Given that cinema is the highest form of art and the very summit of human civilisation, I have a bit of a blind spot for opera. But ever since I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi as a teenager I have had a love for the music of Philip Glass, who wrote the soundtrack.
So it was Philip Glass who drew me to the ENO a couple of weeks ago to see Satyagraha, his opera about Gandhi’s formative years in South Africa.
Much of the opera is about Gandhi’s particular form of non-violence, which is described in an article in the programme by Mark Kulansky.
Nonviolence is not the same thing as pacifism, for which there are many words. Pacifism is treated almost as a psychological condition. It is a state of mind. Pacifism is passive; but nonviolence is active. Pacifism is harmless and therefore easier to accept than nonviolence, which is dangerous.
When Jesus Christ said that a victim should turn the other cheek, he was preaching pacifism. But when he said that an enemy should be won over through the power of love, he was preaching nonviolence.
Nonviolence, exactly like violence, is a means of persuasion, a technique for political activism, a recipe for prevailing. It requires a great deal more imagination to devise nonviolent means — boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, street theatre, demonstrations — then to use force.
And there is not always agreement on what constitutes violence. Some advocates of nonviolence believe that boycotts and embargoes that cause hunger and deprivation are a form of violence. Some believe that using less lethal means of force, rock throwing or rubber bullets, is a form of nonviolence.
But the central belief is that forms of persuasion that do not use physical force, do not cause suffering, are more effective; and while there is often a moral argument for nonviolence, the core of the belief is political: that nonviolence is more effective than violence, that violence does not work.
Mohandas Gandhi invented a word for it, satyagraha, from satya, meaning truth. Satyagraha, according to Gandhi, literally means ‘holding on to truth’ or ‘truth force’. Interestingly, although Gandhi’s teachings and techniques have had a huge impact on political activists around the world, his word for it, satyagraha, has never caught on.