Writing with Love and Hate

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Bhrigupati Singh as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Bhrigupati is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. His book Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Contemporary Rural India (University of Chicago Press, 2015), was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences. Together with Veena Das, Michael Jackson, and Arthur Kleinman, he is co-editor of The Ground Between: Anthropological Engagements with Philosophy (Duke University Press, 2014).] 

Some of our co-bloggers in this forum rightly suggest that reading precedes and accompanies writing. But then they say that young people today, in this era of attention deficits, are losing the art of reading. When I was young, hope I still am, I usually responded quite stubbornly to this kind of admonishing “wisdom”. Maybe our teachers need to be more inspiring. In writing, we may need to rediscover a richer variety of forms. There was a time, for instance, when scholars primarily wrote not in essays, but in a more difficult and older art of texting, namely, aphorisms.


Let’s not underestimate the new forms of attentiveness that are emerging. On Instagram for instance, which to the surprise of discerning readers creates the possibility of stranger sociality based only on a fellowship of images.


Some forms of sociality turn one into a misanthrope. Like the sickening, saccharine self-promotion enabled by a medium like Facebook.


Another suggestion from a senior colleague is that before writing he picks up a good book to read, even for a few minutes. That’s fine, but there is a crucial qualification. Just because food is necessary for life, we don’t run around stuffing our faces with the first thing we find. The crucial question is one of diet. What is our food for thought? For two years or so my diet consisted solely of Nietzsche and as you can see, for good and for ill, it had an effect. Even now, I am careful about what texts I come near to.


For a moment, here, I am free of the necessity of citations. And yet I am quoting. When are we not quoting? Often I read books that are merely echoes. Are you an actor or a mere representative?


It is not that in this era of academic articles and books we don’t have other forms lurking within us. Sometimes a potent fragment is tucked away under other sentences. I once managed to reach such a line. I quote:

As our bus neared the village of Mamoni, my destination for now, I was startled by a luminous orb hovering close by, atop a low hill. I had seen it before. Nonetheless, this was the first time the moon chose to reveal itself to me, so blatantly round and brilliant and near. No wonder dogs howl and tides stir. Ours are water bodies too.

Ours are water bodies too. This sentence was given to me not by the gods but by the landscape, and was the fruit of many days and nights and years of labor.


Some friends of mine tell me that I wrote a very “affirmative” book. But these friends either don’t know me well enough or they don’t know how to read between the lines. Cheerfulness often conceals great loathing. So that is my advice for today, for any unlikely seeker who happens to land on these words: learn to hate well.


What do I hate? So much even in my own neck of the woods that I have to conceal it out of civility and self-preservation. A brief list: bleeding hearts and their moral tartuffery; but also scamster Marxists and pseudo-militants who have nothing left but a way of “talking” about the world that works mostly only to their own social advantage; Saidians whose anger expresses only their desire to be “recognized”, who don’t realize the rivers they are damming under the guise of so-called “orientalism”; picking up anthropology journals and reading tepid analyses of current events with a smattering of Foucault thrown in; the self-congratulation and self-flagellation of Writing Culture, as if they discovered the self; almost all invocations of “neoliberalism”; I continue at my own risk. In any case, as Deleuze says: nothing is ever gained by books against something. “If you don’t admire something, if you don’t love it, you have no reason to write a word about it”.


What do I hate? In writing about India, which I marginally inhabit, I hate almost all contemporary non-fiction and fiction writing. Here is what I say in public, about this. I am referring in these lines to a genre and to a book which was awarded the Booker Prize:

Most contemporary Indian fiction and nonfiction is about call centers and cities and young men trying to get rich in the new India. These “new” India books have a very impoverished idea, if any, of what the “old” was, and of what newness may be. Consider an award-winning “new” India book, better left unnamed. A supposedly demonic businessman narrates his story of capitalist greed and divides the world into Dark and Light, in the process giving us insufferable chicken-coop metaphors about the horrors of poverty in India. Such an author knows nothing about demons or about poverty.

But why target Johnny-come-latelys? These problems persist even in the upper ranks. For instance, I hate Naipaul. He is Caliban cursing entertainingly. And he is Prospero, magisterially confirming the European tourist-traveler’s eye: “Ah, it was not only we who felt like this!” But we can also learn from what we hate. From Naipaul we can learn to write sentences of commanding precision, organized like phalanxes. Consider this, from one of his more egregious texts, An Area of Darkness:

Feature by feature, the East one had read about. On the train to Cairo the man across the aisle hawked twice, with an expert tongue rolled the phlegm into a ball, plucked the ball out of his mouth with thumb and forefinger, considered it, and then rubbed it away between his palms.

Hateful, but what a wonderfully, rhythmically composed sentence! And then, in a very classic Naipaul technique, in the next sentence he zooms out further:

Cairo revealed the meaning of the bazaar: narrow streets encrusted with filth, stinking even on this winter’s day; tiny shops full of shoddy goods; crowds; the din, already barely supportable, made worse by the steady blaring of motor-car horns; medieval buildings partly collapsed, others rising on old rubble, with here and there sections of tiles, turquoise and royal blue, hinting at a past of order and beauty, crystal fountains and amorous adventures, as perhaps in the no less disordered past they always had done.

It’s evocative, yes, but even when we try to convey a feel for a place, anthropologists do not write like this, with good reason: out of love for this world. It is our discipline, our devotion, to go beyond such beautifully painted “writerly” impressions of the world.


So, in sum, in this era of WhatsApp, we might learn again to be attentive to the sentence.

 

 

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

3 thoughts on “Writing with Love and Hate

  1. Nietzsche and Naipaul. Hard to find writers – and thinkers – better suited to serve as inspirations and models for anthropologists who have discovered that writing as anthropologists is not particularly successful in rendering the truth of lives one has intruded upon. Kudos for that observation / connection.
    But, love and hate – that’s a complicating wrinkle. That combination of basic feelings spells ambivalence, which may well be the natural state of an intellectual. You find aspects of N and N meritorious, a style of thinking and writing you wish to emulate, and yet some of their ideas are, well, how shall we characterize them, distasteful, uncomfortable in today’s world of safe places and ideologically well-scrubbed ideas.
    Although admiring his brilliant writing, you include Naipaul in your long list of “hates.” Why? Well, it appears, because he says not so nice things about social arrangements he has observed (NOTE: “observed” as any ethnographer does) in India. Two big problems here. First, Naipaul doesn’t just drop into India like a third-year Cambridge graduate student (from either side of the Atlantic); India was the birthplace of his ancestors. On his “return” he seeks to know whence he came. There he exercises his superb novelist’s eye and ear, as he has in the Caribbean, Africa, Indonesia, Britain. Can you tell us the name(s) of any anthropologist/s who have addressed such a wide swath of humankind? And done so with such consummate mastery? I can’t think of a one. Naipaul is as close as we come to a universal ethnographer. Second, your hatred seems too like that of cookie-cutter liberals and the Nobel Prize committee who have found alarming ideas in Naipaul’s works: Oh dear, he doesn’t say nice things, soulful things about the lives of people in those Other parts of the world. Year after year the Nobel committee struggled to come up with some writer who was, oh so feeling, oh so sympathetic with Third World peoples. Virtually unknown writers, to be sure, but at least their hearts were in the right place and – most important here – they delivered a message eminently palatable to the literati powers-that-be. But alas, the Nobel folks ran out of candidates; they finally had to anoint Naipaul.
    As anthropologists we should be better than that. The profound connection between Nietzsche and Naipaul is that both looked around them – as anthropologists are supposed to do – and saw a horror show about to happen. For Nietzsche that horror show was anti-Semitism and World War I, for Naipaul, well, the jury is still out . . . but the future is pretty scary. You find Naipaul’s accounts distasteful; well, perhaps that’s because much of contemporary existence is distasteful, to the point of being diseased. I suggest we think of Naipaul as a pathologist of the social. The medical pathologist studies diseased organisms with an aim to describe them in detail and, just perhaps, suggest a means of treatment. Why should we fault Naipaul, along with other writers – Franz Fanon, Tom Wolfe, Peter Matthiessen, Albert Camus, Studs Terkel, Camille Paglia, Joseph Wambaugh – who conduct in magisterial prose, a pathologist’s study of the society, the lives, they find around them? Isn’t our first responsibility to look a thing full in its face and call it by name? Can’t the cultural anthropologist follow the exemplary models of Nietzsche and Naipaul and become a cultural pathologist?

  2. Isn’t our first responsibility to look a thing full in its face and call it by name?

    No. Our first responsibility is to look as deeply and broadly as we can, withholding judgment and asking what the names that leap to mind conceal. Only then can we add something worth knowing to the sum of human knowledge.

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