Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Co-wife by Munshi Premchand, and can the ego be a word?

The co-wife, René Girard, Jacques Derrida, Novalis, can the ego be a word?   …and again the co-wife.

In his short story, "the co-wife", Munshi Premchand tells the story of a married couple where the husband chooses a "co-wife", pretending this decision to be an almost normal, entirely manageable affair. Absorbed in his new love, he neglects not only his first wife but all his duties, leaving her with no choice, for the sake of her own survival, to leave her own home, which has become an utter mess. The new couple, incompetent in managing their life, quickly runs into an economic and health disaster, while the first wife, forced to live on her own, thrives. Eventually, the husband becomes ill and dies, and on his death bed, asks his first wife for forgiveness. She forgives him, takes the helpless co-wife in her home, and they both live happily together ever after.

This short story starts like a moralist tale and ends like a fairy tale. The irruption of the "co-wife" turns out to be not only manageable indeed, but even lovely, but at the cost of the life of the person who wanted it.

The "fairy tale" aspect is in the way the ending unites with the beginning: The "co-wife" was not a bad idea in itself, but not at all in the way it was imagined by the husband, the person who wanted it. On one hand, it could not have happened if he did not want it, but on the other hand, it could also not happen if the other person, the first wife, who never wanted it, had not eventually accepted it and turned a complete disaster into a success. But for that, the first person, the husband, had to disappear completely. And the second person, the wife, had to accept not only reality - the presence of the co-wife- but even to acknowledge the role of the first person in bringing about this reality, and forgive him. So the second person, the wife, has the capability to turn imposed realities of life into a success because she lives in complete acceptance of others, while the first person, the husband, destroys his own life because he is unable to accept what does not conform with his desires.

This can be experienced in different ways, including in many examples of our own lives: Nothing would ever happen if we did not have desires, but desires striving for exclusive purity run invariably into disasters, and nothing good would come out if these desires did not die, and we eventually accept, a reality that we not only never wanted, but that we could never have imagined.

René Girard opposes, in "the scapegoat", the "myth of the text" which is the implicit worldview that defines the meaning of the action that takes place, of the characters and how they see themselves and of the words they use, to the "myth in the text", which is the story that the text and its characters pretend to tell, the story that the words tell. In "Romantic Lie, Novelist Truth", (deceptively translated as "Deceit, Desire, and the Novel"), he opposes two kinds of literature, the "romantic" where the heroes are unable to escape the destiny of their desires, and the "novelist" where the heroes are "saved" because they are able to live through the death of their desires, and to experience the transformation of their desires into fruits that encompass completely new horizons, that could not be contained into the worldview of the desires that initially set the action in motion.

Jacques Derrida, when explaining what he means by "deconstruction", talks of a "strategy", of a "double gesture", which is dual "in and of itself", and it looks to me like a gesture that could hold Girard's "myth in the text" at arm's length and look at it, and in this process uncover the "myth of the text", by looking at both myths together and at the same time. For Derrida, this process unavoidably involves facing violence, the violence which is embedded in the worldview of the "myth of the text", and which is normally hidden, but uncovered in the process of "deconstruction", and this violent confrontation cannot be avoided. This looks to me like the illness and the death of the husband in Munshi Premchand's novel, "the co-wife". But this involves also sometimes death and violence on a tremendous scale, in wars and revolutions.

Words are not just symbols, or what Francis Bacon called "a currency that we exchange for concepts", they carry a whole world of materiality and living flesh with them. To ignore that reality, to "use" them as a currency, pretending that they are "available" and that their use is sort of "free", is like postponing the necessary hour of disclosure, the moment of deconstruction, when the "myth of the text" inevitably appears naked in its crude violence. Not that "it happens", like... "on its own"! It requires a hard work to do that. But the more it is delayed, the more necessary it becomes.

This violence does not have to be apocalyptic, to be the horrendous end of everything. Novalis had a very different notion of symbols from Francis Bacon. He wrote: "symbols can can be symbolised by what they symbolise. Counter-symbols". Thus, for Novalis, symbols are an act of thought, nothing can be a symbol in and of itself. Like when Alain Badiou says that "1" is really just a number, in other words an action, ("count-as-one"), and not an entity (a hypothetical underlying, ultimate and ever-elusive "unity").

This reversal of the symbol and what it symbolises, this symmetrical relationship, can help us to consider ourselves as words, as words striving to express ideas that we love but that we are only imperfectly able to express, thus bringing about the ideas of patience and of work in faith.

Thinking of words as a "currency" is a violent act. Nothing in the world is a "currency". This tendency can be seen when people insist that everything is "language", or that everything is a "symbol". This inevitably implies that things are subordinated to their meaning. To subordinate something to its meaning is necessarily a violent act. No entity deserve to be reduced to "a language".

Yet the notion of language can be creative. For example, we can think of ourselves not as "subject" (or ego) using words that are available to us, or at our service, but on the contrary, we can think of ourselves as living words at the service of ideas that we love and want to help becoming more real, so that our entire being becomes a living part of these ideas. This can be a way to live deconstruction, not without violence, but in a non-apocalyptic manner, like a continuous process. This is a way to live through the death of the husband in "The Co-wife". We can call this conscious death of desires, which inevitably requires a conscious acceptance of, and confrontation with, the violence of the status-co, non-violence.


Laurent Fournier said...


Not your nor mine,
a word in construction:
That’s me.
Use me, play with me!
You are my destiny
and won't grab me
not your nor mine,
becoming is my identity

Laurent Fournier said...

I read Munshi Premchand's short stories sometimes after the rains, in 1993... I gradually forgot all of them, but not "The co-wife" which has always been with me. Nearly 28 years later, I have collected many pieces of a puzzle, even before reading Premchand, but to which he gave such a personal dimension that I never saw him as a part of the same puzzle, and I could never imagine all these pieces would talk so well with each-other. The ego is indeed a word! Constantly alternating between noun and verb. More in another post!