29 August 2009

Postcolonial issues

Actually appreciating multilingual literature is complicated by the ideological battles being fought on the postcolonial beachheads of literary theory. Why is language such a big issue among multilingual writers? Anne Donadey gives an account of the critical war:

“The question of the language of writing is overdetermined in the context of anti- and postcolonial literatures. If postcolonial authors write in ‘la langue de l’adversaire d’hier’ (the language of yesterday’s enemy), even writers with a clearly anticolonial agenda are regularly accused, at worst of betrayal, at best of not being able to reach their intended audience. For female writers, it is often seen as a double betrayal, both of the national language and of a nationalist ideology in which women are viewed only as allegories of the nation. These questions, which are unavoidable in the francophone context, are also foregrounded in anglophone Africa, as evidenced by the controversial arguments of Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Yet the great theorists of decolonization such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi all wrote their electrifying manifestoes in the colonizer’s language, using French as ‘une arme de combat, pour une littérature nationale’ (a weapon in the struggle for national literature). Writers and critics have treated this issue in many different ways.” ("The Multilingual Strategies of Postcolonial Literature: Assia Djebar’s Algerian Palimpsest" in World Literature Today, 2000)

Having spent the greater part of my life doing literary theory and having realized, like Terry Eagleton and several other theorists, that the moment of literary theory has passed, I suggest that we roll up our sleeves and start actually reading texts within a multilingual and/or multicultural context. We might come up with conclusions quite different from what we get using mere theoretical reasoning. As Samuel Johnson so famously illustrated, there might be no way to prove philosophically that anything or anyone exists outside of ourselves, except by kicking a stone:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- 'I refute it thus.'" (from Boswell)

Once we start reading literature in the "language of yesterday's enemy," we might find that such literature is as subversive and as anticolonial as the "language of our blood."

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