Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Assertion of the Individual: A Recurrent American Theme

P. P. Sharma


Asst. Professor of English, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

To answer why the official American attitude during the highly exciting and dramatic days of our involvement in the freedom fight of Bangla Desh was gall and wormwood to the Indian masses, two basic facts should be borne in mind. First: the inhabitants of the erstwhile eastern wing of Pakistan had, after a protracted period of suffering and humiliation, eventually stood up against barbarity and tyranny. Judged on its own merits, theirs was such a cause as would inevitably call forth the support of everybody else other than those who had lost their reason and judgment in reckless pursuit or power. When one of the big–by some reckoned as the biggest–world powers which in its neutral role was supposed to hold the balance, deliberately and wilfully tilted the scales in favour of the brutal aggressor, the feelings of the people were violently outraged. Second: the image of America that has entwined itself about our heart and mind is somehow inextricably linked with freedom. True, the number of our countrymen possessing a firsthand acquaintance with American history and literature is microscopically small. But we should not forget that during our own national struggle for independence, America of Washington and Lincoln had blazoned forth our ideals and aspirations. The Nixon administration caused a trauma in our consciousness by turning our cherished American image topsyturvey. To see the leaders of America ranged on the side of exploitation and militarism naturally gave us a staggering blow from the effect of which we have not yet recovered. 

And what is this image of America? Can it be that it is our own mental construct, our own subjective configuration? A spate of letters that came to us, a strikingly large number of comments and observations that appeared in newspapers and magazines, would at once scotch that misgiving. Well-intentioned and fair-minded people were profoundly disturbed and showed no small anxiety to dissociate themselves from the stance that Washington in its high and dry echelons had adopted. The rulers in their short-sighted polices, in their irritation and their petulance, betrayed their rich inheritance, proved themselves unworthy of what their great thinkers have left on record. Leaving the task of normalizing the relations between India and America to more astute minds, we can, in our humble way, try to keep a beackon light from being swallowed up by dark abysmal forces generated by political passion and acrimony.

Although much has happened, the picture of America that still looms up before our mind’s eye is that of a country in the western hemisphere where the pilgrims fleeing the corruption and persecution of Europe had found a haven and a refuge. They had come to it from afar, braving all the perils of the long voyage and prepared to meet the challenge of the unknown because they had set personal freedom above all other considerations. The Westward thrust which was necessitated by the increasing number of immigrants was sustained by a tremendous growth in self-reliance. Men at the frontiers, the most daring and intrepid among them, were required to take a plunge amid uncertainties and insecurities, Dealing with ‘here’ and ‘now’ they must have found that at times it was neither possible nor desirable to follow somebody else’s injunction. Exigencies of the situation would ask of them to fend for themselves as best they could. This kind of existence–being ever on the move, wrestling with obstacles as and when they appeared, replacing set formularies with effective strategies–must have, one imagines, fostered an attitude of personal independence among the settlers on the new continent.

It would, of course, be naive to think that “God’s in Heaven all’s right with the world” reflects truthfully the American scene in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Not only the British rulers tyrannized over them, there were religious zealots and fanatic kill-joys among themselves who invoked authorities to impose cramping restrictions, and taboos. But the populace, by and large, had a sound core and it emerged triumphant from its battle with various disabilities and limitations. While enlightenment with its accent on individualism was at best a philosophical tenet in Europe, it became a living creed for the Americans. If one were allowed to tread a little on the toes of the expert and scramble chronology, one might say that a high point in American experience was, in all conscience, reached when a 152 feet high bronze statue of a woman was installed on an exalted pedestal at the entrance to New York harbour, holding a lighted torch in her upraised hand, inviting the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to her golden door. Thomas Jefferson’s vibrant words still set our heart a flutter: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit or happiness.” The Americans had to walk through the fire of trial and wade through the water of tribulation before this dream could in some measure be realized. As is well-known, North and South had to go to war to settle the dispute over slavery. Although the confrontation between the black and the white is still one of the major issues, it is well to remember that the voice of sanity rang out distinct and clear above the din of fratricidal strife and the forces of reaction were routed.

The word ‘transcendentalism’ has suffered grievous debasement through misuse, so much so indeed that the wag finds it very handy for his jibes and occasional sallies of wit. But for a man like Emerson, it stood for man’s continuously deriving strength and support from what he loved to describe as the Oversoul. Time has not diminished the stirring and heart-warming appeal of his essay “Self-reliance” in which he pours vials of contempt on unthinking conformity. Why should we, he asks in indignation, live, think and be like our neighbours? This is the crux of the problem and even today we need to cogitate it with all the earnestness that we can command. Emerson seems to be bent on exercising, once and for all, the fear of what others will say. He trumpets forth his doctrine in strident tones: “Imitation is suicide”; a man must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion”; “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of everyone of its members...whose would be a man must be a non-conformist”, “to be great is to be misunderstood”; “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your mind.” It will be recalled that Mahatma Gandhi used to listen, in moments of crisis to his conscience, to the still, small voice within. This realization of the individual’s inherent strength and trustworthiness is almost sacrosanct for any belief in democracy.

As though to demonstrate that the master was not just luxuriating in wishful utopian thinking, his disciple, Thoreau, actually constructed a cabin on Walden Pond at a distance of two miles from Concord and lived there for two years, two months and two days. Refusing to pay the poll tax to express his disapproval of the government which supported slavery, he courted arrest. Thoreau’s life as well as his work is a paean of man’s resistance to and defiance of social pressure. “Right of Civil Disobedience” is one of our household tags and not many among those who use it know that it comes from Thoreau.

Walt Whitman, the third member of the triumvirate, in “Song of Myself” celebrates each one of us, the lowliest and the lost. It is no use fighting shy of what we really are. Nothing is gained by disguising or repudiating our basic human nature. Let us be frank and bold and come to terms with our real–as against our assumed–self. This anti-heroic approach urged with some vehemence has a very chastening effect: all our vanities and pretence shrivel up: no need for theatrical postures and attitudinizing. The first Sanskrit poet, Valmiki, it would be recalled, had little use for Rama, the perfect incarnation of the Godhead. He had to recreate him with the follies and foibles of a human being. Far from feeling of one’s weaknesses one must rather glory in them: this was a new inspiring motto that Whitman enshrined in his verse. An ordinary person comes into his own.

The American writer has often been concerned with how best a man can fulfil himself. The line of least resistance taken in this direction is that of mitigating the complexity of the actual business of living in the work-a-day world, leaving the individual free to follow unhindered his own inclination. It must, however, be admitted that the romantic tendency of escapism is clearly at work here and from this one is likely to derive little benefit in fashioning one’s own life on a realistic plane. How can one, we wonderingly ask, run away like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle from one’s immediate challenges and responsibilities? In their flight from the hard actualities of life the protagonists of James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking saga can perhaps be most appropriately described, in the popular parlance of the hippies, as “drop-outs.” Coming to our own times, Hemingway, more or less, works in that very tradition, “Big Two-Hearted River” introduces a young man recently returned from war communing rapturously with nature. There is, without doubt, something primitivistic about the Hemingway hero. Possessed of extraordinary athletic powers and amazing fortitude, he finds civilized life uncongenial and irksome. He is evidently at his best while engaged in a fierce and grim fight. He works out his salvation not by being socially involved but essentially as a solitary person.

The polarity between individual freedom and social authority seems to have particularly intrigued two major nineteenth century fictionalists: Hawthorne and Melvile. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, charged with adultery, persuades her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, to quit the narrow-minded community and live with her elsewhere in a freer atmosphere. The later, however, in spite of his agreeing to do so, ultimately makes a public confession of his sin and dies in repentance. It is not easy to make out what Hawthorne’s own viewpoint is. That an ambivalence exists cannot be denied. Nevertheless, in making Hester, a social outcast, so much attached to her sin-begotten daughter Pearl and concerned with reaching comfort and succour to those in distress, Hawthorne is trying to depict her sympathetically. In Moby Dick, Melville carries the spirit of rebellion and defiance still further, almost to a pathological limit. An individual is apotheosized; he is a law unto himself. In his little masterpiece Billy Budd the authorial ambiguity becomes all the more exasperating. Captain Vere’s compliance with custom and usage seems to be of peripheral significance as compared with the change he undergoes.

That one can escape the taint of corruption by betaking oneself away from community appears to be the thematic concern of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. One iterative note that Twain keeps ringing in his description of the life in the riverside village, is its excessive conformity to the accepted social practice and customs. To live for most of the folks means to keep up appearances, to sustain an elaborate fakery. One of the interesting things in Huck’s characterization is his struggle to free himself from the social moves internalized in him. While sailing on the raft, Huck can live authentically; other places seem so “cramped up and smothery”. To him going to society is tantamount to surrendering his personal integrity and autonomy. He is worried as to how to keep them in tact from the assault of self-styled custodians of law and morality, “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I had been there before.”

Faulkner, among the modern novelists, is taken up with the question of what an individual can do not only to save himself but to redeem society. One cannot, after all effect any change in the establishment by simply running away from it. In the entire Faulknerian canon it is easy to detect an agonised note that the curse of the discrimination against the Negro can be wiped out only if all, both individually and collectively, share in the guilt and do something to atone for it. A very clear adumbration of this point of view is made available in section IV of the long short story “The Bear” in “Go Down, Moses.” A lot of preparation and effort has gone into the initiation of the protagonist Isaac McCaslin. But precisely at the time when he is supposed to assume the responsibilities and obligations of adult-life, he gives up his inheritance believing that it bears the taint of his ancestors’ sins and decides to make his living by carpentering. But how will society be ever purged of its evil? This question, it may be conjectured, was working at some level of Faulkner’s cerebration and in Intruder in The Dust it came close to being answered. Charles [Chick] Mallison, a sixteen-fear-old lad severs his ties with his community, although at a great personal cost, finds out where his people have gone wrong, comes to them, amends their ways and stays with them. He takes great pains to find out that the Negro, Luces Beauchamp, is falsely accused of murdering a white man. This discovery causes a serious mental perturbation in him for he was being suddenly separated from his people, from “the composite face of his native kind of his native land, his people his blood his own with whom it had been his joy and pride and hope to be found worthy to present one united unbreakable front to the dark abyss of the night.” Eyen after having known that his people were in the wrong, he does not walk away; rather he returns to the fold all the stronger, feeling now that he has “explained his aberration from it, because once more worthy to be received into it since it was his own or rather he was its.” He would stay on where he belongs but would not knuckle under to any external pressure. Almost like the existentialist committed hero, he feels “a fierce desire that they should be perfect because they were his and he was theirs...a furious almost instinctive leap and spring to defend them from anyone so that he might excoriate them himself without mercy since they were his own and he wanted no more save to stand with them unaltered and impregnable.”

It should be apparent from the foregoing paragraphs that the right of dissent and protest is so firmly entrenched in the American tradition and letters that any invasion of it is bound to meet with stiff resistance from all quarters. In order not to fall a victim to pluralistic ignorance, what more effective measure can be adopted than that of each individual feeling genuinely concerned with each vital problem as and when it comes up. The image of America lending support to the cause of freedom, defending personal autonomy against the brute force of the multitude, coming to the rescue of the oppressed and the exploited, not counting the cost involved, is unfortunately sullied by the powers that be. But the fact remains that it is that image which is the most precious gift of the new world to the old.

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