I once had a furious confrontation with that learned and passionate scholar, the late Milton C. Nahm. He had been giving a paper that involved Falstaff—I forget how, but it included the familiar appeal to the fat knight as the comic spirit of untrammelled life, so that the newly crowned Hal’s final repudiation—“I know thee not, old man”—chills the audience as a denial of humanity in favor of impersonal administration. But I told Nahm that I could not see Falstaff that way. As a boy, if I cycled home from Gravesend to Rochester I had to pass over the North Downs at Gadshill. And it is at Gadshill, when we first meet him, that Falstaff’s gang is planning to waylay a band of innocent travelers. I could never take kindly to a man who made a living mugging and rolling people like me. Nahm was contemptuous of my incompetence to deal with literature: I was prevented from appreciating the portrait of the comic monster, appalling but breathtaking, by my inhibited and inhibiting moralism. But I insisted that I saw no reason why one should abandon one’s identity or one’s morality while one was watching a play or reading a book.
Nahm would have been right if I had been insensitive to Falstaff’s outrageousness, his unscrupulous energy and vivacity, his wit and candor. But I think my appreciation was sharpened rather than nullified by my awareness of the real menace Falstaff represents to people who happen not to be his pals. And I think Nahm’s enthusiasm blinded him to something else that Shakespeare wrote into the part. At that very first meeting, we find Falstaff trying to negotiate for himself a position of power or privilege when the young prince shall succeed to the throne. And it is just this negotiation that Falstaff is trying to resume [End Page 398] from the sidewalk at the end, when the new king brushes him off. Nahm did not notice this because it did not occur to him that Henry V was going to be a real king with real power over real people, just as it did not occur to him that Falstaff’s robbed and brutalized pilgrim victims would be real people suffering real injury and loss. If my personal angle, the potential victim’s view, had so usurped my vision that it blinded me to whatever else the playwright had made of his character and its situation, it would have made me a bad viewer of the play. But it might have added depth to my understanding and my criticism if it gave me an angle that other viewers and readers could imaginatively share. 1 Since each of us has some sort of angle on everything, sharing perspectives can always be valuable.
I have been reminded of my encounter with Nahm by reading Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism. 2 The book appears to start from the position that imperialism is the “determining political horizon of modern Western culture” (p. 60), imperialism being defined as the policy of establishing and maintaining an empire, and an empire as “a relationship . . . in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society” (p. 9). Because this is the determining horizon, the right way to think of any “Western” author is as an agent of imperialism, although of course this is most easily shown in the case of authors and works in which the imperial connection is explicit.
If there is to be a uniform curriculum and canon for the teaching of English literature everywhere in the world, that canon obviously should not be based on works that assume the rightness and normality of an imperialism that defines most readers of that literature as racially and culturally inferior; such a canon is itself a tacit agent of an offensive and gratuitous imperialism. This much seems clear. But Said’s book then moves off into a hackneyed recitation of the evils that the West (or the north, or the developed world 3 ) inflicts on a world of passive victims, followed by a denunciation of the...