- The Formalist Genesis of “Postcolonial” Reading: Brathwaite, Bhabha, and A House for Mr Biswas
The novel was an imported form. For the metropolitan writer it was only one aspect of self-knowledge. About it was a mass of other learning, other imaginative forms, other disciplines. For me, in the beginning, it was my all.—V. S. Naipaul1
“Form,” we are told, is an abstraction, a “mischievous” concept.2 Formalism—the practice of reading and critical discourse that “form” spawns—registers as much a “desire for form” as an identification or analysis thereof.3 It says as much about the investments (or fetishes) of the reader as about the text in which she locates formal work, or beauty, or accomplishment. To the literary historian, “form” becomes operative at moments when the discourse of formalism feeds into the self-understanding, and eventually the practice, of writers themselves. One such moment—in this case, a rather extended one—encompassed those mid- to late-twentieth-century writers and critics born into restive British colonies, or during the first years of independence. For many writers of the decolonizing world, and for the theorists of postcolonialism who followed them, “form” took on historical and spatial concreteness. It is often now posited that “formalism” might be applied to these colonial, anti- or postcolonial texts, but it is not generally suggested that questions of form and formalism helped define the emergence of postcolonialism itself as a mode of critique. I contend, in what follows, that they did.
This essay describes three sites of reading. These sites exemplify reading habits that were paradigmatic of historical moments within Britain and its (former) colonies: first, that of pre-war colonialism; second that of the nationalist anti-colonial moment on the cusp of constitutional independence; and third, the later twentieth-century moment in which academic engagement with colonialism [End Page 765] crystallized—in Britain—into postcolonial theory. The first, a fictional example, sees Naipaul’s Mr Biswas, an underemployed sign painter in colonial Trinidad, reading British magazines “for the letters” before going on to read them for the “stories.”4 The second sees Edward Kamau Brathwaite, a year after Trinidadian independence and the breakdown of the West Indian Federation, present A House for Mr Biswas in the Caribbean periodical Bim as doing exemplary formal work: modeling on the level of form the exigency of participation in emerging national communities. The third sees Homi K. Bhabha in Thatcherite England in the 1980s—the “heyday of high theory and low spirits”—return to the same novel to articulate what he would later call “the postcolonial perspective.”5 The function of “form” in each case becomes a point of contention for these readers; to read—in these examples—is to contend with form. Rather than viewing these sites of reading as discrete instances—colonial, anti-colonial, postcolonial—these debates about form constitute a thread which allows us to view them comparatively, as a genealogy.
Bhabha and Naipaul have seen their stock fall over recent years, while the term postcolonial that links them commands an increasingly slim constituency. Edward W. Said’s strident attacks on Naipaul in the late 1980s—in which he described him as a strategic, non-white mouthpiece of Western neo-imperialism—have never been refuted.6 And Bhabha’s critical method of intricate poststructural close-reading has been seen as politically ambivalent perhaps not least because his muse Naipaul’s politics are so obviously and irredeemably bad. This essay takes no programmatic position regarding the value of the work of Naipaul or Bhabha (or that of Brathwaite) in contemporary critical or pedagogic practice; rather, it views the prominence of these authors in particular periods as facts of literary history. Even if less widely read or cited than formerly, these writers were nonetheless foundational figures in strands of colonial, anti-, and postcolonial thought concerned with the concept of the literary and its formal manifestations. The strands of anti- and postcolonial thought for which the names Brathwaite and Bhabha (respectively) became bywords are misunderstood if not seen in terms of the literary corpus on which they draw, in which Naipaul enjoyed great prominence. The ideological contrasts between the Eurocentric assimilationist Naipaul...