The court order on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandita has prompted yet another discussion on the relationship between the private and intimate with the literary and the public. There is no doubt that there are insufficient grounds for legal prohibitions on the book and the state ought to be more wary in restricting freedom of expression. But this paper (Nov 22) also sees this episode as revealing something about our culture, our proclivity to “steer clear in public discourse of matters of a personal and intimate nature”. We lament the fact that our biographies and autobiographies are not candid in matters of sexuality and personal relationships as those in the West are. This is attributed to a combination of dispositions: moral prudery that makes us shrink from these subjects, hypocrisy that prompts us to maintain a façade of a particular morality, and moral immaturity that disables us from treating these subjects with a degree of honesty.
All these dispositions are certainly widespread and have grave consequences. They debilitate intelligent public policy and often lead us to deny people the full freedom to be who they are and who they want to be. But the claim that there is something intrinsically morally and aesthetically wrong in our reticence in these matters is a little too quick. The charge of moral immaturity sounds too much like colonial scholars lamenting that we did not possess quite the sense of historical consciousness they did. By defining us as lacking maturity, perhaps we are missing out on the moral and aesthetic uses of reticence: the deeper truth that might lie behind our reluctance to publicly discuss intimate matters.
Any personal or intimate relationship that is valuable is premised on one profound sentiment. You ought to treat that person, or even that valuable encounter, as ends in themselves, not a means to something else. There is a real danger that public discussion of these matters risks doing just that. It makes a real relationship available for vicarious consumption and speculation and risks diminishing it. Two, any such account is often only from one particular perspective. What did this relationship mean to the particular person who happens to write about it' The very difficulty of giving anything more than one perspective risks treating others as instrumental: they cannot help but appear as instruments of your life narrative. Three, why should we presume that knowledge about others, especially in these matters, is something a third person perspective can easily possess or even grasp' There is something faintly ludicrous when people try and explain why they fell in love or why they fell out of it. This is not because things like love and betrayal are ridiculous, but because, as Adam Smith wrote, “the imaginations of mankind, not having acquired that particular turn cannot enter into them”.
All the contingent features that make a relationship what it is, the delicate capillaries that sustain it, or the pressures that destroy it, are often not even transparent to oneself. The presumption of making it transparent, placing it in a narrative that gives it its inner meaning is almost never easy. The risk of misdescription, of misrecognition, should suggest a certain epistemological modesty in these matters. To expose these is not always tantamount to telling the truth about them; rather it increases the probability of permanent misidentification.
There is also something liberating about this reticence. For all its faults, Indian politics has not been held hostage to a prurient interest in the lives of its public figures. We have many politicians who live in unorthodox relationships or reportedly have many proclivities. But it is ironic that our reticent culture allows more political space to them than the supposedly frank and open culture of the United States or Britain. In some ways, it is precisely the reluctance to discuss these matters in public that allows them the freedom to be who they are in this respect.
It is one of the ironies of our politics that supposedly orthodox parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena have found room for lifestyles that in the West would have been considered a poster child for liberation, whereas publicity only diminishes the freedom of many Western politicians. Paradoxically, freedom in these matters is possible only when these are considered irrelevant for public life, and some degree of reticence can contribute to a sense of their irrelevance. The gaze of publicity and candour can, on the other hand, always trap you by marking you out as one thing rather than another. Freedom has its own uses for secrecy.
The Telegraph editorial invoked Augustine, Rousseau and Gandhi as three writers who broke through the wall of reticence. But in a sense these cases prove the point. What interested them and interests us about their personal relationships was the fact that they revealed something about the general human predicament: in Augustine’s case the nature of sin, in Gandhi’s case, desire and in Rousseau’s case, a general sense of social oppression. In some ways, in those three autobiographies, the nature of these relationships is incidental to that larger existential account. Short of those connections, those relationships would be of little interest.
This is also true of Skidelsky’s magnificent Keynes biography. But only writers with extraordinary ability, or figures with a compelling existential story to tell, can prevent the discussion of intimate matters from descending into vicariousness. It is not clear that those who demand candour are honest about their own motives in wishing that other people be less reticent about their lives. If we are truly interested in freedom why do we wish to possess other people’s lives' Why do we presume that we need to or can understand it as they would have done so themselves' Or for those who choose to reveal all: are they certain that they are not using other lives as mere instruments of their own'
It is fashionable to lament Nehru’s reticence. But those plain words “To Kamala, who is no more” convey more feeling than any greater candour might have done. It respects the integrity of its subject more than any attempt to render his views of her transparent would have done. The Telegraph editorial’s call for honesty is well taken. Perhaps, just as Ashis Nandy has argued for a revaluation of the value we place on history, we might want to revalue reticence. It is perhaps more a sign of our humility, epistemological modesty and deep regard for valuing relationships in their own terms, that we do not discuss them publicly too much, unless tied to some compelling social purpose. Honesty may be the highest morality, but honesty should not be confused with publicity.