How Should We Read?

1 Feb

“Show me the Zulu Tolstoy,” Said quotes (25). He is quoting Saul Bellow, who sparked controversy by speaking to the differences in “literate” and “preliterate” societies. Said is pointing to attitudes that many Westerners are completely unaware they demonstrate. I’m not sure those distinctions hold any water, but the way that Bellow posed rhetorical questions such as where is “the Proust of the Papuans” speaks to our (by “our,” I mean Westerners) constant desire to couch things in terms of analogs. Bellow seems to be dismissing the idea that authors from various cultures might not using the same form as Tolstoy or Proust. Beyond this, you could ask “Where is the Tolstoy of America?” or perhaps more importantly, and relevant to our discussion about the nature of time, “Where is the Tolstoy of today?” All this is to say that, in general, we are using the wrong criteria when we read and think about non-Western literature.

After reading the Said, what boggles my mind is that literature from imperial Western culture has often been affecting other cultures for decades or perhaps centuries. Culturally the imperialist cultures continued to dominate (or think they were dominating) the cultures in the physical colonies the imperialists left behind. If that is true, I would imagine a good question to ask about any work of literature from the post-colonial culture is whether it is reacting to or imitating Western/imperialist by rejecting a Tolstoy or a Proust or whether the literature is an organic hybrid of style and form found in the culture before its encounter with a Britain or a France and the Western literature that the former colony was exposed to over many years. Said writes of Rushdie’s rejection of a certain version of India in popular media, which would seem to inform Rushdie’s work (Midnight’s Children comes to mind). One of the things I’m very much looking forward to this semester is judging how much global literature is pushing back against popular media or other literature by presenting and alternate viewpoint, and how many of those works are using forms identified heavily with British, French, or American literature.

Said rejects the idea of Germanness or Jewishness, etc. This seems important in finding the right lens through which to view literature this semester. But, in place of seeking analogs, if we look for the differences in literature, are we showing that there is no such thing as “Third Worldliness” or will those differences feed into the idea that there can be Dominicanness or Martininqueness? I can’t think of a way to start thinking about our post-Heart of Darkness readings that would not really piss off Said. Do we even need a lens or do we simply look at the subject matter and not the style or the form as evidence of how imperialism continues to exert control over various cultures?

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