23 December 2013

Queer Trial

This is my fourth column for The Sunday Guardian.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was put on trial three times – once as prosecutor and twice as defense – and he was sentenced to hard labour for “committing gross indecency with men”. The three trials posed very difficult questions to the Victorians, well-known for their prudishness, about the sorts of love that were acceptable. Wilde was not the sort of person who had ever busied himself with questions of morality. It was only beauty that preoccupied him – beauty and, as a consequence, love.

Wilde’s work furiously champions the unconventional nature of desire. In the title story in The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a statue falls in love with a swallow. It seems as though Wilde is perpetually asking why any sort of love is wrong or should be forbidden. In some of his essays, he seems utterly perplexed at the foolishness of a world order which does not prize love or beauty above all else. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, love between men is celebrated, described as a joyous, seductive thing that is to be appreciated and admired, not reviled or pitied. When the book was published, its import was clear even though this was just a skeleton of the original manuscript. Censorship had interfered to give the world a sterilised, cleaned-up version of what Wilde originally wrote, dispossessed of much of its free-flowing sexual imagery, beggared of many of its provocative lines. Even aside from its homosexual connotations, Wilde created, in Dorian, a character as two-faced about queerness as Victorian England, which cradled a spirited homosexual subculture in its underbelly. Wilde, who by all appearances supported hedonism and decadence, uses Dorian’s very intemperance to chastise aristocratic hypocrisy.

But when Wilde was taken to court by the father of his lover, he was undone as much by his art as by his life. His prosecutors cited Dorian Gray as proof of Wilde’s guilt, much to Wilde’s frustration. Courtroom transcripts show Wilde constantly switching from confident witticisms to nervousness, as though he was entirely confounded by the very idea of being put on trial for being in love. It took two juries to convict him, but the public shaming had already been done.

The greatest damage, though, was to the morale of England’s queer community. Wilde’s position among London’s literary elite had lent compassion and understanding towards homosexuality. By virtue of his well-crafted public personality, love grew to be many-splendoured. Young men had querulously stepped out of the closet, for if Wilde could be open about his sexuality, so could they. But after the trials, they climbed right back in, threatened and fearful, wiped out of public record. They could not admit to their existence as sexual beings and their world would not acknowledge their most intimate relationships. 

Now, over a century after Wilde’s death, he is recognised, celebrated, and martyred as a queer icon across the world. But we in India must hark back to the trial at Old Bailey when we are told that homosexual activity is criminal activity and that in this country, rapists and murderers will walk free, but lovers will be imprisoned. We are told that the progressive ruling of decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Delhi High Court, which gave life and constitutionality to lovers and couples across the country, is invalid and that queer love is still the sort of love that dare not speak its name.

We find now that we still have to go back to Wilde’s eloquent courtroom defense of his feelings: “It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the love that dare not speak its name, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it.”

The thing that strikes me as I read this speech or any other homoerotic lines from Wilde’s canon is this: Wilde was not campaigning for recognition of homosexual love specifically – what he argued for was love in all its forms and glories, between people of all genders. He seemed to be making a very simple statement: that a world with more love and beauty would be a better world. There is really no way to argue with that sentiment. 

09 December 2013

An Argument for Meritocracy

This is my third column for The Sunday Guardian.

“What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?”
- Coriolanus, Coriolanus, 1.1.171-3

Our democratic institutions depend so fiercely on appearances that it seems, sometimes, like they are forever poised to fail us. How easily can we love our leaders for what they have done when they do not make it easy for us to love them? And how often are their achievements in one field enough to tide them by in the curdling power dynamics of statesmanship?

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is, in many ways, a study of the failures of the overtly democratic state. Caius Martius returns from a successful war at Corioles to be rechristened Coriolanus and find himself in the running for the senate. But while his military exploits have saved Rome, Coriolanus’s absolute refusal to play nice turns him into an enemy of the state. Ultimately, though, by the end of the play, Coriolanus’s weakness is that very weakness that has crippled so many leaders of state: family. And his tragic flaw is the very same that we see in our leaders every day: egotism. For its Fascist interpretations and seemingly totalitarian doctrine, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has the great distinction of frequently being banned, even within democratic nations that, ironically, defend the liberal values of freedom of speech and expression. Such are the troublesome incongruities of the modern state.

Coriolanus’s electoral ambition cannot survive Rome’s republican convictions. In standing for public office, he will not be polite and ask for votes. And, essentially, he seems anti-democratic. He does not see why plebeians must control the state at all – it is akin to allowing “crows to peck the eagles”. He is contemptuous of a public that he feels is unequal to him, a public that revels too carelessly in a city whose freedom he fought for and won, a public that is perhaps undeserving of his services. The citizenry is vulgar and the senate is noble. We are told this over and over again. So disdainful is Coriolanus of public opinion that he will not even reveal his battle scars to them, as is customary for war heroes.

Just as Cordelia will not tell King Lear of her affection for him with hollow words and unctuousness, Coriolanus has no intention of sweet-talking the public into casting votes in his favour. No, he is too much of a patrician to stoop to having to ask for anything. The public vote is too fickle for him to trust – and he turns out to be right, for they turn against him as swiftly as they earlier turned towards him. His dislike of the electorate is oppressive and tyrannical. As Brutus says, “We must suggest the people in what hatred he still hath held them; that to's power he would have made them mules, silenc'd their pleaders, and dispropertied their freedoms.”

But we, as readers, are asked to sympathise with Coriolanus, even as it goes against every notion of egalitarianism that we believe in. He rails violently against popular rule and Shakespeare somehow makes his conniptions seem understandable and even reasonable. In part, we who are so used to tokenism and duplicity from political rhetoric are relieved at Coriolanus’s outspokenness. These battle scars were not wrought to impress us, these wars were not won for our votes. It is an argument for meritocracy, not an argument against democracy.

Coriolanus argues that legislative reforms lie in the hands of people who are not informed enough to make the choices that will alter their geopolitical lives in ways they have yet to fathom. What this leads to is more lip-service: the senate will continue to make decisions that please the people rather than decisions that are right for the state. Even as it sounds like a plea for Fascist authoritarianism, the play asks us if we are responsible enough to handle universal adult franchise, if we have the political consciousness that suffrage necessitates.

Our votes cannot be whimsical or fanciful. These are not the People’s Choice Awards. Our votes must be the result of thoughtful analysis and inquiry. By granting control over our civic lives to individuals and collectives, we are implicitly placing our futures in their hands. It cannot be taken lightly or easily, not unless we are willing to forfeit the many freedoms we liberally espouse. Our votes are too valuable to be given away for battle scars or television sets.