Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kenneth Clark's final remarks in 'Civilisation' make sense in times of shrill rhetoric at Ramlila Maidan

When there is a lot of manic talk especially from Anna Hazare associates which is provocative and it is meant to raise passions and tempers, and hatred and intolerance are lurking beneath the surface. If looked at critically, what Kenneth Clark, a 1930s aesthete who has done a good job with the television series, 'Civilisation' made in 1969, covering 1000 years of Western art.

First, Clark's confession: "I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people's feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience sake we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible."

At any other time, Clark's piece has something wimpish about it. It is too soft, too gentle and it does not recognise the undeniably harsh aspects of human beings and of nature. Though it sounds a note of warning against the irrationalists -- led by Nietzsche, Freud and in the political sphere by the Nazis, -- it is not convincing. The irrationalists need to be refuted in a much stronger fashion than this. But there are times when we hear the raucous chorus of the holier-than-thou crowd, so wonderfully exemplified by Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, Kiran Bedi, joined by people like Medha Patkar, these remarks of Clark sound eminently sensible, civilised.

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