Reading Wide Sargasso Sea this week, I can’t help but recall Edward Said’s point that unless we read contrapuntally, we are necessarily studying some literature at the exclusion of others. I think of this mainly because as I read, I was categorizing the novel in my head, comparing it to things that I’d read before – specifically, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. This is something that I do naturally when I read, but as I did it this time it occurred to me that Said might not approve. While Notes From Underground has a place in Western canon, Garcia Marquez really does not, and by making these innate and seemingly innocent connections I realize that I was othering Rhys without even thinking. Suddenly, Said’s contrapuntal reading becomes a dangerous game – can we truly contextualize without marginalizing, or is every connection that we make between novels necessarily at the exclusion of others?
I think that Roberto Schwarz, in his Marxist reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, provides an approach to answering this question. Schwarz links Rhys’ tone with his content and overall conceptual goals through the idea of volubility – he writes on page 17 that “volubility is the formal principle of the novel” and he conveys it through a “deliberate abusiveness of tone,” among other things (7). This idea that the novel is structured both rhetorically and conceptually around contradictory terms is striking, especially considering he sees this as a direct result of Rhys’s attempt to convey Brazil’s “cannibalistic” culture. In class, we learned that Schwarz described a cannibalistic culture as an “emptying out of what’s already hollow,” and we also discussed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea being a “romantic novel emptied out of its form.” These thoughts seem to imply that this novel is generated on formlessness as a framework – thus allowing the paradoxes that seem to define it to arise and exist in contradictory and yet coalescent spaces. Therefore, the novel really becomes not about a culture itself, but a frameless framework for one.
In this way, rather than othering a culture when comparing Rhys to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Dostoyevsky, it seems that we are really distinguishing a form – one that Schwarz links very closely with culture, certainly, but which also has the inherent qualities of being culture-less (or indeed, “anything-less”) simply by nature of being emptied of everything to begin with. While I’m not sure that this gets us to the point in which I can answer my original question, I do think that one way to get our heads around the idea of truly reading contrapuntally would be to consider how much of form is culture, and how much is necessarily culture (and really, “anything”)-less.
Throughout the text for class, Said stresses the importance of considering the discourse that surrounds post-imperialism. One point that I find particularly interesting within this discussion is about vocabulary and words themselves. He writes in his chapter “Overlapping Territories” that “Neither imperialism nor colonialism is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are supported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations that include notions that certain territories and people require and beseech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domination: the vocabulary of class nineteenth-century imperial culture is plentiful with words and concepts like “inferior” or “subject races,” “subordinate peoples,” “dependency,” “expansion,” and “authority” (9). The idea that words alone can become a powerful tool not just for thought but for actions, impelling and moving forward something as large and global as imperialism is worth serious consideration – especially in this course, as it is a point carried implicitly throughout many of the other texts that we have read thus far this semester.
For example, Brantlinger addresses the use of the word “native,” on page 193 of his Geneology of the “Dark Continent” where he writes “Ian Watt identifies nine possible models for Kurtz, and the very number suggests how common it was to go native.” He treats this phrase almost flippantly, equating it with the idea of the “savage” and yet at the same time revealing the way in which a seemingly neutral word (in this case meaning literally native to the land in which one lives) can develop a nuanced and decidedly negative connotation in the context of post-colonial studies.
However, I think that this notion of Said’s is complicated particularly by something that Achebe writes at the beginning of his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.” He writes of a high school student, “one of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African tribe.” In this case, I think Achebe intends for the “customs” and “superstitions” to carry those implications that Said claims are implicit in the words he mentions above. However, this is problematic, because we are also supposed to understand that on some level, this student “doesn’t know any better.” This is not so much a case of words being used to dominate or control, but rather words carrying a sense of domination (perhaps) without the intention behind them. Without going so far as to delve into Stanley Fish (at least in this short post), I do still propose that this is an issue worth thinking about. What does it mean when the weight a word carries becomes implicit in the word itself rather than its use? Can we “reclaim” words like “expansion,” or “native,” or is Said correct in thinking that there is a power to them that has spiraled out of our control?
Author’s note: I apologize if this sounds like nonsense!
Fabian’s concept of time and Said’s ideas behind imperialism fit together almost seamlessly. Also adding in Conrad’s claim in Heart of Darkness that the idea behind imperialism redeems it, these three men establish a cycle of time and conquest that seems to thrive on a vague perception of superiority. I was really struck by this particular statement in “Culture and Imperialism”: “How we formulate or represent the past shapes our understanding and views of the present.” In this quite simple idea, Said establishes that our own understanding of the past “shapes” our own view of the current time. What I find interesting about this is that all of this is cerebral, rather than physical. Looking at imperialism and colonialism, I immediately think of the physicality of such ideas. But then again, imperialism begins with an idea, so even though it requires the physical exertion of traveling to a place and enforcing new ways of life, it is nonetheless an “idealistic” pursuit.
So if I think about Kurtz in Conrad’s novel, and how his ideas have consumed him to the point that he has become something less than human, I start to wonder how Conrad meant this transformation to be perceived by his readers. Did Kurtz go insane because he got too close to the “native” way of life? Did imperialism itself cause him to lose his mind? Or maybe Fabian’s concept of time has something to do with it. Perhaps Kurtz lost himself in time because without anyone to “wake him up” or give him some sort of reality check, any ideas of civilization went out the window. Maybe time is what holds our “modern” way of life together; maybe without a logical way to count the seconds and minutes and hours, and without a way to label past, present, and future, we would all be floating in some kind of dark abyss.
I am rambling horribly.