By Kumar David –
Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons is a gloomy play focussed on intrigue and the three Thomases (Cromwell, More and the fading Wolsey) entanglements leading to the imprisonment and execution of scholar-statesman Thomas More. Bolt depicts England’s parting of ways with the Roman Church in the conventional way, a consequence of Henry VIII’s excessive concupiscence, but in truth more fundamental was the rise of the mercantile classes, financial dependence of the monarchy and pressure for economic restructuring and seizure and sale of monastic lands. The Act of Supremacy symbolised England’s independence; it did not certify the warmth of Anne Boleyn’s bosom.
The eponymous film with Paul Schofield in the lead was tilted towards depiction of More as scholar, public figure (he was Chancellor after Wolsey was fired) and man of many talents, a ‘man for all seasons’. Prof Carlo Fonseka’s immersion in rationalism, involvement in science and philosophy of science, dabbling in politics, hostility to tobacco – jaundiced eye on single-malt notwithstanding – earns his collection of pleasantly panoptic essays, mutatis mutandis, a similar cachet.
Essays of a Lifetime published in hardback by S. Godage & Brothers (Pvt) Ltd in 2016, is all of 368 pages. The 34 essays are arranged in ten sections ranging over Medicine, Science, Philosophy, Religion, Economics, Politics, Education, Arts, Biography and Travel; throw in technology, sports, a few others and one could have called it encyclopaedic! Some substantial discourses, some anecdotal, none are not a good read. I will focus on a selection that I found striking or interesting.
A measure of the man
The opening essay (‘To Err was Fatal’) recounts five cases where Prof Carlo says he erred but should not have, that ended in patient fatality. Few have the strength for such brutal honesty; failure to take a symptom seriously, allowing an insistent patient to take a course of action that he (Carlo) should have more forcefully prohibited, a too perfunctory examination, failure to see how seriously depressed a patient was, and persuading another to undergo a surgical procedure that he, the patient, was much opposed to. A friend who read and commented on the chapter was generous: “You can’t never make a mistake; think of the thousands of lives this doctor must have served or saved”.
Photo – Carlo Fonseka
Two other surprises were that Carlo is more strongly attached to Buddhist philosophy than I had known, and he is a “harder” materialist than I had suspected. The Buddhism comes through in a score of places, deep respect bordering on veneration for the Buddha’s teachings and outlook as well as for his empirical, rational and agnostic world view. Carlo argues, correctly, that most of Buddha’s teachings are compatible with modern scientific empiricism. It is on rebirth and the karmic question that Prof Carlo transparently ducks. Still his chapter on Buddhism and Empiricism is good, even his ducking informative. ‘Rationalist takes Rain Check’ the headlines should scream! There is also an essay (‘Relevance of Kalama Sutta’) on steering between absolutism in knowledge which is false and sterile scepticism. I didn’t know that Carlo was such an arch non-practising (I can’t imagine him mal vatti in hand chanting Sadhu Sadhu!) enthusiast of Buddhist philosophy.
His empiricist-materialism is uncompromising and clearest in his unflinching commitment to scientific medicine: “(E)very time you have recourse to modern medicine, you are in fact betting your life that materialism is true”. And later on “The belief that materialism is true is the instinctive belief on which the practice of western medicine is based and nothing in my experience has cast doubt on the validity of that belief”. While I share a commitment to materialism, as for doctors, iconoclasts refer to them by the charming epithet quack! More important is that I could not find any discussion of traditional medicine in the essays. For a fact kothamali and venivalghata work and traditional bone setters and their viscous oils are a damn sight better than quacks with small and medium fractures.
Of course this is not a concession to mumbo-jumbo spiritualism or the practices of snake-oil vendors, but surely traditional medicine should have found a few pages among Carlo’s 368. The same goes for consciousness. There is a dismissive reference to mind as nothing but brain matter in action; surely the topic deserves deeper reflection even if Carlo is not a neurologist. The Mind-Matter duality is complex and if you deem knowledge to be resident in society (eg science), see social experience as community knowledge, and include ideology/religion, you have a nexus deserving deeper treatment than the biological-materialism of ‘mind is brain-matter in action’. Carlo’s passing comments show that he is certainly aware of all this, but he has chosen not to venture too far in these directions.
The event that made Carlo famous was the Fire Walking cavalcade of the late 1960s. It was gospel at the Kataragama tamasha and other spiritual jamborees that holy men and the devout could prance on the embers because deities protected them. Carlo busted this myth by getting chaps with thick and uneven soles to quick-step on fire beds by ensuring that their feet were in contact with the embers for only very short periods at each step. What I liked best was that they did it after arrack and a pork feed, but the now more proper Carlo suppresses this juicy snippet.
Marxism and Science
The most substantial chapter in the book, not only in pages (37) but also in content is ‘Science and Socialism’ extracted from his chapter in Wesley Muttiah and Sydney Wanasinghe’s collection of essays in Case for Socialism. It can serve as a class note in Marxism, science, socialism and method for say the Marx School. The foundation could be followed by ‘advanced’ classes on Kapital I, II and III, dialectics, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the crisis in modern capitalism.
Knit pickers, like this one, have two grumbles. Where I would argue most is dialectics. Carlo gives us the standard dish: Marx stood Hegel on his head. Hegel depicts the progress of ideas (Mind) as historical movement through contradictions and interactions till it arrives at Universal Spirit which he craftily identifies with the German state. Marx’s standing-it-on-its-head was been interpreted as throwing out idealism (spirit, mind) and putting in its place material history, the evolution of human society. But Marx went far beyond this, he himself was not aware of what he had done because the vocabulary and abstractions did not exist at the time. Marx discovered systems theory; society as interaction of several processes – the economy, production (technology), classes, state and ideology (religion). He wove these several processes and dynamic (dialectic) with hierarchy (some things are more basic than others and influence others more than the other way round. For example the assertion that material conditions of society determine its ideology, more than the other way round?). Years ago I had a piece with a diagram to illustrate this systems-dialectic but cannot recall date or reference.
Marx discovered systems theory but didn’t know he had done it. The difference between the Marxist dialectic and the Hegelian is more substantial than the Standing on its Head aphorism. The methodology that guided his work (his dialectic) is the scientific method itself. When Marx is right, when he errs and needs correction, or when new advances are needed, it is a question of scientific advancement of his work, as with any other science.
Carlo is an NM man, I am a Samasamajist (how can I resist adding with 20 years seniority in this respect to the respected professor); my early guru was Hector – NM somewhat less. But yes, NM was the LSSP and the LSSP NM more than Philip, Colvin or Bernard; with Leslie it’s a tie. Carlo’s hagiography of NM (‘Philosophy and Science of NM’s Politics’) is not a chapter that does not please me, especially his recalling NM’s 1956 speech in Parliament on the language debate (less well known than Colvin’s iconic “One country two languages, two countries one language” maxim, but more substantial as a constitutional contribution).
Nevertheless there are two missing elements in Carlo’s essay. NM in his day was the undisputed leader of the working class; no one else had or has had such stature in eyes of the class. Forget not DG’s loyalty to “The An Am” though he disagreed, or the mass trade union vote for his resolutions at the 1960 and the historic 1964 Party Conferences. Carlo was in the LSSP’s intellectual elite, not a ground level operative swimming in the Party’s entrails; he saw a different world.
The second crucial miss is that Carlo is silent is the failure of the “Coalition Tactic” – deep engagement in a United Front government with Mrs Bandaranaike. I reject superficial liberal analysis (nothing to do with Carlo) that the LSSP “betrayed its principles” and bedded with the bourgeoisie. The LSSP and CP, taking account of the changes then occurring in the world (Algeria, Indonesia, Cuba and Indochina) thought it timely to enter into a non-Leninist alliance. But in truth it was too late; time had passed and neo-liberalism was on the upswing, post the oil crisis and stagflation. Finance Minister NM was caught with his pants down. The inward looking self-reliant development model was half a decade out of date; it ended in political catastrophe. Carlo includes no discussion of why coalition politics failed – Hector too never discussed it and I could not once draw him out into an exchange of views after we were expelled by Mrs B in 1975.
I will close with short comments on a few other essays. Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly the best popular science writer since Gould; Blind Watchmaker and Selfish Gene are controversial but brilliant. But no, God Delusion is dogmatic and arrogant and Carlo’s uncritical eulogy to Dawkins is too one-sided. (And don’t you usually give a eulogy after a chap has shuffled off his mortal coil?)
Abraham Kovoor was Lanka’s and perhaps Asia’s greatest ghost-buster so I am glad Carlo included his 1978 requiem for the warhorse who did so much to defeat superstition. The essays on Health Economics and Education are worthy of substantial comment but I have to draw up my paper somewhere.
The book is priced at Rs 1350 and I strongly recommend it for your bookshelf and for pleasant reading on relaxing weekends.