Historical and social consciousness

September 1, 2019

A look at how literature guards its imaginative realm while encountering historical and social consciousness

Historical and social consciousness

From the late 19th century, almost every reader has become accustomed to seeing Urdu literature either as a product or mirror of history and society. In turn, classical Urdu ghazal, nazm and dastan - major genres of the pre-colonial period - have been re-evaluated and repositioned by employing a critical paradigm rooted in historical and social consciousness. Modern literature, written in the colonial era - particularly after 1857 - is considered "meaningless, redundant, or irrelevant’’, if it fails to take a position with respect to social and historical developments.

The Progressive Movement, formally inaugurated in 1936, threw up the notion that literature shouldn’t just reflect the societal changes, but also shape the readers’ consciousness. This should be done in such a way that the readers are persuaded to take a stand against exploitative forces, besides becoming a part of the movement aiming to change the course of history. Some basic questions seem to have been ignored in requiring literature to reflect historical and social consciousness. Are historical and social consciousness essentially the same or are these two different kinds of consciousness? And how does literature guard its own specific imaginative realm while encountering these forms of consciousness?

For most critics, historical and social consciousness mean approximately the same thing. But no two words ever refer to a single meaning. Every word has its own, peculiar world of meaning. Both historical and social consciousness belong to the same object (of study), that is society, but the way they perceive and confront it is not the same and this makes for a big difference. While historical consciousness grows out of studying the history of a society, its social counterpart is the product of continuous critical - and to a great extent personal - engagement with the occurrences in the society. Pastness, therefore, is the core feature of historical consciousness and presentness, the central characteristic of social consciousness. The sense of pastness stems from the realisation that yesterday has turned into an object, a text. On the other hand, the sense of presentness is the outcome of experiencing the reality of today. The historical consciousness essentially sprouts up from the body of texts. It lies in what was recorded, ordered and interpreted. History, in its true sense, is a form of knowledge which is developed following a long, careful process of scrutiny of archives. It is just the authenticity of events that is sought to be ascertained. Determination of the causality behind these events is the most desired outcome in writing of history.

One of the major thrusts of historical consciousness is that the society we live in is human. That it was made and is being run by humans and only they, themselves, are to be blamed or praised for everything occurring in their societies.

Borrowing Noam Chomsky’s linguistic terms, events might be called performance and law of causality competence. Just as command over language depends upon how perfectly one succeeds in grasping the competence - or grammatical structure; the historical consciousness remains imperfect until the law of causality is learnt. The law of causality makes us believe that the reasons behind all kinds of events occurring in a society are material in nature. That these reasons can be comprehended, debated and interpreted by the application of rational thinking. Hence, historical consciousness affords no room for pitching the responsibility for happenings on the wishes, whims or interests of divine powers.

Of course, some historians have ascribed the rise of some political powers to the acquiescence of God. But that was merely the exploitation of the common man’s belief in fate or taqdeer in a bid to pacify the resentment rearing among people against that power. For instance, Sayyad Ahmad Khan would say that the English government mashiat-e-ilahi say hae. In brief, one of the major thrusts of historical consciousness is that the society we live in is human. That it was made and is being run by humans and only they, themselves, are to be blamed or praised for everything occurring in their societies. The society functions in accordance with certain laws and is the product of a historical process. Even belief in divinity - and, of course, its exploitation by darbari (courtly) historians - was nourished, and is being nourished by historical forces.

Thus, it would not be wrong to assume that just referring to events, persons and things of the past in poetry or fiction doesn’t provide enough ground for one to declare that they are the product of a historical consciousness. Historical consciousness is distinct from the memory of historical events. Many writers can narrate almost accurately, the memories of their personal or socio-political life, yet lack historical consciousness. They fail to show how different events happening in diverse realms in a specific period had inherent cohesion. Historical vocabulary has no room for ideas like alienation, isolation, aloofness and seclusion, though these words seem to have occupied ample space in literature particularly poetry. In its rudimentary form, historical consciousness gives us a material view of the world, together with a sense of interconnectedness and interdependence.

The very act of studying literature in a historical perspective asserts that works of literature owe much of their existence to a non-literary world, that is, history. In other words, the boundaries of literary imagination adjoin those of history. Here, we ought to make a distinction between the two varieties of historical consciousness - general and specific. The general variety of historical consciousness is marked by viewing events as a manifestation of struggling material forces. A specific historical consciousness is characterised by pointing out of particular material forces at work at a specific time and place.

How does literature manage to remain connected to history while protecting its own realm which is inundated with symbolic and mythological elements? Historical consciousness can be employed to know the direction, meaning and structure of current social happenings. This means that there exists a point where historical and social consciousness can converge.

Mushafi in his famous couplet refers to the economic exploitation of Indians at the hands of Farangis (the English) in the late 18th century.

[In some texts, in place of Islamion, word Hindoostanion has also been used, but this author is of the view that Islamion sounds like a more proper word, for two reasons, historical and poetic. Historically, the English dethroned Muslim rulers. The words ‘Kafir Farangion’ appear emphatically meaningful when read in contrast to Islamion.]

The word tadbeer (deliberation, strategy) carries social consciousness, as the plunder of colonial resources was what British colonisers aimed at. It was a well-thought strategy, an array of tactics devised to depose Mughal Muslim rulers and their way of governing.

What happens when the realm of literary imagination - which is fundamentally symbolic and mythological - coincides with the rational-real-material world of history? Seen historically, imagination is archaic, old, fertile, multi-layered and tinged with a sort of sacredness, whereas historical consciousness is modern, rational and mundane. So, the first thing is the establishing of a dialogic between the sacred and the mundane, the archaic and the modern, intuition and consciousness, and right and left hemispheres. Literature doesn’t sacrifice its very way of imagining the world through symbols at the altar of history. Instead, literary symbols are set to embrace and eventually unravel their meaning(s) in the mundane that the world history aims to capture and represent. In Mirza Ghalib’s oft-quoted couplet we can see how poetic symbols get transformed in their engagement with the historical consciousness of a specific period.

[Faith keeps me pulling while infidelity pushing, Kaaba stands behind me and Kaleesa (church) in front of me]

This couplet has multiple meanings, a quintessential feature of the symbol while retaining specific historical ambience. It represents the idea of a clash of two civilisations: Kaaba representing the Muslims and Kalisa pointing towards the Western civilisation. As we read the second misra (line) of the she’r we come across the nature of civilisational clash: the power of pulling - with its metaphorical meaning of attracting, enticing and alluring - seems to outweigh the resistance. The course of history during that era was being determined by western cultural and political forces.

No Urdu writer can compete with Qurratulain Hyder in creating the dialogic relation between history and fiction. Most of the characters, themes and overall ambience in her novels are historical. However, they refuse to become a mirror to the history. They instead, take on the role of a lamp. She doesn’t reproduce what happened over hundreds of years of Indian history; she illuminates the dark, forgotten side of history by shining a fictional lamp. Intezar Hussain, Abdullah Hussain, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Ikram Ullah, Shams ur Rahman Faruqi and, in recent years, Tahira Iqbal and Akhtar Raza Saleemi have famously based their fiction on historical consciousness.


(The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid, Nazm Kaisay Parhain (criticism) and Rakh say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories)

Historical and social consciousness