Symposium 8: The Writer-Critic and Literary Studies

The Writer-Critic and Literary Studies: Mission Statement

A manuscript page from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The Writer-Critic and Literary Studies: Mission Statement

Despite Socrates’s imputation that the great tragic poets didn’t know what they were up to and why they were up to it, writers and creative practitioners are often deeply self-reflexive, which is why their contribution to criticism has been formative and radical. I’m thinking of Socrates’s near-contemporary Bharata; Abhinavagupta and other rasa theorists from the 8th to the 10th century; in the same line of thinking several centuries later, Wordsworth and Coleridge; Eliot, Tagore, and Woolf and the theorists of modernism; the anti-humanist Lawrence; the American New Critics; the Bengali poet Buddhadeva Bose and the Kannada novelist U R Ananthamurthy, both of whom taught literature – ‘comparative’ and ‘English’ respectively – for much of their lives; Nabokov, of course, lecturing at Wellesley College; William Empson; in our time, the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who taught at Oxford; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and his many years at the University of Allahabad; Charles Bernstein, Joan Retallack, Anne Carson, and Rosanna Warren, all of whom have taught outside of creative writing departments at North American universities; others not mentioned in this hastily put-together list. The New Critics – Ransom, Tate – may have been among the first to have found a home in literature departments and to teach literature for a living while attempting to write it, and about it. The demands of livelihood may have made this necessary; but the idea (to what extent it was realistic is open to question) of the possible freedom and idealism of literature departments at a certain point of the twentieth century may have also drawn writers to them.

We have been in a different place since the 1990s and the onset of economic deregulation. For one thing, we have forgotten how literature was experienced before deregulation, and, for those of us who studied it at university, how it was taught. We’re aware of the cultural turn represented by the emergence of critical theory and, in the 1990s, of cultural studies (although even that memory is fading, and many of us now might believe that literature was always cultural studies), but we neither connect these turns as rigorously to globalisation, the collapse of the Left, and deregulation as we should, and nor do we connect them to the vanished everyday markers of literary studies from forty years ago. For instance, many of my teachers, when I was both an undergraduate and graduate student in the 1980s, were Misters and Misses rather than Doctors. Many of these teachers – and these Misters and Misses, like Dan Jacobson, Gay Clifford, John Fuller, and Jon Stallworthy – were writer-critics or poet-critics. The bifurcation of pedagogy by the end of the 1980s, especially in America, meant writers who gravitated towards jobs in institutions would henceforth teach creative writing and craft and (because they didn’t have PhDs) be kept out of literature departments, and teachers of literature themselves would be entirely professionalised – that is, inducted into a self-perpetuating system. This meant that literature was no longer taught by poets or novelists; in an offshoot of counselling, they provided ‘feedback’ to students on craft and/or character. Increasingly, ‘literature’ itself ceased to be a site of productive engagement for academics who had jobs in literature departments. Writers – whether they were eighteen or fifty years old – forgot, in the meantime, that what had brought them to writing was not their devotion to their own work but the excitement of literature. These shifts are in some ways more important than the so-called theory wars and the attempts to formulate post-theory positions, or developments like ‘world literature’ or even ‘decolonisation’, all of which run the danger of slipping into institutionally mandated discussions – partly because, through a combination of deliberate oversight and a mutual pact between academic and writer, the latter no longer contributes self-reflexively to the form of thinking we still invoke constantly and continue to call ‘literature’. We often ask why the humanities and literary studies departments have become shells, or are in crisis. We don’t ask what impact the marginalisation of writers has had on literary pedagogy and scholarship. The impact, both for imaginative writing and literary discussion (which includes the teaching of literature), has been transformative.

It’s neither possible nor desirable to return to some version of a golden age; to close down creative writing departments, to proscribe discussions on craft undertaken en masse, to make the mandatory doctorate for teachers of literature obsolete, and to ask writers to participate in fashioning a vocabulary for what it means to encounter the problem of literature, and read it, in the present day. In what way, then, can writers return to literature, and literary studies, and vice versa? Are either writers or literary studies ready to pursue this line of thinking? Would recovering a history of criticism beyond the academy comprise a starting-point? Are there locations, within and outside the academy, that can be identified as being possible venues for the writer-critic-teacher-of-literature? Or are writers in a uniquely promising position, with the potential to open things up, as was the case with modern artists from different parts of the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in relation to what then was the orthodoxy of the academies of art?

Amit Chaudhuri, October 2022

Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Against Storytelling: Mission Statement

Paul Klee, Tightrope Walker, 1923. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Against Storytelling: Mission Statement

About a decade ago, I interrupted a talk I was giving to a small group of international writers and academics gathered in Delhi to say, ‘Fuck storytelling.’

My respondent, a British Asian literary journalist, later said, while commenting on my talk, how ‘shocked’ she’d been by my remark. It wasn’t the expletive she objected to, but my attack on ‘storytelling’, which had been so ‘empowering to peoples and cultures’. ‘Storytelling’ had, by now, become a sacred cow that you insulted at your own risk.

My reasons for making that remark were at least twofold. The first had to do with the fact that – given we live in an ethos in which the event is of primary significance, and whatever is significant has to be construed as an event of some sort – it follows that part of the reason stories are important is because they contain a happening, or happenings, in a character’s or a place’s life. It also follows that the eventless can’t be the proper subject of a story.

My second reason has to do with my discomfiture with the idea that ‘storytelling’ is a feature of non-Western culture, and a valuable resource, as a result, of a postcolonial politics that sets itself up against the Enlightenment. A glance at non-Western artistic expression reveals, however, a deep commitment to forms outside of what we now think of as ‘narrative’ (synecdoche, for instance, and other means of poetic elision).

In an essay I wrote more than a decade ago, ‘Notes on the Novel after Globalisation’, I’d remarked that globalisation, by the turn of the millennium, had become a kind of narrative – a lateral, interconnected network from which there was no escape, and from which no one evidently desired to escape – and this privileging of a narrative that had no ‘outside’ (globalisation) led to the marginalisation of the poetic, to the genre of the novel becoming synonymous with the ‘mainstream’, and to a particular celebration of narrative. Let me quote a section from the essay:

‘Another co-ordinate that should be mentioned in this mapping of narrativity as a crucial critical and political conceit is the idea of “storytelling”. It’s a notion that didn’t really exist in any persuasive way on the intellectual landscape thirty years ago. Its rise is related to the fashioning of the discourse of postcoloniality; “storytelling”, with its kitschy magic and its associations of postcolonial empowerment, is seen to emanate from the immemorial funds of orality in the non-Western world, and might be interpreted as a critique of the inscribed word, and its embeddedness in Western forms of knowledge. “Storytelling”, then, is also an alternative to disciplines like history in the Western humanities; if it is now an ingredient in history-writing, it is so precisely to mark a break with the Eurocentric, the literate, the elite. No wonder that the notion is invoked almost always with an air of glamour and celebration. Both the concordances and the distinctions between this invocation and Walter Benjamin’s recovery of the figure of ‘the storyteller’ are instructive; for Benjamin was by no means an unequivocal advocate of narrativity. Thus, in the first paragraph of “The Task of the Translator”: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” Benjamin is expressing the profound modernist desire for disjunction, a breach in the lateral weave of the fabric; it’s an image strikingly different from the one of simultaneous readership that comprises Anderson’s nationhood. Today, in the early twenty-first century, we’ve entered yet another cultural and political phase, after the shifts and reappraisals represented, in their time, by modernity and post-modernity. This shift asks us to look at narrative once again; and it asks the novelist to be careful about the point at which “storytelling” begins to collude with the narrativity of globalisation.’

The symposium in February 2018 aims to discuss questions raised by the sacredness we attribute to this apparently timeless act of recounting and telling.

Amit Chaudhuri, June 2017

Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Storytelling and Forgetfulness

Still from Through the Olive Trees (1994), Abbas Kiarostami

Storytelling and Forgetfulness

Amit Chaudhuri

Years ago, I began to run into the claim that we are all storytellers. Storytelling was evidently a primal communal function for humanity. I was assured that we’ve been telling each other stories since the beginning of time. I felt a churlish resistance to these proclamations, possibly because one might decide that being human doesn’t mean one should subscribe, without discomfiture, to everything the human race is collectively doing at any given point. Storytelling shouldn’t be guaranteed an aura simply because humans have been at it from the beginning of history. Of course, part of my unease emanated from the fact that the ‘beginning of history’ is even more of a wishful invention than the ‘end of history’ is. It occurs to me that we probably began to hear ‘We are all storytellers’, as an utterance, from the late 1980s and early 90s onwards. From the moment one first heard this utterance, one was told it had been made from the beginning of time. As with various things that happened in the age of globalisation, radical shifts in our understanding (of value, for instance) quickly acquired an immemorial air. So, for example, it became increasingly difficult to conceive of a period in history that valued things differently from the way the free market does. Middle-class ideology may have concerned itself with appropriating the universal; the ‘now’ of the free market appears to have been more preoccupied with recruiting eternity. As a result, the popular-culture term ‘all time’ gained a new meaning with globalisation; like the assertion ‘We have always been storytellers’, ‘all-time’ lists and ‘all-time greats’ often go back over periods and are applied to categories (like rock guitarists) that are actually thirty years old.

The disciplinary shifts in the humanities privileging ‘storytelling’ are too numerous to go into here: I’ll only give one example. A historian recently told me that she asks her students to liberate themselves from the constraints of their pedagogy by thinking of the novel and behaving like ‘storytellers’. As I said to her, this interpretation of the novel of course inadvertently makes imaginative writing, especially fiction, synonymous with storytelling: it’s as if looking outside the bounds of scholarly work towards fiction or imaginative prose as a model for loosening constraints must privilege narrative, rather than other aspects of fiction, as being constitutive of the liberations of imaginative writing.

A surfeit of ‘We are all storytellers’ made me realise that this was not really a primary utterance at all. The primary utterance, if there must be one, is praise or acknowledgement of what makes stories and other things possible: existence; life. By ‘life’ I mean not what narrative is ‘about’, but what lies on narrative’s periphery. What the earliest texts seem to do is to attempt to find a language with which to both come to terms with and acknowledge – even celebrate – the contingency of the fact of existence. The story, with the human or anthropomorphised animal at the centre, emerges in the aftermath of existence, but, paradoxically, has an air of being recounted and a priori, of already having happened. Existence is neither a priori nor originary; it’s a moment of possibility.

In the spirit of investigating whether we were always storytellers, I went back to a canonical text. It’s from the first millennium BC: the Kena Upanishad. It felt important to go back to it because storytelling has been almost dutifully conflated with non-Western cultures, which themselves are often conflated with orality. Writing and inscription are, on the other hand, an Enlightenment project. Outside the West, in the lap of orality, our mothers and grandmothers have been telling us stories from when we were in the womb. Story, for us, has been an autochthonic method of nutrition. While not denying any of this, it was important to check out a primary text from an incorrigibly storytelling culture. ‘Kena’ in the Kena Upanishad means ‘why’, connected to the whys and wherefores of the universe. This poetic statement is from the brief opening section of this Upanishad (note that Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, Brahmin, or other similar-sounding words):

Who sends the mind to wander afar, who first drives life to start on its journey, who impels us to utter these words, who is the spirit [‘spirit’, as the Sanskritist Heeraman Tiwari pointed out to me, is a Judeo-Christian translation of what he calls, in his translation, an all-pervasive ‘element’] behind the eye and the ear. . . What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken, know that alone to be Brahman.

What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think, know that alone to be Brahman the spirit and not what people here adore. What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see – know that alone to be Brahman. What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear; what cannot be withdrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is withdrawn, know that alone to be Brahman.1

This comes across not so much as a narrative of creation as an instance of self-reflexivity that is at once curiously tortured and liberating. Its meaning can’t be paraphrased, but it can be rephrased as a series of questions and replies. ‘What can’t be thought with the mind? Whatever it is that makes the mind think.’ ‘What can’t be seen with the eye? Whatever it is that makes the eye see.’ It’s an account that abjures progression on behalf of the self-reflexive, of the assertion that turns upon itself.

Here’s an excerpt from the third section:

The Brahman once won a victory for the Devas. Through that victory of the Brahman, the Devas became elated. They thought, ‘This victory is ours. This glory is ours.’ The Brahman perceived this and appeared before them. They did not know what mysterious form it was.

They said to Fire: ‘O Jataveda (All-knowing)! Find out what mysterious spirit this is.’ He said: ‘Yes.’

Brahman asked: ‘What power resides in thee?’ Agni replied: ‘I can burn up all whatsoever exists on earth.’

Brahman placed a straw before him and said: ‘Burn this.’ He (Agni) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to burn it. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): ‘I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.’

Then they said to Vayu (the Air-god): ‘Vayu! Find out what mystery this is.’ He said: ‘Yes.’

He ran towards it and He (Brahman) said to him: ‘Who art thou?’ ‘I am Vayu, I am Matarisva (traveller of Heaven),’ he (Vayu) said.

Then the Brahman said: ‘What power is in thee?’ Vayu replied: ‘I can blow away all whatsoever exists on earth.’

Brahman placed a straw before him and said: ‘Blow this away.’ He (Vayu) rushed towards it with all speed, but was not able to blow it away. So he returned from there and said (to the Devas): ‘I was not able to find out what this great mystery is.’2

Although similar in shape and tone to Judaeo-Christian parables about miraculous strength, like the one about Samson bringing down the columns, this is really a parable about delicacy. After all, what’s at issue here is not moving mountains, but a straw. You don’t need strength to move a straw: what is it that you need, then? Delicacy is non-narrative; as with writing a poem, you can’t coerce its workings. Narrative and story by themselves are neither the same thing as, nor a guarantee of, movement; this is what writers, like the mystified Devas, need to learn quickly. Otherwise the straw stays inert.

* * *

I never liked reading novels. My growing up was spent consuming comic books and poems. I was eventually drawn to novels through exceptional paragraphs cited in essays; by my late teens, I was probably more likely to read a piece of criticism about a work rather than the work itself. One such paragraph occurs in A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul, where Biswas in his early life takes a new job as a sign painter after having been a bus conductor. I encountered it in my early twenties in a critical piece about the book in an anthology on ‘commonwealth literature’. Biswas must reproduce the edict, ‘IDLERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER’.

…his hand became surer, his strokes bolder, his feeling for letters finer. He thought R and S the most beautiful of Roman letters; no letter could express so many moods as R, without losing its beauty; and what could compare with the swing and rhythm of S? With a brush, large letters were easier than small…3

I was transfixed by this paragraph, and felt it was a shame that I’d have to read the novel. I was content, instead, to reread the paragraph endlessly. This is because the paragraph presented me with a possibility. The possibility was the novel. The novel I was presented with was not the telling, the recounting, that I would purportedly have to read. That act of reading the narrative, the recounting, would, in a sense, diminish the possibility generated by this encounter with the paragraph. Where, then, are we likely to find this moment of possibility in a piece of writing; in, say (since we are talking about storytelling), a work of narrative fiction? To me it seems it resides in the sort of standalone paragraph such as the one I’ve quoted, which belongs to a story but is also independent of it, in that it seems equally located in an irreducible life and textuality outside that novel as it is in the life narrated and contained within it.

The moment of possibility resides especially in the opening paragraphs of a work of fiction, or any paragraph that has the irresolution, the air of open-endedness and lifelikeness, the lack of recountedness, that opening paragraphs have. The paragraphs in the first page of a novel (sometimes in the second and third pages too) have not been bound yet by the telling, but are opening out on to something. My ambition, always, was to write novels composed entirely of opening paragraphs and then to put them in some kind of order. The order would be a sequence that was partly illusory. Of course, we are experts at creating an illusion of continuity, both as readers and writers, and I believe that if you give somebody a text without any narrative they will impose continuity on it. My subterranean aim – so subterranean that it’s taken me two decades to see what I was up to – was to create an assemblage of opening paragraphs, to expand as much as possible, without introducing a sense of development, the vivid lack of resolution of the first three or four pages.

What kind of text is produced by an artist who doesn’t want the moment of possibility to be closed down by the compulsion or the need to tell? Once you commit to telling, the moment in the opening paragraph is over. We know for a fact that many writers have wonderful opening pages whose magic is sacrificed to higher causes, such as observances to do with the syntax of realism, and the responsibility of portraying the arc of the existence of certain human beings or ‘characters’: the novelist ‘must become the whole of boredom itself’, says W H Auden, who was in awe of, and slightly bewildered by, this voluntary taking on of the depiction of social milieu almost as a form of social responsibility. This loss of the abandon of the opening pages is characteristic of the human compromise, the deep maturity, that the novel represents, when the writer knowingly assents to being shackled by the need for narrative and telling. Naipaul himself is a fundamental example of a writer who sometimes begins with astonishing passages of lifelikeness, but then not so much loses the plot, or loses himself to a plot, but takes on upon himself fetters that are clearly unwanted. Joan Didion recognises this, and expands on the peculiar sensory excitement of the first three pages of Naipaul’s Guerrillas, which she confesses to compulsively rereading, almost as if the rest of the novel didn’t really matter. In the novella In A Free State, Naipaul translates, with extraordinary vitality in the opening section, an intuition of possibility into a story about a European man and woman who must journey urgently and impulsively out of an African country in the time of a coup. Then, like his two characters, he seems not to know what to do except see the journey through. As the syntax of narrative takes over, not only does the representation of the journey feel increasingly entrapping, but – as is often the case with Naipaul when he feels unhappy – by most standards morally and politically peculiar, turgid, and alienating.

Something similar happens in his travelogue, An Area of Darkness.4 Towards the beginning, a period of waiting is described: the ship, on its way to India, has stopped at the port in Alexandria. Nothing happens; horse-drawn cabs are awaiting fares. Few arrive, and melancholy settles in. This melancholy is a form of excitement, just as the waiting-for-something-to-happen is a kind of energy unmatched by the events later narrated in the book, the actual encounter with India, which is the book’s legitimate subject. For Naipaul, as possibility recedes (and possibility, for him, as the chapter on Alexandria shows, has little do with optimism), questionable moral judgement begins to dominate: this is his response to the cost of succumbing to narrative propriety – not so much ‘becoming the whole of boredom itself’, but an alienated chafing.

A House for Mr Biswas opens with a short prologue, where everything is indeterminate and proleptic. It begins, ‘Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked’, and then goes on to dwell, for five pages, on Biswas’s house, a house that’s ‘flawed’ and ‘irretrievably mortgaged’: ‘during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it.’ We are suspended here, in the prologue, with Mr Biswas, between arrival and departure. Naipaul manages to stay throughout with this sense of the possible, and he does this by constantly returning to Biswas’s disbelieving conviction, even at the end of the novel, that the house on Sikkim Street is a house he’s just begun to live in: ‘In the extra space Mr Biswas planted a laburnum tree.’ In my edition, 583 of 590 pages have gone by when this sentence appears; and yet, despite all that has ensued and is now finished, we’re still absorbing the prologue’s ‘wonder’ and ‘audacity’ of arrival.

Arrival, like existence, and unlike story, lacks the air of the a priori and the narrated. In The Enigma of Arrival, the ship that paused at harbour in An Area of Darkness appears again, but this time in a de Chirico painting that gives both its title and its atmosphere of lapsed expectancy to the book. Midway through the novel, the narrator reflects that the painting is about a ship that sailed into a city, and a man who got off at the port and intended to go back, but forgot to: ‘The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.’5 The inadvertent forgetting of the matter of going back, rather than the creation of a new existence, becomes this person’s story, as it does the narrator’s. Forgetting and possibility become, then, interchangeable; the life is never really recounted. It – the novel; the painting – doesn’t contain the tale of an immigrant; it represents an attempt at immersion in a beginning, what Naipaul calls ‘arrival’, involving an action endlessly postponed, which the narrator encapsulates with the words, ‘The traveller has lived out his life.’

* * *

How do we construct a page composed of opening paragraphs? One is reminded, of course, of Walter Benjamin’s ambition to write a book composed entirely of quotations. A quotation for him, as in his essays on Kafka, is also a paragraph; for my younger self, for reasons I mentioned earlier, and maybe for my present self too, a paragraph is a quotation. A novel is an assemblage of paragraphs or quotations, which both belong to the narrative and outside it. A quotation in an imaginative work – say, an essay – causes unsettlement. It’s there not as evidence, to legitimise a claim, as it might in a scholarly work, but to remind us that the narrator is distracted, that they’ve made an association and have been momentarily led from the text to another text outside it. The quote is not wholly present in the narrative; it’s partly elsewhere. So the quote doesn’t just further an argument; it leads to an opening up. The paragraph, as I understand it, must have the same sense of not being wholly present that the quotation, in Benjamin’s sense, does. When Benjamin speaks of his ambition to write a book composed entirely of quotations, he’s speaking of a method of building that brings together units that belong, but also don’t wholly belong, to the argument or narrative. A quoted paragraph for him is a standalone paragraph, because it comprises a possibility that makes recounting – that is, the rest of the narrative – redundant. If the paragraph is at least doubly located in fiction, then one location lies in fiction’s purported task, the recounting of a life; the other lies outside it, in acknowledging what’s more powerful than ‘story’ – the present’s contingency.

* * *

I’ve not forgotten that this piece has to do with ‘forgetfulness and storytelling’, for which reason I wish to look at the opening section of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in Michael Hofmann’s translation:

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. He lay on his tough, armoured back, and, raising his head a little, managed to see – sectioned off by little crescent-shaped ridges into segments – the expanse of his arched, brown belly, atop which the coverlet perched, forever on the point of slipping off entirely.

‘What’s the matter with me?’ he thought. It was no dream. There, quietly between the four familiar walls, was his room, a normal human room, if always a little on the small side. Over the table, on which an array of cloth samples was spread out – Samsa was a travelling salesman – hung the picture he had only recently clipped from a magazine, and set in an attractive gilt frame. It was a picture of a lady in a fur hat and stole, sitting bolt upright, holding in the direction of the onlooker a heavy muff into which she had thrust the whole of her forearm.

From there, Gregor’s gaze directed itself towards the window, and the drab weather outside – raindrops could be heard plinking against the tin window ledges – made him quite melancholy. ‘What if I went back to sleep for a while, and forgot about all this nonsense?’ he thought, but that proved quite impossible, because he was accustomed to sleeping on his right side, and in his present state he was unable to find that position…

‘Oh, my Lord!’ he thought. ‘If only I didn’t have to follow such an exhausting profession! On the road, day in, day out. The work is so much more strenuous than it would be in the head office, and then there’s the additional ordeal of travelling, worries about train connections, the irregular, bad meals, new people all the time, no continuity, no affection. Devil take it!’ He felt a light itch at the top of his belly…

He slid back to his previous position. ‘All this getting up early,’ he thought, ‘is bound to take its effect. There are some other travelling salesmen I could mention who live like harem women… If I didn’t have to exercise restraint for the sake of my parents, then I would have quit a long time ago; I would have gone up to the director and told him exactly what I thought of him. He would have fallen off his desk in surprise! That’s a peculiar way he has of sitting anyway, up on his desk, and talking down to his staff from on high, making them step up to him very close because he’s so hard of hearing.6

What’s striking is how both Gregor and the narrator have forgotten what the central predicament and theme are, or are incapable of grasping their centrality. Gregor is more concerned with the difficulty of turning on his side in his present state, a difficulty that impedes his plan to sleep a bit longer; he is made melancholy by the sound of rain; he will soon become aware of the unfairness of train schedules; in the meantime, he’s incensed by the memory of his boss’s posture. Another writer, a lesser writer, wouldn’t have permitted this losing sight, so early on, of the immensity of what’s happened. But the liberation of the opening pages of Metamorphosis comes from their inability to be absolutely present, their vacillation between being in the story of a man who has become a giant insect and their forgetting of this story and their leakage into something outside it: the matter of living, with its timetables and trains, which is supposed to feed its experiences into the story but also competes with and is unconscious of it.

There’s another kind of forgetfulness here: that of objects, or what in literary works we call ‘detail’. The picture of the woman ‘sitting bolt upright’; the gilt frame; the coverlet; the tin window ledges; the rain – these seem not to be fully conscious of being part, as background, of a story of a man who finds he’s a giant insect. Their role is not even ironical, as, according to Auden, the role of the animals and humans in Breughel’s painting of Icarus’s fall into the ocean is: ‘how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster’.7 In Metamorphosis, detail is not so much indifferent to the disaster as it to being in a story about a disaster; its location is both in the story and independent of it. So a narrative with an easily paraphrasable centrality of focus becomes, instead, an example of multiple and dispersed openings out. Its details have their counterpart not in Breughel’s Icarus, or in realist fiction, or in period or genre cinema, but in Abbas Kiarostami’s movies, where non-professionals are often not playing characters but themselves, and aren’t fully mindful that they’re in a larger story. They’re in the film and outside it. The same can be said of animals, air, water, and trees in a Tarkovsky film, or in a film like The New World by Terence Malick: that all these are non-professional actors unaware of playing the role of the characters ‘animal’, ‘air’, ‘water’, and ‘trees’ respectively, but are, inadvertently, themselves. They emanate, if you notice them, an innate forgetfulness of the story they’re in, as do the paragraphs I’ve mentioned. In this regard, the details I’m discussing are quite unlike those in period or sci fi films, where objects, horses, elephants, and things exude, like the protagonist, an awareness at every point of being either in history or in the future, two easily recognisable categories that embody further modulations on the recounted air of storytelling.

* * *

Jean Paul Sartre was intrigued by the idea of the adventure. An adventure, of course, is another name for story: for children, ‘adventure story’ is a tautology. Here’s Sartre’s narrator in Nausea:

For the most banal event to become an adventure you must, and this is enough, begin to recount it. This is what fools people. A man is always a teller of tales. He sees everything that happens to him through them and he tries to live his own life as if you were telling a story, but you have to choose, live or tell.8

In other words, we don’t, can’t, know we’re in an adventure or in a story. The same can be said of history: no one is really aware of living in a historical epoch. Conversations with people who have participated in historic situations, whether it’s a performance by John Coltrane or the partition of a country, confirm this unknowingness: all they recall is what it was like to be present at that time. But forgetfulness is absent from historical novels or films, as it is in films about the future; both the past and future are assembled by bringing together markers of history – turbans, togas, or forelocks – or the future: spaceships and space. Even space lacks forgetfulness in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, whose story is already, a priori, being narrated as the ‘future’. Space, in Kubrick’s film, becomes a metaphor for the ‘homogenous empty time’ of history that Benjamin says makes the idea of man’s progress possible: the historicism that imbues our notions of the futuristic and historical is enacted succinctly in the film’s opening: an ape from a prehistoric epoch flings a bone into the air which, ascending in ‘homogenous empty time’, becomes a spaceship.

Yet both Kubrick in Barry Lyndon and certainly Tarkovsky in historical films like Andrey Rublov, or in his science fiction-based cinema, Stalker and Solaris, reject the notion of the ‘adventure’. The ‘background’ in these movies adheres, on one level, to what Sartre calls ‘the most banal event’; for instance, one of the first signals we receive in Solaris of dissonance doesn’t have to do with science fiction appurtenances, but a horse wandering outside a block of sixties’ houses; the second signal, which also comes early, occurs when a tunnel a man is driving through takes inordinately long to end: the tunnel, a very recognisable urban feature (this bit, set in Russia, was apparently shot in Japan, testimony to a certain kind of mid-century urbanisation available in various cultures), seems to loop in upon itself without in any other way being remarkable. The horses, spaceships, horsemen, and stretches of grass or space in Tarkovsky’s films, and in Barry Lyndon, possess not identifiable characteristics that mark them out as futuristic or historical, but a disorganised banality, a forgetfulness of the role they’re playing in the setting. As a result, both the past and the future are, in these movies, undifferentiated from the non-homogenous present in which we live.

* * *

What’s the relation between living and telling on the one hand, and between living and writing on the other? The prevalent model for life’s relationship to telling is that we live, gather material, and then pour or transform that material experience of living into something that comes out of it: the story we consequently tell.

In my understanding, however, the moment of writing converges with living randomly. There is no decision about transforming into a story material that’s been previously experienced or collected; instead, one arrives at a juncture at which there is an unexpected sense of possibility for the writer: I include all of us when I use that word. This sense of possibility comprises what I’m calling ‘writing’, which need not involve putting pen to paper or sitting down to write an inaugural sentence – as the act is portrayed in Hollywood films, where the ‘writer’ might be a fictional character or Hemingway or Fitzgerald, poised significantly at the typewriter to start a novel. The physical act of writing, or making that break from life when one sits down to commit oneself to embarking on a work is a reification, a reduction of the actual intimation of a beginning, a possibility that writing actually continually constitutes.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. You’re looking at the cover of a book and want to own it, to buy it. You study the cover, transfixed by it, and then you don’t read the book. You are transfixed not only because you want to read what’s contained within, but because you have begun in a sense to compose or write what’s within. The story that’s given to you by the book has become secondary to the story you’ve begun to write. This is the moment of writing. But you have not written anything; you’re arrested by what you see on the cover. You buy the book; in fact, you buy many such books, transfixed by them for one reason or another – it could be the jacket or title; it could be your reading, in the bookshop, of the first page – and then you put them on the shelf, as a covert gesture towards the perpetual imminence, the possibility, of writing. Your sense of ownership has to do with owning the story, but the story is not to be reduced by recounting, by telling: the story is always to be a possibility, which is why the books on our bookshelves that we don’t read outnumber the books that we do. Our bookshelves are largely made up of books that we do not read. These are our ongoing moments of writing – a self-generated accumulation of writing as possibility.

1 The Upanishads, trans. Juan Mascaró (London, Penguin, 1965), 51.

2 Ibid. 52-53.

3 V S Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (London, Penguin, 1969), 76.

4 An Area of Darkness (London, André Deutsch, 1964).

5 V S Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival (London, Penguin, 1987), 92.

6 Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and other stories, translated by Michael Hofmann (London, Penguin, 2007), 73.

7 W H Auden, ‘Museé des Beaux Arts’, Selected Poems (New York, Vintage, 2007), 87.

8 Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (London, Penguin, 2000).

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. He conceptualised the ‘literary activism’ symposia, and is the editor of this website.


Ribeyro – a short story

Julio Ramón Ribeyro, 1974. Photo: Alicia Benavides. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Ribeyro – a short story

Amit Chaudhuri

This is a response to Antonio Muñoz Molina’s The Hour Of Ribeyro

I had just sat down in a train going to London when I heard a muffled ding and knew an email had come in. It was from Pankaj Mishra: he had sent me a link to a ‘recent reconsideration of the Latin American novel’ which he ‘thought… would interest you… Especially, this paragraph…’ What followed was a quote – elliptical ruminations that caught my attention but whose provenance was unclear: ‘“The literary ostentation of many Latin American writers. Their complex of coming from peripheral, underdeveloped areas, and their fear of being taken for uneducated. The demonstrative will of their works… Prove that they can also encompass an entire culture and express it in an encyclopedic sheet that summarizes 20 centuries of history. Nouveau riche aspect of his works: heteroclite, monstrous, ornate mansions…”.’

When I opened the link, I found the essay was in Spanish. But I wasn’t sure if it was an essay or a story, partly because of the lines in the quote: ambitious but fragmentary; historically acute but also solipsistic and dreamlike. ‘I guess you’ve selected parts of sentences in the quote, then translated them?’ I wrote back. ‘Anyway, it makes for an intriguing assemblage. I read long ago that Marquez wanted to bring in bad taste too, among other things, to his fiction. But – and I may be wrong – these writers seemed to have often brought in something [altogether] more conventional [instead]. Sadly, I can’t read the article as it’s in Spanish. Much interesting critical work going on in the non-Anglophone world – including Bengali, even today.’ (The ‘altogether’ and ‘instead’ appear in square brackets because I have only just added them.)

Pankaj replied that he had, in fact, translated the short essay in its entirety. He was learning Spanish; it was his first attempt at translation. I found the full text he then sent me (on the body of an email) invigorating. A living writer, Antonio Muñoz Molina, had written about a dead one, Julio Ramón Ribeyro, and about Ribeyro’s daily journal in particular, to which belong the discontinuous sentences quoted above. It was as if I could hear myself in the essay; as if not only my voice but my and others’ history as writers – a history I’d almost lost interest in – was being returned to me. I had, through a bit of cosmic mistiming, been fated to write my short plotless novels in the age of the global novel, of the great ‘Indian’ novel, and in 1999 I’d spoken about ‘the tautological idea that since India is a huge baggy monster, the novels that accommodate it have to be baggy monsters as well… Indian life is plural, garrulous, rambling, lacking a fixed centre, and the Indian novel must be the same’. Now, through Molina’s essay, and through Ribeyro (Pankaj had only mentioned their last names, and they’d stayed with me), I encountered myself and the alien habitat called the ‘Indian novel’ in other milieus – milieus in which I vaguely knew such tensions had existed, but which were confirmed to me, through the translation, with a new urgency. Through Ribeyro, the great writer of short stories and (as Molina points out) the great notebook- or journal-keeper, I revisited the despair of writers who cannot execute great plans or narratives. Seepersad Naipaul’s despair at never being able to bring his stories to proper fruition; and his son VS’s sense of boredom, later in his own life, with the ‘well-made story’, leading to the writing of The Enigma of Arrival. My own initial sense of futility at not being able to carry out the big tasks, and my love of the short novel and brevity in every literary tradition – a love for which there was probably no term in English.

Did Ribeyro exist? I couldn’t be sure. I had never heard of him, but I’m ignorant of so many things. So wonderful was the position of marginality he occupied in Latin American literature that he could have been a critical concept or invention that Molina (who probably did exist) had come up with. Ribeyro, the man who had pursued fragmentary forms while his contemporaries created monumental works and became ‘global writers’, seemed too necessary and revelatory to be real. Only a fictional character or an idea could be so compelling, so felicitously right.

I recalled a conversation I’d had, by coincidence, with Pankaj when he visited me once in Cambridge in 1998. As we’d walked down alleys past colleges, I’d said that ‘if Rushdie hadn’t existed, the postcolonialists would have invented him’, which was greeted by a roar of laughter. (A month ago, a historian said the same thing to me. When I pointed out that I’d had the thought before, she asked me if I’d written and published it somewhere, and if she might have picked it up unconsciously – but I don’t think I have.) This is not a cavil against Rushdie, whose work I have taken pleasure in. My remark emerged from the fact that I found it possible to speak to students about Midnight’s Children – one of my responsibilities in Cambridge, where I was writing a book, was to teach a course on international literature – without having really read it. I wasn’t teaching them Midnight’s Children, of which I’d probably read to page 60 – but the novel would come up in the way landmarks do, and I found that it had reached, in postcolonialist vocabulary, a level of abstraction where one could hold forth fluently on it – as one might on an idea – without needing to really encounter its specificity. Later, when I resumed reading it, I discovered many details and characteristics in it that I thought original and enlivening. But postcolonialism, ‘India’, and the ‘global novel’ had made this materiality abstract, so that different paragraphs could be quoted from the book with the same commentary for each: ‘Notice the hybridity; the polyphony; the chutnification and admixture of Indian and English words… English, or “Hinglish”, is now an Indian language’. It is as if the actual paragraphs or sentences themselves didn’t exist in their particularity.

If the postcolonialists invented Rushdie – and not, you noticed after the triumphal rhetoric ebbed, an especially interesting one – because they needed a Rushdie, the anti-postcolonialists must have had their inventions too. One of these is Pierre Menard, about whom the one eponymous essay that exists begins: ‘The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated’. The tone of the sentence and the slightly dismissive emphasis on ‘visible’ suggests that to judge a writer by their work (which would imply that the greater its enormity and volume the more its significance) is too easy a task; and this comprises a useful starting-point for the anti-postcolonialist and anti-globalist, who are arguing for the indispensability of in- or semi-visibility. Menard’s major unfinished work comprises fragments of Don Quixote: ‘He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself’. This dismissal, and redefinition, of the ‘easy’ is continued in the essayist’s account of the strategies Menard tried out when embarking on his project: ‘The first method he conceived was relatively simple. Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure (I know he attained a fairly accurate command of seventeenth-century Spanish) but discarded it as too easy.’ In contrast to postcolonial readings of paragraphs in Midnight’s Children, where each one satisfies certain necessary prerequisites and ends up being the more or less the same as the other – that is, the paragraph becomes an abstraction – the essayist writing about Menard makes an anti-postcolonialist comparison of paragraphs from Cervantes and Menard to draw our attention to radical differences:

It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’s. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the ‘lay genius’ Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other writes:

…truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as inquiry into reality but as its origin…

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard – quite foreign, after all – suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.


Ribeyro, in a sense, is – in Molina’s essay and Pankaj’s translation – the latest invention that anti-postcolonialists have thrown up in order to alter the terms of the discussion. For now, it doesn’t matter if he exists. Coming into contact with him has created an opening.

Note: the word ‘anti-postcolonialist’ has no existence outside this story.

Symposium 3: Reassessments

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Jamini Roy’s Mountain Peaks, Impressionist-style, from his early work. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Cow, by Jamini Roy, in his characteristic patua style. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Reassessments: Mission Statement

Amit Chaudhuri

[Note: The 3rd symposium in the ‘literary activism’ series took place in Calcutta in January 2017. The speakers were Jessa Crispin, Simon During, Simon Glendinning, Anjali Joseph, Saikat Majumdar, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Karthika Naïr, Marco Roth, and Amit Chaudhuri.]

Literary and intellectual history is neither an evolution nor a linear movement. It’s a narrative of stops and starts, mainly because it’s shaped by, and dependent on, reassessment. All kinds of reassessment punctuate literary and intellectual history, but, to me, one of the most interesting has to do with a refutation of the theoretical, and with the reclamation of minor figures. For examples of how such movements are generated, we could go back to Nietzsche drawing attention, in The Birth of Tragedy, to the way the moral-ethical-intellectual Socrates turned to music-making in prison in the days before his death. Or, more recently, we might think of Ranajit Guha’s short book, History at the Limits of World-History, and note not only the precedence this Subaltern Studies founding father gives to poetic language over history-writing late in his life, but also the bewildered response of those who followed and admired Guha’s work.

For me, then, ‘reassessment’ comprises an opening-up that’s disorienting and possibly utopian, and has a particular role to play today, in the years after the waning of critical theory. It belongs to a tradition of argument, dissent and possible anti-idealism, which asks us to understand the turn in terms that go beyond the nationalistic or the celebration of the little, the small, the vernacular. I’m thinking now of poets like Philip Larkin and Seamus Heaney, both of whom rejected the influence of W B Yeats for relatively minor poets like Thomas Hardy and Patrick Kavanagh; of Ezra Pound, who said to an important forbear at a certain point in his life, ‘I make a truce with you, Walt Whitman -/ I have detested you long enough’; or of the artist Jamini Roy, who turned from his academic training in European realism to the Kalighat patuas. ‘Reassessment’ asks us to read these gestures – and our own gestures and turnings away – as being more than conventionally political or aesthetic. What sort of creative and intellectual history are they making a case for?

Amit Chaudhuri, January 2017