Shafīq Maqār

egyptian writer

Biographical Note


Shafiq Maqar, expatriate Egyptian writer, left Egypt for Britain in the early 1970s. Born to an ancient Saīdi (Upper-Egyptian) family whose roots, according to the paternal grandfather, were traceable back to the time of the Pharaohs, it sometimes occurs to him that if the transmigration of the soul is more than wishful thinking, he might have been, in a previous life, a scribe in one of the temples of Thebes. From his first mesmerizing contact with her, through the papyrus rolls she left behind to in the grandfather’s library to snare him with their enigmatic message in hieroglyphs and the visions they filled his head with, mother Egypt has not been detached from his soul.

Fate or, rather, divine intent, steered him in the direction that has made it possible for this indissoluble attachment to be given a voice.  Against the wishes of a father who abided no disobedience, he managed to study journalism, languages, literature, and the humanities rather than medicine or the arts of war. It was the thing for people of his father’s generation to send their sons to the Military Academy or the Faculty of Medicine. Such studies, important as they no doubt are, were beyond his capabilities. All he wanted to do was write. He did not know what it was he had to write, or why he should want to write it. All he knew was that he had to.

The signs were there from early boyhood. He was always cutting pieces of paper and sticking them together with glue or clumsily stitching them with needle and thread to make ‘books’ in which not a word was written other than some off-the-cuff title under a pseudonym or other. The most exciting gift he ever was given was a toy he gave himself with a loan from a kindly teacher: a print shop made of a neatly grooved block of wood with sets of rubber letters that fitted into the groves in magical configurations of words and a stamp pad to print the words with. The blank sheets of the books he had made were soon filled with neatly printed blocks of words that mostly were place-names of locations that did not exist on any map. This was not the sort of toy he could have asked his father to buy him. The severest talking to of his life was given him the day his Geography book accidentally fell from a bulging school satchel and gave up its secret next to his father on the settee: a short story he had written about a voyage of discovery up the Blue Nile that never reached lake Victoria but ended in disaster for a doughty young explorer who was trapped and eaten by cannibals.

Callously, the father, rather than feel sorry for the poor eaten hero, shook in the author’s frightened face the sheets of his manuscript after a cursory disapproving glance at what they contained. With a martyred look on his face he tore them to shreds and made clear to his son that, if this was what he intended to do with the costly education he was being given, it was worth the family’s while to put him to work in the fields alongside the fellaheen to do something useful.

Occupations such as storytelling or gournalgui جورنالجي (journalistic) tattle, to his father, his grandfather and uncles, were no better than the shameful dancing contortions of a painted ghazeyya غازيـّه in the village souk.

He was not being sent to school to become a folk ‘hakawatiحكواتي (storyteller) on a rababa (peasant one string fiddle) but to prepare himself for a respectable career as officer, doctor or, in the very least, lawyer. While the latter was a profession the father was not too fond of because of the bad feelings that developed between him and his father-in-law whose profession it was, most of those who made it to the top in those days as diplomats, ministers, prime ministers, and leaders of political parties, were lawyers.

The talking to availed nothing at all: it went in one ear and out the other, as did every piece of advice he was given. He did not stop writing stories. He was under some sort of compulsion. Neither his father nor he for that matter knew that this was happening to him because of a love affair. That was revealed to him years later by the Wanlys, a pair of surrealist painters whose studio became a favourite haunt of his in early youth. They had been observing him for some time, they said, as they stood eying him as if he were a specimen under the dilapidated microscope they sometimes peered into when they were short of inspiration. They had come to the conclusion that, contrary to the case of most adolescents, the ‘hots’ he was having were for words. He was not to laugh, they said, in all seriousness. If he took a look inside his head at his addled brains he would find why he was always trying to transform all that he looked at (even their own paintings), felt, heard, or hoped for into sets of neatly arranged words that, in most cases, said nothing anyone could understand. He, at the time, was contributing short pieces on a weekly basis to ‘Al-Nidaaالنداء a paper of the Wafd Partyحزب الوفد of which he was a member, and had had the temerity to write things their paintings they did not like.

The way the Wanlys put it might have been as zany as the paintings they tried to convince him were great works of art he was too hidebound to understand, but ‘hots?’ You cannot have the hots for words or want to ‘make love’ to them, or so he thought at the time. He knows better now.  Deep in his heart, however, he felt that crazy as his two artist friends were, what they said about him and his love affair with words was not far off the mark.

Words did have a special fascination for him that has never waned. He usually catches himself whistling contentedly whenever a dictionary is open in his hands. The first school dictionary he was given, ‘The West,’ captivated him so much that he decided to memorize it in its entirety. Words were always coming to him out of nowhere and proposing themselves as sonant containers for every experience, thought, wish, dream or fear that he ever had. Any likely subject of a ‘composition,’ as such assignments were called in those days, which could lend itself to treatment in story form, brashly came out as such on the pages of his exercise books. Luckily, he was blessed with teachers who did not disapprove of such strange antics from a schoolboy. One of them in particular, Ustaz Salama, أستاذ سلامـه god rest his soul, seemed to like his gaucheries so much that he sometimes read them aloud to a sniggering class. In comment on a more ambitious try, he even wrote an encouraging remark. For his pains, when the boy rashly went and showed the father what he considered to be an official endorsement from his teacher that showed how wrong the father was about storytelling, a parental complaint was lodged against the poor teacher in which he was accused of misleading an impressionable youngster.

For all the stiff resistance and the resultant contretemps, it was perhaps some unseen hand, or maybe his long-gone self that once was a scribe in a Thebes temple, that did the ‘misleading of the impressionable youngster.’ Throughout life, anything he set his hand to other than writing proved to be a non-starter, a let down.

Only by writing life became worth the hassle and to be able to write as he wanted to do, without having to look over his shoulder, was worth any risk, even a drastic change at mid life. The move to Britain, when he felt within an inch of the fate that overtook ‘Munir my darling’ in his short story, ‘The Burrow’ (‘Flights of Fantasy’), was similar to the leap the unheroic hero of ‘Black Magic’ was on the point of taking, at the peak of his ordeal, from a fifth-floor window without a safety net. As it turned out, no safety net was needed.

The notion that art is some sort of confession seems to apply in the case of a writer whose output has been inspired by a combination of a strange insatiable hunger and a strong sense of revulsion that, throughout, between them, shaped his outlook and guided him in all he wrote.

The hunger caused no end of trouble even in early boyhood. He asked too many questions that left the grown ups staring in dismay. The grandfather’s expectations especially were not too rosy as far as he was concerned.  He was headed for a place no one in his right mind wished to go to. The questions he asked were not however hissings in his ear by some evil spirit as the old cleric seemed to think. He was made to ask them by someone inside him who wanted to know why.

There was not a mechanical toy he was given as a child that was not taken apart in the first thirty minutes or so of its falling into his hands. This lust for finding out why things happened the way they did developed, as he grew up, into a desire to find out what made people do and say the things he watched them do and heard them say to each other. Unable to dismantle them as he did his toys to find out why, he had to content himself with letting his imagination try to penetrate their defences and do the digging inside.

Quite a few of the stories he wrote came to him in some fleeting look he caught in the eyes of a passing stranger and, in the millisecond of casual eye contact, told him of things that were churning inside or pierced his inner hearing with screams of terror and torment. Others were set in motion in his head by some hurriedly exchanged whisper between two strangers that was not meant for the ears of others but was overheard by him on a crowded bus or from a nearby table in a bar or restaurant. Those ‘keys to the kingdom,’ as he called them, opened the heavily guarded doors that people securely barricade themselves behind and made possible the breaking and entering into the breathtaking interior where all sorts of hell and madness were breaking loose. Hand in hand with the hunger, went the revulsion, the loathing for injusticeالظلم . Aptly enough, the word is a derivative of الظلام, darkness. It is in the dark that the animal in man sinks to the lowest depths and commits the most hateful acts of meanness, greed, brutality and the devouring of others.

With such an obsessive combination guiding his hand, his writing, both at the creative level and the more down-to-earth one that led to the rummaging in the closets of history, was destined to come face to face with the darkness and to try to tear at its folds. All that he has written and continues to write is in the arena of the tussle that ensued. Inescapably, this has earned his writing the label of ‘controversial’ and brought down on some of it the heavy hand of the almighty censor in exercise of the old practice of ‘preventing literature.’ Regardless, what he has been saying does not seem to have been said in vain. The world wide web has brought to him the knowledge that there are those of his contemporaries who have lent an ear to what, over the years, he has been saying in newspapers, periodicals and books and on radio, and has found a place on the shelves of the libraries of major centres of learning.

Other than fiction, radio, a medium for which he has a special fondness, and contributions to the printed media, a major part of his writing has been the outcome of long voyages of discovery he embarked on to try to find out what, in the far distant past, was going on in the ancient Near East.

One result of this rummaging in the awesome closets with their ancient clinking skeletons, has been a two-volume work, in English, that took the best part of twenty years to dig up facts about Egypt’s civilization firsts that, very uncharacteristically, were left dormant and undisturbed by some usually loquacious pundits of the science of Egyptology. The digging brought to light the truly outstanding achievement of some of such big guns of the science who, for various reasons that ranged from the religious to the racialist, not only looked away or pretended not to see – to the detriment of the moderns’ knowledge of Egypt’s real contribution and place in history – what they came face to face with preferring to leave it dormant and disturbed, or donating it to any unfindable hypothetical ‘donor’ that came to mind. Taking its cue from the popularity of the Detective novel’s sleuthing into the misdeeds of men, ‘The Great Egyptology Whodunit,’ has been the title work came up with for itself.

Another result of the voyages of discovery in the past was the series of seminal works researched and published in the 1980s and 90s: ‘A Political Interpretation of the Bible,’ ‘Magic in the Bible,’ ‘Christianity and the Old Testament,’ and ‘Sex in the Bible.’

After the passing away of Isabelle, his life’s companion, the kind hand of an ever merciful God, lifted him from the hell crater of grief, loss and loneliness and, with a gentle nudge, pushed him toward the intermittent trysting in the enchanted world of ‘Saïdi,صعيـدي , an autobiographical novel, he has been writing as an occasional escape from the demanding reassessment, re-researching and rewriting, in English, 20 years on, of the biblical voyages of discovery.

The first work of the series, now nearing completion, is a two-volume Socio-Political re-reading, in English, of the times and storytelling of the Holy Bible makers, committed writers who, in their own way, from their time in the far distant past, gave the world its No.1 bestseller.



Why Write?

(The following are thoughts jotted down in drafting an answer to a question Dr. Maher S. Farid, Professor of English at Cairo University asked some time ago in relation to a study he intended to write).

Why write indeed! This is a question that I, from time to time, ask myself. My long-suffering Isabelle used to console herself for what my writing put her through by thinking that men never grew up. They had to play.  Those who, as adults, continued to do what they had done when they were kids by becoming writers, risked frittering away their lives and the lives of others on an activity that made rich some who pretended to be publishers but were no better than street newspaper vendors. For all that, it was not kind to try to stop the players from expending time and energy on the ungrateful task. To try to stop them would be like taking away a shiny toy or a cuddly doll from a child.  Although I have never been able to fault her logic, I could not stop myself from frittering away her life and mine. I still remember her coming into my study timidly and hesitantly as if she were intruding, for a few snatched moments of companionship after hours of enforced loneliness with a sewing machine, a magazine or the TV.

Play as it might be, writing, whether we like it or not, like any other human activity, is governed by the laws of economics: it exists because there is a need for its products that creates demand which creates a market that offers the opportunity of gain (monetary or otherwise) for those supply its products. The needs (and lusts) that motivate people to seek satisfaction by consuming the output of writers vary just as their physiognomies do.

There are those who need to read because they have a need to ‘kill’ the unkillable which, in the end, kills us all: time. Naguib Mahfouz نجيب محفوظ was perceptive enough, in his novel ‘The Beggarالشحـّاذ , to describe the sort of writing that caters to this need, as that of the ‘peanuts and popcorn vendor أدب اللب والفشـار.’

There are those whose reading needs arise from a hunger for titillation of the senses. They read to vicariously satisfy a desire to fornicate or to kill that is difficult and too risky to try to satisfy in lived reality. This, of course, has created the thriving market for the two ‘genres’ that are most in demand in our day, the ‘Erotic,’ wherein the reader is regaled with steamy descriptions in detail of how the characters make love or are made love to and the Detective wherein the consumer, under the pretence uncovering the dastardly deed of the wrongdoer and bringing him or her to justice, is regaled with descriptions of a series of gruesome killings. Because of satiety, it would seem, one murder is no longer sufficient and the norm, in a well-made work of this kind, is quite a few. The appetite for the salacity and gore of the two genres is such that the proliferation of their products now jostles the varieties of packaged edibles on Supermarket shelves and, of course on Cinema and TV screens.

There are those who need to read to sate an emotional hunger by vicariously living emotional experiences that, for various reasons, are not available to them in everyday life. In modern societies, because of the spread of the audio-visual packaged TV product, writing seems to be on the point of being reduced, in the popular imagination, to a means of vicariously satisfying this and the two ‘sister’ needs: those of satisfying the lust to fornicate and the lust to kill.

As long as there exists demand for the products of the undoubted talents of those who become ‘writers’ (or ‘riders’ as the word, sometimes, is aptly corrupted in pronunciation) to make a living by playing the roles of court clowns and entertainers of the past or by trying to upstage circus clowns and trapeze flyers, there will be a thriving market for and an uninterrupted supply of such writing.

The problem is that the continuingly accelerating demand for such literary stupefiers whose results a brilliant mind as Aldous Huxley’s dwelt on in a 1920s essay on the universal drift toward the ‘Low Brow,’ is mushrooming in a manner that is rivalled only by the demand on Alcohol, Heroin and Cocaine as a means of escape from reality.

Other than the needs that create the demand for such varieties of writing, we might suggest a need to hang on to humanness. This, unfortunately, is a need because of what seems to be a tendency in modern living to strip people of humanness or seduce them into surrendering it either piecemeal or wholesale. It is particularly in relation to this tendency that a writer needs to write.

Having said that, it might help to remember that, strangely but aptly, the term art فـنّ, has, beside its standard meaning, the meaning of عنـاء i.e. ‘toil, hardship!’ It is, perhaps, the absence of this deeply buried sense of the term that makes us unaware that writing, as the most likeable of the writers who gave the world the Holy Bible, the ‘Preacher,’ put it in Ecclesiastes, is like every other endeavour, a ‘vanity of vanities and a grasping for the wind.’  That writer, a king who had set his heart on ‘knowing wisdom and knowing madness and folly’ seems to have said that because he had found that this grasping for the wind led to nothing more than grief since he who sought to know more simply sought to add, by knowing, to his woes and to those of others! So much so that better than all was ‘he who had never existed and had not seen the evil work that is done under                   the sun’ (Eccl.4:3).

There is an old view of the artist (a term used here as a loose appellation for the motley crew of creators, researchers, poets, composers of music, painters and sculptors) and of his function, that sees him as seer, legislator and theorizer. He is seer, because he has visions; legislator, because he, in creating art, discovers ‘laws’ that are much more valid and, therefore, more enduring than changing legal codes; and theorizer because he intuits systems of thought that are born of his visions and yearnings.

In some cases, there has been added to these functions of the artist that of foretelling the future, not by casting lots or reading palms or the entrails of slaughtered animals, but by extrapolating from his experience with the present and his reading of the past, what the future might bring. In the 1920s, Aldous Huxley predicted that the sports fields of the world will progressively replace its battlefields. He also predicted a statutory daily dose of Soma.

Because such views and classifications of the artist and his functions are laudative, we would do well to modestly try to escape their seduction since they might confuse and, possibly, stifle, and are not free of pretence and wishes of self-aggrandizement. At a much more down to earth level, the question can be: ‘What is the aim of the artist’s art, and what makes him wish to create such art, other than, of course, a wish to be famous, to appear to be clever, to become ‘lionized’ or to be made rich?’ The Wanlys’ answer to this question, when I made the faux pas of ingenuously putting it to them, still rings in my ears, but unfortunately, is unprintable.

While I, at the time, was not amused by their levity, I now can see that in this, as in many other aspects, we would do well to step carefully away from the ‘romantic’ portrayal of the artist as a sort of superior being, either angelic or demonic, or of valiant hero martyr, the illusion that lured Byron to his death.

The flights of phantasy inherent in the romantic illusion, when tried in everyday reality away from the safety of the flying in the realms of poetic licence, served only to seduce the major poet into playing the role of valiant combatant hero/martyr – in his own mind, not in the reality of battling with the Turks.  In the end, it availed nothing more than a miserable gratuitous death in bed amongst people who did not look up to him as the hero/martyr in shining armour but as the opportune source of shiny lucre.

The ‘romanticality’ of such portrayals of the artist was not the Romantics’ alone; it has been that of their opposites. While the Romantics saw or pretended to see the artist as hero/martyr, the Social Realists ideologically cast him in the role of hero/militant. In either case, he was superior, distinguished and a hero.

Regardless, the artist – once the mind frees itself from the strangle hold of the obsessions that lure it into this sort of twilight-zone thinking – is neither the one nor the other. While he or she is a person like any other, he or she differs only in being touched in the head or ‘cursed,’ as the Baudlareans put it, and, therefore, is made recalcitrant, dissident, with a head filled with strange yearnings that are rather difficult to satisfy.

In short, the artist is an individual like any other but, unless he hires out as apologist, he is a non-conforming, rebellious, confrontational individual whose yearnings set him apart. Because of the mixed bag of notions of what he is, this apartness tends to make him the ‘mad, infidel, debauched, out of line, decadent, corrupting, destructive and sabotaging’ outsider. Contrary to all this, the writer, if genuine, is neither a freak nor a destroyer. All such ideas are failed imaginings of what he is, of what he aims for, and of the function he performs. They are failed imaginings because they are produced by fear and mistrust of the different other. While the concerns that inspire his writing cause him to stick out like a sore thumb, his yearnings, insatiable search for what surpasses the actual, cause his dissidence to be seen as a danger that would rock the boat of the firmly rooted, accepted cosy familiarness of lived reality.

Such apprehensions mostly result from the often-misunderstood fact that the writer, as an individual who shares with others the lived reality of society is sometimes able to see a little bit farther, a little bit more clearly and, therefore, can see the lived reality for what it is. Because he insightfully perceives the shortcomings of the status quo, he finds them unbearable. Rather than acquiesce as others do, he, as it were, ‘rebels.’ In so doing, however, he does not throw bombs or blocks of concrete: his projectiles are no more than the words with which he tries to change whatever he finds unbearable in the lived reality he shares with others, by changing the minds of those others.

That, he does not do out of deviltry, or because of the innate delinquency  of a professional troublemaker, but in pursuit of the perceived possibility of a better reality that surpasses a status quo which, to those who acquiesce, might look like the acme of goodness, excellence, and beauty.

Charles Dickens, for instance, because he was able to see a better way of having an industrial revolution without using children as slave labour took on Victorian society at the height of its dangerous smugness and with his writing managed to curb some of its worst excesses. Not content with that, he crossed the Atlantic to take on American society on the issue of enslaving others. More recently, Alexander Solzhenitsyn took on the Soviet system at a time when it was at the peak of ‘revolutionary’ zeal.

Just as these two cases are not the only ones, the artist is not the only rebel. The inevitable clash with the solidly established has been the way the whole species broke out from the jungle. If man has been able to come out of his smoky cave or climb down from the trees, it was because the human spark in him instinctively rose to the challenge and made him step out from the safety of lived experience and venture into an unknown that was soon to become obsolete and left behind for a new unknown that looked like a better bet.

While the writer’s insight leads him to step out from the well-tried and the actual in his yearning for what is humanly ‘better’ and feasible, for a more rewarding existence, his moral sense that is the justification of his existence as writer importunes him to put his vision in words and as Shelley asked the West Wind to do, scatter them far and wide rather than leave it to chance or to the whim and fancy of those who manage the affairs of others. That exactly was what Solzhenitsyn did in his gargantuan tussle with the Soviet system: he proposed a better way of achieving what Soviet society claimed it was trying to achieve, but without having to enslave everyone in the process.

In so doing, the writer, whether he wishes to or not, finds himself in the precarious position of lone ‘trouble maker’ or ‘boat rocker,’ because he, with the only tool he has, words, tries to remove or show up for what they are the obstacles that stand in the way of what he sees as a possible substitute for the status quo. George Orwell put it thus: a writer writes because he has a ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction’. That he tries to do, not by blowing up people, or by incarcerating and torturing them in order to make them see it and do it his way, but by ‘changing their idea’ of the kind of society they should live in.

The problem in all this is: what right has the writer to think that, like mother, he ‘knows best’ and, on the strength of such conceit, to wish to do such a thing? Because, to his contemporaries, he does not appear to have any such right he – unless he restricts himself to turning out writing that addresses the very basics of the human animal such as feeding, fornicating and killing – will always be looked upon as aberrant: an ‘outsider, and ‘trouble maker.’

While he might be read in these imagined capacities as a sort of curiosity, the only ones who intently listen to what he says and see the point he tries to make will be none other than those whose interest is to shut him up either by censorship or by other means. The late lamented Anwar el-Sadati had a name for writers: ‘r’theel’ رذيل an epithet that means ‘low, base, mean, vile, despicable, contemptible, depraved gate-crasher!’ The ‘r’theels’ he jailed and tortured were gate crashing  who tried to meddle with his running of his own private fief, his Ezba, Egypt.

For all such contrariness, the writer, if genuine, is neither an aberrant nor a gatecrasher. He does what the hoopoe repeatedly tries to do in ‘The Farm of the Naked’: tell the acquiescent to watch out as they might be heading for a bad fall. The negative views of the writer and of his role are as arbitrary as are the idealistic and airy-fairy notions that make of him a hero and a martyr.

Proof of the wrongness of both views resides in the fact that the few writers whom the merciless history of literature has kept alive in their writings were those who, in life, dared to venture outside the lived realties of their time and cultural milieu, in search of what history, long after they were gone, discovered to have been a better way of doing things. They were the ones who tried ‘to push the world in a certain direction’ by ‘changing people’s idea of the kind of society that they should aspire after,’ as Orwell put it. What really matters in all this is not the ‘immortalization’ of writers. For once dead, a writer – like any other transient mortal – is dead and gone. What matters is the value of any writer’s contribution to the non-stop striving after a better and more rewarding tomorrow. To put it succinctly, the thing that matters, as the Irish poet put it, is the song, not the singer.

People, as individuals, struggle under the heavy weight of the inescapable need to ‘make a living,’ to get the allotted bit of ‘daily bread.’ To do that, they have to be, as they keep telling themselves, ‘practical and realistic,’ which they can be only if they focus on the concerns, preoccupations and aspirations of the here and now, of their little moment. In such a view of what life is, of what living is all about, the relationship with authority tends to develop into a malignant growth which, because of the natural desire of the living organism to continue to live, becomes so inflated that it sometimes engulfs what we call reality.

In such sad cases, the business of living is transformed into a chore and a burden, a sad state of affairs that, in one form or another, is the stuff life is made of for the characters of my fiction and the driving concern that motivated the rummaging in my non-fiction. The only excuse, if excuse is needed, is that life, the only real possession of the human individual, is short and anything that, in any shape or form, under whatever excuse, stops him or her from making use of that only possession to the full, in human terms, is pure evil that has to be resisted with the only tool the writer has at his disposal: words. While my characters waded into this and got mangled each in his or her own way, I took time off as it were to cold-bloodedly look at the mêlée in such essays as “Literature and Revolution,’ and “Commitment of Course, but to Whom?”

You can call mine a commitment, if you like, but commitment of a rather different kind that was born of the conviction that the artist, whenever and wherever he exists, is a rebel incarcerated within walls he has an obligation, both to his art, to his own humanness and to that of the others he writes for, to jump over and to leave behind as does the horse tribe in my ‘Farm of the Naked.’ If he cannot do that, he, in his art, has to bring those walls tumbling down in order to make possible the break out to what lies outside. This is not because he is committed to destruction, but because, as writer, his insight tells him that walls that are erected round what has been achieved, soon become obsolete and, when entrenched as the dogs desperately try to entrench them in ‘The Farm,’ become ossified obstacles in the way of the breakout that is the object of his yearning and the justification of writing.

To the late Adul Wahhab al- عبد الوهّاب البيـّاتي, poetry – in what he wrote of his experience as eternal traveller in search of that better tomorrow which, in his poetic vision, was ‘the comer that does not came,’- is a wish for what is not there, what is not in hand. As such, poetry cannot be a mirror to the existent and the actual, but will ever be a yearning for that which beckons. In Bayyati, rebel and poet fused in such union that his whole life of eternal exile was a quest for what he called the ‘man/poem of tomorrow,’ the tomorrow that refused to came.

The poet’s aim in creating or, rather, re-creating reality, is not to found an improved tomorrow to inhabit, enjoy, rest in, sing of and become its captive, but of a tomorrow that will have to be surpassed and, once again, left behind.

To gauge the validity or otherwise of such a view, we have only to consult the history of art and literature. Whenever we do, we find that a great deal of the progress achieved by humankind is owed to this yearning for a better tomorrow by visionaries, poets and artists who pined for the advent of what beckoned from afar. In confronting the actual with their visions and yearnings, they reveal its failings and show that it is not all that breathtaking. Armed with nothing more than their eternal ‘what if!’ they keep pointing the way to what science, centuries later, starts to fiddle with in all sorts of the technical inventions of the physical sciences and the non-material ones of the humanities.

The landing on the moon and exploration of space were dreamt up, centuries before science built a rocket, by poets and romancers in visions that antedated what science later tried to achieve. It was the poet Homer who came up, back in the 9th century BC, with the robot the moderns now try to develop into a household gadget.  He dreamt up mechanical gadgets he had the limping god Hephaestus, whom the Greeks cloned from the Egyptian Memphite god Ptah and the Romans borrowed from them by the name Vulcan, manufacture in his mount Olympus foundry to do the menial chores of celestial waiters, carrying the laden plates and cups of nectar from the kitchens of Olympus to the Olympians’ banqueting tables and taking the empty vessels back to be washed in the scullery!  If a day comes when men and women are spared this sort of menial drudgery by household robots, Homer will be the one to thank.

Long before any scientist wistfully eyed the moon and sat scratching his head before a blank sheet on a drawing board, the 17th century French satirist and playwright Savienien Cyrano de Bergerac (part of whose name Edmond Rostand borrowed for the tragic-comic character of his 1897 play) came up with detailed highly imaginative accounts of voyages in space to discover not only the secrets of the moon, but also of the sun as science now is trying to do. The poet and artist, with his restlessness, his fidgeting and outlandish dreams, has been the harbinger of tomorrow. In 1762, Rousseau wrote ‘Du contrat social’ ‘On the Social Contract’) with the opening words: ‘l’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.’ (Man is born free, and everywhere is in irons!’)

The writer is not then the sort of dreamer who, in orbit, tends to soar away from the real, the actual and the practical, as sometimes he is thought to do because of his God-given gift of an unfettered imagination without which man would still be a simian grunting in his Palaeolithic cave,  or sailing from branch to branch in the forest canopy. The only difference is that while others are content to remain hostage to their little moment to languish safely under the crushing weight of conformity and the moment’s real enough concerns and worries, he, as member of society, shares the same burden, yet ventures – by shrugging off whatever shackles his thinking or dims his view – to go out on a limb and dream up for himself and for the acquiescing others, something that might be more valuable and less restrictive than what is in hand.

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