Monday, September 21, 2020

Imraan Coovadia's "Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela"

Imraan Coovadia is a writer and the director of the writing programme at the University of Cape Town. He has written a number of novels, essays, and critical works on authors from Adam Smith and George Eliot to V.S. Naipaul and Vladimir Nabokov.

Coovadia applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela, and reported the following:
From page 99 (without footnotes):
Several insights in this passage attracted Gandhi’s attention. First was the out-of-date description of a ‘commercial company’ as the agent of empire, a commonplace about the subcontinent before the 1858 assertion of royal power over the East India Company after the previous year’s mutiny. Gandhi interpreted Tolstoy’s description to mean a mercantile policy imposed for the benefit of the centre. Then there was the disproportion in numbers which Tolstoy observed (‘a nation comprising two hundred millions’ versus ‘thirty thousand’). Next came the unexpected and pleasing comparison of national characters (‘weak and ordinary people’ versus ‘vigorous, clever, capable, and freedom-loving people’).

Taken together, these directed Tolstoy’s verdict that ‘the Indians have enslaved themselves’. It would be echoed in Hind Swaraj: ‘The English have not taken India; we have given it to them.’ The argument suggested that imperial power could be undermined by a withdrawal of cooperation, as recommended in The Kingdom of God, but experience showed the limitations of the proposal. The relative durability of the empire led to fruitful speculation on Gandhi’s part as to how the cooperation of the dominated was secured and what the process of decolonization would involve.

The literary device employed in the passage is the one long associated with the style of Tolstoy: defamiliarization. Defamiliarization, or estrangement, reveals an apparently ordinary state of affairs as extraordinary, producing wonder or horror at some circumstance which has been hidden in plain view. Custom, habit, tradition, and ideology conceal themselves by the fact of long familiarity, requiring the application of estrangement to be raised to consciousness.

Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist critic, placed Tolstoy at the centre of his investigations into the nature of literary discourse, while identifying defamiliarization or estrangement as the structuring element of imaginative texts. For Shklovsky, defamiliarization is the essence of literature: ‘Defamiliarization [ostranenie] of that which is or has become familiar or taken for granted, hence automatically perceived, is the basic function of all literary devices’ (emphasis added).
I think this page gives browsers a fair idea about the book's contents. The book has to do with the connections between Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela--how they related to each other, how they tried to understand the world around them, and how they connected our perceptions to the realities of politics. It also has to do with the connection between radical politics and reading.

But really this is a book about the single most important theme of this year: non-violence and the creation of a non-violent relationship between the people and the state. It is about three leaders, who were very familiar with the use of violence, who turned against it and spent their lives trying to reduce violence and antagonism (this is an interesting paradox not just in the case of Mandela, who actually set up an organisation for guerrilla warfare, but also for Gandhi, who served in the armed forces of the British empire, and Tolstoy, who was a lieutenant in the artillery). It's a book about Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela as readers as well as writers (of books, memoirs, stories, letters, and speeches). And writing it was one of the most surprising experiences of my life as I came to appreciate how deep the thinking and feeling of these three revolutionaries went.
Learn more about Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue