I read only yesterday what Robertson Davies, a Canadian novelist and a journalist wrote: “The greatest gift that Oxford gives her sons is, I truly believe, a genial irreverence toward learning, and from that irreverence love may spring.” This is, I said to myself, the secret of success… particularly if one wants to make a mark in any of the creative fields.
Irreverence. I let the word reverberate within my being for a while… until I was sure that irreverence indeed had the muscle to catch the fleeting moment… to over-power them… to make them bow and kowtow to you. I know that it is the fleeting moment that holds massive creative energy within it.
Take photography as an example. The camera can never really capture the past… though once it has, that moment is in reality a part of the past. But the instant that it managed to hold within it was THE FLEETING MOMENT that could not have existed had the photographer been busy respecting or acknowledging his love instead of clicking and focusing on the shutter! The photographer from Commercial video production Toronto needs to stop sighing at the sight of a beautiful moment. He simply needs to pull out the camera, do the logical adjustments, and shoot… before the sighing population around him realizes that the moment was as ephemeral as a blink unless it was shackled for posterity by speedy decision-making that borders on being irreverent!! Creativity and development cannot really work without a certain tinge of irreverence.
Unfortunately, the dictionaries tend to misguide us all about this wonderful creativity booster. Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines IRREVERENT as “lacking proper respect or seriousness; also : satiric” and goes on to add fuel by suggesting synonyms like “blasphemous, impious, profane, sacrilegious”… but then dictionaries too need to survive through their ‘irreverence’ of some wonderful words!
There is an interesting example given in Time magazine (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1820144,00.html#ixzz12t7zbqhn) where an incident between Matthew Arnold and mark twain is described. Arnold had once described Twain’s humour being “so attractive to the Philistine.”
Twain prepared a reply (that was never published) that included: “A discriminating irreverence is the creator and protector of human liberty.” This would be the polite way of saying “Go stuff your awe.” It’s a shame that this reply wasn’t published “because it includes the single best one-line defense not just of himself but also of how a democratic society works in the first place.” Time goes on further to remark famously that “in one sense, Arnold was right: the funnyman was a national phenomenon. And still is. But it was no misfortune. Reverence and awe aren’t democratic virtues. The last thing you need in a free society is people who know their place. Twain knew that. It’s one reason we know his place – and it’s up there very high.”
Irreverence, however, is to be understood very carefully. In fact, it is essential to understand the complete scope of this word if one wants to move ahead in any of the creative or research fields. I tend to look at irreverence as subjective appreciation that exists only through objective actions… remember that photography example? The resultant picture is a form of subjective appreciation which exists only because the photographer was objective at the moment of clicking it!
When I told a friend of my definition of irreverence, he wasn’t ready to accept it. He said: Irreverence hurts.
I answered: No, it doesn’t. Irreverence isn’t readiness to hurt. Just as it isn’t a lack of self-esteem… there isn’t anything retaliatory about this word.
My friend insisted: I would cease to have any friends if I were irreverent.
No, I said, irreverence doesn’t lead to bad inter-personal relationships because it is simply aiming for excellence in a chosen area. When others sight excellence anywhere, relationships tend to transcend to a new level where irreverence is seen as worthiness. So it isn’t due to any sense of worthlessness!
And finally, I said, remember that irreverence isn’t a byproduct of a lack of feeling of appreciation. It is, in fact, a token of appreciation for the aesthetic and scientific charm and temper that life is all about! Irreverence takes whatever fear there is in life.
Even Rabindranath Tagore wrote:
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit…”
Irreverence isn’t something that is meant exclusively for the poet, writer, painter, and photographer… even scientific pursuit needs it and it was none other than the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman who believed in this.
R. A. Mashelkar, a CSIR Bhatnagar Fellow at the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, has written in (Science 30 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5978, p. 547. DOI: 10.1126/science.1191057):
“For India to successfully address local and global challenges and nurture future science leaders, Indian scientists must embrace a spirit of irreverence.” He goes on to write that Indian culture, where “the words of the elders are the ultimate truth”, condemns the irreverence inspired by the constant questioning that is essential in science. Mashelkar points out that “the country’s education system, which is textbook-centred rather than student-centred, compounds this attitude, as does heavy bureaucracy. The result is that, even if an institute wants to support ‘audacious’ ideas, finding fundable proposals is difficult.”
How many of you still believe that irreverence is not a virtue? What any creative and scientific community needs is ‘monetary’ as well as ‘encouragement’ funding for supporting disruptive ideas! This kind of investment banking is what will give us the power to “seize this emerging transformative opportunity by working hard to produce new organizational values and creating a tolerance for risk-taking and failure.”
It isn’t that only the thinkers and scientists have bothered to go deeper into the essence of this word. I did come across some interesting definitions of ‘irreverence’ on twitter too. The micro-bloggers of today do tend to give a fresh dimension to this word:
@MrSeanCullen: “Irreverence was much-appreciated. He’s got the gift of being able to say anything and making it funny.”
@PeteGreig: “One of the marks of my truest friendships is that we can discuss sacred things with irreverence and profanity with deference.”
@aleisha_71: “Sunrise, sometimes the way they discuss topics, sounds like most of their viewers not very smart. Prefer the irreverence of Karl Stefanovic.”
@MarissaAnita: “#FF: I love reading his tweets — his irreverence is so refreshing!”
Irreverence isn’t for the faint-hearted and the fool. Even T S Eliot, the Anglo-American poet and critic said in an interview in Writers at Work, Second Series, ed. George Plimpton (1963): “It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” Obviously implying that unless you know your camera well, you’ll do better taking in the beauty of the moment through your eyes… who knows who will still get a chance to be irreverent when you use words to either write about it or vocalize them at some meeting! So irreverence does have strange ways and time of manifesting itself. No wonder then that Brendan Behan, Irish author (1923-1964) also remarked: “I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”
As I am writing these lines, something within me is asking me to simplify all that I have written about irreverence or I’d actually start sounding as if I am in awe of this word. No, I’m not in awe of ‘irreverence’… it is just one of the many words that one finds messing around in any dictionary and waiting to be noticed and used. This is exactly how one must treat each moment in one’s life… pick it up, see if you convert it into a poem, a photograph, a graphic, a painting, a thesis, an hypothesis, a doctrine, a dress, a dish, a song, a race, a jump, a sale… and if you do, move fast and do it. You do have a choice if you do not immediately convert it into something memorable… convert it into a memory pixel and extract it out of your neurons at some later date to work on it. If the moment isn’t meant for that too… just throw it and move on to a new moment. Don’t stay there and watch it drown or sigh or cry… this is one drama that irreverence-seekers do not care about. However, you must know that every moment thrown or discarded by you still has the potential to be irreverently converted into a work of art by someone else.
All that I am trying to say is that you need to respect and accept your destiny, leave the rest of existence for your irreverence! Irreverence is a word that is like a brilliant star… and croaking frogs can never pull down brilliant stars, so to say!
An article by Arvind Passey
20 October 2010
© Arvind Passey
Published in ‘The Education Post’ dated 17 June 2013