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The passing of a generation

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

The recent deaths of H.A.I. Goonetilleke and Guy Amirthanayagam signify not merely a shedding of mortal coils but point to a wider passing away of elements of an older intelligentsia. Taken in conjunction with the discussion which we have been carrying on over the last month in these columns spurred by Prof. Senake Bandaranayake's Gratiaen Prize award ceremony keynote address on phases of Sri Lanka's intelligentsia these twin deaths in succession denote the passing of ways which we will not be able to capture again rooted as they were in older and more durable certainties.

Guy Amirthanayagam

According to Bandaranayake's periodisation both Goonetilleke and Amirthanayagam belonged to what he chose to describe as the Ludowyk-Leavis-Scrutiny-New Criticism group which he goes on to call the first generation of modern intellectuals produced by Sri Lanka which incidentally was still Ceylon. In fact, in retrospect it will be revealing to quote in full Bandaranayake's statement which includes his roll of honour. He wrote: "There is no more obvious an example of the width and intellectual calibre of this Ludowyk-Leavis-Scrutiny-New Criticism intellectual training than the Chairman of the Gratiaen Trust, himself, who is a distinguished planner, administrator, institution builder and writer produced by that tradition.

Others who graduated from the English Department in the University of Ceylon - or who came under its influence - whose names come easily to mind are,in alpha order, Upali Amarasinghe, Guy Amirthanayagam, Richard Attygalle, Yasmin Gooneratne, Ian Goonetilleke, Ashley Halpe, Dick Hensman, Gananath Obeysekera, Mervyn de Silva, Regi Siriwardena and Jeyraj Thambiah all of whom are writers, analysts, commentators or scholars of high quality whose work is on record. (I am sure there are others whom we should include in such a list.)'

H.A.I. Goonetilleke

In characterising this generation of the intelligentsia Bandaranayake laid emphasis on the literary-critical sensibility and while this is reasonable in the context of the fact that this was an intelligentsia reared almost exclusively by the high culture of leavisian literary criticism it must not be forgotten that they were also products of a wider liberal classical culture of which the Jenningsian Peradeniya University was the archetypal symbol.

Indeed Jennings had once lamented that Ceylon was a cultural desert with perhaps Peradeniya as the only enclave to escape the blight inviting a famous riposte from Magam Tennekoon (the editor of the 'Piyavara,' the magazine of the University Sinhala Society) who in turn characterised Peradeniya as the 'parasite's paradise.'

In fact, Tennekoon's riposte serves to underline the gulf which existed between Bandaranayake's Leavisian vanguard of enlightened intellectuals and those from the less-privileged Sinhala Department who were dubbed 'Haramanis' in the cultural clash with the 'kultur' class. The fact that those from the Sinhala Department or the 'O Fac' or Oriental Faculty were conversant in English much more than the generations which succeeded them and therefore could hold their own somewhat with the posh kultur types served to conceal the Cold War between the classes but it would be a fallacy to conclude that a cultural clash did not exist.

In fact it was the greatest irony of our colonial patrimony that it should have been a foreign tongue which should have held the races and the classes of Sri Lanka together imparting a semblance of a national identity to our post-colonial society. But as Regi Siriwardena once observed this was illusory because when the racial cauldron started to bubble this costly pretence had to be put away.

However, those illusions had yet to be shed and it was in this Golden Afternoon that Bandaranayake's first modern Sri Lankan intelligentsia inherited the earth. Ceylon had regained her independence from the colonial yoke and it was still possible for young men to dream. Liberalism and Marxism flourished on the two sides of the political divide and the fratricidal conflict of the races had yet to assume its present explosive proportions. It was in such a context that Ian Goonetileke took custody of the Peradeniya University Library and went on to distinguish himself as Sri Lanka's foremost librarian and bibliographer and Guy Amirthanayagam entered the then exclusive Ceylon Civil Service and continued to pursue his literary and intellectual interests.

Much has already been written about them and more should follow. Goonetilleke's monumental bibliography of Sri Lanka, his editing of the facsimile of Robert Knox's work on Ceylon and his writings on George Keyt have been commented on but strangely enough in this context of American global supremacy his anthology of American writings on Ceylon has been notably neglected.

But this is not to suggest that Goonetilleke was a cheer leader for Uncle Sam. His was a work of scholarship and these very qualities of the scholarly mind characterised his world outlook. In his critique of life and society he came down heavily on the side of the dispossessed. He was a trenchant critic of unbridled capitalism, the consumer society, popular culture, the intellectual impoverishment of our time and the sense of mass idiocy which appears to have taken hold of all of us. This indeed led to his premature retirement from Peradeniya.

In fact, this will emerge in time as Goonetilleke's most famous trait. How could someone who admired Keyt also be driven to social anger and become the best bibliographer of the 1971 April Insurrection?

The answer surely is that in the best elements of the Peradeniya intelligentsia as recognised by Senaka Bandaranayake the aesthetic and the social came into such harmony that one could still admire the paintings of Keyt (himself one of our most unorthodox twentieth century products) and also be resonant with the social process.

Guy Amirthanayagam in contrast was more of a consciously literary figure combining his role as civil servant with that of the literary intellectual which was not too difficult during the 1960-70 period when the pace of life was still relaxed. He served as a Government Agent in several parts of the country and retired as Sri Lanka's Deputy High Commissioner in the United Kingdom. In this sense he belonged to that distinguished line of administrators who combined government service with the arts among whom Vernon Abeysekera, Godfrey Goonetilleke, Neville Jayaweera, Leel Gunasekera, Sarath Amunugama, Amaradasa Gunawardena, P.G. Punchihewa and Donald Abeysinghe easily come to mind.

However, Amirthanayagam really came into his own when after retirement he joined the East-West Centre Hawaii. There he was in the company of another distinguished Sri Lankan academic Professor Wimal Dissanayake who was recently hailed by Gunadasa Amarasekera himself as perhaps the only intellectual to be produced by the Peradeniya University. (That Peradeniya connection again). Amirthanayagam's last book based on his life's work 'The Marriage of Continents' with the sub-title 'Multiculturalism in Modern Literature' was published by the University Press of America in 2000.

It contains essays ranging from assessments of Leonard Wolf and George Orwell to Ananda Coomaraswamy and Romesh Gunasekera.

(To be continued)

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