Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 17-18 (June 1989) p. 9.

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Signs of Madness

A Reading of the Figure of Kamalakanta in the Work of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay

[USudipta Kaviraj

The work of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay—in its great variety and contestabil-ity—has given rise to a large and often distinguished critical literature. But this literature seems to be marked by one crucial absence. Most commentators on Bankimchandra do not frontally analyse his work on humour, or treat it essentially as an external and socially trivial question of form. I consider this reading inadequate in a fundamental sense. Humour, especially the kind of humour that Bankim arranges between himself and his social world, appears to me a matter of historical significance. To state it differently, there seems to be an unstated adequacy between the kind of humour he arranges between himself and history, its literary form and the form of his experience of his society and its history. If this is true, humour indicates something of great significance. I shall suggest in what follows a reading of Bankim's humour which suspects that there is much greater historical symbolism in it than is commonly supposed. The social group whose best and most eloquent representative Bankimchandra was, found itself in a world of increasing contradiction, and a proper description of their frame of mind would be to treat it as a form of 'unhappy consciousness'; and this frame of mind sometimes found humour in the form of self-irony, one of its most subtly adequate modes of utterance.

Bankimchandra's Kamalakanta1 shows in Bengali literature the spectacle of the manysidedness of laughter, its indefinability. Kamalakanta shows the great versatility of a literature of laughter, its internal repertory; it is at different times the laughter of contempt, of not taking something seriously, the laughter of reproach, of pity, the laughter about the self which feels it is part of what it is laughing about. Kamalakanta is a great example of Bakhtin's argument about laughter, its having a key to the world's mysteries which other forms of more serious literary writing lack:

Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naivete and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality. Laughter does not permit seriousness to atrophy and to be torn away from the one being, forever incomplete. It restores this ambivalent wholeness.

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