Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta
[Professor Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta enjoyed an illustrious academic career, holding numerous academic and administrative positions, including the Tagore Professorship in the Department of Modern Indian Languages in Delhi University. He had a DPhil on a work that closely studied the writings of John Milton and another PhD delving deep into the works of Michael Madhusudan Dutt.
2014 is his birth centenary year. Among other things, he wrote a great number of letters to the editor—in The Statesman and in The Assam Tribune. Those letters have now been collected in a book titled Letters to the Editor (Gangchil). It is one way, as Professor Sourin Bhattacharya, in his opening remarks to the book says, to get round the element of ephemerality.
I still recall the frail and benign figure of Professor Dasgupta climbing up the stairs of Jadavpur University in the mid-1990s and in a remarkably lucid fashion, explain to us Plato’s Ion. He would transport us to a different world, week after week. Here are three of his letters.
Prasanta Chakravarty (for HUG)]
Dead Weight of Printed Knowledge
Sir , –The grand Boi Mela (Book Fair) which gives a new life to our city every year prompts me, a man of 88 years and seven months, stricken with a pernicious bronchial asthma, to speak of Mela Boi (too many books). My grandmother had only three books Krittibasi Ramayana, Kashidasi Mahabharat and Vijay Gupta’s Manasamangal.
I remember she had a preference for the Ramayana which she read for an hour before her sleep at noon. I envy my grandmother for her economy of books and in my good days read for many more hours. But what have I gained for possessing so many books and giving so much time to them? Nothing except some academic trappings which I now think are but tinsels and some academic positions to which I have failed to do justice.
Perhaps I fancied books just as some women fancy jewellery. I remember K. C. Mukherjee, who taught us Aristotle’s Poetics at Calcutta University, once quoted some two pages from Homer’s Greek and when I asked him how could he remember so much he said—“Young man you read all kinds of rubbish, I read only Homer.”
I think the world is now sinking under the dead weight of its printed knowledge. Virgil knew more than Homer, but Homer is the greater poet. Milton knew more than Virgil, but Virgil is the greater poet. There may be some truth in Macaulay’s saying that as civilization advances poetry almost necessarily declines. Ramendrasundar Trivedi almost the same thing in his essay ‘Mahakavyer Lakhshan.’ And towards the end of the first world was Oswald Spengler wrote his The Decline of the West asking us not to write poetry but to produce machines.
The world has not stopped writing poetry, but has produced so many machines that the Pentagon has now enough nuclear heads to destroy the world in several hours.
It is this which has made the United States a menace to human civilization. Let us begin to realize the symbolism of Aeschylus’s play in which Zeus punishes Prometheus for bringing fire from heaven and giving it to men. Our Faustian lust for knowledge will ultimately reduce the world to ashes.
I am now too frail to hold a book for reading and what is worse I begin to doze within five minutes of my taking a book in hand. So lying in bed which is my usual position. I silently recite to myself what odd bits I read in the past.
The line which comes to my mind at this time of my life when I have lost so many of my near and dear ones is Goethe’s “ You must do without, you must do without.” I do not love to turn to Shakespeare’s soliloquies although I remember many of them. For me the most stirring words in Shakespeare are Cleopatra’s “ Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longing in me…? Methinks I hear/Antony call…/Husband I come.” My old eyes are wet with tears when I remember these words. The wily woman became a goddess while leaving the world. The line of Rabindranath which stirs me most is “Thou has made me endless.”
But I was never a good teacher. What then makes one a good teacher. It is a sensitive and creative response to the text in hand. A good lecture is an expression of this response. I found it in my teacher of Shakespeare, P.C. Ghosh and two of my colleagues Tarak Nath Sen and Sisir Kumar Das.—Yours, etc., R. K. Dasgupta
17 February 2004.
150th Year of the Manifesto
Sir,–I thought that the Marxist government of West Bengal would mount an exhibition of the various editions of the Communist Manifesto on the occasion of the 150th year of its publication towards the end of February 1848. It is strange that there has not been any function in this city in the more than three months and a half since that memorable date.
Our state government has a department of Information and Culture and our Bangla Academy is a wing of that department. It should have been possible to hold such an exhibition and a series of lectures on this classic which is now a great human document. Its value is not in the least diminished by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of Communism from Eastern Europe. As a historic document of human progress it survives these historical events.
Let us remember the memorable words of Engels on the Manifesto in his preface to its 1890 German edition: “the history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working-class movement. At present it is doubtless the most widely circulated, the most international product of all Socialist literature, the common programme of many millions of workers of all countries from Siberia to California.”
If at all an exhibition of the editions of the Manifesto is organized, a descriptive bibliography of them may be produced on the basis of Bert Andreas’s Le Manifeste Communiste published at Milan in 1963. It lists 762 titles published between 1848 and 1959. Editions published between 1960 and 1998 may be identified with the help of the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow. The West Bengal government may bring out a magnum edition of the Manifesto including this bibliography and prefaces to its German editions of 1872, 1883 and 1890, to the Russian edition of 1882, the English edition of 1888, the Polish edition of 1892 and the Italian edition of 1893. “These prefaces are written by Marx and Engels or by Engels alone.”
Only a single sheet of the manuscript of the Manifesto as Marx wrote it has survived and it is preserved in the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow. A photocopy of it may be obtained from the Institute. Helen Macfarlane’s first English translation of the Manifesto appeared in Harney’s Red Republican in 1890. A photocopy may be obtained from the Library of Congress, Washington. The organizers of the exhibition may obtain a photocopy of Eden and Cedar Paul’s translation published in 1930. It contains Engel’s Catechism which Marx used while drafting the Manifesto. I think the most important exhibit would be a facsimile of the first German edition a copy of which is available in Andreas’s work. Bakunin’s first Russian translation of the Manifesto would also be an important item for the exhibition and a photocopy may be obtained from Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute.—Yours, etc., R. K. Dasgupta.
Calcutta, 22 June, 1998.
The Other Russell
Sir,–Sudhansu Mohanty’s excellent article “Passionate Sceptic: Russell’s Crusade Against Sham.” (May 18-19) is commendable. Today, more than a quarter of a century after Bertrand Russell’s death on February 2, 1970 it seems important for us to salvage the true image of the British philosopher which is obscured by thousands of pages of his philosophical writings mostly warped by the fact that the author was first a mathematician, then a logician and finally a philosopher. Russell first thought that mathematics was a part of logic, then came to the conclusion that mathematics and logic were one. The idea prompted him to begin his work as an inquirer into the nature of propositions and to speak of atomic and molecular propositions and finally to enunciate his theory of description. But what is the standing of Russell’s logical atomism or of his doctrine of definite descriptions today? Russell’s The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918) anticipates Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) both saying that logical analysis of Language ultimately terminates in atoms of meaning. The idea was taken up by Logical Positivism from which both Wittgenstein and Russell turned away.
Peter Strawson successfully challenged Russell’s theory of descriptions in his essay “On Referring” (Mind, July 1950). Russell answered Strawson’s criticism in his My philosophical Development (1959). But Strawson did not write a word to counter Russell’s arguments. I asked Sir Peter Strawson why he did not argue his case? He said it would be improper to cross swords with an old and venerable man—an instance of British modesty. Russell himself gradually saw the futility of preoccupation with language in philosophy and after all theory of descriptions was concerned with the use of language. In his foreword to Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things (1959)Russell speaks of a “curious kind of arid mysticism” in “The minute argumentations of linguistic philosophers.”
At heart a Platonic idealist Russell repudiated idealism as a professional philosopher and the day he decided to work for the ideas of his friend G. E. Moore as stated in his essay “The Refutation of Idealism.” (Mind, 1903) he embraced a philosophy which did not really belong to his soul. In his Our Knowledge of the External World (1914) he proposes to make philosophy a science; but e never made philosophy a science. In his Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948), his last great philosophical work, this prince of empiricists says: “ Empiricism is a theory of knowledge has proved inadequate.” Between these two works appeared his An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940) which is an example of what Irving Babbitt has called a ‘debauch of epistemology’ where how I know is more important than what exactly I need to know.”
I do not think there is today in Western philosophy a Russellite and there have never been Neo-Russellites as there were Neo-Platonists, Neo-Kantians or Neo-Hegelians. This is because Russell is never truly himself in his large philosophical works. He has no rounded, consistent philosophy. In his Bertrand Russell: The Passionate Sceptic (1957), for me the finest and most profound work on the man, Alan Wood says: “Russell’s work was never so much a complete philosophy as a Philosophy Under Construction.”
Where then are we to find the other Russell, the true Russell lying under a pile of epistemological tomes. He is indeed ubiquitous, peeping out in his essays, where he is not a colossus bestriding the intellectual life of the West in the 20th century, but an angel, a light,, winged creature, now fleeting in the horizon and now gently whispering into our ears intimations of a new hope and a new joy. Robert E. Egner’s Bertrand Russell’s Best (1958) should now be replaced by a collection of his sayings o human life and its destiny. If you wish to read Russell’s testament I would suggest not My Philosophical Development and not even his Autobiography (1967-1969). I would point to a 30-page pamphlet entitled My Own Philosophy which Russell wrote in 1946 and McMaster University published in a limited numbered edition of 600 copies on the occasion of the philosopher’s birth centenary in 1972.
In this pamphlet Russell says: “philosophy when pursued by the analytic method becomes pedestrian and uninteresting when compared with the things that Plato taught or that Hegel with his dialectical logic professed to be able to prove.” And he adds that “in philosophy in proportion as it becomes scientific, it must cease to give as much imaginative satisfaction as it becomes scientific, as it did in those earlier phases.” And must we forget Russell’s memorable words in his Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “The world has need of a philosophy, or a religion, which will promote life. But in order to promote life it is necessary to value something other than mere life.” Sir A. J. Ayer ends his work Russell (1972) saying “he was a great and good man.” We now need a collection of his sayings presenting the philosophy of this “great and good man.”—Yours, etc., R.K. Dasgupta.
Calcutta, May 25, 1996.