The exceptional sensibility and intellect of a journalist

Today, September 5th, is the 90th Birth Anniversary of Mervyn de Silva, who distinguished himself as Editor of the Sunday Observer, Daily News and Editor-in-Chief of The Times group of newspapers.:

It is easy to write something personal about your dead father on what would have been his 90th birthday had he lived, when you are about to give another lecture on the eve of that personal paternal anniversary as your country’s ambassador in Moscow, an important metropolis that he and your mother took you along to for the first but hardly the last time when you were seven years old. But that would be to privatize and thereby trivialize Mervyn de Silva.

One of Mervyn de Silva’s pennames as a columnist was The Outsider. The column was ‘Off My Beat’. The choice of pseudonym was doubtless derived from Camus, but it also expressed how Mervyn would himself have felt himself to be. What strikes me is that the figure of The Outsider not only denotes a misfit, a non-conformist, but also belongs to the larger category or genre of the Exceptional, or, more tersely, The Exception.

What strikes me most as his 90th birth anniversary arrives is that here was a man who identified and addressed two of the most important issues that face Sri Lankans today, and what is more two of the most complex and deep-going dilemmas that face humanity today. While several thinkers have attempted to address the same issues globally, I have yet to find the published writings of Sri Lankans or Ceylonese (as we once were), who directly addressed either one of these issues, let alone both. Mervyn was the exception. What are these two issues? One was the relationship between liberalism and the larger society; more specifically between liberalism and change—both social and global. The second was the relationship between universality, humanism and nationalism. If one were to take as an organic whole, Mervyn’s responses to these two problems, one can discern a clear and distinct intellectual perspective; a perspective as a thinker.

The iconic literary critic Regi Siriwardena, one of Mervyn’s two outstanding teachers of English at Royal College (the other being ‘Dicky’ Attygalle), wrote the Foreword to the ICES publication ‘In His Time: Selected Tributes to Mervyn de Silva 1929-1999’. In it he chose to reproduce in full, the Daily News editorial of June 6th 1970, which was Mervyn’s first editorial having sat in the editorial chair at age 40. Having reproduced the editorial in full, Regi confirms that “in spite of the characteristic lucidity and trenchancy of Mervyn’s writing, the ideas he was stating were, as he acknowledged in his last paragraph, not new or original. They were in fact the accepted principles of independent and liberal journalism.”

Philosophy of journalism

As the decade of the 1970s ended, Mervyn would turn 50 and write his first anniversary editorial (1979) for the Lanka Guardian. It was 20 years before his death. In his concluding paragraphs he demonstrates that his commitment to “pluralist democracy” was rooted in a structural critique of the global establishment and a deep commitment to definitive change, and that this constituted a major facet of his philosophy of journalism. It was a second ‘Credo’:

“One important point remains to be cleared. It has been said that in our presentation of views, in our basic perspective, we are not “balanced”. It is the same argument that the transnational news agencies which control 90% of the international news flow use against fledgling Third World agencies. Be balanced, be neutral. On questions of social emancipation, neutrality itself could be a crime. As for our own effort, we do not work in a vacuum. We must relate our work to the national information system, the reading public and to society at large. The communications system is heavily weighted in favour of established and Establishment opinion. However miniscule, ours is a corrective, the corrective of a countervailing force.” (‘The First Year’, Lanka Guardian)

What then were the core values that informed Mervyn’s world outlook? In a brilliant revaluation Godfrey Gunatilleke concluded that in the sustained November 1972 debate in the Daily News with Mervyn’s old teacher Regi Siriwardena, “Both Regi and Mervyn were agreed on what I would call the literary critical fundamentals. But it is Mervyn who comes out more convincingly on the issue of literature and ideology. And Mervyn’s definition of the issues and the answers he gives go beyond the boundaries of literary criticism.”

Godfrey identifies Mervyn’s core values: “This was the way Mervyn articulated his own rejection of relativist nihilism and defined the “universality” to which all societies and their cultures need to be linked.” What was that ‘way’? Mervyn’s concluding line in the passage that Godfrey excerpts, reads: “The humanist’s article of faith embraces a human heritage. All literature is part of that...” (‘Pound, Poetry and Politics’, CDN, Friday Nov 17, 1972, p.4)

Universalist humanism, pluralist democracy, liberalism—all values on a continuum, and the common stock of values shared by those of his generation and educational background. These demarcated Mervyn from the nativism and resentful nationalism that was manifest in society and had surfaced even within Mervyn’s generation. What made Mervyn distinct, though not unique, in his own generation and cultural stratum, was the dual demarcation, from on the one hand, an anti-Westernism that turned its back on the universality that the western tradition contained and the English-educated elite had imbibed, and on the other, a West-centrism that ignored or benefited from the inequities of the interlocking domestic and global orders.

In his multi-part ‘Politics Today’ think-piece “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left” and “The Left Awakens from Romance to Reality”, full-page articles published in the Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16 and 23, 1967, Mervyn de Silva, age 37, engaged in a critical reconsideration of postcolonial society and a pioneering auto-critique of the Westernized elite and English-educated cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the Right and Left. Coming as it did from one of the most discerning intellects and striking personalities of that milieu, it contained the suggestion of a possible synthesis, a third politico-cultural and intellectual sensibility and stance:

“Had the English educated, in his own clime, retained some of his roots; if he had critically absorbed the ideas and values of the foreigner and assimilated what was good and true for his own people; if he had gone to his own folk and engaged in generous exchange and sympathetic dialogue; if he had not so cruelly decried and degraded the traditional, but tried to foster harmonious fusion where he promoted conflict, our history may have been different. Perhaps, our politics too. But that was not to be, and, as Aristotle said, not even God can change the past. Where a class abdicates its moral right to leadership, it is already doomed and must surely die. Happily, today, there are signs that the more sensitive among the English-educated have awakened to a sense of cultural responsibility. Once antagonistic groups are moving towards each other, notably in the local theatre. There is no easy merger, no hints of synthesis yet. It is a groping, hesitant and tentative. Often such encounters (from a strictly aesthetic standpoint) result in vulgarity, in the experimentally brash and the awkward. But the process is a salutary one and the English educated would be foolish not to give it an encouraging (not patronizing) push. A benign history has granted this class a reprieve. If it does not amply compensate for its historical offenses, even the finer minds of this class may find themselves trapped in a tragic immobility, like the prince in di Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’—without, however, his noble demeanour. The English educated intellectual may live long enough to write his own epitaph as the man who watched the train of history go by.”

global perspective

Mervyn definitively elaborated his global perspective in the 1982 paper ‘Non-Alignment and the New Information Order’, in the volume The Principles of Non-Alignment, co-published by the International Progress Organization, Vienna, and the Third World Centre, London. The volume is No VII in the series ‘Studies in International Relations’ edited by Hans Kochler, Chairman of the Philosophy Dept. at Innsbruck University, Austria:

“…an end to domination…the ultimate goal of course in this projected path of progress is the total emancipation of our peoples and their liberation in all spheres—political, economic and cultural…the system against which we are battling has been created by the West and remains West–dominated…Deeper down, as we touch the domestic power structure, we observe the role of local elites, their self-interest, their ideological outlook, and international linkages…a privileged English-educated minority stands at the apex of the power structure. In the countryside dwell the millions of Sinhala or Tamil educated poor, at whom the international communications system, controlled and managed by the metropolitan elite, is directed…” (Mervyn de Silva, ‘The Principles of Non-Alignment’, London, 1982, pp. 219-228)

Mervyn inscribed his core philosophical view in the final paragraph of the founding Editorial of the Lanka Guardian, the journal that he launched, coincidentally, in the year his own father died. The opening allusion is clear and the passage shows his evolution from the milieu of his childhood:

“We have been advised to be lamps unto ourselves. The press in particular has been invited to light the path of our leaders. For common humanity the possibilities of personal salvation, so freely given to the artist and the saint, can only be enhanced by the larger endeavour of social emancipation. The act of informed discussion is itself a source of illumination.” (Letter to the Reader: ‘Other news, Another opinion’, Lanka Guardian, Vol.1, No 1, May 1, 1978.)

Mervyn de Silva did not think that purely personal salvation was possible. “Social emancipation” and “liberation” had become central categories and Mervyn’s independent liberal journalism had grown into an emancipatory journalism, a Journalism of Liberation. Yet, his abiding, almost Socratic commitment to “informed, intelligent discussion” as central to that project, placed him between liberalism and liberation, searching for a synthesis.

Somewhere among all of this was the stated appreciation of an unstated affinity with Leonard Woolf. When Woolf’s Diaries in Ceylon 1908-1911, subtitled Records of a Colonial Administrator, was published in 1962, the author of the Historical Introduction (simply signed ‘SDS’) wrote that:

“Before concluding a word should be said about the circumstances leading to the publication of the diaries. As already mentioned, when Mr. Leonard Woolf was in Ceylon in January 1960, a number of suggestions were made particularly by the Literary Critic of the Ceylon Observer, Mr. Mervyn de Silva that these diaries be published by the Ceylon Government.” (xliv)

One cannot but observe that at the time Mervyn was 31 years old. The ‘Historical Introduction’ goes on to set out the structure of the volume:

“The short literary introduction by Mr. Mervyn de Silva discusses Woolf’s place in the English world of letters and evaluates his Village in the Jungle and his short stories on Ceylon as literary works, while the manner in which these particular diaries shed light on the novel are also noted.” (Ibid)

Mervyn’s 1962 introduction to Woolf’s Diaries make at least three important points which speak not only to the subject Mervyn was writing about but also “an implicit scale of values” (p. li) which constituted Woolf’s and his own consistent core.

The first was of a “liberal humanism”, but a liberal humanism which was completely different from that which is espoused and practiced by those of the same age group in Sri Lanka today that Mervyn was when he wrote this essay, i.e. the educated Westernized Lankans in their 30s. Mervyn stressed that Woolf’s “liberal humanism” was out of joint with what he calls “the imperialist system” and “the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism” (p. li). So, what we have is neither an anti-imperialism that was nativist and culturally circumscribed nor a liberal humanism that identified with, was comfortable with or looked to western imperialism for deliverance.

This was Mervyn’s own demarcation of values. This is who and what he was; where he placed himself—what Brecht would call his Standung.

Liberal humanism

The second was a refusal to extend that liberal humanism into a universal moral judgement on all cultures and civilizations; a refusal to allow liberal humanism to become part of a civilizing mission and the white man’s burden. Mervyn commended in Woolf a liberal humanism that eschewed “easy moral judgements” and was instead, sensitive to contexts and situations, especially in its relationship with “the impact of the East, and…its strange, exacting demands on understanding.” (p. liii).

“…One cannot discuss large issues like race, as if there were immutable standards of judgement. The moral criteria in such instances, he suggests, cannot be absolute but must be relative to the specific social situation.” (p. lvii) This then was not a liberal humanist fundamentalism. It was not the liberalism of a ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ and the Responsibility to Protect. It was a liberal humanism that was more protean than Procrustean.

Thirdly was the moral divide between those in our societies who are privileged by and benefit from imperialism; operate in its interstitial spaces and thrive upon it, and those others who resist or are marginalized by it. Mervyn’s essay concludes with the unambiguous ultimate moral validation of the tragic fate of the impoverished victims of the imperialist-driven order: “But their small lives are not without their own triumph. Their suffering is redeemed by a spiritual courage and a quality of endurance. In the lonely figure of Punchimenika, waiting for the final ruthless thrust of the jungle, there is a nobility which is truly tragic in quality…Their fierce attachment to these things, the strength of their loves and hates, and their ultimate indomitability of spirit make them persons of different moral worth than the ‘Fernandos’, the headmen and ratemahattayas of this world.” (p. lx)

Mervyn evolved a code of ethics that combined a refusal to make easy moral judgements in personal life with a double bias towards the individualist “outsider” in established society, and the social underdog in the face of “the imperialist system” (as Mervyn termed it in his long introductory essay on Woolf).

Yet, in the final analysis what mattered to Mervyn was the distinctive quality and character of the individual human:

“In his own estimate he was a conscientious officer, but the system called for habits of feeling and action which his whole personality must have steadily resisted. Woolf was given too much to personal judgements and discriminations to develop that total conformism which must have been, one guesses, almost a prerequisite of the ideal colonial officer. In spite of his obvious enthusiasm for his work, his attraction to people, places and things, he could not acquiesce in the oppressive orthodoxy of imperialism.” (p. li)

“At times, he could be the ‘outsider’, and survey the harsh, tousled world before him with the unruffled and dispassionate mind of the English intellectual. But he was not always au dessus de la melee.” (p. lvii)

The outsider, the unruffled mind capable of the dispassionate survey of a harsh unruly world—and yet, not quite so dispassionate as to be always au dessus de la melee– “above the fray”. His description and implicit judgement of Woolf, penned in his early thirties, could easily have been with the slightest modification, the final word on Mervyn himself.

(Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka is currently Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Russia and neighbouring states and, a writer, political scientist and social activist)


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