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Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 82-92
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"The rage," my author laments, that
one feels on reading sixteenth-century memoir accounts whose authors, mostly priests, recount the atrocities committed in America by Spanish Conquistadors is senseless. It cannot resurrect the Caribbean population slaughtered by Ponce de León, nor shelter the Inca refugees pursued through the mountains by knights fighting with faith and a sword. Those who have been defeated are forgotten forever; and anyone who would look too closely into the record of past crimes or, even worse, try to imagine them in detail, must either turn gray with horror—or become completely indifferent. 1
Were it not for the language of the original text that I am quoting in English translation, this passage might be taken as from one of countless recent efforts to redress the strategic forgetfulness it laments by filling in gaps in the history of Western imperialism and by examining its divisive legacy in our current, postcolonial reality. The author, original language, and source of the passage call attention, though, to a kind of strategic forgetfulness that affects even theorists of postcolonialism as they struggle to rectify the cruelly biased, falsified, or [End Page 82] unwritten histories of the Third World. The passage quoted is from The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz. An exploration of the seductive hold of communism on postwar intellectuals in Poland, the book caused a sensation upon its publication in the West in 1953. The outrage that Milosz experienced on reading sixteenth-century chronicles came from his own experience as a colonized subject in a part of the world that scarcely exists for the purposes of postcolonial criticism: the old Second World—Russia and its former satellites.
In an essay titled "Modernism and Imperialism," Fredric Jameson is explicit about the proper focus of postcolonial criticism. "Contemporary theorists," he writes, "have been concerned with the internal dynamics of the relationship between First and Third World countries... which is now very precisely what the word 'imperialism' means for us." 2 But why is the Second World absent from Jameson's definition, and why does its absence feel so inconspicuous and self-evident? Surely the Russian empire and its twentieth-century descendant, the Soviet Union, would seem to merit a place in contemporary assessments of imperialism and its cultural consequences. Jameson's elision, though, is unexceptional. Edward Said notes the "rather wide geographical and historical range" attempted in his own book Culture and Imperialism, and indeed his book spans two centuries of complex colonial and postcolonial interactions between First and Third World cultures (with often brilliant results). 3 In the space of nearly four hundred pages, however, he manages only eight passing references to Russia and its empire, while the Soviet Union merits an additional six mentions in passing. "The end of the Cold War and of the Soviet Union has definitively changed the world map," Said concedes. 4 But these definitive changes, and the history that precipitated them, remain beyond the pale of his study. "Nations themselves are narrations," Said writes; and the counternarrative he opposes to the West's "great legitimizing narratives of emancipation and enlightenment" takes a telling shape, one that other postcolonial theorists also employ in mapping their revisionary histories. 5 This master plot traces the rise of the great bourgeois capitalist empires of the nineteenth century—chiefly those of Great Britain and France—and then follows their further fates by way of their latter-day inheritor, the United States. The counternarrative is, explicitly or implicitly, Marxist in its orientation: "Only those theories of imperialism which acknowledge the Marxist problematic are of concern," Jameson states baldly. 6 [End Page 83]
Small wonder, then, that Milosz's denunciation of imperialist atrocities should find no place in such narratives. It comes embedded, first of all, in a critique of the Soviet version of the philosophy that the postcolonial critics find so useful in their work. The type of "universalizing cultural discourse" that Said locates in capitalist empires reached its apogee, according to Milosz, in Marxist historiography, which reduces "centuries of human history with their thousands upon...