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.

Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

V. S. Naipaul On The Supposed ‘Writing Personality’

In The Enigma of Arrival (Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 146-147) V. S. Naipaul writes:

It wasn’t only that I was unformed at the age of eighteen or had no idea what I was going to write about. It was that idea given me by my education–and by the more “cultural,” the nicest, part of that education–was that the writer was a person possessed of sensibility; that the writer was someone who recorded or displayed an inward development. So, in an unlikely way, the ideas of the aesthetic movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Bloomsbury, ideas essentially bred out of empire, wealth and imperial security, had been transmitted to me in Trinidad. To be that kind of writer (as I interpreted it) I had to be false; I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be. Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality, I did both my material and myself much damage….Because of my ideas about the writer, I took everything I saw for granted. I thought I knew it all already, like a bright student. I thought that as a writer I had only to find out what I had read about and already knew….It was nearly five years…before I could shed the fantasies given me by my abstract education. Nearly five years before, quite suddenly one day, when I was desperate for such an illumination, vision was granted me of what my material as a writer might be….I wrote very simply and very fast  of the simplest things in my memory. [paragraph breaks removed; link added]

Indeed. The confusion Naipaul speaks of is engendered by several factors here. There is, of course, some of the oldest misunderstandings of the creative process, with its suggestion that the ‘creator,’ the artist, either manufactures something out of thin air, or gives birth to that which already resides within them. But there is too, a suggestion that the writer steps into this world as writer, as finished product; but does not become one. Furthermore, because the writer is identified as an existent type, and because the exemplars available to the colonial subject would have been that of samples drawn from the colonial masters’ land–or those like it–the writer acquires a form, and his or her writings acquire their content. Now, all is clear: to be a writer one must write like one, one must write on what ‘writers’ write on; inauthenticity is the natural result of the mimicry forced upon, or readily taken on by, not the colonial subject. (Nostrums such as ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘no man can give that which is not his’ instruct us similarly.) But others too imagine that the writer is a pre-formed type that must be instantiated. They would do better to think of the writer as something in the process of becoming over time, worked on by the labors of all those who write. By their form and content alike. Who knows what forms yet writers and writing might yet take, and what they might write on?

Post-Colonial Resentment, Irrationality, and Jeremy Corbyn

Experienced students of politics and of the human mind know that politics–the ‘science,’ the business, of power–is all too often a zone of the irrational, a domain of intense passion and emotion, covered up with a thin veneer of seemingly rational discourse, of point and counterpoint. This irrationality manifests itself in familiar phenomena such as the futility of political argument: participants in these festivals of rhetorical jousting come away, not with their beliefs changed or altered in the slightest, but rather, ever more entrenched and buttressed with more sophisticated defenses. Offense in political arguments does not bring about meek or even reluctant surrender; it only produces defiant defense.

I have been reminded, acutely, of these irrational foundations of politics as I inspect my reactions to the recent rise to power of Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘British politician who is Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition.’ For weeks my social media timelines have been full of Corbyn; his political record, his manifesto, the reactions of Britain’s conservatives to his ascent to power, his non-singing of the national anthem and so on. Wall to wall Corbyn, really. ‘Progressive’ and ‘leftist’ Americans, Englishmen, and Australians, are all entranced by this man, by the hostility he provokes on the political right; his record on all the major issues that engage this demographic evokes murmurs of admiration and respect; there have been no sightings, yet, of Corbyn riding on an ass into Jerusalem, but for all the attention he has attracted, one would not be remiss in thinking that precisely such a triumphal march had taken place. (Corbyn, as a reminder, has not been elected Prime Minister; he has merely been elected leader of the Labour Party.)

I should perhaps be interested in this spectacle; the rise to a power of a ‘progressive’ politician should catch my attention and tickle my fancies. And yet, the overwhelming response on my part, once my initial curiosity about the man who seemed to be attracting so much hostility from David Cameron and his party had passed, has been one of thinly repressed irritation. I’m sick of the wall-to-wall bonanaza of Corbyn that I’ve been subjected to; I cannot wait for it to end, for this season to pass.

My reasons are quite transparent to me. I’m consumed by a species of post-colonial resentment. I’m an American citizen, and the US has been my home for almost thirty years, but my political responses and reactions to the Corbyn ‘phenomenon’ are still animated by a primeval response whose underpinnings are only discernible in the older, bound-up-with-each-other histories of India and Britain. I find myself seething at the disproportionate attention paid to this British politician; I wonder what relevance it has to American politics (even as I tell myself that comfort and succor given to George Bush by Tony Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war was perhaps a crucial factor in the decision to go to war); I glower at the hagiographic descriptions showered upon Corbyn; I cannot bring myself to click on the parade of links that march through my social media timelines.

In short, I wish the sun would set on the damn British Empire already, that Britain would stop being made to feel like it was still the center of the universe and more like it was just any other European nation.

Not very rational, right? But there it is. And I’m a grown man with a PhD in philosophy. What hope political discourse?

Of Cricket Fans And Memoirs

Last week, I sent in the draft manuscript for my next book–“a memoirish examination of the politics of cricket fandom”–to the editors at Temple University Press. The book, whose description, not title, I have indicated above, will now be reviewed, revised and then finally rolled off the presses as part of the series Sporting, edited by Amy Bass of the College of New Rochelle. By way of providing an introduction to the book, I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting–what else–the book’s introduction below.

Continue reading

Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir’s] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.