The Bores of Academe

by KVK Murthy

A still from the movie 3 Idiots

At the Calcutta Book Fair in 1979, in the ‘Book Bazar’ rugby scrum — -the last two days, where one fought one’s way to the central mountain of books, the antique leftovers of bookshops which the sellers would get rid of at distress prices — -I picked up two volumes. One of them was a weighty tome, “The McMahon Line and After” by someone called Parshotam Mehra. It was one of the first seeds of my library of what was then still a nascent interest: the India-China border conundrum. In the decades following, both library and interest burgeoned into an obsessive passion.

But to get back to the book. The author was unknown to me; the title page merely told me he was a professor at the University of Chandigarh. While the subject was fascinating, the fact that the writer was Indian didn’t hold much promise by way of language. The book after all, by all accounts seemed to be, and indeed was an academic treatise. I was prepared for a dry, insipidly written tract.

I was never more wrong in my life. From the first page the book held me in thrall, as much by the labyrinthine byways of the subject as the unknown (to me then) professor’s felicity, grace and elegance of language, and, surprisingly, humour. To say I was stunned would be understatement: I was transported. The professor wrote English, not some dubious offspring thereof: the man was enviably masterly. I fell in love with him.

In the ensuing years I discovered that Professor Parshotam Mehra was India’s greatest authority on the geopolitics of India’s northern borders, and a universally respected and published scholar. I lost no time in acquiring every single available book of his, and the feast has been uniformly satisfying.

Recently I was reading his “Tibet: Writings on History and Politics” (OUP, 2012) a compendium of his essays/papers published earlier in various academic journals. In an essay titled “Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard: A Select Bibliographic Survey” (originally published in the Indian Historical Review, January 1984) he reviews three or four books on the subject, one of them being “Tibet on the Imperial Chessboard” by Premen Addy, and in his comments, inter alia, he says the following:

“To start with, one is struck by the book’s felicity of expression: its sentences well-chiselled with an acute eye for a good turn of phrase; its paragraphs neatly composed. This is the more remarkable in that works of historical scholarship, for the most part, make dull, sluggish reading. In contrast, Addy’s is well-turned, and it not only excites the reader’s curiosity but also sustains his continued interest as the narrative progresses.”

And therein, enunciated in that brief paragraph, lies the question which exercises me — -and doubtless many others. Why is academic writing (at least in this country) so dull and dreary, so ‘weary, stale, flat and unprofitable’ (to borrow from Hamlet)? It is evident from the paragraph quoted that the good professor himself had reason for regret on this point: as someone almost at times primly mindful of his own constructions, he seems to feel the surrounding academic prose wasteland keenly; enough certainly for him to remark on it, and be pleasantly surprised at Premen Addy’s departure, just as I was when I first encountered the professor. Oddly enough, Professor Mehra’s illustrious contemporary predecessor in his subject, Professor Alastair Lamb — -the pre-eminent British authority on India’s inherited geopolitical boundaries — -comes nowhere near the former where felicity of language is concerned. I have all of Prof. Lamb’s works, and can vouch for their desiccated tone, the scholarship notwithstanding.

At some point the post-colonials, post-structuralists, post-moderns — -post-everythings in fact — -took over, and that was the end of all good writing, the readable variety.

If one leaves the science disciplines aside — -where the writing must perforce be economical rather than lyrical — -the areas traditionally notorious for treacle-like unreadability are the humanities, the social sciences, literary criticism. And yet, in the last named at least, some eminent critics have happily married critique to personal craft: Eliot is elegant (if somewhat donnish), Leavis can be dry but not unbearably so. And the transatlantic Edmund Wilson is always an unmixed pleasure. Admittedly all three are dead, and belonged to an age when scholastic rigour was not synonymous with uphill plodding.

At some point the post-colonials, post-structuralists, post-moderns — -post-everythings in fact — -took over, and that was the end of all good writing, the readable variety. Especially, so in this country, no doubt helped along by the innate alienness of English. A notion seemed to have taken hold that elegant writing — -assuming this was within capabilities — -was antithetical to academic rigour, almost as if somehow the one negated or trivialised the other. And the result was dense content pushed along on denser form, a jam of pine logs on a glacier. The perpetrators of this outrage — -for outrage it is, if one assumes that their work actually seeks a readership — -are not so much concerned about being read as consumed by their narcissistic solipsism: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings…” and certainly the idiotic unwary reader does despair, if he is so foolish as to look upon their works. The primary casualty is the English language, and for her lovers there can be no greater violence than the tortures inflicted on her by these exalted ‘academics’: it is not prose which dances on the page but nameless, graceless, numbing neologisms and tortuous constructions, the dismembered limbs of language scattered in a charnel house.

Years ago in college, the fashionable left-winger was never seen without a properly dog-eared copy of a certain well-regarded left-wing journal (which still exists, as I write). Its sole distinguishing feature — -to my shamelessly uncaring, reactionary eyes — was its sheer unreadability. Each time I tried to get my teeth into that glutinous dialectic — believe me, I did try — I fell back as though sandbagged. No writer in its closely printed and footnoted pages ever edified the language; it was almost as if style itself was a decadent bourgeois indulgence, anathema to lofty proletarian concerns. More recently (some 15-odd years ago) a friend of mine — -a voluble Chomsky-ist, and no mean phrase-turner — had an article published in this journal, and crowed about it. I congratulated him on his entry into the legion of the unreadable.

Curiously enough, I had a close brush with academic writing myself. In 2001 I was given a book to review for a well known then but now defunct journal of literary reviews. The book didn’t come to me directly, but was palmed off on me by a friend whose assignment it was. The reasons for his shirking were not difficult to imagine, but I took on the job nevertheless. It was something to do, and I didn’t mind particularly.

The book was a ‘monograph’ by a professor, published under the auspices of a scholastic institution of some eminence where the author was a Fellow, and it dealt with language, cognition and music. Despite the very technical nature of the subject I surprised myself by actually reading the entire monograph through, and with no great difficulty. The reason was simple: the professor’s writing style was engaging, and there were even stray leavenings of humour, and none of this detracted from the rigour of his argument or its firm scholastic bases. It was by no means a book for the general reader; yet it was not inaccessible. I went on and wrote my review, and in due course it was published in the aforementioned journal.

In the event, that was the journal’s last issue, although ascriptions of cause-and-effect would seem far-fetched.

Rummaging through junk recently I found my copy of that issue, and read my review again. If it made any sense when it was first written, it made none now. I knew exactly what Robert Browning felt when Elizabeth Barrett once asked him the meaning of a poem of his.

K V K Murthy is a retired banker living in Bangalore. Fiercely reclusive, he stirs out twice a day for meals and twice a week on errands. He recently travelled in Central Asia.

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