Reading with One Eye, Speaking with One Tongue: On the Problem of Address in World Literature
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Comparative Literature Studies 44.1-2 (2007) 1-19

Reading with one Eye, Speaking with One Tongue:
On the Problem of Address in World Literature
Michael Allan
University of California, Berkeley

In 1959, Frantz Fanon delivered his essay titled "Sur la culture nationale" in a speech to the Black Writers' Conference in Rome. Cast against the backdrop of the ongoing colonial struggle in Algeria, the ambitiously crafted remarks set out to redefine national culture, examining the dynamic relation of national liberation and cultural production as well as proclaiming the creation of a new public ["un nouveau public"]:

La cristallisation de la conscience nationale va à la fois bouleverser les genres et les thèmes littéraires et créer de toutes pièces un nouveau public. Alors qu'au début l'intellectuel colonisé produisait à l'intention exclusive de l'oppresseur, soit pour le charmer, soit pour le dénoncer à travers les catégories ethniques ou subjectivistes, il adopte progressivement l'habitude de s'adresser à son peuple.

[The crystallization of the national consciousness will both disrupt literary styles and themes, and also create a completely new public. While at the beginning the native intellectual used to produce his work to be read exclusively by the oppressor, whether with the intention of charming him or of denouncing him through ethnic or subjectivist means, now the native writer progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people.]1

Not only does Fanon characterize the past, when the colonized intellectual ["l'intellectuel colonisé"] produces work intended exclusively for the oppressor ["à l'intention exclusive de l'oppresseur"], he also gestures toward a future [End Page 1] moment when the colonized writer progressively addresses his own people ["il adopte progressivement l'habitude de s'addresser à son peuple"]. It is striking, however, that these remarks, so emphatic as to resonate throughout the third world, were first delivered in Rome, where, one might imagine, the words fell upon ears distant from the Algerian people to whom the passage makes reference.

When, two years later, "Sur la culture nationale" was included in Fanon's book, Les Damnés de la terre, it was none other than the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote the preface. He did so, however, by underscoring how unnecessary his preface was, particularly given the address of the book: "Ce livre n'avait nul besoin d'une préface. D'autant moins qu'il ne s'adresse pas à nous" (54) ["This book had not the slightest need of a preface, all the less because it is not addressed to us" (24)]. What is curious is that Sartre, in speaking of how Fanon's essay addresses a new public, frames this address in terms of its relevance for the European reader, on behalf of whom he asks, "Qu'est-ce que ça peut lui faire, à Fanon, que vous lisiez ou non son ouvrage?" (42) ["What does Fanon care whether you read his work or not?" (12)]. Sartre offers two answers to this question, both of which turn on an emergent self-understanding. First, Fanon's essay reveals "le mécanisme de nos aliénations" (43) ["the mechanism by which we are estranged from ourselves" (13)], and second, "Fanon est le premier depuis Engels à remettre en lumière l'accoucheuse de l'histoire"(44) ["Fanon is the first since Engels to bring the processes of history into the clear light of day" (14)]. In either of these two cases, the immediate historical situation of Fanon's essay becomes important for the European in so far as it functions dialectically toward self-understanding. Strangely, we might say, Fanon's call for the emergence of national address is meaningful in the preface when taken up obliquely by a reader who falls outside the scope of the national public. At the point of publication, the new public at stake in the crystallized national consciousness seems overdetermined by structures of transnational politics, wherein the engaged French philosopher writes his openly self-effacing preface.

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