Sunday, August 29, 2010

Eluding Authority

Finished reading Common Knowledge Volume 11 Issue 3 this afternoon on Christopher Street pier. Pankaj Mishra, the Indian novelist, has an eloquent essay on how the evils of colonialism can never be balanced by its supposed benefits. He took issue with William Dalrymple's book White Mughals for representing interracial relationships between British men and Indian women in the eighteenth century as happening beyond a mere handful of the elite. In his reply, "Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth-Century India," Dalrymple defends his thesis ably. Most persuasive, to my mind, is the fact that over one-third of the British men in India willed all their possessions either to one or more of their Indian companions (bibis) or to their Anglo-Indian children. This situation changed with the abolition of the East India Company in 1858, and the imposition of direct rule from the Colonial Office in London. The imperial myth of racial superiority set in, and our view of the past is still bedeviled by it. To illustrate his point, Dalrymple told the interesting and complex story of James Kirkpatrick, the Resident of Hyderabad, and upper class Khair un-Nissa. The story involved a painting of their two children, who were sent to England for their education, against their mother's wish.

From Walter L. Reed and Marshall P. Duke's essay, I learned about Ulric Neisser's Five Kinds of Self Knowledge. The ecological self is directly perceived in relation to the immediate physical environment. The interpersonal self, also directly perceived, is established by emotional rapport and communication. The extended self is based on memory and anticipation. The private self is how we experience our isolated consciousness. The conceptual self draws from a network of social assumptions and theories about human nature in general and our own selves in particular. The division of selves is interesting and suggestive. The authors suggest that there is an authoring self that creates all the other selves, but sometimes loses control over their development and significance.

In the aphoristic essay "Truth in Autobiography" Gyorgy Konrad seems to be especially concerned with the control and the freedom of the self. Apparently contradictory are these two evocative passages:

Making people write autobiographies was also the main event in the ritual of political detention. They gave you the time to do the job, and the idea was to include as many names and details as possible. The testimony would be examined to expose internal contradictions and compared with that of others to expose contradictions and untruths. Then screenwriters would work up the material.


It may be arrogant to see our lives as novels, or it might indicate no more than the ability to read. The question is whether I shaped my life's plan myself or simply read it like an already drawn up blueprint. The autobiographer can tell all sorts of secrets about himself, his writing being no criminal confession or declaration in an official report. What he writes cannot be used against anyone. Not even against himself, because I have no control over who I was yesterday, or who I will be tomorrow. So when I write I not only elude the authority of others but also my own.

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