Friday, November 02, 2007

Contrapuntal Reading: Colonialism, Literature

I have often been troubled why great or classical literature has been generally silent on the vast ravages of colonialism. How is it that suddenly sensibility or sensitivity is a new or modern phenomenon or whether it is now politically incorrect to be deemed openly as racist or as an imperialist even though that it not a problem too as many apologists for a new colonial or imperial experiment are extremely popular and urge people to actually purge modern societies of the different type of new peoples.

I used to think of Dostoevsky's strange silence about the repression of other non Russian people by the Russian state, particularly in the Caucasus, where Russia has ruthlessly subjugated people for centuries. The same thoughts w'd bother me when on the one hand reading Proust was such a joy and on the other hand the silence of Proust or Flaubert is baffling with French colonial adventures and empire barely deserving a mention in their fiction. My concerns about the hasty murder of the Arab man, unnamed in the outsider by Camus seemed the first instance to me of an imperial adventure within fiction, creating misgivings about all of Camus later on. And yes, the English novel, dominated in the last two centuries by very tame imperialistic tendencies, like Jane Austen, the Bronte's and then Dickens. Dickens of course was on a war footing in a different way but most of classical literature seems to be devoid of a reality, an existence that does not examine or enquire the most rational tokens of existence, of this society based on the lesser, but other society.

Reading Edward Said's essay on this subject, from his book Culture and Imperialism helped resolve and further highlight to some extent my own naive and not fully formed considerations on this aspect in literature and to what extent my questions or doubts are legitimate.( The basics.......... Literature, Poetry and Philosophy and yes, Cinema being either politics or nothing, with the possible exception of the detective genre). Even though this book is dedicated to this subject, I am focussing on this chapter called Consolidated Vision.

Contrapuntal reading, as Said defines it, is reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows something, when there are references to imperial processes. Contrapuntal reading must take into account both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of these texts. Said then goes to examine the case of the Outsider, Camus' references to a free Algerian state and his opposition to it. By referring to Kipling, Said argues what Kipling left out of his books in reference to India. Said argues that the heart of darkness, written by Conrad is part of imperialism, an organic part of, the scramble for Africa that was contemporary with Conrad's composition. Said feels that this novel is part of a European effort to hold on to Africa, to plan for Africa.

Without empire, there is no European novel and the far from accidental convergence between the patterns of narrative authority of the novel on one hand and a complex ideological configuration underlying the tendency to imperialism. the novel in Europe has an institutional character, fundamentally tied to bourgeois society. In the British novel, the imperial perspective has been neglected, writes Said. He does not blame the novel per se for imperialism but says that the two are linked in numerous ways, tied to each other, it being unthinkable not to think of both. Because the novel is quasi-encyclopedic, the imperialistic merges with the art of the novel itself, reflecting cultural and other aspects of any society.

The articulation of British power is elaborated in the novel, though he warns that we must not draw quick conclusions. But, novels are not the product of lonely genius but arise out of a regulatory social presence. In the English novel, no effort is made to give up colonies and a dominance is conserved along with the colonies. Said argues that continuity of colonial processes is maintained through this novelistic process and the main purpose is to keep the empire in place.

Said deconstructs A passage to India, by Forster, quoting Forster as saying that Aziz's trial takes place within the flimsy framework of the court, because it compromises real power with impartial justice for the Indians. To Forster's credit, he recognises an Indian resistance to British rule which Kipling refuses to acknowledge, who attributes the Indian mutiny to waywardness. Said then throws light on the empires extension, with its ever present backdrop in various key texts, including the works of Jane Austen.

I find these arguments worth analysing and at the same time to examine one's reactions to empire, imperialism and such politics in both classical and contemporary fiction. In this case, most Latin American fiction engages politics effectively, with the reader left in no doubt as to the main thrust of it. However, I am not sure whether modern South American novelists have actually engaged in the task of asking the questions about indigenous populations in their work and to what extent the South American novel is only European. The vast empires built by the Spanish, Portuguese and others on this continent has effectively led it to become a Spanish world, with no or little recognition of its pre- colonial truth. I will attempt to finish this engaging work by Said and perhaps try once again to write in future about this perennial question.


alpha2omega said...

Your precious Bolano, I thought, had a vicious streak of 'superiority' over the Gaucho!

Kubla Khan said...

I know, I know.

Lupe said...

The problem is, as usual, whether, why and how should literature get engaged or relate with reality. I don't think that the fact that a book doesn't say anything explicitely about its economical and political context should necessarily mean there's nothing about it there. Jane Austen, for example, may not have had an open view on colonialism, but as someone who took as a key-narrative-resource never to say more than what the main character is able to perceive then why should she? She had a bigger problem with other political issues, such as the law of entailment, to deal with.
And as for Camus, well, I don't really think Meursault is a character with whom you are expected to sympathize completely.
As a latin-american, well, it's rather difficult to write anything that happens here without a reference, without taking part in those matters, it's part of our everyday reality.

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