The journey of ideas

August 6, 2023

Unravelling the impact of travelling theories on cultures and literature

As Iqbal says, “Sanobar bagh men azad bhi hae pa ba gil bhi hae”, same can be said about Theory.
As Iqbal says, “Sanobar bagh men azad bhi hae pa ba gil bhi hae”, same can be said about Theory.


verything travels. People, objects, facts, artefacts, inventions, stories, gossip, aphorism, texts, time and ideas. Edward Said, Palestinian-American intellectual and a major force behind post-colonial studies, proposed a travelling theory of ideas and theories. In his words, ideas and theories travel “from person to person, from situation to situation, from one period to another.” Said has identified not only the mobility of the ideas and literary theories but also the impact these ideas wield on people, situations and periods. It is through the travelling of the ideas that cultural rejuvenation and transformation occur. We can infer from Said’s contention that no human culture has ever been self-sufficient in terms of fulfilling all sorts of its technological, cerebral and aesthetic needs. Every dynamic culture has to look beyond its geographical, ideological and canonical boundaries to combat the threats of decline and death and to quench intellectual and imaginative thirst.

Edward Said has identified the mobility of literary theories and the impact this makes on persons, situations, and periods.
Edward Said has identified the mobility of literary theories and the impact this makes on persons, situations, and periods.

Translation and commerce of theories have played a vital role in the germination, dissemination, expansion and then creation of new, yet much-desired, ideas in any culture. Moreover, translation has acted as a vehicle for the travelling of ideas from “situation to situation and from one culture to another.” The truth is that where there is a translation, there is a cultural transaction. And where there is an active cultural transaction, there is neither likelihood of prevalence of the belief in cultural essentialism that induces a burgeoning of cultural narcissism, nor any chance of a clash of civilisations.

Having said that, it is important to know the kind of impact an idea or theory can have on people, situations and epochs while they travel. To understand the influence of any idea or theory, one must know the origin, nature and mode of its travel. When and under what conditions was it constructed? What kind of logic and rhetoric were employed in giving it shape? What purpose did it serve? One also needs to know how, where and in which conditions the idea was applied? Was there any resistance, general acceptance or thoughtful appropriation of the idea? Besides helping us learn how the ideas originate, travel and are received, these questions are meant to emphasise that ideas and theories are the work of historically situated, fallible - yet courageous - intellect.

Said is of the view that an idea can serve either of the two opposing purposes: it can become a methodical breakthrough or a methodical trap; an emancipatory tool or an obstacle. This means that an idea can eliminate or create hurdles - ideological and conceptual. Here Said seems to be restricting the power of an idea or theory to an either-or dyad. But an idea is not always a two-edged sword. Ideas might become a tool to think with. A theory might serve as an intellectual space where a disciplined and organised activity of reflection, interrogation and negotiation can be initiated, which can then result in the forming of another coherent theory. A theory can have an inspirational role.

To elucidate his point, Said cites an example from George Lucas’s theory of reification. In this capitalist phenomenon, everything - including time, place, space, human beings, books and artefacts - is transformed into a measurable, quantified, reified object. These reified objects are then given a market value. A crisis in the capitalist economic system occurs, for instance, when there is a shortage of food, and humans become aware of their metamorphosis into objects. In brief, this crisis gives rise to the consciousness of the system and its reification. Lucas was a Hungarian Marxist thinker who articulated this theory against the backdrop of the historical conditions resulting from WWI. This theory travelled to Paris, where in the 1950s, Romanian French critic Lucien Goldman employed it to interpret 17th-Century writer Racine and Pascal in his 1955 book The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine. Out of the reification theory, Goldman formulated the theory of homology – that class situation, worldview and art are synonymous. By understanding art, you can realise the same structural parallels in the other two. Said says that in Goldman, the worldview Lucas’s theory underpins is reduced to a tragic vision. From Hungry, the theory of reification travelled to Paris and then to London. London-based Raymond Williams made use of Goldman and Lucas. Williams concluded that reified consciousness looked like a methodological breakthrough but quickly turned into a methodological trap. In Said’s words, William means “that once an idea gains currency because it is clearly effective and powerful, there is every likelihood that it will be reduced, codified and institutionalised.” It is only through critical consciousness that the nature and impact of a theory can be gauged: whether the theory made a breakthrough or turned into a trap.

Every dynamic culture has to look beyond its geographical, ideological and canonical boundaries; to combat the threats of decline and death and to quench its intellectual and imaginative thirst.

Said scrupulously zeroes in on the historical and intellectual ambience of the travelling of the ideas and theories from one place to another, but astonishingly, he doesn’t mention how the colonial environment had impacted the travelling of modernity and nationalism from Europe to the East, Africa and Latin America. Though Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and a few other writers had exposed the hidden motives and darker sides of the European knowledge strewn across the African colonies, it was Said who told the world that the whole body of the work created by the Orientalists was ‘a construct and a discourse.’ In a Foucauldian sense, a discourse is not a ‘pure’ but well-thought, purposed knowledge,’ unequivocally intended to seek, grab and practice power over the subject of the knowledge and the subjects of the colonies. But in his essay under discussion, he avoided mentioning the post-colonial lens he popularised. However, he has provided an epistemological structure for learning the nature of European modernity’s flow during the colonial and post-colonial eras.

This epistemological structure comprises two major ingredients: historical conditions and critical consciousness. Said keeps emphasising that every theory is embedded in local and historical conditions. A theory is a sort of response to the urgency some historical condition entails. So, the meaning, scope and significance of a theory hinge upon respective historical conditions. This notion of theory, although it appears ‘logically valid,’ is extremely problematic. How can a theory deeply embedded in its local historical conditions travel to places and times marked by partly or totally different historical conditions? While Said doesn’t address this question, we can infer from the epistemological structure that while every theory is embedded in its local-historical condition, it also strives to have an independent existence.

We can, therefore, say of a theory what Iqbal points about the pine, “Sanobar bagh mein azad bhi hae, pa ba gil bhi hae” (A pine in the garden is at the same time free and rooted). A theory providing a certain insight to illuminate things as they exist in various settings and periods claims an independent existence. In the absence of this independent existence, the travelling of ideas and theories can neither be imagined nor actualised. In order to capture, comprehend and learn the pros and cons and then utilise this insight, a critical consciousness is mandatory. We might see things effortlessly, but to seize the insight, we need to undertake intellectual labour. Insight into a theory shouldn’t be confused with some instant takeaway we come across on social media. It needs to be emphasised that the critical consciousness we are stressing is not meant at all to have possessed some critical theory; rather, a free interrogative spirit underpins it.

Since 1857, there has been an uninterrupted flow of European ideas, theories, and canons of literature towards Urdu and other languages of the sub-continent. In general, the European ideas and theories rushing towards us were a product of the historical conditions that gave birth to the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment and Romanticism etc. Moreover, these ideas were laced with Victorian morality. The point to be noted is that the movement of these modern European ideas was taking place through a tunnel of capitalist-driven colonialism. Like objects, these ideas had value, worth, utility, exchange rate and calculated profit. (In the words of Lucas, these ideas were reified). In other words, insights into these ideas were not disinterestedly sought nor critically probed but being sculpted and de-bossed into colonially appraised utility.

True, modernity is a contestable concept, and in some cases, a heterogenous one too, yet its central proposition is a belief in creating the human world out of human intellectual and imaginative resources. In the words of Ghalib: “Apni hasti hi say ho jo kuch ho/ agahi gar nahin ghaflat hi sahi (Whatever we possess must come from our own being, no matter that is insight or obliviousness). But the movement of modern European ideas had left little room for Indians to create their own world by employing their own intellectual and imaginative resources.

The flow of European modernity towards colonial India was not a smooth knowledge transaction.

Let us take a look at the movement of a literary theory that originated in the 19th-Century London, arrived in 20th Century British India, and was received by Urdu critics.

19th Century British critic, Mathew Arnold, proffered a literary theory that “the main end and aim of all utterance, whether in prose or in verse, is surely a criticism of life.” Through the writings of Macaulay and John Stuart Mills, European literary ideas, mostly articulated by romantics had started wading into Urdu writings of the 19th Century, especially by Altaf Hussain Hali and Imdad Imam Asar. However, Arnold’s ideas arrived a little bit later. The first generation of Urdu critics of the 20th Century, like Niaz Fatehpuri, Hamid Ullah Afsar, and Abdul Qadir Sarwari, introduced this notion. Soon this theory, though in a reductive form, turned into a commonplace idea to talk about the nature, purpose and ultimate objective of literature. Since the 1930s, this theory has been used - in varied, appropriated versions - by all traditional, progressive, modern, post-modern and academic critics. Urdu sentences: “Adab zindagi ka aina hae; Aadb samaj/ saqafat/ tehzeeb ka trajuman/ akkas hae; Adab tanqeed-i-hayat hae”, resonate Arnold’s theory. In the pre-colonial, classical world of Urdu literature, the overarching ideas of literature were quite different and distinct. On one side, the idea that “Atay hein ghaib say yeh mazamin khiyal mein (these themes come from an unknown world)” was prevalent and on the other “Ik phool ka mazmoon ho to so rang say bandhoon (I compose a single theme of flower in a hundred manners).”

Said had cautioned that theories might be reduced to a simple aphorism or stretched into a sort of infinity. In both cases, there is a trespass on their limits. When a theory is turned into a mere aphorism, it is cut away from its origin and conceptual confines and is thrown into eerie probabilities. This is what happened to Arnold’s theory in Urdu. It has been reduced into a commonplace, credulous reality on one side and stretched to the limits of a subscriber’s intellect on the other. This is a typical example of the movement of a theory from a modern colonial situation to a tradition-battered colonised situation.

Arnold used the word criticism with a specific meaning, which he borrowed from the French Sainte-Beuve’s idea of Philistine. Interestingly, Sainte-Beuve too was not original in coining this word. He took it from German Philister which means disinterested endeavour. Hence, criticism “obeys an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespective of practice, politics and everything of the kind, and to value knowledge and thought as they approach the best, without the intrusion of any other consideration whatever.”

Arnold articulated this theory in response to the 19th Century industrialisation and utilitarianism. He was afraid of the decline and death of culture. To him the criticism, by disinterestedly endeavouring to gather the best from across the world and the worlds of ideas, could serve as a bulwark against the dangers of decline and death the English culture faced. He was also of the view that the best ideas strewn across society come to form an ambience conducive to creativity. While borrowing the idea “Adab Tanqeed-i-Hayat hae (literature is a criticism of life),” Urdu critics generally used the word criticism in its simplistic, un-Arnoldian meaning – to weigh, evaluate and criticise. The major thrust of Arnold’s theory – getting to know, gather and disseminate the best ideas from around the world – has been disremembered.

Among Urdu critics, Jamil Jalbi is an exception. In his Nai Tanqeed, he presented Arnold’s theory in its true spirit. So the question is: did Arnold’s theory become a conceptual breakthrough or a trap? In the colonial period, it worked as a breakthrough; literature was thought to have been a tool to critique colonial life, situation and strategies. But in the post-colonial or neo-colonial period, it turned into a methodical trap for it reduced the idea and purpose of literature to mirroring the present, observed reality and failed to grasp the multi-layered human reality.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His most recent publication is Naey Naqqad Kay Naam Khatoot.

The journey of ideas