The doing away with a social episteme altogether, as in the case of the abolition of slavery, contains a poetic act of imagination. It is in this level that a historical epoch merges with another through an event of abolition.
This evental enthusiasm is poetic in nature, as it involves intellectual labour in the form of imagination. It required imagination, which was supplemented by traditions, such as religious ones, which while condoning the practice of slavery, created an illusory semblance of ethical humanism.
Abolition of slavery in the United States can be juxtaposed with the advent of female suffrage in the country, which happened as late as the 1920s. Universal suffrage has a poetic element to it, since it foregrounds the oppression of nearly half of humanity. In that respect, what happened in 1920, was an abolition of sorts.
The rescinding of patriarchal caste privileges in the US was a moment of poetic awakening. It contains the contours of an epiphany. The revelatory nature of mystical politics in the country comprised the infusion of religious notions of humanism, family and love into the wider political arena. This, within a Marxist milieu, in its direct inversion, would be called public use of private reason.
The poetics of emancipation occurs at the interstice of a revelation, which happens between a broken down episteme and a newly formed one. In this aspect, there are multiple loci and valences for the creation of a cultural history of America, which can be extrapolated onto that country’s long history of interventions abroad.
The poetics of the suffragette movement was lost in the melee of world wars and this has not been recovered despite the vast corpus of creative writing courses and Masters of Fine Arts (MFAs) that it manages to produce. In the unknown interstices of American resistance movements, like #BlackLivesMatter, the poetic paradigm is in operation.
The Malayalam poet, K. Ayyappa Panikker, in his poem America points out from an eastern spiritual, even mystical point of view, the prehistory of genocidal violence that inevitably will visit upon the contemporary world.
The film industry and the studio system have been guilty of perpetuating the commercialisation of the poetic instinct inherent in the abolition of slavery and the suffragette movements. In this context, the mere invocation of Walt Whitman would speak volumes about the poetic iterations of profound conceptual edifices of freedom, love and liberty which produce an ecological dimension, rather than an anarchic one.
The writer, Arundhati Roy, in her Lannan Prize speech dwells upon the breathtaking natural beauty of the American landscape. Harold Pinter, in his 2005 Nobel lecture, castigates the US for its criminal invasion of Iraq. There have been numerous instances of American intervention into the internal affairs of other countries. Thus, Iraq was not an aberration, but a mere continuation of American policies of post the Monroe doctrine.
During the Cold War period, the crimes of the USSR regime in Afghanistan and elsewhere were meticulously documented by the free media. But, such an archival corpus is sorely lacking when it comes to American war crimes overseas.
The US intervened in Afghanistan by hiding its own dark history of persecution of women and black people. The emancipated outlook that George W Bush managed to give was in fact a distortion of actual facts, that include the civil rights movement, which was pitted against state sanctioned, structural discrimination.
Anthropology and other academic disciplines have been complicit in the neoliberal agenda worldwide. In 1857, the rebellion for Indian freedom was one-sidedly denigrated by Alfred Tennyson. The universality of humanity and ethical virtue poetry champions include a lode of hate speech as well. This complicates the argument in favour of poetry.
The spiritual in poetry can be truly evil. The loaded nature of the mystical corpus of Islam in the Sufi poems of Rumi is especially neutered in its dissemination in the popular realm.
In India, gender issues have to be taken into consideration, as it must be in the rest of the world. The most significant manifestation of patriarchal ideology in India, so far has been Sati – the ritual practice of self-immolation of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband. This, coupled with the practice of child marriage, created an altogether different dimension of epic proportions, genocidal in nature.
The evental enthusiasm of abolition was missing when Raja Ram Mohan Roy managed to get the British Governor General of India to abolish the practice. There have been attempts by the more enlightened early modern rulers of India, such as Akbar, to put an end to the practice. The Mughal ruler is said to have personally taken the initiative to abolish the practice not in total, but in specific instantiations. This emancipatory impulse, like in Abraham Lincoln’s America, was poetic in nature.
The gender issues in India exist in conjunction with caste. In the South Indian state of Kerala, in the 17th century, a local ruler called Rama Varma abolished the practice of ‘pedi’ – the despicable caste logic whereby those women who came into the proximity of a subaltern male person, could be excommunicated. This mostly in theory, was used to destroy the agency of women. Women could not form intersectional alliances with subaltern sections of the society as a result of this.
Female sexuality was effectively controlled by this process of poetic manipulation of the psyche. The ruler Rama Varma, who abolished this idea, was killed for his efforts. But the abolition shows how epistemically, it becomes possible to curtail an idea that has started crumbling in its very foundations. The crafting of a new world of possibilities, as illustrated by the abolition, is poetically expressed in retrospect.
The horrendous nature of these crimes, their ephemeral nature and deracinated existence, which make it possible to eradicate them, have poetic valences that can be exploited in the medium of thought. It is through thought and imagination alone, and not by violence, that such lacunae in our humanity can be addressed.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured images: left – suffragists Stanley McCormick and Charles Parker, April 22, 1913, Wikimedia Commons; right – an 18th century painting depicting Hindu princess committing Sati against the wishes of the Emperor Akbar but with his reluctant consent, Wikimedia Commons
Umar Nizarudeen has a PhD in early modern mystical poetry of Kerala from the Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is interested in a range of themes, including subaltern studies, post-journalism, Intersectional Matrilineal fiction, Black fabulations, Dalit life writing and autoethnography. He has taught in various colleges of Delhi University, University of Kerala and the University of Calicut.