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"We must . . . do our best to form . . . a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."Macaulay (729)
- More than half a century after the exit of the British, Departments of English continue to flourish in India, especially in the metropolitan cities. In the context of Africa, Ngugi wa Thiong'o has remarked on "the psychological violence of the classroom," which the colonizing powers constructed and left behind to reinforce the "physical violence of the battlefield" (436). It is a testimony to the power of this legacy that only very recently has Delhi University, belatedly, and after much debate, made a tentative decolonizing shift. Some Indian writers in English translation and some Indian writers, writing in English, have been introduced into the English Honours syllabus at the undergraduate level. This modification in the syllabus, however, is but a token and symptomatic acknowledgement of a change in the reception of English literature in the Indian classroom, of a classroom dynamics that has been palpable for more than a decade now. While English literature still remains a major part of the curriculum, its "psychological violence" has lost its teeth with the distancing of the British presence.
- Students specializing in English literature in India are, for the most part, from the upper-middle class or upwardly mobile homes. A schooling in expensive institutions, where English is the medium of instruction, is an integral part of this social position as English is acknowledged as the language of the successful professional in the cosmopolitan urban milieu. The teacher herself, all too often, belongs to this neo-colonial category, yet she does not, as I hope to show, necessarily function as a representative of the colonial power. This neo-colonial category of people educated in English is quite often derisively perceived as "accultured" and "alienated." Maybe so. But it is an alienation emerging less out of an agenda set a century and a half ago and more out of a situation in which an English-speaking class finds itself comfortably positioned in the play of globalizing forces primarily under U.S. domination. It is an alienation arising out of an economic privilege, which cushions one from too stark a confrontation with the socio-economic realities of a developing country. These are people for whom, as Deborah Cameron observes, the value of a language is "primarily . . . economic . . . the ability to transact business in it." She, however, stresses "the impossibility of disconnecting language and culture" as languages are "replete with cultural meaning." But it is precisely such a disconnection that takes place in the instrumental use of the language, and curiously and very differently, operates in the reading of English literature here in India today.
- Long ago, Edward Said described the pedagogic situation in a classroom as "a pact between a canon of works, a band of initiate instructors" and "a group of younger affiliates" ( 21). But this contained pedagogic scene is no longer operative, or even desirable, in the English Literature classrooms of India. The instructor finds that what Macaulay's children initiated her into no longer holds for a student body distanced from the British occupation by more than two generations. She was schooled in doing a close reading of a canonized work followed by a thematic study of the writer. Some historical background was also shaded in, a background which remained inert for the most part. The enclave of literature remained carefully preserved. Today, one is made more than aware that most of the students opting for the course are unlikely to enter the comparatively underpaid academic profession. To treat literature, thus, as a self-perpetuating enterprise of a sensitive minority appears inadequate, even archaic. Most of these students are headed towards the world of management, advertising, journalism, bureaucracy, and so on, not to overlook the role they will play as gendered adults of a particular class, caste, and religion of this complexly plural society. Inspired by post-colonial stances, aided by the decentering thrust of post-structuralism, one who tries to speak the language of center and margin, and to talk of the syllabus as a colonial heritage, finds herself speaking to students for whom British rule was something contained in the pages of their history books. One empathizes with the American Colonel who said that when he was talking of the Vietnam war to the cadets, he might as well have been talking of the Peloponnesian war. In such a situation, what serves a teacher best is an emphasis on what Said elsewhere calls the "closeness of the world's body" (39) at the writer's end and, even more, at the reader's. My observations in this paper are an attempt to theorize my experiences primarily in poetry classrooms of an elite women's institution in the University of Delhi.
- Gayatri Spivak has remarked that "the goal of teaching such things as literature is epistemic, transforming the ways in which objects of knowledge are constructed" ("The Burden" 281). The teacher, then, in these most definitely post-colonial times, needs to consider how the object of study is to be constructed or gets constructed in the classroom to make it meaningful. The exercise of the imagination in the literary arena has to be recognized as a dynamic social practice, as significant as any other. What one then hopes to do is to seek the epistemic value of the literature and try to understand its continuing effectiveness, if any, as object of study. One tries to critique grounding cultural constructions of what it is to be "human," "man," "woman," "Indian," "English," to belong to a particular class, caste, religion, and so on, for these are what prove to be effective modes of reading literature. One attempts to interpellate the multiple and shifting subject positions the students function through as they read, even as one brings them to an awareness of these. In the process, one finds that the "West as Subject"(Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 66) is displaced.
- In his elaboration of the historical nature of all understanding, Hans Georg Gadamer notes that "understanding is never subjective behaviour towards a given object" (xix). Even in a classroom, one often tends to forget this in entering the rarefied linguistic formulation that is a poem. The world brought into being by an effective poem tends to appear different from the everyday one, almost hermetically sealed from it, as it appears to estrange us from its ordinariness. The resistance of some students to poetry is also based on such a belief. One addresses this resistance by locating the apparently neutral distant aesthetic object and the putative ahistorical reader of a poem in their socio-historical milieu. Why is it that the superbly casual opening of a poem like Tintern Abbey, for example, draws us in and many of us find ourselves inhabiting the troubled, confessional, subjective space opened up by the poem? Why do the images from "Burnt Norton" -- "the pool . . .filled with water out of sunlight / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of the heart of light"(I, ll.35-37) -- mesmerize us with their luminosity? Asking the students to examine what in the constitution of the poem facilitates an easy identification, and what calls forth an immediate resistance, becomes the mode of study of the poem concerned. Gadamer notes that historical tradition is an "effective moment of one's being"(p.xxiii), the position one is always already in as one reads, the prejudice one can never be without. He stresses that what we reconstruct is not the life of the original. In any case, the notion of a pure original in any organic sense is problematic. It is salutary to remember Yeats's elaboration of "Adam's Curse" as he undoes the Romantic dream of a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,"(Wordsworth,, Preface to Lyrical Ballads) or of "profuse strains of unpremeditated art" (Shelley, "To a Skylark"). The canonized version of a poem is what after all has been arrived at through editorial choices, and it is these versions whetted by critical reviewers and readers that find their way into the classroom.
- It is a fact that these 'classic' English poems would not speak to us at all if their emotional formulations were no longer valid or relevant. The effective history that continues to envelop us as readers of these poems is constituted by the various positions we find ourselves in as historical beings. It is this and not elemental, universal, or natural human subjectivity that comes into play as we read the poems. Gadamer's notion of a "fusion of horizons" (p.273), i.e. the fusion of the horizon of the writer in his milieu to that of the reader in hers, is worth re-working here. Gadamer's assertion of historicity in the act of reading, and yet his simultaneous rejection and revision of a historicist hermeneutics make his approach one to contend with, for a provocative and contentious thesis it is. Underlying his postulate is the conception of an abstract historical self as an unruptured though changing entity. But our particular historical selves are contingent in nature and the site of many ruptures and conflicts. Gadamer's notion of the historical self as a changing continuity is difficult to accept for it demands having a totalizing and containable notion of history and a complex but unified notion of a historical self. Such assumptions need to be re-visioned and, to begin with, I choose a recurrent reading experience of Tintern Abbey to do so.
- As the poem opens, most of us move into, and along with, the "I" of the poem quite effortlessly. The countryside evoked so feelingly is foreign, but the nostalgic idea of the natural countryside is familiar to the well-heeled city dweller. Wordsworth's creation of an emotional binary in a rapidly industrializing England has not yet been rendered irrelevant for the metropolitan Indian living in a country still in the throes of urbanization and industrialization -- and certainly not yet in the era of late capitalism. The nostalgic emotional use of the countryside has, in fact, become a paradigm used by holiday brochures and real estate developers selling the idea of dream holidays and dream homes, the idea of escape to a self that feels crowded in by the city. Wordsworth's reworking of the pastoral born out of the vision of the growth of London and other manufacturing centers proves a transferable and still relevant emotional unit for us. The less specific the particular historical references, the more, paradoxically, historically mobile the poem. Using merely common nouns, "towns and cities," and keeping the "beauteous forms" of the landscape vaguely imaginable, the poem is able to resonate in our city. However, not a universal experience but an experience comprehensible because of a limited historical similarity of a class is what constitutes the emotional force of the poem. In fact, the gentle landscape of the specific English countryside comes as a shock to the Indian reader when she encounters it in photographs or in person, so grandiose is the language used for it and so exalted the spiritual significance the poet chooses to invest it with!
- At several points in the poem, our inner resistance to several of the positions meaningfully used in the poem surfaces. The desperate groping for a faith, so movingly dramatized, draws us in, but we balk at the location of this world transcending faith in nature. The gendering of nature as a woman and the consequent, all too familiar, expectations of service as guide, guardian, and nurse arouse discomfort, as does another type of female stereotype produced through the characterization of and role assigned to the "dear sister." The paternalistic male makes sense of experience and imparts it as truth to the uncomprehending, intuitive being who has to be schooled into the appropriate philosophic stance by the male preceptor. While some students do react to this gender bias, others need to be sensitized to it. This becomes necessary as the students come from a class less affected by overt patriarchal violence. As a result, they live comfortably ensconced in the patriarchal structure reinforced through the language of benevolence and affection. The pedagogue then finds herself dislocating this subject position and actively intervening in the plot of the poem's emotional structure and working towards the production of socially active truths. Even in the poem's own times, surely women like Mary Wollstonecraft would have had difficulty in fusing with the horizon of the poem at these junctures.
- But the poem still provides historical selves, which win our unqualified response. The ruminative solitary self pained by the abrasiveness of social experience, suggesting a historical density and turbulence it is unable to contend with, holds us. The poetic force of the composition makes us suspend our consciousness of its maleness and we slip into its subject position. The "I" in the poem appears to be searching for a meaningful identity and a viable mode of participation in history and not just an esoteric, merely personal salvation. This self -- resistant, unyielding, and constructive -- proves attractive. Hemmed in by overwhelmingly strong family structures, or cushioned by them, confronted by the cynical impersonality of institutional structures, yet living with a sense of significance which comes of class privilege, the battle of a self to negotiate a significant role for itself proves an inhabitable emotional complex. Not a simple fusion of horizons, but a selective, filtered, transferability of this emotional, class-based humanistic identity from one milieu to another constitutes an effective historical part of this reading experience. Within the neatly ordered structure of the classroom, or even in a private study, the contained and containable vision of history, of a self in history ultimately comprehensible and manageable by the individual will, becomes a seductive fiction, especially for those not too rudely buffeted by it.
- The select nature of the readership even in Wordsworth's time is clear from a small detail in the landscape of Tintern Abbey. This is the smoke that goes up "in silence" among the trees which perhaps gives "uncertain notice" of "vagrant dwellers in the woods." That vagrancy was a harsh socio-economic reality of the times is something that both William and Dorothy Wordsworth are fully aware of, as we see from the record of several encounters with homeless derelicts in the countryside of Grasmere in Dorothy's journal entries. But this harshness is muted in the poem as the distanced vagrant becomes part of the poetic apparatus. The readership is obviously not one of vagrants who, if schooled to read the poem, would receive it angrily. They would see the states of mind elaborated so carefully in the poem as the effete luxuries of a comfortable aesthete. Even in its own historical period, thus, horizons are unlikely to have fused seamlessly. Received by an upper class in India, almost fifty years after the departure of the British, there is a cultural and historical exclusion and a simultaneous, selective appropriation of the emotional stance on the reader's part. The particulars of literary and political history, the socio-political dynamics of the time, when made visible as constituting the ethos of the poem, add density to the commentaries on the poem but remain inert in our emotional response. The specific national, cultural, and political grounding stand effectively occluded in this response. That is, history as empirically verifiable event enhances our historical understanding of the poem, revealing its place in a particular milieu, but a different mode of historical engagement, variable, criss-crossed by class, gender, and national formations is what comes into play in an engaged reading of the poem. A selective and varying movement of identification, resistance, and transference is what works in our response.
- It is necessary to pause here and consider the nature of the aesthetic power of poetry. A schooling in the English language, and in the art of reading poetry, gradually equips us with the skill to separate a forceful poem from one that lacks force. It is worth asserting that there is such a force, only explicable by focusing on word choices, sound patterns, organization, and so on, even while we fully acknowledge the bourgeois base of this cultivated appreciation. I would like to use an example from Shelley to illustrate this point.
- The superiority of the canonized Prometheus Unbound to The Revolt of Islam is unquestionable. Both poems feed into the discourse of orientalism in very obvious ways. In Prometheus Unbound, we resist the presentation of Asia, sensuous, feminized, ahistorical, who falls willingly and happily into the arms of Prometheus, western man who has learnt to gain an ethical mastery over the forces which can otherwise propel history into a nightmarish turbulence. In The Revolt, we have the stereotypical projection of the irrational, lustful, middle-eastern, tyrannical, ravisher of Cythna a pale feminine counterpart of the revolutionary Laon. While the crudity of the presentations in The Revolt are easily rejected, Prometheus Unbound remains ideologically more dangerous as it wrests from the reader a compliance with its presentation because of its aesthetic force. The careful conceptualization of the central figure, the stance toward history elaborated with dramatic force, the skilful blend of the lyrical, the dramatic, and the hortatory elements -- all formal compositional categories -- result in a momentary suspension of ideological positions on the reader's part. Similar is the case with Tintern Abbey, where it is possible to temporarily miss the patriarchal, class-based nature of the self projected. Indeed, as we have seen, the latter facilitates the entry of the metropolitan Indian reader into the poem, a reader who has then to be made aware of the reasons for her sense of affinity. Exploring as they do modes of power play in histories, theories and ideology provide the critical force to relate the work and the world, in all their complexities, at these junctures.
- In "Signature Event Context," Jacques Derrida has pointed to the ability, or rather the inevitability, of writing breaking with its context and functioning quite differently in others:Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written, can be cited . . . put between quotation marks, thereby it can break with every given context and engender infinitely new contexts in absolutely non saturable fashion. This does not suppose that the mark is valid outside its context, but on the contrary, that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. (320)Even a poem, a genre hemmed in by conventions of the literary world and those of various institutional frameworks, refuses to remain stable in its emotive reverberations. Detached from its particular historical markers, from its unique power within its particular confluence, its forcefulness gets constituted differently at different times. Received in another time and place, it gets transformed and creates a new historical ethos for the imagination in its new location. Thus poetic discourse proves differently renewable. This was brought home very forcefully in the course of some very disturbing events in India's recent history.
- In the wake of the ascent to power of a right-wing Hindu party at the center, attacks on minorities, especially on the Christian community, by the dangerous extremist fringe of this fundamentalist party are on the increase. The most horrifying of these has been the murder of a Christian missionary and his two minor sons. A frenzied, chanting mob set fire to the van in which they were sleeping, ignoring their agonized cries. The central government was quick to distance itself from the mob saying the latter had nothing to do with its cadres. Teaching Yeats's "The Second Coming" to one set of students and Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" to another in the aftermath of this event proved to be an intense experience. Yeats's lines, themselves a reworking of Shelley's dark vision of history in Prometheus Unbound, of "the blood-dimmed tide being loosed," and the sense of horror evoked by the realization that "the best lack all conviction" and "the worst are full of passionate intensity," came searingly alive. The poem was effectively glossed by our immediate history and not by editorial notes on Yeats's system or his historical context. As our immediate horizon swept through the poem, we inhabited the emotional mode of a despairing helplessness at anarchy with deep understanding. Shelley's emotional projection of history in the aftermath of the French revolution, absorbed and re-visioned by Yeats for his time, got appropriated by readers more than three quarters of a century later in another historical context.
- Needless to say, the full emotional force of the poem, with the ethical frame used to interpret history, gets constituted only when there is a set of historical circumstances which prove amenable to this linguistic formulation. In this particular instance, an empirical displacement of earlier positivities took place, and in another violent period in history, in a totally different milieu, an emotional fusion with this carefully crafted response to violence became possible. In this case, it also served, obliquely, to unsettle students who were not unsympathetic to fundamentalism. In other, relatively more tranquil times this emotive force is less vibrant. Similarly, Keats's troubled speculation on how art in its calm Olympian domain remains a friend to man, and the relationship of the aesthetic realm to some usable truth, took on urgent overtones in the context of the horrifying events we were living through. Thus the poems taken out of the shelves of the English literature library recreate for us not the English ethos but become effective only when and where they can resonate from our own contingent histories. Canonization does not make the particular poem resound as a neutral repository of a universal meaning, no matter how superior it is in craftsmanship to other such poems. Pedagogic practice in the latter case becomes an immense labor of reconstruction as students make their sense of alienation more than clear!
- Literary discourse, so richly emotive, functions in a state of alterity to ordinary discourse. This is an alterity even more complexly at work when transplanted to a different cultural location. That the emotional link between the signifier and the signified is often contingent and tenuous is brought into focus dramatically as signifieds constantly erase, displace and transform signifieds, almost constituting a new sign in its new ambience. The allegorization of the city of London by Blake and Eliot provides an example. The difference in the historical worlds inhabited by the two poets is palpable. For Blake, it is a city tightly structured by the institutions of religion, politics, and commerce with every man, woman, and child ensnared and marked by "woe." It is a damning commentary on Burke's complacent vision of England in Reflections on the French Revolution:We fear God; we look up with awe to kings; with affection to parliament; with duty to magistrates, with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility. (181)The anger of Blake's observer as he contemplates the ethical perversion that has been inextricably intertwined in these very institutions reflects the moral vitality of the poet. Eliot's is a despairing gaze in which the inhabitants of the city appear a loose, amorphous crowd with no moorings. Their physical lack of distinction is an indication of their spiritual aridity. In an ambivalent review of Eliot, George Orwell talks of the typicality of such moods evoked in Eliot's poems: "The mood of lassitude, irony, disbelief, and distrust . . . was what sensitive people actually" (486). Kathleen Raine states: "We did not read his poems in any perspective at all: rather we were in them, ourselves figures in the sad procession of Eliot's London that 'unreal city' in whose unreality lay its terrible reality" (490). From totally opposed ideological spectrums, privileged, "sensitive people" felt that Eliot represented their times.
- Moreover, the London of the two poets emerges as distinctly different. We watch here what Derrida calls the "play that brings about the nominal effects, the relatively unitary or atomic structure we call names or chains or substitutions for names." Yet, as he put it elsewhere, this play does not prevent it from producing "conceptual effects and verbal and nominal concretions"(45) with historical force. We receive these allegorizations of the city of London without any sense of continuity, belatedness, or irrelevance, as this particular city remains distant to us. The name remains peripheral in our reception, just as Tintern Abbey or the river Wye does, carrying no distinctive resonance. But at the same time, the institution of the city, and the institutions of a hypocritical state and religious apparatus, if not church and king, continue to be familiar. The latter continue to function in India with as much contentious force, not having been marginalized as in the west. At the same time, the deadening routine of the massive, commuting work force of our cities does appear to be like Eliot's lifeless crowd without necessarily connoting the same ennui, or capable of being labeled as the despair of a particular generation. A well-known Indian novelist, U.R. Ananthamurthy, states that "different historical epochs co-exist in the consciousness of an Indian writer, and, therefore, for him Chaucer, Langland, Shakespeare, Dickens and Camus are contemporaries"(64).Rather than see this as the essence of an Indian consciousness, I posit that the uneven development of different social formations of the culturally dense location that is India leads to this mode of reception. Moreover, as we have seen, in the case of no writer is it a total or unqualified fusion with the horizon of the writer.
- That the curriculum set by Macaulay is ineluctably foreign is underscored even more piquantly when any Indian or even Eastern element enters a poem. In an essay, "The idea of a national literature," Paul Gilbert states that it is difficult to "identify any set of intrinsic properties in which a literary nationality . . . resides" (210). This may be so. But there does seem to be a strong emotional base to our historical constitution as people belonging to one particular mix of cultures rather than another and, as readers of a foreign literature, we do sharply realize this national identity. It is an identity which becomes palpable not in a definable substantiality but in an undefinable but strong emotional marking off of one's difference. When the Turk or Asia enters Shelley, or Hinduism or Buddhism enters Eliot or Yeats, we are jerked back from a quiescent readerly position concretely into our national and cultural identity. The unease at the incorporation of these elements, and the sharp ideological scrutiny they elicit, highlight the historical and cultural alterity of the writer's emotional arena. It is interesting to see a western reader reacting to the same elements. One such reader of Eliot notes that, "certain passages are inoperative . . . such I believe are many of his statements of faith . . . the use of words like Shantih at the end of The Wasteland ( T.S. Eliot, 411)." This, in tandem with the Indian reaction, testifies to a historical allegiance with an emotional base, an allegiance which assumes a "truer" apprehension of one's own cultural milieu more "authentic" than that of an outside reader or interpreter. It has to be clarified that this is not a manifestation of regressive nativist self-assertion, or an affirmation of one's cultural lineage in the face of colonial misappropriation on the Indian readers' part. But located in this resistance is the prejudice (in Gadamer's sense), of a subliminal awareness of difference, which remains in abeyance at the points of emotional fusion based on other modes of historicity, but becoming manifest here.
- This consistent but often unrealized historical othering of English literature, in spite of the ability to read with the work at many points, was demonstrated forcefully to us in a paper on the effect of translation on an all-too-familiar western text. When translated into Hindi, the bawdy language of Iago in Othello, had an electrifying effect, giving to his character a crude dimension, adding a demeaning force to the racist violence that constitutes part of his character. It was as though we had not fully inhabited the raw emotional violence constitutive of his character before. English had muted this force. Ironically, as noted earlier, English is the language of the educated upper class. That class base with its civilized and intellectual corollary does not quite accommodate this degree of crudity. Thus even as the denotative meaning of the English words is not in any doubt, the emotional confluence needed for a full apprehension of the words does not quite come into being. Derrida's observation on the problematic of translation is worth reworking here. He notes that translation "leaves intact neither of . . . [the] two complementary poles i.e. "nationalism" and "universalism" ("Living On," 94). But in a society as complexly striated as ours, 'nationalism' is riddled with conflicting subject positions and 'universalism' is only operative if the historical conjuncture is somewhat similar. Thus the two poles of translation are not as simple or uniform as Derrida, surprisingly, suggests.
- We have seen that a work renders active innumerable criss-crossing horizons, which connect and disconnect, are transfigured or displaced by the world of its readers. 'Universals' form and disintegrate, functioning within and through histories holding no stable or eternal ground. The dialectical model of effective history in such a situation needs to be replaced by a more anarchic dialogic one where many voices connect and/or cross each other, bolstering, undermining, derailing and, quite often, not communicating at all. Given a plethora of shifting subjectivities, Macaulay's political agenda for the Indian classroom stands comprehensively derailed by an inexorable historical dynamics, complex and fluid, which sets the agenda for a critical pedagogic practice.
Sarah Joseph uses these terms in Interrogating Culture: Cultural Perspectives on Contemporary Social Theory, (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London: Sage Publications, 1998) p.156. Back
"I might as well be teaching the Peloponnesian Wars." Colonel Cole C. Kingsend, on instructing West Point cadets about the Vietnam War, "Perspectives," Newsweek, May 8, 2000, p.27. Back
Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, quoted by Said in "Criticism between Culture and System," The World, p.200. Back
Rajiva Verma presented a paper on this subject in Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. Back