Friday, September 30, 2005 E-Mail this article to a friend Printer Friendly Version

COMMENT: Dilemma of intelligentsia —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Our intelligentsia knew how to evade the perils of religious fundamentalism; it does not know how to cope with a near-secular, post-dictatorship, dispensation. It watches helplessly the meltdown of individual self into the collective self fashioned almost unobtrusively by the new order. It is vocal but the ensuing speech becomes an unintended grammar that does not communicate well with an estranged people

The first two absolutely identical scenes of Vaclav Havel’s play Largo Desolato must be among the briefest in world drama. Not a single word is spoken and the entire action in the living room of the main protagonist, Professor Leopold Nettles, is that he gets up after a long pause, looks through the peep-hole, puts his ear to the door and listens intently. As he waits apprehensively for ‘them’ to arrive, the curtain drops suddenly.

The visitors who precede ‘their’ arrival define Leopold’s dilemma. Friends from the ‘paper mill’, simply called First Sidney and Second Sidney, urge him relentlessly to fulfil his obligation to ‘take the initiative’ because people inspired by his past writing are looking to him. Then another friend, Bertram, mercilessly dissects Leopold’s fright, procrastination and inability to do ‘justice to those great obligations, to the truth, to the world’. He cannot ‘take the initiative’ because something inside him has collapsed, as if an axis that had held him together had given way.

This is, however, no setting for the denouement of a Greek tragedy. When “they” (called First Chap and Second Chap) finally arrive, they put a simple proposition to Leopold that would keep him out of trouble until the next time: he has to sign a short statement saying that he is not Professor Leopold Nettles. “If I understand you correctly”, Leopold asks them, “You want me to declare that I am no longer me.”

The play ends with the Chaps no longer wanting even his signature to the statement because it had already become superfluous — just as Bertram suspected. Left with the nagging doubt that “I am no longer me”, Leopold returns to the paranoid routine of the two opening scenes.

It is in his samizdat essays that Vaclav Havel analyses the Leopold syndrome. The new totalitarianism does not purge the dissidents physically; it only paralyses them by persuading them to think ‘evasively’, by disconnecting language from reality and substance, and by asking them to ‘live within a lie’. “They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it.”

There are frequent reminders of this crisis of identity in our contemporary experience. Our intellectuals are often afflicted with a nameless anxiety and work hard to ensure that words do not convey an intelligible idea that perchance offends the authorised version of things. Truth is frequently perceived as an obstacle in the advancement of our material objectives, our career prospects, our social standing.

In the old game of naming things, the divine stratagem by which angels were convinced of Adam’s higher intelligence, we first want to know the names that the putative sources of our terror would prefer. In the process, language, which is by far our main tool for apprehending reality, gets constantly degraded. We do not know any more if agents of our fear actually exist or have the capability to control our lives but we take shelter in the unquestioned belief that without prudence, you perish.

This is the existential crisis of an educated elite that was caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock, of course, was the fear of a putsch by armed religious obscurantists fostered by the high-risk policies of the state itself. The revolution in Iran was admirable as long as it remained on the other side of Zahidan. Vastly more fearsome was the spectre called ‘Talibanisation’, which, unlike Iran, showed no respect for international frontiers. Being home grown, it was a more palpable threat.

The hard place that the educated elite, ‘chattering classes’ in a less flattering phrase, opted for was the hitching of its wagon to the star of military ascendancy. Insecure in itself, it calculated that the army would intervene for a brief period of traditional dictatorship, clean up the Augean Stables, and transfer state power to it.

The experienced officer corps of the military was not interested in establishing a classical dictatorship. What we witnessed is a transition to what may be called a post-dictatorial era in which there is no need to take away our Leopolds; it is enough to ask them to just give themselves another name. The new order warrants only an occasional resort to direct force and that too for demonstration effect. It relies on an almost metaphysical presence, which permeates the entire body politic; it is like a condition of being.

It shuns extremism as that would lead to unsustainable totalitarianism. It also eschews Western liberalism as that would be inseparable from democracy. It has the moderation of a church where the high priests lay down the fundamental doctrines but give you enough freedom to talk endlessly about them as long as you do not question their validity. Alternatively, you are free to treat it as a game which can be played to your heart’s content provided you do not contest the rules of the game.


Herein lies the dilemma of our intelligentsia. It knew how to evade the perils of religious fundamentalism; it does not know how to cope with a near-secular, post-dictatorship, dispensation. It watches helplessly the meltdown of individual self into the collective self fashioned almost unobtrusively by the new order. It is vocal but the ensuing speech becomes an unintended grammar that does not communicate well with an estranged people.

It faces a crisis because in the hidden recesses of the soul, there is resistance to the acceptance of either metaphor: an ordained, albeit indulgent, church or, a game which can be played only with immutable rules. The anarchy of spirit yearns for the creative chaos of democracy without which our delicate federation may not even hold. But that will have a price tag: it may confront us with the dilemma of Havel’s Leopold, a paranoid compulsion to walk up to the door, peep through the hole and listen to their heavy steps. Like him, we are free to just watch the passage of time.

The writer is a former foreign secretary
http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default...0-9-2005_pg3_5
A very interesting allusion to what's the problem in taking on fundamentalism and democracy in Pakistan.