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The French poet, essayist and thinker Paul Valery (1871-1945) captured his readers’ imagination like few would. Many of his poems cast a spell like ‘absolute’ poetry must. He was a symbolist inspired by his mentor, Stephane Mallarme. In his prose — which encompasses commentaries on philosophy, literature, painting, music, theatre and dance — he offers a whole new universe of ideas, knowledge, consciousness and sensibility. His early 20th century poems were enough to secure his place among the most significant French poets ever. While he wrote fewer poems than most of his contemporaries, he was more prolific in prose.

The near-cynicism found in Valery’s rational description of human nature and human condition makes it contagious. In his essay, ‘A Preface to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters’, Valery reflects on the inherent brutishness of the human individual, the desire for order in the same person and the collective desire to be able to survive and prosper, the freedom of expression that becomes possible once an order is established and, the tense engagement between fact and fiction as the former represents brutishness and the latter underlines order.

Valery says that the period of order should be under the sway of fiction, as there is no authority capable of imposing order through physical restraint alone. Order creates the equilibrium between instincts and ideals by introducing imaginary connections and obstacles between people which subsequently create real effects. The ideas of decency and indecency, just and unjust, legal and illegal, commendable and condemnable crystallise in the mind of an individual and society. The Temple, the Throne, the Tribunal and the Theatre appear as monuments to coordination. Order means replacement of visible arms with a general agreement on a system — fictional but indispensable for a society to exist. Therefore, we may infer that each society and state — being artificial constructs in the face of the inherent brutishness of humanity — needs a fiction to have a sway over the minds of people. This fiction represents the raison d’être of that society and state and forges a general consensus on both — the processes to govern and to manage and the ways and means to realise the aspirations of individuals and communities who comprise that society and state.

What we witness in Pakistani society and its monuments of coordination — the institutions of the state — is an unending struggle to create a general consensus among people who inhabit our country. Over decades, the powers-that-be have amply tried physical restraint as a tactic to impose order. But to their dismay, and as Valery had pointed out, this tactic has displayed serious limitations. Partially because the use of physical power cannot succeed alone but, more importantly, because of the accompanying fiction — that they profess and propagate along with coercion — fails to hold sway over the minds of a large number of people.

It is professed that Pakistan is based on the two-nation theory and was created as the final political destiny for the Muslims of the South Asian subcontinent. But if Hindus and Muslims are two different nations — without debating the merits of the assertion — then they are two distinct nations even today. Meaning, thereby, that Indian Muslims are the same nation as Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. If that is not palatable anymore, because it is neither a fact nor a fiction, then we should consider Pakistan as it stands today as the final destiny of the people living in Pakistan. We should stop from always defining ourselves politically in comparison with India and refrain from continuing to find justifications for our existence. Rather, we should see us as a part of South Asia in civilisational terms and cherish the shared culture and literature in the region without either undermining or being defensive about our own sovereignty.

Pakistan remains a viable state if we allow a healthy, inclusive, plural and peaceful society to flourish where, to quote Valery, “…reasoning is unleashed, and man believes himself to be a mind”; where people collectively create their own fiction and the trust in the Temple, the Throne, the Tribunal and the Theatre is common.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 8th, 2018

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