By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“I do not shoot with my hand; he who shoots with his hand has forgotten the face of his father.
I shoot with my mind.” —Stephen King, ‘The Gunslinger’ (‘The Dark Tower’)
Papa was a rolling stone. I did look for Mervyn de Silva quite a bit as a boy, disembarking from my mum’s car and popping into every watering hole in town, from posh pub to seedy bar, occasionally encountering him and consenting to a cover story which would enable him to make it home with a halfway plausible excuse while I misdirected my mother to a few more locations so as to buy him some time. Mervyn used to say I’d make a good diplomat, and ventured to President Premadasa decades later that my real expertise was ‘conflict studies’. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the paradox of Mervyn, and how to resolve it.
To those who didn’t know or understand him very well, and that included members of the family he came from, Mervyn had a mystique, an impenetrable reserve or was an exasperating riddle. But to his peers and gifted protégés, Mervyn had a dualistic character. While I agree in one sense with their numerous analyses, I view Mervyn’s personality as containing – and being driven by –a dialectical contradiction rather than a simple dualism. I also wish to follow Godfrey Gunatilleke and suggest that there was an underlying unity of values, ethics and even morality, behind, beneath and above it all.
Ajith Samaranayake who, as a professional journalist and protégé was more a son and potential successor to Mervyn than I was, identified in the Daily News on the day of his funeral “…the combination of seriousness and impish humour which leant its essential quality to his prose.” (‘The Last Great Stylist’ Daily News, June 24, 1999)
Unerringly discerning, Ajith went on to pose the quintessential question the weekend after Mervyn’s death:
“Then who was Mervyn de Silva? The riddle will endure. The only clues I can offer are his choice of ‘The Outsider’ for one of his pen-names and his fascination with Jay Gatsby, Kafka and Fitzgerald…” (‘The Pontiff of Lankan Journalism’, Sunday Observer, June 27th 1999)
The literary critic, intellectual and diplomat NMMI (Izzeth) Hussain, who passed away earlier this year, spelled it out. He was senior to Mervyn at the university by a few years and knew him as a young man. Writing on ‘The Two Mervyns’, Izzeth Hussain said:
“I recall our friendship originating in a brilliant analysis of a Kafka short story made by him at the Thurston Road tuck-shop that is before the campus moved to Peradeniya. Mervyn was one of the habitués of that tuck-shop, and rather unusual in being home in two of its distinct territories. In one, discussions raged on Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mauriac and Malraux, in addition to the greats of English literature and also of course Marx and Trotsky. The other territory was occupied by devotees of two card games called ‘baby’ and ‘asking-hitting’. The first Mervyn was an intellectual of the highest caliber and a sensitive soul, at that time blissfully in love with Lakshmi. The other later came to acquire the tough carapace of the exuberantly extroverted journalist.”
Izzeth Hussain concluded that:
“Underneath was always the first Mervyn, a troubled intelligence, sensitive and vulnerable, the non-conformist always on the side of the underdog…without illusions about men of power and their world, and incapable of identifying himself with any political party…”
I do agree with the depiction of two Mervyns. Seen through my boyish eyes he could be both Prof. Higgins and Alfie Doolittle or George Smiley and Alec Leamas at any given time and tended to harbor an irresistible compulsion to switch from one to the other, though occasionally inhabiting a fusion in a passable imitation of Dylan Thomas.
Somewhere among all of this was the stated appreciation of and unstated affinity with Leonard Woolf. When Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, subtitled Records of a Colonial Administrator, was published in 1962, the author of the Historical Introduction (simply signed ‘SDS’) wrote that:
“Before concluding a word should be said about the circumstances leading to the publication of the diaries. As already mentioned when Mr. Leonard Woolf was in Ceylon in January 1960, a number of suggestions were made particularly by the Literary Critic of the Ceylon Observer, Mr. Mervyn de Silva that these diaries be published by the Ceylon Government.” (xliv)
One cannot but observe that at the time Mervyn was barely 30 years old. The Historical Introduction goes on to set out the structure of the volume:
“The short literary introduction by Mr. Mervyn de Silva discusses Woolf’s place in the English world of letters and evaluates his Village in the Jungle and his short stories on Ceylon as literary works, while the manner in which these particular diaries shed light on the novel are also noted.” (Ibid)
When Mervyn died in June 1999, I returned to his and my mother’s bedroom, more for one last look than to clear the place up, his reading of the previous night (both my parents read late into the night, a long habit without which they could not fall asleep, and one which I have inherited) lay on the bed, while his stubbed out Havana cigar was in the ashtray on the bedside table. It was the massive single volume of the Letters of Leonard Woolf edited by Frederic Spotts.
Mervyn’s 1962 introduction to Woolf’s Diaries make at least three important points which speak not only to the subject Mervyn was writing about but also “an implicit scale of values” (p. li) which constituted Woolf’s and his own consistent core.
The first was of a “liberal humanism”, but a liberal humanism which was completely different from that which is espoused and practiced by those of the same age group in Sri Lanka today that Mervyn was when he wrote this essay, i.e. the educated Westernized Lankans in their 30s. Mervyn stressed that Woolf’s “liberal humanism” was out of joint with what he calls “the imperialist system” and “the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism” (p. li). So what we have is neither an anti-imperialism that was nativist and culturally circumscribed nor a liberal humanism that identified with, was comfortable with or looked to western imperialism for deliverance. This was Mervyn’s own demarcation of values. This is who and what he was; where he placed himself—what Brecht would call his Standung.
The second was a refusal to extend that liberal humanism into a universal moral judgment on all cultures and civilizations; a refusal to allow liberal humanism to become part of a civilizing mission and the white man’s burden. Mervyn commended in Woolf a liberal humanism that eschewed “easy moral judgments” and was instead, sensitive to contexts and situations, especially in its relationship with “the impact of the East, and…its strange, exacting demands on understanding.” (p. liii).
“…One cannot discuss large issues like race, as if there were immutable standards of judgment. The moral criteria in such instances, he suggests, cannot be absolute but must be relative to the specific social situation.” (p. lvii) This then was not a liberal humanist fundamentalism. It was not the liberalism of a ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ and the Responsibility to Protect. It was a liberal humanism that was more protean than Procrustean.
Thirdly was the moral divide between those in our societies who are privileged by and benefit from imperialism; operate in its interstitial spaces and thrive upon it, and those others who resist or are marginalized by it. Mervyn’s essay concludes with the unambiguous ultimate moral validation of the tragic fate of the impoverished victims of the imperialist-driven order.
“But their small lives are not without their own triumph. Their suffering is redeemed by a spiritual courage and a quality of endurance. In the lonely figure of Punchimenika, waiting for the final ruthless thrust of the jungle, there is a nobility which is truly tragic in quality…Their fierce attachment to these things, the strength of their loves and hates, and their ultimate indomitability of spirit make them persons of different moral worth than the ‘Fernandos’, the headmen and ratemahattayas of this world.” (p. lx)
Mervyn evolved a code of ethics that combined a refusal to make easy moral judgments in personal life with a double bias towards the individualist “outsider” in established society (as Ajith Samaranayake noted), and the social underdog (as Izzeth Hussain emphasized) in the face of “the imperialist system” (as Mervyn termed it in his long introductory essay on Woolf in the early 1960s).
Yet, in the final analysis what mattered to Mervyn was the distinctive quality and character of the individual human:
“In his own estimate he was a conscientious officer, but the system called for habits of feeling and action which his whole personality must have steadily resisted. Woolf was given too much to personal judgments and discriminations to develop that total conformism which must have been, one guesses, almost a prerequisite of the ideal colonial officer. Inspite of his obvious enthusiasm for his work, his attraction to people, places and things, he could not acquiesce in the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism.” (p. li)
“At times, he could be the ‘outsider’, and survey the harsh, tousled world before him with the unruffled and dispassionate mind of the English intellectual. But he was not always au dessus de la melee.” (p. lvii)
The outsider, the unruffled mind capable of the dispassionate survey of a harsh unruly world—and yet, not quite so dispassionate as to be always au dessus de la melee–“above the fray”. His description and implicit judgment of Woolf, penned in his early thirties, could easily have been with the slightest modification, the final word on Mervyn himself.
[Mervyn de Silva- 88th Birth anniversary-Sept 5th]