Bloomsday, Vairamuthu, and cancel culture

We can only hope, one day in the far future, to look back and wonder how our virtue killed our kindness. How we cancelled art against mediocrity’s idea of the good man or woman

Vairamuthu refused a prize instituted in the memory of ONV Kurup after activists campaigned against him

June 16 is Bloomsday and it commemorates the life and times of writer James Joyce. The Federal republishes an article by C.P. Surendran in this context.

June 16 is a few days away. That’s the day when national and international literati celebrate the beginning of a secular calendar; the day when James Joyce’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Molly Bloom, in the pioneering modern novel, Ulysses, meet.

Bloom is literary, farty, drunken, kind, horny, unfaithful, and self-ironic, somewhat modelled on Joyce himself. Molly is attractive, unfaithful, and loving, loosely shaped on Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacles.

Bloomsday is an acknowledgement of the essential comedic nature of the social universe, our fallibilities, fears, and loves. Ulysses is about Leopold setting out into the unknown sea of the streets and pubs of Dublin, the hero lost, before finding himself at the end of 24 epic hours, at home — his Ithaca — in the same bed that Molly has, earlier in the day, cuckolded him, and rediscovering love, “the word known to all men”, as Joyce puts it.


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Joyce did not have it easy. Financially he was insecure most of his life. His ever-failing sight was another problem. There is a story from the 1920s Paris, mentioned, I think, in Andrew Farah’s Hemingway’s Brain, when Joyce, Nora, and Hemingway meet in a café. The conversation veers to lion hunting, one of the great gaming skills of Hemingway, and Nora says, “Well, Jimmy could do with a bit of that,” and Joyce says, seriously, “We must face up to the fact, I could not see the lion.” And Joyce was much troubled by his daughter Lucia’s schizophrenia, treated once by Carl Jung. Once Lucia had burned down her hospital to see if the fire looked red as her father’s beard. Another time she had set fire to her aunt’s house so she could catch the smell of “burning turf”. Lucia was of course forgiven. Her father, after all, wrote in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”

Most writers who count for anything are those who lived, erring, falling, and triumphing. There is no other way to create. But some 100 years after the publication of Ulysses, when Bloomsday will again be compulsively celebrated in India and abroad, the Joycean formula of the human experience has been emptied out, like the piety of a woman whom no man looks at.

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This morning I tried the Tamil film lyric writer Vairamuthu’s number. His phone was switched off. Now that he had, in his turn, refused a prize instituted in the memory of ONV Kurup (a Malayalam poet, professor, and a film-song writer), as rights activists of all genders last week campaigned, riding on allegations of sexual harassment against him, I thought I should express to him words of commiseration.

Is one appreciated for good conduct or good writing? How not to err and write a good line, or create a piece of art? What would be Picasso’s art without his extracurricular adventures? Would there be French symbolist poetry at all without alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity? This is not to defend violence, arson, and rape. But this is to say you cannot rise without falling.

With a symbolist writer like Arthur Rimbaud, the poetry stopped when he was 23, and he turned sober. Instead, around that year he began his journey to become a gun runner to strange African kings, namely the king of Shoa, in Ethiopia. These guns were put to use in wars later on and were instrumental in killing presumably many. Had Rimbaud persisted in his ardent and youthful ways, he may have stuck to poetry and saved lives by default.

The secular model of creation is now being replaced by a canonical, prescriptive one. It is the return of Ten Commandments plus One. The whole of the western tradition in art, in writing, painting, and sculpture is nothing if not underpinned by nonconformity to prescriptive behaviour now so much in fashion.

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It is the heresiarchs, a favourite word of Jorge Luis Borges, put out in vigilante action. The liberals, who are so much at the forefront of the propagation of the 11th commandment that seeks to control the idea of the human experience and conform it to a drawing-room comedy of manners, are presiding over a kind of kitty party of the righteous.

Yet they have no qualms in celebrating  Bloomsday.

In Episode 15 (Circe),  in Ulysses, Bloom hallucinates in Dublin’s Red Light district about being put on a public trial (not very different from the present social media lynchings), where he takes his oath “right hand on his testicles”, (and when he later raises it, the Kohinoor diamond is shining on it), and where Bloom argues for “free money”, “universal brotherhood”, and “free f**ks”.

The charges against Bloom could well be the stuff of the nightmares you, me, or Vairamuthu may be subject to momentary lapses in anarchism, minor forgeries,  bigamy, and bawdiness. At some point, Mary Driscoll, the former housemaid to the Blooms, testifies that Bloom once approached her for sex. As if on cue, the others crop up: me, too, they clamour.

Back to Vairamuthu. Why was his name chosen in the first place? And, having given it, why take it back? If it was cancelled because it offended the Trappist sensibilities of the conscience keepers of society, why have a jury headed by someone like Adoor Gopalakrishnan judge his work? Would it not make more sense to have asked the representatives of the men and women who campaigned for the cancellation of the award and get their approval before a name was announced?

Mahatma Gandhi is known — and now traduced — for his sex experiments. Tagore’s private life was problematic: the kind of pressure he exerted on his young wife to study languages and be of help to him, reshaping her sensibility almost forcibly; his affair with his sister-in-law, which may have led to her suicide in 1884, and other peccadilloes. Some of the most canonical writers in Malayalam (Changampuzha, P Kunjiraman Nair, A Ayyappan) had their anarchy fuelling their creative energies. All these great names – and there are many in other languages and cultures – have now awards instituted in their memory.

I would suggest cancellation culture must start at the origin of the fall. Conduct inquiries into these famous lives and their lifestyle, and cancel the awards in their names.

But don’t stop there.

If awards are still possible to be given away after due diligence, shortlisted names should produce a good conduct certificate issued by the local police station, counter-signed by the champions of the politically correct and elite class.

We can only hope, one day in the far future, to look back and wonder how our virtue killed our kindness. How we cancelled art against mediocrity’s idea of the good man or woman. How close we are to completely policing each other. How we have turned into a surveillance society without the least help from the State.

(CP Surendran’s novel, One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B is slated for release later this year).

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)