Wednesday Editorial: The Raw and the Cooked, by Anil Menon

Editorial: The Raw And The Cooked

by Anil Menon


In the months of June and July this year, I found myself at IIT-Kanpur in the completely unexpected role of a workshop instructor in speculative fiction. It was a first for me, and I discovered what all gurus discover: you can learn a lot teaching. The sixteen students were a fascinating mix of places, histories, motivations and ambitions. I read a lot of their stories. Some were brilliant, beautifully written. Others failed in the way first attempts sometimes fail. But a couple of the stories were unclassifiable and evoked an odd pleasure. They were neither well written nor poorly written. The best way I can describe the writing is that the stories were not written at all. These stories had come straight out of the Raw.

The stories had their rhetoric. They had jokes, similes, ironies, POV shifts and unreliable narrators. But they didn’t seem to have been put together using these strategies. There was a lack of artifice. It was like eating sashimi for the first time. Or reading Kerouac, especially the parts where he doesn’t try so hard to be spontaneous. If I may channel:

Kerouac: If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out-to relaxed and said.

Me: I guess. Sounds trippy though. You high, Kerouac?

Kerouac: On life, punk. I invented the Raw.


Maybe he did. For him, it was “spontaneous writing.” For Whitman, it was a song in which “one’s self I sing.” For Lévi-Strauss, “the Raw” was a stand-in for “natural,” and  “the Cooked” was a stand-in for “culture” or “artifice.” I think of the Raw as a combination of authenticity and naturalness. Sushi is my basic model. Of course, my “authentic” might well be your phony, and my “naturalness,” your kinky weekend. In any case, at IIT-K, I became sensitized to the taste. I’ve even developed a hankering for it. These primal categories– the Raw and the Cooked– are fundamental to the structure and content of so many myths, but they are even more influential in the telling of stories.

Say an editor is faced with two manuscripts. In one, the writing is raw, straight from the street, in living language, uncooked, and it provokes all sorts of doubts within her. The writing is unclassifiable, different, unfamiliar and perhaps a little pathetic. There’s a good example of such writing in Jane Addams’s memoir, The Long Road of Women’s Memory. She describes how a rumor had spread that a “devil baby”, complete with forked tail and horns, had been born at Chicago’s Hull House, a settlement house run by Addams. She received hundreds of letters from people wanting to know if the rumor was true. Letters such as this anonymous one, presumably from a young woman:

“me and my friends we work in talor shop and when we are going home on the roby street car where we get off that car at blue island ave. we will meet some fellows sitting at that street where they drink some beer from pail. they keep look in cars all time and they will wait and see if we will come sometimes we will have to work, but they will wait so long they are tired and they dont care they get rest so long but a girl what works in twine mill saw them talk with us we know her good and she say what youse talk with old drunk man for we shall come to thier dance when it will be they will tell us and we should know all about where to see them that girl she say oh if you will go with them you will get devils baby like some other girls did who we knows. she say Jane Addams she will show one like that in Hull House if you will go down there we shall come sometime and we will see if that is trouth we do not believe her for she is friendly with them old men herself when she go out from her work they will wink to her and say something else to. We will go down and see you and make a lie from what she say.”

Let us suppose that the editor now picks up the second manuscript. This one is correctly formatted, grips the reader from the get go, builds suspense, works in interesting conflict. The story ritually stimulates the right emotions, hits the right notes, and if it provokes, it has the decency to do so with irony and without sentimentality. It might still get rejected, but if it does, it’s not because the editor has any doubt about the culinary skills.

Who can blame the editor for not publishing the first story? Every editor has had the experience of seeing a powerful story with a lot of passion, written in a moving unaffected manner, but also a story that cannot possibly be accepted because it’s clearly from somebody who doesn’t really write or think in educated English. If the mistakes were deliberate, a stylistic experiment, then the piece would have been of literary interest. But to make mistakes unconsciously– ignorantly, naturally– that is simply barbaric.

I use the word in the old Greek sense, from bárbaros: roughly, people whose speech sound ber-ber-ber. Incomprehensible people. Throughout history, Literature has deliberately or inadvertently barbarized entire peoples. For example, we know next to nothing about how the “lower” castes lived in ancient India because they couldn’t tell their tales in Sanskrit. When their stories emerge in Pali, a “lower” language popular and powerful during the brief four-hundred to six-hundred year sunrise of Indian Buddhism, the un-stylized stories display an unparalleled depth of feeling and honesty. But we only see that now. The experts didn’t see it then. It’s not unique to India. Medieval Europe. Early United States. Arab Africa. Every civilization evolves its Sanskrit.

I don’t believe there’s a conspiracy. And it would be simplistic to blame the Brahmins or the Church or Islamization or the slave-holding gentry. Literature doesn’t create barbarians by turning them mute. It does so by turning us– writers, editors, instructors, gatekeepers– deaf. They may speak, but we can’t hear. When writers are able to hear, they often become, as some ancient Sanskrit scholars did, eloquent champions for the unheard.

In fact, the cry for Raw is not particularly new. The Hindus made it a centrepiece of their belief system, defining salvation as the liberation from Maya, the freedom from illusory order, the freedom to see things as they are, uncooked. In Greek mythology, the Maenads, followers of Dionysius, the epitome of the Raw, tear Orpheus, the epitome of Art, into pieces. Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Idea speaks of the transcendent moment when humankind, secure in Maya’s boat, is forced to confront four raw impossibilities– the man returned from the dead, the past brought forward, the future dragged to the present and the distant brought instantaneously near. Aren’t these the four basic speculations of SF as well? Isn’t the claim of SF that it subverts our cooked reality? Nietzsche, de Sade, Walt Whitman, Dos Passos, Hunter Thompson, Kerouac, the charismatics, New Journalism, the Bhakti movement… the Raw has always had its champions.

But it hasn’t had many practitioners. Storytellers face a dilemma. They are trained to effect illusion, not dispel it. They are trained to be aware of what words can do. And this awareness is fatal, because the moment we become aware of a reality we start to cook it. Becoming aware of the Raw turns it into another style, sometimes a lifestyle. It’s now easy to write like Kerouac because mimicry only requires an example; what remains hard is to push out into the unheard frontier the way he did. And novels like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake,  Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Adiga’s White Tiger are all brilliant works, but they are just as cooked as if they’d come straight from Henry James’ kitchen. These stories get their energy from the Raw, but they are as related to it as Mickey Mouse is to mice.

The truth is that our literary magazines have no place for the kind of stories barbarians tell. Or rather, we are interested in their stories, but we are not interested in the way they tell it. The poet Cavafy said that in a decadent age, we sit around waiting for the barbarians. Not true. We wait for their interpreters. Jhumpa Lahiri’s parents won’t get to tell their stories in the New Yorker. Or rather, they can, as long as Jhumpa tells it for them. It’s not very different in genre lit. In SF, it is easier to have aliens warbling in faux languages than it is to have characters speak in their authentic, native tongues. For all its claims of estrangement, the “literature of the imagination” has as hard a time with the Raw as does the literature of the unimaginative. Kerouac’s one SF story, cityCityCITY, could only find a home in Nugget, an S&M rag, not in any of the SF magazines of the time.

That’s cool. The story did get published after all. There’ll probably never be a huge market for the Raw. That’s cool too. There’s no market for the horizon either, but we’re glad it’s around, someplace. Perhaps what matters is this: when the barbarian approaches our formidable gates and begins to speak, even if the speech is strange and the story incomprehensible, it should suffice if we recognize that it is speech and that it is a story, for then who knows, we may look again and see not a barbarian, but a brother.



One thought on “Wednesday Editorial: The Raw and the Cooked, by Anil Menon

  1. For example, we know next to nothing about how the “lower” castes lived in ancient India because they couldn’t tell their tales in Sanskrit. When their stories emerge in Pali, a “lower” language popular and powerful during the brief four-hundred to six-hundred year sunrise of Indian Buddhism, the un-stylized stories display an unparalleled depth of feeling and honesty.

    I was under the impression that Sanskrit was not a different language from Prakrit but a sort of artificial language obedient to Panini’s rules. Any one who could speak Sanskrit could also speak his or her local Prakrit. Clearly, no Prakrit was considered as ‘barbaric’ in the Greek sense.
    On the contrary, Pali and ArdhaMagahi (both sacred languages of the greatest intellectuals of the period) existed side by side with Sanskrit as objects of study. Braj Bhasha was used as the language of Sikh savants rather than Persian or their native Punjabi. Yet Braj is the rustic language par excellence! The fact that it held such prestige that great Persian poets like Bedil, or- at a later date- the Shia aristocrats of Lucknow (who were often of Persian lineage) accorded it a place higher rather than lower than the Arabic of the scholars or the Persians of the courtiers indicates that in India there is no tradition of considering the language of the people barbaric and beyond the pale.
    What about the British? We find that at the very time that an English Parliamentary Commission sent to Wales, to investigate the state of education, proposed that Welsh be phased out because it was a barbaric language and that it promoted immorality, numerous British and European authors were drawing inspiration from Indian literature. The British promoted Prakrits- it was they who gave the impetus for the linguistic demarcation of states. Both officials and missionaries praised and promoted Prakrits. Indeed, the very first published work in the Konkan language (a Bible) was by an Englishman- that too a contemporary of Shakespeare.
    The notion that the language or syntax in which thoughts are expressed matters more than content is simply alien to India. Of course, there may be ignorant people who snigger when they hear a strange accent- but everybody knows they are ignorant. At no time has language- rather than birth, occupation, wealth, military power etc- been a demarcating line between the ‘raw’ and the ‘cooked’. Indeed, compositions in Sanskrit are rawer than compositions in Prakrit- quite simply because of its more archaic universe of discourse.
    The notion that we don’t know about how ordinary people lived because they didn’t know Sanskrit is not true. The Chandogya Upanishad shows the miserable conditions of those without a patron. One of the heroes of the text is a carter. The Jain monk Hemachandra- who must have read the Arthashastra and other such material from the Maurya age now lost to us- has plenty of sociological material in his verses.
    Bhartrhari’s has expressed a ‘raw’ sentiment when he spoke of the cost of his studies as being the axe that laid waste the forest of his mother’s youth to no good purpose. His Sanskrit had gained him neither Wisdom nor the love of large breasted women.
    Brahmin priests, whose job required knowledge of Sanskrit, had a more archaic style of life- at least in most parts of India- they would always appear more rustic and simple than their aristocratic patrons.
    However, there were many hereditary priestly castes- like the Valluvars (Tiruvalluvar being the greatest Tamil poet) all preserving compositions in their mother tongue. True, the Valluvars also know Sanskrit and perform ceremonies from that canon- but who would be so foolhardy as to suggest that Sanskrit is superior to Tamil or that the latter is a language of barbarians?
    In Kerala in the nineteenth Century, we notice that Maharaja Swati Tirunal wrote in Sanskrit, Malyalam, Telugu (the most prestigious language for Carnatic devotionalism) as well as Hindi. There is no suggestion that a language is ‘barbaric’ because its users are working class folk. Otherwise Braj should occupy the lowest rather than the highest place in the hierarchy.
    It is quite possible that those who learned Sanskrit considered themselves superior to those who did not have the same educational opportunities. Otherwise, the literature of the country would not abound in instances where the educated fellow is shown as a fool whereas the ordinary person has common sense. Indeed, the tradition in India is for the highest saint to be considered more likely to be found amongst the common people rather than as the flower of the academy.
    There can be no question that class distinction gave rise to a vicious casteism- such that human beings were considered less important than animals. In Kerala and Bengal, we notice that some of the best spoken and educated castes were nevertheless considered beyond the pale for some obscure reason. This is utterly revolting- but it has nothing to do with the notion that some people had a ‘cooked’ i.e. a sophisticated world view and language, whereas others were ‘raw’- primitive, animalistic, irrational, etc. It may be that defenders of the caste system- or people who wished to resist the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s report- i.e people who resist affirmative action- such people may use arguments of that sort- ‘oh those backward castes don’t have the I.Q to benefit from going to top Colleges..”- but they are marginalized in Indian society.
    Now, Aryan Invasion Theory supports your contention- i.e the elite speak one language and the barbarians emerging from the forests to knock at the City gates speak a completely different, utterly unsophisticated, sort of language.
    But does it fit the facts? Tamil and Sanskrit are unquestionably unrelated to each other. But, since Tamil seems to have co-existed with Sanskrit- and South Indian authors excelled at both and showed equal reverence to both languages, it is difficult to see how your point is relevant to India.
    Sanskrit has only one advantage over a Prakrit viz. its artificial nature makes it a better instrument for purely abstract purposes. Otherwise there is no difference in their universe of reference, deep structure, rules of aesthetics etc.
    So long as two languages are inter-translatable we can be sure, as a matter of semantic holism, that cognitive functioning in each is fully comparable. A gradient might still exist- in the sense that the guys in the port city have more information and better technology than the pastoralists down from the mountains- and in that sense your point is perfectly valid. But does not every genuine literary tradition- as opposed to the incestuous self-dealing of an elitist literary coterie- plot its narrative arcs across such gradients?
    The problem with a Levinas like obsession with alterity- the supposed yawning chasm between us and the ‘other’- is that it is not founded (unlike Indian thought) on the notion of radical interdependence and identity under the rubric of mutually supportive co-existence.
    No question the greed and self-absorption of those who inherit wealth and power did undercut and give an ironic turn to the relationship between ‘cultured’ and ‘natural’ speech.
    A good example is the manipravalay dramas of Kerala where the Prince might make a grand statement in Sanskrit while the vidushak (jester) conveys the meaning in Malyalam but in an inverted or ignoble form.
    However the notion that ‘Every civilization evolves its Sanskrit’ is not true. Paninian Sanskrit is the opposite of a mysterious hieratic language which only a long initiation can enable one to master. In ancient Iran or even in China, we might say that the elite had a vested interest in making it more difficult rather than easier to be literate and write correctly. But Panini gives a bunch of rules such that anyone, from anywhere, can acquire expert level competence- they can say anything at all with perfect grammatical correctness- provided they apply themselves.
    In India, we notice that Sanskritisation is a vehicle to class power of ‘backward’ sections from rural areas. The Upper class prefer the jargon of the Cities mixed up with English or Persian or whatever. A guy in a village can gain mastery of Sanskrit if he applies himself but not in English. For that you have to go the right School, College and so on.
    Ultimately your critique is not about language, not even orthography or syntax, but ‘taste’ instrumentalized for purposes of social exclusiveness.
    You distinguish the stories you found raw saying ‘There was a lack of artifice.’ But artifice is relative always what is commonly known to be shared. Hence, it may be that you are saying ‘our information sets don’t overlap in a manner neither of us knows or understands.
    Let us say you are corresponding with someone by email and you get this feeling. You then say ‘where are you from, what do you do, what is your gender, are you an A.I…etc’ . The moment you hear ‘I’m an 87 year old lesbian from Gautemala with a special interest in Karl Krause’- all the pieces click into place. You have established an information gradient. You can imagine a narrative arc spanning that gradient. Both she and you will soon be able to see what in the other is artifice, what is phatic, what is sincere, what is merely conventional thinking, etc. You soon understand each other’s literary strategies. She realizes that when you write ‘I’m not bluffin with my muffin, when I say that Cavafy should have mounted T.S. Eliot’ that you are hinting, in the nicest possible way, that her love for Lady Ga Ga is likely, alas, to remain unrequited and that she should perhaps seek consolation in the Upanishads.
    In other words you are pals, you have a common language.
    But this is what didn’t happen in the case of the two stories you mention. Why?
    Were they, perhaps, ‘outsider art’? But, does Language, does technique, does taste, construct that outsider? Or is this a question for cognitive science?
    For my part, I can’t see how Sanskrit comes into it.

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