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Reading: A Novel Hypothesis

Was it Jane Austen's purpose to advance the cause of Western imperialism? Edward W. Said thinks so.



It is not surprising that there exists no great English novel in which the growth of national or imperial consciousness is chronicled. It is useless to look for this in the work of historians. They, more than novelists, work within the values of their society; they serve those values. --V.S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness

Picture a boy growing up around World War II somewhere other than in Europe or America. He's exceptionally bright, and he imbibes the literature of Europe in great drafts. The books are often remote, even opaque, but they give the boy something crucial: more than pleasure and learning, they give him experience of places and ideas that seem to matter, as those around him do not. The notion of the third world is still decades away, so when he thinks of himself the only term he has is the more descriptive, and loaded, "colonial": he knows that his ambitions must be fulfilled elsewhere. And before he's even past his teens he does make it out. He crosses the sea to a metropolis, finishes his education, stays, and over the years becomes famous in the world he's adopted, as an interpreter of the one he left behind.

Two men, very different, started out like that boy. One is V. S. Naipaul, a descendant of Hindu immigrants in Trinidad who was shuffled around sugarcane estates in the countryside and shabby neighborhoods in Port of Spain until he won a scholarship that took him to England and a career as a writer. The other is Edward W. Said, son of a wealthy Palestinian merchant, a Christian, who received an English education in Cairo followed by Princeton, Harvard, and a professorship at Columbia. Naipaul knew what small, retarded communities were like from the inside, and when he looked back and began to write he didn't flinch: he made the cultural and political failures of the so-called third world one of his principal themes. Said, when he looked back, saw a history of colonial dispossession, bigotry, and betrayal, and he committed himself to exposing it. He and his work have been unabashedly partisan, taking up the causes of Palestine, the Arab and Islamic world, and the generalized non-European "other."

From the start Naipaul was detached--a "looker," as he once said. He had grown up as a colonial, he knew the facts, and when he read the novels of 19th-century Europe he took it for granted that they were products of an imperial culture. He understood instinctively the pervasiveness of that culture, so the fact that it went unexamined in those novels was, as he says above, not surprising. But it has been 30 years since he wrote those lines, and things have changed. Now we have a book that makes much of what Naipaul took for granted: Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said's explicit chronicle of imperial consciousness, using mainly novels of the period as evidence. What values, we may be permitted to wonder, does he serve?

Said's argument runs through four stages. First, he explains that in any society committed to building an empire, as England was in the last century, imperialism has to be seen as an essential part of the culture. This is obviously true, though you'd never know it the way Said labors the point. Second, he argues that novels written in that imperial culture not only make assumptions appropriate to it (as, say, novels written in America today might make assumptions about our obsession with sexuality or consumerism), they also promote the values of that culture, whether consciously or not. Joseph Conrad presents an interesting case because his ambivalence about European adventurism is well known--indeed, it's at the center of all his books. But Conrad was so locked into the culture of imperialism, according to Said, that he could not help being its medium: Nostromo, for example, "embodies the same paternalistic arrogance of imperialism that it mocks."

This is debatable, like any other matter of interpretation, and Said is entitled to his views; he is after all a literary critic by profession. But he often seems to be stretching a point. His statement that "Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is about England and about Antigua, and the connection is made explicitly by Austen; it is therefore about order at home and slavery abroad, and can--indeed ought--to be read that way" will surprise anyone who has read the book. Antigua is mentioned just a few times, and serves only to call away the lord of the manor so that the young people can pursue their romantic adventures freely in his absence. These adventures are what the novel is "about," of course; Sir Thomas's affairs in the Indies remain unspecified. A political reading of this book, if one were disposed to make it, could be built much more plausibly around class divisions: the servants of Mansfield Park are kept in the background, but at least they're involved in the action, much more than the distant Caribbean estate; the turning point of the novel is Fanny's visit to her family's shabby digs in Portsmouth, which convinces her of the virtues of country gentility; and from the first sentence the novel's driving force is the overwhelming importance of women making a good match.

Class resentment, however, is not the horse Said wants to ride. His fight is against the hegemony of the West, so when he arraigns the novelists it's for being unable to see past the imperial context in which they wrote: this is the third stage of his argument. Conrad, again, "does not give us the sense that he could imagine a fully realized alternative to imperialism." That is so; neither did he imagine the barbarism of the Chinese communists, the bath of blood into which India plunged itself after independence, or the rise of Idi Amin and Jean Bedel Bokassa as African leaders. Nevertheless, Said insists, "Conrad's tragic limitation is that . . . he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that 'natives' could lead lives free from European domination." This, for one of the immortal masters of English prose, who died in 1924, is a tragic limitation? Likewise the pleasure and detail Rudyard Kipling draws out of the apparently secure British Raj in Kim is "troubling, even embarrassing." Kipling was confused, we are told, "a great artist in a sense blinded by his own insights about India." Kipling may or may not be a great artist, but when giants are being felled by a terrible swift sword--"Even Karl Marx succumbed to thoughts of the changeless Asiatic village"--the small fry had better get out of the way.

The fourth stage should be clear by now: it is to "comprehend how the great European realistic novel accomplished one of its principal purposes--almost unnoticeably sustaining the society's consent in overseas expansion." Are we to imagine Kipling and Conrad exchanging cables in secret with Lord Curzon, viceroy of India? Whatever Said's statement may mean, he'd characterize the relation between novels and empire as of a type known in the professor's trade, I believe, as dialectical: for "Without empire," he writes, "there is no European novel as we know it." This is certainly true in the sense that without the African ivory trade there would have been no "Heart of Darkness," just as without Victorian London there would have been no Charles Dickens. But Said means more than that: "the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other. . . . [They] fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other." Remember that the next time your kid wants to hear a new chapter of Treasure Island.

"I'm a natural autodidact," Said told an interviewer recently. "It's my perverse streak." Unfortunately it shows. The most careful scholar will make mistakes, but there are more than enough lapses in Culture and Imperialism to suggest a pattern. Said, who began his career as an expert on Conrad, places Nostromo's fictional republic of Costaguana in Central America instead of South America; he refers to Mansfield Park's Maria as "Lydia," which, so far as I know, is not the name of a character in the book; and he calls Fanny Price, the heroine of that novel, an "orphaned child" even though both her parents appear in several chapters alive and well.

This is mere sloppiness. More troubling is Said's penchant for tendentious, even fallacious glosses. In order to make a point about the outlying territories of empire being "available for use, at will, at the novelist's discretion," he claims that in Hard Times Dickens has Tom Gradgrind, the good-for-nothing son, shipped off to the colonies at the end. In fact, Dickens only refers vaguely to North or South America. After quoting a passage from Thomas Carlyle filled with the most appalling racism (and repeating the title of the work, The Nigger Question, just to make sure we get the point), Said goes on to suggest that Jane Austen shared its "essential attitudes." There is not a single word in Mansfield Park--which never once mentions blacks, let alone "niggers"--to justify this preposterous slander.

Said probably uses "Heart of Darkness" more than any other book, but unaccountably he seems to have missed the point. He consistently interprets the "darkness" of the title as an African darkness: "the whole point of what Kurtz and Marlow talk about is in fact imperial mastery, white European over black Africans"; they cannot recognize, he says, "that what they saw, disablingly and disparagingly, as a non-European 'darkness' was in fact a non-European world resisting imperialism so as one day to regain sovereignty and independence." But Conrad's message--available, I would have thought, even to the consumers of Cliffs Notes--is that the "darkness" is inescapably human: it destroyed Kurtz, and even Marlow had to admit "the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you . . . could comprehend." Astonishingly, Said doesn't even mention this as a possible reading of the book, if only to dismiss it.

By far the longest passage quoted in Culture and Imperialism is from John Ruskin's "Inaugural Lecture" at Oxford, and it's easy to see why. Ruskin uses explicitly imperialist images as he calls upon the youth of England to make her a "sceptred isle" that will "found colonies as fast and as far as she is able." In 1870, when Ruskin took up his professorship, this was an accepted part of his country's ethical life; and that life, held up to the young men before him, was his true subject. To Said, however, the passage is a kind of imperialist manifesto, "fram[ing] nearly everything in Ruskin's copious writings on art." It's difficult to see how this can be so, since nowhere in the passage does Ruskin draw a connection between art at home and the colonies. For him a devotion to art--as to science and agriculture, which he gives equal force--and colonization are simply different aspects of the mission of a noble country. It's a spectacular travesty to conclude, as Said does, that "England's art and culture depend, in Ruskin's view, on an enforced imperialism." Ruskin would have been the last man to hold art and society separate; but what bound them, he believed, was that beauty in one required order and dignity in the other. Imperialism had nothing to do with it.

A travesty of John Ruskin, a travesty of Joseph Conrad, and a travesty of Jane Austen: what values, then, does Said serve? Mainly, it's resentment against the supremacy of the West. The market for this resentment may be scattered, but it is passionate. There are those who have political sympathy with the oppressed, those who are burdened with the guilt of having been born lucky, and those who have been outraged by the pain and humiliation of their own histories. All will applaud this book. They will find their enemy clearly identified in "the untrammelled rapacity, greed, and immorality of the North," and will be comforted to know that the novelists most revered in Europe and America--indeed, the very form of the novel itself--are now exposed as agents, unwitting or not, of that same rapacity. And they will not shudder at the many shrill asides on, for example, the gulf war, which Said describes as "the United States attack on Iraq." He never bothers to argue the merits of this war because his audience, as he knows, is already converted.

For the same reason he doesn't argue the merits of what, in his universe, is the cardinal sin: "essentialization." This is stereotyping, in the common phrase, though to his credit Said enlarges that idea to include a culture's view of itself as well as of others. To him stereotypes are immoral not because they're inaccurate--as I say, he assumes that point--but because they come from one side. He suggests that instead of "essentializing" we take, for example, Indian-ness and British-ness together as part of the same "contrapuntal ensemble" and focus on their relation. This does permit Kipling's asides on the peculiarities of Asiatics to be turned around and pointed back at England; but since stereotypes are generally based on some implied comparison anyway, just how a "contrapuntal ensemble" will differ in practice from an "essentialization" is not clear. (Perhaps the idea that Iranians are easily whipped up by religious fanatics is an "essentialization," but to say, as Said does, that the American media led the country around by the nose in support of the gulf war is merely part of a "contrapuntal ensemble.") What is clear is that Said wishes the world were not one in which cultural essences--the realities, not the images--held sway as they do. The wish itself is pleasant enough. But the world it suggests is not one familiar to any Muslim or Serb in Bosnia, any Armenian or Azeri in Karabakh, or anyone, for that matter, who has ever walked the streets of this city with his eyes open.

Said opposes facts not with other facts but with texts. This is another value he serves. In recent years the air of academic criticism has gotten even thinner as reality has been pumped out; the argument runs that everything is a representation created in the treacherous medium of language, so texts, when interpreted by experts, are more useful for understanding the world than facts naively gathered "out there." (A book written 15 years ago by Said himself, Orientalism, was a milestone in the development of this line.) Interpretation is what really matters, and as raw material one text is as good as another. This explains why we now have Madonna experts inhabiting university departments of literature and why Said can, with perfect blandness, describe Khomeini, the pope, and Margaret Thatcher as coevals in "the age of Ayatollahs." One "primordial faith," you see, is the same as another.

The nationalism, often violent, that has ruled the postcolonial world for several decades, and that is now becoming even more strident, is a source of profound dismay to Said. He doesn't like it, but he still insists that "nationalism [is] only one of the aspects of resistance, and not the most interesting or enduring one." Nationalism and nativism are just stages on the path to what he calls "liberation," when formerly oppressed peoples put away their separatist identities and begin, as he says, to "invent new souls." Since there are no facts to suggest that this has happened, or ever will ("It is not possible to name many states or regimes that are exempt from . . . the new post-colonial international configuration"), Said turns instead to a long series of texts to describe what he has in mind. Chief among them is Frantz Fanon's famous tract about the liberation of colonial peoples, The Wretched of the Earth. This work, which Said aptly calls "visionary," provides an occasion for some of the most effusive passages in Culture and Imperialism, though Said downplays Fanon's call for armed struggle as being "at most tactical."

Despite the stubborn way events refuse to conform to his vision of the world, Said does hold out hope: it's there in the texts. And at the end of his book he assures us that "liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted . . . to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages." Hope has shifted, in other words, to people who look remarkably like (for instance) Edward W. Said. But if by "bravura performances of the intellectual exile" he means something like his own, we may have reason to doubt.

"Writers cannot be blamed for being of their society," Naipaul wrote. But his modest idea seems to have been lost in this book. Said has seized by the throat the simple truth that writers are of their society, and over the course of 300 pages brimming with resentment and insecurity has clutched it so tenaciously that it's expired, gasping. To watch this is edifying, in a way, but it's not a pretty sight.

Culture and Imperialism by Edward W. Said, Alfred A. Knopf, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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