“In all of the eminent was the quality of a singularly uncritical era. It was a time when a prominent man could form himself on a single volume handed to him by ‘tradition’; when illiteracy, in the profounder sense of that term, was no drawback to a vast public career.”
These lines resonated with me at once, as if they were written for the times we are witnessing in Pakistan today. Only they are written in the past tense and refer to the Victorian age in Britain.
In 1918, celebrated American poet Ezra Pound wrote these lines in his essay ‘Lytton Strachey on Left-Over Celebrity’, that reviewed Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians. In the same essay, Pound goes on to quote Professor Sir Henry Newbolt that the English public is more political than intellectual — Newbolt’s phrase is “interested in politics rather than literature.”
In Pakistan, look at the most prominent women and men who have taken centre stage in our public life. From religious proselytisers to mainstream politicians to media practitioners, they incessantly regurgitate religious doctrines which they themselves seldom practise, mastermind deception and lies in their lust for power, and disseminate false propaganda to secure their vested interests.
Exceptions are there to prove the rule, but they are mostly ‘illiterate in the profound sense of the term’ and that does not hold them back from enjoying ‘vast public careers’.
Ironically, there are takers among people at large for all this sham, trickery and fake information, for most of us find it hard to think, let alone raise questions and think critically. We are always ready to reject any new idea or piece of information that may challenge our half-cooked notions held from before. This holds most strongly in matters of faith and politics.
This was bound to happen when children were not properly taught history in schools, and literature and philosophy in college. Since the beginning of Pakistan 75 years ago — but more systematically from the times of Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial rule 45 years ago — religion has been used by the powers-that-be to undermine critical thinking and philosophical inquiry.
Literature has been edged away by crass journalism that lacks any sense of history or political theory. There is a growing disconnect between our media obsessed with ‘breaking news’ — of little consequence on many occasions — and any in-depth analysis, where history, material conditions and social circumstances serve as a backdrop.
Speaking of history, let me offer one example without going into the debate of distorting history from the distant past. Does anyone remember any mentionable doctoral research commissioned by one of our major universities in recent years, which may have been later published in book form, on the life and politics of the father of the nation, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah?
Are we worried that a researcher may find and write that the Quaid’s personal life was not particularly ‘Shariah-compliant’ in the prevalent sense in Pakistan, or that his political decisions before and around the time of Partition may be critiqued candidly by a young, independent mind?
The researcher may also dive deeper into the treatment meted out to Jinnah during his last days by the then Muslim League leadership. Remember, his ambulance broke down when the ailing man was being transported from Mauripur airbase to Flagstaff House in Karachi.
We have to limit ourselves to the official version of the Quaid’s life and politics that suits the dominant institutions of the state and their political collaborators. His constitutionalism and desire to create a modern republic may also unnerve those who continue to benefit from the current state of affairs.
In Quaid-i-Azam University — the country’s prime public university established in the capital city of Islamabad — there are no teaching departments for literature or philosophy. In the largest province, Punjab — bigger than Germany in population — 11 positions in all, from lectureship to professorship, are spread across 11 out of 771 public sector colleges, for teaching philosophy at the undergraduate level.
Private colleges have mushroomed over the years and, of course, philosophy is not offered as a subject. The famous philosophy department of yesteryears at the historic Government College University, Lahore, has merged into a bigger department.
Other parts of the country present a similar picture. My friend Rana Arif Taj, who teaches philosophy, confirms that sometimes not even a single student enrols for the subject during the academic year.
There is no possibility in sight that, at least, an introduction to the subject can be taught to all students, irrespective of their disciplines. Muhammad Jawad, who heads the surviving philosophy department at the University of the Punjab, told me recently that active membership in the Philosophical Society of Pakistan — representing the whole country — stands at 83. Some reader may correct me if I am wrong. I wish I am wrong.
Literature is taught in schools and colleges in the name of language. That is a separate debate for another time. However, one must acknowledge that serious literature in all Pakistani languages is being produced somewhat regularly. But it has shifted to the sidestream from the mainstream.
There is an obvious disconnect between serious literature and mainstream media. Mostly, those poets or writers who have willingly turned into paltry entertainers are encouraged.
Also, because of the absence of indigenously developed philosophical constructs and frameworks — which could not have been developed without philosophy being seen as an essential discipline — many of our literary commentators rely heavily, if not solely, on Western categories of analyses, without factoring in their distinct locale and historic conditions.
The expulsion of history, literature and philosophy from our public life has taken away our ability to be critical and insightful. For us, enthusiasm is more important than knowledge and briar and bramble fetch a higher price than teakwood. We live in an era devoid of depth and character. But nothing is permanent. I hope this era ends.
The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora’. His latest collection of verse is Hairaan Sar-i-Bazaar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 18th, 2022