Ranajit Guha’s late works on literature are not representative of his own earlier, seminal works in maturity, either in form, but also, more overtly, in content. Admired all over the world for his essays and books on subaltern history written in a striking English prose style, Ranajit Guha, as everyone knows, turned in the last period of his life to the Bengali language alone, and not just to the language, but to its high modern literature. These writings were not of a piece with anything he had written before, seeming to embody a sharp break in both form and content. In an essay titled “Beethoven’s Late Style”, Theodor Adorno had described a set of qualities that, for him, distinguished late style in an artist’s work, thereby inaugurating the category itself:

The maturity of a significant artist’s late works is not like that of fruits. They are not usually round but, rather, furrowed, even ruptured; they tend to lack sweetness, and are prickly in their refusal to be merely tasted. They show none of that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demanding of a work of art, and the marks they bear are more those of history than growth…..This takes the work to the limits of art, and closer to the document; and indeed, writings on Beethoven’s last works seldom lack references to his life and fate. It is as if art theory, confronted with the dignity of human death, were willing to forfeit its claims and abdicate in the face of reality. (1)

Commentators on Guha’s last works in Bengali too have seldom looked at the series of short books he wrote in the last period of his life without reference “to his life and fate” (in his case, the fate of being exiled in Vienna), reading them, always and unavoidably, in the light of the approaching “dignity of human death”.

Adorno feels that Beethoven’s last works – “highly expressionless, distant formations” – are not at all like his magnificent middle-period compositions, and he tries to find the key to a comprehension of the late style by closely scrutinising the formal element of these works. A difference is perceived between the mature works in comparison to the later compositions, which were written in what Adorno characterised as “late style”. Speaking of the apotheosis of Beethoven’s accomplishment in the Appassionata (meaning “passionate” in Italian, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 is one of the three significant sonatas of his middle period), Adorno said it was “more compacted, closed, and ‘harmonic’ than the late quartets,” as well as “in equal measure more subjective, autonomous and spontaneous. And yet those final works rise above it through their mystery. Where does it lie?” (2)

An early consciousness of language

As in the late works of Beethoven, it is a very different Ranajit Guha that we find in the Bengali works written at the end of his life. If it is “precisely in the thought of death” that “the formal law manifests itself” in the late works of Beethoven, one could surmise that the late works of Ranajit Guha too are the “products of a subjectivity or ‘personality’ uncompromisingly articulating itself; which, for the sake of its own expression, breaks open the roundness of conventional forms”. (3) These last works are testimonies to “the surplus of material”, as Adorno called it, that are “simply left to stand”; “splinters” that no longer work towards the eventual ‘expression of the solitary ego’ as was the case with the entire corpus of the middle period. His late work “no longer gathers up the landscape … to form a picture”, they “remain processes; not in the sense of development” but “as an ignition” set afire by “spontaneity”. (4)

The reader of Ranajit Guha’s late writings struggles with a problem similar to that faced by Adorno when analysing Beethoven’s late style, not because, like Beethoven’s, they are “expressionless, distant formations”, but because “it is precisely the thought of death” that imbues the reader’s response to them: although, of course, the work can never be validated by it, “it can certainly not enter the work directly as its ‘subject matter’.” (5) “Death is imposed only on creatures, not their creations, and has therefore always appeared in art [or a work] in a broken form: as allegory.” Adorno’s thesis on Beethoven’s late style, applicable, he said, to ‘the works of the aged Goethe’, is also suited in most parts, it seems, to the late style of Ranajit Guha, whose last writings embody a personality still finding its way in terms of their relation to convention and creative self-expression, writings that are, in Adorno’s words, “prickly in their refusal to be merely tasted”.

Taking the last interview of Ranajit Guha available in print as a solitary last testament, we see from a close study of its articulations that if his first “political” writings had been written in the hot flush of communist/national imaginings, then the fundamentally important impress upon his compositions even then, in his early years, was of Bengali poetry and Bengali literary conventions. “I never had the habit of writing in English. That was only after I arrived at college” [Ingrāji lekhār abhyās āmār kakhana chila nā. Ai ek college-e ese’], he remarks, recalling how in school he came first in Bengali and was given Rabindranath’s Jibansmriti as a prize – a book he would use in his last English work (History at the Limits of World History) extensively – also winning an all-Bengal essay competition with an essay on Michael Madhusudan Datta. (6)

Guha maintains he always felt some “diffidence” about using English, yet as his interlocutor, Partha Chatterjee, points out incredulously, if Rule of Property for Bengal was his first attempt at writing a long 200-300-page work in English, then how was its “distinctive English prose style” [‘biśiṣta ingreji gadyer style’] achieved? “After all such style was rarely found among Indian historians” [‘setā to bhāratiya aitihāsikder lekhāy khub ektā āsta nā?’] Guha’s response points to a commitment to form. “An awareness about language had been ordinarily created early on in my consciousness. I studied with good Sanskrit teachers. In Sanskrit, whatever anyone might say, the business of language will, in the end, always come into the frame. Perhaps that’s where it came from. And from Bankimchandra.” [ [‘Bhāṣā samparke sādhāraṇbhābe ektā cetanā tairi hayechila. Bhāla Sanskrita māṣtārder kāche partām. Sanskrita je jāi baluk, śeṣ parjanta ai bhāṣār byāpārtā ese jāy. Bodhay sei theke esechila. Ār Bankimchandra.’]

No amount of pushback from his interviewer, who keeps returning to a separation between English and Bengali (“You must have read a lot of English prose” [‘āpni niśchai anek ingreji gadya paṛten’), between the political (whether in life or in history writing) and the literary (“and then you turned your attention to literature” [‘tārpar āpni man diye sāhitya karte suru karlen’]), will succeed in making Ranajit Guha subscribe, in this interview in three parts, to the binary split at the heart of the logocentric imagination. Again and again, he refutes/ elides/ slips away from the binary division of separate spheres of white/black, good/evil, word/script, Bengali/English, history/literature, into a realm of play.

Partha Chatterjee points to a turn in the domain of ideas in Guha – “The kind of questions you thought were important before, which were far more political – about class conflict, say – did you move away from that, and did a different kind of question become more important to you then?” [‘āge āpnār je dharaṇer praśnagula gurutvapurṇa bale mane hata, jegula anek beśi rājnitir praśna, class conflicter praśna, etā theke ki khāniktā sare giye anya dharaṇer praśna āpnār kāche jaruri mane hala?’] “The question of power” [Powerer praśna] is the non-reply. But, asks his interlocuter, unwilling to let go of the point: “The question of power is there in what you said before, that Humanism has associations of power. But if the fundamental question is class conflict, then that takes you to an anti-humanist position. But you don’t go there in the end.” [‘Powerer praśna āpni āge jā balchilen, Humanism, tāte power jukta ache. Kintu class conflict jadi mūl praśna hay, tāhale to ektā anti-humanist positione chale jete hay. Kintu āpni to ār parer dike sekhāne jāchen nā.’] Ranajit Guha: “And right there is Rabindranath.” [‘Shekhanei Rabindranath.’]

The literary consciousness

Rabindranath is Ranajit Guha’s name for the literary thing, the consciousness [cetanā] that animates all things. When asked about the fact that Subhas Mukhopadhyay had tried to create a “Bengali poetry without Rabindranath” [‘Bānglā kabitā Rabindranathke bād diye’], Guha is baffled: “He never left Rabindranath out, Subhash never did. You cannot leave Rabindranath out, from Bengali poetry, or from any poetry.” [‘Rabindranathke bād dey ni, Subhash motei dey ni. Rabindranathke bād deoā jāy nā, bānglā kabitā bā kono kabitā theke.’] Partha-da returns once more, as he has throughout the interview, to the issue of narrative development or dhārābāhikatā (‘This development seems important’ [‘ei dhārābāhikatā gurutvapurṇa bale mane hay’]) – “but in history, there is always this business of discarding the old and being receptive to the new, isn’t there?” [‘kintu itihase to ābār puraṇake barjan kare natunke grahaṇ karāro byāpār āche?’ And once again, the pained, baffled response: “How do you discard Rabindranath?” [‘Rabindranathke barjan karbe ki kare?’] (7)

We learn here that there were still many book projects in Ranajit Guha’s mind: to do with Manik Bandyopadhyay, with Shankaracharya, with Jibanananda Das, but, “what I absolutely don’t feel like doing is writing about the Indian Communist Party.” [‘jetā kakhanai iche kare nā, setā hala Bhāratiya Communist Party niye kichu likhte.] (8) Partha Chatterjee asks: “But here we have the influence of Rabindranath on the one side, and on the other the Communist Party, did you never feel conflicted between the two?” [‘Kintu ei je ekdike Rābindrik influence, ār anyadike Communist party, ei dutar madhye birodh mane hata nā?’] The reply is unequivocal: “No.” [‘Nā’]. The Communist Party and Rabindranath are not separate entities in his consciousness; there is no “conflict” [birodh] between the two.

In the same way, English and Bengali do not exist as separate languages for him, but at the level of language [bhāṣā] – as he says, for him, always, “the business of language will, in the end, enter the frame” [‘śeṣ parjanta ai bhāṣār byāpārtā ese jāy]. In response to the comment: “and then you turned your attention entirely towards literature” [‘tārpar āpni man diye sāhitya karte śuru karlen’], he replies: ‘Literature was always there in my head.’ [‘sāhitya sabsamayi chila āmār māthāy’ (9)].

When Partha Chatterjee wants to know more about how he “arrived at his politics” [‘rājnitite āsā’] through the “nationalist feeling” [‘swādeśikatā’] that Guha has already said he found in Rabindranath and Bankim, Guha’s reply is sharp and short: “Literature is a far bigger thing than nationalist feeling.” [‘swādeśikatā thekeo sāhitya baṛa kathā’]. (10)

When Partha Chatterjee presses the point, asking logically and reasonably: “But there was no need to join the Communist Party for literature, after all?” [‘kintu sāhityer janya to ār Communist Partyte jāoār darkār chila nā?], he replies: “I just got into the Communist Party, that’s all.” [‘Communist Partyte āmi dhuke gechi ār ki.’] His interviewer asserts: “You didn’t just get into it, you spent a few years doing nothing but that work.” [‘śudhu to dhuke jān ni, kayektā bachar to āpni śudhu sei kāji karechen.’] Ranajit Guha responds by slipping off the noose entirely, suddenly saying in reply: “Actually, I think it’s the exercise book bound in thick red cloth that my grandfather gave me to study literature – that is what has surfaced in different ways in my life and character from time to time. And the reason for this is language. A consciousness of language, or whatever it was, there was an awareness since my childhood, this is what my grandfather, Jogeshchandra Guha, gave me.” [‘āsale āmār mane hay, āmār thākurdā je āmāke sāhitya paṛābār janya sei khero bāndhāno khātāṭā diyechilen, setāi nānābhābe āmār jibane o caritre dekhā diyeche. Ebang er kāraṇ hachhe bhāṣā. Bhāṣā samparke ektā cetanā hok bā jāi hok, ektā awareness chelebelā theke, etāi āmār thākurdā Jogeshchandra Guha kare gechen.]

The artefacts of writing: the exercise book bound in thick red cloth [‘khero bāndhāno khātāṭā’], and language itself – “a consciousness of language” [‘bhāṣā samparke ektā cetanā’] – these are the signs of a commitment to form in the consciousness of a man who refuses to fall into a commitment to ideology, whether political or social-scientific, always reiterating instead his preoccupation with form. In occupying this space, Guha is arguing against the historical obsolescence of form in the context of scholarly commitment – and against the dedication of the critic or researcher to a higher ethical or political purpose. In the years he was a student and then a teacher and party worker in Bengal in the 1930s and ’40s, a commitment made sense – a commitment to social justice, political liberty, universal happiness or other such (in his case communist) goals. In ideologically committed writing, form, after all, can only at best belong to the lesser instrumental sphere of means.

It is Adorno, again, who has supplied the most acidic critique of such thinking in a 1962 essay called “Commitment”. (11) “Commitment often means bleating what everyone is already saying or at least secretly wants to hear”, Adorno remarks. “Committed works all too readily credit themselves with every noble value, and then manipulate them at their ease.” (317) Adorno posits “autonomous” art against “committed” art as a necessary negation of the empirical, material realities it wants to contest. Schoenberg, Picasso, Beckett and Kafka do not express their commitments. Adorno himself banned lyric poetry after Auschwitz as a ban on poetry “committed” to directly portraying the victims. This is not posited, however, as a binary opposition between committed and autonomous art – it is not a simple choice between propaganda and aesthetic objectivity.

Art for art’s sake is unviable, and commitment leads to kitsch – this terrible impasse informs any submission at the altar of one or the other – “each of the two alternatives negates itself with the other.” (12) WJT Mitchell had proposed, in discussing Adorno’s essay, an addendum, whereby he suggested a form of being committed as “something one discovers about oneself, a situation or condition of engagement that I find myself in.” This kind of commitment is “not made but found, not constructed voluntarily but discovered as something we were already committed to without being aware of it. It is most emphatically expressed in the scenario of being committed against one’s will, as when one is committed to a mental hospital.” (13)

‘History then came to my mind as a part of literature’

Ranajit Guha’s turn to Bengali echoes this kind of commitment to form, in that it was “not made but found”, “not constructed voluntarily but discovered as something we were already committed to without being aware of it.” “Writing about literature came naturally, spontaneously. Because one felt: what else is there but literature?” [Sāhitya niye lekhāṭā naturally eseche, spontaneously eshechhe. Kāraṇ sāhitya chārā ār ki āche, erakam ektā bhāb chila.’] (110) He says, in relation to his experiences with communism, that “I saw in Paris – from the inside – how one works for the Communist Party. I’ve seen Russian Khrushchevism as well…. And then the Middle East.” [Paris-e dekhe eshechhi ki kore Communist Party kore, bhitar theke dekhechi. Russiar Khrushchevism, tāo dekhe esechi…. Sekhān theke Middle East.’]

All of this may have been formative for him, but in conclusion, he posits unequivocally: “But in the midst of all of that, in the end, I discovered my being, who I really was, in literature alone.” [‘Tabe sab kichur madhyei śeṣ parjanta āmi āmār nijasvatā, etā sāhityer madhyei peyechilām.’] (100-101) Partha-da urges him to towards a historicist, developmental reading of his own life’s trajectory – first there was politics [rājniti] and history [itihās] – “fundamentally, political history” [‘mulata rājnaitik itihās] – this is the period of Rule of Property till Dominance without Hegemony alongside all the Subaltern Studies work, right up until History at the Limits of World History, which marks the break – “do you feel that somewhere there’s a break?” [‘kothāo ki mane hay je ektā break hache?’]

Partha Chatterjee then marks a cultural turn, a leaving behind – “this part that now ends” [‘ei je parbatā cuke gela’] – a leaning now into “an inclination towards literature, and you began writing about literature.” [‘sāhityer jhoñk, āpni je sāhitya niye likhte śuru karlen…’]. In response, Ranajit Guha replies: “Literature was always there in my head.” [‘sāhitya sabsamayi chila āmār māthāy’]. Like Roland Barthes in Writing Degree Zero rejecting the “recit” or grand narrative, the ‘and then and then and then’ of history-writing and the novel, Guha will not accept the linear narrative constructed for him – it is too easy, and it is also untrue to his own feelings on the matter. Of his own formative impulse in writing, he has already said, in the course of the interview: “History then came to my mind as a part of literature.” [‘Itihāsṭā takhan āmār maner madhye sāhityer ektā aṃgśa hisebe eseche’] (91)

Adorno’s critique of the “committed work” as somehow false or untrue in relation to the autonomous work of art is reflected in Guha’s thoughts about this conundrum in relation to his own youth and political commitment when he begins the second part of the interview by saying: “I was thinking about what you were saying yesterday: professional communists who were nonetheless inclined towards literature.” [‘Kāl je kathāṭā balchile, setā niye bhābchilām je, peśādār communist athaca sāhityer dike jhoñk’.] Partha Chatterjee: “You’re saying there weren’t too many?” [‘Beśi chila nā balchen?’] Ranajit Guha: “There was one person” [‘Ekjan chila’], his friend, the poet Ghulam Quddus. Nani Bhowmik, who edited Parichay, is mentioned next as someone whose “early writings on villages was very interesting” [‘pratham dike grām niye lekhā khub interesting’] but who was crushed under the burden of expressing his commitment: “he was stifled by Gopal Haldar” [‘oke Gopal Haldar cepe dila’], Guha says cryptically. “Subhash Mukherjee was in the Communist Party – he’s a literary man?” [‘Communist Partyte to Subhash Mukhujyeo chilen, tini to sāhityer lok?’] asks Partha Chatterjee, to which Guha replies: “Subhash was a Communist writer. He made just one mistake. That was when he agreed with Buddhadeva Bose that Rabindranath had no sense of history. He acknowledged later that he was wrong about that.” [‘Subhash Communist sāhityik. Ektāi bhul karechila. Setā hache, Rabindranather itihāsbodh nei, ei kathāṭāy Buddhadeva Basur saṃge yog diyechila. Pare swikār kare se bhul korechila.’] (103) (14)

Adorno’s term, “Late style”, becomes the subject of Edward Said’s last posthumously published book, On Late Style (2006), a work that owed a great debt to Adorno’s original thesis; it is a book shadowed by thoughts of his own imminent death. Introducing it, Michael Wood points out that late style “can’t be a direct result of aging or death, because style is not a mortal creature, and works of art have no organic life to lose. But the approaching death of an artist gets into the works all the same, and in many different ways; the privileged forms, as Said wrote, are ‘anachronism and anomaly’. He had a canon of such artists… Adorno himself, Thomas Mann, Richard Strauss, Jean Genet, Guiseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, CP Cavafy.” (15)

Apart from the present

The type of lateness that Said was interested in with regard to these artists was not one of “unearthly serenity as we find in the last works of Sophocles or Shakespeare.” Here, “artistic lateness” does not manifest itself as “harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” (16) Ranajit Guha’s late style fulfils these conditions of “anachronism and anomaly”, and also Said’s condition of lateness being “a form of exile”, so that “late style is in, but oddly apart from the present.” This is true of all the Bengali works Guha produced, which acquire a new idiom and constitute, in themselves, a form of exile – they do, of course, exist in the present, but they are also, all of them, “oddly apart from the present.” In a crucial sense, of course, late style is also a beginning, a continuation of a process of self-making, “self-making being one of the bases of history, which according to Ibn Khaldun and Vico, the great founders of the science of history, is essentially the product of human labour.” (17)

Unlike the middle and mature period of his writings, Ranajit Guha’s late period constitutes a collection of fragments – as Adorno called them, “splinters” – that are given unity by nothing more than “the figure they create together”. Their power lies not in the ripeness as of fruits; they are not round, “but furrowed, even ravaged.” Unlike the earlier realm of political history [rājnaitik itihās], they do not fit any scheme, they cannot be reconciled into a higher synthesis such as the figure of the subaltern. Of the common thread running through his late works, Guha remarks that they are “not anti-humanist”; in their functioning under the sign of Rabindranath, Heidegger, Bhartahari, or the Mahabharat, they investigate the nature of being, they are “transhistorical, but not unhistorical.”. Full of an unsynthesised fragmentariness, these writings are late in Adorno’s sense of surviving beyond what is acceptable or normal, and in being without transcendence or unity.

Like Beethoven’s last works, and like Adorno’s own prose style (in German or in translation), these works are also exceptionally difficult to read; they “assume little community of understanding between himself and his audience; he is slow, unjournalistic, unpackageable, unskimmable.” (18) As Adorno said of Beethoven’s late style, “they are products of a subjectivity or ‘personality’ uncompromisingly articulating itself”. (19) Partha Chatterjee picks up on these qualities subliminally, asking: “Have you ever thought, when you are writing in Bengali, about who your reader is?” [‘āpni ki kakhana bhebechen je, bānglāy jakhan likhchen, sei lekhār pāṭhak ke?’] Guha avoids answering directly: “I’ve written what came naturally.” [‘Jā swābhābik bhabe eseche, tāi likhechi.’] This indirection in his answers is there throughout. Partha Chatterjee is aware of the difficulty of these texts, insisting: “But do you ever think: the person reading this – will they understand it?” [‘kintu etā ki mane hay, je paṛche, se ki bujhte pārbe?’ Once again, Guha doesn’t answer the question directly – he veers off into the question of readers – Kolkata readers [kolkātār pāṭhak] – which doesn’t actually address the issue of the “community of understanding between himself and his audience”.

Written in self-imposed exile, Ranajit Guha’s late style is episodic in character, with an apparent disregard for its own continuity. Its fragmentary character abjures “mere bourgeois ageing” and “insists on the increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism which late style expresses and, more importantly, uses to formally sustain itself.” (20) In this last interview he ever gave in his life to Partha-da that we have been discussing here, he returned, repeatedly, to Bankimchandra and Rabindranath, or, one should say rather, the sign of Bankim and Rabindranath. For these are not just names of writers he is a devotee of; for Guha, they are signs that signify language [bhāṣā] and consciousness [cetanā], the signs under which his entire being exists in both languages, and in both the political and the literary.


  1. Theodor Adorno, “Beethoven’s Late Style,” (first published in 1964) in Rolf Tiedemann ed. Night Music: Essays on Music 1928-1962 trans. Wieland Hoban (Calcutta: Seagull, 2009) 11.
  2. Adorno, ibid, p. 13.
  3. Ibid, 12.
  4. My emphasis. Ibid, 16-17.
  5. Ibid, 15, 12.
  6. Sahityer Satya, 88-89.
  7. Sahityer Satya, 104.
  8. Ibid, 121.
  9. Interview given to Partha Chatterjee, Partha Chatterjee ed. Ranajit Guha, Sahityer Satya (Kolkata: Anustup, 2023) 101.
  10. Swādeśikatā ordinarily translates as nationalism or patriotism. Since neither word applies to Guha’s oeuvre or thinking, I have used nationalist feeling as a substitute.
  11. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment” trans. Andrew Arato in Arato and Gebhardt ed. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader (New York: Continuum, 1982) 300-318.
  12. W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Commitment to Form: Or, Still Crazy After All These Years”, PMLA, Vol. 118, No. 2 (March 2003) 323.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Sahityer Satya, 103. For a full discussion of the controversy between Buddhadeva Bose and Rabindranath and Ranajit Guha’s interpretation of historicity in Tagore in History at the Limits of World History, see Rosinka Chaudhuri, “The Flute, Gerontion and Subalternist Misreadings of Tagore”, Social Text 78 (Duke University Press), 22, no. 1 (2004); reprinted in Freedom and Beef Steaks: Colonial Calcutta Culture (Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2012) 175-199.
  15. Michael Wood, Introduction to Edward Said, On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006) xiii.
  16. Edward Said, ibid., 7.
  17. Ibid, 3.
  18. Ibid, 15.
  19. Adorno, Ibid, 12.
  20. Said, 17.

This article was first published in the Ranajit Guha Bishesh Sankhya 2023, a bilingual commemorative volume published by Anushtup.