Colombo Telegraph

Facing (Apparent?) Failure

 By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

“As for me and some other Sri Lankans, both within and outside the Island, we have failed, again and again.

The above observation was made by a friend, a Sinhalese Buddhist, whom I’ve met only through the written word. She is one who has fearlessly stood up for abstractions such as justice, equality and decency. (For “decency”, see Sarvan in The Sunday Leader of 08.08.2010 on Avishai Margalit’s The Decent Society). She and others like her, be they Burgher (Pieter Kenueman comes to my mind), Tamil, Sinhalese or Muslim, have stood up for such ideals because the absence of these abstractions has a real, physical, impact both on individual human beings and on society in general. In their absence, ideals do not remain ideals but translate to a (negative), and very real, reality.

Viewing Sri Lanka immediately prior to, and ever since independence in 1948, one feels compelled to agree with my friend’s sad conclusion of failure. (If there’s a note of self-reproach in her message, it is undeserved.) The typical attributes of racism, such as hegemony and exclusion; cruelty and violence have triumphed and now hold sway.  Justice (John Rawls states in his classic work, A Theory of Justice, that it is the notion of “fairness” that leads to principles of justice) and equality which make for a country beautiful in far more important terms than natural, geographic, features have been defeated The emotive and mass-mobilising forces of vertical division – ‘race’, language and religion – have proved much stronger and more lethal than the vision of a common humanity.  Flowers, though beautiful, happiness-making and life-enhancing lose against weeds. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea / Whose action is no stronger than a flower?” (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65)

Personal and private failure is easier to come to terms with than the failure of what one has, in the impersonal and public interest, pursued; devoted thought, expended time and energy; taken risk. Personal failure affects only the individual and her or his family. The failure of a good cause one has espoused is harder to bear because that lack of success affects others, the wider society and the country at large. Throughout the decades, Sri Lankan men and women with a sense of justice and fair-play; gifted with intellect and eloquence (some of them come to mind but because I can’t name them all, I will refrain from citing any), bright stars on the public stage, sank into that final darkness knowing they had failed to make the slightest difference. Indeed that, despite their efforts, things had only worsened.

Some, seeing inevitable defeat, jettisoned ideals and joined with the forces of injustice and unkindness: “If you can’t defeat them, join them!” They saw where personal profit and advantage lay, and took that seductive route. It is easy and profitable to cling to victory chariots as they career along, but brave and honourable to fight an ethical rearguard action. Some turncoats perhaps deceived themselves, easing their conscience with the thought they could do more good by going with the torrent than by futilely opposing it. The Bible relates that cruel Roman Saul – “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 22:7) – changed suddenly and became pious Paul.  (Paul was likely beheaded by the Romans, under Emperor Nero, sometime around May or June of 68 CE.) However, in the public sphere it’s more a case of admirable and good-intentioned Pauls becoming self-seeking and virulent Sauls, proudly flaunting what they should be ashamed of. Corruption means a debasement, a loss of original moral lustre. Robert Frost in his poem, ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’, suggests that a falling-off with time is in the nature of life and this world.  Not even gold remains bright and beautiful:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Centuries earlier, the so-called ‘father of English literature’ (Chaucer) in describing a priest wrote somewhat on the following lines: He behaved  as he preached, and so set the perfect example. He lived by the motto, “If gold were to rust, what would iron do?”  To Chaucer’s priests and monks we could add politicians and public figures: if religious and political leaders “rust”, then the folk will also deteriorate. (Lilies – symbols of purity –  when they fester, smell far worse than weeds. Shakespeare: Sonnet 94). The betrayal of ideals by once-admired figures is felt personally by those who had believed in and followed them, as in Robert Browning’s attack in ‘The Lost Leader’ on William Wordsworth:

Just for a handful of silver he left us […]
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him […]
Made him our pattern to live and to die!

But to return to my friend and her observation, the Buddha emphasised the temporary nature of all things while Ecclesiastes 1:2 exclaims “all is vanity”, that is, meaningless. It may be argued that that being the reality, neither victory nor defeat is permanent. I would suggest two answers to this. The Native Americans and the Australian Aborigines have not, and never will, regain their ancestral lands. Their defeat is permanent. What happened, has happened: paradoxically, history is fluid and final.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. (Omar Khayyam)

Secondly, one may repeat and re-live but one cannot ever “un-live” History. Experience cannot be erased post facto; lives cannot be resurrected. Posthumous atonement is a fiction reserved for Fiction: see, for example, Ian McEwan’s novel, ‘Atonement’.

I am sorry not to be of any real comfort to my friend – I use “comfort” in the earlier sense of “strengthen”. But while some individuals see opportunity, those like her see no option. The thought of abandonment or alteration, not even of compromise, simply does not occur to the likes of her. I am reminded of Emma Goldman. Honoured and feted by the Soviet Union, she did not hesitate to criticise its dictatorship. As Vivian Gornick comments (‘Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life‘, Yale University Press, 2011), had she remained in Russia, the once-honoured guest  would have ended up in a Soviet labour camp. Polonius in Hamlet urged, “to your own self be true”. In the case of individuals like my friend it means being in a very small and losing minority. At the end of what I wrote about Paul Caspersz (Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2), I quote words from Wyatt, though the poet uses them in a very different context: For good is the life ending faithfully. In my friend’s instance, faithfulness is to certain ethical principles in political and public life.

The Bible advises that the help we render others should be unobtrusive (Matthew 6:3). In quite in another context, Doris Lessing wrote that it is insufficient to render private and personal help within an unjust state of affairs: the aim must be to change that unjust system. (No doubt, Lessing is here echoing Marx.) However, my friend sent me a story about a twelve-year old white girl who, in 1961, during the intense violence and hostility that met the ‘civil rights movement’, particularly in the American South, defied the baying mob and publicly gave a glass of water to a black woman. (Reference: http://www.upworthy.com/she-grew-up-overhearing-her-racist-dad-after-hearing-her-story-i-dont-think-she-was-listening?c=upw1.)

Failure or not, that individual and open challenge by the little girl; my friend in Sri Lanka, and examples from other places and times are example and encouragement. They save us from misanthropy, such as Swift expresses in Part 1V of his Gulliver’s Travels, ‘A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms’.  To act in the face of seemingly certain failure may be seen by some as folly; by others as being all the more admirable. Hans Fallada wrote a novel based on the true case of a working-class couple in Berlin who, all by themselves, decided to oppose Nazism. What they did was to write postcards of accusation and warning, and leave them surreptitiously in public places where they would be picked up. They knew the cards would have no effect whatsoever: most, in terror, either threw them away or took them straight to the police. The couple knew that eventually they would be caught, tortured and executed. Yet they persisted. The novel is on sale in English under the title, Alone In Berlin but a more literal translation of the original would be something like, ‘Everyone dies alone’ (for or by her / his beliefs).

Several years ago, my second son expressed the regret that he had not studied medicine and become a doctor. When I asked why, he replied: “Then, at the end of the day, I can forgive my mistakes.” I ‘read’ this as: Inevitably, to a greater or lesser degree, we will do what we ought not to do, and leave undone some of the things we ought to have done (‘Book of Common Prayer’). But, as a medical doctor, he would also have done much good and so, at the end of his life, he could be somewhat content. So I tell my friend facing failure that she can, and should be, content for, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, she is one of those who have given and not counted the cost; fought and not heeded the wounds; laboured and not asked for any reward other than knowing she stood on the side of justice, equality and inclusion. In short, she campaigns for a better, more free and happy, life for all Sri Lankans.

A question difficult to answer but one which compels attention is, “How much worse would things have been without the efforts of the minority with decency and courage?” I end with the words of one Sri Lanka’s most perceptive and sensitive writers: “If there are gods… let them … give us strength every day, because we need it every day …There is no let-up, ever.” (Romesh Gunesekera, Reef.)

“A luta continua!”  And the struggle must be continued, for the alternative will be the continuation, and worsening, of injustice and tragedy.

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