What Is a Classic?
Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon
Ankhi Mukherjee


What is a classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon


The Western literary canon may be an abstraction elsewhere, but in the postcolony it is a key prop in an all-too-familiar scene involving a shelf of European books and a “provincial” writer who dreams of arriving at the hubs of world literature. In a 1989 UK television appearance, Derek Walcott said that the physical sensation of holding the Faber Auden and the Faber Eliot would drive him to copy out a poem in his exercise book, down to its rhyme and meter, but with the cultural content changed to correspond to a Caribbean context. “It was a complete apprenticeship, a complete surrender to modelling, because I knew that I was in a landscape that didn’t have pylons and trains and autumn, or whatever.” V. S. Naipaul, writing about the unpromising circumstances of his English education, recalls how Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from the Collins Classics series was one of the first English texts read out by the headmaster, Mr. Worm, to introduce his class (fifth standard) to general reading: “He looked down at the little Collins Classic, oddly like a prayer book in his thick hands, and read Jules Verne like a man saying prayers” (Literary Occasions, 4). Dissatisfied with Mr Worm’s idea of formative reading for impressionable boys, and increasingly influenced by his father’s prolific and eccentric reading patterns, Naipaul, still under twelve, creates his own private English literary anthology: selections include speeches in Julius Caesar; chapters of Oliver Twist, Middlemarch, and David Copperfield; Conrad’s Malay stories; one or two of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Self-archiving is a recurrent pattern in the fictional and real lives of writing I describe in this book, but, while the books in this jerry-built canon fire Naipaul’s ambition to become a writer, “together with the wish there had come the knowledge that the literature that had given me the wish came from another world, far away from our own” (6).

Walcott’s and Naipaul’s fellow Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk attributes his worldview to the influence of his father’s painstakingly created library. In his Nobel lecture, “My Father’s Suitcase,” Pamuk describes the large library as a veritable microcosm: “Sometimes I would look at this library from a distance and imagine that one day, in a different house, I would build my own library, an even better library—build myself a world” (4). In front of his father’s library, an eclectic mixture of the local, the national, and the West, the Pamuk experienced an “anguish of affiliation” (Suleri, Rhetoric, 148): parochial and excluded from “a life richer and more exciting than our own” (“My Father’s Suitcase,” 5). The center of the world, and the throbbing heart of world literature—the idea of “world” literature seemed at the time to be interchangeable with Western literature—was far enough from Istanbul and Turkey. “My father’s library was evidence of this. At one end, there were Istanbul’s books—our literature, our local world, in all its beloved detail—and at the other end were the books from this other, Western, world, to which our own bore no resemblance, to which our lack of resemblance gave us both pain and hope” (5). The boy’s longing for this “strange and wondrous” (5) world was made acute with the realization that he lived in a country that had little interest in artists. Yet there was hope that when a writer shut himself up in a room he breached the confines of national identity to join the oceanic one of a “single humanity, a world without a centre”: “All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other” (7).

Pamuk’s sentiments are echoed in Amitav Ghosh’s Pushcart Prize–winning essay “The March of the Novel Through History: The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcase,” in which he describes the pride of place given to the glass-fronted bookcase in middle-class Bengali households. A quarter of the novels in the bookcases in his grandfather’s house, Ghosh writes, were in Bengali, the works of Bankim Chandra, Sarat Chandra, Rabindranath, Bibhuti Bhushan. The rest were in English, largely translations from European languages: Russian, French, Italian, German, and Danish. The most dust had gathered on the masterpieces of the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Hugo, Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant. Books by Maksim Gorky, Mikhail Sholokhov, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair bore muted testimony to the political urgencies of a different historical era, while forgotten Nobel winners in literature—Grazia Deledda, Gorky, Hamsun, Sienkiewicz, and Andrić—brought home to the young writer the mutable criteria of taste and value. For Ghosh, the Nobel collection in this ancestral bookcase, in particular, testified to the widespread appeal of the notion of universal literature, “a form of artistic expression that embodies differences in places and culture, emotion and aspiration, but in such way as to render them communicable” (16). Like Pamuk, and echoing Italo Calvino, who declared in a 1967 Rome symposium that “a book is written so that it can be put beside other books and take its place on a hypothetical bookshelf” (Literature Machine, 81), Ghosh goes on to say that the sliding address to which belated novelists write is this vast and cosmopolitan “fictional bookcase,” which requires them “to locate themselves in relation to it” (23).

In his well-known introduction to the Harvard Classics in March 1910, President Charles William Eliot had presented the fifty-volume “five foot shelf of books” as a mobile history of “the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining” (cited in Kirsch, “Five-foot Shelf Reconsidered,” 1). Readers had to spend a mere quarter of an hour to improve the level of their culture, the Harvard Classics promised. The collection was intended not as “a museum display-case of the ‘world’s best books,’ but as a portable university,” observes Adam Kirsch (1). Like President Eliot’s self-described archive of “recorded discoveries, experiences, and reflections which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilisation has acquired and laid up,” the canon is often represented in postcolonial fiction as portable property, a library of carefully vetted works that carries out its work of global dominance in the farthest outposts of empire. Often in postcolonial representation, the classics distil, usually for the tragically deluded protagonist, the very meaning of civilization and sanity. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the books in Rochester’s dressing room are gradually destroyed by the West Indian climate, as Rochester himself feels poisoned and deracinated. In Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, the narrator stumbles upon the hidden room in Mustafa Sa’eed’s house to be accosted by the replica of an English study. I quote a substantial section of this representative list, which tellingly includes the Koran in English (and presumably Orientalist) translation.

Books on economics, history and literature. Zoology. Geology. Mathematics. Astronomy. The Encyclopaedia Britannica. Gibbon. Macaulay. Toynbee. The complete works of Bernard Shaw. Keynes. Tawney. Smith. Robinson. The Economics of Imperfect Competition. Hobson Imperialism. Robinson An Essay on Marxian Economics. Sociology. Anthropology. Psychology. Thomas Hardy. Thomas Mann . . . Virginia Woolf. Wittgenstein. Einstein . . . Gulliver’s Travels. Kipling. Housman. The History of the French Revolution Thomas Carlyle. . . . What play-acting is this? What does he mean? Owen. Ford Madox Ford. Stefan Zweig. E. G. Browne. Laski. Hazlitt. Alice in Wonderland. Richards. The Koran in English. (Season of Migration, 136–38)

The narrator of Season of Migration to the North likens the salon to a “graveyard,” a “mausoleum,” a “prison” and a “huge joke”: the treasure chamber contains “not a single Arabic book” (138). Naipaul creates a similar scenario for Jimmy Ahmed, the Black Power poseur in Guerrillas, who lives in a house furnished with English carpets and furniture, replete with “The Hundred Best Books of the World.” Jimmy is a derivative intellect whose political fantasy is carved by (mis)readings or incomplete understandings of Western political and literary masterpieces. The upshot of the historical novel is that Jimmy’s revolution on the Caribbean island is tragically “dependent on metropolitan sources—both economic and literary,” as Judie Newman points out (123), and is therefore unsustainable.

As I have tried to show with the literary and ficto-biographical examples above, the Eurocentric canon, routinely associated with imperial hierarchies, is usually perceived and presented as an edifying, if reformatory, force and almost always as an exclusionist corpus. In What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon, I propose that the canon, and the dominant modalities in which it is received, afford a site of historical emergence through which contemporary English and Anglophone literature and literary criticism can fruitfully rethink their cultural identity and politics. The collector’s love of hoarding classics is matched, in the works of Pamuk or Walcott, with a cautious expending of the literary credit, and an ethical commitment to the collection’s inherent “transmissibility” (Benjamin, Illuminations, 66). The book examines, through select events in contemporary literature and literary criticism, how the canon of literature and theory renews and transforms, achieves novel combinations, and fights obsolescence by being constantly on the move. As Naipaul states, “no literary form—the Shakespearean play, the epic poem, the Restoration comedy, the essay, the work of history—can continue for very long at the same pitch of inspiration” (Literary Occasions, 30). This study looks closely also at writers and critics on the move, carrying with them a transferable literary bequest that Homi Bhabha, in an essay that raises the ghosts of Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library,” describes as “a kind of contingent dis-ordered historical ‘dwelling’ bestowed upon us”: “It struck me, unpacking my own library—memories of book-buying in Bombay, Oxford, London, Hyderabad, Champaign-Urbana, Jyavaskala—that it is the ‘disorder’ of our books that makes of us irredeemable ‘vernacular’ cosmopolitans committed to what Walter Benjamin describes as ‘the renewal of existence’” (“Unpacking,” 5). Bhabha, unpacking his crates of books upon arrival in Chicago, recalls unforgettable images (“not thoughts but images,” Benjamin had emphasized) of Benjamin’s wandering past that flocks the mind of the flaneur as he rifles through the cosmopolitan jumble of his old books: “Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris” (“Unpacking,” Illuminations, 67). The “renewal of existence” that Bhabha cites pertains to the Benjaminian idea that, for the collector, the finding of an old book is tantamount to its rebirth and a renewal of the old world. As children, unburdened with reason and acquired frames of reference, collect things to imbue them with occult meaning and combinations, the peripatetic and “transient” collector, at home everywhere and nowhere, has an intuitive and open-ended transaction with old books. This makes for a renewal of meaning, not merely in the restive self-invention of the flaneur, but in the matter and material of the book itself as it is freed from its constrictive local and national contexts to circulate as world literature.

The “contingent dis-ordered historical ‘dwelling,’” which, as Bhabha contends, is the literary legacy that attaches to vernacular cosmopolitans, is given tragicomic amplification in Salman Rushdie’s memoir of his fatwa years, Joseph Anton (2012). Rushdie, hiding in ignominy from murderous zealots, is asked by the British police to find a pseudonym, and thinks first of a fragment of a character that he had made up, Mr. Ajeeb Mamouli, which translates literally as “Absurd Everyman.” “He was Mr Odd Ordinary, Mr Strange Normal, Mr Peculiar Everyday: an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms” (Joseph Anton, 163). The Protection Team finds the name ethnic and unpronounceable, so Rushdie is asked to think again of a fictional name. This time he comes up with “Joseph Anton,” combining the first names of Conrad and Chekhov:

Conrad, the trans-lingual creator of wanderers, lost and not lost, of voyagers into the heart of darkness, of secret agents in a world of killers and bombs, and of at least one immortal coward, hiding from his shame; and Chekhov, the master of loneliness and melancholy, of the beauty of an old world destroyed, like the trees in the cherry orchard, by the brutality of the new; Chekhov whose Three Sisters believed that real life was elsewhere and yearned eternally for a Moscow to which they could not return: these were his godfathers now. (165)

The pseudonym represents the consanguinity of literature and life in a catastrophic turn of events that makes life itself, Rushdie says, read like “a bad novel.” But this codependency is traced to Rushdie’s childhood. “Was it the fault, perhaps, of literature?” he wonders as he reviews the inexplicable decision on the part of his barely-teen self to leave behind his family in India to go to boarding school in England (Joseph Anton, 27). Was it a childish decision “to venture forth into an imaginary England that only existed in books?” (28). The roster of unforgettable storybook characters—Jeeves and Bertie, the Earl of Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, Billy Bunter and his Indian classmate, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh—is seen as mobilizing the boy’s outreach for an ideal community, and it is left to the mature self to realize the pitfalls of such imaginary identifications. “Elective affinities,” the term coined by Goethe—which Rushdie adapts to mean conscious, not biologically predetermined, choice—applies most acutely to his extrapolations from English, American, and European literature and culture for self-definition. Fighting the lethal speech-act that is the fatwa, he seems to draw succor in his postsacral world from Hemingway’s injunction of “grace under pressure” (cited in Joseph Anton, 395), and Conrad’s “I must live until I die, mustn’t I?” (Joseph Anton, 165). Joseph Anton is both Didi and Gogo, interposing games in a long night of despair (Joseph Anton, 396); he is Beckett’s “mighty unnameable” (461) and Bellow’s dog (422); the world he inhabits is “Gogolian,” “Rabelaisian,” and “Kafkaesque.” “It was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground and points of identification” (627), Joseph Anton tries to explain.

Charles Altieri sees a vital link between canonization and self-interest: canon formation, according to Altieri, works “by elaborating transpersonal principles of value that link desires in the present to forms of imaginative discourse preserved from the past” (“Idea and Ideal,” 40). It is most revealing that the transhistorical canon that best serves Rushdie’s personal interests includes Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Raskolnikov, Miss Marple, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore, but no one from the subcontinent. As in Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie argues for a model of self-generation and survival—the child as the father of man—wherein parents are not always accidental but elected, sometimes half-consciously. The belated novelist’s literary output perpetuates, instead of canceling, the “polyglot family tree” of his predecessors, such as Gogol, Cervantes, Kafka, Melville, Machado de Assis: “It is perhaps one of the more pleasant freedoms of the literary migrant to be able to choose his parents” (Imaginary Homelands, 20–21).

Seductive as it is to trace ad infinitum the multifarious imaginary identities and identifications of historically displaced literary figures such as Rushdie, this book will strain instead to read such escapades in knowable contexts, as historically interpretable despite their dynamic resistance to national, ethnic, and cultural determinism. If literary migrants are free, and willing to choose literary antecedents, what worldly criteria determine their selection or fine-tune their calibrations of choice? In his 1991 lecture “What Is a Classic?” Coetzee narrates how he, at age fifteen, had heard a recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, played on the harpsichord: “For the first time I was undergoing the impact of the classic. . . . The revelation in the garden was a key event in my formation” (“What Is a Classic?” 10). Why does Coetzee, in the thrall of the Western classic, feign indifference to the ambient sound of vernacular African languages and culture? In renaming himself “Joseph Anton,” Rushdie opts for a mediated anonymity in this memoir told in distanced, third-person narration, the subjectivity under erasure making a compensatory bid for posthumous glory in its identification with two of the most enduring names in world literature. In the context of this renaming, Rushdie’s boyhood cathexis with the Western literary canon seems to not be very different from that which Coetzee self-critically interprets as “a symbolic election on my part of European culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end” (“What Is a Classic?” 18). Canons are normative, evaluative, and self-perpetuating: they also possess dialectical resources for forgings of identity that lead through the pain and shame of acculturation and deracination, as with Rushdie and Coetzee, to timeless and talismanic forms of power. The switch from “Ajeeb Mamouli” to Joseph Anton signals a defensive decision to substitute the “strange normal” Indian everyman with a name potent enough in its constellation of cultural traces to conflate Salman Rushdie with the universal and recurrent type of the artist in exile.

Is there an identifiable and agreed-upon canon of English literature in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? How is the canon historically constituted and transmitted in our times, and how is a classic created? It seems perverse to revisit troubled ideas of canonicity for English studies in the postcolonial and global age, when the drift of English literary history has revised its temporal perspectives, with cultural identity in the era of cultural-economic globalization increasingly exhibiting symptoms of what Michel Foucault called “the epoch of space” (“Of Other Spaces,” 22), a contestatory resituating of history on spatial rather than temporal axes. Are there any perennial works or masterpieces at all in the new geomorphic empire and in world literature, which is not so much a canon of texts as it is a mode of circulation, not unlike the spatial proliferation of capital itself? This study seeks to interrogate, through selected (and definitive) trends in twentieth- and twenty-first-century English and Anglophone literature, the relevance of the question of the classic for the politics of publishing, teaching, and translating core texts. It demonstrates how criticism continues to shore up the idea of literary value against mobile configurations of knowledge, technology, and expertise. If for T. S. Eliot, the classic standard was indissociable from dead languages—languages that have, ironically, been exhausted by the classics in which their energies culminated—I argue that the invention of modern classics is sustained by a dynamic and variable conversation between the past and the present of English studies, as that conversation goes from being specifically Western to being worldwide.

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