Skip to content

The Madwoman and the Market: Of ‘Third World’ Literary Feminisms

By Debaditya Bhattacharya

Over numerous conversations with regard to the place of literary activism in the current historical conjuncture of women’s movements in India, academic circles have rued an increasing disconnect of contemporary literary practice from an intersubjective network of social struggles and solidarities. By way of largely informal responses to sporadic events in the recent past, there has been a suspicion about the potential of contemporary South Asian literary articulations of gender for translating into a future of political practice. Simply put, a careful filtering of ‘women’s struggles’ by the media-and-publishing-industry nexus as representable in a miniscule constituency of the English-speaking metropolitan/cosmopolitan elite most certainly fails to acknowledge an intersectional paradigm of how lived experience as well as cultural-aesthetic imaginings of ‘gender’ converge with sociological questions of class, caste, religion and geographical location. The idea of this review essay came not only from a desire to intellectually engage in and interrogate this intuited sense of a ‘lack’, but was rather vindicated by a bibliographic ‘coincidence’ that saw the publication of Manju Kapur’s Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves (2014) on the thirty-fifth anniversary of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s classic exposition of the psycho-social tropology around Victorian women’s writing The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979).

Three and a half decades into Gilbert-Gubar’s incisive formulation of a critical paradigm for understanding the place of the ‘writing woman’ within a literary imagination commissioned by the [pro]creative fantasies and desires of the male author-reader complex, it seemed fit to ask a few questions. Have South Asian women writers today, in keeping with the historico-political agency granted by a resistant postcolonial aesthetic, been able to live past the stereotypes manufactured by patriarchal literary canons in the West? Or, does the pathological bi-partitioning of the nineteenth-century literary woman as the ‘monster’ or the ‘whore’ fracture itself into a potential infinity of social others at the moment she encounters the contested modernity of the postcolony? Do the internal contradictions of the subcontinent, with its historical refraction of gender-injustice along the manifold axes of caste and religion and class, complicate Gilbert-Gubar’s neat categorization of Western literary biases? Or, does the latter instead answer the need to engage with contemporary struggles of the non-Western woman writer as transcending the local particularities of geographical or civilizational dis-privilege? Does the historiographic legacy of a subaltern counter-consciousness enable our South Asian protagonist to move beyond the liberal-bourgeois traditions (as well as ‘fictions’) of empowerment?

It is therefore the purpose of this review essay to pit a contemporary collection of autobiographical musings by women writers from the subcontinent against a critical work of singular acclaim that has, over thirty-five years ago, taught us ways of interrogating Anglophonic textual cultures as authoritative representations of women’s conscious experiences or choices. The juxtaposition will serve to measure – across periods and continents separated by the manifold histories of imperialism – the same disjunct between writerly voice and critical conscience, the overcoming of which was for Gilbert-Gubar the necessary precondition of a robust feminist politics. I shall end with the urgency of a call to close this space of our self-suspension between the practical and the discursive, the felt and the reasoned, the everyday and the academic, the creative and the critical, the ‘personal’ vocation of the writer and the ‘public’ task of the theorist-activist.

Manju Kapur’s edited anthology of what one may call ‘twenty-three writerly testimonies’ presents a fairly ‘representative’ sweep of writing women from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – ranging across names like Shashi Deshpande, Bapsi Sidhwa, Anita Nair, Maniza Naqvi, Meira Chand, Anuradha Marwah, Jaishree Mishra, Anjum Hasan and Namita Devidayal among others – attempting to chronicle the gendered narratives of a struggle for a room and voice of their own. However, despite the routine exhumation of writerly parallels with Virginia Woolf and Arundhati Roy, what this book self-consciously seems to shun all along is an active mobilization of a sense of the political in women’s literary practice. In this, it not only fails to ask questions crucial to a repositioning of South Asian literary feminism in its own historical perspective, but also forces us to believe that the (contestably bracketed!) ‘Third World’ woman’s literary enterprise still largely remains an isolated social privilege. In fact, at times, the book performs a persistent delegitimization of the very ‘gendered’ politics of writing as related at bottom to a larger struggle for social justice. As the Sahitya Akademi award winner Anita Nair puts it in her autobiographical confession:

I have never viewed life from a woman writer’s point of view. But merely as a writer. Nor do I think there is a division between male and female literature. I think in some sense writers lose their sexuality when they walk into the world of words; but all writers have to face the duality of existence that an artistic life brings. To not just go through their everyday existence but to live through the grind of imagined lives many times over. (Kapur, 2014, p. 36)

The ‘duality of existence’ that Nair speaks of performs an interesting elision of the everyday politics of lived sexuality in the guise of an imaginary other-world of fluid androgyny. The reference to an available grammar of universality – the writerly self that transcends the maleness or femaleness of social experience – is at best a patriarchal fiction that the woman writer is made to not just espouse, but also interiorize. It stands in stark oblivion of the structures of social relations and the discourses of cultural production that literary history works through. In this, it almost seems to parallel Gilbert-Gubar’s diagnosis of the nineteenth-century female writer’s “anxiety of authorship” that constantly required the discursive sanction of seriousness by being deemed comparable with male creative output. While the Victorian literary women staked their claims on social acceptability through an act of formal ‘moulting’ into male pseudonyms or stylistic practice, Nair here appears to assume a similar myth of the woman writer’s significance in a forced impersonality. It is ironic that the autobiographical mode of testimonial introspection must in effect produce such self-effacing fictions of ahistorical subjectivity. Similar suspicions about the counter-canonical potential of women’s writing, as part of a political project of collective self-determination, underlie yet another Sahitya Akademi Award-winning author in Janice Pariat. She maintains with a clinical detachment:

The question of gender is subservient to the one about which character offers an expansive, intriguing point of view. Also, I tend to agree with Philip Pullman who says, ‘I don’t think the narrator is male or female anyway. They’re both, and young and old, and wise and silly, and sceptical and credulous, and innocent and experienced, all at once. Narrators are not even human – they’re sprites.                 (Kapur, 2014, p. 106)

The embedded inequalities and injustices of a gendered world are here decisively rejected in favour of the supernatural as the fit metaphor for creative imagination. The patriarchal Romantic conception of ‘art’ as the miraculous fantasy of an autonomous transcendental ‘genius’ is here employed by Pariat to hint at a pristine suprasensory egalitarianism of a world beyond the human and the political. Even when attentive to the gendered biases of the publishing market and its biographical strategies of literary advertisement, the question of sexual identity becomes a contentious point for writers as constitutive of the Indian feminist counter-canon as Shashi Deshpande. She complains:

The label ‘woman writer’ has always irritated me enormously. If ‘woman writer’ why not ‘man writer’? Why does the gender of the writer matter? Sure, all writers have different visions, different ways of looking at the world, different experiential worlds…. And the truth is that once I sit at my table to write, I am just a writer; nothing else remains…. What seemed worse to me was that when feminism entered India, I became a ‘feminist writer’. I was a feminist, I had no doubts about it, no qualms about stating it loudly.  (Kapur, 2014, pp. 215-16)

Deshpande’s indignation about the ideological antecedence of her ‘own’ feminism to India’s acquisition of its political legacy seems a little too misplaced. It evidently reduces the space of literary activism to a competitive radical individualism that thrives on personal claims, rather than being motivated by political goals. In yet another piece from the volume, Susan Visvanathan – the writer-academic – clarifies a similar position about writing as an act of self-righteous justification:

I never sought to be seen as a feminist writer, or even a woman writer…. I had always survived in masculinist dominated worlds by being just me. Just Me meant that I always did what I liked… (Kapur, 2014, pp. 231-32)

What Visvanathan names as a self-referential totality of the woman writer in “masculinist dominated worlds” – the “Just Me” – is fundamentally a process of solipsistic dis-identification with the experience of many ‘others’ like her. It appropriates the cold patriarchal logic of a bourgeois subjectification in the story of one’s own distinctive disaggregation from every other. And this is precisely where a crisis of the political lies, in being relegated to the domain of the exclusively personal as the most appropriately liberating/individuating. The woman’s writer’s self-fashioning ends up taking recourse to the founding principle of paternalistic ‘autonomy’ in being successfully differentiated from all discursive publics. She delusively sees in it a decisive moment of protest against the socialization of the woman as an “angel in the house” (2014, p. 94), whose only vocation was in a selfless surrender to the other. And consequently, she attempts to take on the metaphorical mantle of the selfish “monster” by assuming a narcissistic indifference – little realising that this indifference runs counter to the very political potential of women’s writing by subscribing to a patrilineal model of creative self-sufficiency. As the diasporic Indian novelist Jaishree Mishra points out in the volume:

Writers need to be selfish beings, obsessive and preoccupied by their craft. Family life ran counter to creativity. That was what Virginia Woolf had meant when she wrote: ‘Killing the angel in the house is part of the occupation of the woman writer’. (Kapur, 2014, p. 94)

Mishra’s reading of ‘creativity’ as self-nourished ‘genius’ requiring a ritual “selfish” alienation from the cares and concerns of the world smacks of a colonial inheritance of the humanist ideal of authorship. In this, she misreads Woolf and disregards Gilbert-Gubar’s cautionary injunction that the monster is not the other of the angel, but in fact its double. Both are the authoritative inventions of a male literary imagination – and the writing woman cannot seek refuge from one in becoming the other. Rather it is in precisely foregrounding her “sociosexual differentiation” as ‘woman’ that she can both point a critical barb at the cultural hegemony of accepted literary canons as well as “participate in a quite different literary subculture from that inhabited by male writers” (Gilbert-Gubar, 1979, p. 50). In other words, the “separateness” of this female subculture can at the same time become a critique of the invisible everyday of socialization as well as provide an alternative collective space for identifications and affinities in social experience. Gilbert and Gubar discerningly note:

[T]he literary woman has always faced equally degrading options when she had to define her public presence in the world…. [A]s Virginia Woolf observed, the woman writer seemed locked into a disconcerting double bind: she had to choose between admitting she was ‘only a woman’ or protesting that she was ‘as good as a man’…. [A] woman artist is, after all, a woman – that is her ‘problem’ – and if she denies her own gender she inevitably confronts an identity crisis as severe as the anxiety of authorship she is trying to surmount. (Gilbert-Gubar, 1979, pp. 64-66)

For Gilbert and Gubar therefore, the remedy to the artistic anxieties of the woman writer does not lie in either a claim to nominal gender-neutrality or in an act of lapsing from one patriarchal stereotype to another. While the former elides the specificity of the psycho-sexual struggles that ‘re-produce’ the woman across sites of social discourse, the latter precludes a recognition of the collective nature of these struggles through a liberal-bourgeois ethic of self-interest. The alarmingly repetitive disavowal of the public life of a writer and an equal insistence on literary activity as a purely privatized enterprise are not in the least surprising, given the kind of social demographic that Kapur’s women seem to inhabit. Almost all the voices represented in this anthology occupy a position of social privilege – and most often the beneficiaries of a transnational mobility of print-capital and market-infrastructures. Exposed to a diasporic market both by virtue of their physical movements between the First and Third Worlds as well as by their intellectual inheritances of a postcolonial sensibility, Kapur’s assortment of contemporary South Asian women seems neither severely handicapped by want of a ‘room’ nor ‘money’. Their distaste for a larger need for public identifications beyond the laboured private mechanics of sitting at the table and keying in words on a computer or rationalising the correspondence between in-the-head characters and real-life acquaintances is hardly astonishing.

In the absence of what Gilbert and Gubar would call the consciousness of belonging to a separate literary subculture, most of Kapur’s women seem to find their first spurt of the inspiration to write in father-figures. It is in a patriarchal privatization of both the property and the propriety of ‘writing’ that almost all these literary women discover their writerly influences. The “anxiety of influence” that Harold Bloom discerns as the test of male literary authority has, for Kapur’s women-writers, become a safe haven in which to reconcile with the antecedence of their literary progeny and thus to rest the onus of creative ‘origins’. While for Anita Nair the thought of writing in English reminded of one “uncle’s natural sense of style” (p. 32), Anujm Hasan’s strange fascination for literature owed to her father’s bookshelf and was ordered by the “tastes of a reader-[father] interested in the contemporary currents of Anglo-American literature” (p. 42). Anuradha Marwah, despite her singularly powerful attempts to relate to a social outside her experiences, attributes the beginning of her writing career to an apprenticeship with a British priest in Father Lesser. Bina Shah, on the other hand, deferentially dedicates her literary penchant to her “childhood witnessing of my father’s struggles to write” (p. 87), and declares unequivocally at the end: “I write, in a way, for him” (p. 88). For Janice Pariat, much like Anjum Hasan, it all began with a father’s bookshelf – standing before which she could feel an “incredible sense of embarking on an adventure” (p. 98). Kavery Nambisan’s childhood memories prepared her for a double life as doctor-writer, but with “sentiments that leaned heavily towards my father’s views, whether out of conviction or loyalty.” (p. 109) Again, while Maniza Naqvi claims – in a Freudian fashion – a “tired and graying” (p. 133) fatherly-lover as her muse, Meira Chand’s desire to write stems conclusively from her father’s racial insecurities in a white England and only led to a realization of “how much I had unconsciously absorbed from my father” (p. 157). Shashi Deshpande’s father on the other hand – a college teacher and Kannada-writer – “strongly influenced the way we lived” (p. 220) and his huge treasure-trove of books almost subconsciously prepared her for a writing career. Susan Visvanathan reminisces about book covers that are “poignantly close to my memory of my father and myself” (p. 235), whereas Tishani Doshi’s first self-explorations as a child find audience in a “Rexine-covered diary of 1987, given to me by father from his surplus of office supplies” (p. 252).

With eleven of the twenty-three entries in Kapur’s collection of writerly-selves directly tracing their creative ancestry to a biographical shadow of the ‘Law of the Father’, there are still others who revel in the inspirational thrall of literary forefathers like Naipaul or Orwell or Neruda or Rushdie. Quizzed about the roots of their creative impulse, many of these women-writers mime the authorial voice of George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’ almost as a universal epistemological rationale for every project of writing – irrespective of the gender-identity of the writerly ‘I’ in question. Moni Mohsin, a Pakistani novelist who – as the volume describes – “divides her time between London and Lahore” (p. 273), learns that the “West did not have a monopoly on telling stories” (p. 186) only after reading an unashamedly communal-misogynistic Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, notorious for his public espousal of patriarchy[i]. She even goes on to maintain:

If Naipaul had taught me to reclaim my stories, Rushdie taught me to reclaim my language. (Kapur, 2014, p. 187)

With stories and a language indelibly inflected by the man’s right to tell them, the contemporary woman writer’s ‘anxiety of authorship’ seems to perilously coincide with what Gilbert and Gubar deride as a paternalistic “anxiety of influence” (1979, p. 48). She finds her references in the canon she is out to speak against and speaks in a voice that ironically reasserts the power of the canon. Explaining this phenomenon in pre-twentieth-century women’s writing, The Madwoman in the Attic reflects:

[T]his female anxiety of authorship is profoundly debilitating. Handed down not from one woman to another but from the stern literary ‘fathers’ of patriarchy to all their ‘inferiorized’ female descendants, it is in many ways the germ of a dis-ease or, at any rate, a disaffection, a disturbance, a distrust, that spreads like a stain throughout the style and structure of much literature by women… (1979, p. 51, emphasis mine)

The historical truth in this warning rings all too alarmingly clear even in the contemporary moment of literary feminism in the subcontinent. The same image of ‘virile’ self-completeness in the father as an analogue for the etymological root of the word ‘author’ (in auctor, meaning ‘founder’ and ‘increaser’) is repeated by the woman writer in her fictions about the literary process. (Said, 1975, p. 83) The mythical potency of the male author’s pen as a metaphorical penis is granted legitimacy by the woman’s tribute to a self-reproductive literary paternity as the decided ‘origin’ of her work. In this, it evokes no amazement when yet another award-winning writer Lavanya Sankaran, with representative credentials in the UK and US, unabashedly replicates the masculine symbolism of creation as a governing metaphor for the author-as-(male)-God who is in control of both the pedigree and posterity of His art. She speaks in a voice of patrilineal ‘ownership’ that follows the solipsism of every myth of ‘origins’:

Every time we write fiction and create new worlds, we dimly mimic the great cosmic acts of creation that have preceded us, from the collusion of time and space that created the original Big Bang, to the energies that recombine carbon-based life forms into new ones, we explore through our work the birth of life, of stars, the invisible world of dark matter, we search to uncover our internal God particles, our creative Higgs-Bosons. (Kapur, 2014, p. 124, emphasis mine)

Striking an almost Frankensteinian note of inventive frenzy, it is however significant that every woman-writer in Kapur’s text appears to wrest the project of creation out of the man’s monosexual reproductive prerogative. But while for Frankenstein, the act of approximating to the most absolute measure of Godliness was at bottom a potential triumph of patriarchal Enlightenment reason, Kapur’s women appropriate a vocabulary of inalienable creative ‘ownership’ by precisely locating the origin of their ‘work’ in a near-pathological failure of reason. They constantly speak of an ‘inner’ urge to create, but one which distinctively occupies a space inaccessible to reasoning and rationalization. It is this space that becomes, for the contemporary South Asian woman writer, a symbolic measure of ‘madness’ and thus a presumed rebellion against the tyranny of the self-justifying compulsions of masculine rationality. “The jagged edge of my imagination” (p. 11) that the Sri Lankan-born Ameena Hussein opens the book with becomes, soon afterwards, a vision of “quirkiness” or “eccentricity” (p. 32) for Anita Nair, “a workaday version of lunacy” (p. 126) for Sankaran, “a dark well of mystery” (p. 151) for Meira Chand or a “freeing of a dark space inside” (p. 175) in the words of Mishi Saran. What ties together these scattered images arising out of the introspective exercise of the woman-writer is a deep sense of the ‘irrational’ as the governing metaphor of her creative energies. There is a laboured insistence on the figure of the writing woman as a figure of madness – a figure incurably withheld from rationalist certitude and unmapped by the diagnostic apparatuses of knowledge. Her writing issues from the remainder of what can be known, and – asked to write about why she writes – she can only revel in an existential loss of reason. Bina Shah begins her reflections with a pointed jibe at the autobiographical logic: “It’s one of those delicious ironies of life that the minute a writer is asked to produce an essay explaining why she writes, she suffers her first major attack of writer’s block in years” (p. 83). Mishi Saran echoes Shah’s sentiment with as much conviction when she starts by saying: “I had this strange notion that when they ask you to write about writing, it’s all over, because they are not asking for a poem, or a novel” (p. 165). Namita Devidayal is more point-blank about her admittance to a literary irrationality when she maintains: “I have often been asked what makes me write? I don’t know the answer.” (p. 191)

The claim to the unknowable or unanswerable as the distinctive source of the woman’s literary invention mobilizes a certain imagination of madness or un-reason that, I argue, is problematic to say the least. Not only does it mis-recognise the conceptual relationship of ‘madness’ with the historical investments of power in meaning-production, but it also – in a rather self-defeating manner – repeats an essentially patriarchal paradox of the sexual distribution of the senses. Madness, as Foucault sought to make apparent in his classic expostulations, is not a space emptied of reason but in fact a form of counter-reason and thus a threat to its dominance. The historical mutations of dominant rationality have routinely manufactured changing definitions of ‘madness’ as a strategy of social exclusion – first as a clinical-leprous pathology till the medieval ages, then as a savage resistance to civilizational rationality through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment age of capital and finally as a hysteric-psychotic emotional excess in the post-War period of increasing existential disintegration. In either case, Foucault would note that the need to ghettoise and exorcise ‘madness’ arose from its relationship of absolute intimacy or closeness to discourses of power. Interestingly, the lunatic became a threat only because he shared a terrifying proximity with the ‘norm’ or the ‘normal’. There was an infectious charm of conversion that the madman exuded at the voice of sanity[ii] – and that itself necessitated a policy of physical exclusion from the discourses of social production. In this sense, the viability of ‘madness’ as a tool of resistance to the regimes of power calls for a departure from dominance in its very proximity rather than a mere withdrawal/distancing from the vicinity of the dominant. The South-Asian woman writer’s championing of a deviance in a constitutive lack of reason or reasonability in her writing seems to rather deprive ‘madness’ of its ‘threatening’ potential of a counter-reason. In this, she ironically reinforces (instead of resisting) the patriarchal forces of socialization that have continually relegated the woman to the domain of the ‘irrational’ or ‘emotional’ as opposed to the reasoning self-willing man of knowledge.

By way of concluding, it is significant to observe that the contemporary spurt of feminist literary practice – as documented in Kapur’s text – is constantly engaged in a competitive marketability of madness felt as an undeniable ‘need’ rather than the ‘right’ of the woman writer. With not even one exception among the twenty-three, all of Kapur’s women justify their writing careers as a felt ‘emotional’ need – sometimes a spiritual call and at others an innermost urge. While one simply calls it the “urge to tell a story” or the paramount “need to create” (p. 37), another traces her writing consciousness to “a series of accidents, … unexpected collisions and serendipitous discoveries” (p. 41). For yet another, “writing remains a desire and, sometimes, an urgent need. I realize I need to create to move on” (p. 62). Bapsi Sidhwa confesses to have “stumbled upon writing by accident” (p. 71), Bina Shah to having been “driven to write in ways I could not even begin to understand” (p. 87), Jaishree Mishra by “that strange inability to keep from writing” (p. 91), Janice Pariat again by “the instinctive urge to tell stories” (p. 107), Kavery Nambisan by a “simple urge to put words on paper” (p. 111), Lavanya Sankaran because it is “a spiritual journey” (p. 129), Moni Mohsin because “there’s nothing else I’d rather do” (p. 190), Namita Devidayal because she just “had to write” (p. 197), Ru Freeman since it is a “gift to dwell within words” (p. 209) and Shashi Deshpande by again that simple “urge to write” (p. 215). There are many more of these tediously similar expressions of the woman’s ‘need’ to create as the singular logic behind her literary activity – and what they effectively serve to compound is a vision of the woman’s ‘return’ to her rightful place within the patriarchal imaginary: the place of emotion, inner life, spirituality, passion and instinct.

Furthermore, the discourse of ‘needs’ – which the woman writer in Kapur’s anthology seems freely to associate and align with – holds out ominous prospects for the future of feminist literary praxis on two counts. First, the very teleological understanding of ‘need’ as always-already oriented towards an intimately private or personal event of ‘satisfaction’ cancels out the political possibility of a solidarized feminist sense of community premised on realizable public goals and collective affinities. Second, the epistemological sense of ‘lack’ that a ‘need’ arises from almost inevitably invokes a superior paternalistic act of charity as the final agent of crisis-resolution. In this, it sadly re-erects the self-conception of patriarchy as a benevolent charity-granting wielder of ‘surplus’, miming the welfare-state ideal of protectionism for the disenfranchised. South-Asian literary feminism today must, by way of choosing its political future, speak the language of ‘rights’ rather than positioning itself within a discourse of the ‘unspeakable privatized inner need’. The idea of ‘rights’ comes with an ethical guarantee of democratic entitlement, and includes within its own imagination a political promise of solidarity with every such other. The writing woman too must claim back her writing as not a need but an entitlement, and one that she shares not in the private privilege of creative hallucinations but with a public consciousness that demands audience.

The future of literary feminism, I conclude, lies in a robust politics of democratic reason – not in a profitable ‘packaging’ of madness in the patriarchal marketplace.

Madness – to follow Gilbert-Gubar’s caution further than the nineteenth-century – has in our time become a patriarchal ‘symptom’, tolerable in doses rightly administered by global print-capital.

[i] Naipaul, courting regular controversy with his regressive posturing, invited massive criticism from all quarters of the literary-academic world in May 2011, when in an interview at the Royal Geographic Society, he dismissed Jane Austen as decidedly his literary inferior for her “narrow view of the world”. He further went on to maintain that no woman writer can match up to him, because “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.” Deriding women authors for their “sentimental ambitions” leading to “feminine tosh”, he ordained a test of literary merit for any piece of creative work thus: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” Earlier in 2002, soon after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naipaul lashed out at Shashi Deshpande (one of the contributors in Kapur’s anthology) and Nayantara Sehgal, by claiming that “this thing about gender oppression” is “banality”.

[ii] In discussing the anxieties around changing representations of ‘madness’ from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance up until the institution of the “Madhouse”, Foucault elaborates with great poignancy (“Stultifera Navis”, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Trans. Richard Howard, New York: Vintage Books, 1988, pp. 21-23): “At the opposite pole to this nature of shadows, madness fascinates because it is knowledge. It is knowledge, first, because all these absurd figures are in reality elements of a difficult, hermetic, esoteric learning. These strange forms are situated, from the first, in the space of the Great Secret, and the Saint Anthony who is tempted by them is not a victim of the violence of desire but of the much more insidious lure of curiosity;… On all sides, madness fascinates man. The fantastic images it generates are not fleeting appearances that quickly disappear from the surface of things. By a strange paradox, what is born from the strangest delirium was already hidden, like a secret, like an inaccessible truth, in the bowels of the earth. When man deploys the arbitrary nature of his madness, he confronts the dark necessity of the world; the animal that haunts his nightmares and his nights of privation is his own nature, which will lay bare hell’s pitiless truth; the vain images of blind idiocy—such are the world’s Magna Scientia; and already, in this disorder, in this mad universe, is prefigured what will be the cruelty of the finale.”

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature at Kazi Nazrul University, India. His current interests cohere around a ‘historical sociology’ of higher education, with specific attention to Indian policy contexts. His edited anthologies, The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts and The University Unthought: Notes for a Future, are forthcoming (in September 2018) from Routledge. He is co-editor of Sentiment, Politics, Censorship: The State of Hurt (SAGE, 2016).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: