THE WRITER’S RESPONSIBILITY
A Tribute to Gandhiji
Prof. S. N. SHANTHAVEERAPPA
Every writer, including a translator, has a conscience, and hence he has a responsibility to himself and to society. A translator has to be scrupulously faithful to the original. He should not add anything to or take away anything from the original. He should give the most exact interpretation of the original. Even while taking up a work for translation, he should not select one which is not conducive to the health and proper development of the world in general, and of his society in particular, or one about which the translator himself feels bad. Even as regards the style, the translator, should try his very best to bring out the qualities of the original. If he knows he cannot do it successfully, he should not undertake the work at all. Lastly he should not take up a work the contents of which go against his conscience not because his conscience is the best of all consciences but because he is not likely to do full justice to the original in as much as his antipathy to all or some of the contents of the original, might enter his translation surreptitiously. If this much is the responsibility of a translator, much more is that of an original writer.
All original writers are, in a sense, creative writers and all of them have responsibility to themselves and towards society, though of different nature and of different degrees. Writers on Physical, Biological and Social Sciences should stick to facts, fact not as they perceive it, but as it is. Any distortion of facts or any sacrifice in exactness will tarnish the work. Further a writer of this category, or for that matter any writer, should not make any compromise with regard to truth and exactness. He should have the ability to judge whether what he reveals will do more good or more harm to society, and whether it is the right time and the right place for the revelation of the truth he has discovered. A writer is not a spy on society. Though he is expected to have a contemporary awareness and should have intimate knowledge, of the life around him, he should know how much to reveal and how much to conceal, all in the interests of society.
The Social Sciences demand a higher degree of responsibility on the part of the writer, because the facts here lend themselves to various interpretations by the investigator-cum-writer. Wherever there is scope for interpretation, there is freedom for the writer and the subjective element comes in however small it might be. This freedom to interpret as he likes, has to be exercised by the writer with the utmost caution and with a great sense of responsibility. The writer should be aware that his interpretation of data is neither the only possible interpretation nor the best of the possible interpretations. Hence he should realise that he owes it to society not to misread facts and not to write anything which is against its interests. This is not to say that his interpretations should be slanted toward supporting the existing beliefs and practices in the society in which he lives. A writer worth the name is definitely at a higher degree of awareness. He knows much better than the uncritical believers in and practisers of traditions and customs, which of them are conducive to the health and development of society and which are not. It is his responsibility to be aware of it and to give to society the benefit of his awareness.
A writer of philosophical treatises too, has a responsibility to mankind. He does not write in a vacuum. He is sure to be influenced either positively or negatively by the earlier writings in general and by the philosophical writings in particular. Either he clarifies the previous writings, or adds to them, or supports them, or refutes them, or modifies them. He might even propound an entirely new system. In all these cases he should have the good of all living beings in view. Even if he were to shake the faith of the people in any custom or belief which is supposed to contribute to the moral foundation of human affairs or for the smooth running of society, and which he considers as baseless, he should see to it that he gives a reasonable alternative which can act as a substitute for the one which he demolishes. If he just demolishes a social or a moral institution which has contributed to the preservation of human society, without providing a better alternative, he would be doing the work of a destroyer, and hence he is acting irresponsibly. Take for example the common man’s belief in hell, heaven and rebirth. These to some extent have been influencing the conduct of people in their day-to-day activities. If a philosopher argues very cogently that there are no such things as hell, heaven or rebirth, and fails to give something which he considers to be rational and which can take their place, he will have done great harm to society. Is it Voltaire who said that if there is no God, create one? So before debunking a longstanding belief or an institution a writer should ponder the pros and cons of what he is doing. So before questioning the validity of old beliefs, customs and institutions, a writer has to be circumspect. He should be equally cautious before endorsing one, because a noxious belief or an invidious tradition or an oppressive institution which is tottering, does not deserve to be bolstered up. As an instance, we might mention the obnoxious practice of untouchability. No writer worth the name could endorse it.
Of all the writers, a man of letters enjoys the greatest freedom and it is literature which is creative writing par excellence. Literature is a case study of the various facets of life imaginatively conceived and artistically presented. There is no art where there is no freedom and flights of imagination constitute the very cream of freedom in an artist. A litterateur enjoys and exercises vast freedom. He flies on the wings of fancy and imagination. He imitates and reshapes life as he has seen and as he has conceived it. He even creates and recreates with the help of his imaginative faculty. So of all the writers, he enjoys the greatest freedom. Hence a man of letters should have a deep awareness of the great responsibility he owes to society as a price for the freedom which the society allows him to enjoy and exercise. The discipline and responsibility of the creative writer par excellence, should be self-imposed ones. An irresponsible man of letters can do incalculable harm to society by his writings and by his way of living. It is not enough if he is true to facts. It is not enough if he portrays man as he is. He should also depict man as he should be. He should provide ideals and models. Hence a Utopia by More, a Faerie Queen by Spenser, a Ramayana by Valmiki. In the first place there is guarantee that the writer has viewed the facts of life in the total perspective of all the facts of life. Secondly there is no knowing if his judgment on life on the basis of the few facts he has come across, is the right one. It is more so if it is a value judgment, because it is a great man, a good man, a man who views things in the broadest perspective, that can make fairly reliable value judgments. So it is not given to every writer to pass judgments on the incidents of life viewed in isolation.
A creative writer should have humility. He should be free from the arrogance of self-sufficiency. He should not pass hasty judgments on the facts of life that come to his notice and which he portrays in his writings. Mankind in the mass does not know what is good for it. It is the creative writer who lives and works at a higher degree of consciousness, who is a seer, a dreamer and a reformer who knows what is good for mankind. He should have a great sense of responsibility. The saying that the pen is mightier than the sword, is very true in his case. Whatever he writes, gets the advantage of the printed word, and the printed word acquires authority which the spoken word lacks. And besides the printed word overcomes the limitations of space and time which the spoken word suffers from. So the greatest declamation of the most accomplished demagogue, in its ultimate analysis, is not as effective as the printed words of a great writer. It is said that Rousseau and Voltaire did more for the revolutionary movement in France through their writings than did the French haranguers of the time. This underscores the importance of creative writing, and hence the great responsibility of the creative writer.
A man of letters should fully equip himself for the supreme task of instructing his readers while delighting them, the twin goals of a literary work. He should be a well-informed person. He should be catholic in outlook. He should be tolerant. He should be able to distinguish the good from the bad. He should have a keen perceptivity. He should know what is good for mankind here and now, and forever and everywhere. He should be capable of making unerring value judgments. Raw portrayal of human passion should not be his concern.
Sensationalism which is the quality of cheap journalism, is not his method. While being true to life, he should realise that with the best of efforts he cannot see life steadily and see it whole. Since his concern is to portray man as he should be, he should support virtue and condemn (artistically of course) vice and injustice. There might not be palpable justice in the happenings in real life, but there should be justice in the happenings in literature. There should be poetic justice so that people might continue to have faith in a moral order. That is what the great writers of the past-Aeschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and a host of others have done. They justified the ways of God to man. They helped in shaping man in the image of God. The lives of some of them were themselves poems. This makes it clear that a small man cannot write a great poem. This makes it clear what great equipment–mental, moral and spiritual – a great man of letters should have and what a keen sense of responsibility a writer worthy of his high profession, should have towards ideas and ideals he cherishes most, and towards the society of which he is an enlightened member.
It is said that the best way of understanding the qualities of a Folk Epic, is to analyse the prominent qualities of Homer’s poems. Similarly the best way of understanding what constitutes the responsibility of a writer, is to analyse the prominent features of Gandhiji’s writings. That would be a tribute to Gandhiji as a writer.