Literature is full of delicate perceptions that help fill up voids existing in our minds. Its purpose is more than pleasure; it promotes progressive viewpoints as well. Writers thus take up positions, whether in fiction or non-fiction, obliquely in the former, and explicitly in the latter, that they would like their readers to accept.
Ronny Noor's Slice of Heaven and Other Essays attempts to educate people about writers and their visions of progress; his intent is to show them the writers and thinkers' way to a society free of parochialism and superstitions. He would also have people keep faith in logic and reason, shun all prejudices and sectarian feelings, embrace good sense, and display civility. He would like to see them as agents of free thoughts as well. To produce such people, a new social order is necessary in which unobstructed exercise of knowledge (not simply, freedom of expression) would be possible. The bedrock of such a social order would be the adoption of a scientific attitude and a culture of openness, inquiry and sound argumentation.
Noor's book contains ten essays, all of which have unmistakable philosophical undertones. “The Worlds of Scholars, Philosophers and Creative Writers”, for example, discusses how great minds have sought truth in their time, albeit in their own fashion, and have propagated the message of 'salvation' through the pursuit of knowledge. While philosophers, he suggests, tend to be rigorous in their investigations, creative writers, he feels, adopt idiosyncratic styles to present their apprehensions of reality and the path forward. But like philosophers, creative writers also learn from life. Reading books by other writers, however, provide them with examples of techniques of writing, new forms and unique styles.
According to Noor, both philosophers and creative writers have been contributing to epistemology throughout history in their distinctive ways. The philosophical canon has been consolidated by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in ancient times, and Locke, Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer and Sartre in the modern era. On the other hand, the literary canon has been enriched, among others, by Homer, Virgil, Sadi, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, Milton, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tagore, Eliot and Marquez. There is a middle ground where philosophical and literary tendencies meld. Occupying this middle ground are writer-philosophers like Nietzsche, Camus, Russell and Emerson. But all thinkers, philosophical or not, search truth in seclusion. It is often a lonely struggle for them—a struggle against convention and a situation where they have to wade wading through the prevailing odds.
Noor poses a provocative question: “Are intellectuals irreligious?” According to his reckoning, the answer is “no”. A deep sense of spirituality works in the mind of intellectuals, who concentrate on the core objective of religiosity rather than emphasize the rituals associated with it. Intellectuals, he believes, have contributed to our understanding of the universe and the role of humans play in it. According to him, the practice of religion has evolved over time—from animism to pantheism, from polytheism to monotheism, and from theism to atheism. Intellectuals have been tracing the gradual development of the concept of God, and many of them have come to the conclusion that it is a social-historical construct, which may even be explained in psychological/neurological terms as a product of human evolution. For cherishing such ideas, many intellectuals have been branded as 'iconoclasts,' and thereby put to humiliation and torture. But Noor would have us believe that intellectuals believe that real religion is not in rituals and blind worship of deities, but within us, and truly religious attitudes are reflected in our deeds.
In one of his essays Noor attempts to find the causes of the backwardness of Bengali society. He blames our erroneous education system responsible for its present state. The essay “Our Faulty Educational System” lists its faults thus: 1. Our education is based on rote memory; 2. It is not based on social, historical and philosophical understanding 3. It is not connected to life; 4. It does not emphasize social responsibility. Therefore reformation of our education system is necessary to ensure proper intellectual training of the school-going generation of Bangladesh. Only such training will enhance students' intellectual capabilities, making them liberal in outlook and socially responsible. The pulse of real life will be heard in the artery of education only then.
Constricting the path to education only leads to communal conflicts. Limiting education can spawn religious bigotry. A person whose knowledge is limited to only one scripture may end up as a bigot, misconstruing other religious practices. He will behave offensively with hatred towards the people of other persuasions. He will be intolerant and will attempt to annihilate all others who do not subscribe to his own faith. Such attitudes will bring him to the brink of conflict. They are not healthy for society at all. Such attitudes can be avoided with proper philosophically based scientific education, which could elevate him spiritually with the knowledge of true human nature and educate him in the path of the truly humane.
Noor has been looking for a path out of extremism frantically. Referring to an essay titled “Navigating Past Nihilism” by Harvard Professor Sean Kelly, he argues that the world is plagued by two extremist forces, fanaticism and nihilism; the first comes from monotheism and the second from atheism. Both of them have vested interest in imposing their own points of view on others. A probable way out is creating a pluralistic notion, where competing doctrines can stay side by side, without adopting superior airs. Monotheists will often trumpet their faiths as superior to others. In order for peace to exist on earth, all will have to follow the Golden Rule of Confucius: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
Ronny Noor, let us note, is a professor of English at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, USA. Though he left Bangladesh a long time back, he never forgot his motherland. He witnessed the war of 1971 and the atrocities perpetrated in the country in the name of religion; he was witness then to the unwise decisions of some politicians. He questioned himself as to how one could overcome the effects of such atrocities and idiocies. He became convinced that the only way out would be to adopt secular and rational education, emphasize our indigenous cultural heritage and reemphasize ancient wisdom. Slice of Heaven and Other Essays will give its readers a sense of Noor's thoughtfulness and expressive style. Indeed, this fascinating work is evidence of his crystal-clear vision, which will surely enlighten the curious reader.
Dr. Binoy Barman is the Director of Daffodil Institute of Languages (DIL), and Associate Professor, Department of English, Daffodil International University.