This article was published in Dawn, The Review, sometime in April 2001. It was based on the postulate of Ayn Rand that the only fundamental alternative is non-existence or existence. Since then, I have become more mindful of the criticism Iqbal had offered on such a proposition (even before Rand had expressed it) in his Urdu anthology The Blow of Moses: there is a third alternative that really matters rather than these two, and that is ego (‘khudi’). How the views presented here can be evolved further in the light of Iqbal’s proposition, also shared and elaborated by his contemporaary Mary Parker Follett, may be seen in my recent book, Waheed Murad: His Life and Our Times (2014).
Among other things, the Iqbalian point of view has restored the admiration I had felt for the work of Charles Handy when I was first introduced to it in 1990 but had lost temporarily at the time of writing this article (perhaps due to right or wrong application of Rand’s philosophy).
The twentieth century was that of Freud, Picasso and James Joyce. It was the age of Naturalism, when small was beautiful and ordinary was exquisite. Should it have been?
“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence,” says Ayn Rand, the most outspoken Romantic, and hence diametrically opposed to Naturalism. Following her beyond her own days and towards the end of the century, one can see the face of nuclear destruction grinning on the eve of the twenty-first century as a product of the ideas that have dominated every field of human expression throughout the previous century.
The loss of pride in the individual was obvious in almost all areas of social expression in the twentieth century. In political science it gave currency to fascism, socialism, Nazism and the twentieth century democracy which in so many ways was “a tyranny of the majority.” What was common in all these ideologies was the notion that an individual cannot trust his/her own mind. The ideals of democracy developed in the previous age to maintain the freedom of conscience were now twisted to convince the individual that whatever is not agreed upon by others is insignificant. Whether it was military dictatorship, communism or democracy, the message was clear: the idea of an individual is of no consequence until it meets approval from another authority. That authority could be a Fuhrer, a Comrade, or an undistinguished mass of people.
The ideology of the twentieth century liberal had no connection with the ideals of nineteenth century liberals such as J.S. Mill. People like Mill had advocated that even if the human race was to agree on a point of view and a single individual disagreed with them, they all would be just as wrong in imposing their whim on that person as that individual would be wrong in imposing her/his whim on them! Such a stand could not be justified if it were to be believed that no human choice is of much consequence anyway. These are two very different ideologies, although both were sanctioned in the name of democracy. The first was heaven where everybody could mind their own business. The second leads to hell where everybody’s business is everybody else’s too.
This was incidentally supported by the new wave psychology. The tremendous obsession with the ‘unconscious’ was a practical joke on the human mind: to believe that our actions are prompted not by what we choose, but precisely by what we decide not to choose – and even that insignificant choice is made by our instincts and not our morality. The honourable duty of telling us ‘how’ we think fell upon those who told us that we do not think! If an academic fad was required to convince us that having a mind is not a privilege but a liability, then the theory of the ‘unconscious’ was the answer.
The notable psychologists who objected to it went mostly unheard until the end of this century, such as Viktor Frankl, who suggested that human beings were driven, not by the refuse of their soul but by an innate search for meaning. Others were covered up by means of token patronization, such as Abraham Maslow, who raised the fundamental question: Freud has told us about mental illness, would someone please define mental health. But the dominant trends were not concerned with health, especially mental health, they were only interested in disease, especially mental disease.
Art had already made progress in the same direction, even independent of modern psychology. Thomas Hardy, the last exponent of the great age of the novel had been representing a world where chance, and not human actions, was responsible for evil or noble consequences. With the advent of James Joyce, narrative art received the finest tool required to overthrow reason and morality: therefore we were now witness to a stream of consciousness. It shifted the stage of human action from the realm of consciousness, where moral choices are made, to the realm of the unconscious, where neither morality nor reasoning is relevant. The story became, not a procession of plausible events based on the moral choices of characters, but a jumble of unrelated words which went beyond and below the scope of story, morality or reason.
Joyce proclaimed that his so-called great achievement Ulysses, took him seventeen years to write but it would take his readers a lifetime to understand it! Merely fifty years ago, a statement like this could have been heard only in a madhouse or a pub and yet here it was coming from someone regarded as the greatest narrative genius of his times. Nothing could be a greater affront to the art of narrative, leave alone the self-respect of the reader. Hidden between the lines was the credo of the new mainstream: “Don’t bother to understand, because nothing can be understood. Don’t expect us to be interesting because nothing in life is worth taking an interest in.”
A baker would have lost his sales if he were to say that he was selling cakes that nobody could find palatable. Or an architect, if he were to say that he was building a house in which the residents could not figure out how to live! But it was the new intellectual’s privilege to be rewarded for refusing the goods. Consequently, the ‘new’ aesthetics demanded that a piece of art should be expected to deliver ugliness rather than beauty, formlessness rather than perfection, boredom rather than interest, and pain rather than happiness. Picasso painted human bodies as if they were decapitated corpses. The abstract painters, underground filmmakers, and artists in every field glorified themselves in doing away with the most essential attribute of all life: form. This hijacking of the human senses was taken lightly as a mere change and could not be seen as what it really was, a celebration of non-existence against existence. Because form, interest and happiness are agents of life while their opposites are the agents of death.
The difference between the twentieth century Romantics and their opponents was not a difference of taste or opinion: it was the difference of life and death. The final defence of those who upheld a death premise was that random events rather than ideas, shape the history of humanity – which sounds like a guilty child’s plea, “I didn’t break the glass, it was already broken.” One of the leading minds of this school today is Charles Handy, whose seminal work (if non-existence could be seminal!) is aptly titled The Age Of Unreason (1989). It overlooks the flaw inherent in this type of thinking: how do you propose to ‘reason’ about unreason. Generations of such thinkers have been arguing that the course taken by human history hasn’t been shaped by ‘ideas’ but by random changes in the lives of people, such as the advent of railroads or computers. But, how did the railroad and computers come into being, if not due to the ideas of those who knew what they were thinking about. To argue otherwise is to take a stand on death rather than life.
What then, was the cause of this sudden rise of the ‘death premise’ at the beginning of the twentieth century? The Romantics themselves disagreed on this point. Perhaps they were looking at it too closely. Iqbal named the dominance of machines over human life as the cause of pessimism in European art. Ayn Rand, the boldest spokesperson for the Romantics, argued on the opposing side. What seems a plausible explanation today is that the human mind in the nineteenth century had reached a peak of achievement unknown and unimagined in the entire history of mankind. And these achievements were made possible by men and women of great mental ability. More prominently, by men and women who ‘knew’ their abilities and displayed a rightly felt pride in themselves. (It is not a coincidence which turns the Victorian mannerism into a superfluous self-consciousness and the ‘modern’ mannerism into a deplorable self-effacement). It was probably natural, and should have been expected, that the other type of minds, the ones opposed to the idea of achievement and to the idea of life itself, would stand up in opposition. Hand in hand, bound by ‘universal brotherhood’ (or sisterhood) of inefficiency.
Inefficiency can be understood, and pitied, if not forgiven. But how can one explain an attraction to inefficiency? The only explanation is a ‘death premise,’ an evil attraction to death rather than life. And this was the evil unleashed upon the twentieth century consciousness in every field of human life. The jealousy of the achievement-hater was transported into a complex system of standards that demanded that a story need not be interesting, a painting need not be beautiful, a value need not be moral. In fact, a story doesn’t need to be a story, a painting doesn’t need to be a painting and morality doesn’t need to be morality. The farther the split between essence and product,the better.
The credo of the Romantics against this was defined by Ayn Rand in her famous line, “I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Iqbal had put it more metaphorically when he said, “Moses against Pharoah, Husain against Yazid: these are the only two forces brought forth by life.” The one living by himself or herself, against the one who lives upon others and at their cost.
Strictly speaking, politics lies outside the realm of literature. However, in loyalty to their credo, “What you think determines how you live,” the Romantics have seldom stayed away from the political debates of their times. Naturally averse to tyranny, the Romantics close to the Age of Enlightenment, such as Byron and Beethoven, stood up against personal tyranny. The Romantics opposed both personal tyranny and ‘tyranny of the majority’. Iqbal sneered at it in his caustic remark, “The brains of two hundred donkeys cannot bring forth a human idea.” Ayn Rand advocated a free economy, the state’s role being limited to that of an efficient police. Also she had little sympathy for universal suffrage.
The last seventy-five years of the twentieth century have made it very difficult for many to remember that ‘democracy’ did not mean the same to some of its legendary champions. To the founders of America, for instance, it meant an aristocracy of the dollar. The concept of universal franchise gained currency only in the twentieth century. Today, it seems very difficult to think about an alternative fordemocracy, mainly because the ready alternative in Third World countries is the ugly face of dictatorship, the rule of ‘the worst of all second-handers.’ This should not make us turn our face from the crude fact that the nuclear arms, too, were developed with full sanction ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’
The twenty-first century is born with the nuclear time bomb ticking atop its head. We are sleeping in the convenience of believing that democracy and world peace are synonymous. May we face this uncomfortable question now: “Why is it that those who oppose nuclear warfare are not in majority in any country, and far less so in the countries which need them most?” The answer is, of course, in the basic postulate of Atlas Shrugged, “There is only one fundamental alternative in this world: existence or non-existence.”
The historian of the twentieth century will have to answer this question, “How did so many people come to choose the death premise rather than life?” And the only voices the historian will hear in the hallways of the century will be those of big and small Romantics, stretched across cultures, but mostly gone unnoticed. Iqbal, Ayn Rand, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, Ibne Safi, Idries Shah, Ian Fleming. They raised in protest against the glorification of non-existence in art and thought, but they were called escapists. They registered their protest against the trickling down of the death premise from higher literature to popular media, but they were called anti-social. They warned that life couldn’t remain separated from ideas and reality is not a product of meaningless coincidences but a consequence of our moral choices. They warned the world that if non-existence were to be celebrated in art and ideas, then existence would be threatened in reality too. They were discarded as sensationalists and what we see around us is enough evidence that the alternative of nonexistence is pressing itself upon us. We have been deliberately and consciously ignoring the option of existence for too long. If it is still not sufficient evidence, then, sadly, it seems that it might not be too long before we get it.