Where Post-Colonialism Takes A Nineteenth Century Stroll

A Short Introduction (1)

Post-colonialist criticism has won my favour today, because I’ve been revising all the theories that I haven’t written about in my essays. This presents a problem, because I didn’t realise at the beginning of the year that I couldn’t write about the same topic twice. This means I’m in the slightly tricky position of having to write about all the theories that quite frankly, well, I’m mediocre (at best) at. This means that a frantic revision of all the compulsory reading ensued, and now I’m feeling marginally calmer, I’ve  had an epiphany: I will not have to write about Jacques Derrida under exam conditions. Anyone familiar with Derrida’s work will realise what a completely beautiful blessing this is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading extensively around the subject of post-colonialist criticism today, which essentially considers the nature of literature in terms of its understanding of ‘the subaltern’, and how Britain perceives the world, whilst it perches on something of a pedestal due to its great imperial past. It was certainly a great past, if slightly ethically questionable. Some would argue that because our empire has disintegrated, that we are no longer great, and instead ride on the coat-tails of the reasonably new superpower, the United States of America. But that’s a whole other conversation.

Title page from the first edition of Jane Aust...

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I like the idea of the subaltern; the idea that we cannot communicate with the subaltern, as proposed by Edward Said is interesting, because it suggests we have no way of creating a common language with which to communicate. Structuralist theory, as dictated by Ferdinand Saussure, suggests that in order to communicate, we must have a culturally agreed code to fall back on, to determine the meaning of the sign. (In this case, words). Without this shared culture, it is seemingly impossible to communicate quite literally, across the world.

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is one of the best examples of literature that is concerned with empire. She discusses the role of Sir Thomas Bertram in Antigua, running a slave plantation. She personally was opposed to slavery, however in the novel, it is implicitly accepted as a commodity that is fundamental to the wealth of the Bertrams. Interestingly, when the financial difficulties of the plantation become apparent, no lifestyle changes occur, almost as if to suggest there is an innate wealth underpinning the lifestyles of the family.

Post-colonial critics have suggested any number of things about Jane Austen in relation to this novel, such as the idea that she supports slavery because of the nature of the Bertrams wealth. An interesting counter to this argument however is that Fanny Price, the novel’s protagonist, asks her uncle, Sir Thomas about the plantation, and he neglects to give a reply. This could be interpreted as showing an awareness of immorality, and therefore an unwillingness to discuss the situation with his niece.

Returning to the ideology itself however, I find it extremely compelling because of its entanglement with history, perhaps more so than other forms of literary criticism. The key critics behind post-colonialism, including Spivak and Said, present repeatedly reputable arguments that discuss the British attitudes towards empire, and towards this culture that we are unable to communicate with, due to our extreme cultural differences, and historic hegemony towards them.

For anyone with a particular interest in the British Empire, I’d suggest reading Orientalism by Edward Said; it presents some very interesting forward thinking on the subject of empire and dominance, and for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of hegemony, I’d suggest looking that up too. Antonio’s Gramsci’s marxist thoughts on hegemony provide a very interesting inside into the ways of imperialism in the modern world, a world that has long moved on from naval conquests, into a more political kind of empiricism.

Happy reading!

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(1) http://cultural.emulty.com/wp-content/uploads/wpid-41ecV3AnOOLSL500.jpg

(2) Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(1) http://files.myopera.com/tatora/blog/4878_PRO_sample_01.gif

(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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