23 December 2009


Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there is no theorizing going on in the field of multilingual literature. There is, not just among linguists, but among literary critics, particularly the most perceptive ones. Take Gayatri Spivak, for example, clearly among the best of the best of living critics today. She has thought hard about French, which of course is not her "mother tongue" (a term she obviously is uncomfortable about). Here is a recent paragraph showing how Spivak's theorizing has influenced another theorist:

"There’s a very nice variation on the ‘you must begin where you are’ word of wisdom. It comes from the postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak. In an early interview with the Chicano poet and bicultural thinker Alfred Arteaga, Spivak talking about Samuel Beckett says about the bilingual writer: ‘One must clear one’s throat, clear a space, step away, spit out the mother tongue, write in French.’ This is a surprising physiological analogy through which to question connections between body and language. A lingual event is taking place, not in the voice but rather in its absenting, in the clearing of the throat."

Not everybody can understand Spivak, because the depth of her thought demands a similar profundity in her readers, but this account of one of her early statements is fairly easy to grasp. In fact, the writer of the paragraph, Caroline Bergvall, is able to draw quite a number of insights from the statement. Bergvall ends her provocative article, "A Cat in the Throat: On bilingual occupants" (2009), this way:

"I remembered this when the news broke recently of the American use of water torture, waterboarding, on some of its recent and current political prisoners. This excruciating invasion by systematic asphyxiation. Forcing up speech by drowning it. What kind of language emerges and for what kind of madness?"

Multilingual criticism (I still prefer to call it Wikcrit, along the same polemical line that second-wave feminists coined gynocritique) is not just about literary texts. It offers food for thought to all human beings concerned about violations of human, not just linguistic, rights.

No comments:

Post a Comment