February 6th, 2013 at 6:00 am
The following post is by Saikat Majumdar, author of Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire. In the essay, Majumdar explains some of the central arguments and interventions of his book.
In praise of the book, Rebecca L. Walkowitz wrote, “Prose of the World is an enormously compelling and vivid study…. The result is an ambitious, timely, and eloquent account of the relationship between early-twentieth-century fiction and the contemporary global novel in English.”
World literature in English today makes up a field of comparative study of its own. It defies the usual equation of nation, language, and literature that has often formed the dominant model of studying comparative literature. To tell the story of this literature is also to tell the story of the British Empire. Prose of the World is an attempt to provide a cultural history of the global British Empire through a map of fiction produced at four representative points across it: Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, and India.
However, the most distinctive aspect of Prose of the World is that it is an attempt to provide a cultural history of empire through structures of feeling and emotion. One necessary characteristic of any empire is that it is divided into a metropolis and its peripheries. The metropolis is where political and economic power is centered, usually the imperial capital, and its surrounding areas. Hard power naturally breeds soft power, so the metropolis also appears to be the cultural epicenter of the empire, its singular source of excellence in art, literature, fashion, in short, the center of all excitement, historical progress, and eventfulness. The great capitals of the global Anglophone and Francophone empires, London and Paris, were such metropolitan centers, especially in the heydays of imperialism in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Colonized nations were located along the political and cultural periphery of empire, far from its metropolitan center. Historical and anthropological research as well as literary narratives, reveal how the people in the colonies, often long after decolonization, experienced local and immediate life as lagging far behind in progress, devoid of eventfulness, and generally stifling, claustrophobic and dull. One of the greatest ideological consequences of empire is the feeling that history is concentrated in the metropolitan heart of empire, while the colonial periphery is a place where nothing happens, where life is banal, boring and devoid of historical meaning.
Prose of the World examines the link between boredom and historical marginality as articulated in colonial and postcolonial fiction. Do conditions of poverty, disempowerment and marginality sometimes find emotional expression in an overwhelming sense of tedium and boredom? Can one be haunted by such feelings if one lives in a place which is perceived to be far from centers of historic action, political might, economic prosperity, cultural energy? Alternatively, can suffering be understood through boredom? Is suffering necessarily a matter of trauma and spectacle, or can it also be a daily drudge, a condition of oppressive monotony haunted by an awareness that rich and fulfilling life exists but outside of one’s reach?
This book tries to show how such feelings are represented in literature. It combines the resources of historical, psychological, anthropological and literary research to understand the representation of boredom as an emotional consequence of poverty and marginality, especially under the shadow of imperialism. Much of twentieth century’s groundbreaking English-language fiction has come from the provincial backwaters of the British Empire, and this book’s claim is that the boredom afflicting the colonial periphery as place of historical vacuum has shaped a radical and powerful narrative instinct in twentieth century fiction. One of the key features of modern fiction is its abiding interest in the ordinary, trivial and marginal aspects of life, as opposed to the epic themes of love and war in classical literature. Modern literature’s revolutionary preoccupation with the ordinary and the banal cannot be fully understood without attention to the colonial anxiety of being left in the backwater of progress and excitement. This is an anxiety which visionary writers transformed into a vital and innovative narrative force. Such is the famous Irish paralysis that provided aesthetic material for James Joyce, one of the greatest innovators of modern fiction. Turn of the century Dublin was haunted by the anxiety of being a backward and boring place, a place left out of the narrative of historic progress, a petty and provincial place far from the cosmopolitan glamour of London and Paris. But it is this psychological consequence of imperialism that shaped a radically innovative narrative instinct that came to define the very spirit of modernist literary experimentation.
On another level, this book also makes a case for an understanding of suffering, oppression and poverty as an everyday, ordinary experience, as opposed to something that can only be understood as a grand spectacle. Literary accounts of suffering and oppression have predominantly focused on spectacular events such as wars, riots, genocide which more than deserve the critical attention they have received, as they have wreaked havoc in the lives of millions around the world. However, Prose of the World points to a kind of suffering that is rooted in the ordinary experience of the everyday, where apparently trivial emotions like boredom mark a condition of severe affliction and dispossession. Suffering is not only spectacular but can be very prosaic as well. This becomes a vital debate in crucial situations of suffering and struggle, perhaps most famously in late-apartheid South Africa, where some writers make a powerful case for an understanding of pain and suffering not through the glare of the spectacle but through ordinary, everyday experience.
While modern literature provides some of the most evocative articulations of quotidian experience, questions of the ordinary and the mundane have only recently started to invigorate literary criticism. Perhaps because literature’s traditional mission has been understood to engage and excite the imagination, the obvious place of the banal and the boring has been overlooked in literary thought. Narrating the ordinary is an equal challenge for history as well as fiction, as narrative is traditionally understood to be driven by the momentum of the event; the static nature of ordinary lives, and emotions like boredom and tedium can seem to stall the progression of narrative. This book reads such negative emotions as a central concern of modern literature, especially as they are articulated as a psychological condition of colonialism.