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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 136-139
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Writing between Exile and Diaspora
Outlandish: Writing between Exile and Diaspora. By Nico Israel. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. xii + 252 pp.
Postcolonial studies is facing the question of literariness. I do not mean that it has acknowledged the still pertinent question, usually asked from the left, of whether the field remains too literary, too committed to a set of premises and procedures better suited to the ambient aestheticism of American poststructuralist thought than to the national and international dilemmas from which the field nonetheless continues (perhaps illicitly) to draw its energy and its rationale. That question has not been resolved, but interest in facing it has at best been intermittent. I refer, rather, to the question of whether postcolonial studies is in danger of degenerating into, or has ever escaped from, a hasty and moralistic species of content criticism, insensitive to the distinctive and nuanced meanings, political and otherwise, transmitted through literary form. Once circulated only by literary critics whose primary allegiance was to their discipline, the call to confront literariness now comes as well from such figures of heroic interdisciplinarity as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Edward W. Said. It is this challenge to which Nico Israel responds in his stylish and rewarding book, though perhaps more by the pressure of implication than by direct confrontation. [End Page 136]
Israel distinguishes at the outset between exile (nostalgic and modernist) and diaspora (hybrid and postmodernist), with preference for the latter. But the distinction does not organize his argument, which allows outlandishness to cover both and which frequently focuses on something that is not quite either. On the whole, the exile or diaspora of Joseph Conrad, Theodor W. Adorno, and Salman Rushdie (the subjects of the book's three chapters) is less interesting to Israel as a historical experience than as a metaphor for writing. The move from geographic to literary displacement has precedents, and they suggest some obvious dangers, for example, the danger of bypassing the historical specificity of deracination entirely, as well as that of taking for granted a traditional, disciplinarily unthreatening, and perhaps unproductive version of what literariness is. Less obvious, perhaps, is the perverse danger of missing out, after all, on the specificity of the literary. Behind his metaphorical use of geography, Israel self-consciously notes, lurks the threat that, like exile and diaspora, literature will dissolve into the more universal term, language: "the possibility that language itself is never not exilic or diasporic" (4).
In practice, however, literariness here also means other, self-evidently valuable things. It is a principle of interpretive generosity, quietly extended from writers to theorists, dictating that Adorno should no more be reduced to his often cranky opinions than Conrad. It is a principle of preservation encouraging Israel to sustain the web of self-conscious multilingual intertextuality that was (and is) the atmosphere these authors need to breathe. In the case of Rushdie, this effort dovetails with a polemical insistence on literary effects, hence also on political meanings, that have been ignored in the crudeness of life-and-death political controversy. Israel displays pleased and pleasing attentiveness to Rushdie's explosive allusions, but he also insists, properly, on how the politics of The Satanic Verses ought to be inflected by the pro-Islamic "Parting of the Arabian Sea" section. It has needed to be said, and Israel says it well, that The Satanic Verses usefully reworks the materials of the bildungsroman, placing at its moral center the successes and compromises of the Anglo-identified "toady" and, for all the magic-realist fireworks, arranging by means of its plot the protagonist's weaning from that identification.
Taking The Satanic Verses as a migrant's story that aims (however unconvincingly) at a reconciliation with and return to the native land, Israel also reveals the version of literariness to which he seems finally most devoted: literariness as ironic distance from national identity. He defends Rushdie against such Third Worldist readings as Timothy Brennan's, which demands from the author an idealized national authenticity...