Tuesday, September 10, 2013

blinkered by the recent past

This passage resonated strongly with me, partly because of what it says about disillusion-ment and partly because of what I used to teach about language. I had to really press students in Comp I to understand that there was a variation of Aryan that didn't involve the Nazis and that originated in northern Asia than in Europe and that, linguistically, we had a very close connection to. We are so blinkered by recent history, and the Nazis did such an excellent job of co opting the term, that even when we're presented with proof that a word or idea predates what we think we know of it--stereotype is a less malevolent example--we find it almost impossible to see past it to its original use.
Try to imagine the scene: the Parsi grandee in the sanctum of his library, with his English friend..., a man driven by life into books, standing by an open window. So he's not completely sealed off, the library isn't a closed tomb, and through the window comes all the tumultuous sensation of the city: the scents of channa and bhel, of tamarind and jasmine; the shouting voices, because nobody ever says anything in these parts without first raising his voice; and the quarrel of traffic, the hooves, the sputtering exhausts, the bicycle bells; the brilliant light of the sun on the harbour, the hooting of warships and the electricity of a society at a point of transformation.
Now imagine a gust of wind, sweeping a crumpled page of newsprint off the filthy street, tossing it upwards in slow spirals like a dirty butterfly; until at last it passes through the window, the outside world penetrates the world within, and lands neatly by Sir Darius' polished oxfords, pleading for attention. This is a picture I keep seeing, although it couldn't be, could it, how it really happened...Prefer, if you please, some [more] prosaic version, but I'll stick with mine. Through the window came the newspaper, and Sir Darius, picking it up distastefully, was on the point of disposing of it when four words caught his eye. Aryan, Nazi, Muller, Dumezil. [These are two scholars Sir Darius and his friend study.]
Neither Sir Darius Xerxes Cama nor William Methwold ever believed for a moment that either of the great maligned scholars, dead Max or living Georges, had had a single racial-supremacist cell in his body. But when language is stolen and poisoned, the poison works its way backwards through time and sideways into the reputations of innocent men. The word "Aryan," which for Max Muller and his generation, had a purely linguistic meaning, was now in the hands of less academic persons, poisoners, who were speaking of races of men, races of masters and races of servants and other races too, races whose fundamental impurity necessitated drastic measures, races who were not wanted on the voyage, who were surplus to requirements, races to be cut, blackballed and deposited in the bin of history. By one of the wild improbabilities that, taken collectively, represent the history of the human race, the arcane field of research in which Sir Darius and William Methwold had chosen to sequester themselves had been twisted and pressed into the service of the great evil of the age. History had captured their field, and their love of it had placed them on the wrong side--the side of the poisoners, of the unutterable, of those whose crime was beyond words.
At the moment when things changed for them, Sir Darius and Methwold had been full of the delight of examining the parallels between the Viewing from the Walls in the Iliad (when the Trojans survey the besieging army while, for their benefit, Helen identifies Agamemnon, Odysseus, Idomeneus and the greater Ajax) and the similar scene in the Ramayana (in which a pair of spies, standing with the abductor Ravana on the ramparts of his fortress, identify the heroes Rama, Lakshmana, Vibhishana and Hanuman). Sir Darius read the scrap of newspaper that had blown in through the window and passed it to Methwold without saying a word. When the Englishman had finished reading, he shook himself, as if emerging from a long sleep, and said, "Let's call it quits." Sir Darius inclined his head and began to close the beloved books. It was September 1939. Rip van Cama and William Winkle stumbled blinking into the light, the roar, the stink of the real world.
--from The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

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