Commonplace

Before we put away the old commonplace book, mentioned in our penultimate post (when quoting the Rajataramgini on bureaucrats), let us get some more use from the thing.

The item itself, of Delhi manufacture, was our constant companion while travelling about India in anno 1995. We still benefit from our old practice of keeping commonplace books, even though most of them are now lost. It was a practice recommended by an English teacher, in another century. Rather than mar precious books with one’s foolish underlining & marginalia, we were instructed diligently to copy favoured passages into a commonplace book, & add our comments there. The act of copying brings one into more intimate contact with a text, fixing it in the memory — even if the book is subsequently lost. And should it happen to survive, one has an accessible, detailed, chronological record of one’s reading & thinking from time past.

Like Pope Benedict, we still draught longhand. We still rely entirely on our Parker 51. We wish we had not abandoned our old habit (inculcated, too, in backward British schools in Asia) of keeping 5-by-3 inch slips (cut down from large sheets of cartridge paper) to carefully enter bibliographic matter for cross-referencing in long drawers. (Alas, one little oak cabinet survived, but neither the slips themselves, nor our pocket travelling case, owing to the accidents of personal history.) We had a whole intricate system of slips, pocket notebooks, larger commonplace books, sketchbooks. It all went to hell during our interface with Computerland, & some further unrelated domestic convulsion. But then, what would modern life be without maceration, without the chopper pump & the “blended slurry.”

Longhand was important. Paper was important. Ink was crucial. The focus with these things was entirely different, & in every way superior to the passive procrastinating prattlesome protocols of the contemporary cybernaut.

Writing with a pen enforces linear thinking: the conscious narrative from beginning to end. We see all about us today the effects of the contrary: of “lateral thinking,” of thinking “outside the box.” We try to resist, often quite unsuccessfully. We try, anyway, never to think outside the box, to avoid originality in any form. Our ancestor, Adam, was “original,” & see where it got him. Civilized man is a collector. His task is to bring things “inside the box”; to tell the story; to draw & interpret; to tame, & to teach. In a word, to poeticize. Should he find something new out there in nature, he must bring it home. He must make some sense of it.

When you go into the jungle, take the box with you. Take the whole kit, including the shotgun & the butterfly net. Otherwise you will die out there.

*

But getting back to politics & our stinking Nanny State, here are some remarks from the late inspiring Indologist, Arthur Llewellyn Basham — transcribed from our transcription of 1995, for we no longer have the book itself, Studies in Indian History & Culture. Still, we expect gentle reader may find this, on page 69:

“In the writings of the more doctrinaire [Western] theorists the state seems to take on the character of a living organism, greater than the sum of its parts. In India such political mysticism was discouraged by the doctrine of Dharma, which concerned society & not the state, & by the fundamental individualism of all the metaphysical systems. The ultimate aim of all valid & worthy human activity is salvation, which cannot be achieved by corporate entities such as peoples, castes & families. … Government exists to serve society &, on the final analysis, society exists to serve the individual. …

Rajya, the term generally translated ‘state’ & used in that sense in modern Indian languages, is a secondary nominal formation from the word raja, & etymologically implies ‘that which pertains to the king’. In early sources it is best translated ‘kingdom’. …”

Basham goes then into the thicket of ancient Indian political terms, where we will not drag gentle reader. The state consists of the king, his ministers, the land, fortifications, soldiers, the treasury, allies. To which later thinkers brilliantly added, “& aha, enemies!” For without enemies a state could not exist. But they invariably, instinctively, leave out “subjects.” The subjects of the state are in an entirely different category. They are not among the things that belong to the state.

Now, the professor in all his teaching life focused upon India. From everything we know he is as good an authority on ancient Indian thought & life as any we could hope to read. We could list so many prominent contemporary Indian scholars who would have to agree with this, because he trained them. He had a mind not only searching, but broad to the peripherals, & an extraordinary hold on a vast range of sources. And yet we find an important omission in the penetrating observation above.

And that is, “not only India.” For the political & religious outlook of the Subcontinent, through successive historical phases, is paralleled in Western Europe. Through our so-called Middle Ages we had a view of state & statecraft that was uncannily similar. Those “doctrinaire [Western] theorists of the state” to whom Basham alludes are all post-Reformation, indeed figures of the Enlightenment. They were directly in conflict with earlier, Mediaeval political thinkers.

In the West, as in India, we lost what we had; lost a downright metaphysical understanding of the limitations of the state. That is why we cannot conceive “the individual” today except in terms of “individualism” — & therefore as something essentially licentious. “Salvation” having been discarded, as the end & purpose of human life — in India as in the West — the individual human has been reduced to a chattel of the state. Whether or not his pathetic little vote is counted in an election, he belongs to a country, & is issued documents to confirm the ownership relation. His rights, if any, are granted by the state. He had been so reduced before Victorian capitalism further reduced him to a contemptible consumer of goods & services; then socialism made him into a beggar, who worships the state from abject dependency.

Our own politics are anti-political. But we include this note to remind that they are more anti-political than may first appear. For there is man, & there is God. The state is not somewhere in between, it is off the road somewhere.