World Literature: never neutral views
Passions and politics were hard to tame when critics and scholars of world literature from 62 countries gathered in New York at summer's end. The occasion was the tenth triennial conference of the International Comparative Literature Association, a meeting which sounds far removed from the urgencies of newspaper headlines.Skip to next paragraph
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But soon enough the participants found their heated attitudes toward language , censorship, government interference, values, styles, translations, and national barriers intruding upon scholarly deliberations over literary research, literary theory, and the cultural contexts of literature.
Reingard Nethersole, occupying the only chair of comparative literature in all of South Africa, was one conference participant who finds that literary scholarship cannot be separated from politics.
Dr. Nethersole, a fiery German-born woman who has lived in South Africa for 16 years and who speaks Zulu and Afrikaans in addition to several European languages, teaches at the multiracial University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This is a privately funded ''English medium'' university, in which 1,600 of the 14,624 students are, according to the government's strict classifications, ''black, Indian, and Coloured.''
Paradoxically, black vernacular literature did not appear on the reading list for a conference on South African publishing held at Witwatersrand.
Because the Afrikaner-dominated government has attempted to segregate blacks in small homeland groups by compelling them to use tribal languages, and because it is almost impossible for black writers to achieve publication in indigenous languages, most dissident literature has been written in English and published in London by small publishers, Dr. Nethersole explained. Her department remains committed to promoting their work in English, at present the only way in which an audience can be reached.
At this time few blacks fill faculty positions at Witwatersrand. In theory a black professor would still be required by law to live in Soweto, the 1 -million-person government reserve for nonwhites outside of Johannesburg.
Many ''high powered'' blacks have fled South Africa, Dr. Nethersole said. Recently, however, a few influential, expatriated blacks have felt free to return, she said.
The much-admired short story writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, who went into voluntary exile in 1957, after he was banned from teaching in South Africa for campaigning against an education act he found repressive, accepted an invitation to be present at Dr. Nethersole's publishing colloquium.
Dr. Nethersole noted that while many of her students idolize the United States, because of the black-consciousness movement, few American students have come to study in her department, even though scholarship money is available.
Tarek Jawad, chairman of the English Department at Kuwait University, spoke of the effects of early colonial impositions on his nation's culture. Political and cultural rivalries have affected even the dictionaries young Arabs use to acquire their language skills, he said.
Ever since the late 19th century, these books, which are keys for these students to all other works in English, have reflected the biases of either British Orientalists or of Arab scholars of English. Dr. Jawad said there is still a ''dire need'' to produce bias-free dictionaries.
Dr. Jawad is himself an example of someone who a generation ago might never have had the opportunity to develop as a scholar. In 1945, the first tanker of oil for foreign markets - commanding a considerably lower price than it would today - left Kuwait. At about the same time, Jawad was born.
As the revenues from the exported oil grew larger and larger over the years, much went into modernizing and transforming old Kuwait; some of the surplus oil money flowed into education. The amiable Dr. Jawad - who today heads a department of 45 faculty members and 1,000 students - was among those who benefited.
Educated in Lebanon, England, and the US, Jawad returned to a new Kuwait to teach at a university full of students eager to ''learn fast,'' he said, to keep pace with the modern world.
Skepticism from Westerners greeted Soviet scholar P. V. Palievsky as he finished his talk.
The Soviet speaker had applauded the ''daring role'' of the literary critic as guardian of the public interest. Literature, he said, should represent the ''central core of life'' and serve the larger social good.
He then expounded to the assembled scholars all the justifications for suppression of literary freedom - and none of the implications of such a method as practiced in his home state, notorious for the production of ''samizdat'' (self-published) and ''export only'' literature by nonconformist writers.
Socialist ''realism'' which involves the representation of state-ordained values, remains the approved literary genre in the Soviet Union.''
Everything is interdependent,'' said the writer from Moscow's prestigious A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature.