Monday, January 28, 2019

When Apollo becomes Cassandra: Re-reading Arundhati Roy’s The Algebra of Infinite Justice

Something I'd written for an assignment over a year ago.

It is a discomfiting experience rereading Roy’s essays after so long. I agree with her more now than I used to: my political views have moved so far left I’m probably to her left now. But I am surprised to find myself grimacing at the prose here and there: where is the luminous writing I had always associated with her? Some of this is strident, uneven in tone, cliched. Was she so celebrated by then, I wonder, that the editor did not edit much, grateful just to be able to publish her?

I tell myself I’m being unfair. The years since the essays were published means they have lost much of their urgency. The tone of outrage that now feels overwrought must have been much more powerful as an immediate reaction to unspeakable events.

What I am struck by, over and over again, is her prescience. She reminds me of Margaret Atwood. Both prophesied to their respective lands of the impending doomsday, and we ignored Cassandra, as she always is ignored.

While the essays are not about art, she brings up the old question of whether artists ought to focus on art or be involved in the world around them. If there is no world left, Roy seems to say, what will we write about? Who will write, if everyone is destroyed? If we don’t save the world, how can we save art?

And maybe also: If we don’t stop our government from committing horrific crimes, what right do we have to continue with our privileged lives, to enjoy art, to make art? What right do we have to live when we look away as others are killed? Art should be the best of humanity: our best instincts, our most intelligent thoughts directed into works of such sublimity that they rival nature and challenge time. But adopting neutrality towards state-sponsored brutality and genocide displays the worst of humanity: an instinct that is both self-serving and will, soon enough, be self-destructive.

No comments: