- Yielding to Circumstances
I speak from France, the Sorbonne, in 2017. I insist to locate myself both in time and in space, fully aware that there are specificities attached to such coordinates. If I insist to indicate this before I develop what I think are my affinities with, and differences from, J. Hillis Miller's and Ranjan Ghosh's arguments in Thinking Literature Across Continents (2016), it is because the immediate feeling I had as I progressed through their book is that they both spoke from "somewhere," a "somewhere" separated by an unbridgeable gap, and a "somewhere" each time definitely not mine. By "somewhere" I mean of course India and the United States, and more specifically a certain region of India and a certain region of the United States, with widely diverging academic traditions, ways of approaching "literature," "philosophy," and "theory," perhaps even ways of considering the book itself, as an object. By "somewhere," I also mean the two cultures within which Ghosh's and Miller's thoughts came to live, survive, evolve in different environments, while nevertheless seeking to speak a common language, the lingua franca of international academic scholarship in the Humanities, a discourse which in general—but not here, precisely—tends to efface the specificities of locality.
The reason why I ask myself such questions is that, although I can say with certainty that I speak from Paris in 2017, and that [End Page 832] their "somewheres" are not mine, I must come to the conclusion, as I read their book, that I myself would be unable to define my own "somewhere." I could certainly not locate myself, claim a locality, a somewhere from where to speak. Which is also why I believe that this discussion would have been radically different in the absence of either the one or the other, but first and foremost in the absence of Ghosh, who, precisely, seems quite anxious to locate or, perhaps I should say, dis-locate (adopting an eminently paradoxical posture), himself as he puts forward a tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a poetics that no other speaker but him could have woven together into such a fascinating and intriguing fabric.
Born in Algiers and raised first in "French," then independent Algeria (after 1962), enriched from my first day on earth by a profusion of cultures and religions (Algeria was a melting pot, and the "French" were the result of a mixture of different communities, forced to flee their homes of origin by the various European tragedies of the nineteenth century), torn also between two irreconcilable visions of the world—the high bourgeois, conservative, non-committal posture of my paternal grandparents (my grandfather was never drafted during the Second World War), on the one hand; and the communist, "resistant" posture of my maternal grandparents (my grandfather was an early supporter of De Gaulle, sent to prison for refusing to salute Marshal Pétain, which determined him to join the "Free Forces" and fight on all the fronts around the Mediterranean), on the other. When my parents finally returned to Metropolitan France, I started to attend a lycée in Creuse (a "department" of the Limousin region, a very poor, rural area), where we were unwelcome strangers, until my teachers convinced my parents that I should be dispatched to Paris, which they did, respectful of my teachers' advice—as well as of my outspoken desire to leave my provincial life as soon as possible. "Paris à nous deux," I kept saying to myself, the Eugène de Rastignac from the Casbah (I think I had by then read the whole of Balzac's work). I was accepted at the École Normale Supérieure, grew indifferent to my masters at the Sorbonne, met by chance with Hélène Cixous my soul-saviour, wrote my doctorate under her supervision, and built a successful career. BUT without ever feeling I belonged. Neither to Algeria nor to France. Neither to the Limousin nor to Paris. Neither to the community of the "Creusois de Paris" nor to that of the Parisian intellectual "elites" I was inevitably brought into contact with. They all claimed me as one of their own, and...