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Meaning and significance

Exploring the fallacy of inseparability of text and its meaning, and how context and perspective affect the process of reading the text

Meaning and significance

“How plausible it is to study a literary text in the light of a ‘theory’ which emerged historically after the creation of that text?” This question was raised by Asif Farrukhi during a session on my new book on Meeraji at Islamabad Literature Festival which was held in April this year.

It echoes a general apprehension being put across by Urdu critics regarding Postmodern and Postcolonial theories. No doubt these theories surfaced in the late 1960s and ’70s and it is also true that these theories seek to analyse and interpret works produced not only in 20th century but those written in 18th and 19th centuries too.

It perturbs those who are stuck to the conventional view that every literary text is escorted with its own peculiar theory from the very moment it comes into existence. The critic is left with just, a single task — to unravel that theory by retaining its supposed pristine form. It is also said that how could a theory be applied to a text whose author was not aware of it.

To put it simply, contemporary literary theories which came to the scene in the second half of 20th century, rooted in socio-politico-linguistic insights, are not valid for the works written in the first half of 20th century and before.

The question put forth by Farrukhi, himself a celebrated critic, needs to be explored thoroughly. Basically, it is based on a few assumptions formulated in modern and classical periods. First, the meaning of a literary text is fixed, single and unmovable. And fixity of meaning is engendered by the convergence of intention of the author and the historical conditions of his or her period. Furthermore it is assumed — and logically found correct — that if meaning is fixed and single, it can be discovered by anyone and at any time keeping its essential character unharmed. This is the second assumption.

General readers and a group of academician too keep studying literature in line with these assumptions. As per their assumptions we can arrive at the ‘correct single’ meaning of Homer’s Odyssey, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rumi’s Masnavi, Joyce’s Ulysses, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Bedil’s poetry, Ghalib’s Ghazals, Iqbal’s Masjid e Qartaba and Meeraji’s Ajanta kay Ghar alike. Notwithstanding the fact these are world classics and read and appreciated widely, they possess diverse individualities — as far as their styles, dictions and themes are concerned — which are anchored to their cultural, historical and linguistic peculiarities. Obviously, it is hard to imagine the possibility of arriving at one, undisputed meaning of any of these texts.

It also needs to be emphasised that the act of reading is not wayward or undisciplined. The mind has some inherent structures that govern, manage and even manipulate psychological and cognitive features.

Actually, a fallacy works behind these assumptions — the fallacy of inseparability of text and its meaning. A thin difference exists between the text and its meaning. Text always remains fixed, static and unchangeable but the process of its understanding remains in a state of flux; fluidity is the essential feature of the process of seeking meaning. Text resides in the outside world retaining its first, original form, conceived and preserved by the author, while the act of reading occurs in the mind of a reader — which has always been an unimaginable plane for the author. The writer remains oblivious to who will read his or her text and how it would be interpreted. Divan-e-Ghalib exists in outside world in its original form, but its dozen Sharhain (Exegeses) keep the meaning of Divan in a state of movability or fluidity. Ghalib would never have imagined Nazm Tababai, Saleem Chishti, Agha Baqir, Partau Rohila and others as his interpreters and their interpretive strategies.

It needs to be stressed that what we call meaning, it doesn’t lie somewhere in or within a text in an inert state, it has to be conceived, understood, evaluated, analysed and interpreted during the act of reading. A sort of act or effort is required to arrive at a meaning on the part of a reader. That act might be unconscious or automatic, but that does exist.

It also needs to be emphasised that the act of reading is not wayward or undisciplined. The mind has some inherent structures that govern, manage and even manipulate psychological and cognitive features. And these structures are embedded in a historical and cultural setting which accounts for the accumulated reactions of readers based on class, gender or ideological biases and for interpreting literary texts in the light of new theories.

Meaning does exist but in a ‘form’ or in a ‘process’ initiated by reading a text. This form or process is further engulfed by three kinds of boundaries: text, context and perspective. If these boundaries had not existed or were disregarded by the reader, no form or process for meaning could set off. Context is closely related to the text while perspective belongs to the reader.

The conditions, historical or psychological, that moved the author to compose a particular text and which inhabit or leave its traces in the text, might be called context. The conditions, cultural, theoretical, philosophical or hermeneutical, that move the reader to locate and situate some text in his or her own specific period, might be termed as perspective. Both administer the process of reading the text but in different way. Context compels us forcefully to eschew a single meaning out of a text. This meaning, though formed in the mind of the reader, might be taken as the intention of the author or his comprehensibly unified response to his or her historical conditions.

Look at this couplet:

[O my dear as you mentioned Calcutta, an arrow was shot into my heart]

The context of this couplet is obvious. Ghalib travelled in 1828 to Calcutta to get his family pension restored and returned disappointed. He also had to suffer a lot at the hands of his fellow literati. Bitter remembrances of Calcutta seem cemented in this couplet. So Ghalib’s ill-fated voyage to the first Indian colonial city contextualises this couplet, governing its unified meaning or response.

But what is the relevance, validity or value of this piece for us today?

We can’t suppress this question while wading through the texts of the past. The perspective of contemporary world coerces us to raise this question. To move ahead, it is necessary to draw a line between meaning and significance which is roughly based on E D Hirsch Jr.’s theory elaborated in his book Validity in Interpretation. The meaning of a text lies in its context while its significance ‘rests’ in the perspective of the reader. Meaning might be undisputed but significance remains contestable. Essentially, both are ‘meaning’, though characterised by a different role and different ‘value’. Meaning is confined to just understanding the basic sense of a text while significance seeks to understand and establish the value of a text in the contemporary world.

In an article, Meeraji while addressing Ghalib says that Calcutta, a city of Bengal, is common between them. Meera Sen, Meeraji’s beloved belonged to Bengal. To Meeraji, the bow that hit Ghalib’s heart while recalling Calcutta was shot by some Bengali woman, not by the colonial ruler or fellow Indians. Interpreting in the personal perspective, Meeraji gives us a quite new significance of the same couplet and it seems not invalid altogether.

In order to hunt for its value in contemporary world, let’s employ the post-colonial perspective and see how the same couplet appears to have a different significance. Calcutta was the first colonial city of India, divided into White/European/modernised and Black/Indian/backward areas. It became a symbol of colonial modernity and enlightenment too. We know colonial modernity is hugely problematic. A sort of ambivalence is attached with it. It is desired and resisted, chased and repudiated at the same time. A kind of bitterness and indulgence is attached with ‘White/European’ object.

This couplet was written in 1833 as mentioned by Kalidas Gupta Raza in Divan-e-Ghalib Kamil, meaning five years after returning from Calcutta. He remembers this city with bitterness which is accompanied with a sort of bliss too. So it is not astonishing that it was after his voyage to Calcutta that Ghalib wrote Taqreez (encomium) for Ain-e- Akbari edited by Sir Syed (published in1855) in which he eulogised Barkaat-e-Englishia (Blessings of the English) he happened to see there, and suggested to Syed that instead of wasting time and energy in editing the old Mughal text, he should seek to benefit from new European civilization. Ghalib’s Taqreez insists on Syed that modern, White Calcutta should be desired instead of old, Black Delhi.

In short, a literary text can be read in two ways: to just make sense of it and to establish its value in the contemporary world. The second task can’t be achieved without resorting to the ways, theories, insights, discoveries and methods that have evolved, and are evolving, in the field of social and cognitive sciences particularly.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Dr-Nasir-Abbas-Nayyar copy
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories).


  • Hafiz Muhammad Junaid Raza

    سر یہ مضمون پڑھ کر مزہ آ گیا۔
    یہ واقعی درست ہے۔ ماضی میں ایک بات موجود ہوتی ہے لیکن اس علم کی مدد سے اسے نہیں دیکھا جاتا ۔ وقت کے ساتھ جب کوئی خاص شعبہ ترقی کرتا ہے تو اس کی مدد سے ماضی کی کئی باتیں سمجھ میں آ جاتی ہیں۔
    آپ نے جو دلائل دئیے پڑھ کر مزہ آ گیا۔
    آپ نے اپنی بات بخوبی ثابت کر دی۔ مزہ تب ہے جب معترض بھائی اسے سمجھ لیں۔

  • A thin difference exists between the text and its meaning. Text always remains fixed, static and unchangeable but the process of its understanding remains in a state of flux; fluidity is the essential feature of the process of seeking meaning.
    An impressive article of Ustaad e Mohtram (Dr. Nasir Abbas Nayyar) about meaning and its significance. It can clear all doubts and assumptions.

  • This is a marvelous piece of matter put forth by the most distinguished and prolific critic Dr Nasir Abbass Nayyar in which a mirror has been shown to the orthodox writers of Urdu who focus only on conventional set of meaning. I personally congratulate nayyar for this extraordinary analysis of Urdu criticism.

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