As state elections in Malaysia draw closer, choices and decisions will have to be thought out diligently, but this arena is not my focus in this piece. Amid the ranting and raving from some quarters, the finger-pointing and mutual fuelling of hostility, I look though my bookshelves yet again, sitting calmly to reread stories much enjoyed, as I take no delight in joining the fray or beating the next headline in topicality since good journalists do that far better than I.
This does not mean that current events, the urgency of the moment, escape my concern. Quite the contrary. Returning once more to Kassim Ahmad’s insightful observation on the unfathomable, complex (some may even say “murky”) depths of the human psyche, I explore moments of trial and testing, of delicate weighing and balancing, as people struggle to make choices which can leave indelible etchings in the mind, heart and soul.
We tend to believe we would all be guided by our sense of right and wrong as taught by all great religions, as well as by a moral compass entrusted to us from infancy. Without denying this kind of moral guidance, let us deliberate and reflect further. The most straightforward example of a moral choice would be if a member of Parliament meets innocently with a company director who wants to develop community parkland into luxury flats. Keen to do away with due diligence and the time-consuming process of going by the book, the developer puts a little parcel into the hands of the MP as a parting gift. Voila, when the MP opens it later, a large wad of notes and a gold piece appear. Any MP worth his constituency’s votes would say, “This is bribery and it would be malfeasance to accept.” Due process must be observed and no quickie allowed.
And yet reading and teaching Joseph Conrad’s wonderful short story The Secret Sharer forces me to rethink how hard some choices and decisions can be. A young sea captain, the narrator of the story, has just taken command of a ship and, perhaps to prove his earnest, responsible self, takes on the night watch – and who should emerge in that quiet, dark night from the sea? Clinging on for life to the ship’s side is Leggatt, another young man, drenched, exhausted. What did the sea cast up to test the young captain’s moral compass?
Unknown to his crew, he rescues Leggatt, and the tale told him of a storm and dire circumstances which resulted in Leggatt having to kill someone to save his crew rivets the young captain’s attention. Leggatt is now a pursued fugitive, yet he never had any intention to kill. Entranced, the young captain sees Leggatt, another young man tested and perhaps failing, as his double, someone whose fate strangely reflects his own possible fate. The young captain recognises his own potential for error in future moments of crisis; so what is the choice – to surrender this fugitive to the law or let him go? After listening to Leggatt’s confession which has in it remorse, contrition and honesty, the captain makes the daring decision to take his ship very close to land at great risk so that Leggatt can escape by swimming to shore. In so doing, he shows tremendous pride in his own skill as a navigator as he brings the ship through a narrow channel. He displays youthful foolhardiness in risking both crew and ship. What is the ending of this tale? I shall not disclose it here because I do not want to take away from your own desire to read this Conradian tale yourself.
The reader’s job is not to be God; the reader should not be easily self-righteous and instantly condemn the young captain. But it is NOT helpful simply to say all is fine. Great works of literature force us to think, reflect, discuss choices and decisions. There is great delight in listening to the debate this story generates whenever I teach it. To allow for the airing of diverse views is not throwing away that moral compass, nor is it allowing that compass to get rusty. We grow more humble, less ready to condemn others when we move empathetically into the difficult realm of human emotions. And perhaps with humility comes compassion and renewed honesty. We reflect on a shared sense of the human potential for error and, with this awareness, a shared sense of responsibility hopefully emerges.
At a corner of my bookshelf, a copy of William Faulkner’s tale of the American South, Barn Burning, catches my eye. Yellow at the edges, this little book continues to be valued. In this rather violent tale, an African-American boy, Sarty, has to choose between betraying his father, Abner Snopes, who has taken to barn burning of rich folks’ barns – or just keeping quiet. We understand Abner’s violence in that racist South. Unfortunately, oppression breeds anger and hate that turns in on the hater. We see how this fiery psychological heat ‘burns’ Abner’s own family when he slaps his son. But the reader can still choose not to take sides, not to side with Snopes or with Sarty or the wealthy white landowners. All have their anger and prejudices. For me, it is to choose to discuss if Faulkner has his own bias too. In no way do we deny his success in telling a riveting tale, but we choose to be discerning about narrative bias even in acclaimed writers, Nobel Prize winners included. Is Sarty’s choice to betray his father a certain move to guarantee that Sarty will become his own man, independent and strong, in that Southern milieu where racism reigns? Perhaps it is not fair to go outside the timeframe of the story, but readers can choose to deliberate on Sarty’s future. Often, both the powerful and the led should think of the long view, allowing patience and time to call up a larger vista of possible outcomes.
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Turning now to Margaret Atwood’s Bread, which looks more like an essay or her musing on a common daily object, bread – perhaps we may discover fresh insights? Atwood first gives us a succinct description: “Imagine a piece of bread. You don’t have to imagine it. It’s right here in the kitchen, on the breadboard, in its plastic bag, lying beside the bread knife”. What a homely image, what joy it calls up as senses of smell, sight, taste and even touch evoke the comfort of hearth and home. Ah, but Atwood is not letting the reader off that easily. There is nothing wrong in choosing to surrender to imagining the good, none at all. But next she brings us on an imaginative journey to other spaces, other darker locales. If we choose to follow her, then we allow ourselves to enter what Kassim Ahmad calls “lautan yang maha dalam” (the unfathomable depths of human experiences).
Imagine, writes Atwood, a mouldy loaf or just a mouldy slice of bread in a time of famine or war when food is more precious than diamonds or gold. Imagine the stink of corpses and human beings reduced to savage “beasts” fighting for that one loaf or slice. Yes, it would then be very hard choice to choose between self and other. Do I hear someone say, “Where got hard? I sure save myself first lah or my family.” And yet in history we have seen many heroic choices made in moments of a struggle to live. In Somalia, mothers have given up the last bits of roots dug up to feed children; total strangers have given up the last meal of boiled yams to those they do not know.
Imaginative empathy, the ability to see with the mind’s eye and the heart – that miraculous organ that beats billions of times in a lifetime – means we choose to see many sides, many pictures of life, thus enlarging our capacity for compassion and love. As if on a pilgrimage, we choose to learn anew as we move into new seasons of life. Literature has a wonderful way of helping us on this journey.
In relooking at my essay, I see that I have not referred to our local Malaysian writers, those who write in Malay whom I can comprehend and analyse very easily or Malaysian vernacular writers whom I shall have to read in translation. I am eager to pursue this and shall again inspect my now-not-so-dusty bookshelves for fresh finds. In my next essay, I shall explore our own Malaysian writers and perhaps you will choose to journey along with me.