SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Aspiration as survival

FACE TO FACE

Seeing literature and criticism as a quest for equity ... Homi Bhabha.

Seeing literature and criticism as a quest for equity ... Homi Bhabha.  

"Has Homi Bhabha been translated into English," laments the reader, panting through the complexities of Nation and Narration or The Location of Culture. Yet they persevere, knowing that without Bhabha, their understanding of postmodern, postcolonial thought will remain incomplete. For, with Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, Bhabha completes the triumvirate of contemporary postcolonialism. Hadn't Said admired him as a "reader of enormous subtlety and wit, a theorist of uncommon power"?

The man who reformulated the politics and poetics of postcolonial discourse was educated in Mumbai and Oxford; taught English in various universities (Sussex, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Harvard); wrote texts with the now seminal — if contested — concepts of liminality, ambiguity, mimicry and hybridity; has two books on the way (A Global Measure, The Right to Narrate). Not all his achievements are cerebral. Friends relish his culinary skills.

Paradoxically, the scholar speaks with a clarity and passion that moves listeners, at the packed, breathless hall at the Association For Commonwealth Literature And Language Studies) Conference (ACLALS), Hyderabad, August 2004, or in discussions across the table. Complexities thaw. And commitment to theory becomes commitment to humankind. Excerpts from an interview with GOWRI RAMNARAYAN:

HAS angst become a major feature of literary criticism? Overwhelmingly conscious as postcolonial scrutiny is of discrimination, injustice, victimisation, cultural attrition, exclusion and historical wounding, do we have any celebration left?

The condition of being wounded by history, or excluded, is not a negative one. An artist uses it to understand the world, to transcend the veil of sorrow, to transform that condition, and move beyond it. That is why aspiration is important. I like to take terms that have profound resonance and change their meanings.

For me, aspiration is not a romantic or utopian notion. Rooted in the structures of pain and destruction around us, aspiration is a way of survival, to live with obstacles without losing the sense of your own agency, and the agency of others, to change oppressive conditions of existence.In times of transition, aspiration is the positive ability to live in the present, not knowing how the story is going to end.

Don't you think that writers from the deprived parts of the world are too anguished to bother about such distinctions?

Very few writers simply present angst or alienation without some sense of the next move. Not with a programme, but by revealing something positive about the oppressed human spirit. This is a story of resistance, transformation, survival. We know a lot about victors and victims. But survival is an in-between state that we all share. The fabric tears everyday, you stitch it back, and carry on. As they deal with overwhelming inequalities and degradation, most writers also tell us what it means to survive those states with dignity, respect, even when they are being demeaned.

Has post-colonialism made it impossible for us to enjoy First World literature innocently? Does it force us to relocate it as exploitative, hypocritical, arrogant?

(Laughs) All literature is based on loss of innocence, though not loss of beauty. Of course there are certain First World texts where truth, beauty and enlightenment were based on slavery and colonialism. When the west was developing its cities, economy, democracy, liberalism and bourgeois freedom, the Third World was losing everything. Enlightenment for one half of the globe was imprisonment for the other half. When you see that, you can neither naively condemn the west, nor have your innocence intact.

With its insistence on centre staging a Third World perspective, why has contemporary criticism evolved such impenetrable jargons now, within closed, elite worlds?

Three reasons I think. For a long time, the assumption was that literature told you about life, and the critic had to interpret metaphors, images, genres and forms, make judgements about character and action. From the 1970s — I'll use an image here — the magnifying glass enlarged the words to focus not on language as a mirror to some social reality, but to language as a medium of literary production. Structuralism and semiotics thought more about the technicalities of linguistic and literary forms.

Did the increasing complexities of life make the limitations of language more apparent?

Yes. And the complexities of language itself became more apparent. Literature is not simply a window to reality. It is a deeply processed medium. Therefore we have to know about genre and technique that create a vision of the world, become aware of how certain forms illuminate certain things, or don't. You will say, 'I know Charles Dickens and I know life, so why can't I understand this criticism about his novels?' It's like telling your doctor why do I need a cardiogram, just tell me how to get rid of this cough. But your cough may be a symptom of a heart attack. And language can represent images that are both accessible and hidden.

Thirdly, interdisciplinarity has become important. You frame your discipline with other disciplines, and enhance its authority. But a more complex, problematic way is to judge your own discipline at the confluence of different disciplines, where the frame of your own discipline is challenged. Examining your discipline where other disciplines touch it can blur the definitional borders of your competence, training and understanding.

In my reading today, you saw how I was continually moving around and across various boundaries. I look at W.E. Du Bois' allegory (The Dark Princess) in relation to Lala Lajpat Rai's ideas of internationalism, and the whole text changed. That terrifies people. They don't mind multiple interpretations as long as the core remains unchanged.

Such ambiguities in theorising are less daunting than writers who are so influenced by those theories that they write for the critics. Will this trend continue?

I want to turn the question round. Wouldn't it have made George Eliot more complicated if you knew German philosophers influenced her? Once deemed incomprehensible, T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" is now taught in every school in Japan. We didn't say I can't read Henry James because he has a theoretical view of human consciousness.

We have always had thinkers' novels. Maybe we are made more aware now of how we might read these fictions, whereas before reviewers read them for plot and character. Modernism and postmodernism have made us more aware of the complexities of the art form. What do you do with a French Lieutenant's Woman, which has two endings? Your faith in the novel as the story of life working out some overwhelming reality is shaken.

Are you saying that politics and ideologies have become more important to literature and criticism, along with language and genre?

No. I'm saying that there are certain genres where politics and ideology are very important. In late 19th Century France, Balzac and Zola revealed their world's angst, to use a word with which you started. To Zola, naturalism was a way of showing inequalities; he was also committed to the ideology of the form.

The Soviet realist novel hoped to transform society according to certain ideals. Bertolt Brecht produced plays to expose fascism. Some have always privileged the ideological and the political. The worst are just ideologues; the best have transformed aesthetic and ethical forms even when they were most political and historical.

Don't we often judge Third World writers on such meta-literary considerations?

Third world literature was once supposed to do the work of anthropology or history, (Khushwant Singh and Mulk Raj Anand did it very well) particularly when critiqued by the West. A Caribbean writer describing everyday reality was praised but if he dealt with more symbolic realism he was an obscurantist for the West, and condemned by compatriots for class treachery.

But now, writers who have read English literature in conjunction with Marathi, Hindi or West African literatures, have transformed the language.

Their own creative impulse and imagination are unstoppable! Dalit literature has opened new areas...

So you see literature and criticism as a quest for equity? Justice and freedom?

Absolutely. The purpose of postcolonialism is to allow people to understand their lives, the lives of others, and their lives in relation to others.