Tuesday, November 12, 2019 | ePaper

OPINION

Obscenity Irrelevant In Literary Discourses!

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Bipasha Neharkia Barua :
 [Recently retired Professor of English Language and Literature Department of Chittagong University Masud Mahmud has been accused of discussing unrelated sexuality in the class. He had been teaching with great fame in the English section of Chittagong University for 40 years. Earlier, there was never any allegation that he was involved in any work against the policy of the university. When he joined as an adviser to the English department of a private university after retirement, the charge against him is not only unbelievable but also seriously objectionable. On the other hand, the monogamous and informative news that have been reported in the media without commenting in some cases are characteristic. There are complaints that Professor Masud Mahmud, who took advantage of the development of the English Section of the University of Science and Technology Chittagong (USTC), wrote a deep conspiracy by utilizing a few students as a result of some injury to some people. In this context, Bipasha Neharkia Barua, a student of comparative literature at Jadavpur University on behalf of the Katha Boli , spoke with Professor Masud Mahmud's alumnus Khan Tousif Osman, who is currently engaged in post-doctoral studies at Stellenbash University, South African Historical Trauma and Transformation Studies Center.]  
I will first ask some general questions about literature and literature classrooms; then I will move on to specific questions about the movement for academic freedom around the Professor Masud Mahmood issue. My first question is on the nature of literature classrooms. How do you think a literature classroom should be?
My answer to this question will be informed by my experience as a student, teacher and researcher in three countries. One thing that literature classrooms are characterized by is the freedom to discuss anything and everything. Let me explain what I mean by that: Even though I do not believe that literature is a reflection of life, literature does definitely explore life. And that includes the erotic, the blasphemous and the politically incorrect. Literature, to make a general statement, explores life through language, so classroom dialogues have to explore life too.
When we say something is "unnatural" in an everyday conversation, we are actually making an ethical judgement. A literature classroom, however, is not a place for ethical judgement; it is a space where everything, whether ethically approved or not by the society, will be discussed. This implies that there is nothing unnatural in a literature classroom and, by extension, in literature.
The kind of discussion that takes place in a literature classroom assumes an unoffendable audience. If you are getting offended by the discussions and your feelings are constantly getting hurt, the literature classroom is not a place for you unfortunately. You can do us a world of good by getting out.
Should there be any limit to academic discussions? For example, should we be careful or even self-censor while making certain statements in the academia?
As I implied before, literature explores the light and darkness of life. If you have to limit your discussion to light, you are only dealing with the half of it. Light is only light when it is seen against darkness. Although I have used the binary of light and darkness for illustrating my point, we have to keep in mind that literary discussions deconstruct all binaries. Consequently, conversations in a literature classroom cannot be limited to any one term of the binary. Limiting discussions to only socially permissible parts of literature handicaps the very purpose of a literature classroom, that is, creating thinking beings-students with perspectives.
I consider any suggestion of limiting literary discussion in any way comparable to excluding discussions on sexual organs in an anatomy class or nuclear fusion in a physics class.
What do you think of sexuality and obscenity in literature? Is there any such thing as obscenity in literature at all?
Obscenity is irrelevant in literary discourses. Think of the great works of literature that have been considered obscene: Nabokov's Lolita or Arabian Nights, for example. These texts have so far stood the test of time because they have pushed the limit of the thinkable and permissible. They have brought us to new regions of perceptual geography by expanding the realm of the known, the thought and the felt. Think of Shakespeare, who was often considered unsuitable because of bawdy language and was bowdlerized as a result. Who is Shakespeare today, and who is Dr. Thomas Bowdler? Only history may take the measure of the real worth of any literary work, not the general feeling of the contemporary society.
Sexuality is centre to human existence, so naturally it appears in literature too. Sexual implications or overt descriptions are often found in literary works, and many times poets, playwrights and novelists deal with sexuality that is thought "deviant" in general terms. In Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for instance, the protagonist Saleem gets aroused by the scent that he recognizes as his sister's. Or take Sappho, who has written poetry about lesbian love. Language artists engage their art and craft in discovering and exploring all shades of sexuality, not normative heterosexuality only. This appears offensive only in bigoted examinations when righteous voices invoke ethical judgment.
Unfortunately, the question of ethics in literature is an old one-at least as old as Plato, who thought poetry had better be left out of his ideal state. No wonder his utopia never came into being; that is what utopias are-absurd. Books are often banned for being obscene, blasphemous and unethical. However, as Humayun Azad once said, every burnt book lends light to the civilization.
What is your observation on academia in our country? Is the academic space shrinking in Bangladesh?
I would not say the academic space is shrinking; I think it has always been narrow. Take a look at the percentage of budget spent on education in our country-one of the lowest in the world. Bangladesh, we hear, has prospered so much in recent years, but education has never been our priority. There is another side to it: Bangladeshi universities mainly aim at producing graduates for the local job market. We have never been concerned about producing knowledge. As a result, Bangladeshi universities produce a minuscule number of PhDs, and many are doubtful about the quality of research done in the country.
Research invests your statements with objectivity; it supports your assertions with facts, figures and examples. Not prioritizing research in Bangladeshi universities has been self-defeating for our country. Let me give you a very obvious example: We have not been able to prove yet to the international community that genocidal violence took place in Bangladesh in 1971. The importance of the genocide in our nationalist narrative is supreme as it is regarded as the foundation of the nationhood of Bangladesh. If you have a look at the definition of genocide and read the literature on it, you will feel that it should not be very difficult to substantiate the argument that genocidal violence indeed took place in Bangladesh. Still, that did not happen. This is how our national interests and integration are being sabotaged by a narrow academic space.
(Second part of the article will be published tomorrow.)

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