Jeremy Bentham tried to create a felicitous calculus. Since he believed more in the quantitative aspect of felicity, he thought that “The amount of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry”. This conclusion of sorts was in keeping with the premise he had set for himself. But what if the premise was incorrect? John Stuart Mill thought it was; that felicity was about quality, not quantity. His comeback: it was “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
I agree. But what brings this up? The concept of utility, of course. But what is utility? On these pages, I first saw a letter from a reader wondering why Khaled Ahmed writes his ‘Words’ column. This reader thought it was useless to go back in time and indulge in philology and etymology. He asked Khaled to write about the language as it stands. In other words, he wanted Khaled to be Daily Times’ Fowler. I could only shake my head. Not only because I love Khaled’s column but because I thought if someone wanted grammar lessons, maybe we could have grammar lessons but why must that exercise be at the cost of something which has its own distinct taste and flavour and is not grammar — thank God for that!
Then we have had letters lambasting Irfan Hussain for writing about food and wine and bending it like Beckham. So why should Irfan write about Beckham’s love life? Good question. Answer: And why shouldn’t he? Which is an equally good question and by that very fact a good answer to the first one. The gentleman who wrote the letter lives in the US. They even had to change the title of the film for the American market because the distributors weren’t sure if American cine-goers would know about Beckham. America, of course, is the place where they play football mostly with hands and call football, soccer. But this is not all. The next in the firing line of Utilitarians was Anjum Altaf. Why must Anjum write on classical music, a dying genre? Both Irfan and Anjum have explained their positions and very poignantly, I must add. But I am still shaking my head at this Benthamite (and lumpun at that) revival of utility in Pakistan, indeed among Pakistanis.
Why must everything be relevant to something, supposing for the sake of the argument that there in fact is an accepted or acceptable definition of what is relevant. Given that there is none, perhaps some of us might think that philology has its own use even as grammar remains important in its own right. Or that some readers might like to read something other than about Iraq and Palestine and Kashmir and Musharraf’s uniform or the emperor’s new clothes and all the profound things of which newspapers are fraught with and about which everyone has an ‘informed’ opinion. (And this includes the dreaded ‘grundnorm’ for which I am prepared to take partial blame!)
I have my own calculus for those of us, endangered species it seems, who do not believe in the Benthamite philosophy. I call it the Fabergé Calculus from Fabergé eggs, the beautiful but useless (from a Benthamite perspective) eggs that one can’t even eat. Tocqueville thought one of the problems of transition from Aristocracy to Democracy would be for mankind (humankind, stupid me!) to lose out on the irrelevant and useless but beautiful things. In their place would come ugly but useful, mass-produced items.
Maj.-Gen JFC Fuller in The Conduct of War said much the same thing in relation to chivalry in warfare. He identified the linkage between democracy, national mobilisation and total war. Today, chivalry has been replaced by technology. The ‘post-heroic’ soldier uses state-of-the-art weaponry to fight societies that still put premium on war’s Fabergé eggs, chivalry.
But while I am at Bentham’s felicitous calculus, I cannot sign off without a reference to Mr M’Choakumchild in Dickens’ Hard Times (what a name, indeed, most useful, you would agree; and let’s not forget Mr Gradgrind). They are of course trying to put Benthamite philosophy to good use in education. At the short end of their stick is Sissy Jupe, the circus girl who can only think in terms of nature. Here Jupe is talking to Ms Louisa:
“…Then Mr. M’Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was — for I couldn’t think of a better one — that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.”
It was wrong because it went against the calculus. Five percent misery is less misery than ten percent or upwards. Statistics are useful; they serve a purpose. Poetry is not. Some subjects are more profound and relevant than others. Those who do not write about them should stop writing for newspapers. There is no point in holding forth on the ‘utility’ to human life of a good verse that one can feel on one’s skin, or anything that can awaken finer sensibilities in a human being. You may have ridden horses like Sissy Jupe all your life but if you can’t count the horse’s teeth and name them, you fail the test.
Ejaz Haider is News Editor of The Friday Times and Foreign Editor of Daily Times