Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Beginning of an Ocean

When or where does an ocean begin? What about an oceanic literature? This is my first blog post for my new blog on Atlantic Literature, and so the question of "beginnings" seems somewhat of an obvious place to start. It may also seem an impossible question. Unlike nations such as Mexico and Haiti, or empires such as Rome, Great Britain, and (arguably) the United States, which all seem to have determinate beginnings (founding moments) and endings, rises and falls, the ocean seems eternal. People come from nations; their roots are there. But they travel and make their living on the ocean -- water routes. The anthropologist James Clifford and the cultural theorist Paul Gilroy suggest that more interesting than the "roots" of culture are its "routes." The wordplay is deliberate. Depending on how you pronounce the words, they might sound the same.

An easy example of what Clifford and Gilroy are talking about is the famous band, The Beatles. We could say that the Beatles is an English band, whose roots are in Liverpool, but this is a boring thing to say. More interestingly, and more accurately, we would say that the Beatles are an Atlantic band, whose route began with the transatlantic slave trade, for which Liverpool was created to serve. The Beatles very deliberately borrowed their musical styles from the descendents of slaves who emigrated from the Caribbean to Liverpool during and after World War II, and the meaning of their music was not only an expression of their multiple cultural origins but also an imagination of their destination -- where a bunch of young men in the early 1960s wanted to go, their seemingly endless desire. Where they ended up going was everywhere. We can say the same thing about Bob Marley and Jay-Z. More literary examples might include Olaudah Equiano, Herman Melville, and Caryl Phillips. Here is a recent lecture by the novelist Caryl Phillips about being a writer:

We have heard of the great writers of particular nations -- great "American" novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, etc. And also French authors, Japanese authors, Chilean authors, Kenyan authors, etc. But what of "Atlantic" authors? Does the national adjective that precedes the noun author matter? In a class I am teaching, we just read T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Roland Barthes's "Death of an Author," and Edwidge Danticat's recent "Create Dangerously." And so, the beginning of the class that I am teaching has determined the coincident beginning of my blog on Atlantic Literature.

T. S. Eliot
To a certain extent, I agree with T. S. Eliot, who mocks those who believe great literature is an expression of the author's personality. For Eliot, personal expression is all fine and good, but not if you want anyone other than your mother and best friend to read it. He argues that literature has significance when it works out of the tradition that makes any instance of artistic expression intelligible as such. Eliot, however, assumes what that tradition is without explaining it. Ironically, for him, even though he was born in America, the tradition he imagines in his essay is English -- the country he emigrated to and eventually became a citizen of. Today, both England and the United States claim Eliot as their own poet. In that sense, perhaps Eliot is an "Atlantic" author. If we psychoanalyze Eliot, we might suspect that his strong emphasis on an English literary tradition is not so much an expression of his own literary roots but an anxious articulation of his destination, an articulation of his secret desire for something other than where he actually came from -- a way out, a route.

Roland Barthes
And what of Roland Barthes's "Death of an Author"? Here he takes the New Criticism's emphasis on the formal qualities of great literature much further than any of the New Critics ever wanted to go. If all that matters to the New Critics (now old fuddy-duddy critics) is the formal qualities of the work (metaphor, imagery, irony, dialectical tension, etc.), then perhaps the author doesn't matter at all. If the origin of the ideas expressed in a novel or poem don't matter, then all that matters for New Critics is the poem, novel, or play itself. We might think of a novel or a poem like a ship travelling the ocean -- a great vehicle that transports deep and significant meaning from one place to another. This is why Barthes begins his essay by quoting a novel and asking who is speaking. It's not just a question of whether it is the author actually speaking or some sort of literary persona or character speaking. It's a question of where the idea came from originally. Is the idea original? What are the roots of the idea? But if all we care about is the formal qualities of the text, then we care more about the "routes" of the idea (not the "roots") -- the text as a way of moving meaning from one place and time to another place and time. If the literary work is like a ship of meaning, then what really matters of course is where the ship is going -- its destination, the reader.

So, following this line of reasoning, when we do literary criticism or write essays for our college courses, we should begin with the destination, the reader, who is.... Hmmmm.... Who is the reader?... How do we analyze the reader? Which reader are we talking about, and is there any difference between one reader and another?... It's all very confusing, but of course the real point here is the relation not only between author and reader, but also between a reader and other readers. This more complex relation is one of Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat's questions in her book Create Dangerously where she speculates about the peculiar position of the "immigrant writer" who seems to occupy many different positions in relation to different readers. Significantly, she begins her essay not with a discussion of any authors, but with a description of a community of readers resisting oppression together through their reading. Later in the essay, quoting Roland Barthes, she asks whether the destination of her own writing (the publishing companies in New York and the reading public in America and elsewhere) is not more constitutive of her art than her origin (the traumatic events in Haiti, partly caused by American foreign policy, that led to her family's emigration.) It would seem that Danticat is even more an Atlantic author than Eliot, and most definitely a more wordly author than he, and this is perhaps why her first book of short stories (published in 1996) begins on a tiny boat full of refugees lost at sea, with the character wondering if the message she means to deliver will ever arrive at its destination.

Here is Danticat speaking about her new book of essays Create Dangerously (2010) a few months ago in a televised interview.

Can we think of literature as ships at sea? Is an oceanic literature a literary tradition without a beginning or an end, without any myth of origin or divinely ordained destination, without originality or destiny? Criss-crossing an ocean of language, waves of meaning.

1 comment: