The Meaning of Freedom: Azadi, Alas!

By Chandran, K. Narayana | et Cetera, July 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Freedom: Azadi, Alas!


Chandran, K. Narayana, et Cetera


By a curious logic of association, Franz Kafka's "A Report for an Academy" might be fancied to sound perfect when addressed to a group of Humanists and Social Scientists of our time. Its protagonist is Red Peter, an ape-man, who addresses members of a learned body in order to give an account of his recent transformation from apehood to human life. Red Peter's manoeuvres to become human in order to escape capture on the Gold Coast, to escape the animal cruelty of a cage, nearly parallels the individual struggle of some of us within our schools of learning to belong professionally and begin to be counted as one among our peers, to gain legitimacy as it were, not as an outstanding and noticeable academic but as someone too ordinary and the least noticed to avoid official attention or out-of-turn favor for the wrong reasons. That apart, Red Peter's professed aim is freedom of a kind, which to my immediate purpose is important. My main subject here is freedom (the fear of losing it if you have it; the fear, too, of having to fight for it if you don't have it). The Urdu word äzädi, which I use as the pan-Indian equivalent for political freedom, is not just "freedom" tout court. This much is common between how Red Peter and I understand it, but the more complicated aspects of this concept I hope to explain as I go along.

In the meanwhile, let me explain the peculiar power this Kafka parable has had in guiding my thoughts for now. Red Peter spends quite some time in his narrative explaining what he understands, and what most people don't, as his "way out," a phrase he uses deliberately instead of the more common "freedom." He has his reason:

I'm worried that people do not understand precisely what I mean by a way out. I use the word in its most common and fullest sense. I am deliberately not saying freedom. I do not mean this great feeling of freedom on all sides. As an ape, I perhaps recognized it, and I have met human beings who yearn for it. But as far as I am concerned, I did not demand freedom either then or today. Incidentally, among human beings people all too often are deceived by freedom. And since freedom is reckoned among the most sublime feelings, the corresponding disappointment is also among the most sublime.1

Red Peter's "way out" is not simply a matter of urge and fulfilment, an aim and its achieved effect. Meanings are involved. How meanings inform words, gestures, actions, and affects now; how those very meanings might sound evacuated of words, gestures, actions, and affects later - these are best studied by the Humanists, especially by a specialist class among them called "Philologists." The discipline of Philology is almost lost in our schools of study, but the philological pursuit is worth reviving at this time when the language of the Humanities seems to have lost out to pseudo-scientific, soft-social scientific, crypto-philosophical, and vulgarized media and communication studies. What Red Peter is trying to get at is what all Humanists wish to disambiguate in human when it is used to qualify a concept or deed quite characteristic of a human being when "it" is being human. Philology, I believe, will be most useful for teachers of English in India when we begin to understand that English (or another language's) semantics are not always as unified and stable as the other departments of language study, namely, phonology, morphology, and syntax.2 English words are often used rather loosely in India when stricter terms are in most demand, say, when extreme and unfortunate incidents must be recorded and preserved (FIRs, minutes and proceedings of commissions and committees of enquiry, affidavits and official orders, etc.). We imagine that words are understood exactly the same way we mean them to be understood by everybody, but I have noticed unexpected reactions from my audience even while my references to the most primary family relationships ought to be, in my view, uncomplicated and clear.

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