Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi & how to read Ghalib

Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi & how to read Ghalib

Perhaps one of the most admired man of letters in India today, Prof. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi has some enlightening things to say about his method of close reading a poem. He holds meaning to be contextual, and thus subject to an inherent degree of instability arising out of semiotic slippage. Close syntagmatic and paradigmatic reading of the text generates a set of meanings- subjective projections freely arrived at- which, so to speak, then taking a canonical form, become accessible for intersubjective reception in such a manner as (or so it appears to me) fulfills the wider purpose of poetry.

My own, perhaps naive, approach was to regard the poem as an axiom system and the set of meanings, or projections by the readers- as models of that axiom system. Thus, a subjective projection on my part that makes a poem meaningful to me could be called my model of the poem. If I find that the poem captures features of my real life situation and suggests an optimal action schema to me, I may say 'this poem has real truth- it works-'. This would be equivalent to finding that a model of a system is concrete- i.e. relates to real world objects- rather than merely abstract entities- and thus the axioms, or truths, of the poem are mutually consistent.

Since I am speaking metaphorically, drawing an analogy rather than positing a one to one correspondence, and since moreover Dialethia is so closely related to dialog- the highest function, surely, of natural language- it follows that logical paradoxes, emergent properties of systems vaster than can be envisioned and beyond the scope of volition, or puzzles about infinity do not represent a foundational problematic though bound to arise within this field of reference.

Perhaps, for this same reason, Prof. Faruqi is careful to limit the meaning of the poem to itself and its reception rather than turning it into a seismograph  tracing the chthonic tectonics of some abstraction like History, or Being, or Identity. However, he notes, quoting the authority of al Jurjani, that metaphorical, or so to speak, symbolic language does have this property of excess or surplus meaning which, it may be, can not be exhausted by any finite individual or social process .

He quotes both Jurjani and Bhartrhari to show that the occurrence of  two or more meanings, two perhaps inconsistent Truths, was not a source of scandal, or an 'aporia' in Derrida's sense, nor evidence that some great Metaphysical Original Sin had occurred at some point in History which must now be expiated by literary scholars to the neglect of their more obvious function of illumining texts for lesser minds.

Prof. Frances Pritchett's web-site- a desertful of roses- is a textbook example of how Literary Scholars can render a truly invaluable service to the general reader by a close and sympathetic reading of the text. Reading her comments, the lover of Ghalib starts to see how greatly  performativity and dialogic  underly our reception of the ghazal. (This is because, she invites us to imagine ourselves as part of the mehfil, listening to the sher, trying to anticipate the next line, and taking a sort of rueful delight in the manner in which the poet makes fools of us with his wizardry). But the performative aspect of the Ghazal's stock set of imagery is radically Dialethic- pointing to the incompossibilty (in Leibniz's sense) of the two Truths that might make Existence bearable. This is a context in which exaggeration is a poetic virtue- as Prof. Faruqi maintains- rather than a sign of degeneracy as perhaps Victorian taste might have judged it.

Prof. Faruqi stresses clarity of image over clarity of meaning- and pays great attention to the logical consistency of poetic aetiology. This seems reasonable when we consider that if metaphors are properly derived from other metaphors and the regulative principle of that derivation is itself applicable, or adds piquancy, to what follows then, clearly, a condition for meaning- namely mindfulness on the part of the author- is met.  Furthermore, so long as the poetic aetiology is consistent- and Prof. Farqui is a rigorous constructivist-  at least we don't get, Ex falso quodlibet, an explosion of nonsense! This is not to say that the operation of the metaphor rules out incompossible states, on the contrary, Prof. Faruqi's courage is to grasp that nettle, and his great insight to show how 'Meaning production' is enhanced rather than rendered a nullity in such a 'six dimensional' world.

Still, the remaining problem is decidedly nontrivial. How are we to separate the poet's meaning from the continuum of its echoing associations and dialogic divagations?

In this context, L.E.J. Brouwer, champion of intuitionism in Mathematics and member of the 'Significs' circle, held that pure mathematics consists primarily in the act of making certain mental constructions . The point of departure for these constructions is the intuition of the flow of time.[5] This intuition, when divested from all sensuous content, allows us to perceive the form “one thing and again a thing, and a continuum in between”. Brouwer calls this form, which unites the discrete and the continuous, “the empty two-ity”. It is the basic intuition of mathematics; the discrete cannot be reduced to the continuous, nor the continuous to the discrete.

As time flows on, an empty two-ity can be taken as one part of a new two-ity, and so on. The development of intuitionistic mathematics consists in the exploration of which specific constructions the empty two-ity and its self-unfolding or iteration allows and which not.

Similarly, Ethical Intuitionism might posit the essential undefinability of its terms while leaving a continuum between their apprehension of a 'two-ity'. In other words, bijective analysis does not necessarily subordinate the subject to a 'Structure' above and beyond it, which becomes the proper locus for Meaning rendering the subject relatively voiceless.

 This continuum tends to disappear- to be cut as by an axe- if certain sorts of infinite objects- in particular those hypothesized but never actually constructed, are admitted as having equal reality with what can be constructed and experienced by the mind.
A wholly different approach- based on the concept of barzakh (the isthmus between 2 seas, the boundary, the limit- but also purgatory) as used by Ibn Arabi- who influenced Jami and Bedil- and refined by Mulla Sadr- would be to look not at the continuum between a 'two-ity' but to focus on the margin, the boundary, the limit which divides them. However, given the imaginal rather than real aspect of life in the barzakh, it follows that this boundary or isthmus tends to vanish and thus becomes  a unifier in the sense of being the asymptotic limit of both sides of the 'two-ity'.
Whereas, the Stoic continuum is underpinned by the pneuma which inflates things to their tensility, so to speak, while also pervading the plenum, thus preserving a steady state, the system of Arabi and Sadr focuses on the liminal, imaginal, aspects of consciousness as this feather light barzakh which is not fixed in place but blown forward as by a great wind.
However, within Islam, it is by no means unanimous that the barzakh really does represent a place of creative, imaginal, activity. The plain reading would be that nothing happens in the grave prior to the resurrection. Not even the greatest prophet or Saint feels anything, knows anything, hears anything or imagines anything.
 Thus rigor in poetic aetiology or the derivation of fresh metaphors or themes on the basis of logical operations has a double significance- on the one hand it is an imitation of what the dead Awlia or Saint is doing in the barzakh which, in a sense, is transforming the Universe- on the other hand it is neither life nor resurrection but that oblivion which lies between.
In the Indo-Islamic context, perhaps, syncretic traditions highlighting constructible, experiential, mental states where access is gained to supernatural powers, thus creating links in the chain between mortal creation and the all powerful creator, modified the reception of Arabi's barzakh on an anaology with the Yogi's samadhi.  (The belief being that a Yogi who has achieved this highest of states can come back to life at will- which is why he is buried rather than cremated)
If this was the case then perhaps a plethora of these apparently constructible objects  became part and parcel of an intuitionistic praxis guarding a refinement in philosophy- of obvious instrumental value- such that antinomianism is avoided and the refinement of polysemy does not tip into schizoid pansemy.  A parallel development, arising out of homogenizing and consolidating maneuvers by Legal, Administrative and Diplomatic practitioners, might have reinforced this Mannerist trend.

In contrast, the sloughing off of the intuitionistic aspect of Kant- we may even speak of the abandonment of what we might now term Cognitive Science as having a regulatory role as the phenomenological project was undermined by suspicions about its philosophical origins- could lead to the reappearance of logic puzzles and futile antinomies in discourse which, in any case, gained a fresh lease of life from the notion that perhaps Language uttered Man, or that he was conditioned in some other way by the Society to which he belonged- in which case intuitionism founded on rigorous constructivism would be an intensification of cognitive activity as futile- from the point of view of significance- as the relentless buzzing of a bee, or a monkey attacking the bars of its cage.
An example is Deriddan 'differAnce' which introduces an infinite operator into what can only be a finite activity- viz. reading. The consequence is that, so to speak, the continuum between minds gets clogged up by paradoxes generated for no good reason and the capacity of the language user to signify is pronounced diminished by a spectral Alienist utterly alien to the Heimat of Human Agency.
By contrast, Ibn al Arabi's concept of barzakh- as a dimensionless divider/unifier not fixed but impelled by a wind (actually self generated by its own imaginal activity)- could in some sense underpin a notion of iterative reading such that the meaning received ought never to be the same thing twice but, somehow,  illumine more and more.

A further point about the manner in which insistence on intuitionistic imaginal constructivity might yield grounds for the belief that the consciousness is not trapped like a fly in amber, follows from the fact that the affirmation that, for example, mathematics is a languageless activity utterly short circuits the argument from conditioning, linguistic or otherwise, and restores 'Meaning production' to the field of Human volition and cognitive freedom.
Thus close reading, intense mental application to reduplicate the cognitive processes of the producer of the text, has a paradoxical result- it shows how poetry, at its best, too is a languageless activity. The juxtaposition of images and their mutual dialectic is something that can be separated out from other important aspects of the poem- for example its sound pattern, its 'mood', the philosophical questions it raises and so on.
No doubt, the bad poet- like the bad craftsman, or bad entrepreneur- is surrendering to that which a novel instrumentality makes facile- be that instrumentality linguistic or technological or arising out of colonial or other contact with a different culture. Here, indeed, we might say behavior is determined by the tool it has grasped. Experimentation, it may be, is constrained along facile paths. The obverse, using the new in an old way- for e.g. a laptop as paperweight- points again to a heteronomy arising from the cognitive failure to merge horizons. Indeed, bad poetry has both these qualities. Why? One way to frame an answer  is to say that the continuum- in this case between a new tool and an old mode of production- has not been properly grasped by the foundational  intuition of 'two-ity'. There is here a failure of thought.
The question however remains, without recourse to the authority of some genius's intuition or a Mystic's illumination, why is it difficult to establish a continuum  between objects apprehended as a 'two-ity'? The Stoics were already aware of this problem which is linked to the Sorites paradox and arises out of the danger of applying infinite operators to what can but be apprehended vaguely. The result is to undermine the principle of Identity based on non contradiction. It can engender an extreme reaction. If there is confusion as to where to draw the dividing line perhaps we need to retreat to one pole or the other, burning our bridges so as to kill off all those laggard in the stampede thus occasioned. That way, surely, there will be clear blue water between us and those clustering around the other pole of the two-ity. Thus by a razing of the continuum, Identity at each pole is safeguarded.
But what then is to prevent, the splitting up of the continuum into more and more separate parts- whose most benign possible result would be a doctrine that everything is true and no two truths are commensurable or connected in any useful way?

Great piety, as that of Mulla Sadr and Ibn Arabi, might be one way out. In the shadow of the Saints, anxiety about Identity might be stilled. A doctrine of two truths, one fundamental the other merely instrumental or hueristic in nature, night be seen as linked by a continuum of sublation that actually, by the operation of Grace, works like an escalator.
However, since it is by no means clear that Ghalib- at least in his poetic practice- accepted this view, the problem remains of finding the right point to cut his meaning out of the continuum of its echoing associations. What makes the task poignant is the notion that Ghalib may have seen himself as mediating every word he wrote precisely as this 2 sided barzakh- both the grave's oblivion and its posited imaginal leavening power- except he was uniting the 2 notions without the assuarance that the Gravitational pull, so to speak, of the Awlia Saints would raise him up to a position where the result was not a bitter futility.

It appears quite suggestive to me that Brouwer hoped to repair the continuum by choice sequences- something produced by free choice rather than a mere algorithm- but is this the barzakh?- and perhaps we might say that the school of Prof. S.R Faruqi, exercising free choice rather than blindly following an ideology, are doing just that thus permitting the ordinary man access not just to Ghalib's melody but his meaning.

Is there a danger in Prof. Faruqi's method?
What meta-semantic commitments, if any, are involved in the Professor's literary praxis? At first glance we might say that meaning must be constrained by the historical facts as given and literary traditions as received. Thus, to take the example of 'Naqsh fariyaadi'- a reader such as myself might immediately jump to the conclusion that 'khagazi pairahan' refers to the Book of Job- which I imagine to be the earliest source of the image. In this case the entire meaning of the verse, not to mention its significance for Universal Culture is utterly changed.
Indeed, given that his Divan begins with this matla, our perception of Ghalib's entire ouevre might be altered.
But did Ghalib know the story of Job? The evidence weighed up by Faruqi & Pritchett suggests that for Ghalib this was a Persian idiom with no connection to the story of Job- who, in Islam, is a symbol for patience and forbearance rather than the utterer of the most passionate complaint against God in ancient literature.
But what if someone finds a line in some book Ghalib is known to have read which links the phrase khagazi pairahan to the story of Job? What if the diary of some Nineteenth Century Missionary is discovered which shows Ghalib had read a translation of the book?
But, once one starts on the path of counter-factuals where is one to end? Perhaps, Ghalib as a boy in Agra met a garrulous Jain grocer-a Banarsidas wannabe- who explains syadvad logic and the distinction between countable and uncountable and so on to the young Ghalib? Indeed, what can one actually rule out? Perhaps Ghalib really did correspond with Karl Marx!

A different approach, one compatible with Prof. Faruqi's commitment to close reading, would consist of taking up 'khagazi pairahan' as a symbol and to imaginatively enter into why it appealed both to the author of  the Book of Job and to Ghalib. In this case, though less can be predicated of Ghalib the man, the meaning of the poetry is enhanced. The trade off here is really between tendentious mythologizing about a hero and gaining a better appreciation of his acknowledged achievements.

In this context, I may mention that I have had the privilege to read 2 essays by Satyanarayan Hegde which focus precisely on the Borgesian task of tracing metaphorical images, such as the 'paper clad plaintiff', through the literatures of West and East. This approach,, requiring immense erudition, is one all can profit by but few pursue.

What is Prof. Faruqi's unique contribution to our appreciation of Ghalib?
The application of exacting intelligence, scholarship and professional integrity to the study of a professional poet who possessed precisely those qualities dispelled a rather foolish notion of Ghalib- or the poet in general- as being like a human juke-box, pour in some wine, present the image of some long eye'd one- and out comes a melody.
Guru Dutt's film, employing a simplified version of Sahir Ludhianvi's lyrics, was meant to satirize this situation. But, somehow the audience drew the reverse conclusion and even 20 years later little had changed. The tragic tale of Shiv Kumar Batalvi is still remembered here in London.
This was bad for poets, bad for literature, but a catastrophe for people's ability to think rationally, or indeed think at all. In an era of scarcity, itself the product of bad planning, the signifier had come to stand for the signified- advertisements for impossible objects had created their own cargo cult- mention of wine was a potent intoxication when potable water itself was in short supply.

The danger was that, precisely because of its earlier precision, Indian poetry was becoming degeneratively performative, self deafeningly dialogic, in obedience to some notion that Democracy demanded it, Socialism was predicated on it.
Perhaps, it was necessary for the country to suffer every cultural refinement, productive as it might be of social distinction, to be pitilessly erased. Perhaps, now lacking foreign masters, the Indians had to forget their own system of heremeneutic/poeisis and redact their languages  on Orwellian lines.
Here, Prof. Faruqi's erudition and cogency of thought helped reverse a calamitous situation. The close connection between his ideas and method of exposition and those sciences and industries based on mathematical logic have given his view of Ghalib a compelling interest to a new type of middle class which draws its income from Knowledge based industries.
However, whereas it may be that little will change in our picture of Ghalib's historicity and literary sources, there are new developments everyday in logic and the manner in which fundamental concepts are envisioned and applied.
In this sense, it is from mathematics perhaps-rather than Politics or Subaltern Studies or post-queer Colonial theory- that something like Ibn Arabi's iterative reading,- an Apoorvata in meaning reception- will become possible as a project for the fan of Ghalib. That is, of course, if courageous critics, like Prof. Faruqi, and selfless scholars, like Prof. Pritchett, continue to pave and illumine the way.


Anonymous said...

How does "kaa;Gazii pairahan" connect with Job, other than in the loose general way of his having had a complaint against God? Given the ease of independent origination of complaints against God, and the exceptional (even rather implausible) specificity of the idea of a paper garment, what would count as evidence of influence? Even if we knew that Ghalib had read the book of Job (a highly unlikely idea), how would that show where the "paper garment" comes from?

windwheel said...

Job says '
Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,

24 that they were inscribed with an iron tool on [b] lead,
or engraved in rock forever!

25 I know that my Redeemer [c] lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the earth


In his great power God becomes like clothing to me [e] ;
he binds me like the neck of my garment


towards the end

("Oh, that I had someone to hear me!
I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me;
let my accuser put his indictment in writing.

36 Surely I would wear it on my shoulder,
I would put it on like a crown.

This imagery is pretty powerful. Job is clothed by God in disgrace, God tears his collar (so to speak) yet paradoxically this clothing which is also Job's legal petition against God is something imperishable and the guarantee that his intercessor (go'el) will prevail.

As far as I know, this is the most powerful as well as the oldest use of the image of a petitioner clothing himself in his legal petition so as to dramatize the gravity of the injustice he has suffered. The Indian custom Ghalib mentions of lighting a torch by day to symbolize the darkness of injustice that has overwhelmed the land is also pretty powerful. But, as Maimonides points out, Job's insistence on using writing of an imperishable kind- (i.e. rationalistic, kalam, style argumentation)- has an extra philosophic force.

windwheel said...

One further point- Ibn al Arabi's concept of 'barzakh' a dimensionless divider/uniter illumines the paradox that God's indictment of Job and Job's petition against God are one and the same except in so far as they are mediated (as all things are) by the barzakh.

Sheila said...

Re. Naqsh fariyadi
Interesting comparison to the Book of Job.
However, there are a couple of points you have not mentioned.
it was the Barmakids (originally Buddhists) who set up paper mills in Baghdad. The other reference, you have overlooked, is to Mani, the great painter.