There is a sentence in Julian Barnes’s review of two novels by Maupassant (1850-1893) that struck me with unusual force and I wish to use it to reflect on our societal values in South Asia.
Barnes is talking about four pages in one of the novels that describe Parisian salons, “the tactics of the women who run them and the talented men who frequent them.” And here is the sentence that should knock a South Asian for a six:
Maupassant discusses the pecking order of guests: musicians at the top, artists next, writers coming a close third, with other riff-raff like generals and parliamentarians occasionally tolerated.
I am not making it up – you can look up the original here. Go over the pecking order again and take a few moments to let it sink in. Who is he calling occasionally tolerated riff-raff? And who is at the top? This is like standing South Asia on its head, isn’t it?
The unanswered question is obvious. Why are the social pecking orders of late nineteenth century France and twenty-first century South Asia so entirely reversed?
I don’t have an instant answer to this and leave it for discussion for the moment. But I do have Maupassant’s reasoning for the pecking order in the France of his time:
He notes how musicians are treated like royalty and inspire a fetishistic following; artists can be a little unreliable and rough-mannered, but worth it; while writers are useful because they talk a lot. Among the latter, your poet is more idealistic, and also more trustworthy, than your novelist, who ‘loots and exploits and gnaws away at everything he sees. With him, you can never feel safe, never sure that one day he won’t lay you naked on the pages of a book.’
Note that he does not even bother about the riff-raff that is only occasionally tolerated in the salons. It is clear that it was individual achievement, the acknowledgement of distinction by one’s peers, some mark of originality, which opened the door to intellectual companionship. Authority and position were not accomplishments of a comparable order and did not count for much.
And this is how it should be, shouldn’t it? So, why is it not like that in South Asia? Or, is it?