Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

On Being Both ‘Bad’ And ‘Great’

Recently, in response to Richard Seymour‘s essay on Winston Churchill in Jacobin–one whose tagline read “Churchill was no hero — he was a vile racist fanatical about violence and fiercely supportive of imperialism,” I wrote the following on my Facebook status page:

Indians have known this and said this forever. Hopefully, now that a white Englishman has said the same thing, we won’t be subjected to any more nauseating Churchill hagiography.

In response, a friend wrote:

The very idea that someone might be both terrible and great. Sounds like another century.

To which yet another friend responded:

Can we from India remember the terrible part? Or should we dilute the gaze full of genocidal hatred he fixed upon us, and remember that he was great to some other people, just not us? I think (and I admit I am entirely biased) he has blotted enough of his record via-a-vis India for us in India not to worry about his greatness.

This little exchange encapsulates quite neatly a recurring aspect of post-colonial discourse and debate–the historical evaluation of colonialists and imperialists. Here, I make note of a revisionist take on Churchill–such revisionism is not new with respect to Churchill though my embittered status makes it seem so–and express the hope that such revisionism will lead to a continuing revaluation of Churchill’s ‘legacy’ and ‘achievements,’ which thus far, have included the persistent and continual reminders of how ‘he saved the world from Nazism.’  In response, I am admonished for my blinkered view, for my insistence that Churchill’s racism and imperialism sully his ‘legacy’ and am urged to take on a more catholic and stereoscopic view. In return, a post-colonial subject–whose nationality is identified–says that as far as Indians were concerned, this dimension overpowers other aspects of his life and work. It was, you see, the dimension ‘we’ were exposed to; those other aspects of his ‘greatness’ were often experienced by others.

This debate is destined to continue and recur. It is therefore incumbent on me to make note of a fallacy that underwrites it: the insistence that the ‘greatness’ and ‘badness’ of colonial leaders–or perhaps just colonialism in general–be universally recognized and acknowledged by the very same people. It is not enough that Churchill be described as ‘great’ by some and ‘bad’ by yet others, and that in some supposedly ‘final analysis’ a complicated, variegated, synoptic of the man and his work might emerge; no, rather, it is necessary that Churchill’s ‘badness’ and ‘greatness’ both be acknowledged by the same demographic: the post-colonial subject, who otherwise stands accused of a lack of historical perspective and perhaps even ingratitude. The post-colonial subject cannot, for instance, just add his contribution assessing the colonialist as ‘bad’ to the mix; he must too, contribute a shade of gray. No unequivocal assessments or opinions for him and her.

This does not sound like an invitation to a more complex view of the world; it is merely a push back down the slope to a familiar position where the manner and form of the post-colonial subject’s action and speech is to be regulated by a set of normative criteria that diffuse its force and power–whether rhetorical or  material. Old habits die hard.

Oscar López Rivera And FALN Were Right: Puerto Rico Is A US Colony

Oscar López Rivera served many years in prison–before finally having his sentence commuted by Barack Obama earlier this year–for having the temerity to suggest that the US treated Puerto Rico like a colony–and that Puerto Ricans should do something about it, including taking violent measures if necessary, a standpoint forced upon them by the systematic exploitation of the island by the mainland. He was right; and recent events have only proved him right all over again.

Puerto Rico lies devastated by Hurricane Maria; its residents lack housing, food, water, medicine, electricity; the lives of many its residents are endangered; but the White House, which has busied itself in recent days with interfering in how a private entity should discipline its employees, has merely sat on its hands and fiddled. Unconscionably, it has refused to suspend the Jones Act thus blocking the delivery of supplies to Puerto Rico by ships not registered the US. Indeed, rather than expediting relief efforts and the supply of aid, the incompetent Chief Executive has merely ranted about Puerto Rico’s debts. His supporters, who probably do not realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens, are not to be blamed; they have figured out, correctly enough, that Puerto Rico is not ‘really’ American:

Puerto Rico has been a US possession since it was “acquired” — in the usual colonial fashion, through armed disputation — from Spain in 1898. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917, just in time for 20,000 “Boricuas” to be drafted to serve in World War I. Almost a century later, Puerto Ricans living on their island are not allowed to vote in presidential elections; Puerto Ricans have attained neither statehood nor independence. Along the way, they have suffered the indignity of a ban — imposed in 1948 — on owning a Puerto Rican flag, singing a “patriotic song,” or advocating for independence. Their curious political status, a “United States territory,” which is not a state, but whose residents are given automatic US citizenship, ensures economic and political exploitation by the “mainland.”

Colonies suffer at the hands of colonizers; callousness and indifference make sure that deliberate malevolent cruelty is not required; it is enough merely to not care. (The English honed this art to a fine degree during their creation of the Great Bengal Famine during the Second World War–millions died then.)

Rivera’s parent organization, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional  (FALN) took violent measures–between 1974 and 1983–in an attempt to free Puerto Rico from US subjugation; it had figured out that colonizers require unsubtle ‘persuasion’ at times. There is much sanctimonious bewailing when political organizations fighting to liberate occupied lands deploy violence to achieve political ends; when asked to defend their tactics, a straightforward defense is that the occupier forced their hand, that the denudation of the colonized land and its citizens is a violent act that requires a retaliatory response. Consider now the callous indifference with which the US administration has responded to the dire situation in Puerto Rico: the blood of all those who die for lack of water, food, or electricity in hospitals will be on their hands. If a modern-day FALN were to arise and take up arms, only the deliberately obtuse would have the temerity to suggest their violence would be unjustified.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, I heard the news that the Jones Act has been suspended. My broader claim stands; moreover, this belated lifting does nothing to exculpate the initial callous response and rhetoric.

A Theological Lesson Via Military History

In Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu (J. B Lipincott, New York, 1966, p. 85), Bernard B. Fall describes the build-up which foretold the grim military disaster to unfold at Dien Bien Phu–the lack of adequate defenses and ammunition, the poor tactical location etc–making note, along the way, of that curious mixture of arrogance, complacency, and overconfidence that infected French military leadership. There were ample notes of worry too, of course, and finally, even of the grim resignation that is often the military man’s lot. The deputy chief of staff of the French commander General Cogny, Lt. Col. Denef had written in an assessment to his commander that “It is too late to throw the machine into reverse gear….That battle will have to be fought on the scale of the whole Indochina peninsula or it will become a hopeless retreat.” As Fall notes:

In transmitting this report…Col. Bastiani, the chief of staff added a note of his which was deeply significant:

I fully agree…in either case, it will have to be the battle of the Commander-in-Chief. I think he must have foreseen the necessary requirements before letting himself into that kind of hornet’s nest.

This was the ultimate excuse of a staff officer: the situation was hopeless, the action made no sense, but there might after all be higher reason for all of this. “The Führer must know what he is doing.” This phrase had been repeated a hundred times over by the German defenders of Stalingrad as they senselessly fought on toward catastrophe.

The analogy that may be drawn with theological responses to the problem of evil is inescapable and irresistible. There is, all around us, misery and suffering and disease and pestilence afoot, all apparently for no good reason. How is this reconcilable with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God? One answer: evil is a ‘local’ disaster, the ‘badness’ of which vanishes when viewed from a broader, all-inclusive, synoptic perspective–the one God has.  From our epistemically limited perspective, we might be surrounded by catastrophes that suggest disorder and untrammeled badness, but zooming back reveals a larger plan within which these seeming disasters fall into place, directed onward and upward by a grand teleological scheme of greater order and good. (The chemotherapy kills healthy and cancer cells alike, but it heals the body. Trust the doctor; he knows best; he will make sense of your nausea, your hair loss, your weakened body. Or something like that.)

So if we are to ‘endure’ these disasters, we must reassure ourselves that someone, somewhere knows what time it is, what the score, the deal, is. Much like the determined soldier marching into battle, ours is not ask why, but to do or die. Our lot, of course, would be considerably improved if we knew why this was all necessary; after all, as Nietzsche had pointed out, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” For the theologically inclined and the militarily obedient, the ‘why’ is supplied by faith in the benevolence of the Supreme Commander. The rest of us are left to weakly reassure ourselves that this too shall pass. Or not.

Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas

My essay on the Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera “Oscar López Rivera and the Cabanillas” is out in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Please read and share. Oscar’s case–and the miscarriage of justice at the heart of it–deserves to be known and talked about far more widely than it is now.  I owe many thanks to Fernando Cabanillas and Jan Susler of the People’s Law Office for their help in writing this essay.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

‘Empire,’ ‘Self-Government,’ and ‘Religious Conflict’

In The Colors of Violence, an attempt to contribute ‘a depth-psychological dimension to the understanding of religious conflict, especially the tensions between Hindus and Muslims [in India]’, Sudhir Kakar writes¹:

If Hindu-Muslim relations were in better shape in the past, with much less overt violence, it was perhaps also because of the kind of polity in which the two peoples lived. This polity was that of empire, the Mughal empire followed by the British one. An empire…Michael Walzer observes,² is characterized by a mixture of repression for any strivings for independence and tolerance for different cultures, religions and ways of life. The tolerance is not a consequence of any great premodern wisdom but because of the indifference, sometimes bordering on brutal incomprehension, of the imperial bureaucrats to local conflicts of the people they rule. Distant from local life,  they do not generally interfere with everyday life as long as things remain peaceful, though there may be intermittent cruelty to remind the subject peoples of the basis of empire–conquest through force of arms. It is only with self-government, when distance disappears, that the political questions–‘Who among us shall have power here, in these villages, in these towns?’ ‘Will the majority group dominate?’ ‘What will be the new ranking order?’–lead to a heightened awareness of religious-cultural differences. In countries with multireligious populations, independence coincides with tension and conflict–such as we observe today in the wake of the unravelling of the Soviet empire.

This  analysis of religious conflict is not inconsistent with those that see it grounded in economic dispute and class struggle; the political questions noted above have an economic dimension to them as well, for variants of the power being mediated and parceled out and haggled over are very often economic ones; and class struggles may only become more starkly visible when the mediating hand of empire is removed. It is however, in the Indian context, inconsistent with those accounts of Hindu-Muslim conflict, which view the two ‘communities’ as living in a state of peaceful, tolerant amity before being rudely interrupted in their mutually respectful reveries by the heavy hand of the divide and rule colonialist; instead, here, it is the colonial stamp that keeps the incipient clashes at bay.

The empires of the colonialist enterprise displaced questions of power to its centers, away from the margins, and rendered its most central questions in a form that appeared only in highly restricted forms–pertaining to survival, not flourishing–to its subjects. ‘Local conflicts’ of the sort alluded to above remained low-stakes affairs, the spoils accruing to their victors not great enough to warrant the mobilization of a favored group along lines that emphasized social, cultural and religious identity. It is only when the trappings of the immense power associated with governmentality become visible that the group draws in closer and prepares to make an ambitious, even if expensive and bloody, play for power.


1. Sudhir Kakar, The Colors of Violence, Penguin Books India, 1995, pp.  241

2. Michael Walzer, ‘Nations and minorities’, in C. Fried, ed., Minorities: Community and Identity, (Berlin: Springer Verlag), pp. 219-27