In Defense of the ‘Decadents’

On July 18, 2013 by admin

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Samar Sen

Certain critics point out with a sneer that ‘Progress’ is a Victorian word. Perhaps they are right: the Victorian belief in progress was based upon security and a rising level of production. Forebodings and uneasy apprehensions shadowed the late-Victorian period, because it was an age of finance unlike the early Victorian age of production. The relation between production and distribution is far less apparent in our age of finance, hence the sense of frustration marking the closing years of the last century. To the sceptical critics of progress it may be pointed out that though the present century has widened the gap between productive forces and social relations and to a certain extent justifies their enlightened scepticism, the latest powers of world production still permits a rational belief in progress. We find that production power of man has still immense possibilities. So we are still for progress. It is not desirable in our day to reaffirm the medieval conception of human life, to declare that man’s fate is inevitably tragic and all notions of progress an illusion. To assert this under the painful pressure of circumstances is a subterfuge, a means to shrink responsibility.

It is rather easy to talk about our belief in progress with reference to past history. But the moment we come to consider the present, do define the meaning of the progressive movement in literature, we seem to be a melting pot, and confused voices of lamentation, denunciation and warning strike the ear. The modern Bengali poet is between two fires. If he tries to be honest with regard to the vices of his own class and voices his sense of decay, he falls under, and is found guilty of the charges of obscenity and obscurity.  The eternal principles of art, he is told, are beauty and truth, truth and beauty, to deny which is bad taste, a perversion. On the other hand he is told from the progressive quarter, which emphasizes his defeatism and obscurity, that he is a decadent and damned petty-bourgeois. The damning is thus complete. He then thinks of perhaps a dozen or so of his admirers and continues to use a medium of expression whose beauties commend themselves only to the dozen or so, with confusing results both for the moralist and the progressive critic. A gentleman, sceptical of the progressive demands on poetry, when politely told that he was a decadent bourgeois, retorted: “You can call me a swine if you like, but I am what I am.”

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It is certainly time to clear up a host of misunderstandings. A really progressive critic will be a great force today. But a certain notion is gaining ground, fanned by some of the progressives and by the newspapers which have their own sentimental ideas about literature, that to be progressive means to write about mazdoors and kisans in a broad sentimental vein, to depict all the glories of a possible proletarian revolution and to do all these in a way which would be understood by the man in the street. A way with defeatism and all bourgeois subtleties of expression! Nothing is more important than direct propaganda. It may be that the results will be slightly disappointing for some time, but all will be well in the future society.

The progressive who proceeds in this manner is not an objective critic. He is a sentimental humanist. We must not forget in our new-born enthusiasm for the cause that literature has a tradition of its own and that there are many invisible gaps between the economic and the cultural superstructure. If we consider the changes effected in Bengali poetry in the last fifteen years we must admit that it has definitely ‘progressed.’ The best of it has almost got clear of that sickening vice bequeathed by the Tagorean tradition—sentimentalism. It has improved and made considerable changes in technique. From a loose and ineffective language to a highly polished and flexible one, from a mere turning loose of emotion to a consciousness of the disruptive forces threatening society, —there are considerable achievements. To sacrifice all these in order to widen the appeal and rouse the people by direct propaganda will be dangerous sacrifice. It will mean a swim backward in literary tradition and will revive the sentimental age in a changed garb. Such demands on poetry, backed by the newspapers and the progressives, will have dangerous consequences for the rising generation, which has every chance of being taken in by these easy methods of cheap and quick popularity. The critic who asks for such a literary change in the name of progress, we repeat, is at best a sentimental humanist.

What can be achieved if, in the immediate present, the Bengali poet tries to widen his appeal? Mass-appeal is indeed a tremendous thing. It can at least help fill up, the empty pockets of the unfortunate writers. But how do the masses come in? The vast majority of them is illiterate. The reading section consists entirely of the middle-classes. To appeal to them is to pander to the tastes of a demoralized class, to turn poetry into simple wish-fulfillment. Consider the plight of the Indian film industry and the Radio, both of which are middle-class and popular. If the middle class had any vitality left it would have at least created somethings significant during and after the Civil Disobedience Movement. But nothing of that kind happened, because at this late hour in history the colonial bourgeoisie has no life at all. With huge and vital sections of our population illiterate and dim in the background, we cannot really hope to effect a revolution with our writings. That would be putting the cart before the horse. We can at present only soliloquise, we cannot address the real audience.

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To be really progressive in our time and in our country,where only a fraction is literate, is to preserve the integrity of what is good in our past tradition, to be true to oneself and at the same time to realize that poetry is a medium through which the individual tries to adjust his relations to society, to be conscious of the complex forces which are changing our world. To be able to preserve one’s personal integrity as a poet will help the progressive cause in the long run. People consider Hopkins and Eliot to be among the real pioneers of modern English poetry. And it will not be superfluous to remind that Eliot is often condemned for his obscurity, and is the one poet who is convinced to his bones of the decay of all civilization. In these times of dereliction and dismay, of wars, unemployment and revolutions, the decayed side of things attracts us most. The boredom and the horror, rather than glory of life, is one immediate reality. Perhaps that is because we have our roots deep in the demoralized petty-bourgeoisie and lack the vitality of the rising class. It is best to admit this and write what you know well than to exult in the future glories of a classless society, that only a changed social order, politically free, and based on emancipation and equality of the peasant and the worker, will it again be possible to establish the vital links between literature and the people which has snapped, but at present we find ourselves unable to translate that belief into good poetry. We cannot do that unless we act. In the meantime we draw a distinction between the poetry of revolutionary struggle and the poetry of revolution as a literary fashion.

Consciousness of decay is certainly a power. But a critical situation arises when we find that at a certain stage this also is not enough even from the point of view of poetic integrity. We will reach that stage very soon, and we must make a choice if we are to continue as living writers. This involves an entire reconstruction of our ways of living. As active part in the mass movement will certainly help that poet who has been able to preserve his integrity. He will be able best to combine literary tradition with social content and will act as a releasing force. He will then perhaps cease to soliloquise and will begin to be representative. Such a reconstruction of living is not an easy job for the present generation of Bengali poets, most of them settled in life and approaching the critical age of thirty. It would have been easier with the Congress out of office, and an active body in the anti-imperialist front. But now the problem is infinitely more complex in an atmosphere thick with sheepish, pacifist slogans of truth and non-violence and all the accumulated rubbish of an out of date, constitutional nationalism. But no task is too difficult when it is a vital affair. If the modern Bengali writer fails to make this difficult choice, we can take leave of him and ask him not to mourn any longer for the decay of society but rather to mourn for himself.

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One Response to “In Defense of the ‘Decadents’”

  • Thanks for republishing this important piece. A small caveat is necessary to put it in context. Samar Sen wrote this in response to an ongoing polemic between him and Saroj Dutta that took place in the late 1930s – early ’40s.as part of a wider debate about the relationship between progressive literature and communist/revolutionary literature. Dutta resented the influence of T.S. Eliot and those western authors/poets he regarded as ‘decadent’ on the young Bengali writers/poets like Samar Sen. It was more important for him to talk about a new society in making to generate a mood of inspiring optimism rather than the decadence of bourgeois society, according to him which characterized Sen’s poetry and its mood of pessimism and despair. Interestingly, Dutta’s polemic was throughout in Bangla, making a point about this being the perspective of a vernacular intellectual as opposed to Samar Sen, Buddhadev Bose and others who deeply engaged with European aesthetics. Yet, Samar Sen’s Bangla prose (‘babu brittanto’ for instance) and verses had far more felicity than Dutta’s mostly polemical writings. Finally, despite their longstanding differences, both Sen and Dutta played leading roles in the Naxalite movement, where they found themselves on the same page at a time of extreme polarization among the wider leftist intelligentsia. Saroj Dutta was killed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s police, who must have been one of the early inventors of ‘fake encounter’s in postcolonial India.
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