personal tyranny and 'tyranny of the majority'. Iqbal sneered at it in his
caustic remark, "The brains of two hundred donkeys cannot bring forth a
human idea." Ayn Rand advocated a free economy, the state's role being
limited to that of an efficient police. Also she had little sympathy for
The last seventy-five years of the twentieth century have made it very difficult
for many to remember that 'democracy' did not mean the same to some of its
legendary champions. To the founders of America, for instance, it meant an
aristocracy of the dollar. The concept of universal franchise gained currency
only in the twentieth century. Today, it seems very difficult to think about an
alternative fordemocracy, mainly because the ready alternative in Third World
countries is the ugly face of dictatorship, the rule of 'the worst of all
second-handers.' This should not make us turn our face from the crude fact that
the nuclear arms, too, were developed with full sanction 'of the people, by the
people, for the people.'
The twenty-first century is born with the nuclear time bomb ticking atop its
head. We are sleeping in the convenience of believing that democracy and world
peace are synonymous. May we face this uncomfortable question now: "Why is
it that those who oppose nuclear warfare are not in majority in any country, and
far less so in the countries which need them most?" The answer is, of
course, in the basic postulate of Atlas Shrugged, "There is only
one fundamental alternative in this world: existence or non-existence."
The historian of the twentieth century will have to answer this question,
"How did so many people come to choose the death premise rather than
life?" And the only voices the historian will hear in the hallways of the
century will be those of big and small Romantics, stretched across cultures, but
mostly gone unnoticed. Iqbal, Ayn Rand, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Ibne Safi,
Idries Shah, Ian Fleming. They raised in protest against the glorification of
non-existence in art and thought, but they were called escapists. They
registered their protest against the trickling down of the death premise from
higher literature to popular media, but they were called anti-social. They
warned that life couldn't remain separated from ideas and reality is not a
product of meaningless coincidences but a consequence of our moral choices. They
warned the world that if non-existence were to be celebrated in art and ideas,
then existence would be threatened in reality too. They were discarded as
sensationalists and what we see around us is enough evidence that the
alternative of nonexistence is pressing itself upon us. We have been
deliberately and consciously ignoring the option of existence for too long. If
it is still not sufficient evidence, then, sadly, it seems that it might not be
too long before we get it.
The loss of pride in the individual was obvious in almost all areas of social
expression in the twentieth century.