30 March, 2020

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A Life In Science & Public Affairs; Essays For All Seasons

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. 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”.Carlo Fonseka

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.

What else?

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.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    Isn”t it nice to read a tribute from one eternal (leftist) looser to another, more controversial one?

    Why did this great one did the stupidest thing imaginable in the 70s by insulting the beliefs of millions of Hindus by ridiculing ‘fire walking’?

    [Edited out]

  • 1
    1

    Interesting stuff, and a nice indulgence. I admit the fat book looks good on my bookshelf. As for leftist politics, again, it is so yesterday, and at its best ‘a phase’. I was a revolutionary during the time I had one pair of shoes to call my own. Union member, Bala Tampoe, NM Colvin, Union Place, CMU, what load of bollocks.

    THEN with hard graft I climbed the ladder, and sang a different tune

    …the working class can kiss my arse,
    I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.

    More hard work. Guess what. The harder you work the luckier you get.

    AND then, the penny dropped, and I understood the power of choice.

    Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose your future. Work hard.

    Choose a good wife. Chose to make a good family.

    Choose a bloody nice house. Chose to plant useful trees in the garden.

    Chose a bloody big car. Chose a bloody big television. Choose washing machines, and electrical tin openers. Chose CCTV.

    Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance.

    Choose your friends. Chose your own malt.

    Chose what airline you fly. Chose where you sit on the flight.

    Chose your own undertaker.

    AND to pass time of day, I hum…

    …. hey little boy you can’t go where the others go
    ‘Cause you don’t look like they do
    Said, hey old man how can you stand
    To think that way, did you really think about it
    Before you made the rules?

    He said, “Son, that’s just the way it is
    Some things will never change
    That’s just the way it is
    Ah but don’t you believe them”

    That’s just the way it is
    That’s just the way it is

    Of course, the above is with apologies to Bruce Hornsby.

    DEAR reader, there is better on the menu than old leftist tripe. CHOSE!

  • 1
    1

    Carlo is an NM man.I am a Samassamajist,my early guru was Hector..Hector Abeywardena Kusalas Husband I believe….

    With no disrespect to you Prof: the fact remains the people of this country have rejected the Left,for good reasons,bad reasons or for no reasons!
    Perhaps,you do enjoy the Nostalgia in walking down the corridors of History!

  • 5
    0

    Carlo Fonseka lost any respect I had for him by becoming a sycophant of Mahinda Rajapaksa and whitewashing his crimes. And he rushed to support an ex-DIG’s self-serving claims that the Jaffna Public Library was burned down by the LTTE and not the SL police/armed forces. I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole; all prints of his book should go straight to the garbage can.

    • 5
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      “Carlo Fonseka lost any respect I had for him by becoming a sycophant of Mahinda Rajapaksa and whitewashing his crimes.”

      My thoughts, exactly.

      That’s what happens when people presumably of great intellect starts believing in messiahs for their own convenience. There are very clever ways to be foolish.

      And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
      The way to dusty death.

  • 2
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    The LSSP betrayed in 1964, and 1970 was only a sequel.

    The 21 Demands of the Joint Trade Unions troubled Mrs B. and the Unied Left Front was another worrying development.
    Mrs B tried to tempt Philip into an alliance but he insisted on all three left parties joining. What did NM do? Jumped the gun.

    The betrayal was a blow not just to the LSSP and the left movement but also to working class solidarity with a strong showing 10 years since Hartal, 1953.

    Mrs B proved not to be the not-so-clever housewife that leaders with PhDs thought her to be. She saw through each of them, used them and dropped hem when they became liabilities.
    The path for socialism is through mass mobilization, not parliamentary shortcuts. It is more about being sincere and close to he feelings of the people than about being clever.

    Edmund was right to part company in 1964, but unwise to let the UNP topple the government over the Lake House bill in 1964.
    It took the ‘true left’ in the LSSP until after the humiliation of 1977 to form their own outfit.

    Great left ideologists have degenerated. But that is no excuse for Carlo F.
    Over the past two decades or more there has been little worthy of a leftist from him.

    The author has been consistently harsh on Vasudeva after he became an MR loyalist. Surely, Vasu deserved kinder words than Carlo.

    • 0
      0

      The ULF was sabotaged from inside in 1963 following the mass appeal it generated at the joint May Day rally of that same year.
      The Left got left out from that point, because of it’s unprincipled opportunistic ambition to grab Srimavo’s saree pota and degenerated to the point where it has now bcme obscure in SL.
      There is no hope for it’s revival any more as it has lost credibility and become irrelevant.
      But in neighbouring India it survives, as a beacon of hope to the oppressed, exploited and downtrodden and is still able to influence events and voting trends to be taken seriously and that is because India is a secular state and the judiciary is not badly corrupt.

    • 2
      0

      India, secular? Under Modi?
      You seem to have missed some of the news from India.

      The Indian parliamentary left too messed it up in W Bengal and in states where it went for opportunistic electoral alliances.

      Narrow nationalism and religious fundamentalism have undercut the left since the 1970s.
      One can write off the left based on short term setbacks, but the left has bounced back where least expected. It may not be old style of parties but people cannot be deluded forever by narrow identity politics for long.

      Most importantly capitalism has nor recovered from its last crisis. It is failing humanity on every front.
      The choice before us is between fascism (the last resort of capitalism) and socialism.

      • 0
        0

        India secular under Modi?

        I understand what you mean.
        But look at the situation in that country in the context of the bomb blast in Mumbai a few years ago and the Kargil fracas and frequent boarder incursions by religious extremists inspired by Pakistan with ISIS activity in Afghanistan and the rest of Europe.
        What do you expect?
        West Bengal boarders Bangaladesh, frequent incidents to destabilise peace in the eastern states of India like Assam, Manipur and Nagaland take place. So the situation in WBengal with Mamata Bannerjjee’ s reactonary Trinamul Congress to bed in with the centre right BJP bedding with the fascistic RSS must be considered to
        when questions about secularism and it’s validity are posed.
        Besides that India which despite partitioning by the British on the basis of a horse deal with Indian capitalism can still boast of a constitution which is not divisive with Hinduism given a foremost place unlike in SL’s narrow counter productive Facistic nationalism.
        The set back that the Indian left has undergone in W.Bengal can be regarded as a temporary phenomenon due to a three decade incumbancy and the signs for it’s resurgence phase is not remote, when considered in global capitalism’s evolving crisis with Trump blowing his trumpet to start new wars.

      • 0
        0

        Uthungan
        Thanks for the civilized response.
        One thing worse than being a fascist is to fail to take notice when fascism is on the march. It is often unintentional, but very dangerous.

        If one can defend the Modi regime (the string of incidents since late last year should be an eye opener) one should also defend a succession of chauvinist oppressors in many other countries.

        India once had one truly secular prime minister, from 1947 to 1963. The rest got misled by god-men and got corrupted.
        The two recent BJP regimes have been open threats to secularism.

        I am less forgiving of the CPI(M) than you are.

        • 0
          0

          Sekara
          Your question was if Modi is secular?
          My response was in that regard, to emphasise the reasons and the compulsion confronting current
          Indian politics, and that should not be construed as a defence of Modi or the BJP dog with the RSS tail whose policies I have no truck with.
          As for defending chauvinist oppressors in other counties were you referring to Vasudeva who is in an unholy embrace with the fascist MaRa.?

        • 0
          0

          Uthungan
          My reference is to the many ‘moderates’ and the mainstream media who distinguish the Modi regime from the Hindutva fanatics.
          As for chauvinistic oppressors I had in mind several countries in our region.
          I did not have Vasu in particular in mind. Personally, he is no communal, but for political survival he has descended to levels that shocked everyone who respected him.

          As for the dog and tail, I differ a little. I think that the RSS is the core organization and BJP down to various gangs are its appendages.
          RSS claims to be apolitical but the last two BJP prime ministers came from the RSS stables.

          • 0
            0

            sekara
            Yes, personally Vasu is not racist, and his is a problem of keeping company with flea infested dogs and that is not going to help in the long run when it comes to his political survival.
            That said,
            I can accept that both past Indian PM’s came from the same RSS and Hindutva Bajran Dal stables. just as our Lankan versions originated from the Sinhala Only and Gananasaro Thero’s BBS-stables, and the reason for that may be due the similarity between the INDIAN & Lankan DNA.

  • 1
    0

    carlo is a useless rot. He is shameless licking the backside of MR and now trying to lick MS. This shameless man at least not try to keep off

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