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The Rhetoric of English India.

One of the more interesting developments in South Asian studies is the rise of literary critics in English departments and comparative literature programs who provide intellectual leadership for other area-related disciplines. Actually, this trend is not limited to South Asia but covers most Third World studies. This movement is not far removed from the ideological challenge by professors of English, comparative literature and the humanities directed against traditional Western studies.

The godfather of the Asian faction of the movement is Edward Said, reputed critic and professor of French literature at Columbia University, whose Orientalism (1979) first exposed a whole generation of American teachers of English to what was then the little-known history of Western cultural imperialism in the "Orient." The author, also an irate Palestinian member of Yasir Arafat's inner circle, argued that European scholarship on Asian civilizations was a deliberate ploy to perpetuate Western rule. Said's book soon went beyond the M.L.A. membership, reaching intellectuals all over the world. Not only is it significant that Orientalism has been so influential, striking a responsive note among thousands of sympathetic readers, it may be the first time ever that a man of literature with a superficial knowledge of Asian history, anthropology, philosophy, political science, etc., was able to provide a paradigm of study that academics in these very disciplines were willing to accept.

Said's idea is that because of Western colonialism's need to perpetuate its "hegemonic power" in the East, it invented "Asiatick" civilizations with characteristics that made "Orientals" feel inherently subservient to their overlords. Said's "Orientalism" is a highly politicized concept which has little to do with the actual historical Orientalist movement in a place like India, or the human beings who were known as Orientalists, in the nineteenth century, or their authentically monumental achievements in the history of virtually every scholarly field of Asian endeavor.

If the reviewers on the book jacket of The Rhetoric of English India are to be believed, Sara Suleri, author of the book, literary critic and professor in Yale University's English department, is the most original and high-powered scholar in South Asian studies since the advent of Edward Said. Professor Jane Marcus, for example, writes of Suleri's work that it "is the most brilliant contribution to postcolonial criticism since Edward Said's Orientalism." Another scholar, Houston Baker, calls Suleri's work a "monumental contribution" to "postcolonial cultural studies."

As a historian who has surveyed South Asian cultural studies since the late 1950s, my own estimate of Suleri's contribution beyond her discipline is far less enthusiastic. Except for an analytical piece on Edmund Burke's indignation about Warren Hastings' Machiavellian foreign policy in India in the late eighteenth century, The Rhetoric of English India is a book of essays on a British style of writing on India shared by Europeans such as Rudyard Kipling, Harriet Tytler, E. M. Forster, and Indians such as V. S. Naipaul and Salmon Rushdie. Years ago, such essays were essentially literary, meaning that the writer was inclined to stress the aesthetic quality of the literature in question. Ideas contained within the literary effort were certainly not ignored. It was no secret that Kipling was an imperialist defender of the British Raj. Nevertheless, if one wanted to express a thought with all its ramifications, the essay or article form was the best medium with which to do so. The distance between art and prose had always been respectfully maintained. Today, many of the standards which were sacrosanct to all reasonable and civilized persons have been disavowed in the revolutionary rhetoric and activist policies of deconstructionism. Professor Suleri may be better educated, far more subtle and sophisticated than most, but her attempt to subvert a plurality of traditional views and reduce the diversity of Indian literature during the British period into a conspiratorial colonialist rhetoric, suggests where she stands. Edward Said is surely her paradigmatic guru who serves throughout as a kind of intellectual security blanket. To be sure, her Said is not the dogmatic warrior of Orientalism but the genial statesman of "Orientalism Reconsidered" (1986) who warns his disciples against "a double kind of exclusivism . . . the sense of being an excluding insider by virtue of experience (only women can write for and about women) . . . and being an excluding insider by virtue of method (. . . only anti-Orientalists . . . can write about Orientalism. . .)."(1)

Suleri's most important ideas are well worth considering but are, unfortunately, too difficult to apprehend because of her tendency to conceal her meaning in a dense jungle of abstruse language and long involuted sentences which are never less than five lines long and often seem to consume whole paragraphs and pages with rapacious delight. In another of the book jacket reviews, Bernard Cohn emphasizes Suleri's "apt metaphors, puns, and telling figures of speech," which, for him, adds up to a "book meant to be read and enjoyed." Perhaps this is true, but it is also a book saturated with the jargon we have reluctantly grown accustomed to among English department deconstructionists. The following terms are used repeatedly by Suleri: 'colonial discourse,' 'hegemony,' the 'hermeneutics of colonial tropologies,' and the 'alteritist fallacy in both contemporary feminist and postcolonial discourses.' After hacking one's way through the verbal jungle and ascending mountains of discourse, the reader finds himself on the threshold of an idea. Suleri, for example, attempts to dispel the metaphor of the "feminized colonized subcontinent" violated ultimately by the "stereotypical aggression" of the colonialist overlord. In her earliest reference to the theme of "symbolic homoeroticism" which "theoretically lends to the gendering of colonial cultural criticism", Suleri offers one of her most cogent arguments on what is probably the most crucial idea in the book. First she rereads the relationship between Kim and his lama in the Kipling story "in the light of a colonial erotic". Then in E. M. Forster's Passage to India she focuses on "the aborted love between Fielding and Aziz". These stories, which reflect the politics of Anglo-India, are "fraught with a deferred homosexual decorum that lends a retroactive significance to Kipling's infamous claim in 'The Ballad of East and West' which will obliterate differences . . . only when two strong men stand face to face". The following passage deserves to be quoted not only because it represents vintage Suleri prose but because it conveys an idea with a certain degree of clarity:

The hysteria and cultural terror embodied by these "strong men" are amply documented in the histories of the colonization of India, and suggest a bewildering suspension of power far more complicated than any conventional interpretation of the confrontation between a dominating and a subordinated culture. Instead, discourses of rationality are forced to give figurative articulation to the nightmares that the dreams of colonial rationalism may produce, thus indicating the gender imbrication implicit in the classification of culture as an anxious provenance partitioned between the weakness and strength of men.

The main problem with Suleri's book--at least from this historian's point of view--is the casual manner in which she forms important generalizations without benefit of hard data. As with other deconstructionists, including Jacques Derrida and Edward Said, Sara Suleri confuses the cognitive use or misuse of the past with the discipline of history. Pronunciamentos based on unstructured, undisciplined and unresearched observations about the past may satisfy the literary critic's criteria for historical discourse but they have little to do with the serious study of history. History is founded on years of patient investigation and not on quotations and citations from like-minded friends and colleagues. Few historians would dare generalize on postcolonialism from the literary outcroppings of two expatriate Indians.

This is not to say that Suleri's work is totally without substance or that all of her insights are without value. No doubt, she is a sensitive literary critic who would be bored with the kind of detailed monographs historians and ethnographic anthropologists do as a matter of course. Sometimes, when a subject arouses her existentially, her historical curiosity does push her in the direction of a professional historian doing a comprehensive study of a topic. Her essays on Edmund Burke and the impeachment of Warren Hastings are rather good, not only because she supported her insights with primary sources and because these eighteenth-century happenings excited her in some way but also because she relied on excellent monographs dealing with the subject by historians such as Peter Marshall.(2) E. M. Forster's homosexuality appears to have aroused Suleri in the same way, resulting in passages that are intensively researched in the manner of the historian. A good example is her effort to prove that E. M. Forster's character Aziz was "both a tribute to Syed Ross Masood and a memorial to Forster's Egyptian lover, Mohommed el Edl, who died while A Passage to India was still being written".

1 E. Said, "Orientalism Reconsidered," in Literature, Politics and Theory, ed. F. Barker et al. (London: Methuen, 1986), 229.

2 See, for example, her use of P. J. Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965).

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Author:Kopf, David
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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