Literary criticism in general and contemporary Urdu criticism in particular has been under fire in the last few years. Instead of instituting a serious debate on the theories in vogue, their epistemological roots, and efficacy in interpreting literary texts, their very existence is being called into question. They are being maligned and violently discarded.
Literary criticism aims to analyse, interpret and evaluate the texts created by humans at a particular moment in time and in a specific cultural ambience. Analysis and interpretation are acts of intellect and rationality. An act of creation, by comparison, might be termed as numinous; inspired by deities or in Ghalib’s words its source lies in the world beyond senses.
But no critic, not even the most gifted one, has ever made such a claim. A critic can define, interrogate or negotiate the actual or supposed role of deities that have been traditionally associated with them in the moment of creation; they can also interpret or question how and in what way inspiration and supernatural agency is supposed to influence or orient the creative process, but their way of defining and presenting an argument would inevitably be based on reason and logic.
The quintessential element of criticism is human rationality. Poetry can surpass the limits of human rationality; and at times poetic imagination is claimed to have encountered rationality as a major hurdle in its way. Iqbal in one of his oft-quoted couplet says:
‘(O listener) surpass the Aql (human reasoning) for, though it lightens the road, but is not fit to become your destination’.
Higher reality, being the destination of all truth-seekers, can be fully grasped only by intuition or imagination. Why Iqbal suggests surpassing reason or intellect is answered in another couplet:
‘As Aql remains all the time busy in criticising whatever comes its way, so it is better to leave it behind and head towards Ishq (love)’.
Ishq believes in surrendering to the beloved object or idea, while Aql dares to question not only the nature of that object or idea and the psychology involving desire but also raises eyebrows at why after all someone gives in. Aql is materialist in the sense that it ‘evaluates’ things, decrees their ‘value’ and ‘worth’, while Ishq is disinterested because it doesn’t bother about gains and losses. A dichotomy of Ishq and Aql can be seen as synonymous with the division instituted between ‘creativity/imagination/intuition’ and ‘criticism/rationality/ analysis/’. How the dichotomy forges an antagonising division between two different — but not essentially animus — things can be observed in the love for Ishq/creativity/ imagination/ intuition and hate for Aql/criticism/rationality.
Following Iqbal’s argument, it can be asserted that where there is criticism there is rationality and vice versa; both are interlinked and mutually-supporting. The most interesting aspect of the problematic relation between intellect and intuition lies in the fact that harsh criticism is carried out against intellect by the intellect itself. Moreover, the nature of intuition, its limitlessness with respect to intellect, is emphatically affirmed by intellect too. To decree that Ishq/imagination/creativity are higher than Aql/critical thinking/rationality one would have to resort to a sort of Aqli or logical, convincing argument.
Intellect doesn’t hesitate to prepare a charge sheet against itself and indict itself for not being capable of doing what the other ‘higher human faculties’ are presumed to be. Being is thought to be the essential feature of intuition and creativity while doing is imagined as a fundamental mark of intellect and criticism. To be is superior than to do, it is generally believed.
It is also believed that doing cannot grasp the mystery the being entails. Notwithstanding all these claims, criticism dares to interpret and evaluate the mystery of being. In the absence of attempts to unravel it, mystery grows into a kind of metaphysical riddle, exercising a violent power over humans. The doing of criticism brings the mystery back to the mundane, human world. In reality being and doing are two sides of the coin of human reality. The role assigned to each side is different, unique yet necessary.
As said earlier, the ‘evaluative gaze’ that critical thinking exercises on ‘other, outer things’ can turn unhesitatingly towards its ‘own, inner sphere’. In simple terms, criticism stays ready to evaluate and criticise its own theories and arguments; it can err and then seeks to correct; it decentres its own centre(s). Rejecting literary criticism partially or totally is itself an act of criticism.
In an essay titled ‘Secular Criticism’, Edward Said, terms criticism as “secular, worldly and human”. By this trinity, he seems to ascertain on one hand the nature of criticism and on the other the role of literary criticism. Criticism is by nature secular because it engages itself with the sensual world; because it seeks to unravel the nature and limit of sensuality; because it dares to interrogate the imaginary world made by humans yet attributed to superhuman agencies; because it brings into work the investigative spirit of rationality to unknot every riddle that comes in its way.
There might exist ‘non-secular criticism’ that believes in affirming instead of investigating and interrogating the works of imagination. This kind of criticism seeks only to explain and appreciate the texts in eulogising and celebratory style — a sort of exegesis.
Explaining and appreciating texts is not bad at all. A nexus of ‘acts of explaining, appreciating and affirming’ can turn out bad. Why? The intent behind explaining a text is to make it understandable for those who are less conversant with the background of the theme, events and meaning of text or are so lazy that they don’t like to consult dictionaries, reference books themselves and wish to have ‘ready-made’ meaning of the text.
So in the act of explanation, stable meanings of text are affirmed and appreciated. Here, simple reasoning is employed and critical reasoning is suppressed. Critical reasoning is, in Said’s words, oppositional by nature. It opposes to uncritically affirm and verify what the text offers in the name of meaning.
It means every critic has to take a stand while reading a text. They have to investigate the meanings in the text, but also question how meanings are coming into existence and what social, cultural and ideological elements are being incorporated into the texture of meaning. The moment a critic reveals the ideological layers of the text; they are bound to take a position with regard to text; they have to affirm or oppose the ideological layer of the text.
The critic’s position regarding a particular text has sociopolitical repercussions; they have to determine its place in history, literature and society alike. Hence, general apathy towards literary criticism signifies — though not-so-literally — how unconcerned we have become about our society.
The author is Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadeed (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories)