Dark Enlightenment

John Morley, whose first term as Secretary of State for India began two months after the partition of Bengal took effect in October 1905, seems to have quickly perceived that the partition sounded a death knell for the British Raj. “Reforms may not save the Raj,” he told the viceroy, “but if they don’t, nothing else will.” The Earl of Minto, whose great-grandpa had served as Governor-General of India a century before, was naturally dismissive of such unpatriotic sentiments. “The Raj will not disappear in India as long as the British race remains what it is,” he retorted. 

Minto died in March 1914, with his notions of the superiority of the British race and the permanence of the Raj intact. He never knew that the man who made the Raj disappear would return to India the following January, but Morley lived long enough to see Gandhi successfully establish the non-cooperation movement he had launched in South Africa, and perhaps when he died in 1923 he had an inkling that the Raj would soon be consigned to history. But for all his perspicacity about India, Morley made an error of judgment about Diderot, about whom he knew much more (having written a book called Diderot and the Encyclopædists).  


The French philosopher and art critic Denis Diderot (1713–1784) is best known for co-founding and serving as chief editor of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. The encyclopedia, published in France between 1751 and 1772, is significant not only as a work of reference but especially because it embodied Enlightenment thought. In an article of the same name, Diderot said that the aim of the Encyclopédie was to “change the way people think.” Which, for Enlightenment philosophers, primarily meant replacing religion with reason.

I won’t apologize for saying that I think enlightenment is the wrong word for the Age of Reason. Like everyone else, I have a set of beliefs and experiences and personality traits through which I respond to the world, and my cultural heritage is also part of the mix. I am from India, where enlightenment refers to spiritual revelation, not the acquisition of knowledge by reason and logic. And if you think I should then be speaking an Indian language, please take the matter up with whoever came to India for tea and left three hundred and forty-seven years later, leaving behind a language that has such disparate words as reason and enlightenment

Wrong religious practices needed to be reformed in the eighteenth century, as they must be reformed today – in established religion and especially in our individual lives –but doing away with traditional religion and replacing it with reason cannot be called enlightenmentDismissing as irrelevant something that had been held as true by so many for so long, something so many had been willing to become martyrs for, shows a blindness about an important dimension of human existence. In fact, the spiritual is the most important dimension of human existence, because it deals with the apprehension of truth. Knowledge is temporal – what was “the latest technology” a decade ago is now obsolete, and la dernière in the Age of Reason might well have belonged to the Dark Ages where we’re concerned – but truth is eternal. To seek to rid humanity of that which endures forever is both arrogance and folly.  

The Encyclopédie, being an encyclopedia, aimed to cover all branches of knowledge, and therefore the Encyclopedists should have done away with all traditional knowledge and started from scratch in every field, not just religion. But they didn’t. They picked and chose as they pleased. Religion was chosen to be unchosen because they had a reason for wanting to reject it. But what if we did away with all traditional knowledge? If we in the 21st century decided to take Enlightenment philosophy to its logical conclusion by rejecting all that is traditional, we would have to discard their views on everything, including their views on religion! Enlightenment philosophy is ultimately self-defeating. So much for Reason

Diderot PrankMorley’s error about Diderot has spawned so many thoughts on art and life that it deserves a post of its own on Collected Thoughts. And I think it is fitting to conclude this post with photos of Diderot statues in the places where he was born (Langres) and died (Paris). In both he is shown in his dressing gown, made famous by the whimsical essay, “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune.” In the old garment he says he was “picturesque and handsome;” its long lines announced the litterateur, the man who worked. The starchy new robe, by contrast, lent him “the air of a rich good for nothing,” and it made everything in his study look humble, so he replaced each item at considerable expense. The cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken has based his theory of upward mobility, the Diderot effect, on this essay.


The traffic cone and wineglass in the hand of the Paris statue are obviously the work of pranksters, but the ribbon on the Langres statue might be a coded message between gangsters or perhaps clandestine lovers. Or it might be an allusion to the dressing gown, which Diderot had described in his essay as “the scarlet intruder.” But the ribbon was not the first thing I noticed in this picture. What first drew my attention was the chimney in the background, which brought to mind a couple couplets from the dirge in Cymbeline:

      Golden lads and girls all must,
      As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
             The scepter, learning, physic, must,
             All follow this, and come to dust.

Morley, Morley, and More

The title might make it seem like this post is no more than more wordplay, but there’s more to it than wordplay. One Morley will lead to another, and he will lead to someone associated with the beginning of the end of the British Raj. And he will lead to someone associated with the end of the British Raj. 

But let me begin with the ones who started it all: the Brothers Fowler. In the Fowlers Howlers post on trite quotations, I had quoted them quoting Morley quoting Hamlet.

If Diderot had visited . . . Rome, even the mighty painter of the Last Judgment . . . would have found an interpreter worthy of him. But it was not to be.— MORLEY. 

In thus rebuking the writer for rebuking the reader’s ignorance, the Fowlers inadvertently made the same mistake themselves. When they attributed a “trivial quotation” to Morley, they assumed that everyone would know who they meant and therefore did not feel the need to add a first name. No doubt the early readers of The King’s English would have known who Morley was, but Henry Watson and Francis George didn’t count on the ignorance of certain future readers.

Since I didn’t recognize the name, I typed “writer morley” into my search engine and the first result was Christopher Morley, the American journalist, novelist, anessayist whose penchant for quotations is apparent from the fact that he served as editor on two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1937 and 1948). But halfway through the Wikipedia entry I knew this was not the Morley I was looking for. How did I figure this out? Elementary, my dear Henry Watson.  

Christopher Morley is the author of Kitty Foyle, the 1939 novel that had critics debating about his “sexual sensationalism.” So even though he was a writer with a penchant for quotations, and he had the right surname, I knew that a man who had written about the exploits of a white-collar girl when he was 49 could not have written about Diderot in his teens. (The Morley example appears in the second edition of The King’s English, published in 1908, and Christopher Morley was born in 1890.)

Morley-John-Viscount (2)

So I returned to my search engine and, more sensibly, typed “morley diderot.” This time I had my man: John Morley, the British Liberal statesman who would have become a clergyman had he not quarreled with his father over religion and opted for law. He was called to the bar but refused to drink. Instead, he chose a career in journalism and eventually joined politics. But this comes later in the Wikipedia article (as does the Diderot connection). When I read in the third line that Morley had served as Secretary of State for India between 1905 and 1910, I remembered him from history. This was the Morley of the Minto-Morley Reforms!

I read history as a minor for my BA so I am supposed to know this and a whole lot more, but even a high school student in India could tell you that 1905 is one of the most significant dates in British Indian history. It is next in importance only to 1757, 1857, and 1947 because it’s the year the first bell tolled for the British Raj, the bell being Curzon’s partition of Bengal. (An Indian historian would have added the adjective “infamous,” but as a writer I must remain above clichés, true though they be.)     

George_Curzon (2)The viceroy had mandated the partition ostensibly to make the administration of that large province more manageable, but that it was done along religious lines proves that the real reason was to Divide and Rule, the policy adopted not long after the Revolt of 1857. Curzon concludes the proclamation of partition on a curiously casual note: “The outcry will be loud and very fierce, but as a native gentleman said to me – ‘my countrymen always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it’.” It sounds as though he might be ending a letter to a friend, not the viceregal proclamation that set in motion the chain of events that would cause the sun to set on the British Empire. 

Contrary to what the native gentleman had told the viceroy, the hue and cry did not die down and a month after the partition took effect, Curzon was replaced by the Earl of Minto. My man Morley followed weeks later, as Secretary of State. M & M were the architects of the Indian Councils Act 1909, which came to be known as the Minto-Morley Reforms. The partition of Bengal was revoked in 1911, but by then the damage had been done. It had thrown India into the kind of turmoil that fueled the rising national movement as a less radical political act would not have done, sounding the first death knell for the British Raj.

And that knell reverberated from Calcutta – now in its final years as India’s capital – all the way to South Africa, where an expatriate barrister heard it and began preparing to take on the case of a lifetime. Or, as his future colleague might have put it, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had begun preparing for a tryst with destiny.

Gandhi_S_Africa (2)

H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 321.

A World in A Grain of Sand

Last time I promised to share what happened on January 28 to make me realize that my pre- and post-pub readers might not be as much like Kipling’s east and west (i.e., completely unalike) as I had thought. It happened when a young man by the name of Matt won my heart at the Cerritos Library author talk

How Matt won my heart was by asking me the question I’d been waiting for since Pioneer Boulevard was published seven months before. Actually, I’d been waiting for that question long before the book was published – perhaps since the idea was born in my dorm room at Keele. (That my muse should pick that prosaic place when she could have visited me anywhere on that lovely campus proves that inspiration is not bound by the external world – not even in England’s green and pleasant land. But over the next months, I regularly took my characters for walks around Keele because there’s only so much they would tell me in that prosaic place.)

Matt’s question at the Cerritos reading had two parts, the first to do with the differences between Indian and American fiction. I won’t discuss it here because I have said as much as I am probably qualified to say, and it is included in the longer version of the video (available YouTube and my author page on Amazon). The second part is what I’d been waiting for, and it was this: What do writers have to offer readers? In other words, What are the Functions of Literature?

Although Matt had asked what Indian writers can offer American readers, I chose to interpret the question in its broadest sense because:
(i) The Functions of Literature remain the same whether the writer is from India, Russia, Colombia, or Algeria; and
(ii) I wanted to avoid speaking for all Indian writers. I am neither an Indian writer living in India nor a second-generation Indian American, so I don’t feel qualified to speak for either party. 

In my hurry to get to the Functions of Literature I forgot to mention what I have long felt was the most significant contribution Indian writers have made since Rushdie blazed a trail with Midnight’s Children: an interpretation of India, past and present, that is their own (their own as opposed to Kipling’s or Forster’s or Paul Scott’s). I regret my haste the more because it would have been the perfect prologue to the Functions of Literature. Darn it. 

Literature, I said in response to Matt’s question, opens one’s experience to other worlds. By “other” I didn’t mean merely foreign, even though multicultural writing opens us to other worlds (or opens other worlds to us) most obviously because of the otherness of the world of the book. But all literature opens our experience to other worlds, because it allows us into another’s world – and from there the possibilities are endless. Consider the number of contexts in which a single Shakespeare play can be enacted. I once saw an Othello set in Nazi Germany, and even Bollywood has its version. It’s only a version, of course, with enough song and dance to keep the groundlings happy – and perhaps that’s what the blogger who posted a review some months ago meant by “the morale of the story.”

Be that as it may, for some reason I had the opening stanza of Auguries of Innocence in mind while answering Matt’s question. Blake, being Blake, is talking about much more than the Functions of Literature, but the stanza nevertheless came to mind when I said that I hope my book does what all Literature should do, which is to “open one’s experience to other worlds.”

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I described my book as a “little offering,” not from false modesty or because I had Auguries in mind. I described Pioneer Boulevard as a “little offering” because I believe it is just that. No more, but no less – little, but yet an offering. Or, to use Blakean imagery, on the vast shore of literature, my book is a grain of sand.

Still, I’d rather be a grain of sand on the shore of literature than not be on the shore of literature at all.

Pre-Pub vs. Post-Pub

In this post pub stands for publication, and if anyone thinks I am writing this post-pub in the other sense, it’s because they’ve had one too many.

Pre-Pub Songs of Innocence 
While preparing myself for the imminent glories of authorhood, and to alleviate the monotony of preparing a book for publication, I would hold imaginary conversations with my future readers. (I never held any with my future critics because I could never imagine them looking at me uncritically.) Most of these conversations in those innocent pre-pub days took place in libraries, but on one occasion it took place at a bookstore in Burbank, not far from Warner Bros., where I once worked as a lowly proofreader.

After about four hours of signing books and being photographed and videotaped and that sort of stuff, I was about to faint from exhaustion when I noticed, about thirty people away, a familiar face. A very familiar face. My favorite actor, in fact. I later found out that he had heard about the book signing while shooting a car chase on the backlot, and he simply drove off in the Ferrari in the middle of the take to get my autograph. The DP followed him, thinking it was part of the shot, so naturally the director had to jump into his Bentley to follow them. As a result, the entire crew showed up outside the bookstore. The reading was still in progress so the cops made them wait outside until the Q&A session ended. Then the doors were opened and they were told to get in the back of the line, as they’re supposedly telling illegal immigrants to do.

I was unaware of the proceedings because the room where I was holding the reading was on the second floor, far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. When I finally noticed the actor, he was ignoring the bevvy of girls clamoring for his autograph and looking directly at me just as he’d looked at what’s-her-face in that Oscar-nominated film, holding my book to his chest in a way that could only mean one thing. So even though I was on the verge of fainting I managed to hold myself together until he reached my table. Then I fainted. I remember vividly everything that happened after I fainted, but it contains very little conversation so I’ll proceed to those pre-pub readings that took place at libraries, where the audiences would be hanging on to my every word with an expression of awe impossible to express in words.

During the Q&A session at the end of each of those readings, the discussion invariably revolved around two things: (i) Pioneer Boulevard as a work of Literature; and (ii) My literary theories and criticism. My answers were always perfectly worded, rolling off my tongue as though Olivier himself were speaking one of the Soliloquies. And again, the expression of awe on the faces of those who listened to me (in pin-drop silence) is simply inexpressible.

Cary Grant

Post-Pub Songs of Experience
Experience has proved that pre- and post-pub are polar opposites. Although my post-pub audience has always been respectful – even the person who slept through my talk was polite enough not to snore – the only time I was accorded pin-drop silence was when nobody showed up. What’s worse, my replies have been nothing like Olivier speaking the Soliloquies. Not only have I spoken the speech trippingly (tripping over my words), but I have also said “I don’t know” more often than is good for my reputation or ego.

As for the inexpressible expression of awe, I have seen it only once post-pub – on the face of a fourth grader who had forced her mother to bring her to the talk after seeing the flyer in the library, because she wants to be an author when she grows up. She sat in the second row staring at me the whole time, almost without blinking. It was unnerving at first. I felt like a third grader being monitored by a fourth grader – and you know how unnerving that can be. But I soon began to feel like a fifth grader being admired by a fourth grader. You probably don’t know what that is like, but I’ve had more than my fair share of adulation as a fifth grader. I naturally wanted more, but it was past her bedtime when the talk ended, so she had to leave.

Post-pub, I have learnt to go for an author talk prepared to be asked questions about my book’s background and my own background, and to always expect the dreaded “What’s next?” (always from someone who has yet to read what I’ve already written). But the most unkindest cut of all is that unlike my pre-pub audiences, the post-pub ones are not terribly keen to hear my literary theories and criticism. Where this dearest of topics is concerned, my two audiences exist in different worlds and, like Kipling’s east and west, never the twain shall meet.

Or so I thought until January 28. But I’ll share that next time. I must publish this post before the pubs open, because that’s when I lose my post-pub readers.

At Sneyd Arms

Fowlers Howlers: What’s Past is Prologue

In the last post I had quoted an excerpt from a small section titled “Trite Quotations,” which appears towards the end of The King’s English. I will only address one phrase from that passage here, but I must quote two sentences to place that phrase in context.

[The writer] quotes to add some charms of striking expression or of association to his own writing. To the reader, those quotations are agreeable that neither strike them as hackneyed, nor rebuke his ignorance by their complete novelty . . . 

The Brothers Fowler are clearly rebuking the writer for the rebuking the reader, so I won’t rebuke the writer (who anyway deserves only encomiums). I will address the reader in this post, because the three issues the phrase “rebuke his ignorance” has raised for me are all related to the reader and not the writer. 

(i) Why we read: If a quotation or anything else in a piece of writing has the power to rebuke our ignorance by its complete novelty, then we need to reexamine the question of why we read at all. Do we read simply to feel good about what we already know, or to learn something new – even if that might turn out to be completely novel? The former attitude is nothing but pride, and anyone who has taught any kind of skill knows that the proud cannot learn. Natural talent will take the student so far; humility takes them the rest of the way, because humility is willing to admit I don’t know. When was the last time you heard a proud person say that? (Except perhaps, “Humility? I don’t know what that is.”)

Past_is_Prologue(ii) How we read: We read, as we do pretty much everything, within the context of our history. What’s past is prologue. I am obviously not using the phrase as Antonio had in The Tempest but in its contemporary sense: namely, that the past informs the present (which was the future in the past). The quotation – without Shakespeare’s contraction – is inscribed under a sculpture called Future in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., which is fitting because a nation’s history underpins its future. Happily, it also illustrates my point that a reader’s personal history shapes their present reading experience.

When we are aware that we bring to a text our context, we become more aware of our responses to that text. This enriches the reading experience and also dispels ignorance – for what is ignorance but the absence of awareness? Certain words and situations carry unpleasant associations for all of us, and knowing this will keep us from being quick to take offence at things like quotations we’ve never heard before. There is a time and place for taking offence, but let us pick our battles. And let us be willing to give peace a chance – especially if we want to feel fine. A doctor can tell you the link between an injured spirit and any number of medical conditions better than I could, so I won’t display my ignorance by saying more. I’m only aware that the link exists. 

(iii) What to do about rebuked ignorance: Being rebuked – for our ignorance or for anything else – makes us feel small. And by small I mean literally small. We feel like a little child being corrected by someone bigger and more powerful, and being corrected always makes a child feel ashamed. It takes maturity to handle correction in a constructive manner, and some never reach that point. Again, what’s past is prologue. What we experienced of correction in childhood can color how we respond to it in adulthood. 

Unless we are mature enough to know how to deal with feeling like a rebuked child, the shame we will experience when rebuked will cause us to bear a grudge against the rebuker. In the case of the missed quotation (or anything else in a text that seems to rebuke our ignorance and make us feel small), bearing a grudge against the writer will keep us from learning what we can from the rest of the book. If we don’t choose to rid ourselves of it, we will either close the book, or keep reading but with a closed mind. And a closed mind teaches about as much as a closed book.

It wouldn’t be right to end a post on how to respond to quotations as a reader without saying something about how I respond to quotations as a reader. (And it certainly wouldn’t be right to end a post on the past as prologue without an epilogue.) 

Thanks to the internet, today one can instantly find out anything about an unfamiliar quotation that’s been set within what I once called “inverted commas.” (Incidentally, the use of quotation marks can actually insult our intelligence, depending on our familiarity with the subject and the overall condition of our intellect.) What is more challenging is the quotation the writer has used without what American proofreaders call “quotes.” Whenever I recognize such a quote, I continue reading with renewed enthusiasm: the writer has not insulted my intelligence, and they have shown themselves to be a reader. (Of course, the book doesn’t always deliver what the early quotation promised. And if it disappoints, that early quotation makes the disappointment the more severe, because it had raised my hopes as the absence of a quotation wouldn’t have done.) 

As for when I miss a quotation, I don’t know that I have missed it so my ignorance never feels rebuked and I read blissfully on. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Since reading is a solitary activity, one might even say it is the bliss of solitude.

H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 320.

Fowlers Howlers: Trite Quotations

There’s a small section towards the end of The King’s English about trite quotations, and the Fowlers have naturally had to quote writers quoting writers to illustrate their point. I’m quoting them because this wouldn’t be a Fowlers Howlers post if I didn’t.

[The writer] quotes to add some charms of striking expression or of association to his own writing. To the reader, those quotations are agreeable that neither strike them as hackneyed, nor rebuke his ignorance by their complete novelty . . . To deal in trite quotations and phrases therefore amounts to a confession that the writer either is uncultivated himself, or is addressing the uncultivated. All who would not make this confession are recommended to avoid such things as:

   For he was but moderately given to ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’, and had already finished his tea.— ELIOT.
   If Diderot had visited . . . Rome, even the mighty painter of the Last Judgment . . . would have found an interpreter worthy of him. But it was not to be.— MORLEY.

I don’t know whether to be or not to be mortified for doing what Morley did, and much more often. I have used several quotations from Hamlet in one of the Pioneer Boulevard stories, which would have elicited the kind of response the unnamed writer of the Westminster Gazette got for describing someone as the daughter of a vagrom gypsy: “The precise addition made by vagrom to the meaning is: you see, reader, I know my Shakspere.”

The “vagrom gypsy” example appears only in the third edition of The King’s English (1931), possibly because the example itself was written after the second edition was published in 1907. Had the Gazette not closed in 1928, it might have published a riposte along these lines (addressed only to H.W. because F.G. had died in 1918):

The Editor wishes to inform Mr. Fowler that, given the elite readership to which this paper caters, and in view of the example Britain must set to her colonies and those lands beyond her vast Empire which aspire to speak the King’s English, our writers are required to know their Shakespeare. Furthermore, as an editor and compiler of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Mr. Fowler will be glad to know that our writers are expected, in advance of tendering their application, to know how to spell.

Or perhaps there would be no riposte. The editor of the Westminster Gazette, which had published short stories by writers of the caliber of Raymond Chandler, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, and Saki, would probably never read The King’s English since he already knew the King’s English very well. Grammars are not written for editors, after all.

H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 320-21.

Fowlers Howlers: No Levell’d Malice

Writers occasionally need (or want) to quote another writer, and this other writer may be better or worse than themselves. The only kind of writer that writers don’t quote is the one who is as good as themselves. There’s no rule prohibiting this – in writing manuals or in intellectual property handbooks – nor is there any unwritten rule in the writer’s moral guide (a guide with few followers, sadly). The only thing that keeps writers from quoting a writer as good as themselves is their own conviction that there’s no such person.

Throughout The King’s English the Fowlers have quoted writers both better and worse than themselves – but even the better writers (e.g., Dickens and George Eliot) have been used as bad examples. But then, how many style guides have you seen in which the writer has given an example of good writing and then shown you how to write it badly?

Certain writers and newspapers appear often in this book – The Times, for instance, appears numerous times. The Fowlers, though they lacked the ability to predict the future about things American, had had the foresight to anticipate that this would open them to attack from the English. Apart from the disarming quote from Timon of Athens on the title page (“No levell’d malice Infects one comma in the course I hold”), they make this disclaimer in the very first sentence of the Preface to the first edition (1906):

The frequent appearance of any author’s or newspaper’s name does not mean that that author or newspaper offends more often than others against rules of grammar or style; it merely shows that they have been among the necessarily limited number chosen to collect instances from.

A disclaimer such as this is necessary in a book such as The King’s English, which exists by making examples of writers, but the Fowlers’ critics might say that the phrase “the necessarily limited number” suggests that they have read only these few writers and therefore their choice is necessarily limited. I suppose what H.W.F. and F.G.F. have read is a few to many, but if I had read even half of what the less-read brother had, I would consider myself extremely well-read.

H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The King’s English, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1931), 3.