Telling Tales by Amit Chaudhuri: The principle mode of our epoch isn't business, but business

Deborah Levy is charmed by Amit Chaudhuri's introspective and entertaining columns and essays, which range from busyness, to James Joyce and Kokata.

Telling Tales: Selected Writings, 1993-2013
Amit Chaudhuri
Union Books, 320pp, £18.99

What is writing? This seems to be the question implicitly being asked in Telling Tales, a selection of Amit Chaudhuri’s engaging, introspective and entertaining columns for the Telegraph in Kolkata, as well as his other nonfiction writing. Written over 20 years, they showcase his ability to reach a diverse audience without losing intellectual verve.

In “Doing Busyness”, Chaudhuri tells a tale about time and the ways in which our status is supposed to be promoted if we never have enough of it. But does being “busy” dull our senses and flatten our imagination? Chaudhuri, who must have quite a lot on his plate (he is an acclaimed novelist, professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia and composer of music), reckons that the “principal mode of our epoch isn’t business, but busyness”. He suggests that being less busy provides “special opportunities for receptivity to the world”.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing more boring or begging than the performance of busyness, yet it’s easy to see what it is we fear by being seen to have time on our hands: “To not be busy is, in a sense, to be superfluous.” To be blanked by someone who is always “in a meeting” is more complicated than we might admit. Chaudhuri tells us that a meeting is “a way of indicating a hierarchy of conversations”. In a flattening culture of targets and outcomes, have we become senior managers of our inner lives, too? Chaudhuri picks up on this theme again in “What Is an Adventure?” and astutely answers his question: “when chance and creativity gain precedence over outcome and reward”.

Chaudhuri took a chance with the content of his column over the years and decided that it was possible to write about anything at all. We can be assured that his attention will always fall in an interesting place, from the complexity of being described as a post-colonial writer – “Both the affiliations and the oppositionality of the ‘post-colonial writer’ seemed too clearly defined” – to the way people form queues to purchase the savoury snack chanachur and onwards to the idea that both cats and women are unfathomable to men; not to mention their fortunate feline position in a culture of crazed celebrity gawping: “Cats cultivate privacy and escape the human gaze in a way that celebrities no longer can.”

“A Sense of Elsewhere” tells us of a visit to New York in 1979, when it was “the city of Ginsberg and Crane”. If this city (at the time in decline) was the new world, it was as if Chaudhuri “was trespassing on the remnants of a civilisation; the buildings on the avenues on the Lower East Side had a Jurassic air”. I am not going to list 20 years’ worth of a newspaper column but I urge you to enjoy the quiet humour put to work in Chaudhuri’s intimate and masterly short essays on everyday life in the changing, volatile city of Kolkata.

The last section of the book treats us to a selection of literary journalism and critical writing. As in the best conversations with a scholarly and amiable companion, we can move from cats to the melancholy of Walter Benjamin. “A Strange Likeness” pays homage to Susan Sontag’s incandescent essay “Under the Sign of Saturn” while giving us another spin on Benjamin’s sensibility:

When I look at Benjamin’s face . . . I realise that I don’t see first and foremost a “western” man; I see someone familiar, someone who also could have been a Bengali living at any time between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries . . . The features, characterised not by nationality or caste but by introspection, gentility and the privileges of childhood, mark him out as a bhadralok – the Bengali word for the indigenous, frequently bespectacled bourgeoisie that emerged in the 19th century.

“There Was Always Another” is his intriguingly titled introduction to Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels, Firefliesand The Chip- Chip Gatherers, written as forewords for the Penguin Classics editions. Here, Chaudhuri reflects on the varying subjectivities of writing families (William and Henry James, the Brontës, the Tagore family) and points out that they are usually “quite odd in their intensities”. What kind of sense do siblings make of the same material – parents, home, country? He correctly observes that the excellent novels by Naipaul (born Shivadhar Srinivasa Naipaul) were read “lazily” by critics. Perhaps it was because his fiction was imbued with a combination of “comic mischief and pain” that it proved so difficult for him to jump out of the gigantic shadow of his elder brother, V S Naipaul.

And something else, too: “There’s an anarchy of will in Shiva Naipaul’s world which thwarts its characters’ imaginations.” Unlike his brother, “who is at once haunted and tormented by a sense of completeness deriving from his lost Hindu, historical past, Shiva Naipaul has no real conviction in authenticity or wholeness; it’s almost out of this state of negation that he creates his variously populated novelistic world.” Chaudhuri considers Shiva Naipaul’s first two novels to be masterpieces – by which he means “works that impeccably adhere to the most difficult of literary conventions while also uniquely subverting and exceeding them”.

If Shiva Naipaul deserves to be reread, Chaudhuri suggests that Roland Barthes could also do with a reappraisal. Barthes’s assorted writing should not just be viewed “through the prism of semiotics”, because he “is genuinely someone in whom categories such as poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic break down”. Chaudhuri insists that what Barthes (despite his intimidating academic credentials) desired from language was “liberation”, the joy and sensation found in the uncertainty of life. Not only is his writing “a revelation”, it is more comprehensible “than most newspaper reports and book reviews”.

Chaudhuri’s intellectual project is not so much to cross academic boundaries as to remove the sign that says: “No playing on the grass”. Like Barthes (and Lacan), he sees merit in concentrating less on the meaningful and more on the apparently meaningless. For this reason I relished every tale and essay here, not least because Chaudhuri subtly politicises the ways in which both writing and writers are culturally placed, described and sanitised.

He quotes James Joyce trying to wriggle out of the “meaningful” and take it somewhere else –often to somewhere rooted in the mysteries of everyday life, whether it be on the streets of Dublin or the streets of Kolkata. “When asked by an interviewer if Molly Bloom’s climactic monologue in Ulysses was an example of ‘stream of consciousness’, he reportedly said, “When I hear the word ‘stream’ . . . what I think of is urine and not the contemporary novel . . . Molly Bloom . . . would never have indulged in anything so refined as a stream of consciousness.”

Deborah Levy is the author of “Black Vodka” (And Other Stories, £12) and “Swimming Home” (Faber & Faber, £7.99), shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Case study: Chaudhuri explores the new Kolkata. Photograph: Ashok Sinha / Gallery Stock.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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