Featured image by Alejandro Escamilla
Editor’s Note: Delivered at the Open University on November 30th 2018
Throughout the world today we bemoan the lack of values. No one quite knows what that means and a good post-modernist will ask whose values, when and where? Yet, we feel something is missing, something with regard to the building of character in individuals. Perhaps it is the nostalgia of our generation but after the development of new forms of communication technology and the success of post-modernist and subaltern scholars at our universities, there is a sense that there is a loss of moral compass, an inability to tell right from wrong in some basic and fundamental sense. The period of post-modernism and post-structuralism was important; it made us question and unsettle our core beliefs. But I for one feel it is time to bring truth, reason and morality back into our intellectual discourse. This comeback should not be in a prescriptive and dogmatic manner but through such disciplines like literature that show how values are embedded in social realities and though nuances shape every aspect of our lives, there are important markers that must guide us.
I was first trained as a social scientist and then a lawyer. But I am not going to speak to either of those. My secret passion is for literature and anthropology. My special cause is to make world literature a compulsory subject for all university students as a means of transmitting important values.
Whenever we lawyers are faced with the problem of values or bad behavior, we immediately pass a law or draft a code of conduct. Value based laws fill our law books, disciplining and punishing what are perceived as immoral acts. Law is important because it shows individuals that certain types of behavior have consequences. However people do not really internalise these norms despite the state of art legislation. In addition, the moral certainty of the law often does not capture nuances and complexities. The prescriptive norms drown out other interpretations and realities. The post-structuralists and post-modernists have been telling us this for a long time. They have taken over much of academia with their skepticism and moral relativism. One of their major targets is the law. This academic gaze has often led to a moral vacuum especially among academics. If every statement has its relative strength, where do we go for truth? Mr. Donald Trump, his fake news and alternative fact discourse must send us all hurtling back to the search for truth, values and objective fact, but perhaps with the caution of our recent history. A part of that process must be to think anew about how to pass on values- positive sentiments that guide our behavior- to the next generation.
Conveying morals and values to the next generation is a complicated exercise as there is the danger of sounding reductionist or simplistic. In the long term, the best way to convey values is through storytelling, a craft as old as men and women. An example of this are of course are the Jataka stories, dating back to the 4th century BCE, the stories embedded in many a Sri Lankan mind that guides people through the most difficult of times. In whatever form the Buddha appears in these tales, a king, an outcast, a God, an elephant, he intervenes and exhibits virtues that must condition both royal and lay responses to life. In many situations whether it is war, love, or suffering, people from all walks of life in Sri Lanka will quote you excerpts from the Jataka stories that have helped them handle and take control of a situation. I remember when doing reconciliation work we drew on the Jataka story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seeds. When loss, pain and suffering is unbearable, especially after a war, the story that simply illustrates that everyone has suffered loss points to solace in the universality of pain and grief. The Buddha did not preach norms; he made Kisa Gotami find out for herself. Perhaps stories and literature can also play that role.
Some works of literature are also books of philosophy and they make you reflect on life and values. There are works of literature that make you live through the full gamut of human experience and human values in one sitting, providing insight into among other things life, love and the waging of war. Reading Shakespearian plays is one such example. Whether it is King Lear or Hamlet, after reading it or watching it on stage you feel you have lived life all over again. It is not only the plot of the play but the words spoken and the insights given that have so much resonance with every life experience.
I have always been profoundly affected by King Lear, which the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurasawa made into a film called Ran. He saw it essentially as a Buddhist play, a call for detachment after a terrible period of suffering. Lear loses everyone he loves and faces betrayal of the worst kind. The play is full of insights into life and the nature of human relationships. The aging, mighty king, disinherited, thrown out of the family into an open air storm with only his fool teaches us the lesson of the transience of life, Carrying the dead body of his executed daughter who was so loyal but who he treated so badly, Lear rages against life itself.
Another book that made me feel like I lived life all over again and triggered all my questions about values was Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The three epic brothers, Dimitri, Ivan and Alyosha represent different parts of the human condition- Alyosha, who is the good, innocent moral force, Ivan, the incarnate of sophisticated evil and Dimitri, a complete wastrel who rediscovers life and values- live in turbulent times where everyone is in search of a moral compass. The comprehensive treatment of the human condition makes it the best classical novel that I have ever read. There are scenes in this philosophical novel that are truly epic and therefore ideal for the teaching of values. The most famous scene is the scene of the Grand Inquisitor, a poem Ivan has written, about Jesus visiting the Grand Inquisitor during the Inquisition. The Inquisitor asks Jesus why he has come berates him for his idealism and tells him that he plans to execute him. He expounds his thoughts quite brilliantly and using reason he shows how Jesus’s philosophy is not suited for the real world. He scolds Jesus for giving man free will and the possibility of salvation. When all his arguments fail, Jesus’s response is to kiss him. The Grand Inquisitor moved by the gesture sets him free.
Another series of novels that left me with that grand sweep feeling of living life afresh was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series, composed in this decade. Written in this extraordinary prose, translated from the Italian, about two women from adolescence to old age, it takes us from war-time Italy to the present with an extraordinary understanding of the moral choices we make, the values we keep while also capturing the vagaries of human life. It is a book about women’s friendship where love and jealousy are combined, the fraught and unequal relationships that intelligent women make with men, the complexities of motherhood, the agency of women and their ability to escape their confining environments- all of this with the backdrop of social upheaval, brutal male violence and class conflict. It is truly the defining series for women of my generation. This book has characters who go against the grain, who are not “respectable” but their yearning to live and love are the stuff of eternal values, the kind we must use to negotiate every day life.
In the past, literature allowed us to read about epic heroes who may have helped mould our characters. Today we have mainly anti heroes. When I saw the blockbuster movie Deadpool I was quite horrified. The hero was ugly, nasty, and violent but of course in the end he does seem to soften. With a twisted sense of humour, he takes us through his terrible acts of vengeance. He is definitely not Arjuna of the Mahabharata or Rama of the Ramayana. Neither is he Ulysses or Hercules of the Greek myths. Nor is he like the kings and princes of the Mahavamsa. My childhood was full of these latter myths and like everyone; I imbibed their nobility of spirit, but also the class, caste and gender hierarchy. Despite all the negatives, we were conscious of a heroic temperament, where one would be bold, fearless and altruistic and where one would try to perform heroic acts even if it involves a degree of risk.
Judging from the popularity of movies like Deadpool, our young people want these ironic, dark heroes, who have a modicum of good in them. Character building through using these tropes lets loose a whole range of anti social, dysfunctional people. Perhaps we need to go back to teaching the Classics in a more conscious way and help bring back the heroic temperament. Reviving the classics and classical role models in a “cool” way with gender, caste and class awareness and social rebellion toward and not away from, issues of justice and equality has to be one of the ways forward.
Perhaps the greatest value that works of literature teach us is the use of the imagination to create a world larger than ourselves, a world where fantasy can take root and where the escape may augment and influence your moral values. Reading Tolstoy will take you to Russia where tales of love and war will provide you with the glimpse of the universality of moral values and their manifestation in particular societies. Imagination in itself is a call to our creative spirit.
Perhaps the greatest work in this regard is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. A novel with its roots in his love for his grandparents is also another piece of literature that makes you live life all over again, this time in a rural village in Latin America with several generations of the Buendia family. It was a world where according to Marquez, the extraordinary was treated as something perfectly natural and the magical and supernatural view of the world was integrated into the world of reason. His magical realism would put the literary world on fire and a writer like Salman Rushdie would write his epic novel about Indian independence- Midnight’s Children- influenced by the work of Marquez. Magical realism reminds us that our imagination has no limits. It pushes the boundaries of creativity and creativity is a value that young people and society must appreciate. People in Sri Lanka do not value creativity for itself and in itself. But, without it we will become a stagnant backwater, devoid of a future.
It is through literature that we also gain empathy for people and their societies. Before I made a country visit as Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, I would ask my aides to always get me a novel about that society that I could read on the plane. You would immediately get a sense of the fabric of society, the issues that matter to the people and the way they conducted their lives. In conflict areas we have human rights reports but there is nothing like a work of literature to give you the true dimension of the problem
One of the areas I was working on was the question of child soldiers. Before I went to Sierra Leone I read a memoir by Ishmael Beah called a Long Way Gone. Until I read that book I did not fully understand the shattering impact of being a child soldier and how quickly they lose any moral compass as they obey the orders of warlords.
Ishmael is heartbreakingly honest. He describes the terrible acts of violence he committed as a child. They are actually mind boggling. He describes how when he was “saved” by UNICEF, he destroyed all the furniture because he saw himself as a soldier and not someone who needs to be saved. Over time with the help of a nurse and an American anthropologist, he moved to New York. He went to secondary school, got a full scholarship to Oberlin, which is one of the best liberal arts universities, and is currently doing his PHD at Columbia. He has received extensive counseling and I have personally had long conversations with him. But it is his book that made me relate to the issue of child soldiers as something more than a cerebral question, something that has very lasting consequences for its survivors. Understanding other people’s suffering, especially through literature, is a way of healing and can create a global bond between people and communities.
There is personal tragedy as well, which will affect us all at some period in our lives. At that time any conversation about values seem fruitless. Recently we had a terrible tragedy in our own family. One way to keep moral anchor and cope with the consequences was to read the works of those who have gone through terrible tragedies and who have emerged with extraordinary insights. Sonali Derinyagala”s book “Wave” written after the Tsunami is one such book of coping with extreme grief. Sonali emerges from this trauma, having the rectitude and the moral cohesion to emerge as a strong and constructive presence in the lives of those around her. Wave describes how the Tsunami killed her parents, her husband and her children. She was saved by a tree. The book is a journey of reckoning with that event, to celebrate their lives together and to express her grief in an honest and meaningful way. A more genuine rendering of personal loss you will never find. There is no better book that teaches us the values of honesty and genuineness in dealing with the cards that life has dealt you than this powerful book.
To understand existential, questioning of life suffering, something many people go through, writers such as Albert Camus and Franz Kafka give us insight into that abyss of realizing the insignificance of our lives in the larger scheme of things. Camus’ main character in The Stranger, reflecting in a jail and awaiting his execution for a crime of self-defense, contemplates the indifference of everyone to his plight and the lack of meaning in his life. He gives us no escape. But there are moments in everyone’s life where we go through this existential moment. Reading Camus may make it worse but it will also give you insights and understanding. It is a great novel to begin a conversation about meaning, about belief and their relationship to the values we hold.
There are other forms of suffering that are not existential but manmade. These too require empathy and more importantly outrage. Teaching moral outrage to children is very important since they will become guardians of truth and justice in a society. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a tale of suffering linked to social structures and abuse by others. The cry from the heart contained in that novel will stay with you for years to come. It is a story about slavery in the United States and the choices a woman must make for her survival, including the murder of her own daughter. Wearing what she calls a tree on her back, the scars from being whipped, she embodies the physical and psychological impact of slavery on individual lives and the life of her community. Anyone who reads Beloved will be outraged and angry and there is a reason why Toni Morrison dedicated it to sixty million and more Africans and their descendants who died because of the slave trade.
It is this sense of empathy we have with man made suffering then that makes us understand the tensions between social groups and the feelings of discrimination and oppression. Arundati Roy’s God of Small Things is one of my favourite novels that breaks important taboos including caste oppression in India. The relationship between Ammu and Velutha, the Dalit communist leader, is the centerpiece of the plot and the social tensions are the backdrop of its evolution. Maheshwata Devi is another Indian writer, translated by Gayatri Spivak, who writes powerfully about social oppression.
Martin Wickremesinghe’s Gamperaliya shows us those tensions in both subtle and heartbreaking terms here in Sri Lanka. The character Piyal is an evocative part of what Sri Lankans consider to be a masterpiece novel. An ambitious, bigger than life young man who is badly treated by an upper class family and whose quiet resentment contributes to their undoing show class relations in their subtle but devastating form. In the North and East, literature is also a means of expressing this social tension. Mahakavi’s famous poem the Chariot and the Moon, where a young innocent boy rushes to pull the Vel cart and is then beaten up because he is from the wrong caste, reflects those realities of what is unspoken. V.V. Ganeshanathan’s book Love Marriage, and the poems of Sivaramani will help the South understand their northern kinsmen better than any political manifesto.
Empathy and understanding that literature brings to bear is truly wide in scope since it is said that suffering and trauma also carry on to the next generation and the generation after. This is captured by W. G. Sebold, in his books about the children of the holocaust, the fragments of their memory and the desire to belong. The Emigrants is about four different emigrants who emigrate to the US and the UK because of the holocaust. On the one hand the characters are trying to erase all memory of being Jewish or living in Germany, so much so that you do not know it is about the Holocaust till well into the character. On the other hand there is a deep sense of alienation and a longing for identity and belonging.
Identity and belonging are key elements, especially in third world literature. Works of literature then allow one to have an epic dialogue with history so that the values of freedom, equality and identity are explored and transmitted. Black American literature by someone like James Baldwin is a heady mix of rage and identity with the call for freedom underlying its soulful rendering. His novel Go Tell it on the money enriches us with an understanding of Afro American identity of his time. The single parent household, a powerful church community and an absent father has the young protagonist searching for his identity and his own sense of being in a very racist United States.
In Africa and Asia, nationalist movements had their literature counterpart. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is about the stoic resistance to colonialism by many Africans and African leaders, to a power that was so completely devastating. It first describes the life before colonialism and then the arrival of the colonial powers and Christianity. Amitav Ghosh captures the same in Burma in his The Glass Palace. The sound of canons and gunfire while the King’s soldiers held swords remind us about the overwhelming military power of empire which would then follow through by affecting every aspect of our life. West Indian writer Jamaica Kincaid challenges the tropes of colonialism and colonial writing dealing with their worst form of oppression both material and psychological. She also deals with subtle undertones of that legacy.
Seventy years after colonialism, any conversation about values in our society must engage with the question of colonialism, its legacy and aftermath. Can we recover what we were before or do we have to look to the future to create an identity that is ever evolving- the fluid and ever-changing aspect of what we are while at the same time rooted to something that seems eternal and the same.
Since independence for myriad of reasons many of our families have gone abroad. Zadie Smith, better than anyone, helps us understand the third world immigrant experience in Britain and the structures of discrimination both political and social that one has to navigate. The portrait of Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi waiter in a shoddy Indian curry house is obsessed with his perceived glorious family history. Finding his children to be too western and rebellious, he flirts with Islamic radicalism. Zadie Smith’s characters are full of agency and creativity, living life in a fuller way. Life in Britain inspires rage in Samad though his best friend is a white man with whom he fought in the war.
The immigrant, especially from the third world, often enters the dark side of a society especially if he or she is very poor. It is often a value free zone where anything goes for survival. Having dealt with many victims of international trafficking I can tell you it is not only morality free, it is the opposite- a site for the most horrible abuse and exploitation. Describing such conditions, the survival choices people make and are sometimes forced to make are some of the important value related discussions that will emerge if we focus on contemporary writings from the global south. Chimananda Adichie, Teju Cole, among so many others who write so beautifully immerse us in that experience.
Literature is therefore also a dialogue with history. Practically every novel has a political, social and economic backdrop, some obvious, some subtle. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace the backdrop is obvious and integral. The novel is philosophical and is about the French invasion of Russia and the effect this has on five aristocratic families. It is a realistic chronicle of war and its terrible effects as well as a description of elite social life in the midst of conflict. It ends with his protagonist Pierre returning to a simple life, a la Voltaire, and Tolstoy’s belief that history is not made by men with free will, or grand historical design but by many small incidents and characters who create the present and the future. It is a very reflective book and a perfect one for the discussion of our values in the context of a larger history.
Sometimes the dialogue with history is by telling us tales of the future. George Orwell’s 1984 for one was a warning about the horrors of totalitarian societies. 1984 has come and gone but the threat of totalitarianism has not gone away. In fact it is being actively encouraged by certain quarters, even here. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, set in the future, is about a military dictatorship within which there is women’s subjugation and patriarchy. The story is told through the eyes of a woman named Offred. Women are segregated by the colour of clothing to signify social class. The handmaids are those of reproductive age who must take part in a ceremony- a ritual of rape so that a child can be conceived. Atwood is very imaginative in this book but the terrible possibilities of patriarchy are fully explored as well as what it means to live in a totalitarian society.
For the most part though, the dialogue with history in novels is subtler. Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost deals with the JVP insurrection of the late 1980’s. It weaves many tales including stories about violence, fear, about a heroic doctor and a truly committed Buddhist monk. It ends with a chapter written in italics, after all the violence has been chronicled, with craftsmen painting the eyes of the Buddha, a painstaking creative act, signaling the hope of a new dawn that has never come.
Besides the sweep of history, works of literature make us understand human emotion, love, beauty, anger, jealousy in a way that books that use only reason cannot. There are many books on love and pain, but the one work that remains in my mind is Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion that is about beauty. A young monk who feels ugly and inferior burns down the Temple of the Golden Pavilion because he could not stand its beauty. The beauty of the temple caused him so much pain and only accentuated his deficiencies. Beauty causes resentment, because beauty sometimes is the preoccupation of the fortunate. A recent book on social media finds that Facebook users often suffer depression because their friends are posting beautiful, happy photos. Beauty without sensitivity can cause a great deal of resentment- this is a truth that has struck me in Sri Lanka in recent times. At the root of the problem is our social awareness and understanding of the question of inequality in our society. Beautiful houses, beautiful art only encourages the difference between the haves and the have-nots. The value of beauty in it self, in contrast to its social manifestations and consequences would be the beginning of a great conversation about values.
In the past, the novels in the English language that gave us solace and that transmitted values over generations were those that portrayed moral rectitude in ordinary, every day life. Jane Austen, Henry James, RK Narayan even V.S. Naipaul’s House of Mr. Biswas, all of them were about our lives, ordinary lives, and how people negotiate morality and genuineness in a world where there is corruption and greed. These novels I think sustained us for many generations. They gave my age group a clear moral compass on how to behave and what to rebel against.
Today, however, most novels are about the dysfunction of modern life. For the last half-century they have been mostly about alienation. The books and industry around the city of Bombay are a case in point- from Suketu Mehta’s Bombay, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. Such novels exist for every city and every site of cosmopolitanism. Like Deadpool these are books where centre stage is taken by cynical, violent anti heroes. These are the people that the modern world wants. It is nearly impossible to make any other kind of personality your hero, especially for young men. These novels beginning with Catcher in the Rye must be read, not only because some of them are brilliant, but because they are a starting point for the discussion of values, their composition and relevance in modern society.
Literature then is the weathervane of any society. As Gayatri Spivak has analysed, they capture the sentiments out there before reason takes over and classifies our world. For the Sri Lankan Tamil community that seems to be the case. Despite the strident political voices that seem to have only one narrative, there are all sorts of voices and sentiments that are being expressed through the arts and literature. The University of Jaffna Fine Arts department will give you many examples of this expression. Another example is from the Tamil diaspora. We see the Tamil diaspora as this interventionist, negative force that may prevent reconciliation in Sri Lanka. But young Tamil members of the Diaspora are writing completely different stories. Shyam Selvadurai carries a short story by A. Muttulingam called The American Girl. Mathi of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, living in the US, loves music, has trouble keeping boyfriends but eventually marries a lovely Vietnamese boy. Since they have difficulty conceiving children she accepts a sperm donation from an African American. When her mother who is in Sri Lanka asks about the baby, she responds, “she is an American girl through and through”. This then is the literary imagination of some children of the diaspora, moving out of their parents’ narrow political and ethnic identities to embrace the globe.
Why has this amateur, yours truly, taken you on this personal survey of literature. I know this may be a little out of the box but I would like to recommend that a course on world literature- I gather our schools would have taught us our national literature- be compulsory for all university students as an attempt to impart value education. I do not wish to be naïve about this- the imagination also has a dark side. The work Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess was very difficult to read. The ugly imagination may also encourage copycat behavior. If teachers of literature are cautious of this phenomenon and select their curricula accordingly, positive and nuanced moral values can be taught while understanding the complexities of life.
We live in troubled times, in the world and in our country. The cynics tell me not to get excited that it was always like this. The conflict resolution experts tell me all we need is to negotiate the right deal. They argue there is no moral vacuum because after all there is no such thing as morality. All I can say is surely this cannot be. People have given their lives, especially in the last two centuries for freedom, justice and equality. Those goals cannot rest on the whims and fancies of individuals or political parties. They must be embedded in our consciousness. My desire to teach world literature to our undergraduates is to augment their studies of national literature with an opening to world literature so that they can see the universality of human experience and the timelessness of certain human values. Books may have to be translated, special efforts may have to be made, but I think the era of the moral vacuum has to go. It has to be replaced with an era of cautionary truth, nuanced understanding and a morality that recognises the importance of world struggles for freedom, for equality and for justice.