The Counter-Romantic

On December 11, 2016 by admin


[An Excerpt from The Opulence of Existence, First Edition January 2017 copyright©Prasanta Chakravarty & Three Essays Collective 2016 All rights reserved]


I’ll join with black despair against my soul,

And to myself become an enemy.

                             ~Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Act II, Scene ii

সারা রাস্তা সোনার তারের মত শব্দ |

The whole journey rings like a golden wire.

                             ~অনন্ত ভাস্কর/Ananta Bhaskar, Swadesh Sen



There lies a straightforward premise behind these essays: that there is an implacable impulse, a code which sometimes drives our aesthetic choices and political decisions—one that places life under a stubborn, primordial scalpel, then passes it through a luminous and unsentimental lens. That mode refuses to run along available courses. So richly and seriously is this mode attentive and attuned to the minutiae of life’s splendours and its deepening sorrows that it is doomed to walk an unescorted furrow. But that furrow does not isolate; no, it is not lyrical in its acceptance of our finitude. It rather takes us closer to: whatever is. We are not talking about vexations of the psyche here. Nor are we terribly worried about the ethical conundrum of the being. This mode also does not deal in experience past. No, in a world riven with inequity and bigotry, one must constantly refuse to let any ontological virtue ossify into a fixed identity or being.

This collection of essays is rather about dire, unyielding journeys— undertakings, which are also enchanting, star-crossed spells. Such journeys shun the romantic overestimate of human virtue and moral capacity, current in our maudlin and dolorous culture. The appraisal of social facts happens through other, discrete routes. These routes keep out of ideational essences. The essays try to record a series of hard, heightened moments, each hoping to grapple with the forces of endurance along with an awed absorption of flux. Only when we are able to put ourselves in the mannerist gyre of such bewitchment can we revel and tremble before the opulence of existence. We are then able to stand aside. And controvert, when the time arrives.

Only that much is worth recording.

Shubha, one of the finest of our contemporary poets, captures this spare, stubborn drive rather accurately—

एक आदमी प्रतिद्वंद्विता की औड़ से बाहर हो जाता है ख़ुद
दौड़ की लाईन देखता है एक फ़िल्मी दृश्य की तरह
उसके पार जैसे कुछ है जिसे देखता वह
अकेला नहीं होता
धारण करता है दुख और शोक चुपचाप
इच्छाओं को ज़बान पर नहीं लाता

कभी-कभी वह एक रहस्य की तरह नज़र आता है
वह हँसता भी है और खाना भी खाता है।


One man himself opts out of competition’s track
Like a scene in a film he observes the finishing line
As if there is something beyond it, seeing which
He does not feel alone
Wordlessly bears sorrow and grief
Does not bring desires to his lips

Sometimes he seems like a mystery
He does smile and eats food too.


But to assiduously, doggedly embark on life’s travails is not to practice and perpetrate the mystical.  Quite the contrary. We do not just tremble like a guilty thing surprised in front of the mountain or the sceptre. There is no complacence of any massive calm. In a rapidly antagonistic and fractious world it is impossible to remain captivated by Blanqui’s eternal melancholic stars where we, guests on our planet, are just prisoners of the moment, “sadder still this sequestration of brother-worlds through the barrier of space.” That kind of tragic-romantic view shall lead us to accept a repetitive fixity in the universe: the ricorsi. Eventually, that will make us all vassals to power—natural or artificial.

But opulence is about acknowledging and engaging with the differences and the wonderment that lie all around us. Without rhetoric or palliation.  Purer forms of romanticism eventually would lead to negative forms of mood and imagination to the point of alienation from body and habitat. Susan Stewart in her nuanced, piercing work The Poet’s Freedom points out the contrast between Coleridge, whose fear of nothingness was expressed in his opium habit and rejection of fancy and Shelley, who mastered to “fear himself and love others.” It is Shelley who realizes that we are “thrown back on the task of forming our freedom,” and Coleridge who stands as a warning that “liberated from time and space, the imagination is nowhere.”

Poetry and politics come together at these synapses—where imagination’s flight is thrown back on our travails and labour, until we soar once again. One may tentatively call such a calumnious absorption with things that pass by us: the counter-romantic, one that ferociously takes stock of transitions and recastings—that are born and bred within structures of power and conflict, sometimes measured and played out in the creation, reception and circulation of things that we call art.  Only a counter-romantic spirit can save us from egotist, sentimental and antihistoricist forms of romanticism and at the same time keep on reminding us that life is much richer than what the dehumanizing forms of pragmatic, correct or realist undertakings will allow us to believe.

This counter-romantic practice spreads in the very sensuousness and struggles of our daily partakings. It is not an isolated way of living—for as Shubha has marked above: the man smiles and eats too—that is to say, he is active and completes his earthly chores as he must, although he seems to be dormant and lethargic. He has but taken only one decision: to walk outside of the track that promotes egotistical competition, smallness and radical inequality among fellow creatures.  The man joins forces with the rest of the human race in the last line. There is a dignified ascent, for the very mundaneness and monotony of eating and smiling are at once a chore and a possibility.  He has not tuned in and opted for higher frequencies. His is not a reaction. He does not entertain a fantasy of reversing proceedings. He is simply refusing a certain idea of time: one that is made available to us easily. He may stand up to power, for his very detachment sends an ominous message of non-negotiation. He is fully immersed in life and in interactions with other creatures, including other human beings.

What is at stake here?  In the very first few passages of his Phenomenology of Mind, G.W. F. Hegel reflects over the relationship of our self-certainty to Night. In the process, he formulates a relationship between our contingent particularities and the claims of the universal in its full historicity:

“If we take it [self-certainty] in the two-fold form of its existence, as the Now and as the Here, the dialectic it has in it will take a form as intelligible as the This itself. To the question, what is the Now? we reply, for example, the Now is night-time….The Now that is night is kept fixed, i.e. it is treated as what it is given out to be, as something which is; but it proves to be rather a something which is not. The Now itself no doubt maintains itself, but as what is not night…The self-maintaining Now is therefore not something immediate but something mediated…A simple entity of this sort, which is by and through negation, which is neither this nor that, which is not-this, and with equal indifference, this as well as that—a thing of this kind we call Universal. The Universal is therefore in point of fact the truth of sense-certainty, the true content of sense-experience.”

Here is how an ontology of a lyrical self-consciousness is historicized.  There is no self-creation of interiority. It is mediated in and through space and time, through charged interactions. There is a flux deep within the structures of self-creation. Our deepest and the distilled form of articulation: poesis, is both inbound and transitive.  Our very intimate sensual and intuitive perceptions, if they have to make sense to another fellow being, and thus turn intersubjective, must create a distancing from the immediacy of nowness. All our volitional promptings are but extensions that strive to relate to a universal sense of suffering and othering. Such a universality can only happen by means of constantly trying to free ourselves from our primordial, lyrical attachment to any strict phenomenological immersion—in love, faith or beauty. Poesis is such a figuration, a certain toil that the man in Shubha’s poem is undertaking. Therefore, he has opted out of competition—which is another name for the availability that is nowness. He is trying to set himself free to history by deciding to distance himself from the immediacy of his condition, especially since he is intricately rooted and attached to his time and space. That is also the reason why he does not feel alone. Alienation bypasses him.  This is how, by exaggerating the transformative potential of the self, by reconnecting the fragmented lyrical ‘I’ to the flux of our material transactions, that poesis seizes form from our living and from nature too. To arrive at this condition is a difficult material struggle. There is no prior knowledge for poesis to draw from and happen.  One takes a leap. An emergence may or may not take place.

The heroic nature of such an act of self-creation only can only lie in his stoic steeliness in the face of the drama of existence.  After all wastage, there is steel. And with and after steel: joy. The joy of being able to live and dream freely and equitably with other unfortunate, bereft, forgotten beings is what drives the counter-romantic. For the artistic and the political can only be marked in and through our collective, historical engagements, which are also changing colour, morphing and meandering every waking hour. So, the writerly sharing of the surplus of joy is also a historical, collective journey. The opulence that this process of steeling simultaneously must lead to is a generative void and an architecture of liberty. Such a liberative sense of an economy of joy (always dialectically intertwined with the paroxysm of agony) stands sentinel againt all ideas of private cheerfulness and domesticated, popular happiness—the relentless dead pleasures of commodified hell.  One coordinate of the counter-romantic therefore hover close to what Henri Levefbre has called the architecture of enjoyment.

Opulence is full and complete entanglement with life. And yet one must keep on marking and measuring the unfairness, often man-made, within the differences, that keep on battering us. Relentlessly and unfailingly.There is no other way but to keep on gauging the intersections of all humiliations and discrepancies in an essentially disharmonious world. Marking opulence means a commitment to intervene wherever such discrepancies arise; it means hope without optimism, in the words of Terry Eagleton. One cannot congenitally be disposed to believe, like the optimist, that things will get better.  There is nothing called spiritual betrayal of the equity of living. Just as there is no scope for any half-hearted, brothy left-liberal idea of justice as an antidote to the forms of betrayal. It is this regimen of half-heartedness, this perfunctory, spiritless apathy with life that these essays take on.

What is it that lies beyond the finishing line of optimism?  How can one practice hope?  For Peter Kropotkin, one of the chief protagonists of this book, beyond the finishing line stands free associative ventures, developing out of self sacrifice. Cooperation for him is a principle of faith. A political emotion. It is a leap. This leap underlies all his works. Kropotkin declares that ‘co-operation leads mankind to a higher harmonic stage of economical relations’, arising out of a faith in mutual-aid, one that stands stoutly against varieties of ‘joint-stock individualism.’ But such harmony is not a fixed and ossified one that breeds community consensus. It shifts and evolves and is restless. That maintains its dynamic nature. Such restive energy is at the heart of the principle of counter-romanticism.

In a contrary political impulse, this disdain for competitive individualism and soulful, solipsistic sentimentality makes appearance as a yearning and realization of the form and order of our existence. What is cooperation to Kropotkin, the form of life for living together, comes in a different manner in the trajectories of those who appreciate the idea of regime, the ones who systematically seek the knowledge of the whole. In this collection there are three instances when one tries to open up the thinkers of the regime, those who appreciate the style, moral taste and form of government—beyond the fragmentary nature of pluralism—Aurobindo Ghose, Thomas Hobbes and Leo Strauss. These are the thinkers of the politeia who look at claims of human goal and authority in a particular. Each of them, in their own manner, articulates the problem of creatureliness and cosmology. As Strauss says, thinking ought to refuse two opposing attractive and delusional charms—the charm of competence and the charm of humble awe. All three men, in their own ways, have not succumbed to these two charms–one dehumanizing, the other soulful.

The recompense of life sends to us a steady call outside of charming and calculative mediocrity. If we care to listen. Some people among us can hark those summonses and are able to extract bounty from the minute everydayness of life.  These are artists of a different order—ones who refuse to immerse in the lachrymose pathos of neighbourhood realism. And at the same time they keep away from estimating and totting up the transactions of life.  For they are, foremost, good listeners. So, this collection begins with a short essay on a particular mode of attentiveness: listening.

The capacity to listen is central to living and expending life in the self-reflective poetic mode. Kamal Kumar Majumdar has beautifully caught this impulse: “It is still accepting the first morning lights that we can enter a web of a riddle—purple and crimson, and as we look at the various green, we suddenly sense light entering the inner body; in half-darkness, in chilly dawn, hoping to live life in our little ways, accepting our many sins—to stand amidst all this. It is miraculous that whenever we look at nature, it is to understand all being through her magnificence. This standing allows us to return to our footprints, at any given moment. This remains a victory now. If we can amass all such feelings, there is warmth. This warmth is what constitutes our existence.” Listening is a form of victory. A sense of largess that takes us from point to point in life is extended in the essays on Binoy Mazumdar, Kashinath Singh, Stanley Cavell, the poetic universe of Anindita Mukhopadhyaya, on the memoir Dayamoyi’s Tale, on the film Aakhon Dekhi and the two essays on the deep structures of mythology and forms of our collective living.

And yet, bounty and this earned detachment, apart from sometimes paradoxically fostering a form of surpassing and intransigent hardness of being, is also strewn with the obvious pitfalls of misplaced righteousness. Sometimes, these our luminosities end up encouraging and devising premature judgments on other people and their motivations. The short take on young Reinhold Niebuhr’s ruminations as a Christian minister in wartime industrial Detroit, marks a kind of bridge in this volume, leading to a set of concerns written to confront the bouts of our green and misplaced idealistic ventures.  As he reflects on St. Augustine, Niebuhr remarks that “The terms idealism and realism are not analogous in political and in metaphysical theory; and they are certainly not as precise in political as in metaphysical theory. In political and moral theory realism denotes the disposition to take all factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of self-interest and power… Idealism is in the esteem of its proponents, characterized by loyalty to moral norms and ideals, rather than to self-interest, whether individual or collective. It is, in the opinion of its critics, characterized by disposition to ignore or be indifferent to the forces in human life which offer resistance to universally valid ideals and norms.”

The metaphysical meaning of both the terms is not specified but the forces of political realism are all around us to be felt. We can feel the power of exasperation, bitterness and canniness right within us. Throbbing, breathing realities all. Such realities must be taken into account; not wished away. They seem to contrast with universal normative ideals. But the two motivations are intertwined—that way the impulse of counter-romanticism lies. Idealism is no illusion since it is paradoxically ignited by our daily encounters with our will to power, our fear of failure, our  retributive moves, our gloating at success, unleashing of our animal spirits—all part of our existence and as such, are the ideologemes that make up our very continuance.

From time to time we can gauge what runs gaming in life, which constitutes another kind everyday—the world of ordinary vices, deployed with no lachrymose moral stake. This sense of wiliness, perhaps even more so, characterizes life itself—one that constantly keeps a strict vigil and measure of our generosity and forgiving impulses.  And constantly undercuts our altruistic moments with a certain derisive acumen. Astute players in a stretched-out game of card, we are all gleefully party to such transactions which, following Bernard Mandeville, we may call private vices, public benefits.  This book celebrates great vices. Great vices stand as sentinels against mediocrity of thought and action.

Then leave Complaints: Fools only strive

To make a great and honest Hive

T’enjoy the World’s Conveniences,

Be famed in war, yet live in ease

Without great vices, is a vain

Eutopia seated in the Brain.

The human desire to praise, the putting of human vanity to socially beneficial usage, claims of consistency when there are none, the construction of persona, treachery laced with casual cruelty are all superlative human motivations worth exploring. Rochefoucauld’s Maxims describes the idea of dissembling and its connection to Jansenism with great relish. In Of Cannibals Michel de Montaigne calls treachery, disloyalty, cruelty, and tyranny “our ordinary vices”, which Judith Skhlar has, in our times, perceptively enunciated and analyzed. She has added hypocrisy and snobbery to that list.  It is not surprising that a liberal pluralist like Skhlar has found hypocrisy to be fostering democracy and argued for cruelty and its byproducts to be shunned. But how do we grade vice?  What constitutes this obsession with sensitivity and openness? The essays on the circles of patronage, a chief minister’s ways with rhetoric and images, the managing of higher education and the one on John Milton’s chameleon republicanism— all are variations on vices and their benefits.

Here, then, is a series of takes on regal, poetic, secret hauteur. But such hauteur hides a restive radiance and love for life, running hither and thither and back again, steadfastly keeping away from the frenetic standstill of our accelerated life.  Those who are able to see beyond the finishing line are not benevolent. They calibrate an involved angularity and antagonism. In the words of Sudip Bandyopadhyay—


কোনো কোনো মানুষকে বড় দরকারি শত্রূ বলে মনে হয়

খুব- ই দরকার ছিল তাকে

এই ছিন্নভিন্নতা, এই ছিঁড়ে ছিঁড়ে নিজেকে টুকরো করা

বড় প্রয়োজন ছিল


তার ঘৃণা ও ক্রোধের স্পর্শে

আমাদের অবহেলিত গাছে

আরও বেশি লাল রঙের ফুল ধরে…


Someone comes across as a necessary enemy

One needed him a great deal

This wrenching, ripping oneself asunder

Was imperative

In the caress of his abhorrence, his wrath

More flowers bloom red

Upon our disregarded trees…



Select References


Shubha, प्रेम कथा One Man Himself, पल-प्रतिपल

Blanqui, Louis Auguste. 2013. Eternity of the Stars: an Astronomical Hypothesis.New York: Contra Mundum Press.

Brennan, Timothy. 2006. Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hegel, G.W. F. 1967. Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. J. B. Baillie. New York: Harper.

Stewart, Susan. 2011. The Poets’Freedom: A Notebook on Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cioran, Emil. 1992. On the Heights of Despair. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 2014. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 2015. Hope without Optimism, Page-Bourbour Lectures. Charlottsville: University of Virginia Press.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1972. Mutual Aid. New York: New York University Press.

Strauss, Leo. 1959. What is Political Philosophy? Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

Majumdar, Kamal Kumar. 2009. Prabandha Sangraha, Collected Essays. Kolkata: Charjapad.

Rochefoucauld, La.  2009. Maxims. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press Inc.

Montaigne, Michel de. 1999. Complete Works of Montaigne: Essays, Travel Journals, Letters. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Runciman, David. 2009. Political Hypocrisy. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Shklar, Judith. 1984. Ordinary Vices, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Bellknap Press.

Mandeville, Bernard. 1970. The Fable of the Bees. (ed) Philip Harth. London: Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Virilio, Paulo. 1986. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. Semiotext (e).

Niebuhr, Reinhold. 1953. “Augustine’s Political Realism,” in Christian Realism and Political Problems. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bandyopadhyay, Sudip. 2009. আশ্রয়/Refuge, যেখানে ভ্রমনরেখা /Jekhane Bhormonrekha. Banamalipur, Barasat, Kolkata: Abhijan Publishers.

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