It’s that time of year when I take some time off for a variety of reasons and tasks – in short, it’s annual leave time. Yes, some much appreciated time off work. Last year I attempted a holiday and nearly died – diseased kidneys, blood poisoning, and internal bleeding – all a result of a kidney stone. What followed was months of illness, as that experience proved a catalyst for an old illness to make a renewed appearance also (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – CFS). Finally, in the last few weeks, I have been reasonably well and have been working at a frantic pace, trying to make up for lost time.
So now I hope to enjoy these next few weeks, do some traveling (including to the previous destination that I never arrived at due to falling ill on the way), get a bit of personal things done (yeah, including a host of medical stuff) and really, just to relax and have a break – an enjoyable break in fact.
So what does this mean for the Blogs? Well, I was going to continue to post in a haphazard manner over the next three weeks, but have since thought better of it and will not do so. So no new posts for the next three weeks – there may be some still to appear on one of the Blogs that I scheduled in advance, but you won’t hear much from me during this period. So enjoy the break from me, as I enjoy the break from everyday usual life.
I have been battling poor health now for months and I have reached the point of peak exhaustion (if that is a thing). I’ll be taking extended leave during May, along with a lengthy break from the Blogs, with the aim being that of taking the opportunity to recover and recharge the batteries. However, I also need an immediate break and so will not be posting to any of my Blogs this week. I have to try and get through work through April, in order to get through to May and my extended break. This may prove to be a very difficult task and even perhaps prove unattainable, yet that is the goal. Each day closer makes the remaining time that little bit easier to contend with. So, in short, there will be no posts for the remainder of this week and I will then start to bring the Blogs back ‘online’ again after that – at least until my extended break in May.
Decolonising literary studies isn’t simply a matter of relieving the symptoms, substituting this author for that or setting up a new canon in place of the old. The challenge is to address the chronic underlying condition by thinking beyond the guiding assumptions and aspirations of any colonial-era curriculum.
To start with, this means ditching the ideas of language that were central to colonial linguistics. On that logic, for instance, the curriculum was thought to affirm one supposedly unitary, national language (let’s say French). Or at best, in the case of Comparative Literature, it affirmed two supposedly unitary, national languages (for example, French and English).
The reason? Language, it was assumed, is the expression of the national “character”, “genius” or “soul” – to put it in the most idealistic terms. Or it is the bearer of “the culture”. This was usually understood as the shared, often ancestral values, practices and forms of knowledge by which a people (or national community) sees itself and understands its place in the world.
This way of thinking informed the selection of great writers that gave the colonial-era literary curriculum its content. And it defined one of its core aims: to provide the means by which the nation could come to know and affirm itself as a community rooted in one language, one history, one culture and one state.
At home this was a quasi-theological exercise in self-knowledge – the talk was all about encountering the “national soul” through literature. Abroad it was a rather more worldly instrument of self-imposition – the export version of the curriculum serving to assert the sovereignty of the colonising culture and the primacy of its language, values and ways of knowing.
To design a decolonising curriculum, then, we need to start by abandoning the dubiously assured, dubiously otherworldly assumptions underpinning this legacy.
This means conceptualising language in more secular or earthy terms. Language as a river, say, the source of which is ultimately obscure, the mouth always somewhere further on. It’s a strange kind of river too. Many other major rivers, not just minor tributaries, constantly flow in and out of it. And no state or community (national or otherwise) can claim exclusive rights over it.
Push this rather benign, naturalising analogy too far, however, and you gloss over colonisation’s destructive effects. Backed most often by the state and its allies, some languages, after all, became vast, transcontinental canals – think of English or Spanish. And constructing these often caused others to dry up altogether – think of Aushiri or |Xam.
So what would a curriculum founded on this alternative idea of language look like?
For one thing, given its central premise – no language is the product of any one history or the property of any one community – this more secular conceptualisation would put pressure on the inherited disciplinary structures of the university itself. Think of all those separate departments of English, French, Spanish, etc. Yet it need not follow that they should fall. What has to go are the canal-building assumptions on which they were often founded, and the silo mentalities they still tend to foster.
Taking the more benign river perspective first, a decolonising curriculum would begin by encouraging students to uncover the many “foreign” languages within those they have chosen to study. This would reveal how translation, far from being an anomalous or specialist activity, is integral to the ordinary life of all languages.
In a similar spirit, it would make it possible for them to follow the shifting contours of linguistic geography, which seldom coincide with state boundaries. This would leave them free to trace the complex movement of languages through multiple speech communities and across all media.
The canal perspective would require other lines of enquiry. Here the curriculum would ask students to reflect critically on the legacies of colonial linguistics, the interconnected histories of standardisation and marginalisation, and the impact they had on the way all languages were understood in the past.
Beyond colonial-era silos
The river and canal perspectives inevitably raise different questions of ownership, multilingualism and translation. Yet both open up ways of thinking beyond theologically inspired, colonial-era silos. And both make it possible for a properly decolonising linguistics to emerge in which the interdependence of self- and other-knowledge is central.
Literary writing, too, would have a transformed status. Since a decolonising curriculum would treat linguistic inventiveness as an ordinary feature of language, like translation, it would have no need of the colonial-era’s sacralised canon of great writers.
Equally, it would not assume that writers all sign up to canal-building national traditions simply by default. Many may have in the past, and some may well continue to see themselves in similar terms today, but the presumption has lost all currency. How innovative writers relate to communities, whether national, sub-national or supranational, can now seldom be known in advance of actually reading their work.
A decolonising curriculum would therefore consider the multiple ways in which writers negotiate the linguistic, literary and cultural legacies of the colonial era. Some reject them, some indigenise them, some re-foreignise them, and others refuse all clear-cut options, choosing to work between languages and traditions instead.
Does this mean a decolonising literary curriculum is simply “world literature” by another name? Possibly, but only in the sense in which the Bangla poet-philosopher and Nobel Literature Prize-winner, Rabindranath Tagore, used the phrase over a century ago when he affirmed the promise of what he called বিশ্ব সাহিত্য (Vishva Sahitya). For Tagore, this was a call to decolonise knowledge and to reinvent the university. It was also a call to learn to think (and live) creatively amid the world’s turbulence without any craving for otherworldly certainty or finality.
Just a quick post to let everyone know that this Blog will be on a break from now, over the silly season and should return early in the New Year. This isn’t so much because of Christmas and the New Year directly, but because my work schedule is so great and I won’t have the time to put in on the Blog during this period. I would have liked to keep up the posts, but it has become clear I just can’t keep it up at the moment – it is far too busy at work and with increasing staff shortages over the next couple of weeks, it will not get any easier. I will still post books I finish reading over this period.
Let me also take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and safe Christmas, and New Year period. Enjoy this time with family and friends.
It was an ordinary lecture to first-year students, on “Women Writers and Modernism.” My brief was to introduce the different ways men and women responded to the social, intellectual and artistic challenges of the modernist movement.
This is a subject about the literature of the early 20th century, but it tackles some difficult social questions too. While men were facing the horrors of war, the challenges of industrialisation and the disruption of many familiar intellectual and social hierarchies, women were gaining access to education, greater participation in the democratic process, and fuller employment.
I told the students that several days ago on talkback radio, where the topic was sexual and domestic violence against women, I had heard a caller say that many men felt threatened by women’s increasing participation in the workforce. These were complicated issues, I said, but it did seem that we were still rehearsing arguments that were current over a hundred years ago, and that these patterns of anxiety were part of broader systemic patterns associated with patriarchy and capitalism.
But it was time to turn to my women writers. I began with Hilda Doolittle (re-named “H.D.” by Ezra Pound), and talked about the way many women writers re-wrote classical stories from a woman’s perspective. I clicked on to my next slide, part of her poem written in 1916, Eurydice.
I stopped. Silence fell around me, and I could not speak. I tried again, but could not get out a word. I had been in full rhetorical flight in front of several hundred students, but suddenly felt an awful silence spreading, as my students realised first that something was wrong, and then as they realised why I had stopped.
The elegant and unusual name Eurydice — and the awful death through sexual violence of a young woman, less than a kilometre north of our campus, less than two months ago — was resonating powerfully in the lecture theatre.
Unable to speak, I felt a moment’s panic and shame, fearing the students would think I had staged the whole thing for dramatic effect. For surely I could not be surprised by my own choice of text.
I gathered myself together, reminded the students of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (abducted by Hades into the Underworld and released into Orpheus’ care on condition he not look back until he leads her into the sunlight), and read these lines.
So you have swept me back,
I who could have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who could have slept among the live flowers
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
The students were still and silent as I read. Hearing this voice of a dead woman from the mythical past called up the presence — I think we all felt it — of the young woman whose story we all knew. For those few moments, we held vigil for Eurydice Dixon.
This is what it feels like to be “triggered” by literature, to have a fictional incident or even a name suddenly ambush you from your train of thought, your narrative curiosity, and your readerly pleasure. Literature can take your breath away, even when the trauma it recalls is a communal one, not a personal tragedy.
And yet I only half-heartedly, and only occasionally give “trigger warnings,” advising students that they may encounter violence and trauma of various kinds in literary texts. The best argument for such warnings is not that students can then refuse to read, but that students suffering post-traumatic stress may prepare themselves for the confronting business of discussing literary texts in classes: the emotional engagement with others in a public setting.
Such warnings testify to the very real power of literary texts to challenge and confront us, often in ways we cannot anticipate.
But this incident also reveals the impossibility of such warnings. There was no way I could have known I would be taken so deeply by surprise at my own response; no way I would ever have warned students that a poem about a mythical abduction to the Underworld might trigger this awful feeling.
Literature works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. This episode reminds us of its astonishing capacity to strike emotional chords and resonances. Such moments can make us feel awful, and uncomfortable, and can disrupt our carefully managed public and professional performances of the self, but they can also generate strong emotional connections between people, across time and different cultures. Of course I can’t be sure what all the students were thinking, though an unusual number of them came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the lecture.
Moreover, if literature produces this sting, it also produces the cure. Seeing H.D.’s beautiful poem on my screen gave me the courage to go on, and to do justice to her work. The poem gave me the words to say next. Reading that poem — finding structure and pattern in its cadences; and finding a voice in its lyrical core — produced poetic order out of emotional chaos.
I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
I am beginning a slow, measured return to Blogging. My health has improved somewhat, though I came close to destroying an eye (that has also recovered well) due to an injury I sustained. So I’m starting with this Blog to see how I go.
I’ll be taking a week off from the Blog (at this stage – may be longer) due to a resurgent CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I have been battling this ‘outbreak’ for about 6 weeks and there has been very little improvement, so I need to take some ‘health time.’ Back when I can be.
I am very thankful. Having battled away for the past 48 hours trying to salvage files, I have now also been able to get into the system restore feature on my computer, attempt to restore the system and… it worked. Very thankful. It is working again.
I now need to bring the various Blogs back online and to start posting again.
I have been battling an ongoing illness for the last week or so, with it showing very few signs of any imminent departure. So it is time once again to have a break and to have a rest while I wait for a restoration of my health and well-being. How long will the break be? That is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know how long it will take to get well again, but I will certainly not be posting here until next weekend at the earliest. I really feel I need a complete break and to just rest (I will, after all, be still working at my day job which makes recovery more difficult). I am hopeful that it won’t be much more than a week. I have been trying to press on, but have often-times failed in posting and turned in to bed instead.