Coloured Opinion

What is a writer to do with freedom? (Or, lessons from Albert Camus)

Many writers are unhappy, angry and disillusioned with the way the world is turning out. But this is an opportunity.

Albert Camus has been on my mind a great deal these days. I am working on my second book and my days are filled with research on postmodern writers and existentialists. I imagine Camus, the Algerian writer and reluctant philosopher, scrolling down his Facebook newsfeed and reading comments praising India’s latest surgical strike on black money. I imagine him chuckling while skimming hagiographical posts detailing visionary ideas that our prime minister has advocated.

Almost six decades after his death, what have writers of his kind done to elevate our spirits, cushion our moral crises, and prod our minds towards intellectual enlightenment?

It was Camus who brought us an understanding of philosophical suicide. And if his definition is anything to go by, we can safely assume that the rate of suicide around the world must be dramatically high this season. The issue is simple: are we simply going to accept a given situation or submit to just one understanding of our reality because we happen to be born into it? Will we nod our heads to the beat of any narrative we’re given? Will we allow our immediate surroundings to serve as our sole emotional cues?

If so, we’ve committed philosophical suicide.

The alternative takes only a tiny bit more work. We accept that hope itself is absurd, as is our existence, and through this absurdity we find peace and freedom. Once you realise how absurd every construct is, we inherit the truth; that we can be anything, do anything, or be perceived as anything.

In order to do that we have to flee the pursuit of reason, and, ideally, find that reason itself is not the answer. Or, as Camus put it, “seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable”.

What we witness now is a nation seeking desirable things: quick answers, hope, and the assurance of finding these things from a place of comfort. What we witness now is ourselves floating in little bubbles of parochial bliss and lofty idealism. What we are doing now is athletically resisting the need to feel unsettled.

Let’s ask ourselves again, why do we write?

It’s an era to question the purpose of writing and being a writer. Many of the past greats would agree that the purpose of writing should be to unsettle, to proclaim that we can reinterpret, reimagine and create new selves at any given moment. Without these reminders, humanity will only be prodded around like sheep, with no dissenters visible, and, inevitably, with no dissenters allowed.

I look back to pre-independent India, when the progressive writers’ movement had started, circa 1936, where we had writers like Ismat Chugtai, Munshi Premchand, and Rashed Jehan, among others, trampling over outdated, mawkish, and didactic writing and setting their own standards. I see writers who resisted with the written word, who created movements through their ability to provoke both society and themselves.

It was a time when literature of the human condition wasn’t taken seriously in the country, when these writers wrote about the things people lived through but rarely talked about: sexuality, subtle xenophobia, forbidden love, and marginalised experiences. Their work implicitly questioned social hypocrisies, and they led more discerning readers to realise how absurd most of our constructs were.

Their work however, begs for utility in our world today. Did these movements answer any of the questions they intended to? Don’t we still find ourselves in a perpetual state of philosophical suicide? Aren’t we unperturbed by the constant swiping of censorship claws? How many of us will risk social castigation to put out out thoughts?

Stand up and be counted, or what’s the point of writing?

I look around me now, desperate to be part of a movement. I see fragments of it, on social media, people with the same thought bubbles, people who want to lick freedom, taste it, talk about it, write about it. I see passionate comments and howls of dissent on twitter. But it is the bestsellers with chewing-gum pop fiction who are the talking heads of the literary world. They are lauded as the writers who are making people read. They are recycling buzzwords in the guise of ushering in change and questioning society.

All this is not necessarily deplorable. After all, wouldn’t it be presumptious – and absurd – to contend that writing and being a writer must only employ a certain kind of intellectual style and left-leaning gumption about the world? At a recent literature festival, Malayasian novelist Isa Kamari said, ‘If you can uplift the minds of humankind through your writing, then you are a writer.’

I couldn’t agree more. I can read for pure entertainment, I can even read One Indian Girl for kicks on a Sunday and thoroughly enjoy the experience. Therefore, one could make the argument that Chetan Bhagat has uplifted me.

I could try to attempt to decipher the work of Jaques Derrida too, and possibly I’d barely understand a thing. But the resultant confusion could lead to my own questions about existentialism, which in turn might uplift me or allow me to view my reality from a new perspective. This is why I’d never dismiss any kind of writing, or have petty arguments about the semantics of true literature.

Perhaps Camus distanced himself from being labelled a philosopher for these very reasons – so as to not become another cog that imagined itself to be the wheel.

Admittedly, this article itself is meandering – an indulgence, a soak in the thought pool. But it is not in vain. It is a soft cry for evaluation, for movement. It is a whistle to the people: let us be unsettled by our absurdity, let us critique, let us deconstruct. Let us find new ways to shatter this one, McWorld way of existing.

If it is not the writer who illustrates the need for freedom, then who will it be? I think about the stories that are safely tucked into our history, pages and pages of the human condition documented. With these, we have knowledge, and the consequent freedom to create. What will we construct from it?

Camus comes to the rescue one more time, as he whispers into my ear, “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.”

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