- Postcolonial Studies and the Problem of Literary Value
In his classic novel of 1970s London, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), Hanif Kureishi stages an encounter between the British-born, half-Pakistani narrator, Karim, and the newly arrived South Asian immigrant Changez. Karim asks, “What do you like to read?,” and Changez replies:
“The classics,” [Changez] said firmly. [Karim] saw that he had a pompous side to him, so certain he seemed in taste and judgment. “You like classics too?”
“You don’t mean that Greek shit? Virgil or Dante or Homo or something?”
“P. G. Wodehouse and Conan Doyle for me! Can you take me to Sherlock Holmes’s house in Baker Street? I also like the Saint and Mickey Spillane. And Westerns! Anything with Randolph Scott in it! Or Gary Cooper! Or John Wayne!”1
The postcolonial attitude to the classics, Kureishi suggests, pairs enthusiastic admiration with crass ignorance: the category of the classic, as the towering achievement of Western civilization, has been retained, but the priority given to literary genius has been displaced by the genius of commercial fiction: Arthur Conan [End Page 173] Doyle’s detective, P. G. Wodehouse’s butler, and finally the heroes of midcentury Hollywood cinema. The postcolonial British citizen might disparage the classics as “that Greek shit” of “Virgil or Dante or Homo,” yet the lack of admiration for the classics in the commercialized, countercultural metropole at least retains some proximity to the term’s original referent—even if, of the three authors mentioned as “that Greek shit,” one wrote in Latin and another in Italian, while the final one seems to be the greatest of the Greek poets, Homer, his name transformed into a near-homonym that is also, conveniently, a slur. The newly arrived postcolonial South Asian subject, in contrast, has no knowledge whatsoever of the “real” classics, and yet the ideology, and the admiration, persists.
Ankhi Mukherjee’s recent monograph, What Is a Classic?: Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon investigates the problem that Kureishi’s novel here stages: the persistence of the classic, both referent and ideology, in a world of contested and widely varying cultural values. Whereas postcolonial studies has long questioned the hegemony of existing regimes of value in English literary studies, it has been more reluctant to propound a new regime of literary value, one which would explain the continuation of some texts and the disappearance of others. Mukherjee’s monograph is a welcome attempt to explain these circuits of influence and to limn the operations of aesthetic hierarchy across the former colonies of the British Empire. The first half of the book connects the arrivants from the colonies to their predecessors in the metropoles: J. M. Coetzee to T. S. Eliot; V. S. Naipaul to Joseph Conrad; and Derek Walcott to Homer, Ovid, and even Daniel Defoe. In the second half, she describes the trajectories of the English classics in the Indian sub-continent: nineteenth-century poetry in English from Bengal; contemporary South Asian writing in English that she terms the “vernacular canon”; and Indian translations and adaptations from Shakespeare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Mukherjee’s erudition is astonishing, spanning four continents, three centuries, and the two languages of Bengali and English. The range of texts discussed here far exceeds the usual parameters of a monograph-length study. In the first chapter, she performs a valuable comparison of Eliot’s and Coetzee’s identically titled lectures [End Page 174] “What Is a Classic?,” given in 1944 and in 1991, and Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s 1850 essay “Qu’est-ce qu’un classique?,” highlighting the manner in which these theorizations of the classic inextricably link the functions of literature and of literary criticism. As Mukherjee elaborates in chapter 1, both Eliot in 1944 and Sainte-Beuve in 1850 were willing to foreground civilizational criteria for the emergence of the classic—a mature community of taste; the espousal of an unequivocal moral truth—which then enabled “the classic [to] renew[ ] itself continuously to...