- Ethics and Nostalgia in the Contemporary Novel
In Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, the overwhelming violence that continues to manifest itself in the fictional postcolonial state of Kangan leads the central character, Beatrice, to exclaim, "What must a people do to appease an embittered history?" John J. Su quotes the question in introducing his discussion of Achebe's novel (142), but the query can profitably be read into the whole of his illuminating study. Su looks to explore the articulation of possible ethical positions in a broad range of recent Anglophone narratives and, through doing so, to inspire a reevaluation of the idea of nostalgia, insisting on its utility for writers who desire to engage with history and to develop meaningful critiques of the present.
For the nostalgic, the past exercises a pull that can only be pacified through return. The past offers a version of the world far preferable to that experienced in the present. The ethics of nostalgia, it is [End Page 627] often assumed, must then relate to a conservative view of the world and to a resistance to the notion of progress and to the embracing of positive change. However, Su's study is concerned to argue that the mode of nostalgia might also function to allow for progressive philosophies and, in fact, to facilitate modes of critique within the contemporary novel that constitute the foundations for invigorating ethical articulation.
The greatest strength of Su's study is undoubtedly its range; the monograph is a fine example of the possibilities that are offered within a genuine comparative literary criticism. He offers close reading of novels by Achebe, Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, N. Scott Momaday, V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys and others. His ability to move between various postwar literatures in English while neither minimizing nor reifying their differences is exemplary and allows him to propose readings of nostalgia as an ethical approach to narrative that are duly sensitive to context yet able to gesture toward a wider sense of a literary consciousness that struggles to formulate regenerative visions of the past to inform and motivate present knowledge and actions. However, Su's book does not seek to provide a unified theory of nostalgia or to suggest that the diverse writers he examines use it in anything like a uniform way. Rather, his attentiveness to literary form, as well as context, supports an exploration of nostalgia that is alive to the multiplicity of its manifestations and the many purposes to which it may be put. This awareness of diversity is perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book; the refusal to reduce nostalgia to a homogeneous symptom of the (post)modern age allows Su's study a genuine richness of approach and avoids many of the pitfalls faced by nostalgia's critics, who almost invariably delimit the possible referents of the term.
Su identifies some of the most common criticisms made of the nostalgic mode, and, while he accepts that these objections must be given adequate acknowledgement, he nonetheless is determined to identify some of their inadequacies and to insist on the complexity of nostalgia in narrative and its ameliorating possibilities. The first of these possible objections, and one that perhaps contains many of the others, relates to the complicated interface between memory and nostalgia. Within this objection, the regenerative power of memory is brought to the fore; its ability to invoke perceptions and recollections of the world that may conflict with and confound an official history grants it a privileged role in disturbing hegemonic narratives that function to silence and to affirm philosophies of oppression. But, while the authentic alternatives offered by memory enable the unsettling of totalized hegemonies, the inauthenticity of nostalgia is unable to enact such positive intervention. With regard to the [End Page 628] history of North American plantation slavery, for example, the gathering of real or imagined memory (across such diverse projects as John Blassingame's assembly of slave testimonies or Toni Morrison's Beloved) allows the representation of experiences that have been previously sidelined or ignored. Nostalgia, on...