The Excitement of Apocalypse

One of the storms unleashed by the 2013 Jaipur Literature Festival will take some time to die out. Having been here before, we cannot pretend to be surprised. In fact, there might be a perverse delight in recognising the fact that celebrating the written word, literature to be more officially accurate, is precisely what the event ought to do. Freedom of speech? The writer as the magnificently eloquent, side-splittingly entertaining and prophetically enlightening Howard Jacobson said during the festival has every damn right to be rude. If you're offended, you'll just have to lump it. Learn to laugh at yourself, and to be laughed at.

Jacobson didn't exactly use foul language, nor did he leave his defence of the idea and practice of free creative and argumentative expression unqualified. But, asked about the ongoing controversy over Ashis Nandy (not likely a literary person in the Jacobsonian sense of the term) at its centre, the British author for whom, one sensed, it might as well have been another round of Salman Rushdie fired all guns. The story here, however, is not the controversies thrust upon the JLF each year by the wide world of illiterate illiberalism at whose heart it has the misfortune of finding itself permanently located.

The essence of this year's rather low-key JLF (not because of the repute of the speakers) was the assertion of the importance, the aesthetic and ethical imperative, of literature. Literature that uses the means of language and imagination to the end of something new, distinct from reality and history, which gives aesthetic pleasure and is ethical at its core. 'Ethical', again, is not about described or prescribed social conduct but about a book believing in itself. When Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (along with Amit Chaudhuri) proclaimed that "literary studies cannot be an annexe to the social sciences" (as it has regrettably become across the world), she was making the most ethical case for every literature festival. It is that old-school idea of literature, which views the aesthetic as "the training of the imagination" (Spivak) and makes you realise, without appearing to preach, that you simply cannot call anybody you disagree with a "fascist" (Jacobson). But reading a book, as Spivak clarified, is not an ethical act in itself.

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