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A Defence of the Extraordinary?

In Defence of the Ordinary: Everyday Awakenings by Dev Nath Pathak, New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2021; pp xxvi + 249, `1,299.

The ordinary, along with its cognate terms, including the mundane, banal, usual, commonplace, normal and so on, connotes both a value attribution or judgment and perhaps also a statistical significance. That which is supposedly ordinary is also often the most frequent, statistically speaking. The extraordinary, on the other hand, is not only a deviation from the “normal” and thus statistically infrequent, but it is also accorded value—either negative or positive—of a different kind than that accorded to the ordinary. The ordinary and the extraordinary are thus both qualitatively as well as quantitatively distinct. Qualitatively, they are val­ued or judged differently and thus their social desirability differs. And the quantitative distinction may be discerned in terms of the statistical frequency of the pheno­mena. So, for ins­tance, an artist becomes an extraordinary one not only through positive value attributions but also through a process of establishing oneself as one among the very few.

At the same time, a natural calamity like a flood is an extraordinary circumstance not only because it is negatively valued and undesirable, but also because it is a relatively rare occurrence. A person with a mental illness is suffering from an extraordinary condition not only because they may behave in socially undesirable ways, but also bec­ause the symptoms that such a person experiences do not present themselves as frequently in the rest of the population. Therefore, in this analytical frame, the qualitative distinction bet­ween the ordinary and extraordinary in terms of the difference in normative value att­ributions of social (un)desirability is only a necessary but not a sufficient condition to distinguish the two kinds of phenomena. The sufficient condition perhaps comes to light in terms of the (in)frequency of the occurrence. Within this scheme of things, several permutations and combinations of what may be consi­dered ordinary or extraordinary are possible.

Introducing the Argument

It is in this context that this book argues against the idea that the ordinary is usually undesirable and thus something to be overcome. Dev Nath Pathak draws upon a noteworthy range of natural, ­social and popular cultural phenomena—including poetry, songs, films, literature, child-rearing practices, friendship, marriage, politics, religiosity, festivals, mythology, seasonal variations and so on—to substantiate his argument about the problem of conflating the ordinary with mediocrity. Right at the outset, the author asserts, “it looks like the world is eager to overcome ordinariness” (p 3). In this way, the author reminisces and reflects upon several of his own experiences as a student, scholar, teacher, father, lover, friend and so on, to invite the reader to the exciting possibilities of the ordinary.

The book is at once a celebration of the ordinary, and at the same time, a yearning for a reconsideration of our sense of the ordinary. The latter tendency is expressed in some chapters as a lament for a parti­cular kind of old-world nostalgia and romanticism; and in others, as a sharp and vociferous critique of the reckless objectification and technoscientific rationality that accompanies the promise of modernity. The “analysis”—though the author is outrightly disapproving of that term and practice in this book—employs wit, sarcasm, humour, ridicule and a number of other rhetorical devices to make visible the hitherto obscured signi­ficance of the ordinary.

While this is a book about the ordinary—its dynamics, its embedded mea­nings and ultimately its celebration—it is in no way an ordinary book. In Chapter 1 itself, the author offers a curtain raiser to the reader: that this book does not follow linear distinctions between pronouns; and in keeping with the true spirit of the ordinary, the narrative style is consciously one that defies the rules of grammar. This unfamiliar style of writing may seem like an obstacle but the author sees this as an opportunity for the book to bring out the dyn­amics of the ordinary. But, by taking a position against the “ordinary” rules of grammar, the author’s writing style is really “extraordinarily” novel!

Predominant Sensory Modalities

A recurrent theme in the book is the moral culpability of contemporary academics in their relentless efforts to def­ame the ordinary. In his succinct discussion of the hierarchy of sense organs and the predominance of the visual over the auditory, Pathak pertinently brings out the general academic tendency to treat the heard testimony as treacherous. In this way, the seen stands robustly as it constitutes absolute evidence, in complete contradistinction to the seeming treacherousness of the heard. And perhaps this extraordinariness of the seen can be understood in terms of its conflation with evidence and truth claims, parti­cularly in the empirical sciences and in juridical-legal discourses.

But if one follows the analytical scheme presented above, this way of seeing is perhaps the most commonplace or ordinary, at least from a contemporary standpoint. The author offers us several instances of the interplay of the senses since, as he argues, hearing aids in visualising. He painstakingly unravels what he terms as “ordinary” ways of seeing, by drawing upon fascinating popular cultural phenomena, including Hindi film songs, mythological tales, literary fiction as well as the eulogising poetry of Surdas, Mira, Kabir, and Tulsidas.

But these non-literal and non-linear ways of seeing, which do not necessarily correspond with things out there, may then be considered “extraordinary” ways of seeing, in our scheme of things. As the author argues, for those like Sanjay of the Mahabharata, whose mental visions of the battlefield were taken ext­remely seriously, “their seeing was more than merely seeing” (p 24). From a modernist standpoint, these “alt­ernative” ways of seeing may be extraordinary since they are not only infrequent but also require a certain conscious awareness and profound cognitive skills. In these ways, they go beyond the ordinary ways of seeing merely that which is out there to be seen, which then constitutes evidence of the absolute truth. This may invite the reader to critically think about what really constitutes this “ordinary” that the book prescriptively atte­mpts to “defend.”

Ordinary Emotions, Extraordinary Expressions?

In his critical discussions of ordinary emotions, the author brings to light the deeply felt and visceral dimensions of emotions that are often trivialised as
we tend to privilege only “thinking of” emotions. Detailed descriptions of everyday life instances and experiences lead him to argue that we have no qualms
in performing what he has termed “fake emotions.” At the same time, the author also alludes to what I see as the problem of conflating emotional experience with verbal expression. The author asks whether we consciously decide to be split personalities, feeling one emotion but expressing ano­ther. So, in this thought-provoking formulation, expressing emotions truthfully turns one into a deviant, an outlaw and an abnormal, according to the book of social norms, the law book, and the book that scientifically defines normal behaviour, respectively. Thus, Pathak brings out the irony of our times: “one cannot freely emote, even though one is living in times inundated with emoticons on the phones!” (p 44).

While the author is concerned about the pathologisation of “truthfully” expre­ssing emotions—a behavioural practice that supposedly characterises one as ­abnormal, according to the scientific book that defines the limits of normal behaviour—as well as the problem of not being able to emote freely in contemporary times, it is perhaps tenable to point out that the same book that scientifically defines normal/abnormal beha­viour in fact also pathologises diminished emotional expression. This, accor­ding to our initial scheme of ordinary versus extra­ordinary, is then an extraordinary condition, according to that scientific book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association—one of the most authoritative textbooks of psychiatric nosology that the author is perhaps implicitly refe­rring to. This then begs the question: What precisely amounts to “true” emotion or the “truthful” expression of emotion? If the overt expression of “true” emotion is the ordinary that has been lost and thus ought to be defended against the extraordinary attempts of the family, teachers, and other social institutions to prevent us from becoming “emotional fools,” where does it leave that psychiatric abnormality called diminished emotional expression? An inv­erted version of the author’s argument is perhaps instructive: the truthful expression of emotion as an extraordinary attribute that one longs to see in a person, juxtaposed against all those ordinary teachings about the ills of being emotional.

In this analytical frame, the psychiatric pathology of diminished emo­tional expression remains what it is: an extra­ordinary condition of psychopathology that is negatively valued, socially undesirable and thus pathological. From this standpoint, one may also advance an argument against the medicalisation and/or psychiatrisation of society, premised upon the pathologisation of both “truthful” and diminished emotional exp­ression. So, the book could have made this distinction between “true” and “fake” emotions more lucid. This would not only enable a consideration of the existential implications of such a binary, but also a rethinking of the underlying assu­mptions about ordinariness and extraordinariness upon which the binary is premised.

But the implicit binary of fake and real or true emotions also brings to light the question of the extent to which emotional expression is congruent to emotional experience. For instance, was the protagonist of the movie Joker performing fake emotions because of his recurrent laughter during social interactions, despite writing deeply poignant accounts about his emotional experiences in his personal diary? Such a binary will lead us to ask these ordinary (ethical) questions about such extraordinary persons. Pathak also pertinently argues that non-verbalised emotion should not be ruled out simply because one has not taken the pain of looking at it (p 45). However, as we see in the case of Joker, the non-verbal is not ordinarily expressed. It is most often an extraordinary expression in non-verbal mediums, including the written word, poetic expr­essions, songs and so on. In this particular context, we are again led to revisit and rethink the prescriptive idea of def­ending the ordinary.

Extraordinary Avenues to the Ordinary

These themes of the mundanity soaked in emotions and the ordinary enactment of extraordinary visions discussed thus far also come to light in subsequent chapters on persons like Ramakrishna Paramhamsa—who the author sees as an ordinary lover. While Pathak is tacitly open to the possibility of the mystic’s ext­raordinary visions—again, one of the most appropriate “symptoms” of psychiatric pathology from another standpoint —he emphasises the ordinariness of Paramhamsa’s mundane activities. For Pathak, such a characterisation motivates a celebration of Paramhamsa as an exemplary model of experiential freedom. But the mystic’s extraordinary visi­ons, which at once make him a “psychotic” patient from the standpoint of conventional (biomedical) psychiatry, and someone who is endowed with exceptional powers from a non-Western standpoint of healing, actually constitute the prism through which the ordinariness of his enactments come to light. So, the extra­ordinary here provides a window to that which may be considered ordinary. This conceptual theme can be discerned in several chapters.

In other chapters, the author also adv­ances a powerful critique of our recent collective tendencies to repress and pen­alise ordinary expressions of humour and dissent. This may be read as a critical commentary on the contemporary sociopolitical moment wherein the criminalisation of several forms of dissent, inclu­ding comedy, is commonplace. The aut­hor’s existentialist interpretation traces one of the first articulations of protest in the newborn baby’s crying. Pathak arg­ues that protecting the right to protest, which is a crucial human right enshrined in law, entails the most respectful attitude to the ordinariness of humans (p 73). But is protest really so ordinary? Is it not an extraordinary act of courage to stand strong in the face of oppression and raise one’s voice in protest? As I write this essay, these extraordinary acts are being increasingly rep­orted from ordinary citizens in Ukraine, who stand firm in their resolve to protect the sovereignty of their country during the ongoing war with Russia. Across time and space, such acts have often been referred to as “heroic,” owing to their extraordinariness. We can only begin to think of the ordinariness of protest through some of these heroic or ext­raordinary acts of dissent.

Concluding Remarks

Therefore, there are several such instances in the book that not only delineate the extraordinary as an important window or avenue to gauge the significance of the ordinary, but also lead us to critically think of a romanticised ordinary as really that rare extraordinary— that is truly remarkable, exceptional and endowed with immense possibilities—according to our initial analytical scheme. This will perhaps also enable us to re-ex­amine the seeming simplicity, innocence and imperfection of the ordinary.




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Updated On : 19th Jun, 2022
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