by Prof. Yehuda Emmanuel Safran, Pratt Institute, New York
Of course I have picked this subject as perhaps the subject best suited to characterize these immensely fruitful discussions that have been taking place in Mumbai for such a long time and with a frequency that could hardly be matched in any other media. These sessions have brought a fresh point of view, in so far as they have been never excluded from a world wide debate, but always bringing in and introducing a world largely formed by the thoughts and system of belief deeply anchored in the richness of a deep and wide Hindu tradition and philosophical consideration. It is this quality above all which has made the contributions of these talks unique. The ability to engage the western frame of mind with the minds formed and informed by the tradition of the Indian subcontinent could hardly be matched by any conversation that I am aware of.
As The Bhagavad Gita (3.27) says: ‘All actions take place in time by the interweaving of the forces of nature, but the man lost in selfish delusion thinks that he himself is the actor’. ‘But the man who knows the relation between the forces of Nature and actions, sees how some forces of Nature work upon other forces of Nature, and become not their slave’ (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.7.15). To be free from the spell of Maya, to break the bonds of Karma, means to realize that all the phenomena we perceive with our senses are part of the same reality, it means to experience, concretely and personally, that everything, including our own self, is Brahman. This experience is called ‘Moksha’ or liberation in Hindu philosophy and it is the very essence of Hinduism. It is likewise the very essence of these conversations.
From the subject of representation of space (#TROS) to places knotted together (#TPKT), to the circuits of nomads (#TCON) or the borders boundaries and fences (#TBBAF) there is almost no distance. These are all inventions of the human mind in its everlasting desire to make, to mark, a territory and demarcations where none exists. Perhaps it is the animalistic residue, which determine so much in human affairs of which we are hardly ever capable to grasp. It is more often than not the case, in spite of the teachings of Freud and Tagore, that we follow dark seams of the mind and our instincts without ever being able to acknowledge such hidden forces of our psyche. But in these conversations we are constantly reminded of the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ as Adorno and Horkheimer have so aptly named their book and the problematic it exposes. Written during their exile in California during the dark years of the Second World War, and searching for an understanding which would allow us to understand what was totally incomprehensible…
Again and again those who can hear the Siren Song are tied to the mast, and those who are working hard to keep our ship moving forward have their ears blocked with wax, and they cannot hear the Siren Song. Could we ever be liberated from this predicament? Most unlikely. As Adorno was asked just before his death, ‘What is to be done?’. He replied, ‘I do not know’. A wise answer no doubt, but hardly satisfying.
Being alive we are condemned to act. Therefore the question ‘what is to be done’ is not an idle question. Conversations such as you will find in these talks from Mumbai, are the preconditions for any choice of action. They are the sine qua non for any human being who wishes to exercise his/her prerogative for taking an active part. To be able to act in the humane arena not blindly but in a well-considered manner. Excellence, as Spinoza pointed out is as rare as it is difficult, and we could add painful and difficult. These ‘talks’ are addressing again and again, precisely the topics which are foremost on our mind when we consider the task ahead of us. It is not merely the luck of knowledge that produced atrocity and inhuman behavior it is above all the failure of love, the love of a just world. And if, and I think this is the case, the connection between knowledge and the love of a just world is made and demonstrated then the contribution to the effort to make this world a better world is immense.
We are no doubt born with the inalienable gifts of language, of rational insight, of being able to experience pain and pleasure, and with the love of a just world. It is these ensembles that guaranty our ability to exercise our judgment relatively autonomously, and to assert our own individuality within a total knowledge of our traditions. It is in this juncture, that these talks are making their decisive contributions. Rarely are we made aware of the diversity and potential of human awareness as we are in these talks. Rarely are we made aware of the limits of human speculative potential, as we are made aware in these talks.
As Max Weber observed: ‘Man is nothing but a spider, a spider, immersed in a web of assumptions that he himself has spanned.’ Concepts are more often true in what they deny than in what they assert. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the need for a discourse, discourses without an end is paramount, Knowledge, is always personal knowledge, and the person is hardly ever entirely independent of the culture and society that made his existence in the first place possible. Each researcher, each person, who is engaged in thinking requires to construct her own Archimedean point from which she can suspend his system of beliefs, if she is going to develop her own personal knowledge. Already in this task one is dependent on like-minded people. It used to be referred to, by Alexander von Humboldt, among many others, as the ‘Republic of Letters’. In today’s world we have the Internet to help us establish this conversation without which we would remain atomized Individuals caught in the prejudices of our provinces, without the appropriate collective, without which a Personal knowledge is forever, never, possible.
By now, I hope we have established the essential need, which these talks are able to provide for. In the course of time we have come to take for granted these e-mails with new topics of discussions, and the regularity with which they turn up. But, we never forget the effort and goodwill required in order to line up all these scholars and thinkers, on time and place not always of their choice. For all of this we admire ‘talks’ and we wish a very happy continuity to what has already been a tremendous achievement so far. In the intellectual climate of our time, when the NYRB can publish an article by an American scholar who confesses to have read the Koran only recently, that is to say, just before writing his article, we can only be happy that there are other places and public where such confession of ignorance is kept silent.
We are glad to open the ‘talks’ from Mumbai with the full knowledge that what is best in the field is presented to our ears. We are particularly happy to know that this is an experience shared by so many like ourselves, only eagerly, as we are, waiting for the next topic, for the next installment. Thank you.
(Prof. Yehuda Emmanuel Safran is a theorist of architecture, art, aesthetics, and philosophy. He is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Pratt Institute in New York. We have not had the opportunity of hosting Prof. Safran on a SynTalk episode yet, but hope that such an opportunity would arise sometime in the future. ‘Errors’ was written on/around August 31, 2019)