Scholar Sees Connections Between Literature and Political Legitimacy
IN "Prejudices" (1919), the splenetic American journalist and social critic H. L. Mencken wrote: "A great literature is chiefly the product of inquiring minds in revolt against the immovable certainties of the nation."
"Culture and Imperialism" is Edward Said's rebuttal.
A public intellectual and literary theorist who describes himself as a Christian Arab exile in the United States, Said is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. He is probably best known as the West's media-savvy dean of Palestinian causes and friend of the Palestine Liberation Organization. On television and in print, he has insisted eloquently, and often combatively, that the West's international struggles are expressions of modern imperialism's guiding pr inciple that to rule a country is to represent its culture.
In his landmark book "Orientalism" (1978), Said argued controversially that "the Orient" was a construction of the West - a fictive reality bolstered by scholars in putatively objective disciplines - that institutionalized the stereotypes and assumptions necessary for the West to maintain its hierarchical relationship with the Islamic Middle East. Since then it has been Said's cross-disciplinary task to question the interpretations that transform an entity (a country, people, or religion) into its repres entation in Western media, politics, and literature.
Said's new book, "Culture and Imperialism," the long-awaited sequel to "Orientalism," shifts the focus provocatively from scholarship to literature and broadens the base to include colonial representations of other regions as well as the literature of resistance from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
His main argument is that imperialism is buttressed and legitimized by imperial cultures. Having noted in earlier books that authors develop through imaginative writing, he here suggests that nations shape themselves and consolidate their authority in the world through their national literature.
Accordingly, he traces the hegemonic cultural roots of three dominant Western empires in the last two centuries - Britain, France, and the United States - to the 19th-century European realistic novel, the genre that rose to the occasion of colonialism. Imperialism and the novel, he maintains, "are unthinkable without each other."
Braiding together political philosophy, history, literature, and literary criticism in dense, often knotted paragraphs of theory and formal analysis, Said is least effective when trying to get the various arguments in this book to cohere. Curiously, since he spends so much time discussing the literature of formerly colonized countries, he devotes minimal attention to the intermingling of genres and the effect of the Western novel on third-world narrative forms. In addition, like other influential academi cs with bold ideas, he sometimes forces his material to conform with his thesis - for the alleged good of the discipline, naturally.
Said is at his most dazzling when examining the novels of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and E. M. Forster. But it is his discussion of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" that deserves top honors. Interpreting the estate in Austen's 1814 novel as the British Empire's implicit analog, he suggests that Thomas Bertram's slave plantation in Antigua literally underwrote the financial security and moral authority of "Mansfield Park." In Said's hands, this book crucially shows how the right of colonial powers to r ule foreign lands was legitimized and encouraged by the European realistic novel.
According to Said, today's scholars and critics - rather like Guy de Maupassant, who ate a daily meal at the Eiffel Tower since that was the only spot in town where "he did not have to look at the imposing structure" - don't notice the cultural empire in whose lap they sit and under whose wing they read and write. In particular, he says, they ignore the political function of the "novelistic process, whose main purpose is not to raise more questions, not to disturb or otherwise preoccupy attention, but to
keep the empire more or less in place." Although he tries to jog readers to action, Said doesn't want to displace "canonical writers" from their perch.
Promising that aesthetic profit can still be had from the works of Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, Jane Austen, Albert Camus, and dozens of others, he argues that their connection to "the imperial process" must be recognized and their books read contrapuntally - that is, in tandem with the resistance literature they provoked - so we can see the underbelly of the colonial equation as well as the view from above. (Indeed, Said's argument that the colonized and the colonizers have compl icated, overlapping histories requires that these established Western writers remain in the canon.)
Although Said's basic thesis - that imperialism relies on a "twinning of power and legitimacy, one force obtaining in the world of direct domination, the other in the cultural sphere" - rings true, his book is marred by countless repetitions, infelicities of language, lurches in tone, and polemical sorties about the Gulf war.
(He does, however, deserve wry credit for elevating the roll call to a form of argument: "To speak today of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and many others like them is to speak of a fairly novel emergent culture unthinkable without the earlier work of partisans like C. L. R. James, George Antonius, Edward Wilmot Blyden, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jose Marti.")
Dense and erratically provocative, "Culture and Imperialism" is pitched as history, but can perhaps best be seen as an ambitious foray into forensic geography - one that remaps large chunks of Western literature's political terrain, ultimately locating the modern "Heart of Darkness" in the body of comparative literature.