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Against Literary Imperialism: Storming the Barricades of the Canon

Bruce Robbins is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of The Servant’s Hand (1986). This is the foreword to a new edition of Jonah Raskin’s The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (Monthly Review Press, 2009).

My copy of The Mythology of Imperialism, the 1973 paperback that sold for $2.75, has lots of notes in the margins. They’re excited notes, not always comprehensible now, from the first course I ever taught, a small unofficial seminar on literature and imperialism. I’ve lost the syllabus, but I remember that we read Raskin’s books: Kipling, Conrad, Forster, and Orwell. I’m not sure I would have had the idea, or the courage, to follow that syllabus in my second or third year of graduate school teaching if The Mythology of Imperialism hadn’t made its miraculous, incandescent appearance. I certainly wouldn’t have known which writers to teach, or for that matter how to start talking about them. This was before Edward W. Said’s Orientalism appeared in 1978, before the academic field of postcolonial studies had been invented. There must have been more advanced people out there—it sometimes seemed to me that everybody at Harvard was more advanced than I was—but if they had figured out why and how imperialism mattered to us, they weren’t raising their hands and making speeches about it in any of the classes I took.

Many of us students seemed to be leading more or less schizophrenic lives, marching for civil rights or against the war in Vietnam one day and the rest of the time dutifully soaking up the books and ideas we were presented with, more or less in the form in which they were presented. I for one had not yet imagined that there might be some connection between the world of books and ideas, on the one hand, and on the other, the scorching passion my friends and I felt about America’s various military aggressions and its support for the world’s petty tyrants and human rights abusers. Without Jonah Raskin’s help, I don’t know when or if the possibility of such a connection might have hit home—when or if I would imagine that it was possible not just to become an academic (which already seemed a bit of a stretch) but to become that more glorious thing I had read about in Saul Bellow, an intellectual.

Raskin himself urged his readers to aim higher. In his introduction he describes the book as “a weapon for the revolution.” On the last page he suggests that the goal is “to be a writer and a political and cultural revolutionary.” What I took from him was a target somewhat more modest, but only somewhat. To be an intellectual, as I understand it, means to live the life of the mind as fully as possible in your own historical moment, and in relation to that moment. It means that when you think, you are not just thinking about certain concepts or problems or authors, you are also trying to satisfy the most urgent ethical and political demands your own historical moment makes upon you. Which means that while you’re reading and thinking, you also have to be listening carefully to your time. For Raskin, there was no doubt about what the demands of our time were. The word for our moment was imperialism. “I decided to write about imperialism,” he declares, “because it is the total reality of our time.” Our responsibility was to reconsider everything we knew, or thought we knew, in the light of that reality.

To call imperialism a total reality, as if there were nothing about anyone’s life that was not permeated by it and given its definitive meaning by imperialism, was to make a large and, to my mind, controversial claim. (It suggests that no good thing is untainted—that no good thing is really, finally, good.) But as a first move, it was brilliant. Among the various names for injustice, were there any that legitimately linked with so much of the history in play at that moment?  Various movements of national liberation had of course triumphed by 1971, when the hardback edition of Raskin’s book came out, but others were still ongoing. The recent emergence of black militancy at home seemed to resonate with anti-colonial struggles abroad. The United States was still at war in Vietnam. Behind the excuse of containing communism, it was enthusiastically supporting military dictatorships, armed insurgencies, and death squads around the world. It was also arranging, not coincidentally, for as much as possible of the world’s wealth to be enjoyed within our borders and, as far as possible, for the major inconveniences of the capitalist system to be experienced at a distance by non-citizens. In short, the United States was directly and indirectly responsible, through its policies and through its consumerist life style, for incalculable human suffering, especially (this was important) outside its borders. Meanwhile, in the American universities, where the Western cultural heritage was preserved, transmitted, and interpreted, there had been little if any systematic re-interpretation of that heritage from the perspective of a world that was suddenly much larger and less obviously centered in Europe and the European settler colonies. As Raskin put it, “To date, literary and cultural historians have not reckoned with imperialism.” 

If imperialism is indeed a total reality that touches everything and contaminates everything it touches, one might imagine that Raskin’s reckoning with it would be utterly merciless. Under inspection, how could the Western cultural heritage look anything but, well, imperialist? Cowardly academics could be expected to stop short of this conclusion; by undermining the customary rationale for preserving and transmitting the Western cultural heritage, they could risk getting put out of a job. Raskin, however, sounds happy not to have an academic job. He presents himself as an escapee from the prison-like classroom who is now participating enthusiastically in what he calls, after D. H. Lawrence, “life.” He has no institutional motive to pull his punches. And as the word mythology in the title suggests, he doesn’t. All of these writers are shown in one way or another to have supported the project of imperialism. Yet for Raskin, that’s not the end of the story. Somehow he manages to make his case without giving up his respect for the Western cultural heritage. One of the book’s many surprises, and a reason why it has stood up so well over four decades, is the extraordinary generosity shown to the works discussed.

In his first-edition introduction, titled “Bombard the Critics,” Raskin does just that. He blasts critics like F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling for building modern literature into a great tradition that ignores imperialism and encourages political passivity. Even Raymond Williams, who is clearly a more positive inspiration here, is criticized for being too Eurocentric. But by attacking the critics, Raskin pulls off a neat trick: he spares the works themselves, or at least deflects political anger away from them. Thus he can use those same works, or equally canonical ones, to set up a counter-tradition. Before the period of 1880 to 1920  “the Victorians were conscious of their empire,” but the empire remained peripheral to the Victorian novel. “In Victorian novels the colonies are usually places to transfer burned-out characters, or from which to retrieve characters when they were needed….The plot began—or flagging interest was revived—when a character returned from abroad, and the action terminated when the characters left for the colonies. For the Victorians existence meant existence in England.” Raskin observes that those English writers who did talk about empire, and who are his primary subjects—Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, and Joyce Cary—did a pretty unsatisfactory job of it. And yet he finds a good deal to celebrate in what they managed to say.

This is all the more surprising because Raskin’s standards of judgment are very demanding, at least by comparison with the standards that have become habitual in academic criticism. Since the culture wars of the 1990s, academic critics have taken a certain amount of flak in the press over their supposed lack of reverence for the great works of the past. They are supposed to spend their time brutally interrogating the classics in the name of recently erected standards of which past authors could have had no inkling: gender, race, class, and other politically correct preoccupations. Like so much of what the press says, this turns out not to be true. Modern university departments don’t waterboard their authors. But Raskin, who is proud to say that his book was written “outside the sterile atmosphere of academia,” takes an even harder line than the one that is imaginatively projected onto academics today. His book is dedicated to Ho Chi Minh. The epigraph is from Fidel Castro. What he wants from literature is solidarity with the Revolution.

Gazing back on 1971 a decade or so into the twenty-first century, this seems a lot to stipulate. What if the revolutionary movements aren’t there? (I leave aside the tricky but significant question of what “revolutionary” meant back then—how much overlap there was and was not between anti-imperialist struggles for national independence and genuine movements of social revolution.) If the standard is Revolution, then very little literature would seem to measure up. That includes Raskin’s own favorite writers. He likes Gulley Jimson, protagonist of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, a colorful institution-hating anarchist. “But,” we are told, Jimson “is not quite a revolutionary…. Cary’s people are cut off from revolutionary movements.” E. M. Forster also fails this test. “It is Forster’s crippling defect,” Raskin concludes, “that he is unable to imagine revolutionary alternatives.” The inability to imagine revolutionary alternatives, at least alternatives that are not subject to lengthy utopian delay, seems to be a general failing, now as then. The novel as a genre doesn’t much like revolutions. “If Conrad could have looked ahead a bit further than his own times,” Raskin writes, “he would have seen that Decoud’s descendant is Regis Debray…. The alienated intellectual becomes an engagé, an enragé, a guerrilla.” Well, okay. But if Raskin could have looked ahead a bit further, he would have seen Debray’s transformation from a militant Third Worldist to a defender of the French Republic. Despite the ongoing travails of so much of what used to be called the Third World, Third Worldism now is not what it was. That’s why Che could become, as he is for many today, an unthreatening object of nostalgia.

Raskin can be intellectually magnanimous in part because, much as he might have liked his authors to gaze prophetically beyond their moments, he is willing to give them credit for merely getting deep into their moments. Temporarily suspending the standard of revolution, he applies another criterion that is a bit easier to meet. He asks what these authors managed to say about the contradictions of their time, including contradictions or paradoxes they themselves were unable to overcome in their own lives: “The Conrad paradox is that he detests both empire and revolution.”  This paradox—detesting the status quo, but being unready to embrace the political means necessary to change the status quo—goes to the heart of Conrad’s work, but it also speaks directly to a condition that has obviously persisted. As does Forster’s pithy analysis of his own Victorian background: “In came the nice fat dividends, up went the lofty thoughts.” 

Like Forster, Raskin has a great eye for passing instants and tableaux that suddenly sum up a life or a social situation. In Carlyle, for example, he discovers the perfect rationale for imperialism in a simple invocation of Third World raw materials: “noble elements of cinnamon, sugar, coffee, pepper black and grey, lying all asleep, awaiting the white enchanter who should say to them, Awake!” On Kipling, he writes: “Every morning before he awoke his face was shaven clean by an Indian…. Only the comforting illusion that Indians loved the English could free him from the continual fear of the barber’s razor.” Haunted houses in India are said to contain “the bodies of dead Englishmen murdered by their servants.” The year after I read The Mythology of Imperialism I started writing my doctoral dissertation, which was about servants in the novel. My point of departure was a comic passage in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair where a servant, asked to shave his master, thinks for a moment that the master has gone crazy and wants him to slit his throat. I suppose I’ll never know whether Raskin was the origin of my dissertation, hence of my whole academic career. It does not seem at all improbable. In those days other critics were not talking about servants with razors.

Like Raymond Williams in Culture and Society, Raskin arranges his authors by date of birth and pays loving attention to their biographies. (Though the book doesn’t use footnotes and generally wears its learning lightly, it knows a lot more than it absolutely needs to. For example, Raskin has scrutinized the drafts that various works went through, watching as the politics are pulled in different directions. This is something you don’t bother to do if you are convinced in advance of your political conclusions.) He makes us see his authors as people in historical context. But he also admits that in historical context they rarely look very attractive. Their political opinions, for example, tend to be severely limited, at least by the standards of the 1970s Left. In order to be generous to them, Raskin sometimes has to take them out of context again, to separate the art from the artist. In this he follows the excellent advice of D. H. Lawrence, one of his favorites: never trust the teller, trust the tale. As it happens, this is also the advice of the central tradition of Marxist literary criticism from Marx and Engels through Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson. You can’t deduce the politics of a work from the politics of its author. At the same time, Raskin also implicitly argues with the Lukács tradition, which has never accepted that “the principal contradiction in the world” is, in Raskin’s words, the contradiction “between the revolutionary peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the imperial powers.” Nor has it asked that writers be revolutionaries.

Inconsistently but entertainingly, Raskin celebrates D. H. Lawrence for any number of virtues, some of them personal rather than literary and all of them falling well short of an ideal solidarity with revolution. Lawrence is praised for revealing the true chaos that defenders of the social order try to hide. He is praised for imagining hopefully, sometime in the future, “a great united Europe of productive working people.”  And he is praised for leaving England in search of something he could not find there, perhaps the causal link between the deadness of English life and “life” in the strong sense, as it is lived in Italy or Mexico. Exile, an important modernist theme, is crucial to Raskin’s underlying argument for his authors. It might look as if the modernists had given up on the nineteenth-century realist project of bringing out the underlying dynamics of their society—the project that is astonishingly renewed, for example, in what Season 2 of the HBO series The Wire says about the history of Baltimore longshoremen. Marxist criticism has often leveled this charge against the writers of Raskin’s period: too much exploration of subjectivity, too much art for art’s sake, too much exoticism. But for Raskin, the novelist’s personal experience of life outside Europe is one way—perhaps even the only way—of giving the novel the materials needed to focus on the global contradiction between colonized and colonizer. Nothing that can be said about England itself, not even the most probing exploration of class conflict, will sufficiently illuminate conflict on the global scale.

As a big fan of Victorian novels, even the stay-at-home kind, I’m tempted to object that some of what Raskin says about the Victorians (not all of which is negative—he does see important virtues in Dickens, Emily Bronte, and even George Eliot) is tendentiously arranged to make the contrasting case for the modernists who came afterward. Is there too much resolution in the endings of Victorian novels?  Well, maybe, but it depends on how good you are at recognizing loose ends, so to speak, that carry the logic of the novel beyond its final distribution of reward and punishment. These novels invest a lot of energy in issues that they cannot finally resolve, and that they all but admit they cannot resolve. In this sense, they do what Raskin’s book also does: teach readers to recognize the contradictions in their lives by following out the contradictions lived by literary characters, even if no one can imagine any immediate or likely resolution to those contradictions.

The writer Raskin feels closest to is probably Conrad. Conrad “is most representative of his time,” Raskin says, “because he stands in sharpest opposition to it.” But Raskin writes less like the perpetually agonized Conrad and more like the crowd-pleasing Kipling, perpetually at home with himself, who “untiringly carved out sharp, broad areas of contrast.” There is something of a tradition here: various figures of the left, from George Orwell and Edmund Wilson to Edward W. Said, have had admiring things to say about this active champion of imperialism. Raskin may not quite make Kipling into a rebel (he tries), but he does have insightful things to say about him. He places Kim and the lama on the road in the utopian tradition of cross-racial buddies (Huck and Jim on the raft, Ishmael and Queequeg, or for that matter, The Wire again). “Kipling arranges the plot so that there is no conflict between Kim’s commitment to imperialism and his love for the lama.”  Freedom in Kim doesn’t mean colonial liberation; it means “wandering—freedom from material things.” Nonetheless, there’s something attractive about that freedom. For Raskin as for Said, this ascetic, all-male, socially utopian freedom seems to transcend the imperial context in which it emerges. Imperialism has its sneaky backdoor pleasures.

As it turned out, the writers to whom Raskin is so generous belonged to a dying canon. It’s not that readers have lost interest in them. With the possible exception of Joyce Cary, these writers have held up quite well. But for anyone who cares about literature and imperialism, it has become unthinkable to teach a course (as I did in the 1970s) that deals with these writers alone. Raskin describes Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Pierre Loti,” which he includes as another epigraph to the book, as “A Voice from the Third World.” The phrase now sounds quaint. In 1971 voices from the Third World were not yet part of the Euro-American canon. Many of the texts that are now on the most-taught list of world literature or postcolonial literature courses in the United States had not yet been written. It is something of an understatement to say that in the decades that followed, the canon was dramatically reshaped. Achebe, Soyinka, Mahfouz, Salih, Djebar, Habibi, Faiz, Rushdie, Naipaul, C. L. R. James, Walcott, Lamming, Emicheta, Dangarembga, Cesaire, Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Cortazar—these are only a few of the dozens and dozens of top-flight writers from former colonies who were suddenly recognized, in the years after Raskin’s book came out, recognized not only for their literary virtues but as having something indispensable to say about the meaning of imperialism. From this point forth it was clear to all concerned that the Third World was now representing itself. If you teach Conrad’s Heart of Darkness today, you have every reason to pair it with Season of Migration to the North, by the great Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, which both mimics and reverses Conrad by sending its African protagonist up the Thames and into the heart of an English darkness. Raskin’s good guys are writers like George Washington Cable and D. H. Lawrence: First World authors who did a more respectable job with racism or colonialism than most of those around them. But now that white First World authors are no longer being discussed exclusively, it is not plausible to commend them in quite the same tone. Standards have changed.

The other great change over the past forty years is of course a change in the horizon of political expectations. There seemed almost no limit to those expectations in 1971. Now, ten years into the new millennium, it’s hard to find in our (financially threatened) newspapers news of flourishing social movements on which hopes like Raskin’s could plausibly alight. “I am writing this now,” Raskin says, “with the certainty that the oppressed will triumph over their oppressors. Imperialism, the American death machine, will surely die.” In the original edition, American was spelled Amerikan. Readers even then differed over the politics of that k. So soon after the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president, the gesture seems to have outlived whatever usefulness it once had. But optimists, which is to say those who have decided to scale back their hopes, still have some obligation to show that what they are making their uneasy peace with is something better than a death machine.

George Orwell’s failure, Raskin says, was “his failure to become a rebel…. He, unlike Kipling, knows that the empire is ‘despotism with theft,’ but he does not commit his life to toppling the despot from the throne.” Those of us who have not committed our lives to toppling despots from the throne, despite all we know of despotism, may feel a bit defensive about the smaller things to which we have committed ourselves. Thinking back on how I’ve spent the decades since first reading The Mythology of Imperialism, I can see it’s all too possible to tell a sad story of institutionalization. In this not unfamiliar telling, the political energies of the 1960s would have gotten channeled into universities and other existing institutions which, for all their lofty humanistic and humanitarian aspirations, are not in the despot-toppling business, and certainly not in the business of toppling themselves. Still, there are other stories to tell. What initially turned me on in this book was the sweet prospect of putting together political commitment with the life of the mind. Rereading it now makes me feel that this prospect is still very much alive. Commenting on Heart of Darkness, Raskin finds the discovery “that behind your affluence lies another man’s poverty, that behind your ease lies another man’s exploitation, that behind your life lies another man’s death, that your fate is inextricably connected with the fate of millions of Black men and women whose existence you had denied.” Thanks to the timely reissue of Jonah Raskin’s classic, many new readers will be encouraged to make this discovery, and discoveries like it.