Secular criticism meets the world
David Damrosch is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York, and former president of the American Comparative Literature Association. A colleague of Edward Said, he was invited to give the first Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at the American University in Cairo in November, the text of which is reproduced below
Click to view caption|
In Westminister in 1993, with Haidar Abdel-Shafi (left) and Palestinian envoy to the UK Afif Safiyah (centre) listening to the Palestinian national anthem; in New York in 1982 with Lebanese novelist Elias Khouri; in Cambridge in 2002 while recording The Last Interview with Charles Glass
On what would have been Edward Said's 70th birthday, it is an honour and a pleasure to come to Cairo from New York -- from the city where Edward spent his adult life to the city of his youth, and from his longtime academic home to the campus where he first became aware of the life of the mind. As he said in his commencement address at AUC in 1999, two of his older cousins went to college here, and his musical taste was stimulated by many concerts he attended at Ewart Hall. AUC can be said to have provided the model for a life that bridged the distances between Egypt and America, culture and society, past and present.
In assessing the impact of Said's extraordinarily wide- ranging work, I've chosen to focus here on a single key essay from among his 20 books. "Secular Criticism," published in 1983 as the introduction to The World, the Text, and the Critic, was a very personal statement of Edward's personal and scholarly values, a kind of manifesto for the social role of literature -- and for the crucial role of the critical intellectual in assessing literature and society alike. The essay definitively sounded the death-knell for formalist criticism of all stripes, whether in the form of disengaged close readings or of elaborate theories that treated literature as an isolated realm unto itself.
As Said used the term, "secular" meant worldly, rather than anti-religious, and in "Secular Criticism" he argued eloquently for the social and political engagement of literature and of criticism, a perspective already fully developed in his pathbreaking book Orientalism (1978). Said's books and articles have helped set the terms of much literary and cultural study today. At the same time, the very success of his concept of secular or "worldly" criticism has created new challenges we need to confront now. Twenty years ago, most literary study was focused on the writers of a few major powers. Most critics would work primarily in the tradition of one or another country in this select group, and even comparative literature dealt largely with the literatures of half a dozen European countries. A scholar who was attuned to social concerns could then go deeply into the politics and history surrounding the literature of a single country or region during the course of one or two centuries, as Edward Said did in his many explorations of the cultural embeddedness of the English novel. Yet the field of literary studies has been expanding at a breathtaking rate in the past two decades, thanks in no small measure to the efforts that Said and other critics made to shift the terms of discussion from an often Eurocentric focus and to open up a worldly criticism to the full range of the world's cultures.
How, though, can we really attend to the full variety of the world's literatures and their complex cultural circumstances, and not find ourselves immersed in the cacophony that Janet Abu-Lughod has named global babble? If literary studies should encompass everything from the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts to the latest Tibetan postmodernists -- there are now Tibetan postmodernists -- how can we even give intelligent close readings to so many kinds of writing, much less analyse all these works in their full historical and political context? Looking back at Said's "Secular Criticism" with this problem in mind, we can see important ways in which he gives us crucial guidance today, and we also see ways in which we need to develop our studies in ways Said himself didn't yet do. In the spirit of Said's own deep and yet always questioning engagement with such favourite thinkers as Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno, the best way to honour Said's legacy is to use his ideas, probe them, give him a hard time when necessary, and adapt his terms to the ongoing needs of ever-changing historical circumstances.
Schooled in Cairo under the British colonial system, Edward Said developed a lifelong attachment to British literature, and the British literary canon became for him a powerful field for analyses of the mechanisms of empire, often hidden in plain sight in such seemingly apolitical novelists as Jane Austen. British literature also served Said as a common point of reference in a lifetime spent in current or former British colonies -- Palestine, Egypt, and the United States. It is no coincidence, in fact, that the first major literary example given in "Secular Criticism" concerns a British novel set in Egypt, discussed at a tense moment in American neo-imperial history:
"The degree to which the cultural realm and its experience are institutionally divorced from their real connections with power was wonderfully illustrated for me by an exchange with an old college friend who worked in the Department of Defense for a period during the Vietnam War. The bombings were in full course then, and I was naively trying to understand the kind of person who could order daily B-52 strikes over a distant Asian country in the name of the American interest in defending freedom and stopping communism. 'You know,' my friend said, 'the Secretary is a complex human being: he doesn't fit the picture you may have formed of the cold-blooded imperialist murderer. The last time I was in his office I noticed Durrell's Alexandria Quartet on his desk.' He paused meaningfully, as if to let Durrell's presence on that desk work its awful power alone. . . . What the anecdote illustrates is the approved separation of high-level bureaucrat from the reader of novels of questionable worth and definite status" (3).
Said opposed all such artificial separations, even as he championed a saving separation of a different sort: of the critical intellectual from society's powers that be and the half-truths or outright lies that support a repressive status quo. In "Secular Criticism" Said gave a slyly subversive reading of the great Victorian poet-critic Matthew Arnold. He presented Arnold as a source for understanding culture as a central force in society, not simply as "the best that is known and thought" but also as an actively oppositional force, a counter to the self-confirming pieties of those in power. As Said observed, "it is Arnold's insight that what is at stake in society is not merely the cultivation of individuals, or the development of a class of finely tuned sensibilities, or the renaissance of interest in the classics, but rather the assertively achieved and won hegemony of an identifiable set of ideas, which Arnold honorifically calls culture, over all other ideas in society" (10).
In "Secular Criticism" as throughout his career, Said turned to Erich Auerbach as an exemplary critic who intervened from outside the centres of power. Discussing Auerbach's masterpiece Mimesis, written in exile in Istanbul during World War II, Said seems almost to be speaking of his own childhood experience of dislocation as a refugee and exile: " Mimesis itself is not, as it has so frequently been taken to be, only a massive affirmation of the Western cultural tradition, but also a work built upon a critically important alienation from it, a work whose conditions and circumstances of existence are not immediately derived from the culture it describes with such extraordinary insight and brilliance but built rather on an agonizing distance from it" (8).
Said understood Auerbach, then, not simply as creating a formal study of "the representation of reality in Western literature" (the subtitle of Auerbach's book), but as intervening in Western culture at a time of extreme crisis. Yet Auerbach's great book deployed its massive erudition within the cultural space of the single region of Western Europe. Indeed, Auerbach focused only on the major powers even within that region: after an introductory chapter on Genesis and Homer, Mimesis treats works from only five countries (Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and England), and fully 15 of the book's 20 chapters are centred on works from only two of the five, Italy and France. In his choice of selections, then, Auerbach was hardly engaged in redrawing the map of European power, and so his book is silent on the literary contributions of smaller countries such as Holland, Norway, and Portugal, to say nothing of peripheral regions such as Russia, Eastern Europe, or the rapidly Westernizing Turkey where he was writing his book.
In its selective, great-power European focus, Mimesis was typical of much of the study of world literature for most of the 20th century. As one American critic, Werner Friederich, noted ruefully in 1960, the term "world literature" was being used for a distressingly limited range of material:
"Apart from the fact that such a presumptuous term makes for shallowness and partisanship which should not be tolerated in a good university, it is simply bad public relations to use this term and to offend more than half of humanity. . . . Sometimes, in flippant moments, I think we should call our programs NATO Literatures -- yet even that would be extravagant, for we do not usually deal with more than one fourth of the 15 NATO-Nations." ("On the Integrity of Our Planning," 14-15)
As Said's discussion of Arnold and Auerbach emphasises, even in this comparatively restricted sense, world literature has always had the potential to serve as a challenge to the local, the national, or what in his essay Said calls the "filiative." He argues that societies typically enforce the status quo by presenting existing power relations in "filiative" terms -- as natural and unquestionable as the genetic inheritance from parent to child. By contrast, Said says,
change often comes about when people freely affiliate themselves, going against the dictates of received ideas and doctrines, building new modes of thought and interaction. Culture for Said is the prime instance of creative affiliation, and the university is a prime location in which individuals can come together to examine and question received ideas and the power relations those ideas justify.
Matthew Arnold himself turned to the literature of continental Europe precisely to combat jingoistic tendencies in British political life. In his 1864 essay "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," Arnold dissected politicians' self-serving praise of Victorian England as the best of all possible worlds, and he argued that politicians and the general public needed to enlarge their vision and their sympathies. Literature, for Arnold, is a prime means to achieve an enlargement of vision, but it can only do this if writers themselves look beyond their immediate environment: "the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Bryon so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety. Wordsworth cared little for books, and disparaged Goethe. . . . he should have read more books, among them, no doubt, those of that Goethe whom he disparaged without reading him" (1576).
One thing we learn when we read Goethe -- who coined the term "World Literature" in the late 1820s -- is that Goethe saw world literature as a way to open up the provincialism of his native Germany, giving German writers resources to counteract the influence of the dominant culture of France. On January 29, 1827, his young disciple Johann Peter Eckermann recorded a conversation that included discussion of contemporary French poetry, allusions to the Roman poet Horace and to the Persian poet Hafiz, and a recent collection of Serbian folk poetry. Two days later, Eckermann came to see Goethe again, and now Goethe's reading had ranged still farther from Western Europe:
"Dined with Goethe. 'Within the last few days, since I saw you,' said he, 'I have read many things; especially a Chinese novel, which occupies me still and seems to me very remarkable.'
"'Chinese novel!' said I; 'that must look strange enough.'
"'Not so much as you might think,' said Goethe; 'the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that we are perfectly like them, except that all they do is more clear, pure, and decorous, than with us. With them all is orderly, citizen-like, without great passion or poetic flight; and there is a strong resemblance to my Hermann and Dorothea, as well as to the English novels of Richardson.'" (Conversations with Eckermann, 132)
Goethe saw in the Chinese novel a version of his own ideal, as much social as literary: "It is by this severe moderation in everything that the Chinese Empire has sustained itself for thousands of years, and will endure hereafter." This elevated moderation, moreover, gives him a welcome counter to the dissolute poetry of a leading French poet, Pierre-Jean de Béranger, whom he was also currently reading (brothels and bars were Béranger's settings of choice): "I find a highly remarkable contrast to this Chinese novel in the Chansons de Béranger, which have, almost every one, some immoral licentious subject for their foundation, and which would be extremely odious to me if managed by a genius inferior to Béranger."
Eckermann, though, was resistant to finding so much of interest in so foreign a text. He interposed a sceptical question: "'But then,' I said, 'is this Chinese novel perhaps one of their most superior ones?'" It was in reply to this reservation that Goethe shared with him the concept of Weltliteratur :
"'By no means,' said Goethe; 'the Chinese have thousands of them, and had when our forefathers were still living in the woods. I am more and more convinced,' he continued, 'that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.'" (132)
As Goethe predicted, the age of a truly global world literature has now arrived. In "Secular Criticism," Said noted that the expansion of the field of world literature requires a fundamental reorientation of perspective, along with a great increase in the number of works that should be read and discussed. As he put it, "we are now, I think, in a period of world history when for the first time the compensatory affiliative relationships interpreted during the academic course of study in the Western university actually exclude more than they include. I mean quite simply that for the first time in modern history, the whole imposing edifice of humanistic knowledge resting on the classics of European letters . . . represents only a fraction of the real human relationships and interactions now taking place in the world. . . . New cultures, new societies, and emerging visions of social, political, and aesthetic order now lay claim to the humanist's attention, with an insistence that cannot long be denied" (21).
Actually the challenge is greater even than Said here suggests, for it is not only new literatures that provoke such expansive reorientations. Said himself remained remarkably loyal to the traditional British canon as it was taught in the Cairo of his youth; even in a wide- ranging book like his 1993 Culture and Imperialism, Said reserves extended discussion almost entirely for long-established "major" authors from England and France, mostly middle-class in origin and male in gender. Yet as Goethe's wide reading already shows, two centuries ago it was already possible to be aware in Western Europe just how many other literatures were available to read, from Serbian folk poetry to highly refined novels from China. The Western canon itself, moreover, has been opened up from within. Understanding culture in Said's terms as a competitive struggle for hegemony, it becomes possible to read with new interest all sorts of Western writers long excluded from the traditional canon.
Goethe's British contemporary Anna Letitia Barbauld provides a case in point. Author of several well-received volumes of religious verse and poetry for children, Barbauld came under severe attack in 1811 when she ventured to publish a political satire. In her ambitious poem "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven" she surveyed the troubled landscape of Europe near the close of the Napoleonic Wars, denouncing England for supporting repressive regimes as allies in their struggle against France. As her opening stanza proclaims:
"Still the loud death-drum, thundering from afar,
"O'er the vext nations pours the storm of war:
"To the stern call still Britain bends her ear,
"Feeds the fierce strife, the alternate hope and fear;
"Bravely, though vainly, dares to strive with Fate,
"And seeks by turns to prop each sinking state.
"Colossal power with overwhelming force
"Bears down each foot of Freedom in its course;
"Prostrate she lies beneath the despot's sway,
"While the hushed nations curse him -- and obey."
Writing in the conservative Quarterly Review, a reviewer named John Wilson Croker put his foot down. Offended by Barbauld's criticism of governmental policy, Croker decided that the most effective response wouldn't be to dispute her ideas but to mount an ad feminam attack. In prose dripping with sarcasm, Croker denied Barbauld's right to address political topics at all:
"Our old acquaintance Mrs. Barbauld turned satirist! The last thing we should have expected, and, now that we have seen her satire, the last thing that we could have desired. . . . We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author: we even flattered ourselves that the interests of Europe and of humanity would in some degree have swayed our public councils, without the descent of (dea ex machina) Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld in a quarto, upon the theatre where the great European tragedy is now performing. Not such, however, is her opinion; an irresistible impulse of public duty -- a confident sense of commanding talents -- have induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles, and to sally forth. . . ."
After mockingly painting Barbauld's poem as incoherent and incomprehensible, Croker concluded: "One word, however, we must seriously add. Mrs. Barbauld's former works have been of some utility; her Lessons for Children, her Hymns in Prose. . . are yet something better than harmless; but we must take the liberty of warning her to desist from satire, which indeed is satire on herself alone; and of entreating, with great earnestness, that she will not, for the sake of this ungrateful generation, put herself to the trouble of writing any more party pamphlets in verse" ("Review," 349- 50).
Barbauld never published another poem after receiving this savage review.
Our increasing attention to the worldliness of texts has opened up the canons of all earlier periods as well as bringing many new writers into view, and in the field of British literature as of world literature, anthologies that forty years ago contained a few dozen authors now contain as many as five hundred, while their length has gone from some two thousand pages to well over six thousand. And those are just the introductory anthologies intended for sophomore-level survey courses! As we read further, how can we possibly do justice to the full range of the world's literatures, especially if we wish to attend to the social and cultural contexts from which all these works come, once we expand beyond the literatures of a single region such as Western Europe or the Middle East?
Here Said's concept of affiliation can come to our aid. Broadly speaking, we can say that a reader's immediate national or regional tradition is often conveyed in the mode of filiation, as a direct line of cultural inheritance and a key component of national identity, read and understood within a dense web of literary and cultural reference. By contrast, world literature today is often experienced much more as a matter of affiliation -- a free individual choice to seek out and dwell on works that offer perspectives and aesthetic experiences not present in the home culture. Thus Goethe turned at will to Serbian poems and Chinese novels as he sought to resist the pressure to conform to the neoclassical norms favored by Corneille, Racine, and the other dominant writers in his all-too- powerful neighbour, France. Thus Said himself could leaven his primary attachment to British literature with the anti-imperial poetry of Aimé Césaire and Mahmoud Darwish and the novels of his friend Salman Rushdie.
In reading world literature, we bring works together in new and sometimes surprising ways. When a text circulates out into the world beyond its home region, it finds affiliations that are often different in kind from the filiations it is bound up with in its original context. This process of circulation is an extension of what already happens when an author reaches out to a foreign tradition for poetic inspiration. The author of the Book of Job, for example, took an old Hebrew folktale of a righteous man's patience in suffering, and radically expanded it with the searching series of long speeches between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, in which Job questions God's justice and his friends falteringly try to justify God's mysterious ways. In composing his text, which was likely written in Babylon, Job's author drew directly on a Babylonian poem known today as "The Babylonian Theodicy," in which a righteous sufferer voices his complaints against the gods and a friend tries to comfort him.
Though "The Babylonian Theodicy" generally emphasises the justice of the divine order, it assumes a polytheistic cosmos in which different gods can act in contradictory ways and can even do evil; ultimately, the sufferer must accept the sheer fact of the gods' greater power and his need to rely on their mercy, capricious as it may be. After the sufferer rejects the friend's efforts to justify his unmerited suffering, the friend admits to a grim view of divine intentions and of human society alike:
"Narru, king of the gods, who created mankind,
"And majestic Zulummar, who pinched off the clay for them,
"And goddess Mami, the queen who fashioned them,
"Gave twisted speech to the human race.
"With lies, and not truth, they endowed them forever.
"Solemnly they speak favorably of a rich man,
"'He is a king,' they say, 'riches should be his,'
"But they treat a poor man like a thief,
"They have only bad to say of him and plot his murder" (173).
Bringing a comparable social critique into a Hebrew context, the Book of Job becomes a highly subversive document, for an all- powerful and entirely good Yahweh ought not to be involved in setting up a social order dominated by lies that favour those in power. Though the poem closes with God appearing to Job in a whirlwind and Job giving up his protest in silence, the book was clearly deeply unsettling to orthodox readers. Concerned that God had not come out as well as he should, an early editor inserted an entirely new character, Elihu, who abruptly appears in Chapter 32 and spends six chapters giving a long-winded set of renewed justifications for God's ways. Not satisfied with this intrusive addition, some other ancient editor went so far as to rearrange the text. As modern biblical scholars have sorted through the confused final set of speeches, they have concluded that various pious utterances made by Job late in the book were originally spoken by his orthodox friend Bildad.
Thus, in a process that Said's work prepares us perfectly to understand, the author of the Book of Job reached out of his home tradition to find a literary model that would question social arrangements of power and wealth more searchingly than local orthodoxy would do, and modern readers in turn can recover this complex history by reading Job along with "The Babylonian Theodicy."
In studying world literature today, we have to keep in mind that the tremendous expansion in the canon has not been matched by any increase in the hours in the day or the weeks in the school year. Yet art has always been long and life short, and syllabi have always had to be highly selective. World literature today offers us exceptional opportunities for creative juxtaposition and fresh affiliation, which can add new dimensions beyond the filiative links provided within a work's home tradition.
Consider, for example, the way a concept such as "modernism" can be seen afresh in a global context. My example will be a classic expression of modernist concerns, written a few years after 1900:
"Would that I had unknown phrases, sayings that are strange, novel, untried words, free of repetition; not transmitted sayings, spoken by our ancestors! I shall wring out my body of what it holds, to release all my words; for what was said is repetition, when what was said is said! There should be no pride about the literature of the men of former times, or what their descendants discovered! What I say has not been said. . . . I speak these things just as I have seen them. . . .Would that I knew what others ignore, such as has not been repeated, to say it and have my heart answer me, that I might explain to it my grief, shift to it the load on my back, the matters that afflict me, relate to it of what I suffer, and sigh 'Ah' with relief!"
This passage encapsulates many features we can identify with classic high modernism: the impatience with an exhausted language, the search for new and novel phrasings, the claim that a new language is needed to reflect contemporary reality, and the expressionist emphasis on the body, with speech as a strongly physical process. This passage could readily have been written by the young Ezra Pound or D. H. Lawrence, and yet it actually comes from a very different source: not Europe but Egypt, and not our 1900 but the other one: 1900 B.C.E. These lines come from the prologue to "The Lamentations of Khakheperre-sonbe," which was most likely composed during the reign of Sesostris II, who ruled from 1897- 1878 B.C.E.; a translation of the full text can be found in W. K. Simpson's The Literature of Ancient Egypt, published in Egypt by the AUC press.
To read Khakheperre-sonbe next to Pound and Lawrence is to affiliate works that express comparable concerns across great distances in time and space, enabling us to understand modernism not just as a period concept but as a bundle of attitudes toward language, history, and the self. These attitudes, moreover, aren't the privileged property of Western modernity; they can be found in varying degrees in many cultures at various times.
If world literature can yield surprising commonalities, it can also provide illuminating differences. Among Goethe's varied interests was a deep love for the great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Kalidasa, who lived in about the 5th century C.E. Kalidasa and his fellow poets inspired a long and highly sophisticated tradition of interpretation and theoretical reflection on the workings of poetry, memory, and audience response. Sanskrit commentators from the 9th century onward developed elaborate close readings of Sanskrit lyric poetry, yet they rarely if ever contented themselves with the kinds of formalism that Said was so concerned to combat. Instead, the Sanskrit commentary tradition sees the poetry within an intense social landscape.
An example of this can be taken from a treatise on poetry called the Dhvanyaloka or "Light on Suggestion," written in the 800s by a linguist and theologian named Anandavardhana. This work in turn became the subject of an expansive commentary by another scholar, Abhinavagupta, writing about a century later. Together these two scholars developed wonderfully nuanced theories of the ways in which poetic language can suggest more than it explicitly says, as in the case of the following seemingly simple verse:
"Who wouldn't be angry to see
"his dear wife with her lower lip
"You scorned my warning to smell
"the bee-holding lotus. Now you must
According to the Dhvanyaloka, "The meaning of the stanza is as follows. An unfaithful wife has had her lip bitten by a lover. To save her from her husband's reproaches she is here addressed by a clever female friend, who knows that the husband is nearby but pretends not to see him. 'Now you must suffer': the literal sense is addressed to the adulterous wife. The suggested sense, on the other hand, is directed to the husband and informs him that she is not guilty of the offense" (103).
So far so good: the commentary gives a plausible account of a witty double message contained within the scene of woman, lotus, and bee. But Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta don't stop there; in an extended set of close observations of turns of phrase in the verse, they tease out a range of suggestions to a large cast of characters whom they imagine to be implied by the poem: the neighbours are to have their suspicions quieted, the woman's fellow wife is to be kept in her place, and the wife's secret lover is warned that "you must not bite her again in a place that is so obvious." Finally, "to anyone clever who is standing nearby the speaker's cleverness is suggested, as though she were to say, 'This is the way I have concealed things.'" Western love poetry is often conceived as the solitary utterance of an isolated speaker, addressing a single beloved who may even be absent or dead; the Sanskrit poet's garden of love, by contrast, is a fine but very public place.
Even when read in translation and without detailed cultural knowledge, works of world literature can provide the shock of recognition and the complementary shock of the new, opening out the possibilities given in our home tradition. In a classroom setting, a well-chosen juxtaposition of two or three texts can combine elements of similarity and difference. Recently, for example, I taught a course on James Joyce. One way to teach Joyce is of course to set his works firmly into the context of Irish history and culture, but I decided instead to place his work in an international frame. So to introduce his collection Dubliners, I wanted to begin with some works that might suggest ways that realist writers were handling issues of gender relations and modernity during the 1890s, when Joyce was growing up and beginning to find himself as a writer. I found it worked very effectively in class to take one author whom Joyce knew well, Henrik Ibsen, and one whom he never knew of at all, the Japanese short story writer Higuchi Ichiyo.
Joyce was deeply influenced as a young man by Ibsen, going so far as to learn Dano-Norwegian so as to read his plays in the original, and at age 19 Joyce's first significant publication was an essay on Ibsen; Dubliners has many echoes of Ibsen's work, including The Doll House, which served as our example of Ibsen. Ichiyo, on the other hand, had a meteoric early career but then died in 1896 at age 24, and she remained untranslated until long after Joyce wrote Dubliners. Differing from Joyce in gender as well as in culture, Ichiyo nonetheless wrote stories that are very illuminating to read alongside his. Both writers created a poetic prose that drew on popular literary traditions as well as classical sources within their respective cultures, and both show the strains that modern conditions were exerting on traditional family and gender dynamics.
Unconnected though these two writers were to each other, it turns out that they did have at least one common point of reference: Henrik Ibsen. In a glowing review of Ichiyo's novella Child's Play, an older contemporary of hers, the novelist Mori Ogai, wrote that "What is extraordinary about Child's Play is that the characters are not those beastlike creatures one so often encounters in Ibsen or Zola, whose techniques the so-called naturalists have tried imitating to the utmost. They are real, human individuals that we laugh and cry with. . . . I do not hesitate to confer on Ichiyo the title of a true poet" ("Separate Ways," 911). Thus Ichiyo's first readers could see her, as Joyce saw himself, in dialogue with European realism, translating Ibsen into a new form of poetic prose.
Such juxtapositions offer whole new frames of reference within which to see well-known
authors, and they enable us to present a wide variety of texts in new combinations that serve in place of the detailed presentation of local contexts. Joyce can, of course, also be taught as an Irish author together with Yeats and Synge, and Ichiyo can be taught as a Meiji-era writer along with Mori Ogai and Naoya Shiga, together with earlier Japanese writers on whom she drew, notably Murasaki Shikibu and Ihara Saikaku. Yet the triangulation of Ibsen, Ichiyo, and Joyce yields fascinating insights into the worldliness of texts today, as they circulate in an increasingly interconnected world. Secular criticism finds its fullest field of expression in global perspectives on the world's cultures -- their conflicts, dislocations, relocations, and creative interanimations.
Triangulating all his life between Palestine and Egypt, England, and the United States, Edward Said gave crucial impetus to our ongoing explorations of the life of literature in the world of human events. Appropriately, he reached a broad general public as well as university audiences, and he inspired poets and novelists as well as academic scholars. I'd like to close with a poem dedicated to Said by the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali. A brilliant practitioner in English of the traditional Urdu poetic form known as the ghazal, or conversation with the beloved, Ali was attuned to the creative possibilities of a life of dislocation and exile. This poem begins with a verse from Mahmoud Darwish -- a verse from which Said took the title of one of his most eloquent books, After the Last Sky -- and it meditates on Said's trajectory from Jerusalem to Egypt to New York, where Ali observed a Kashmir shawl draped across Said's grand piano in his apartment at Columbia University, overlooking the Hudson River.
Ali's verses express the creative potential of exile, as he brilliantly brings into English the intricate rhyme scheme of the classical ghazal, whose couplets all have to end with the same word, with a rhyme leading into it. Translations of Urdu poets such as the great 19th-century poet Ghalib can never reproduce this rhyme scheme without producing an effect of doggerel, and so the ghazal 's form is usually lost in translation. Shahid Ali, however, has recovered his Kashmiri youth by recreating the ghazal in English verse, here addressed to a "beloved stranger" who may be, at once, a lost love, a distant God, and his close friend Edward Said.
By Exiles (for Edward W. Said)
"Where should we go after the last frontiers,
where should the birds fly after the last sky?"
-- Mahmoud Darwish
In Jerusalem a dead phone's dialed by exiles.
You learn your strange fate: you were exiled by exiles.
You open the heart to list unborn galaxies.
Don't shut that folder when Earth is filed by exiles.
Before Night passes over the wheat of Egypt,
let stones be leavened, the bread torn wild by exiles.
Crucified Mansoor was alone with the Alone:
God's loneliness -- just His -- compiled by exiles.
By the Hudson lies Kashmir, brought from Palestine --
It shawls the piano, Bach beguiled by exiles.
Tell me who's tonight the Physician of Sick Pearls?
Only you as you sit, Desert child, by exiles.
Match Majnoon (he kneels to pray on a wine-stained rug)
or prayer will be nothing, distempered mild by exiles.
"Even things that are true can be proved." Even they?
Swear not by Art but, dear Oscar Wilde, by exiles.
Don't weep, we'll drown out the Calls to Prayer, O Saqi --
I'll raise my glass before wine is defiled by exiles.
Was -- after the last sky -- this the fashion of fire:
autumn's mist pressed to ashes styled by exiles?
If my enemy's alone and his arms are empty,
give him my heart silk-wrapped like a child by exiles.
Will you, Beloved Stranger, ever witness Shahid --
two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?
-Ali, Agha Shahid, "By Exiles." In Rooms Are Never Finished: Poems (Norton, 2002), 72-73.
-Arnold, Matthew. "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time." In David Damrosch et al., eds., The Longman Anthology of British Literature (Pearson Longman, 2003), 2:1573-1583.
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