Last week, I had posted an article in my other blog, Unmasking Ourselves. Upon reading it one of my ex-school students, reminded me of a poem I had taught students in my English Literature class : Once Upon a Time. That blog article was of a psycho-philosophical in nature. When my student reminded me of this poem, I realized that there are many instances of self inquiry in literature. Not only philosophers and psychologists have probed the reality of human life, but art and literature abounds with soul-searching. In the maiden article that I had written, previous to this one, in this website almost three months back – My Journey to Becoming a Writer, I had acknowledged the huge debt I owe to books in my eventful and serpentine journey to self learning and self realization. In my early days, as a school goer, the only books I read were in the genre of literature. I don’t read any literature now but I retain a love for all those books and poems that held my little fingers and led me step by step up the staircase of life through different levels of consciousness, right up to the timeless.
One such book that changed my life forever was Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. Life’s mysterious forces put this book in my hands when I was poised on taking one of the greatest decisions in my life. It was my second year in college; having gone through brutal ragging and seen the rank side of humans: their duplicity, their timidity and their mediocrity, a strange thought – I say strange because I never had any such thought, of such great magnitude and such originality before – took shape in me and demanded an indubitable answer to a question. The question was “Either I am wrong and I need to adjust to the ways of the world or the world is wrong, and I am going to make my own path, even though I have to walk it all alone.” Those who have read Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, would instantly recognize my question as the main theme of the book.
Well Fountainhead did not just answer, it roared and thundered its message to me. After I finished reading it, I was born to a new world: a world of my making. I have never since looked back. Freedom became my path: not peers, not social institutions, creeds and dogmas, not the experts. I decided that I shall sell my soul to none.
To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
Years later, perhaps fifteen years later, I was giving a talk in Symbiosis College, Pune on Social Entrepreneurship. At the end of my talk, a young girl walked up to me and told me that my words reminded her of Ayn Rand. It was astounding because Ayn Rand was the last thing on my mind on a lecture on social entrepreneurship. Not only that, but Ayn Rand had never visited my thoughts for over a decade. This came as a pleasant shock of recognition. I had almost forgotten Ayn Rand in all the strenuous intervening years of forging my path; but I could see that Ayn Rand’s spirit had remained. It had become such a part of me that I could no longer see it but others could. What was that spirit of Ayn Rand that I was breathing and living?
Men have been taught that it is a virtue to agree with others. But the creator is the man who disagrees. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to swim with the current. But the creator is the man who goes against the current. Men have been taught that it is a virtue to stand together. But the creator is the man who stands alone.Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
Ayn Rand taught me to stand alone: a precept which J Krishnamurti further deepened. Ayn Rand did not prove to be my final destination. She came at the beginning of a journey that would take me through many valleys, deserts and grasslands of self inquiry. But if I were to look back at all the events that shaped my life, I don’t think I could have even started my journey if I had not received the tutoring by Ayn Rand to stand as an individual: alone, even when the world sneers at you, misunderstands you and judges you by its standards of morality and respectability.
Notice how they’ll accept anything except a man who stands alone. They recognize him at once… There’s a special, insidious kind of hatred for him. They forgive criminals. They admire dictators. Crime and violence are a tie. A form of mutual dependence. They need ties.Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
In my article Unmasking Ourselves, I wrote about all the kinds of masks we have learnt to wear just because we fear standing alone in society. All the moral codes we follow are because of fear. Spontaneous action does not need to follow a pre-planned code. But we are not acting spontaneously as free individuals. Rather we act like a sheep in a herd; our actions calculated to win social approval or cling to social security.
Listen to what is being preached today. Look at everyone around us. You’ve wondered why they suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not really struggling even for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion – prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: ‘This is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbours gape at me’. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
There are many people who are seeking happiness; some through material wealth, some through name and fame and some through spirituality. But none would find happiness till they have not learnt to stand alone, without seeking any kind of social approval. In the state of dependence and attachment, all pursuits, even the so-called spiritual pursuits are nothing but an escape invented by our cunning minds, which hop from one attachment to another. The process of emerging from the herd to becoming an individual is not easy. There are many painful transformations on the way to standing psychologically alone; precisely the reason why very few would like to take this journey. The greatest paradox one has to face in this journey is that you shall be termed immoral, egoistic and selfish.
Men are important only in relation to other men, in their usefulness, in the service they render. Unless you understand that completely, you can expect nothing but one form of misery or another. Why make such a cosmic tragedy out of the fact that you’ve found yourself feeling cruel toward people? So what? It’s just growing pains. One can’t jump from a state of animal brutality into a state of spiritual living without certain transitions. And some of them may seem evil. A beautiful woman is usually a gawky adolescent first. All growth demands destruction. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You must be willing to suffer, to be cruel, to be dishonest, to be unclean-anything, my dear, anything to kill the most stubborn of roots, the ego. And only when it is dead, when you care no longer, when you have lost your identity and forgotten the name of your soul–only then will you know the kind of happiness I spoke about, and the gates of spiritual grandeur will fall open before you.Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
The quote above may seem heresy to respectable people of society, who carp about morality and selflessness. But that is just talk about maintaining an exterior. We are burning with anger from inside, but we put on a show of non-violence outside. However, real transformation happens when we stay true to the fact of ourselves, which is anger, jealousy and inferiority complex of all kinds. Rather than forming and portraying their opposites outside, a truly spiritual person chooses to remain choicelessly with these movements because they are the facts: rather than the fictitious respectable selves one creates. I know of many spiritual people who lecture about ethics and morality but who burn with anger, jealousy and insecurity inside. Spirituality does not have anything to do with ethics. It has to do with freedom. When one is free one does not “practice” virtue. Freedom and practice/effort never go hand in hand. And freedom is never as escape from facts. It is about facing facts and the ending of all falsity.
There are many aspects of Ayn Rand’s philosophy which I do not agree to (for instance, her capitalism), but my disagreement does not lessen my indebtedness to her, neither does it dull her message on individualism, which shall retain its vitality for eternal time. Ayn Rand supported modernism and modern society.
I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pest hole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot-belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window – no, I don’t feel how small I am – but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.Ayn Rand – Fountainhead
Being a lover of nature, villages and ancient wisdom, I cannot take sides with Ayn Rand in calling their creations a “leering stone monster with a pot-belly, created by some leprous savage”. On the contrary I consider, for very demonstrable reasons, modern society with its nuclear bombs, chemical warfare and biological warfare more savage than any ancient pot-bellied monster. I don’t think Ayn Rand spent enough time understanding the wisdom of the ancients; not that they did not have any shortcomings.
I had started this article mentioning a poem my student reminded me about. This poem, “Once Upon a Time” is written by a famous Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara. I am not much into poetry because most poems tend to get too symbolic and complex for my taste. However, this poem is really simple and cuts to the chase about how modern people have lost their true emotions and educated themselves to wear different masks. Its mood is nostalgia for the past ancient African culture, which is gradually becoming Westernized and losing its warmth and simplicity. It’s a world that lies on the other shore of Ayn Rand’s New York Hudson River. In this shore, there are no high rises and equally no “ice-block-cold eyes”.
Once Upon a Time
Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
and laugh with their eyes:
but now they only laugh with their teeth,
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.
There was a time indeed
they used to shake hands with their hearts:
but that’s gone, son.
Now they shake hands without hearts
while their left hands search
my empty pockets.
‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’:
they say, and when I come
again and feel
at home, once, twice,
there will be no thrice-
for then I find doors shut on me.
So I have learned many things, son.
I have learned to wear many faces
like dresses – homeface,
officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.
And I have learned too
to laugh with only my teeth
and shake hands without my heart.
I have also learned to say,’Goodbye’,
when I mean ‘Good-riddance’:
to say ‘Glad to meet you’,
without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been
nice talking to you’, after being bored.
But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
when I was like you. I want
to unlearn all these muting things.
Most of all, I want to relearn
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!
So show me, son,
how to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
once upon a time when I was like you.
~ Gabriel Okara
Human frailty spares no culture. So I don’t think “Once Upon a Time”, heaven had descended on earth. But if I were to count the number of masks people wear today, cocooned in their high rises – homeface, officeface, streetface, hostface, cocktailface – they shall certainly outnumber the masks people wore in the wonderful villages of the past. Given a choice, I would prefer a rural life in harmony with nature, any day (with slight modifications). I live in a state of tribals called Jharkhand and have witnessed tribal culture since my childhood with utter fascination. Mobile and television has slowly been destroying their culture, but rummaging through my childhood memories, I can certainly attest to the fact that it was easy to find in them a “laugh with their hearts” and a “laugh with their eyes” while modernity has taught us to only “laugh with our teeth” which show like a “snake’s bare fangs”.
The poem ends with the poet’s deep desire to learn from his young son how to recapture this laugh which he saw in his past African culture. But I can’t help noticing an air of wistfulness in his desire. Being such an astute reader of human emotions, the poet certainly knows that his son, who is young today, shall lose his innocence too: and don the masks of modernity as he grows up. Perhaps the poet does not see a way out of this inevitability. Perhaps most moderns are caught in the horns of the same dilemma. Do we forsake modernity and it’s masks? Can we retain modernity without the masks?
I won’t give my answer to these questions to the reader here. But I have given enough clues in the article. These are the kind of questions to which every individual has to find an answer for herself/himself.
With this I wish the reader “Good-Bye without meaning Good-riddance” because I appreciate your reading my blogs. And honestly speaking, by reading my blog, you are in no way doing something for which I have to get rid of you 🙂
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