This is a guest post by PRASANTA CHAKRAVARTY
“The nature of peoples is first crude, then severe, then benign, then delicate, finally dissolute.”
The past congeals in savoir faire or habit, conserved as an ethos, in the corridors of the Arts Faculty at Delhi University. We all remember what is happening, while it is happening; watching ourselves as live spectators of our own actions. Wherefore such a sense of centripetal actuality? How this despotic pathology of inevitability in a place which was supposed to be the harbinger of a future? But the future arrives as a gyre, a loop.
A perpetual eerie calm pervades the DU Arts Faculty. All things seemingly new and unaccustomed come laden with a sense of déjà vu. The baroque grandeur of the building’s architecture hides a subterranean, sinister mood. This eeriness is normal. It is the oxymoronic nature of the clinically conspiratorial that one must trace in order to understand why this gyre of inevitability revisits us, from time to time. The stigmata of a sacred and unmodified past are stabbed all over its chambers and alcoves, banisters and turrets. What brews such a fatal concoction?
Richard Hofstadter’s classic essay on the paranoid style is at least partially applicable to this building and to its quaint and anomalous occupiers. That kind of styling is one coordinate of the ethos I am referring to. Suspicious discontent is the first tell-tale sign of the paranoid style. There is an archetypal splendour in believing, effecting and helping play out conspiratorial networks in order to thwart illusory, shadowy adversaries. This syndrome is of an old vintage—a feudal tenure trying to hang on to its privileges, one that invariably turns pathological in the face of contingent change. From time to time, the paranoid feel dispossessed of the idea of traditional privilege. In this case, it is perhaps about the humanities departments themselves, which they feel are being gradually hijacked by years of experimentation – with gauchiste transformations enacted upon them by alien hordes of intellectuals and cosmopolitans, who are rank interlopers paying scant attention to the feudal and secretive DU ethos. The Arts Faculty, they feel, has largely been taken away from them by such diabolical forces,even as they are determined to try repossess it and prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The paranoid finds the conspiracy to betray this ethos of preservation to be the most troubling one. But since it cannot rid itself of its adversaries, the paranoid is frustrated. From such defensiveness issues forth periodic aggressive and haughty methods of dealing with whatever is intellectually challenging. Of late the Department of Sanskrit is at the forefront of this paranoia: effecting a complete fictitious past in order to give direction to it own defensive genuflection to power. But this sense of willing the inevitable is part and parcel of every department in this building. Could it be that this is a kind of a microcosm, patterning the inner dynamics of our public institutions?
And yet it is not just a matter of intellectual defensiveness on the part of the paranoid. The paranoid is also deeply divided within itself on issues of social and personal morality. One side of the paranoid bristles when faced with amorality and sensuality. Its fictitious adversaries’ lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his wishes within and outside of the academe, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. The fantasies of true believers often reveal a strong sadomasochistic, predatory side. That side erupts from time to time in baroque utterances, styling and acts—in modes of communication and behavior. But much of that will remain forever buried, as the very presentist, repetitive nature of the ethos stands on a lattice of silence and a tracery of omerta.
Rank pedantry in styling and in carrying out routine matters is another hallmark of the paranoid. Such pedantry in actual life is in sharp contrast to the fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality that it invariably tries to project. One form in which such pedantry is displayed is that it continually produces and strives for evidence in order to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. This clinical side, of obsessively accumulating ‘evidence’ against the imaginary adversary (maintaining dossiers, trying to introduce unrealistic reporting systems, planting moles among the staff, having student informers and so on) is a crucial component of this way of functioning. Nowhere is such pedantry more noticeable than the signage within the Arts Faculty—apart from the sheer tawdry and garishness of the material on which signs are displayed, the very nature and messages periodically cement a paranoid culture. At every bend and corner one is greeted with a proliferating cornucopia of signs that say no smoking, no loitering, and imperiously demand silence.
But the most telling and sordid aspect of the paranoid style is a delusion of grandeur. Manifestations of a certain grotesque ceremony and foredoomed grace sprout through the farcical enactment of a set of ritualized codes in such a culture: from ornate furniture to periodic kitschy parties, from excessive display of flat wit to holding durbars at any given opportunity. It is quite obvious that this is a desperate attempt to act upon some residual antediluvian attachments in the academe when there is none existing. The idea of misplaced grandeur also feeds on a refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations, imperfections and the veryfallibility of life. This denial of transience makes the paranoid view itself as Elect, assured of one’s goodness and ultimate triumph.
There are usually two reactions to this prevailing style of functioning in many of our public institutions. The first is a rational bureaucratic one. The cosmopolitan professional personnel within such a set up will act in ways to thwart and yet gain from this way of functioning. Loathe to identify with such a culture, the rational cosmopolitan attempts a truce—first with his own self. Having taken stock of this repetitive and circular gyre like structural pattern, he will begin strategising about how to maximize his own position within such a system. In the face of such a social conflict he will begin mediating, following the best traditions of liberalism. He will try carve out a space through which his moderate, pithy, juridical and clinical ways can accommodate life as he knows it,within this space.The more benign among the egalitarians will justify their work as a way of doing things for the institution and most importantly: for the students. From time to time he shall feel thwarted and frustrated, but his professional, objective temperament will never allow him to take on the paranoid in a concerted and purposeful manner.
The other reaction comes from a counter set of paranoid individuals working within the same space. These are the set of people, often in a minority, who are melancholic and reflective in nature. Some even dissolute in their everyday acts and behaviour. The only difference that such a form of paranoia possesses in contrast to the pathological regime is that this is more inward looking, intuitive and volatile. This mode also nurses a tremendous form of reverse snobbery. The mannerist nature of its silences and behaviour builds up over a period of time and may continue to remain so until ignited at some point. This group, in spite of its sporadic angry outbursts, is politically naïve and maudlin. Hounded by a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, these dreamers will look away.In that sense this second mode of minority paranoia also helps the regime stay afloat and does nothing to disturb the eeriness of the dark feudal network that runs beneath the procedural surface of our institutions.
The dynamics of a space—architectural and discursive, is often a projective arena for feelings and impulses that are only marginally connected to the manifest. One need not psychologize it beyond a point. But the spring-wells of our historical existence can never be mapped unless we are able to view patterns that run under our skin. From within the belly of the beast, our public institutions sometimes appear like shimmering fables; flickering, receding will-o-wisps— beckoning travelers of the night. And as Roland Barthes had said long ago, a myth is “… neither a lie nor a confession. It is an inflexion.”
[Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor, Department of English. University of Delhi. He has recently edited Shrapnel Minima, Writings from Humanities Underground (Chicago University Press and Seagull India, 2015)]