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Memorials to Modernity: Postcolonialism and Pilgrimage in Naipaul and Rushdie

From: ELH
Volume 68, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 241-265 | 10.1353/elh.2001.0007

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ELH 68.1 (2001) 241-265

When invited to meet in close syntactic quarters, the terms "modernity" and "postcoloniality" have usually suggested a vast but keen incommensurateness. Gesturing massively, pointing vaguely, they have nevertheless signified philosophies, ideologies, and historical epochs that are sharply "discontinuous or in contention." Recently, however, this sense of hopeless opposition has begun to lose its grip. Not long ago (1989) S. P. Mohanty wondered whether we sadder and wiser inheritors of a modern and postcolonial world, we jaded, globalized descendants of colonizing and colonized peoples, could not begin to explore "the imbrication of our various pasts and presents": "How would it be possible for us to recover our commonality . . . ?" Soon thereafter (1992) Sara Suleri called for "studies . . . [in] the commonality of loss," studies that would "generate a new idiom of cultural compassion." Two years later (1994) Homi Bhabha was encouraging us "to reinscribe our human, historic commonality." And yet more recently (1997) Michael Gorra eschewed the old idiom or "tired vocabulary" of cultural conflict in order to explore "a body of concerns held in common by writers from different countries." Clearly, "common" is a new key word in postcolonial studies; it is also clear that this is no accident. With this new interest in historic commonality we may now be moving beyond fascination with, for instance, imperial criminality -- a fascination that used to be, unavoidably, as divisive as it was illuminating but that is now, some would argue, more divisive than illuminating. That is why polarizing revelations of what happened during empire may be starting to give way to a new focus on "what comes after empire"--perhaps our future commonality. Yet our past commonality (largely of mutual loss, as Suleri indicates) is also a new topic of interest, especially as attention to this past itself discloses unknown avenues to the future.

Among the remarkable consequences of this new interest in past commonality is the discovery, as I shall argue, that important postcolonial novelists have already anticipated it. Fairness bids us newly-expansive postcolonial critics and theorists to admit that, adapting Freud, the novelists were there before us. But fairness to the novel is not the only reason why we should reread postcolonial fiction. Another is commitment to the postcolonial: these fictions may provide elements of the new idiom of commonality that we postcolonial critics and theorists now seek. These same fictions are not lacking in the old idiom. Harshly attentive to thoroughly modernized and Westernized selves, the so-called mimic men and women who have inherited the postcolonial earth, postcolonial novelists have not foregone all necessary indictments. But their attention has also been generous; faced with the spectacle of the mimic's often cataclysmic loss, they have allowed themselves gestures of compassion, honoring that loss as their own. A new idiom of commonality emerges in these novels' own language of mimicry. Here mimicry is not regarded simply as "our loss, their -- the colonizers'--gain." Rather, what may seem simple figures of inauthenticity turn out to possess piquant habits and values capable of casting their appeal across the cultural divide. These selves turn out to be occupying, amidst so much conquered psychological space, pockets of a common enough affective ground.

This common ground lies outside India's many old colonial attics, those havens of "Raj nostalgia" whose curious cultural refuse often fascinates the postcolonial novelist. Nor, on the other hand, is this ground Bhabha's utopian "Third Space of enunciation" lying, far from the attic, somewhere beyond the two cultures' trench-lines -- an everyman's land where, as Rushdie might say, a hybrid newness may come into the world. Neither "mimicry" nor "hybridity" designates this kind of commonality. Closer is the word "sympathy." The claim is that some postcolonial novelists finally look past both nostalgic reveries and utopian dreams, reaching across recognized cultural differences. In some postcolonial novels one is startled to note an eleventh-hour, impulsive embrace of a few of the more attractive among the many modern Western habits and values long ago exported by the colonizers and too readily adopted by the mimes and mimics. Following on the heels of these novels' unmistakable attacks on modernity are episodes in which the postcolonial, far...

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