V.S. Naipaul, “A House for Mr. Biswas”

1961

Naipaul’s novel of the sprawling Tulsi house and one man’s attempt to escape it inaugurate an era of postcolonial writing in the Anglo tradition. The prolepsis of the prologue allows us to see Mr. Biswas on his deathbead, surrounded by piles and piles of stuff, but happy because he is dying in his own house: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without [his house]: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating, and indifferent family… to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth” 11. In this way, Naipaul rephrases Joseph Conrad’s “taking away of things” in the “dark places of the earth,” creating a kind of microcosmic colonialism in Mr. Biswas, a refusal of communal 3rd world living in favor of Western values of materialism and independence. (It seems no mistake that Mr Biswas is first a sign painter, and at Hanuman House, no less (the trickster monkey god). Even at the very end of the novel he is measuring to “expand the yard” with Shama. In a parallel to Death of a Salesman, “the debt remained… living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now there was nothing to wait for” 561. It is not the journalism career he has had, but the ambition to achieve something that would promise happiness, which animates Mr. Biswas. Its accomplishment, however, leaves him withering (Sister Carrie). In a parallel twist, after years of complaining about his stomach (material) it is his heart (emotional/spiritual) which gives out, confining him without dignity downstairs, a prisoner in his own house. He gets fired and begs his son Anand to come home, but he flakes out. “And Mr. Biswas never complained again,” but “once again became the comforter” 563. He welcomes his daughter home at the end “as though she were herself and Anand combined” 563. Mr. Biswas dies and is cremated, leaving his family with the house and the debt.

From Wikipedia:

Mohun Biswas is born in rural Trinidad to parents of Indian origin. His birth is considered inauspicious as he is born “in the wrong way” and with an extra finger. A pundit prophesies that the newly born Mr Biswas “will be a lecher and a spendthrift. Possibly a liar as well”, and that he will “eat up his mother and father”. The pundit further advises that the boy be kept “away from trees and water. Particularly water”. A few years later, Mohun leads a neighbour’s calf, which he is tending, to a stream. The boy, who has never seen water “in its natural form”, becomes distracted watching the fish and allows the calf to wander off. Mohun hides in fear of punishment. His father, believing his son to be in the water, drowns in an attempt to save him, thus in part fulfilling the pundit’s prophecy. This leads to the dissolution of Mr Biswas’s family. His sister is sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle, Tara and Ajodha, while Mr Biswas, his mother, and two older brothers go to live with other relatives.

Mr Biswas is withdrawn prematurely from school and apprenticed to a pundit, but is cast out on bad terms. Ajodha then puts him in the care of his alcoholic and abusive brother Bhandat which also comes to a bad result. Finally, Mr Biswas, now becoming a young man, decides to set out to make his own fortune. He encounters a friend from his days of attending school who helps him get into the business of sign-writing. While on the job, Mr Biswas attempts to romance a client’s daughter and his advances are misinterpreted as a wedding proposal. He is drawn into a marriage which he does not have the nerve to stop and becomes a member of the Tulsi household. 

With the Tulsis, Mr Biswas becomes very unhappy with his wife Shama and her overbearing family, which bears a slight resemblance to the Capildeo family into which Naipaul’s father married. He is usually at odds with the Tulsis and his struggle for economic independence from the oppressive household drives the plot. The Tulsi family (and the big decaying house they live in) represents the traditional communal world, the way life is lived, not only among the Hindu immigrants of Trinidad but throughout Africa and Asia as well. Mr Biswas is offered a place in it, a subordinate place to be sure, but a place that’s guaranteed and from which advancement is possible. But Mr Biswas rejects that. He is, without realizing it or thinking it through but through deep and indelible instinct, a modern man. He wants to BE, to exist as something in his own right, to build something he can call his own. That is something the Tulsis cannot deal with, and that is why their world—though that traditional world, like the old Tulsi house which is its synecdoche, is collapsing—conspires to drag him down. Nevertheless, despite his poor education, Mr Biswas becomes a journalist, has four children with Shama, and attempts (more than once, with varying levels of success) to build a house that he can call his own. He becomes obsessed with the notion of owning his own house, and it becomes a symbol of his independence and merit.

Salman Rushdie, “Midnight’s Children”

1988

Midnight’s Children seems to thwart Jameson’s idea that all third world literature is a national allegory. Its twists and turns of structure are coherent enough to form a web (as James Wood says of this foundational text of hysterical realism, it engenders and enacts a paranoid logic), but erratic enough that they can’t quite be pathologized, almost like the fake illnesses of his grandmother in the first chapter of the novel. The characters’ name changes, too, work in this multifaceted novel as double-down acts of theatricality Monkey becomes Jamila, and people are always stopping or starting talking, striking poses and performances that are multiply legible.

Rushdie claimed Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as “Indian novelists,” and his nods to Joyce are as a fellow victim of colonialism: “O ineluctable superiority of northernness!” 355 and “Mute autocracy of a less-than-two-year-old infant” 515 are just two. The novel’s ending, “to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace,” seems to rework Eliot’s ending to The Waste Land.  [Nabokovian nods include “the pickling of time!” 529, the theme of incest (Saleem and his sister).]

Rushdie’s narrator purports to be a telepathically connected one presenting a sort of collective fiction of India, but he is awfully narcissistic and solipsistic. He was born at exactly midnight on India’s independence day, and he shares magical realist traits with thousands of other children – his is at first to speak to them, and later to lose this power to a sense of smell instead. His face is said to look like a map of India and Pakistan.

Jean Rhys, “Wide Sargasso Sea”

1966

Moving from Jamaica to Dominica to England, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of “Bertha” Antoinette Mason in a parallel reworking of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As the last sentence demonstrates, one of the protests of the novel is against Rochester’s renaming itself, which moves her from “A” to “B,” a sort of lowered ranking as well. Rather than seeing Bertha as “impediment,” which is how she is named in Bronte, the text sees her madness as a dual result of the colonialism and patriarchy that have determined her life. (Interesting that she bites him at mention of the word “legally.”)

Yet Rhys’ novel does not condemn Rochester. He is given tremendous space and perspective in the middle part, so that we leap from Antoinette’s sanity to insanity via his narrative – “a middle passage” in the book. The Sargasso Sea is a swirl in the midst of the Atlantic, collecting and swallowing. Much of the novel centers around the way that most language does not signify, save in songs or names – in this sense, Rhys also reclaims bodily affect as a mode of signification with eyerolls and gestures that Rochester cannot read as anything but madness. Furthermore, the fabula (story-order) and sujet (plot) divide is dramatized through the reader learning key facts by A’s eavesdropping.

Rhys reclaims pathetic fallacy as well – in Bronte’s novel the hot tropics are the site of passion and madness, but in Rhys’ world, England is cardboard and unreal, while the island’s natural space is vibrant and vivid. It is the desire to cathect herself onto the land around her which fails in England and drives her truly mad.

J.M. Coetzee, “Disgrace”

1999

In lieu of a proper post on Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’m posting an old essay comparing it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’m most interested in this novel in conversation with Conrad, especially the ethical space in which it recreates animal rights (the dogs at the shelter here) as the “brutes” to be “exterminated,” which are the human Congolese in Conrad’s novel. While I think this is a dubious equation, Coetzee also sets up a number of other interesting equivalences and valences: Lucy instead of the Intended (knowing and raped, paying a sort of debt for the land, rather than protected and pure), Petrus and Kurtz (stonelike, hard, and cruel), Marlow and Lurie’s misguided inability to “see” their surroundings (Lurie locked behind a door, Marlow’s obsession with the impenetrable flatness of the jungle), and the young woman of color able to speak where the African lover of Kurtz was silenced – so much so in Disgrace that her accusations cost Lurie his job. (Note that Melanie’s name means black, while Lucy’s means white and Petrus’ means stone.) In Coetzee, we see an anxiety about the ethics of representation play out, in which the text divides us from the subjectivity of the black characters and the female characters, leaving us only with Lurie. His divided novel (prideful downfall and twisted reconciliation) are also a sort of bizarre rewriting of Lord Jim. 

Like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . .

– H.G. Wells on Henry James, 1914

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace both explore the ability of language to represent a world of unspeakable profanity. The perverse altar of H. G. Wells’ analogy humorously satirizes the worship of what he saw as the ‘elaborate, copious emptiness’ of archetypal symbols in the Jamesian novel: the kitten, a violation of the vulnerable body; the shell, a fragility in human bonds; and the string, a senseless materialism.[1] Though intended as satire, the passage into Wells’ empty cathedral diagnoses a larger crisis in twentieth century literature, especially the literature of atrocity, in which silence and symbol are made to stand in for a language which can no longer signify by itself.

Severed from context, Wells’ simile depicts the very issues Heart of Darkness and Disgrace seek to confront: the exaltation of power and greed, the sacrifice of the vulnerable, and the loss of intimacy and connectivity, all of which constitute the unspeakable atrocities of colonized space. Language, however, cannot represent the unspeakable, and both narratives must rotate elliptically around absent centres.

In their fictive representations of the ongoing violence of colonialism, Conrad and Coetzee present a world in which symbolic silences and objects are made to carry the weight of a failed language, but any singular meaning of those symbols is simultaneously undermined by the very impassibility of the language they are meant to replace. In The Language of Silence, Leslie Kane describes the symbolism of silence as that ‘which directly, dramatically, and implicitly reflects doubt and disjunction.’[2] For Kane, the ‘freedom of silence’ lies in its tacit refusal to rigidly ‘define the ineffable’, which opens the text to a more variable reading.[3] Kane’s observation displays this symbolic ambiguity in itself; silence can be read bidirectionally as both a restriction and a liberation of expression.

The silence of the land speaks immediately and disarmingly to the protagonists of both novels. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow feels alienated from the ‘high stillness of primeval forest’, which seems like a “God-forsaken wilderness’ to him.[4] The land’s silence enacts both a passive openness to imperialist rape and, in its meanacing, encroaching density, an indictment of that violation. For Disgrace’s David Lurie, too, though his daughter’s farm should constitute a ‘refuge’ from the city, it ‘does not feel like his earth…it feels like a foreign land’, and he can hear every sound ‘lingering on the still air’.[5] If the land disarms the white interloper, it silently integrates the autochthonous African. To Marlow, the natives have ‘bone, muscle, [and] a wild vitality…that [are] as natural and true as the surf along their coast’, and unlike Marlow himself, they ‘wan[t] no excuse for being there’.[6] In Disgrace, too, Petrus’ name, meaning ‘stone’, makes him one with the land’s ‘dust and gravel’,[7] and reflects Coetzee’s assertion elsewhere that ‘the true South African landscape is of rock’.[8]

In depicting the contested spaces of colonialism as sites of violence, both novels confirm Marlow’s observation that ‘The conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much’.[9] While Disgrace and Heart of Darkness closely examine violence, they do so through intimation, denying narrative access to very events around which they purportedly centre. Though Marlow has a ‘propensity to spin yarns’ and Lurie is a professor of Communications and Romantic poetry, the narrators’ inability to articulate the atrocity of their surroundings also renders their tales, paradoxically, the absences of tales.[10]

Marlow knows that Kurtz has conducted ‘inconceivable ceremonies of some devilish initiation’ and that his unsurpassable collection of ivory is ‘paid for …by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions’, yet words do not allow him to fully represent these horrors.[11] Divorced from his interiority, even Kurtz’s own exclamation of ‘The horror! The horror!’ offers the reader only an ambivalent echoing of his own unspeakable acts, and even Marlow is not privy to the actual moment of his death.[12] To accommodate the unspeakable, Marlow’s narrative is punctuated by pregnant pauses; he tells his listeners: ‘You can’t understand. How could you?’[13] These ‘dislocations in the narrator’s language’ are, according to Edward Said, ‘Conrad’s way of demonstrating [the] discrepancy between the orthodox and his own views of empire’.[14]

Similarly, in Disgrace, Lucy’s rape occurs while Lurie is locked in a separate room of the house, and in the moment, he can only articulate the vague fear that ‘In a minute…whatever is happening to her will be set in stone’.[15] In ‘Into the Dark Chamber’, Coetzee refers to the space of torture as

the bedchamber of the pornographer’s fantasy where, insulated from moral or physical restraint, one human being is free to exercise his imagination to the limits in the performance of vileness upon the body of another.[16]

Like the isolated station at the heart of the Congo, fenced in by heads on stakes, the interior space of Lucy’s bedroom becomes available for unspeakable acts. Conrad and Coetzee thus destabilize interior space by questioning it as a site of safety and intimacy, the torture chamber of Lucy’s bedroom further echoed in the object rape of Lurie’s car and his home in the city. Afterwards, Lurie can only think to himself, ‘War, atrocity: every word with which one tries to wrap up this day, the day swallows down its black throat’.[17] Cut off from the space of the rape and the details of what Lucy experiences, though, Lurie still concretely associates it with ‘stone’, managing to link the event to the rocky landscape of the farm and to Petrus as well. Lurie ‘has his own suspicions’ that Petrus, who covets his daughter’s land, has ‘engaged three strange men to teach Lucy a lesson’.[18]

In maintaining silence around the unspeakable, Marlow and Lurie inhabit a fearful proximity to the profane. Marlow says that ‘it was ordered I should never betray [Kurtz]’,[19] and Lucy tells Lurie, ‘You tell what happened to you, I tell what happened to me’.[20] Marlow is aware that in entering the Congo and in protecting Kurtz, he, too, is implicated in the project of imperialism, but Kurtz ‘had stepped over the edge, while [he] had been permitted to draw back [his] hesitating foot’.[21] Likewise, Lurie occupies an adjacent space to the men who violate his daughter, for as he struggles to describe his lecherous involvement with Melanie, he says it is ‘Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nonetheless’.[22]

Female characters in the texts signify variously as well. Marlow encounters Kurtz’s Intended ‘all in black, floating towards [him] in the dusk’ as the ‘dark gleams’ of the furniture ‘sh[ine] in indistinct curves’ like ‘a somber and polished sarcophagus’.[23]  The Intended’s ghostly movements link her to the eerie portrait Kurtz paints in the wilderness, and as she stretches out her arms in grief, Marlow conflates her with Kurtz’s black mistress, seeing ‘in this gesture another one, tragic also…stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream’.[24]

In Disgrace, too, Lucy is doubled in Melanie, although in a symbolic reversal, it is not the raped white woman, but the violated ‘dark one’ who is empowered to voice her indignation.[25] Though her name means ‘light’, Lucy’s tacit acceptance of the rape as historical reparation, ‘the price one has to pay for staying on’, seems benighted.[26] Without access to her interior thoughts, however, Lucy remains ambiguously both the victim of rape and the criminal who symbolically cuts out her own tongue.

In White Writing, Coetzee notes that in South African ‘farm novel, we find women… imprisoned in the farm house…cut off from the outdoors’.[27] Through violation, Lucy is made more intimate with the land, as her body comes to echo the ‘landscape…inscribed by hand and plough’, and, invaded and planted with seed, she enters Petrus’ family in a perverse rewriting of the ‘myth in which the earth becomes wife to the husband-man’.[28] Adding to the layered meaning of the novel is Petrus’ ‘relative’ Pollux, a participant in the rape. In mythology, only one of Leda’s twin sons is the result of Zeus’ rape. In bearing this name, Pollux, without ever speaking, becomes both child of the symbolically raped land and the potential father of Lucy’s ‘child of this earth’: the product and the perpetrator of rape.[29]

The image of the silent African vacillates throughout Heart of Darkness. While Marlow pities the ‘black shadows of disease and starvation’ he finds dying under in the forest at the start of his journey, he still objectifies the vulnerable black bodies by describing them synecdochically: ‘the black bones reclined…the sunken eyes looked up…the fingers closed slowly’.[30] In a moment of unvarnished dehumanization, Marlow also describes the black fireman as ‘a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs’.[31]

In Disgrace, Petrus’ uses and omissions of language speak to the weight of racialized language in colonized space. When Lurie asks him if he is ‘the dog man’, Petrus, with a ‘broad smile’, echoes Lurie twice in assent: ‘“Yes…the dog-man…The dog-man,” he repeats, savouring the phrase’.[32]  Petrus’ ironic iteration of the term carries both its savage racist inheritance and an accurate description of his place as labourer.  In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhaba maintains that

the discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.[33]

Petrus’ inversion of colonial language demonstrates a positive reclamation of language from the realm of the subaltern, but, in its doublings (‘very bad, very bad’; ‘Lucy is safe here, she is safe’), it also bears a sinister resemblance to Kurtz’s final utterance.[34] Thus Petrus intimates a dual enactment of the rightful return of colonized land and the horrific interiority of the violent colonizer.

Marlow’s problematic interpretation of the ‘savages’ as both human and beastly has a crude resonance in Disgrace in the voiceless dogs of Bev’s clinic. The euthanasia of the silent, neglected animals is a disturbing evocation of Kurtz’s barbaric footnote: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’[35] Still, this reading is countered in the novel by Bev’s pure effort ‘to lighten the load of Africa’s suffering beasts’ and in Lucy’s worldview, which recognizes that ‘There is only the life there is. Which we share with animals’.[36]

Indeed, despite their troubling equivocation, it is ultimately Marlow’s and Lurie’s tenuous and tacit intimacy with the vulnerable that fills the empty silences of the texts with the greatest promise for redemption. When Marlow’s helmsman dies, ‘his lustrous and inquiring glance envelop[s]’ Marlow, ‘but he die[s] without uttering a sound’.[37] Marlow knows that to his audience, it might seem ‘strange, this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara,’ but he and the helmsman have ‘a subtle bond’, and in his senseless death, Marlow feels ‘robbed of a belief’.[38] Facing his listeners, Marlow takes a ‘pause of profound stillness’ and finally concedes, ‘This is the worst of trying to tell’.[39] Marlow’s inexpressible sadness at the death of the helmsman reveals a faint hope for the reparation human connectivity in colonized space. Lurie, too, in a symbolic reversal of the dehumanization of imperialism, develops a bond with a dog at the clinic, anthropomorphizing him as ‘the young dog, the one who likes music’, though he agrees to ‘giv[e] him up’ in the novel’s final line.[40] As he holds the animal during its last moments of life, Lurie realizes he that he has become capable of ‘giving it what he no longer has difficulty in calling by its proper name: love’.[41] Rita Barnard reads this gesture as Lurie

accepting, perhaps helplessly, perhaps resolutely, the claims of an infinite number of other creatures with whom he has no special connection – who are neither his ‘own kind’ or nor his historical victims.[42]

To read Lurie’s final interaction with the dog in this way is to open the space of Disgrace to a positive form of reparation, in which humans are still capable of attending, carefully and lovingly, to the fragility of relationships.

At the end of Disgrace, Lucy agrees to sign the land over to Petrus and to ‘become part of his establishment’, but, she asserts, ‘the house remains mine. No one enters this house without my permission. Including [Petrus]. And I keep the kennels.’[43] Though the house has been a site of violence, it is also the sanctuary to which ultimately Lucy retreats. In reclaiming her house and taking up a continued responsibility for the vulnerable, Lucy may offer a means of approaching the novel of atrocity.

As both Disgrace and Heart of Darkness suggest, the space of the novel and the potency of its language to signify have been violated by the horrors of a world it now struggles to represent. The reader, robbed of the interiority and disclosure of traditional novelistic space, is forced to interpret the manifold intimations of silence and symbol, an act that places him or her in an uncomfortable proximity to the profanity of imagination.

Still, the uncomfortable silences and nebulous symbols of Heart of Darkness and Disgrace speak volumes about the place of greed, vulnerability, and intimacy in colonial space. In The Art of Failure, Suresh Raval contends that it is in fleshing out the omissions of Marlow’s incomplete narrative that ‘his listeners understand what Marlow, as the novitiate in his venture, could not.’[44] Heart of Darkness and Disgrace ask us to enter the profaned cathedral, to turn over the symbolic artifacts of its altar, and to struggle with their interpretation. Perhaps listening patiently to the unfolding meanings of their silences is itself a prayer against the darkness.

WORKS CITED:

Barnard, Rita, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place            (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Bhaba, Homi, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994)

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000)

— ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book            Review, 12 January 1986: 13, 35.

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale            University Press, 1988)

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2002)

Kane, Leslie, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in            Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984)

Otten, Thomas J., A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the            Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State            University Press, 2006)

Raval, Suresh, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986)

Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994)

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Attwell, David, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Berkeley, CA:            University of California Press, 1993)

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron, African Fiction and Joseph Conrad: Reading Postcolonial            Intertextuality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005)

Chrisman, Laura and Patrick Williams (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial            Theory (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993)

Huggan, Graham and Stephen Watson (eds.), Critical Perspectives on J.M. Coetzee            (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)

Jolly, Rosemary Jane, Colonization, Violence, and Narration in White South African            Writing: Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbrach, and J. M. Coetzee (Athens, OH:            Ohio University Press, 1996)

Levine, George (ed.), Aesthetics and Ideology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University            Press, 1994)

Loomba, Ania, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1998)

Moore, Gene M. (ed.), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 2004)

Penner, Dick, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York:            Greenwood Press, 1989)


[1] Wells qtd. in Thomas J. Otten, A Superficial Reading of Henry James: Preoccupations with the Material World (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2006) p.xv (Otten’s interpretation is paraphrased.)

[2] Leslie Kane, The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama (London: Associated University Press, 1984), p.15

[3] Ibid., pp.14-15

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and Other Tales, ed. Cedric Watts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp.128,114

[5] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 2000), pp.65,197,68

[6] Conrad, p.114

[7] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.59

[8] J.M.Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), p.167

[9] Conrad, p.107

[10] Ibid., p.105

[11] Ibid., pp.153,179

[12] Ibid., pp.179,178

[13] Ibid., p.154

[14] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p.29

[15] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.94

[16] J.M.Coetzee, ‘Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa’, New York Times Book Review,12 January 1986, p.13

[17] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.102

[18] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.117-18

[19] Conrad, p.172

[20] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.99

[21] Conrad, p.179

[22] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.25

[23] Conrad, pp.182-3

[24] Ibid., p.185

[25] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.18

[26] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.158

[27] Coetzee, White Writing, p.9

[28] Ibid., p.7

[29] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.216

[30] Conrad, p.119

[31] Ibid., p.140

[32] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.64

[33] Homi Bhaba, The Location of Culture (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994), p.122

[34] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.114,138

[35] Conrad, p.155

[36] Coetzee, Disgrace, pp.84,74

[37] Conrad, p.151

[38] Ibid., pp.156,152

[39] Ibid., p.152

[40] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.219-220

[41] Ibid., p.219

[42] Rita Barnard, Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.40

[43] Coetzee, Disgrace, p.204

[44] Suresh Raval, The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p.38

Amiri Baraka: Poems

“IN MEMORY OF RADIO,” 1961
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts…
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)

& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn’t throw stones?) “Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
This Love.

It would be interesting to compare the imagined childhood world of this poem to “Robert Frost’s “Birches” or Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” The speaker does not have real knowledge or power – “only words to play with,” as Humbert would say. He also plays with love as “going out on a limb” by reversing it, turning it over, extending its meaning. Though he only has language, the poet demonstrates that it is enough.

“THE NEW WORLD,” 1969

The sun is folding, cars stall and rise
beyond the window. The workmen leave
the street to the bums and painters’ wives
pushing their babies home. Those who realize
how fitful and indecent consciousness is
stare solemnly out on the emptying street.
The mourners and soft singers. The liars,
and seekers after ridiculous righteousness. All
my doubles, and friends, whose mistakes cannot
be duplicated by machines, and this is all of our
arrogance. Being broke or broken, dribbling
at the eyes. Wasted lyricists, and men
who have seen their dreams come true, only seconds
after they knew those dreams to be horrible conceits
and plastic fantasies of gesture and extension,
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding. No one is that simple
or priggish, to be alone out of spite and grown strong
in its practice, mystics in two-pants suits. Our style,
and discipline, controlling the method of knowledge.
Beatniks, like Bohemians, go calmly out of style. And boys
are dying in Mexico, who did not get the word.
The lateness of their fabrication: mark their holes
with filthy needles. The lust of the world. This will not
be news. The simple damning lust,
                                       float flat magic in low changing
                                       evenings. Shiver your hands
                                       in dance. Empty all of me for
                                       knowing, and will the danger
                                       of identification,
                           Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
                           and be that dream in purpose and device.
                           A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
                           older, but no wiser than the defect of love.
There is a stark break between the denotatitve opening lines and the assertion of “how fitful and indecent consciousness is” – almost humorous in its shift. In this American wasteland, the speaker calls for a new reality of experience – not the plastic dreams, but something greater and more intangible, less faddish.

Derek Walcott: Poems

Walcott, a West Indies poet, has called himself “a schizophrenic” and “a mongrel” in terms of his divided heritage, “a mongrel of style.” He called the Irish “the niggers of Britain,” and felt he shared a literary heritage especially with Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and others. He is particularly noted for his deft cross-cultural use of metaphor.

“A FAR CRY FROM AFRICA,” 1956/62

     A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
     Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
     Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
     Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
5     Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
     "Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
     Statistics justify and scholars seize
     The salients of colonial policy.
     What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
10     To savages, expendable as Jews?

     Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
     In a white dust of ibises whose cries
     Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
     From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
15     The violence of beast on beast is read
     As natural law, but upright man
     Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
     Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
     Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
20     While he calls courage still that native dread
     Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

     Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
     Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
     A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
25     The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
     I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
     Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
     I who have cursed
     The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
30     Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
     Betray them both, or give back what they give?
     How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
     How can I turn from Africa and live?

The Kikuyu, mentioned in the second line, battled the Brits in Kenya for 8 of the years of the 1950s. Walcott attempts to politicize their death by comparing the “savages, expendable as Jews.” “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” reminds me of Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to Me?” Finally, the choice between “Africa and the English tongue I love” recalls much of the tension of the earlier Harlem Renaissance poets, while the final lines draw attention to the higher-than-ever political stakes, echoing Yeats’ historical poems by concluding with a question: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?”

“THE SCHOONER FLIGHT”

A long poem, the Norton excerpt is the first section. “I stood like a stone and nothing else move/ but the cold sea rippling like galvanize/ and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof,/ till a wind start to interfere with the trees.” “I, Shabine, saw when these slums of empire was paradise./ I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,/ I had a sound colonial education,/ I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” “I knew… there’d be no rest, there’d be no forgetting.” “As I worked, watching the rotting waves come/ past the bow that scissor the sea like silk,/ I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk,/ by the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace,/ that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;/ I loved them as poets love the poetry/ that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.” This passage is especially reminiscent of “The Wasteland” and “The Waves.” “When I write/ this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;/ I go draw and knot every line as tight/ as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech/ my common language go be the wind/ my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.”