Author Archives: Portals Journal

Narrating the Ghost: Memory, Narrative and Incommensurabilities in and Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother and Roberto Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile1

by Adán Falcón

National memory moves with fragmentary knowledge, formed through different signs to indicate the direction its historical narrative will impose on the nation. However, Homi Bhabha in his article, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern” states:

In the seizure of the sign . . . there is neither dialectical sublation nor the empty signifier: there is a contestation of the given symbols of authority that shift the terrains of antagonism. The synchronicity in the social ordering of symbols is challenged within its own terms, but the grounds of engagement have been displaced in a supplementary movement that exceeds those terms. (208)

The “seizure of the sign” displaces the temporal and spatial continuity from the “social ordering of symbols” using the tools of those symbols with the added displacement creating the necessary distance to challenge this ordering. However, challenging these symbols comes back to doing so within the social ordering of symbols on its own terms which, in a sense, moves to exceed the movement of the ordering that does not move exactly as those symbols but still exists within its social order. This “contestation of the given symbols” and “grounds of engagement” frame my comparison between Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother (1996) and Roberto Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile [By Night in Chile] (2000). Both works explore their protagonist’s complicated relationship with their memory and respective historical narratives as sites of inscription for a larger national narrative, the grounds of contestation. Yet the instability shown in both stories explores both memory and identity as sites of the selves’ that cannot be held together coherently in this larger narrative. As disjunctive narratives, their memories act more as countermemories, as sites of incommensurabilities, or the seizure of the sign that functions to exceed the movement of larger national narratives. This project will examine the function of memory as a site of divergence from a historical narrative and the tools used to accomplish this, such as Kincaid’s confrontation of Caribbean history through her protagonist’s conflicted relationship with language and its colonial memory in that space, and the confession as a form of atonement in Bolaño’s Nocturno de Chile and its exaggerated relationship with/against Pinochet’s rule.2 The displacement of these narratives reveals both the limits of memory when it is contoured to a specific narrative and the hidden signs that exceed the limits of the specific narrative as a ghost drifting from the social ordering of their world, but still essential within it.

For the political transitions shown in the two novels, the storyteller in their role can either serve the obligation to the nation or accept the distance in their role. In the opening line of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov” (1936), Benjamin examines the characteristics of the storyteller as a visceral but hidden presence: “Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant” (83). In his description of the author of the novel, the “solitary individual,” who without counsel and unable to express himself, writes the novel that carries “the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life” (87). Memory in both Kincaid’s and Bolaño’s novels share this quality of the incommensurable with narrators acting in contention to the formation of identity though the ties of self with nation; in the form of thought, the language used to engage in its construction, also functions within its restrictions. If it is tied to what can be expressed within this language, what can be expressed then is inexpressible unless it is in this “horizon of meaning” (Derrida 562).3

For Bhabha, the notion of time and nation in, “Dissemination: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation”, sets the cohesion offered by nationalism in its narrative as the “arbitrary historical inventions” held together with: “cultural shreds and patches . . . . Any old shred would have served as well. But in no way does it follow that the principle of nationalism . . . is in the least contingent and accidental” (qtd. from Taylor in Bhabha 142).  For the nation to project itself in cultural production, or to project a space where nationalist identities may be thought of, this production of narrative depends on the “pedagogical and the performative” (146). For the pedagogical, the nation’s people are in a predestined historical plane, part of a patriotic body politic, rooted in the past. In the performative, the nation’s people must be in a state of forgetting in their enforcement of this past narrative as its “subjects” in a process of both validating and reproducing it ambivalently through obtaining and practicing this knowledge. In this space and movement is a loss of reflection by being validated in the sphere of “people-as-one” (150). The ambivalent movement between the two acts of the pedagogical and the performative, in past and present, becomes important for the continuity of a national identity. In Bhabha’s reinterpretation of Benjamin’s “incommensurability” from the “margins of modernity” toward a cultural difference counter, or disjunctive, from the national historical narrative, the borderline of both “history and language, on the limits of race and gender”, the storyteller positions the reader “to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity” (170). The hidden storyteller illuminates the extremity of this border into a space of solidarity where the presence of differences furthers its incommensurable quality digressive from the linearity of national narratives.

As sites of disjunctives and cultural differences through their incommensurable qualities, both Kincaid and Bolaño’s novels shift memory from its unity towards its fragmentation held together as an assemblage; it shares the quality of the rhizome as it increases “in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines” (Deleuze 31).  As attempts for the nation to maintain power through a unitary movement, the notion of unity is only a site of power through regulatory signifiers to encompass and maintain the multiplicities of fragmentations as norms within the nation. To present both novels with an emphasis on the instability of memory as the “arbitrary historical inventions” that nationalism has defended through “cultural shreds and patches” the lines towards an origin becomes a site revealing the vulnerability of these practices and make it possible to digress from national narratives in its reliance on memory.

Kincaid’s protagonist, Xuela Claudette Richardson, utilizes language as a digressive site in exploring its long history as a contested issue for people of color in the Americas.4 After various political and social campaigns in the Caribbean, those who were colonized had turned from the stigmatization associated with colonization and employed Creole as a symbol of resistance, making linguistic action a supremely political action. The stigmatization, though, did not completely disappear in day-to-day life, as Creole was still conventionally perceived as “bad or broken” English, Dutch, Spanish, or French. The function of language is “to name and give voice to the experience and image and so house the being” (Philip 276), but the negative connotations of Creole as apart from the accepted norm invalidates the Creole cultural reality and alienates its speakers from their experiences. But Xuela charts the developing anti-colonial attitudes in the Caribbean through her relationship with language, instead as a function of unbecoming through the memory of her own past, a non-being that disappears and counteracts against the self and womanhood in the colonial narrative. Like Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Xuela enters into the “master” discourse to condemn her colonizer through the pain inherent in it, but never relinquishing to exist in it: “That the first words I said were in the language of a people I would never like or love is not now a mystery to me; everything in my life, good or bad, to which I am inextricably bound is a source of pain” (7). Ironically, Xuela is immersed in Creole from the time almost immediately after her birth and the death of her mother, but her alienation from her biological mother results in her rejection of or alienation from her “true” mother tongue, or its larger connotation. A literal connection to biological mother connotes an immediate connection to the mother tongue, and certain connections to culture and homeland inextricably bound to each other. Since no direct communication is made with the biological mother of the protagonist, her obligation to blood relations, or continuing to exist within the bounds of its terms, leads instead to reinterpreting the bonds of gender beyond blood relations.

With no identity formed through her mother or the father who abandons her after birth, Xuela’s self becomes the formation of colonial language, logic, figures, and identities inscribed on her. Moving forward, she has only two choices: she can live in the language of the colonial story or she can refuse it. The rest of the story follows her reflection of choosing the latter in a mode of narrative moving through the instability memory provides against a normative form of reflection informed by the terms of blood relations. She further describes her reflections as:

. . . if they were happening in a very small, dark place, a place the size of a dollhouse, and the dollhouse is at the bottom of a hole, and I am way up at the top of the hole, peering down into this little house, trying to make out exactly what it is that happened down there. And sometimes when I look down at this scene, certain things are not in the same place they were in the last time I looked: different things are in the shadows at different times, different things are in the light. (33)

In what she can bring to light, there is a negotiation between what can be present and what will be forgotten. What she can see or invoke through the spoken word and the subject’s positionality brings forth in her memory the historical moment of colonialism in which she negotiates the political dynamics of this phenomenon.

When Xuela is offered to move back in with her father and his new wife, a new dynamic begins to form in how she and her father’s wife negotiate the spatial relationship with language in their home. Xuela’s stepmother speaks to her in French Patois when they are alone, and in English when they are in the presence of Xuela’s father; this routine constructs a feeling of resentment against Creole as the relationship between space, language and gender informs her father’s wife that Creole is “an attempt . . . to make an illegitimate of me, to associate me with the made-up language of people regarded as not real–the shadow people, the forever humiliated, the forever low” (30). Xuela realizes the intricate struggle for power that occurs on the level of the spoken word–a reminder, once again, of how words can serve as “a source of pain” (7). Yet as a form of detaching herself from the patriarchal attitudes of the household, Xuela speaking Creole allows her to shift her self in the realm of her father to those who are cast aside for speaking in Creole. Throughout the book, neither her father nor the reader ever hears these conversations. Could it be she is hiding as well from the reader’s own gaze to interpret thoughts and actions that could be reduced or diminished through translation? Creole in the household serves as a specifically cultural ground used to break from social propriety and the self under the colonial gaze. In this conflict to negotiate this space in a specific language, she instead grows to identify the possibility of losing speech as “delicious” (51).

Her growing acceptance of Creole points toward hesitation to fully accept its possibilities since its meaning for her shifts towards a more constricted signification. When Xuela turns fifteen, her father—recognizing the need to remove his daughter from his second wife’s presence and to further her English education—sends her to the capital city of Roseau to live in the home of Jacques and Lise LaBatte. In exchange for her room and board, Xuela performs household tasks for “Monsieur” and “Madame.” Here again, this space must be negotiated through language as Lise and Xuela communicate with each other in Patois, but in English around Jacques. Creole, as the illegitimate language, is also named the “the language of the captive” by Xuela (74): Lise is held captive to a man she loves but he does not love back due to her inability to bear any children; Xuela resides in their home as a boarder/servant, a young black woman with no financial means of independent survival and no influence in society. Spoken language is one of the means by which the two women bond; however, Xuela and Lise eventually attain such a level of familiarity and understanding that they experience a form of silent communication seemingly akin to “preverbal” communication. Xuela comments: “To communicate so intimately with someone, to be spoken to silently by someone and yet understand more clearly than if she had shouted at the top of her voice, was something I did not experience with anyone ever again in my life” (69). The growing idealized mother figure as the “preverbal” in Lise, however, is disrupted by remembering the disconnection with either the biological mother or the mother tongue to shape the idea of a mother since, according to Xuela: “I do not know in what language she would have said such a thing. I did not know her; she died at the moment I was born” (198).

Kincaid’s explorations of the connections between language, gender, and nationalism take on the starkest political connotations in her representation of Xuela’s affair with Philip Bailey. Xuela works for, seduces, and then marries a white British physician later in her life. Their relationship upholds the gendered notions of language as Xuela speaks the Creole “mother tongue” while Philip speaks English. In taking care of and forming her self through this relationship, the “mother tongue” or the “mother” shifts away from the limitations of the biological link of the mother. The relationship she takes on with Bailey does not place any submission on one another through language, but Xuela holds the power and inverts the traditional hierarchy in which the white male colonist is viewed as the superior communicator, and thus the superior being. Philip, instead of Xuela, will be the foreigner in their home, as Xuela asserts: “He now lived in a world in which he could not speak the language, I mediated for him, I translated for him . . . I blocked this entrance into all the worlds he had come to know” (224). The space she was born into, with predetermined signifiers to structure herself within, changes into a space where she occupies a position of power to determine the access of language and the movements she would have otherwise moved ambivalently through.

Although she lived on the island of Dominica for her entire life, she does not recognize having reached the land of “true” belonging until she moves back to the mountains, the place where, very symbolically, her mother and her mother’s people were born. In Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, Aamir Mufti and Ella Shohat introduce the book by interrogating the false opposition of home and exile, inside and outside. They claim that for the migrant:

Home, that place and time outside place and time, appears to mingle promiscuously with its opposite–exile, the outside, elsewhere. Hence its attraction for a critical practice that seeks to undo such binaries as belonging/unbelonging, loyalty/disloyalty, to unpack their ideological baggage, to make visible the multifarious ways in which they participate in the production of social relations as second nature. (Mufti and Shohat 8)

Xuela’s implicit condemnation of the often essentializing relationships to biological motherhood, mother tongues, and motherlands undercuts the rigid boundary between “authentic” and “inauthentic” in language, gender norms, and national subjectivity. Even though the novel ends with Xuela’s achievement of a metaphorical maternal connection, Kincaid’s destabilization of the mother tongue and mother love tropes causes the reader to question the implications of this conclusion. As for Bolaño, destabilization through the reliance on confession as the site of memory, or the testimonio, instead of the figure of the mother reflects vulnerability through deterioration in its exaggerated trajectory

Through the 1970’s and 1980’s, the champions of testimonio flourished in Latin America as a body of literature with the aesthetic functions to denounce “literature tout court as an institution coextensive with authoritarian power and essential to the maintenance of social exclusion” (O’Bryen 475).5 Chile’s transition from dictatorship under Pinochet into democracy required it to fit into an idealized neoliberal landscape of rebirth, sanitization, and transparency. In Cultural Residues: Chile in Transition, the “transition” from Pinochet’s paradoxically imposed rule (the 1982 restoration of electoral rule which ensured Pinochet’s rule for another eight years, and his position as head of the army for another sixteen), to Patricio Aylwin’s election in 1990, set a desire to “de-narrate” Chile’s historical past to cleanse it of any Third World “detritus” likely to impede the flow of deregulated global capital as a tabula rasa to rewrite a new story for the rebirth of nation from years of systematic abuses.6 This framework formed larger gaps that never resolved many of the ongoing issues post-Pinochet, such as the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation Rettig Report of 1991. In this attempt to reconcile and unify the country under a rhetoric in which the truth will resolve the distrust between citizen and nation, it failed to bring those responsible for terror before justice. One example was the failure to prosecute General Contreras due to an illness and unsuitability for jail when charges were brought up against him for his involvement with the government’s kidnapping and disappearances of Chilean citizens.

Utilizing the aesthetic function of the testimonio (similarly to the aforementioned Luz Arce) in Bolaño’s protagonist, Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, priest and literary critic, problematizes the self-justification and guilt he attempts in his deathbed to appropriate the confessional for atonement. His guilt, however, is tinged by the added physical pain felt through the movement of his confession:

Ahora me muero, pero tengo muchas cosas que decir todavía . . . . Hay que ser responsable. Eso lo he dicho toda mi vida. Uno tiene la obligación moral de ser responsable de sus actos, si, de sus silencios, porque también los silencios ascienden al cielo y  los Dios y sólo Dios los comprende y los juzga, así que mucho cuidado con los silencios, Yo soy responsable de todo. Mis silencios son inmaculados . . . A veces me sorprendo a mí mismo apoyado en un codo. Divago y sueño y procuro estar en paz conmigo mismo. Pero a veces hasta de mi propio nombre me olvido. (11-12)

I am dying now, but I still have many things to say . . . . One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences . . . . My silences are immaculate. Let me make that clear. Clear to God above all . . . . But what am I talking about? Sometimes I surprise myself as I find myself propped up one elbow, rambling on and dreaming and trying to make peace with myself. But sometimes I even forget my own name. (1)

Lacroix’s story drifts and digresses uncontrollably with indications of past traumas leaving him in tatters, mentally and physically, as he invokes bursts of memories of his actions and immaculate silences. The silences he addresses (even though they are given the quality of being immaculate) depict the uncertainty in entering into them with an obligation towards God, which may mean a determination towards an idealized confession above what may have actually occurred. But, his physical trauma cuts himself midway through, along with his poor memory, from properly portraying these silences in his final moments. The access to these silences is not limited by trauma and passive forgetting, but an exaggerated recycling in the hands of power.

Bolaño’s choice of a priest with the role of a literary critic as a narrator makes his political motivations more apparent as reading entertains a disavowing not so much with the pastness of the figures that choke his often breathless delivery, but their haunting presence in his attempt to narrate his confession. Instead of immersing himself into the political changes in Chile, he withdraws instead into the church of his literature, the holy shelter he retreats to immediately after the triumph of Allende’s Unidad Popular in the comfort of his home, first by burying himself in the Greek Classics:

Empecé con Homero, como manda la tradición, y segui con Tales de Mileto y Jenófanes de Colofón y Alcmeón de Crotona y Zenón de Elea (que bueno era), y luego mataron a un general del ejército favorable a Allende y Chile restableció relaciones diplomáticas con Cuba . . . y yo leí a Tirteo de Esparta . . . y el gobierno nacionalizó el cobre y luego el salitre y el hierro . . . y yo leí a Esquilo y a Sófocles . . . y después vino el golpe de Estado, el levantamiento, el pronunciamiento militar, y bombardearon La Moneda, y cuando terminó el bombardeo el presidente se suicidó y acabo todo. Entonces yo me quede quieto, con un dedo en la página que estaba leyendo, y pensé: que paz. (97-99)

Respecting the tradition, I started with Homer, then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, Alcmaeon of Croton, Zeno of Elea (wonderful), and then a pro-Allende general was killed, and Chile restored diplomatic relations with Cuba . . . and I read Tyrtaios of Sparta . . . and the government nationalized the coppermines and the nitrate and steel industries . . . and I read Aeshylus and Sophocles . . . and then came the coup d’etat, the putsch, the military uprising, the bombing of La Modeda and when the bombing was over, the president committed suicide and that put an end to it all. I sat there in silence, a finger between the pages to mark my place, and I thought: Peace at last. (81-82)

In simulating Lacroix’s reading, the text condenses three years of Chilean history—between Allende’s election in 1970 and the coup of 1973—into three pages. By doing so, it dwarfs that history by framing it within a sequence of classical texts he reads until he achieves peace in Allende’s death. His reading of classical texts removes himself as far away as possible from his involvement in transition from Allende to Pinochet; the world of myths and early philosophy occupy the same terrain in his memory as the ongoing violence around him that very quietly shelters him from the onslaught of history. In his analysis of history, he instead chooses a method of disjunction to avoid his own interpretation of this transition through an immersion of a different kind of history. But, in silencing the historical ghosts with literature and muffling their raging torments, slowly a growing voice within the text of his confession appears.

Hermeneutics and shadows also come together during a conversation at a café between Farewell, another literary critic and Lacroix’s mentor, over a rumor about a Guatemalan painter and the feelings this provokes for Farewell about his own mortality. As the two of them sit together, observing the rush of the crowd around them, their observations parallel Plato’s myth of the cave, with Lacroix assuming the crowd was not noticing them “como haciendose los distraidos, a la chilena, las figuras chinescas que aparescian y desaprecian” (62) [“in that typical Chilean way, watching the shadow play” (42)]. Eventually the function of literature and people begin to merge together when Lacroix asks Farewell: “¿ . . . de qué sirve la vida, para qué sirven los libros, son solo sombras . . . . Y yo: qué le dicen esas sombras, Farewell, cuénteme? Y Farewell: me hablan de la multiplicidad de las lecturas. Y yo: multiples pero bien miserables, bien mediocres” (64) [“What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows . . . . And I: What are those shadows telling, Farewell, what is it? And Farewell: They are telling me about the multiplicity of readings. And I: Multiple, perhaps, but thoroughly mediocre and miserable” (45)]. Farewell, under duress of his own mortality as his life is filled with the shadows of literature, attempts to redeem his own role as a literary critic by democratizing his role with those around him, to bring them all out of the shadow. He then feels overwhelmed by Lacroix’s cold transformation and detachment from the social world into a world where everyone is kept in the shadows with a set of strict values as opposed to bringing them out with their multiplicitous interpretations.

The condition for the voice forms further after Pinochet completes a course with Urrutia Lacroix on Marxist theory and asks what his motivations were to take the course. He feeds into the nationalistic motivation of Pinochet of better serving the country. Pinochet confirms this, but also includes his commitment towards preparations against his enemies; he states: “Siempre hay que estar preparado para aprender algo nuevo cada día. Leo y escribo. Constantemente. Eso no es algo que se pueda decir de Allende o de Frei o de Alessandri, ¿verdad?” (118) [“One should aim to learn something new every day. I’m always reading and writing. All the time. Which is more than you could say for Allende or Frei or Alessandri, isn’t it?” (89)]. Compared to this mimetic analysis in which to “read” the enemy can be a form of understanding and proceed with recognition, his reading and analyzing of his enemies does not diverge too far from Marxist analysis itself to understand capitalism and recognize its means and ends. Gareth Williams in his study on Bolaño observes,

In the parallel lives Bolaño creates there is plenty of fraternity and equality. However, for there to be freedom he would have to engage actively in the narrative deconstruction of the inherited trenches and fortifications of the friend/enemy divide, rather than recurring to its melancholic reassembly time and time again, in an eternal return of the same with only a nominal difference. (Williams 139)

Through the novel, the truth is never brought to light since the atrocities of what happened remain hidden within the silences and shadows that Lacroix constructs, but in this binary of light/dark, he also constructs a friend/enemy divide to instead reflect the inherent compliance in the narrative. Before meeting Pinochet and his advisors, Lacroix reflects on his presence there, and regretfully catches his distorted reflection in a cup of tea, from which he realizes that this moment is the lowest point in his life. Yet his feelings shift instead towards ambivalence: “Permanecí hierático, inexpresivo. Puse cara de aburrimiento. Revolví la taza y probé el té. Bueno. Buen té. Bueno para los nervios” (108) [“I remained hieratic and expressionless. I put on a bored look. I stirred my tea and tasted it. It was good. Good tea. Good for the nerves” (81)]. The tension and guilt crystallized in the solid sugar is dissolved and forgotten once it silently disappears in the sweet taste of peace he feels after the first sip of his tea. The body is relieved from its pangs and hesitation and relaxes enough to move forward to Lacroix’s first session with Pinochet.

In this structured worldview, however, crumbling under the weight of pain and guilt is the taunting of the spectral, the growing voice, the multiplicitous force, “el joven envejecido” [“wizened youth”]. “El joven envejecido” and his poets thwart all forgetting. He links the sound of haunting screams to the “los chillidos lejanos de una bandada de pajaros” (68) [“screeching flock of birds” (55)] that Lacroix attempted to suppress through the church’s plan to have him learn falconry.  The screams are aligned with the remnant of what Lacroix resists in his confinement of the past. “El joven envejecido” laughs at him, mocking his digressions in fondly idealizing his memory of the meeting spot for artists that the government eventually uses as a site to torture political prisoners (Bolaño 124). More importantly, this rattling alter ego also denounces Lacroix’s last-ditch recourse to the cynical view that literary culture will always pay lip-service to the machinations of state power. When Lacroix learns of the torture-chamber concealed in the basement of Maria Canales’ house, a writer and wife of another acclaimed writer in Chile, in an effort to appease his guilt he quips, “Asi se hace la literatura en Chile . . . asi se hace la gran literatura de Occidente” (147-148) [“That’s how literature is made in Chile . . . that is how the great works of literature are made” (126-128)]. In Ignacio López-Vicuña’s work on Bolaño’s Chilean literature, he finds echoes of Benjamin’s “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”, and of Adorno’s view that to write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarity (Lopez-Vicuna, 2009: 163). This view acquires an aura of dirty pragmatism in Lacroix’s hands in him justifying literature’s complicity with state violence as “business as usual” under Benjamin’s interpretation of history and Adorno’s criticism of literature. “Me tetelo en la cabeza, le digo” (148) [“You better get used to it” (128)], he says to silence “el joven envejecido.” Notwithstanding, in his final apparition, Lacroix sees his response: “El Joven envejecido lo que queda de él, mueve los labios formulando un no inaudible” (148) [“The wizened youth, or what is left of him, moves his lips mouthing an inaudible no” (128)], shaking his head as if to rouse the reader from the tone of the confession with a cynical worldview. The apparition, even under suppression, breaks away from complicity in the narrative of the dictatorship’s justification of its actions, to shake the ambivalence in the temporal and spatial movement of progress from Chile’s transition. The wizened youth rises out of the exaggerated notions and extremities in the dichotomy of guilt/innocence and barbarity/progress in both an understanding of history and a digression away from it to no longer hide away from the light of it.

In Nocturno, “el joven envejecido” haunts within the unconscious of Lacroix, a negative space breaking from the progressive narrative of Chile’s transition to reveal his complacency to his crimes, as well as a bigger implication of many individuals complicit with the crimes that the government carried out under Pinochet. Creole silently escapes the gaze of the reader and patriarchal forces under a colonizing language to break away from the progress of independence under complicity with a continuing colonial presence. These negations through the ghosts imbibed in the language of the novels form a critical relationship with power, haunting within. Their ghosts voiced the protagonists’ ability to observe and point out the limits of power and its discourses to show where “something else begins its presencing” (Heidegger 46). This something else for these novels would be the narratives thought to have disappeared, only to be continued under a different form of discursivity.



  1. For this project, I will be using the translation of Nocturno de Chile done by Chris Andrews.
  2. The impetus to place these two works against each other has to do with the two author’s relationship with fictionalizing their own respective country’s past, but also the trajectory of their narrator’s life as a roman à clef. Both stories also utilize the form of autobiographical narratives in order to illustrate a historical period between the 1960’s to the early 90’s reflecting the major transitions happening in the America’s in the midst of the Cold War. Given these two novels are against a backdrop of Cold War politics between a Neoliberal ideology against a Communist or Socialist ideology, they break away from these binaries situated in an ironic distance from either an extremely exaggerated involvement in the development of national narratives to an insular world detached from its norms.
  3. Derrida in, “The Supplement of the Copula,” argues how both the structure of language and thought in western metaphysics have been separate entities since Aristotle to form an ontology based on “being”, as opposed to what the linguist Émile Benviniste argues linguistics unite. However, in creating this taxonomy, and a series of taxonomies built on top of this, language itself becomes restricted to those categories based in metaphysics, where our grammar has been constructed in a way so we can only bring into “being” through the copula. Yet it also means, the copula functions as a supplement as opposed to a determinant, the grounding of “being” then can begin to loosen the grips it has on language.
  4. The distinctive ways in which women have been involved in these linguistic struggles however are often overlooked. Prior to the European invasion of the Caribbean, Carib Indians raided Arawak Indian settlements for women, known for their agricultural skills. Language played into the strict sexual division of labor practiced by the Caribs: men spoke one language, and women another” (Reddock 28). Literary critic Eric Cheyfitz details how European explorers subsequently arrived in the islands and subjected Amerindian peoples not only to “linguistic colonization” but also to the feat of “rhetorical acrobatics” that constructed them as human-flesh-eaters in the European popular imaginary. Columbus’s translation of his Arawak guides’ descriptions of the Carib Indians merged “carib” and “cannibal” and brought the image of the flesh-eating West Indian savage to Europe (939).
  5. George Yúdice, in his study on testimonios as a form of social activism, had noted the heterogeneous characteristic of the genre functioning to bring communities together or at least for individuals to share their stories by the urgency brought on by a situation such as war, oppression, or revolution (Yúdice 17). A specific quality though which addresses its presentation helping to constitute a narrative going beyond purposes of self-defense or survival included “ . . . the subjects of the testimonial discourse rework their identity through the aesthetic” (19). This aesthetic, however, in the course of this paper will be appropriated though as those prosecuted for human rights violations invoke the aesthetic in order to portray their own abuses. The analysis of Nocturno del Chile emphasis he exaggeration of the supposed apolitical connotation of the protagonist’s confession.
  6. Some of the narratives arising from this move came from ex-militants-turned informers and others involved in the dictatorship, such as confessional tales by Luz Arce and Marcia Alejandra Merino who raised guilt and repentance into a “framework of narrative atonement” (Richard 37). The tone in many of these confessions were oftentimes imitations of religious confessions as the confessors sought atonement by repaying one betrayal (informing on their comrades) with another (confessing the names of victims and victimizers).


Works Cited

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Benjamin, Walter, trans. Harry Zohn. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. 83-109. Print.

Bernard, Louise. “Countermemory and Return: Reclamation of the (postmodern) Self in Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother and My Brother.” Modern Fiction Studies 48.1 (2002): 113. ProQuest. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Dissemination: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 139-70. Print.

“The Postcolonial and the Postmodern: The Question of Agency.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. During, Simon. London: Routledge, 1999. 189-208. Print.

Bolaño, Roberto. Night in Chile. Trans. Chris Andrews. New York: New Directions, 2003. Print.

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Burgos Jara, C. (2009). Violencia y Memoria: Una Aproximación a la Obra de Roberto Bolaño (Order No. DA3395828). Available from MLA International Bibliography. (855193280; 2011650232). Retrieved from

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Derrida, Jacques. “The Supplement of the Copula: Philosophy Before Linguistics.” The Georgia Review 30.3 (1976): 527-64. JSTOR. Web. 09 Sept. 2014.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. N. pag. Print.

Jansen, Yolande, Besser, Stephan, and Baronian, Marie-Aude, eds. Thamyris /Intersecting: Place, Sex and Race, Volume 13 : Diaspora and Memory : Figures of Displacement in Contemporary Literature, Arts and Politics. Amsterdam, NLD: Editions Rodopi, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 01 December 2014.

Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1997. Print.

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Nasta, Susheila. Motherlands: Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992. Print.

O’Bryen, Rory. “Memory, Melancholia and Political Transition in “Amuleto” and “Nocturno De Chile” by Roberto Bolaño.” Bulletin of Latin American Research 30.4 (2011): 473-87. JSTOR. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

Philip, Marlene Nourbese. “The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy.” Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 1990. N. pag. Print.

Richard, Nelly, Alan West, Theodore Quester, and Jean Franco. Cultural Residues: Chile in Transition. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2004. Print.

Williams, Gareth. “Sovereignty and Melancholic Paralysis in Roberto Bolaño.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 18.2-3 (2009): 125-40. Print.

Yúdice, George. “Testimonio and Postmodernism.” Latin American Perspectives 18.3 (1991): 15-31. Print

Cannibal Violence: Reformulation of Dominant Masculinity in the Ibero-American Avant-Garde

By Alexandra Becker

With the advent of F.T. Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” [“Futurist Manifesto”1] and the first international literary avant-garde movement in 1909, a set of concerns were inaugurated for literary as well as national cultural modernization, whose blueprint would prove applicable in the non-European context as well. Futurismo [futurism] pointed, on the one hand, to a celebration of the technical accomplishments of modernity. On the other, however, it also resorted to a complex ideology of primitivism, violence, and misogyny in its attempt to inaugurate the latecomer Italy to the world stage. Among the various avant-garde literary movements spawned in the early 20th century, all more or less indebted to futurismo and its literary form, are Manuel Maples Arce’s estridentismo [stridentism] in Mexico and Oswald de Andrade’s antropofagia [cannibalism] in Brazil. Both countries, situated at the poles of Latin or Ibero-America, shared Italy’s concerns with national modernization and global international relevance, expressing them in manifesto form with Maples Arce’s “Actual No. 1” (1921) and “Manifiesto estridentista” [“Stridentist Manifesto”] (1923) and de Andrade’s “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” [“Manifesto of Pau-Brazil Poetry”] (1924) and “Manifesto antropófago” [“Cannibalist Manifesto”] (1928). They also contended with their own interplay of dominant and minoritarian identity paradigms, from the hyper-masculine standard of machismo [chauvinism] to the acknowledgement of the “savage” native past. Estridentismo closely followed futurismo in many respects, but broke with its fascist turn. Antropofagia constitutively acknowledges its cultural borrowings while ironically emblematizing seemingly historical and evolutionary backwardness. Taken together, these case studies represent two possible reformulations in the history of futurismo’s associations with misogyny and primitivism that complicate and challenge its continuing legacy. In their cultural adaptations and appropriations of Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological principles, Maples Arce and de Andrade illuminate the ways in which Latin America as a cultural sphere came to terms with modernity in the 20th century through the negotiation of masculinity and its dominantly accepted traits of aggression and violence.

F.T. Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” arose out of a complex aesthetic response to the political and historical situation of Italy at the turn of the 20th century, inaugurating the international literary-artistic avant-garde period as one closely allied to negotiating the industrial and technological age, especially from the viewpoint of underdevelopment. The manifesto itself, attaining fame when published in French as the language of greater cultural capital in 1909, is composed of eleven main points followed by a nearly theatrical tirade against the aesthetic tastes of the past. Among the most important is point six, insisting that “il faut que le poète se dépense avec chaleur… pour augmenter la ferveur enthousiaste des éléments primordiaux” (3) [“the poet will have to do all in his power… to increase the delirious fervor of the primordial elements” (14)], which provides a basis for futurismo’s focus on the ingenuous truthfulness of primitivism. Lucia Re provides an insightful comment on how this aesthetic works for Marinetti’s futurismo:

Although certainly colonial and imperialist, [Marinetti’s] aggressive imaginary hybridization of Italy with Africa comes, in a sense, out of Africa (Italy itself having [been] largely construed as part of Africa, and vice versa), and embodies the complex and stratified give-and-take of the colonial encounter and of colonial discourse rather than a binary opposition between the imperialist colonizer and the colonized. (361)

Italy’s impulse to break with the past, in addition, came about partially due to being perceived almost as an outdoor museum frozen in time by the omnipresent weight of classical Western civilization, which Marinetti saw as a dusty relic. Italy had to appropriate the Industrial Revolution from Northern Europe even more so than African primitivism.

Turning from primitivism to militarism and technology, point nine of the “Manifeste du futurisme,” perhaps the most controversial, asserts, “Nous voulons glorifier la guerre,—seule hygiène du monde—le militarisme, le patriotisme, le geste destructeur des anarchistes… et le mépris de la femme” (1) [“we wish to glorify war—the sole cleanser of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian… and scorn for women” (14)], displaying futurismo’s alignment with misogyny and political fascism. Perhaps unintuitive, this point can coexist with the earlier point six, as Marinetti’s and the Futurists’ brand of barbarism eventually came to co-exist in Fascist Italy in an uneasy and ambiguous tension with another form of self-proclaimed barbarism: “…right-wing rural primitivism…” (Re 361). Finally, point eleven of Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” describes futurismo’s most well-known and titular feature, the fascination with technology, by proclaiming that “Nous chanterons… les gares… les usines… les ponts… les locomotives au grand poitrail…. et le vol glissant des aéroplanes…” (3) [“we shall sing… of railway stations… of workshops… of bridges… of broad-breasted locomotives… and of the lissome flight of the airplane…” (14)]. A far cry from Roman architecture, these technologies of travel and their infrastructures aimed to connect Italy with the rest of the world as the latest cosmopolitan nation. These three general principles, along with the manifesto form, contributed to the inspiration of a host of descendent avant-garde movements worldwide in the decades following 1909, which adhered to certain of Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological elements more or less closely.

Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme,” understood by its author to operate within the same system of cultural history as pre-20th century literature and art, in fact provided a ready-made response to all foreseen aesthetic inheritors. Taking a decidedly un-hypocritical stance and following his conclusions to their logical end, Marinetti professed an anticipatory satisfaction at his own movement’s being outmoded and replaced:

Quand nous aurons quarante ans, que de plus jeunes et plus vaillants que nous veuillent bien nous jeter au panier comme des manuscrits inutiles! . . . Ils viendront contre nous de très loin, de partout . . . . Mais nous ne serons pas là. Ils nous trouveront enfin . . . en train de chauffer nos mains sur le misérable feu que feront nos livres d’aujourd’hui . . . . [S]’élanceront pour nous tuer, avec d’autant plus de haine que leur cœur sera ivre d’amour et d’admiration pour nous. (4)

When we reach forty, other, younger, and more courageous men will very likely toss us into the trash can, like useless manuscripts. And that’s what we want! Our successors will rise up against us, from far away, from every part of the world . . . . But we won’t be there . . . . Eventually, they will find us . . . warming our hands around the flickering flames of our present-day books . . . . [T]hey will hurl themselves upon us to kill us, driven by a hatred made all the more implacable because their hearts overflow with love and admiration for us. (15-16)

While revealing by analogy the debt that Marinetti may feel to literatures of the past that he otherwise appears to scorn, his expectations for the rise and fall of futurismo are prescient. In predicting that “nous avons donc au moins dix ans pour accomplir notre tâche,” (4) [“we have at least ten years in which to complete our task” (15)], Marinetti approximates the dates of the advent of estridentismo twelve years after and antropofagia fifteen years after the publication of the “Manifeste du futurisme.” He also expects his successors to arise from places perhaps as far across the Atlantic as Latin America. Maples Arce in estridentismo similarly espoused the type of patricidal violence that Marinetti advocates, along with the ideals of the Mexican Revolution that also temper his aesthetic; de Andrade, for his part, appears with antropofagia to take Marinetti’s metaphor a step further than originally envisioned.

Within the Futurismo movement founded by Marinetti, it is a curious and contentious point that adherent associate and British author Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” reproduces the professed ideology of misogyny. Contrary to expectations, Marinetti and futurismo not only admitted the possibility of female authors being associated with the group, but, in actuality, some willingly accepted the role of publicizing the controversial Futurist views. Considering that Loy was a native of a dominant world nation, far-removed from Italy’s self-conscious image, her genuine participation in Marinetti’s concerns could be puzzling, but perhaps her subordinate status as a woman allows a complicated identification. Loy’s idiosyncratic “Feminist Manifesto” reads like a long prose poem or polemical rant that introduces difficulties into Futurist misogyny but ultimately appears to uphold it through its conception of feminism as an acknowledgement of female inferiority, at least under the conditions of feminine development as of the 20th century. One of the early shocks comes when Loy writes on the manifesto’s first page “be Brave & deny at the outset—that pathetic clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man—She is NOT!” Further problematic statements that appear to place the woman at the mercy of male dominance, this time near the end of the manifesto, include the exhortation that “every woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex” and the admonition “women must destroy in themselves, the desire to be loved—The feeling that it is a personal insult when a man transfers his attentions from her to another woman” (155-156). While Loy eschews the technological propensities and overtly political overtones of Marinetti’s brand of futurismo, she certainly discharges the threat of violence when she proposes, midway through the manifesto, the “unconditional surgical destruction of virginity through-out the female population at puberty” (155). References to primitivism are also not as clear, unless Loy’s elevation of the status of the prostitute or mistress can be defined as such. She advises that “the woman who is so completely evolved as to be un-self-conscious in sex, will prove a restrictive influence . . . the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother—inferior mentality . . .” (154), thereby reversing the expected results of civilization and granting superiority to engagement in polyamorous or subterranean practices of the uncouth. Ultimately, Loy exemplifies futurismo’s feminist and misogynistic nuances even more than her own apparent contradictions, as both she and Marinetti use theatrical shock tactics to indicate despising femininity but not necessarily the female.

If a self-proclaimed British feminist could also be a Futurist, the movement’s reach with the nascent romance-language avant-gardes of North and South America was hardly out of the question. Influenced by Marinetti’s Futurist thought and art, Manuel Maples Arce inaugurated his estridentista movement in Mexico in 1921 with the manifesto “Actual No. 1: Hoja de vanguardia / Comprimido estridentista” [“Avant-Garde Broadsheet / Stridentist Pill”], in which he explicitly makes homage to Marinetti’s glorification of technology while also dispensing with him in true imitative fashion. Maples Arce published all of his work in Spanish, but his poetry indicates his increasing employment of English-language phrases over the course of his literary movement; due to geographical proximity to the U.S. and the passage of a decade, French is not, in fact, as it was for Marinetti, Maples Arce’s strategically chosen lingua franca. Similarly formatted to the “Manifeste du futurisme,” “Actual No. 1” consists of fourteen lengthy statements followed, not by a polemic denunciation, but by a “directorio de vanguardia” (2) [directory of the avant-garde] listing forerunners and contemporary inspirations. Accordingly, Maples Arce claims “A esta eclatante afirmación del vanguardista italiano Marinetti . . . [yuxtaponer su] apasionamiento decisivo por las máquinas de escribir, y [su] amor efusivísimo por la literatura de los avisos económicos” (1) [to this striking affirmation of the Italian vanguard Marinetti . . . [to juxtapose his] decisive passion for writing machines, and [his] super-effusive love for the literature of economic ads], in section three, only to fulfill the prophesy of rejection in section twelve with the succinct injunction “nada de futurismo” (2) [nothing of Futurism]. If Maples Arce reincorporated the latter half of Marinetti’s “Manifeste du futurisme” in his formation of a Mexican avant-garde aesthetic, the former half is evident as ideological inspiration for estridentismo’s next manifesto, although crucially without the political turn to fascism.

The “Manifiesto estridentista” of 1923 demonstrates the important inheritance of Marinetti’s brand of primitivism that would come to inform not only estridentismo but also de Andrade’s entire antropofagia aesthetic, while also developing a particular image of dominant masculinity. In this much shorter manifesto, consisting of four main points and three tirades against individual persons, Maples Arce’s first point admits of “un profundo desdén . . . [encendido] pugnazmente en un odio caníbal para . . . todos los deseos renovadores que conmueven la hora insurreccional de nuestra vida mecanística” (1) [a profound disdain . . . burning pugnaciously in a cannibal hatred for all of the . . . reformist desires that excite the insurrectional hour of our mechanistic life]. Taken in de Andrade’s sense as inflected by Marinetti, this metaphor may intend both to show respect for and to assimilate the reformist spirit pervading Mexico just after the Revolution (1910-1920). The “Manifiesto estridentista,” however, also reveals its particular valuation of masculinity and ties to Futurist misogyny more than “Actual No. 1” had made clear. One of the closing lines insists that “Ser estridentista es ser hombre. Sólo los eunucos no estarán con nosotros” (1) [To be stridentist is to be man. Only eunuchs will not be with us], simultaneously excluding from its hegemonic masculinity not only women, but indeed all those who cannot give proof of the requisite genital paraphernalia. The linkage of virility and artistic or ideological viability also disqualified homosexuals, as the estridentistas were wont to use the term derogatorily. The estridentista task of cultural renewal thus found itself limited mostly to the specific class of heterosexual male individuals.

In some senses, aesthetic primitivism and ideological misogyny can go hand in hand, although in other contexts the two principals have an ambivalent relationship. The “primitive” art that inspired many of the European avant-gardes, such as African fertility statuary, clearly linked pre-modern and non-industrial peoples with enhanced masculine abilities. On the other hand, this threat can lead, as in Edward Said’s orientalist hypothesis, to the dominant white male masculinity’s stereotyping of the Other as effeminate. In any case, futurismo’s origins in Italy may inflect it slightly differently in this regard than the principals it passes on to Mexican estridentismo and Brazilian antropofagia. All three nations appeared as latecomers to the world order, making the blustery and modern, yet primal, aesthetic of the Futurist-inspired 20th-century avant-garde so appealing. Italy, however, held different political valences, especially with respect to colonialism. Whereas Italy belatedly attempted to claim its status as a colonizer and assert itself through fascism, Mexico and Brazil were instead targets of colonialism themselves. Thus, while Italian “fascism promoted new images of hegemonic masculinity, glorifying irrationality (the ‘triumph of the will,’ thinking with ‘the blood’) and the unrestrained violence of the frontline soldier” (Connell 193), the Mexican and Brazilian avant-gardes incorporated related but politically contrary messages. The machismo demonstrated by the closing sentiments of the “Manifiesto estridentista” may result from the “familiar suggestion that Latin American machismo was a product of the interplay of cultures under colonialism. The conquistadors provided both provocation and model . . . . Catholicism provided the ideology of female abnegation, and economic oppression blocked other sources of authority for men” (Connell 198). Thus, futurismo, although identifying as part of the Global South of the 20th century, acted in reality as an oppressive model of misogyny that was ideologically necessary for different reasons on the part of Mexican estridentismo and Brazilian antropofagia, as inculcated in their historical encounters with Spain and Portugal.

De Andrade’s “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” and “Manifesto antropófago” effect an even stronger re-figuration and turn within the aesthetics of futurismo than estridentismo had, challenging the interpretations of masculinity that the avant-garde in the 20th century could encompass. Consisting of anumerical paratactic statements, neither manifesto is as strictly organized as Marinetti’s and Maples Arce’s. The “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” does perform, however, the same initial gestures as the Italian and Mexican works, indicating its debt to futurismo as precursor while setting it aside, this time more gently, to make way for new theories. De Andrade honors technological advancement similarly to Marinetti and Maples Arce:

Como a época é miraculosa, as leis nasceram do próprio rotamento dinâmico dos fatores destrutivos.

A síntese

O equilíbrio

O acabamento de carrosserie

A invenção

A surpresa

Uma nova perspectiva

Uma nova escala (2)


As the age is miraculous, laws were born from the dynamic rotation of destructive factors.



Automotive finish



A new perspective

A new scale (186)



This theme continues in the later “Manifesto antropófago” with the line “A fixação do progresso por meios de catalogos e aparelhos de televisão. Só a maquinaria. E os transfusores de sangue” (1) [“The determination of progress by catalogues and television sets. Only machinery. And blood transfusers” (41)]. De Andrade makes, however, in the “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” the typical avant-garde move of disposing of past influences by writing, “O trabalho da geração futurista foi ciclópico . . . Realizada essa etapa, o problema é outro” (3) [“the labor of the Futurist generation was cyclopean . . . this step realized, the problem is other” (187)]. De Andrade thus begins anew the avant-garde cycle in Brazil.

De Andrade’s 1924 “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” prefigures the development of antropofagia somewhat in reverse, by attempting to take the raw materials of Brazilian culture and transform them into worthy objects of international aesthetic contemplation instead of passively following cultural developments abroad. Both of de Andrade’s manifestoes were written in Portuguese, indicating their nationalist pride, although like Maples Arce, de Andrade employs occasional English interruptions. Leslie Bary, in her introduction to the English translation of de Andrade’s later “Manifesto antropófago,” explicates de Andrade’s aim for beginning the avant-garde project with the Pau-Brazil aesthetic:

Oswald had announced an “export-quality” poetry that would not copy imported esthetic models but find its material in Brazilian history, popular culture, and everyday life . . . . Opposing avant-garde notions of poetry as “invention” and
“surprise” to the erudite, imitative art he associates with the colony and the Brazilian empire (1822-1889), Oswald unites the search for national identity with the modernist esthetic project . . . . In this schema, Brazilian cultural production becomes both native and cosmopolitan. Brazil’s “wild wilderness,” far from generating second-rate copies of Continental models, will give rise to an “agile and candid” modern poetry. Brazilwood [Pau-Brazil] poetry thus offers a solution for Brazil’s perceived cultural inferiority, and at the same time injects new life into the international cultural arena. (35)

The beginning of Brazil’s avant-garde here proves to have a fascinating connection to capitalist economic metaphors, a tactic that neither futurismo nor estridentismo adopt. Rather, certain of Maples Arce’s poems, especially “Urbe: Súper-poema bolchevique en 5 cantos” [“Metropolis: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos”], display a candid affiliation with Leninist Communism. The avant-garde, then, is not unilaterally concerned with applications to a specific economic system, but can vary widely among regions and movements in the same way that politically Italian Fascism formed no part of antropofagia or estridentismo. De Andrade’s initial avant-garde formulations in the “Manifesto da poesia pau-brasil” developed out of unique national circumstances and perhaps uncritically used the familiar tropic (in the sense of both literary tropes and “banana republics”) language that cast Brazil as a net exporter of goods and importer of culture, a position that would be nuanced by the “Manifesto antropófago.”

Antropofagia strengthened the depth and shock-value of Brazil’s avant-garde theory yet fascinatingly maintained figurative capitalist overtones, modifying the terms of exchange from strict Pau-Brazil exportation to the active appropriation and regurgitation of European models. Antropofagia thus proves to be less of a reversal of the Pau-Brazil aesthetic formulation than it may seem at first glance:

“Law of the cannibal” is in fact the law of the capitalist, who concerns himself only with what he does not already possess . . . . The difference between a cannibalist aesthetics and a monocultural economics is thus not to be located in their respective underlying metaphysics, for the . . . law of devouring and appropriation… underlies them both. (Noland 415-416)

Given that the expression of capitalism in the terms of cannibalism and appropriation have distinctly negative overtones, de Andrade’s choice to transform the Pau-Brazil aesthetic into its incarnation in antropofagia may appear surprising. The logic of this rhetorical move, however, is expressly that of playfully engaging the distinctive bases and means of the arrogant, powerful nations of the world and effectively beating them at their own game. The “Manifesto antropófago” speaks of its value in terms of goods, insisting “Tínhamos a relação e a distribução dos bens físicos, dos bens morais, dos bens dignarios” (1) [“we had the allocation of tangible goods, moral goods, and royal goods” (41)]. Just as Marinetti supported Italy’s colonialist ambitions in order to put his nation on a par with those that had long overshadowed it, de Andrade aligns Brazil with aggressive capitalist enterprise. He does so, nonetheless, in a spirit of self-awareness that redeems his metaphorics of appropriation more than Futurist political support of colonization could hope to be redeemed in the view of posterity.

Although futurismo celebrated irrationality through its primitive, Fascist masculinity, the complementarity of these attributes is ambiguous. Certainly, the “Manifesto antropófago” also claims a strong current of irrationality, in keeping with its defiant symbolism of the reclamation of cannibalism and Western European ideas for the storied cultural history of the New World. The rationale behind the label for the movement runs as follows:

Brazil’s first indigenous avant-garde invention was based on a recuperation of the previously pejorative term “cannibal” to refer to the active assimilation and transformation of foreign aesthetics by Brazilian-born Portuguese-speaking writers . . . . Cannibalism is an appropriate metaphor for this positively valenced mode of “appropriation”; it suggests the gesture of incorporation (otherwise known as pastiche, collage, grafting, or sampling) and exemplifies such an incorporation, a parodic recycling of a pejorative term that displaces the term’s previous value . . . . Intertextuality or literary cross-fertilization is the major theme… and de Andrade makes no attempt to disguise the fact that his own particular brand of avant-garde poetics is largely a cannibalization of previous European models . . . . However, it soon becomes evident that cannibalism is a practice that unites not simply Brazilian writers and artists in search of a historically resonant, indigenous aesthetic; rather, cannibalism is a practice that unites the entire human race . . . . (Noland 414-415)

Or, as the translator of the manifesto herself, Leslie Bary, puts it in her introduction, also partially quoted by Noland:

The [“Manifesto antropófago”] challenges the dualities civilization/barbarism, modern/primitive, and original/derivative, which had informed the construction of Brazilian culture since the days of the colony. In the MA, Oswald subversively appropriates the colonizer’s inscription of America as a savage territory which, once civilized, would be a necessarily muddy copy of Europe. The use of the cannibal metaphor permits the Brazilian subject to forge his specular colonial identity into an autonomous and original (as opposed to dependent, derivative) national culture. Oswald’s anthropophagist—himself a cannibalization, not of Rousseau’s idealized savage but of Montaigne’s avowed and active cannibal[—]neither apes nor rejects European culture, but ‘devours’ it, adapting its strengths and incorporating them into the native self. (35-36)

Specifically, the manifesto quips, “mas nunca admittimos o nascimento da logica entre nós” (1) [“we never permitted the birth of logic among us” (39)]. Logic and rationality, however, are most often associated with masculinity, while irrationality and sentiment are associated with femininity. Indeed, “with masculinity defined as a character structure marked by rationality, and Western civilization defined as the bearer of reason to a benighted world, a cultural link between the legitimation of patriarchy and the legitimation of empire was forged” (Connell 186-187). Futurismo’s self-defined alliance with irrationality, patriarchy, and empire thus seems specious; perhaps this foundational movement is not, in fact, a sturdy base. Antropofagia, conversely, remains ideologically sound, insisting on none of the political ends of futurismo.

With the “Manifesto antropófago ” and the advent of the antropofagia movement proper, de Andrade also distinctly complicates the Futurist project as it relates to hegemonic masculinity. Instead of preferring masculine qualities in the ushers of the modern age, the manifesto complains, “estamos fatigados de todos os maridos catholicos suspeitosos postos em drama” (1) [“we’re tired of all the suspicious Catholic husbands who’ve been given starring roles” (38)]. Women appear to have a legitimate place in antropofagia. Indeed, as opposed to estridentismo’s lack of female literary contributors and futurismo’s uneasy relationship between the misogyny introduced by Marinetti and its recurrence in Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto,” antropofagia incorporated respected female leaders, such as painter Tarsila do Amaral and author Patrícia Galvão, popularly known as Pagu. Galvão’s devout Communist sentiments, as displayed in her Parque industrial [Industrial Park: A Proletarian Novel], clash with the apparent coincidence of antropofagia and capitalism even as they clearly correspond to Maples Arce’s ideological leanings and those of many artists worldwide during the early 20th century. While the women of Brazilian antropofagia appear to have more independent intellectual contributions to their national avant-garde movement and also increased relevance as native founders of their aesthetic, their personal lives once again challenge the effects of their artistic merit to the elevation of women and femininity as opposed to hegemonic masculinity. Critically, one biographical anomaly that links both do Amaral and Pagu is that they both were, at different points, married to or else otherwise romantically involved with de Andrade. For the same reason that Loy’s injunction to women to suppress their feelings of attachment and self-importance in romantic or sexual relationships is troubling, especially given her advice that appears to support the “harem” conception of masculine rights over women, de Andrade’s ability to enjoy the company of both do Amaral and Pagu while retaining them as part of his literary circle, and the negative terms on which these relationships ended, can have strongly misogynist overtones. Despite de Andrade’s professed inclusion and equal acceptance of women into antropofagia, the ideological tenets of his movement and his individual actions may reveal an irreconcilable hypocrisy that undermines the distance from hegemonic masculinity that his embodiment of the Futurist avant-garde legacy appeared to innovate.

Still, the valences of this masculinity remain, and even more problematically, the violence of the cannibalistic metaphor cannot claim any more civility than war and conquest. Antropofagia perhaps must be understood as an avant-garde with claims on both hegemonic and subordinated, effeminate masculinity, in contrast to the limited perspectives of futurismo and estridentismo. The contradiction hinted at by the questionable ethics of his romantic relationships with the women in antropofagia’s inner circle becomes clear when de Andrade’s own social status is considered in relation to the primitivism claimed for his nationalist aesthetic project:

Although de Andrade . . . was a Europeanized Brazilian and a member of the ruling elite, he attempts to speak in the ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’ as a descendent of the Tupi, not of the Vieira, as a son of the Great Snake, not of the [civilized] Bad Mother . . . . As a member of the oligarchical elite . . . he was appropriating a cannibalist identity from a race to which he did not belong. The politics of de Andrade’s gesture are thus a little less clear than they have been assumed to be . . . . Because of [his] debt . . . to European modernism in general . . . de Andrade can only with difficulty claim to speak from the position of the indigenous Brazilian cannibal. (Noland 416)

As a function of the aesthetics of technology and violence in his writing, as well as of his personal biography, then, de Andrade embodies a dominant hegemonic masculinity that undercuts his simultaneous attempt to recuperate subordinated masculinity to a position of respectability. Loy analogously occupied the otherwise contradictory position of feminist championing women by encouraging their masculinity, and of privileged British subject speaking from a place of cultural authority through a minority culture movement. Indeed, as evidenced by the purposes of Italian fascism and colonial expansion, the original demand to which futurismo responded was a sense of national backwardness and weakness in the hierarchy of the world order. If de Andrade could claim a position of superiority within his own nation, his identification with the primitivism of the Futurist avant-garde could only have been in regards to an international outlook. Identities of masculinity, even identities in general, thus appear more fluid than they are often thought to be. Dominant traits in one sphere can signify inferiority in a broader context, adding a new dimension to the interpretation of the avant-gardes. These movements appeared both as the venerated, privileged heights of their respective domestic cultures and as provocative parvenus when they introduced themselves internationally.

The fairly straightforward identification of the Italian Marinetti’s aesthetic and ideological principles, as outlined in list format in his “Manifeste du futurisme,” are undoubtedly anything but simple when taken in light of their complex motivations as well as refigurations later in the 20th century literary avant-garde through Maples Arce’s Mexican estridentismo and de Andrade’s Brazilian antropofagia. The exaltation of modern technology clearly recognizable under the label of futurismo in truth is only the tip of an iceberg composed of bravado, intended to raise Italy’s international cultural status while ensconcing pride in primitivism and reactionary concepts of governmental and sexual politics. This formula, however, proved effective enough to appeal to Ibero-American nations under similar degraded circumstances, yet their crucial experiences of colonialism firsthand may have helped to modify and naturalize Marinetti’s influence to apply to the New World. Particularly the political professions of futurismo became reshaped into leftist and social reformist modes for Maples Arce and de Andrade, although without being able to deny their dependence on the movement they outswept. Notwithstanding some of the possible improvements that estridentismo and antropofagia may have made to Marinetti’s controversial program, they too also combine strands of hegemony and heterogeneity into paradoxical amalgamations of power structures. The inherent project of the avant-garde may be an effort to negotiate power not just among nations, but in a metaphorically related struggle, also between genders. The cannibalistic impulse identified and brought to its culmination by de Andrade with antropofagia was evidently a quality of futurismo all along, coming to force successively within contexts that gave meaning not only to its pragmatic artistic effects, but especially and uniquely to its superbly apt metaphor.












  1. Quotations and titles taken from the French, Italian, and Portuguese refer to the original editions given in the works cited list. The translations of Manuel Maples Arce’s Spanish-language works are my own, from my forthcoming MA thesis entitled “Introduction to the Complete Early Works of Manuel Maples Arce: 1921-1927.” More information about my translation practices can be found therein.



Works Cited

Andrade, Oswald de. “Cannibalist Manifesto.” 1928. Trans. Leslie Bary. Latin American Literary Review 14.27 (1986): 35-47. PDF file.

—. “Manifesto of Pau-Brazil Poetry.” 1924. Trans. Stella M. de Sá Rego. Latin American Literary Review 14.27 (1986): 184-187. PDF file.

—. “O manifesto antropófago.” Ed. Gilberto Mendonça. Vanguarda européia e modernismo brasileiro: apresentação e crítica dos principais manifestos vanguardistas. 3rd ed. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1976. Print.

Connell, R.W. “The History of Masculinity.” Masculinities. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1995. PDF file.

Loy, Mina. “Feminist Manifesto.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy. Ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. PDF file.

Maples Arce, Manuel. “Actual No 1: Hoja de Vanguardia. Comprimido Estridentista,” Dec. 1921. Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City.

Maples Arce, Manuel and Germán List Arzubide, et. al. “Manifiesto estridentista.” Puebla: Ediciones de Horizonte, 1923. Francisco Reyes Palma Archive, Mexico City.

Marinetti, F.T. “Futurist Manifesto.” Critical Writings. Ed. Günter Berghaus. Trans. Doug Thompson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Manifeste Du Futurisme : (Publié Par Le “Figaro” Le 20 Février 1909). s.n., (Poligrafia italiana). PDF file.

Noland, Carrie. “The Metaphysics of Coffee: Blaise Cendrars, Modernist Standardization, and Brazil.” Modernism/Modernity 7(3) 2000: 401-422. PDF file.

Re, Lucia. “‘Barbari civilizzatissimi’: Marinetti and the Futurist Myth of Barbarism.” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 17(3) 2012: 350–368. PDF file.

volume 12: Call For Papers

Whether we speak of historical exodus or contemporary trends of gentrification and economic inequality, acts of displacement influence and shape our engagement with human rights and the world itself. For the upcoming 2015 volume, Portals is seeking papers that explore displacement in diverse literary and linguistic traditions.

The Comparative Literature Student Association invites you to submit original critical essays and short creative fiction of a comparative or critical nature. Papers that engage the theme of displacement will be featured prominently, though all will be considered.

Submission Deadline: February 27th, 2015

Send your original and previously unpublished submission as a .doc or .rtf attachment to submissions at portalsjournal dot com with “Portals Submission” in the subject line.

Authors will be contacted within 2 – 3 months of the deadline.

Submission Guidelines:

  • Essays should be in MLA style, 12-point font, and no longer than 25 pages; these will compare at least two texts from different linguistic traditions. Citations should include the original language and an English translation.
  • Authors may submit up to 3 pieces of critical or comparative fiction.
  • Authors should be currently enrolled undergraduate students, graduate students, or doctoral candidates.
  • Include a 250-word abstract and a cover sheet with contact information, including school affiliation and current academic standing. Your name should not be featured outside the cover sheet; this is a blind selection process.
  • Submissions not in English will be considered, though translations will be prioritized.

All inquiries can be directed to our editors at: submissions at portalsjournal dot com

Portals is published once a year in the spring semester at San Francisco State University, in conjunction with the Comparative Literature Student Association (CLSA). Portals features student work that contemplates literary topics across cultural, regional, linguistic, and temporal boundaries. Portals is available in scholarly journal listings worldwide.

We encourage authors to read our journal thoroughly before submitting.

Post-Holocaust Poetry and the (In)efficacy of Language

by Heather Pujals

How can we begin to talk about the Holocaust and its resulting literature, especially now when some of us are personally so far removed from that time and place in history? I could start with a reminder of some of the innumerable horrors or express an impossible empathy—impossible because empathy requires understanding—for the survivors and victims. Instead, through examining some of the poetic works of Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), I aim to shed light on what I have found to be a common message in the genre of post-Holocaust poetry: that somehow the Holocaust has fractured the system of language, making communication for survivors difficult, if not impossible, and that certain experiences during and surrounding the Holocaust can be literally indescribable because they are part of an unprecedented horror for which language has no words.

       Celan’s “Keine Sandkust Mehr” [“No More Sand Art”] is a characteristically sparse and difficult poem from late in his career. Delbo’s untitled poem (which I will henceforth identify by its first line “Vous voudriez savoir” [“You’d Like To Know”]), originally written in French, comes from Mesure des Nos Jours [The Measure of Our Days], which was published in 1971 and later became the final book translated into English by Rosette C. Lamont for Delbo’s prose-poetry trilogy Auschwitz and After. In these poems, the two writers echo each other as they address the inability of language to convey their experiences as Holocaust survivors, though they take different approaches: Celan’s point ironically seems, at least initially, lost in the general incomprehensibility of the poem, while Delbo’s claim is posed more directly. However, the claim they make—that language cannot effectively be used to convey anything meaningful to both readers and listeners—at least partially disproves itself simply because it is possible to extract meaning from their poems.

       In the fragmented first line of Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst mehr,” references to Jewish heritage in a religio-cultural sense and Germanic heritage in an artistic and academic sense run parallel: “Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine / Meister” [“No more sand art, no sand book, no / masters”] (Paul Celan 1-2). Through the loaded signifiers “sand,” which conjures images of the desert (i.e., the region of Israel and the Jewish homeland), and “book”(likely refering to none other than the most holy book within Judaism, the Torah), he invites the German-speaking Jewish community, or whatever is left of it, to bear special witness to the claims he makes in this poem. With “No more…sand book,” Celan is insinuating religion itself, at the very least Judaism, cannot exist after the Holocaust, a claim reminiscent of Theodore Adorno’s famous statement from Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft [Cultural Criticism and Society] (1951) about how writing poetry after Auschwitz would be barbarous. Of course, this statement is often taken out of its context within Adorno’s discussion of the dialectic of culture and barbarism; but if we were to take it literally, or even interpret “barbarous” as synonymous with “lacking civilization,” then we might say that nobody could write poetry after Auschwitz in any civilized manner, or possibly that the poetry itself might be uncivilized. With this and Celan’s claim in mind, poetry and organized religion can be seen as markers of civilization on a large scale; and if those markers are “no more,” then Celan and Adorno are effectively in agreement that the Holocaust has de-civilized the world.

       The last word of the first line is just as heavily freighted. With meister, which in German can be singular or plural depending on surrounding grammar, Celan references a rich collection of German Classical and Romantic “masters” of music, literature, and philosophy; such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Kant, respectively, who represent high points in German culture. He does this more directly in his well-known and earlier poem “Todesfuge” [“Death Fugue”] when he references Margarete, a character from Goethe’s Faust. However, Celan is not claiming that the memory of these masters has been erased, but rather that the Nazis of the Third Reich have taken sole custody of this heritage, even using it against their victims who would have previously considered it their heritage as well. At Auschwitz, for example, SS officers would force prisoners who had training with musical instruments to perform and dance to well-known national German songs for hours on end while guarded via gunpoint and snarling German Shepherds. They turned playing Bach—noble, familiar Bach—into a form of torture. Celan alludes to these occurrences directly in “Todesfuge” when the speaker of the poem quotes his SS master: “ihr andern singet / und spielt…spielt weiter zum / Tanz auf” [“you others sing / and play…play on for the dance”] (Celan, Paul Celan 24-25, 28-29). Through the Nazis’ systematic appropriation of the works of these masters for their own sadistic purposes, the masters no longer belong to a broader European audience, especially not to Jews. Furthermore, “Todesfuge” asserts that “Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” [“Death is a master from Germany”], a phrase which has at least a double meaning: the masters of death camps were from Germany in a literal sense, while the iconic meister of Germany played an indirect role in aiding Nazi malevolence. Together, “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” and “Todesfuge” reveal that the process of a vast cultural heritage being taken away from German-speaking Jews began as soon as the meister became affiliated specifically with torture at the hands of the Nazis.

       As I mentioned before, Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” also suggests that the Holocaust resulted in a loss of the ability for the survivors to convey meaning through language, i.e., not only the loss of cultural heritage, but of linguistic heritage as well. The speaker asks, “Wieviel / Stumme?” which Michael Hamburger translates to “How many / Dumb ones?” (Celan, Paul Celan 3-4). I think, however, that “How many / struck dumb?” conveys the German meaning better since stumme has more of a verbal rather than simply adjectival force, which then suggests that at a certain place in time some number of people have been passively made mute as opposed to always having been so. Trying to make the lines into a sentence (“How many have been struck dumb?”) would probably be most appropriate. The Holocaust—the systematic extermination of European Jews and others deemed undeserving of life—has caused this muteness. When faced with something so impossible to explain, let alone justify, there can and never will be a clear explanation since mere signifiers, individual letters and phonemes, do not have the capability to convey that which cannot be signified—the uniquely horrible occurrences that make up the Holocaust.

       The last three lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” further attempt to show (because they cannot explain) the concept that, after the Holocaust, the system of language, at least for the survivors, is broken.

              I—i—e. (Celan, Paul Celan 8-10)


At first read, these three short lines appear to be utter nonsense, and in a way they are. Although German readers may be accustomed to seeing words combined in a similar manner, it produces extra confusion for those reading the English translation. That the words are so crowded calls to mind the train cars, which were used to transport masses of Jews and other victims throughout Europe to work and death camps; and as “Tiefimschnee” suggests, those trains did not stop during winter.

       Incidentally, “snow” further acts as a replacement for the earlier mention of “sand” and its connotations, which were lost at the beginning of the poem. It hints that as an already displaced people, and originally from a desert region, Jews stuck in the snows of Europe are both literally and figuratively “out of their element.” Both within the train cars and the poet’s words there is no breathing room, no room for coherence or understanding. The following downgrade to “Iefimnee,” which at least still maintains a resemblance to the preceding triple-word, and finally to the mere phoneme string “I—i—e” is a metaphor for the dissolution of language as a means for communication. These vowel sounds are reminiscent of the babbling of infants, or perhaps that of a dying person, suggesting that the survivors’ ability to communicate has fallen out of their own conscious control.

       Furthermore, in Hebrew (Celan chose to write in German, but he knew Hebrew as well) vowels are generally not signified at all, and therefore this final line becomes even more powerful. If, let’s say, this poem were translated into Hebrew, we would be left with nothing at the end; the whole line composed only of vowels would vanish, as many Jews themselves did. The signifiers, which usually carry meaning, are reduced to, at least in German and in English, the most basic forms of utterance that signify nothing besides, perhaps, the absence of something signified. This is where we run into a paradox, though. If those isolated letter groupings (or a blank line if in Hebrew) mean nothing, then how am I here interpreting them (or it)? At this point, the only way to make sense of Celan’s poetry is to conclude that as far as language goes, it is not lost, not like the masters anyway, but it is fractured—fractured enough that there is a disconnect between survivor and “other,” and perhaps between survivors themselves as well.

       Charlotte Delbo also tackles the issue of post-Holocaust communication in her poem “Vous voudriez savoir” from her memoir Mesure des Nos Jours. While not as seemingly nonsensical as the closing lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr,” Delbo’s poem still does not conform to any typical poetic form or stanza organization. The most notable point to make about the format is that the entire poem is posed as one long run-on sentence with a capital letter beginning it and a period ending it. Otherwise, there are no other punctuation marks, and the grammar is incidentally difficult to follow, forcing readers to make assumptions about where a comma or set of quotation marks might have gone. This very act, though—making assumptions and filling in what we deem necessary additions to Delbo’s seemingly incomplete expression—may be exactly what she and other survivors warn us against. She writes, “et nous ne savons pas répondre / nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous / et nos mots à nous / vous ne les comprenez pas” [“and we don’t know how to answer / not with the words you use / our own words / you can’t understand”], which suggests that survivors are operating in an entirely different language system than the rest of us (Delbo 10-13). Survivors cannot use our words to describe their experiences, nor can we understand the words they would use to do so. Our vocabularies do not overlap since there are no extant words to describe her experiences.

       Delbo presents patience as a solution to this conundrum. Since survivors are only capable of using language a certain way at this time, inquirers are the ones who must remain patient as survivors attempt to answer their questions. Conversely, Delbo maintains that without patience this conundrum of communication will remain so:

alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre. (Delbo 14-21)
[so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.]

These lines indicate that even if a survivor were asked “simpler things,” their answer would produce enough boredom, confusion, or frustration that the inquirer would give up trying to understand. Out of impatience, the inquirer would not wait to have their question sufficiently answered and would then write off the survivor as indefinitely incapable of doing so, effectively eradicating any chance of future communication.

       In “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” with the line “Deine Frage—deine Antwort” [“Your question—your answer”], Celan agrees with this disconnection (Paul Celan 6). Firstly, it is important to note that deine is an informal pronoun and therefore carries certain implications, for instance, that the speaker is on familiar terms with the listener, as if Celan himself (or the poem’s fictional speaker) is affectionately reaching out to us, or that this is a dialogue he (or, again, the speaker) is having within his own mind, or, more pessimistically, that the speaker simply does not have respect for the listener. Regardless, the hyphen is of paramount importance. It physically implies there is a certain unbridgeable gap between question and answer, and perhaps between questioner and answerer as well. Does this, along with Delbo’s concern, mean that, despite patience and time, post-Holocaust communication may never improve?

       Upon receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen in 1958, Celan said,

It, the language, remained, not lost—yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. (Selected Poems 395, emphasis mine.)

Celan’s comment suggests that since language did, in fact, survive the Holocaust, perhaps there is hope for communication to improve. It argues for language as an enduring apparatus, one that was not destroyed, but damaged, and therefore might be repaired. With this claim, Celan may be borrowing a concept from Kabbalah, an oft-misunderstood tract within the umbrella of Jewish mysticism, in hinting at a possible tikkun [repair] for language. Furthermore, arguing that the Holocaust has destroyed the capacity for survivors to communicate in any meaningful way creates a paradox and this paper is proof: here we have two survivors effectively conveying emotions and ideas, and although we can never know exactly what the survivors experienced, we can appreciate their efforts, though often fragmented and fractured, to reach out and, through patiently hearing and appreciating their accounts, we can facilitate the repair of the system of post-Holocaust communication.

       To some extent, communication is and may remain broken, however, simply because effective communication is based on a necessary identification, a perception of common ground, between the speaker (or writer) and the listener (or reader). The nature of the Holocaust, i.e., the impossibility to replicate it (and who would want to?), ensures that listeners and readers will never be able to have that moment of identification, of recognition, with the speakers and writers.

       So what can we take away from this dismal situation? Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” laments that somehow certain aspects of culture, like artistic and academic heritage, along with language itself, have been lost indefinitely, while Delbo’s “Vous voudriez savoir” suggests that people are asking the wrong questions and not listening with enough patience to connect with survivors. Both are certainly valuable points, but actively addressing Delbo’s more tangible one may be the most productive path toward improving communication. Imre Kertesz intrepidly speaks for us all with the question, “How should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?” He justifies that despite its seemingly “dishonest motives,” the question expresses a natural longing possessed by survivors and outsiders alike, and answers it thusly:

The decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. (Kertesz 268)

Kertesz suggests that as outsiders our choice of action should be to hear, in more than just a literal sense, what the survivors have to say. Surely there will remain facets of culture indefinitely tarnished, certain experiences may never be able to be put into words, and maybe post-Holocaust poetry is itself “barbarous,” but following the survivors’ written trajectory is the only way we can hope to tikkun olam, repair the world. By narrowing the gap between us and them we can begin to transcend the burden of the Holocaust, which, as citizens of the world regardless of temporal or regional origin, we all inherit.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Paul Celan: Poems, a Bilingual Edition. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea, 1980.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Delbo, Charlotte. Mesure des nos jours. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1971.

Kertesz, Imre. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Trans. John MacKay. The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267-72.

“Keine Sandkunst Mehr” by Paul Celan

Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine

Nichts erwürfelt. Wieviel

Deine Frage—deine Antwort
Dein Gesang, was weiß er?


“No More Sand Art” translated by Michael Hamburger

No more sand art, no sand book, no master.

Nothing won by dicing. How many
dumb ones?

Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?


An untitled poem by Charlotte Delbo

Vous voudriez savoir
poser des questions
et vous ne savez quelles questions
et vous ne savez comment poser les questions
alors vous demandez
des choses simples
la faim
la peur
la mort
et nous ne savons pas répondre
nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous
et nos mots à nous
vous ne les comprenez pas
alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre.

Charlotte Delbo’s poem translated by Rosette C. Lamont

You’d like to know
ask questions
but you don’t know what questions
and don’t know how to ask them
so you inquire
about simple things
and we don’t know how to answer
not with the words you use
our own words
you can’t understand
so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.

And the Women Shall Inherit the Earth: Late Victorian Over-Population and the Condition of England on the Threshold in George Gissing’s The Odd Women

by Carroll Clayton Savant

“‘But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?[…] Something like that, they say. So many odd women—no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives…I look upon them as a great reserve…’” (Gissing 44). Rhoda Nunn’s concern for the future of the “odd women,” who far outnumber the population of men and remain unmarried, is one of the many undercurrents found throughout George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women. Set in the overcrowded, industrial, and overwhelming late-Victorian London, Gissing’s pessimistic novel of decay and devolution investigates the anxieties facing Victorian society, brought about by overpopulation. The Odd Women portrays the plight of the New Woman within the context of this changing paradigm, as Gissing’s hysterical “odd women” negotiate their way through London in a deluge of people and technology. The tone of Gissing’s novel creates a pervasive sense of melancholic anxiety that is indicative of the late-Victorian devolution/degeneracy debates that dominated the 1890s. Noting this pervasive tone, Nicholas Shrimpton argues that the nineteenth century saw a series of philosophical and psychological waves of pessimism, which culminated in the pessimism at this time. He writes that

Christians, positivists, and Hegelians continued to insist that the world was essentially a good place, and that the pattern of history was progressive. Pessimists responded with a view of existence summed up by one of the aphorisms in Schopenhauer’s Parerga und Paralipomena of 1851: ‘No rose without a thorn. But many a thorn without a rose’…the contest between optimism and pessimism was a prominent feature of the intellectual life of the late nineteenth century. (42-43)

Gissing’s The Odd Women adds to this debate on pessimism and decay by setting the tone of the interaction between the disenfranchised “odd women” and the overpopulated and dehumanizing city of London. The goal of this project is to investigate the social and philosophical functions of Gissing’s novel and show that by addressing the anxieties of his day about the future place of the individual within the overpopulated, industrial city, his text contributed to the growing hysteria facing the late-Victorian period. By placing Gissing’s text within the context of the degeneration/devolution novels of the 1890s, I intend to show that Gissing’s novel allows him to draw on and contribute to the philosophical and intellectual debates of his time by illustrating the philosophical/psychological impact of the industrial city and its overpopulation on the individual.

       In a New Historicist reading of Gissing’s The Odd Women, I intend to look at Gissing’s representation of overpopulation in order to show that the anxiety and “hysteria” seen in Gissing’s novel is an extension of the devolution and degeneracy debates of the 1890s. In looking at the way Gissing addresses the “population problem,” I intend to show, in a Malthusian vein, that the “odd women’s” misery is symptomatic of the miseries of overpopulation. In looking at the historical population statistics of Victorian England, I aim to show that Victorian Britain, spurred by the industrial and technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution, effectively avoided the Malthusian population “checks,” but that these very technological advances produced the misery seen in The Odd Women. By investigating the population “boom” of the mid-to-late Victorian period, I plan on showing that Gissing’s overpopulated and over-stimulated London is the genesis of the many social and industrial problems addressed in his novel.

       The fin de siècle marked a turning point in Victorian society and was illustrated in a new trend in literature, which attempted to understand this social, economic, and industrial paradigm shift. Shrimpton argues that the pessimistic philosophies that began circulating in the mid-nineteenth century had spread to the literary discipline by the century’s end. In particular, Shrimpton writes that it was the “second wave” of pessimism, dominated by the Romantic movement, and exacerbated by Matthew Arnold, that was a driving force in the Victorian “anxieties” about technology, population, and, most importantly, the future. He writes that “[i]t was an economist rather than a poet, however, who provided the most influentially pessimistic statement of the Romantic period. Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1793) was an empirical study of the way in which population outstrips food supply” (51). For Shrimpton, the authors of the 1890s caught on to this “climate” of pessimism and sought to express it in their works. He writes that “English writers in the late nineteenth century [and notes Gissing in particular] were feeling the effects of the third of the three great—and increasingly powerful—waves of modern philosophical pessimism” (49). The pessimism of which Shrimpton writes was illustrative of the artistic and literary Aesthetic movement, as artists turned to artistic disciplines in order to try to come to terms with the anxieties concerning social devolution and degeneration.

       According to degeneration and devolution theorists and writers, late-nineteenth century civilization had evolved as far as possible and risked devolving back into its more “primitive” state. As early as 1880, Edwin Lankester attempted to place the “problem” of degeneration [1] in its connection to Darwinian evolution and the ability of humanity to adapt to the evolving environment.[2] He writes that “[d]egeneration may be defined as a gradual change of the structure in which the organism becomes adapted to less varied and less complex conditions of life…” (3). For Lankester, the threat of degeneration lay in the possibility that humanity, having reached its pinnacle of “civilization,” could no longer adapt to changing environmental conditions; in this instance, environmental conditions were becoming more and more industrial, as an overpopulated society turned to technology in order to assuage the problems of population. In this way, the individual was becoming unable to “adapt” to the evolving conditions of life, thereby risking “devolving” into a more primitive state. Lankester writes that “[t]he traditional history of mankind furnishes us with notable examples of degeneration. High states of civilisation have decayed and given place to low and degenerate states. At one time it was a favourite doctrine that the savage races of mankind were degenerate descendants of the higher and civilised aces” (4). In a similar line, science fiction and science writer H.G. Wells takes Lankester’s concept further, as he notes the social ramifications of biological devolution of the individual. Using the metaphor of zoological species degradation to reinforce the anxieties facing human devolution, Wells writes that

[i]t has decided that in the past the great scroll of nature has been steadily unfolding to reveal a constantly richer harmony of forms and successively higher grades of being, and it assumes that this ‘evolution’ will continue with increasing velocity under the supervision of its extreme expression—man. This belief, as effective, progressive, and pleasing as transformation scenes at a pantomime, receives neither in the geological record nor in the studies of the phylogenetic embryologist any entirely satisfactory confirmation. (6)

For Wells, the threat of devolution and degeneration is clear: one species can only progress so far before it begins to regress on its evolutionary path of progress. And for Gissing’s late-Victorian world, this is seen in the overreliance on technology and industry in order to “survive” in the overpopulated and congested city. Wells writes that “…degradation may perhaps suffice to show that there is a good deal to be found in the work of biologists quite inharmonious with such phrases as ‘the progress of ages,’ and the ‘march of mind.’ The zoologist demonstrates that advance has been fitful and uncertain; rapid progress has often been followed by rapid extinction or degeneration” (12). For Lankester, Wells, and Gissing alike, this hysterical anxiety about the trajectory of mankind and mankind’s ability to survive (and thrive) in an overpopulated and industrial world dominated the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. The various trends that marked the late-nineteenth century Aesthetic movement captured the hysterical pessimism of these debates on devolution and degeneracy and illustrated them through their various art forms.

       The rise of the Aesthetic movement offered a new literary form in which to voice and illustrate the anxieties facing late-nineteenth century England, in particular, the pessimistic debates on devolution.[3] Tracing the rise of “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” Arthur Symons [4] writes that

[t]he most representative literature of the day [for Symons, 1893]…is certainly not classic, nor has it any relation with that old antithesis of the Classic, the Romantic. After a fashion it is no doubt a decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity. If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art…then this representative literature of today, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. (105)

This degenerate and “diseased” literature of which Symons writes is the aesthetic fulfillment of the degeneracy/devolution debates of which Wells and Lankester were warning, and one might add, predicting. This highly decadent, over-the-top literature relies, according to Symons, on “la nervose” and is a product of the “maladie fin de siècle”, which contributes to the hysteria of the collapse and devolution of society (105). This, as Joyce Carol Oates argues, is the “Aesthetics of Fear.” Though tracing the historical/aesthetic function of the role of horror and fear in literature, Oates writes that “[w]e can presume that the aesthetic fear is not an authentic fear but an artful simulation of what is crude, inchoate, nerve-driven and ungovernable in life; its evolutionary advantage must be the preparation for the authentic experience, unpredictable and always imminent” (176). This “diseased” and decadent literature of the late-nineteenth century is the fear-mongering fruition of the “pessimistic” debates on devolution (and, as will be pointed out later, the culmination of the late-Victorian debates on population, overcrowding, and, inherently, industrialization). Symons writes that

…this literature is certainly typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society: its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature: simplicity, sanity, proportion…how much do we possess them in our life, our surroundings, that we should look to find them in our literature—so evidently the literature of a decadence? (106)

This decadent literature highlights all of the social, political, and economic ills of the late nineteenth century. Studying the social, and one could further, devolutionary, effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oates writes that “Stoker was dramatizing the clash of Darwinian evolutionary theory with traditional Christian-humanist sentiment…In the austere Darwinian model of our beleaguered Earth, the individual counts for virtually nothing; only the species matters, the replication of DNA” (184). For Oates, though she chooses not to call it such, Stoker’s novel is a “degeneracy” novel, illustrating and highlighting the anxieties of Stoker’s time, in this instance, the “progressive march,” of society. Though Oates attempts to place Stoker’s novel within a historical/theological context, if we eliminate any discussion of theology and investigate Stoker’s novel as a historical artifact, we begin to see the Aesthetic function of literature as an illustration of the social and cultural anxieties of its day. Similarly, this is the function of George Gissing’s The Odd Women.

       From the very beginning of his novel, Gissing’s The Odd Women is illustrative of the degeneracy and devolutionary tone infiltrating society during of the 1890s. Robert Selig notes this tone throughout Gissing’s novel, noting that

[t]he first seven chapters and scattered later ones depict the sufferings of ‘The Odd Women’ [sic] with both sympathy and authentic social detail. The six Madden sisters provide the central examples of unfortunate single females. Their father has given them genteel educations but dies without leaving them a large enough income to support genteel ways. Within 10 years three have suffered early deaths, and three struggle on ill-paid and degrading work[…] (62)

This tone is the undercurrent for the entire novel and Gissing introduces the reader to it from the very beginning. The novel opens with an introduction to the Madden family, as Alice Madden remembers her mother while she speaks with her father, Dr. Madden, about the family’s precarious future. Gissing writes:

Mrs. Madden, having given birth to six daughters, had fulfilled her function in this wonderful world; for two years she had been resting in the old churchyard that looks upon the Severn sea…A sweet, calm, unpretending woman; admirable in the domesticities; in speech and thought distinguished by a native refinement, which in the most fastidious eyes would have established her claim to the title of a lady. She had known but little repose, and secret anxieties told upon her countenance long before the final collapse of health. (5-6)

What is interesting to note in Gissing’s description of the late Mrs. Madden is her temperament; in this way, the Maddens embody the “anxieties” of the future that we see in figures like Symons, Wells, and Lankester. Though the Maddens hail from the remote coastal town of Clevedon, it is clear that Mrs. Madden, described as a “sweet, calm” woman, lacks the evolutionary ability to “adapt” to her surroundings, even in the remote countryside, and therefore declines, devolves, and dies away. As if to reiterate the melancholic anxious tone of the novel and press his point further, by the end of the first chapter, after Dr. Madden has run an errand to escort home a family friend, Rhoda Nunn, news of the Doctor’s trip alters the Madden sisters’ futures irreparably. Gissing writes:

[…]Dr. Madden, driving back from Kingston Seymour, had been thrown from his vehicle, and lay insensible at a roadside cottage[…]For some time the doctor had been intending to buy a new horse; his faithful old roadster was very weak in the knees. As in other matters, so in this, postponement became fatality; the horse stumbled and fell, and its driver was flung head forward into the road. Some hours later they brought him to his home, and for a day or two there were hopes that he might rally. But the sufferer’s respite only permitted him to dictate and sign a brief will; this duty performed, Dr. Madden closed his lips forever. (10)

Dr. Madden’s death throws the family into a tailspin as sister after sister dies as they venture into the “maddening,” overwhelming city of London in an attempt to survive. Gissing chronicles the various sisters’ fates as they slowly dwindle in numbers. He writes that “Gertrude and Martha were dead; the former of consumption, the other drowned by the over-turning of a pleasure boat[…]Alice plied her domestic teaching; Virginia remained a ‘companion.’ Isabel, now aged twenty, taught in a Board School at Bridgwater, and Monica, just fifteen, was on the point of being apprenticed to a draper at Weston, where Virginia abode” (15). Once the sisters reach a point of “stability,” the struggle for survival catches up with them, overwhelming them in an age of overpopulation and over-industrialization. Gissing writes that “Isabel was soon worked into illness. Brain trouble came on, resulting in melancholia. A charitable institution ultimately received her, and there, at two-and-twenty, the poor hard-featured girl drowned herself in a bath” (emphasis added, 16). It is quickly obvious that life in the overcrowded, industrial, and “maddening” city has its effects on the individual. Gissing’s novel picks up with the three remaining sisters struggling, where their other sisters could not adapt (in a Malthusian and Darwinian sense), for survival. The fact that Gissing introduces the reader to an entire family, only to end up with over half of the family dead within the first two chapters sets up the tone for the entire novel. Throughout the novel, one begins to see how Gissing’s London affects the individual on an “organic” level.

       As if anticipating the “pessimism” debates that marked the 1890s hysteria of devolution and degeneracy [5], Malthus’ 1798 essay on population examines the unstable trajectory of the future—and the theoretical warning in which Gissing and the Victorians, found themselves one century later: an overpopulated land plagued with dwindling resources (and over-industrialization as society worked, through machines, in order to survive). In language that anticipates the Darwinian struggle for survival, Malthus writes “[…]that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio” (4). For Malthus, population booms are contributed to by increased human industry that allows the population to increase unchecked; however, he argues that the natural resources available for humanity will always dictate the population trajectory. Malthus writes that “[t]he reason that the greater part of Europe is more populous now than it was in former times, is that the industry of the inhabitants has made these countries produce a greater quantity of human subsistence” (17). However, Malthus argues that no matter how many technological and industrial improvements society has made, there are only so many resources physically available in order to sustain a growing population. Similarly, this is the problem we see in Gissing’s London: an overpopulated city has turned to an overreliance on technology to attempt to meet the demands of survival (and Gissing shows us the “cost” of this overreliance throughout his novel). According to Malthus, and one could argue later, in Darwin, the scarcity of resources promotes competition among individuals in order to survive.[6] For Malthus, this struggle for survival is rooted in the trajectory of population, which, when continued unchecked, outstrips all available resources, creating miserable living conditions. He writes that “[…]the superior power of population cannot be checked without producing misery or vice, the ample portion of these too bitter ingredients in the cup of human life and the continuance of the physical causes that seem to have produced them bear too convincing a testimony” (11). Thus, as sustenance dwindles, population numbers come in check due to the lack of available resources, essentially creating the “misery” that effectively puts a damper on population growth.[7] The anxieties and hysterics that Malthus forewarns of are exactly part and parcel of the problem that Gissing’s “odd women,” and to a greater extent, the Victorians, faced in the late nineteenth century.

       Late-Victorian Britain marked a turning point in British population growth, as economic and foreign affairs affected the population “boom” made possible by the advances of the Industrial Revolution. In a study of the population demographics of Victorian Britain, Robert Woods notes that “[…]the Victorian period was so important as a [population] turning point in England” (4). For Woods, this “turning point” was marked by a lower mortality rate and higher fertility rates. The implication, as Jeremy Black and Donald MacRaild suggest, is that increased technological and industrial advances allowed such a population boom and prevented the traditional Malthusian checks to population.[8] Black and MacRaild write that Victorian Britain saw a population boom on the scale of which Malthus warned. They write that “[p]opulation grew dramatically in this period without famines[…]in other words, without the ‘positive checks’ on population which were seen as so vital by the Reverend Thomas Malthus[…]” (59). Black and MacRaild argue that the “checks” Malthus warned would produce misery and vice were relatively minimal, due to the technological and industrial gains that produced such a boom. Black and MacRaild state that though Malthus’s “prophesies of a population crisis never occurred,” this population boom clearly put a strain on the new urban-centered English societies (59). What is interesting is that Black and MacRaild focus on the “relief valve” of emigration as a way to help assuage the pressure resulting from the booming population in the absence of Malthusian population checks (59). Historical consensus indicates that the Victorian period marked a break with Malthusian population theory and altered the shape and geography of Britain, resulting in a new “debate” on the population trajectory of British society.

       The population boom that dominated the Victorian period, made possible by the technological and industrial advances spurred by the Industrial Revolution, altered the very geography of Victorian society. Woods notes that population growth was spurred by an increasingly urban culture (27). Tracing The Population History of England in their seminal study, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield claim that h, h,istorically London was the epicenter of all population booms and declines. They write that “[i]t was the very size and untypicality [sic] of London that made it seem advisable to make separate estimates of the numbers of ecclesiastical [population] events occurring there and to incorporate them explicitly in the estimated national totals of events[…]” (170). Similarly, Black and MacRaild note that the population growth that dominated Victorian Britain was overshadowed by that which was seen in London, specifically. They write that “[b]etween 1861 and 1911, it [London] burgeoned from 2.8 m[illion] to 4.5 m[illion] inhabitants. While much of this was due to net immigration, natural increase accounted for 85 per cent of all growth by the end of the century” (81). According to Wrigley and Schofield, London’s population “boom” began to take hold at the beginning of the nineteenth century when London comprised 3.6% of the entire total population of England (168). For Wrigley and Schofield, as for Woods, the nineteenth century marked a turning point in London’s population trends, which continued to grow exponentially throughout the rest of the century. Black and MacRaild write that the total population of England in the mid-nineteenth century was 17.93 million, booming to 29 million by the end of the century. While the urban population made up 50.2% of the total population of 17.93 million in 1851, by 1891, the urban population comprised 72% of the 29 million residents of England. Black and MacRaild, similar to Wrigley and Schofield, argue that London, due to its immense size, made up the majority of this “urban population” (80). While the traditional Malthusian checks to population increase were greatly reduced in the new highly-industrialized Victorian England, particularly in London the Victorian population boom produced an overtly new form of society, one that was just as miserable as Malthus’ “lower orders.” As Woods argues, overcrowding and dwindling resources did have an effect on London society. He writes that

[t]he crowding together of people affected disease patterns, especially those of infectious diseases; it created a more lethal sanitary environment; and it also led to new, higher and more concentrated levels of air pollution. These hazards were faced by all those living in cities, but there were other problems—those associated with poverty and type of employment, with housing and diet—whose effects were borne differentially depending on one’s social group or class. (27-28)

This is exactly the society that Gissing and his fellow Aesthetes attempt to illustrate in their late-Victorian novels.

       The London that Gissing’s Madden sisters inhabit is crowded and over-stimulating, an indication of the overpopulation seen at the end of the nineteenth century. This overcrowding has a clearly visible effect on the individual. After the death of her father, Virginia Madden finds herself living in London with her sister Alice in a small, single-room apartment, struggling to survive. Gissing writes that

Virginia (about thirty-three) had[…]an unhealthy look, but the poverty, or vitiation, of her blood manifested itself in less unsightly forms[…]For she was rapidly ageing; her lax lips grew laxer, with emphasis of a characteristic one would rather not have perceived there; her eyes sank into deeper hollows; wrinkles extended their net-work; the flesh of her neck wore away. Her tall meagre body did not seem strong enough to hold itself upright. (14)

It is clear that the mix of the overpopulated London and lack of resources has taken a toll on Virginia’s health. As she sits down for lunch with her sister, we see the extent of their problem. Gissing writes:

[t]hey were preparing their mid-day meal, the substantial repast of the day. In a little saucepan on an oil cooking-stove was some plain rice, bubbling, as Alice stirred it. Virginia fetched from downstairs[…]bread, butter, cheese, a pot of preserve, and arranged the table[…]at which they were accustomed to eat. The rice being ready, it was turned out in two portions; made savoury with a little butter, pepper, and salt, it invited them to sit down. (17)

The Madden sisters at once illustrate the Malthusian population problems facing London at the end of the nineteenth century: an overpopulated, overcrowded city, struggling (in a Darwinian way) for resources and survival.

       We see the full effect of the city on the individual when Virginia ventures out to buy a present for her other surviving sister, Monica. Gissing writes that

“[a] very long walk was before her. She wished to get as far as the Strand book-shops, not only for the sake of choice, but because this region pleased her and gave her a sense of holiday. Past Battersea Park, over Chelsea Bridge, then the weary stretch to Victoria Station, and the upward labour to Charing Cross. Five miles, at least, measured by pavement. But Virginia walked quickly[…]. (22)

Throughout her “quick walk,” the fast pace of London life takes a toll on Virginia. Gissing makes references to the “anxiety” and “clamorous life” that she finds throughout London. Ultimately, it is this “anxiety” that causes Virginia to turn back from her “holiday.” As she approaches the railroad in order to return home, Gissing writes that “[a]t the entrance [to Charing Cross Station] again she stopped. Her features were now working in the strangest way, as though a difficulty of breathing had assailed her. In her eyes was an eager, yet frightened look; her lips stood apart. Another quick movement, and she entered the station. She went straight to the door of the refreshment room…” (23). Virginia’s movements, like the technologically-driven London environment, become quicker and more mechanical, as she becomes “one” with the industrial, “maddening” city. In the refreshment room, Virginia seeks out solace and begins to establish a pattern and a means of coping with life in the overpopulated and over-stimulated London. Gissing writes that “[b]ending forward, she said to the barmaid in a voice just above a whisper: ‘Kindly give me a little brandy.’ Beads of perspiration were on her face, which had turned to a ghastly pallor. The barmaid, concluding that she was ill, served her promptly and with a sympathetic look” (23). It is clear that the cacophonous city has had an effect on Virginia. By the end of the novel, the extent of Virginia’s drinking problem is clear, as she strives to find a way to survive in London. After the “scandal” of Monica’s “affair,” we see Virginia alone in the room she shares with Alice and Monica, turning once again to gin and water for respite. Gissing writes that this was “[t]he last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself[…]If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy” (333). Invocative of the vice of which Malthus warned would envelop the working classes, overwhelmed by the overpopulated city and their struggle to survive there, Virginia turns to drink in order to calm her nerves. Gissing writes that

[h]er bottle was almost empty; she would finish it to-night[…]To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her and her novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice[…]Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated classes. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whiskey she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. (333-334)

Virginia turns to alcohol to calm her nerves from the over-stimulation wrought by the crowded, fast-paced city. What is clear in Virginia’s alcoholism is that the overpopulated city has had an effect on her, biologically and psychologically.

       Just like Virginia Madden, the few men who populate Gissing’s London are altered radically, essentially devolved, by the influences of the overpopulated city. The first man (of the few) we encounter in the novel is clearly altered by his surroundings. As Monica wanders in the park on her birthday, contemplating her precarious fate, her future husband, Edmund Widdowson, approaches her as she sits in the grass.[9] Gissing writes that

[t]he gravity of his appearance and manner, the good-natured commonplace that fell from his lips, could not alarm her; a dialogue began, and went on for about half an hour. How old might he be?[…]His utterance fell short of perfect refinement, but seemed that of an educated man. And certainly his clothes were such as a gentleman wears. He had thin, hairy hands, unmarked by any effect of labour; the nails could not have been better cared for. (38)

Edmund’s appearance indicates, other than his class, that he is “soft” and not used to working with his hands, contrary to the industrial male laborer. The men who populate industrial London are effeminate and weak in this way. As Edmund “courts” Monica, he essentially stalks her, manipulating her through his fits of heightened emotions, effectually bullying her into a miserable marriage. Similarly, Mary Barfoot’s cousin, Everard, is portrayed just as effeminately. After returning to London from his journeys around the world, Everard dines at Mary’s house. Gissing writes that

[h]e had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard[…]inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing[…]On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest [sic] ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful[…]he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. (88)

Though Everard appears physically healthy and masculine, one could argue that his healthy demeanor is derived from his time abroad[10] and is undermined by his speech and mannerisms. Everard and Edmund are the inverted effete “new men” who counterbalance the populous “new women,” and who take up the traditional “masculine” roles in order to survive in an increasingly effeminate world.

       The industrial late-Victorian city was overrun with people; however, the people who overran this city were predominantly women, as Gissing’s novel illustrates. This indicates a drastic shift in the population demographics that marked the Victorian population boom. Many factors contributed to the evolving demographic changes in the Victorian industrial city. Black and MacRaild state that “[t]hroughout the century, women outnumbered men. Industrial accidents and wars took a heavier toll on men and accentuated the statistical fact that live female births were anyway more numerous than male” (57). By the time Gissing’s novel appeared in 1893, the population ratio of women to men was 106 to 100 (Black and MacRaild 57). At heart in Gissing’s The Odd Women is the way these women view their function and place within this new, overpopulated, predominantly feminine world.

       The state of marriage seen in The Odd Women is indicative of the predicament in which late-Victorian women found themselves: outnumbering men proportionately, women in the late-nineteenth century had to turn to other means in order to support themselves. Though one of the population checks for which Malthus advocates is the postponement of marriage, particularly among the “lower orders,” Gissing’s “odd women” do not have that luxury; instead, they are the very women left over after all of the “available” men and women have been “matched.” Poole writes that “[t]he theme of the novel is explicit. The ‘odd women’ are the unwanted, unmarried minority, being quietly crucified on the social fiat that a woman’s role is marriage and motherhood” (186). In lieu of marriage, Gissing’s “odd women” turn to other means in order to survive: education and the professional workforce. This alternative echoes one of Malthus’s positive checks to population growth; however, in Gissing’s novel, this alternative is not simply an alternative, but a means of survival. Emma Liggins writes that “[b]y the early 1890s the female desire for greater economic independence, produced by the lack of financial support available from fathers and the increasing surplus of single women, ensured that more women than ever before felt compelled to enter the labour market” (ix). This “viable solution” appears quite early in Gissing’s novel. When she visits the Madden sisters to “recruit” them, Rhoda Nunn lays out the new mode of survival for women in this overpopulated, industrial society. She states that

I went to Bristol to learn everything I could that would help me out of school-life. Shorthand, book-keeping, commercial correspondence—I had lessons in them all, and worked desperately for a year [responding to a job offer, Rhoda leaves Bath and moves to London]. It was a move towards London, and I couldn’t rest till I had come the whole way. My first engagement here was as a shorthand writer to the secretary of a company. But he soon wanted some one who could use a type-writer. That was a suggestion. I went to learn type-writing, and the lady who taught me [Mary Barfoot] asked me in the end to stay with her as an assistant. (27)

Rhoda’s practical education serves as a means of survival in the absence of marriage. As an assistant to Mary Barfoot, Rhoda’s career in life is to help train and educate the unmarried “odd women,” so they may survive outside the economic and social institution of marriage. She says that Ms. Barfoot “makes it her object to train young girls for work in offices, teaching them the things that I learnt in Bristol and type-writing as well” (27-28). Ms. Barfoot’s school, in training the “odd women” in the skill of typewriting, allows the unmatchable women to enter the workforce, attempting to support themselves in the absence of eligible bachelors. By taking up traditionally “masculine” white-collar careers, the “odd women” effectively invert their own gender paradigms and “devolve” in the social hierarchy of industrial London society. Outpaced and outstripped of resources, these “odd women” cling to whatever means for survival.

       Gissing’s “odd women” negotiate their way through the increasingly industrial, overpopulated London in an attempt to survive in a period that witnessed a population boom on the scale of which Malthus had warned. Through looking at the “debates” surrounding the late-Victorian population boom, we can see how the Victorians themselves were concerned about the overpopulation of the industrial city, in particular, how the dwindling resources (in a Malthusian and Darwinian vein) available to urban residents occupied a special place in Victorian thought and created a sense of social “hysteria.” We see this in the devolutionary/degeneracy debates of the 1890s, as figures like Wells and Lankester debated the ability of mankind to survive life in an (overly-industrialized) overpopulated Victorian (mega) city. Gissing’s novel illustrates these anxieties circulating throughout late-Victorian society concerning futurity, population, sustenance, and cultural progress. While The Odd Women has conventionally been investigated through the feministic cultural work that it performs, when one looks at the philosophical history in which the novel is rooted, it is clear that Gissing’s novel is an approach to the “hysteria” facing late-Victorian England amidst the concerns about the overpopulation of the industrial city, and in particular, the individual’s ability to “adapt” (Darwinistically) to life in this overpopulated, over-industrialized city.

Works Cited

Black, Jeremy and Donald M. MacRaild. Nineteenth-Century Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Bowler, Peter. “Malthus, Darwin, and the Concept of Struggle,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37:4 (Oct.-Dec. 1976): 631-650. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Gissing, George. The Odd Women, reissue, Patricia Ingham, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, revised seventh edition. New York: Touchstone, 1999. Print.

Lankester, Edwin Ray. “Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism.” The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Liggins, Emma. George Gissing, the Working Woman, and Urban Culture. Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Malthus, Thomas. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, m. Condorcet, and Other Writers. <> Web. 3 September 2012.

Maltz, Diana. “Practical Aesthetics and Decadent Rationale in George Gissing,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28:1 (2000): 55-71. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Nordau, Max. “Degeneration,” in Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, Laura Otis, ed. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Aesthetics of Fear,” Salmagundi 120 (Fall 1998): 176-185. JSTOR. Web. 21 March 2013.

Poole, Adrian. Gissing in Context. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1975. Print.

Selig, Robert. George Gissing, revised edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.

Shrimpton, Nicholas. “‘Lane, you’re a perfect pessimist’: Pessimism and the English Fin de siècle,” The Yearbook of English Studies, From Decadent to Modernist: And Other Essays 37:1 (2007) 41-57. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Spencer, Kathleen. “Purity and Danger: Dracula, the Urban Gothic, and the Late Victorian Degeneracy Crisis,” ELH 59:1 (Spring 1992): 197-225. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2013.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, Stephen Barker, transl. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

Symons, Arthur. “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Walasek, Helen, ed. The Best of Punch Cartoons: 2,000 Humor Classics. New York: Overlook Press, 2009. Print.

Wells, H.G. “Zoological Retrogression,” in The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, eds. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Woods, Robert. The Demography of Victorian England and Wales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wrigley, E.A. and R.S. Shofield. The Population History of England 1541-1871: A reconstruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.


[1] Here, “devolution” and “degeneration” are interchangeable terms, as both concepts are interested in humanity’s evolutionary progress.

[2] We could posit that the “evolving environments” in which humanity now found itself was the overpopulated city, overrun with technology as mankind attempted to find his place in this new overpopulated landscape, in this instance, through the mediation of technology.

[3] The late-Victorian Aesthetic movement had many currents. Diana Maltz writes that Gissing participated in all forms of the Aesthetic movement, whether the Decadence of Gissing’s early formative years or the anti-Aestheticism, advocated by Walter Pater, in Gissing’s later texts, in particular, The Odd Women.

[4] It is interesting to note that Symons’ treatise on literary decadence was published in the same year as Gissing’s novel.

[5] Malthus’ voice sounds remarkably similar to the “doom-and-gloom” pessimists of the late nineteenth century. Very early in his Essay, he writes that “[i]t has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived [sic] improvement, or be condemned to perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal” (1).

[6] Peter Bowler makes the correlation between Malthus and Darwin in tracing the two types of struggle. He writes that “[…]the competition between the different individuals of the same species to see which of them shall survive and reproduce[…]” is the very root of the Darwinian, and one could claim, Malthusian, struggle for survival.

[7] Bowler writes that “[s]ince the supply of food can never be increased at the same rate as the population, the number of births must be artificially limited if misery is to be avoided. But Malthus classed birth control as a vice, and hence came to feel that the only solution lay in teaching the whole population the need for moral restraint” (642).

[8] Yet the industrial technologies that allowed the Victorian population boom exacerbated the very miseries of life in an overpopulated and over-industrialized world that we see in Gissing’s novel.’

[9] Widdowson’s audacity to approach a “lady” sitting alone in the park should be a marker for Victorian readers. This is indicative of an imbalance seen in Widdowson, one that is characteristic of his behavior and heightened emotions.

[10] Everard, who Gissing notes has spent his time traveling the world, in Egypt, Turkey, Spain, and Japan, lives a life of effeminate luxury, the very life denied to the Madden sisters.

“The Omnipotence of Simulacra”: Tracing the Evolution of the Simulacrum Throughout the History of Theory, Criticism, and Human Subjectivity

by Joshua Commander


“The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace” writes Jacques Derrida in his pivotal book La Dissémination — an observation which proves especially germane when endeavoring to dis-simulate the woven and (perhaps inextricably) entangled texture of simulation as well as the simulacrum’s role throughout the history of human subjectivity and literary theory (Derrida 1697). While Jean Baudrillard notes in “The Precession of Simulacra” that “the precession of simulacra” is now “here, everywhere[…] in a world completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real, in a world of simulation,” such a world has nonetheless been with us since antiquity” (1562). From Plato’s Idea of God to Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the silent precession and procession of simulacra has accompanied the evolution of Western civilization and literary theory for millennia — a procession that has only gained momentum over the centuries, a procession that is forever-present despite its tendency to signify only absence. By using Baudrillard’s theoretical framework to reveal the masked presence of simulation in Plato’s Ideal Forms, Augustine’s interpretation of biblical scripture, the mirror stage of psychosexual development, constructions of the “Other,” mimicry and metonymy of presence, and the persistent human desire for a (mythic) visible past in literary theory and criticism, we will find that simulacra has not only evolved along with us in our cultural development, but perhaps that we too are nothing other than simulacra ourselves. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

       According to Plato, “any given plurality of things which have a single name constitutes a single specific type”—an Idea or Form—in which “God” is the creator of its original, perfect, and transcendent form, and any subsequent earthly reproductions are but imperfect imitations of that “Ideal” (65). In Book X of the Republic, Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon serves to establish the Platonic order of things, but also anticipates the first two phases of the image that Baudrillard identifies in “The Precession of Simulacra” (Baudrillard 1560). Using a bed as an example, Socrates explains to Glaucon its three manifestations: first is the “real” one, the “product of divine craftsmanship”; second is the physical manifestation of the bed here on earth—the one the joiner produces; and lastly is the artistic reproduction of the bed, fashioned by a painter (Plato 66). Socrates and Glaucon move on to classify “God” as the bed’s “progenitor” (because it is God who produced the only “real bed”), the joiner as its “manufacturer,” and the painter as its “representer” (a label extended to all painters, playwrights, and poets) since s/he [2] “deals with things which are, in fact, two generations away from reality” (66). If we take Plato’s theory at face-value, his second classification of a thing—in the given example, the joiner’s bed—also fulfills Baudrillard’s criterion for the first order of simulation: a “reflection of a basic reality”; his third category, the product of a representer, then fulfills the second phase of the image since a “low-grade mother like representation” is not only “far from the truth,” but also “masks and perverts a basic reality”—both Plato and Baudrillard would agree with its classification of “an evil appearance” which belongs to “the order of malefice” (Plato 72; Baudrillard 1560). Plato and Baudrillard’s agreement ends there, however, for while the former considers his Idea of God an irrefutable reality, the latter considers it to be little more than an anthropocentric phantasm, a specter of tradition and a culturally-constructed illusion (1559). Indeed, according to Baudrillard’s subsection of his treatise titled “The Divine Irreference of Images,” the purportedly “real” Platonic Forms created by “God”— including “the Platonic Idea of God”—amount to nothing other than their own pure simulacra since they reference (in text, speech, or other images) things that do not exist and therefore mask only absences and bear “no relation to any reality whatever”—in short, they “dissimulate that there is nothing” (1559-60).

       Far from confining the “simulacrum of divinity” to Platonic Ideals, however, Baudrillard holds that “[a]ll of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange—God, of course” (1559, 1560). The vessel through which Augustine of Hippo grounds his theories of how signs function—his interpretation of (and evident belief in) biblical scripture—is a case in point. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine instructs the gentle reader on the proper method of dealing with “the ambiguities of metaphorical words” in texts: first and foremost, one must take especial care not to mistake a figurative expression for a literal one lest that expression be “understood in a carnal way” (160). He exemplifies such a spiritual oversight by relating that when an individual hears the word ‘sabbath’ and literally construes it as merely one of the calendar days of a week instead of taking into account its figurative significance (as a day commemorating the resurrection of Christ), s/he is subject to “a miserable kind of spiritual slavery” and is “incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light” (160). Augustine equates the inability to recognize figurative language to “spiritual slavery” because what is at stake here is not merely a misunderstanding of meaning, but the possibility that the reader might not recognize the ‘divine truth’ of “the word of God” in his/her interpretation of scriptural text (157). As Baudrillard explains, “[t]o simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. [It] implies[…]an absence”—but simulation is not merely limited to feigning; like an individual who simulates sickness and generates psychosomatic symptoms, the biblical advocate (Augustine) also unconsciously simulates belief in “the word of God” and in so doing generates conviction based on “an uninterrupted circuit without reference,” thereby threatening “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard 1558-60; Augustine 157). Not unlike Plato’s Idea of God, Augustine’s “invisible attributes of God” have been “volatized into simulacra”—biblical texts—“which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination,” therein masking the devastating truth “that ultimately there has never been any God, that only the simulacrum exists, indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum” (Augustine 157; Baudrillard 1559).

       The simulacrum’s role in human subjectivity is not limited to its manifestations as religious texts, however; indeed, its grasp first takes hold on an individual level the very moment an infant approaches the gateway to the imaginary order: the mirror stage. As Plato illustrates via Socrates and Glaucon’s dialogue:

Socrates: [G]et hold of a mirror and carry it around with you everywhere. You’ll soon be creating everything.

Glaucon: Yes, but I’d be creating appearances, not actual real things. (Plato 65)

So too does a young child create merely an appearance during its initial méconnaissance of itself, an appearance s/he mistakes for the real thing. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” Jacques Lacan describes the transformation that a subject undergoes when s/he first (mis)recognizes her/himself in the mirror: the infant jubilantly identifies with the seeming wholeness of its specular form, but this form only serves to situate “the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming into being[…] of the subject asymptotically” (1164-65)[4]. Thus, the child’s reflection occupies the second phase of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image”: as an image [5] forever in “discordance with [the subject’s] own reality,” it is of the second order of simulation in that “it masks and perverts a basic reality” by depicting a figure of wholeness while simultaneously representing only an “exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (Baudrillard 1560; Lacan 1165). In this way, the specular image can also be read as a text, just as a text can also be read as a second-order simulacrum: according to Jacques Derrida, “[a] text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible”(1697)[6].

       And yet, “the spectral light of ethnology” can at times appear to illuminate some of the darker passages of texts, but in reality this “fourth dimension[…]of the simulacrum” only serves to further obscure them—as Edward Said so ably demonstrates in his groundbreaking work Orientalism (Baudrillard 1562). Not unlike the incomplete image that a reflection provides a subject, Edward Said writes that “Orientalism is premised on exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West”; indeed, the Western conception of the Orient is so thoroughly composed of a continuous series of Western representations repeatedly mapped onto each other that Said contends that “[t]he Orient was almost a European invention” in that the latter’s culture was able to produce the former “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-enlightenment period” (1882, 1866, 1868). The Orient is therefore less an Eastern reality and more a Western fantasy, an endless succession of signs, images, texts, and representations that defines the East on the West’s terms—a phantasmagoric simulacrum that at once distorts, perverts, and masks the real presence of the East. The means by which this Oriental simulacrum is fashioned, of course, is via a sub-branch of ethnology—Orientalism—by a specialist of that ethnological field: the Orientalist. According to Said, the Orientalist is “[a]nyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient[…]either in its specific or general aspects,” whose work in turn produces seemingly scientific discourses that only result in the continued conquest and subjugation of the Orient (1867). In other words, “the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action”: in order for “ethnology [and Orientalism] to live, its object [the East] must die” (Said 1868; Baudrillard 1561).

       This ethnologically induced death also manifests itself in the form of what Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry” in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”; this death, however, is exacted as if it were administered via a double-edged sword without a hilt, simultaneously wounding its wielder as it dispatches its object—all the while generating its very own precession of simulacra. As Bhabha relates, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite” (126). To achieve its end, though, mimicry must not cease producing the said difference—what Bhabha calls “its slippage”—but it is that difference in itself which is also “a process of disavowal” that ironically “ensure[s] [the] strategic failure” of colonial appropriation, resulting in mimicry simultaneously functioning as both “ resemblance and menace” (127). The latter is self-evident and undeniable in the visible [7] aspect of mimicry: the colonized is “[a]lmost the same but not white,” which effectively unveils the inherent “ambivalence of colonial discourse” as well as undermines its narcissistic authority, therein furnishing itself with the inadvertent means to its own destruction (130). In the meantime, however, colonial mimicry’s “strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory ‘identity effects’” produces a mimetic Other with “no essence, no ‘itself’”; in brief, “mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask” (130-31). The resultant byproducts are colonized simulacra of the colonizers: individuals whose visible aspects mask an absence of self. On the other hand—and here can be descried the colonizers’ unconscious brandishing of yet another dual-edged blade without a hilt—the apparent ease with which colonized Others may perform the cultural codes of the colonial authority reveals precisely how hollow that authority’s claim to cultural superiority really is: not unlike the replica made just five-hundred meters away from the original caves of Lascaux, “the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial” (Baudrillard 1563). Both colonized and colonizer are reduced to simulacra by the latter’s counterproductive, and ultimately ineffective, strategic objectives to maintain power.

       Moreover, those self-serving strategic objectives also take shape in yet another form: the “inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse” that Bhabha calls the “metonymy of presence” (130). These include, according to Bhabha, “the difference between being English and being Anglicized[…]the discriminatory [stereotypical] identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications, the Simian Black, the Lying Asiatic”—and also, as Edward Said has identified, the Oriental (Bhabha 130). Bhabha styles such racist sweeping generalizations as metonymies of presence because these stereotypes represent a presence in part, a part that is intended to masquerade as a whole. In other words, these stereotypes are third-order simulacra: each stereotype “plays at being an appearance,” each “masks the absence of a basic reality”—the absence of an accurate representation of the Other (Baudrillard 1560). Consider the Occident’s stereotypical depiction of the Oriental: the Oriental female is represented as being strikingly exotic and overly eager for domination; the Oriental male is portrayed as feminine, weak, but also oddly threatening in that his untamed sexuality places Western white women in apparent jeopardy; and the West’s sweeping personification of the Orient “exhibits supine malleability and feminine penetrability” and is viewed as eccentric, backward, silently different, passive, sensual, despotic, and cruel (Said 1868; Said 2, 206). Said stresses the importance of viewing such representations as precisely that: re-presentations. According to Said, “[i]n any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a represence, or representation” (1883). Indeed, written accounts depicting Western stereotypes of the Oriental therefore depend very little on actual individuals; “on the contrary,” Said writes, “the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of it having excluded, displaced, [8] made supererogatory any such real thing as the Orient[al]” (1883). Said’s classification of the West’s “represence” of the Orient and the Oriental testify to the legitimacy of Baudrillard’s claim that “simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum,” since such stereotypical representations have progressed from masking and perverting a basic reality, to masking the absence of a basic reality by virtue of excluding and displacing it, and then finally to bearing very little relation to any reality whatsoever in its policy of simultaneous exclusion and alteration; in other words, such a stereotypical depiction of the Oriental is but the simulacrum of the highest order (Baudrillard 1560).

       “We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them” (Baudrillard 1563). Donna Haraway, in her critical essay entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” would qualify Baudrillard’s disillusioned observation with the need for novelty: we need a new past, “retold stories, versions that reverse and displace hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”; and indeed, she answers her own clarion call by constructing her own “ironic faith, [her] blasphemy,” in “the image of the cyborg” (2215, 2190). Unlike the central myths of origin that masquerade as divine histories, the cyborg embraces its existential indeterminacy as “a creature of fiction” and “a creature of social reality”—a creature after our own hearts, for the cyborg’s very composition mirrors our own: we too are part fiction, part social reality, the latter being nothing more than “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction” (2190)[9]. Cyborgs, like ourselves, “are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” and there is a certain legitimacy to be had in recognizing one’s own illegitimacy: in recognizing the illegitimacy of the origin myths that have colonized our minds and governed our existence for millennia, we liberate ourselves from believing that the fictional dictates we have always lived by are facts—and can now live a fiction of our own choosing (2192). For whether we persist in believing that we were created in a fictional “god’s” image, or if we choose to re-create ourselves in the cyborg’s image, or if we abandon the question entirely, the end result is the same: we are all of the highest order of simulacra, images that bear no relation to our real origins whatsoever simply because those origins are unverifiable, which leads us to instead forever construct ourselves on the basis of a simulated reality, a woven texture forever entangled with our subjective experience. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

Works Cited

Augustine of Hippo. “From On Christian Teaching.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 154-62.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1556-566.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28. Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring, 1984): 125-33. JSTOR. The MIT Press. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. “From La Dissémination.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1697-734.

—. “From Of Grammatology.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1688-696.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 2190-220.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1163-169.

Plato. “From Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 45-77.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1977.

—. “From Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1861-888.


[1] “The Omnipotence of Simulacra” appears in Baudrillard, 1559.

[2] I employ the gender-neutral, and more egalitarian, pronoun not out of ignorance—I understand that during the Hellenic era women were not as likely as men to be “representers” (painters, poets, tragedians, etc.)—but out of preference. This same usage will follow throughout.

[3] This is the reason why Baudrillard attributes his epigraph—“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”—to Ecclesiastes; not because this epigraph is found in the Old Testament book of that name, but because that is what a preacher (what “Ecclesiastes” means in Ancient Greek) as an alleged representative of “God” on earth is: a simulacrum, a signifier that has no corresponding signified (1556). By extension, the church (what “ecclesia” came to mean in Greece when Christianity was introduced), as the house of God, is also its own simulacrum: its existence is based on the object of its faith—a mythic object that does not exist.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Which Lacan calls the Gestalt (1165).

[6] My emphasis.

[7] Bhabha brilliantly plays off the layered meanings of terms—reminiscent of Derrida’s development of the linguistic concept of the “trace” in his analysis of Rousseau’s use of the term supplement—when he notes that “the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the sight of interdiction. It is a form of colonial discourse that is uttered inter dicta,” because the Latin phrase “inter dicta” means “between,” but when combined to one term, “interdicta,” it means “forbidden” (Derrida 1691; Bhabha 130). Both meanings, of course, at once apply to his usage and highlight the characteristic ambivalence of mimicry.

[8] My emphasis.

[9] My emphasis.

Is Doctoral Study Right for You?

Presented by Ellen Peel
Professor of English and Comparative & World Literature

Thursday, September 11
4:30–5:55 p.m.
HUM 587

All graduate and undergraduate students considering applying to a Ph.D. program are invited, especially those with a major in the College of Liberal & Creative Arts.

Sponsored by the College of Liberal & Creative Arts

Traveling Through Fantastic Modernity: Reconsidering Time Travel Fiction as a Landmark of Historical Fiction

by Baoli Yang

Regarding denial of the historical features of time travel fiction and the confusion about the identification of this genre, I propose that literary genres are not mutually exclusive categorizations but perspectives through which different aspects of literary texts can be enlightened. Some time travel fiction in world literature can actually facilitate modern audiences to approach  and understand  historical events and formulate a historical consciousness more easily. Thus, time travel fiction can be regarded as a sub-genre of historical fiction. This paper will compare “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee, “Incident at Sokolniki” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and Laughing Wolf by Tsushima Yuko, to discuss how time travel fiction engenders personal empathy by using the history of personal experience which reconstitutes an individual’s national identity. These three works highlight the confrontations of human trauma in their collective history or personal memory. Structurally, time travel fiction creates defamilarization of historical events by manipulating “chronotopes” and forming novel patterns of fabula and sjuzet.  From the perspective of affect theory, time travel literature subjectifies history and opens a new avenue for historical awareness. These texts show that time travel as a device does not inhibit the preservation of informative historical accuracy or the production of an imaginary empathetic power for the modern reader, but rather celebrates emotions and feelings that were not recorded in historiography. Furthermore, the rise of time travel fiction symbolizes a new morality in the writing of realism in modern times.

In March 2011, under the pretext of preventing their audience from receiving an inaccurate perception of history, the government of China banned a number of popular time travel television dramas which had characters traveling back and forth between the past and the present. Most of these time travel dramas are based on popular fictions. Their official censorship announcement reads: “[…]several time travel dramas have arbitrarily fabricated mythical stories with strange and quirky plots, their means of expression is absurd and they depict superstition, fatalism and reincarnation […] In light of this, hopefully all the institutions involved in their production will rectify the ideology of their creative output…” “别申报备案的神怪剧和穿越剧,随意编纂神话故事,情节怪异离奇,手法荒诞,甚至渲染封建迷信、宿命论和轮回转世…对此,希望各制作机构端正创作思想…( The State Administration of Radio Film and Television)[i].  In a conference explaining the announcement, a government spokesman expressed special concern over the classification of time travel themes: “apparently [time travel dramas] do not fit into any of the categories of costume, modern or mythical drama.” He also pointed out: “now there is no conception of history in the prevailing time travel fiction and the connotation of the whole genre has no positive influence… it has no respect for history or culture.” “古装、现代、神话似乎都不合适。穿越剧可以成为题材百花齐放的品种,但题材内容表现方式有很多可商榷的地方。…现在穿越剧毫无历史观可言…对历史文化不尊重。(  Chinese censorship betrays a certain dangerous and threatening, yet seductive, attractiveness of the time travel theme, which is powerful enough to confuse the audience’s perception of the historical past and literary genres. At the same time, this announcement discredited the attribution of literary creativity and the possibility of serious reflection on history in the time travel genre.[ii]

Since the publication of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, traditional Western literary criticism has mainly regarded themes of time travel as science fiction.[iii] This categorization has prevailed, thus contributing to the abundant output in the genres of literature, film and other media. For example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, both of which did not emphasize the aspect of science fiction.. However, there are also some doubts about this, from insiders such as Paul Nahin, a mentor to time travel fiction authors, who comments: “The only place you could find people writing positively about time travel and time machines was in science fiction, and even science fiction writers didn’t really believe the concept was anything more than a fantasy. They wrote time travel stories because readers loved the idea, and editors would pay for what the writers produced” (2). H.G. Wells explained how he arrived at this realization: “[Works of time travel fiction] are all fantasies, they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream”(Nahin, 6-7). These two opinions on the classification of time travel are based on the plausible probability that it could technically happen in real life.

However, similar to Chinese censorship, Nahin fails to explain why audiences fancy this “nonsense” genre. Consistent with banning time travel fiction in China, the views of Nahin and H. G. Wells convey that time travel fiction has nothing to do with reality and history.  Therefore, they consider time travel narratives as fantasy, namely “self-coherent narrative[s] that [are] impossible in the world we live in.”[iv]  Since fantasy is strongly connected to “unrealistic” narratives, the perspective of realism would view time travel fiction as ahistorical, and thus deprived of a specific, real-world history.

The aforementioned attempts at categorization reveal an endeavor to recognize literary works by means of fixed taxonomies of mutually exclusive literary genres in order to seek the text’s “absolute truth.” However, many literary critics have challenged the stability of these concepts with respect to the genre of narrative. Jonathan Culler asserts that genre is “a set of expectations, a set of instructions about the type of coherence one is to look for, and the ways in which sequences are to be read” (Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach 51). Similarly, Foucault points out in The Order of Things, that categorization is “a limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that (xv). With novels as an example of literary narratives, Mikhail Bakhtin notices their rise in modern times, but also states that “the novel precisely as a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development” (11).  While Culler reveals the psychological motivation behind labeling genres onto literary texts,  Foucault challenges the legitimacy of categorization. Nevertheless, by the comparison of narratological features of epic and novel, Bakhtin argues that even if we are justified to discuss the genre of the representative of the “absolute past,” namely the epic, it is premature to judge the genre of the representative of lengthy prose narrative, namely, the novel. Notably, Bakhtin does not deny the necessity of genres when discussing prose works – he also suggests that there could be new perspectives with which to view this issue.

Bakhtin implies that any literary text is a heteroglossic locale and has various identities within literary genres and could thus meet various subject expectations. Any conclusion regarding time travel fiction as representative of a single genre only highlights one aspect of the whole narrative. The attempts to categorize the time travel theme suggest multiple possible interpretations from the perspective of various literary genres as long as the classifications are all relevant to the texts. Time travel could be seen in ancient drama to reveal  traditional lifestyles, modern drama to show modern trends, myth to idealize national origins, or science fiction that displays advanced scientific inventions or fantasy involving the supernatural. Because time travel pays strong attention to the changes of time, we could also expect to read this genre as historical fiction.

Strikingly, critics from both East and West have rebuked the idea that texts featuring elements pertaining to time travel could also relate to the genres of historical fiction or realism. These critics arbitrarily assume that time travel fiction completely fails to meet certain expectations people have for the genre of historical fiction. So then, what are people’s expectations of historical fiction? To what extent is it true that time travel fiction does not fit the criteria of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is far more complicated than mere prose narrative that is “set in the past” or a “fictitious narrative […] that makes use of historical personages or events.”( Murfin and Ray 157).  First of all, history should play a significant role in the plot of this genre: “in serious examples of this genre, historical events, processes, and issues are central to the story line rather than providing peripheral or decorative touches” (Murfin and Ray 156). Since human      perceptions of linear and progressive time are the basis of truth,” it is reasonable to follow that  human perceptions of these aspects are needed to write  convincing historical fiction. Therefore, historical fiction is a sub-genre of realism. Even though authors could use narrative techniques, (such as flashbacks) to manipulate the representations of time in fiction, the causality of plots still indicates a coherent linear time inside the texts. If time travel fiction disturbs human perceptions of linear time and challenges the causality, it could be easily charged as “the other” of historical fiction. Thus, the conventional historical novel established its legitimacy by giving audiences the impression of linear time. Accordingly, Sir Walter Scott shows that “linear time” becomes a moral code for the conventional writing of historical fiction.

However, history does not only manifest itself via linear time. In addition, history is about human and human feelings. When discussing the purpose of historical fiction, many critics have used “historical novels” as examples: “historical novels are often vehicles for their authors’ insights into historical figures and their influences or into the causes and consequences of historical events, changes, or movements.” (Murfin and Ray 157) In other words, historical fiction expresses an author’s reflections on the causality related to history through certain personages in certain historical settings. Moreover, the role of historical events, changes or movements, and the characters themselves, should have interactions with and impact one other. Nicola Chiaromonte noted the irretrievable duality in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and pointed out that “historical events [… appear] as a series of happenings that have neither meaning nor rationality, insofar as they do not spring directly from the ‘normal’ existence of individuals, and have no clear connection with their ordinary motives” (32)  In this sense, Tolstoy does not represent the ways in which history is involved with individuals, especially their personal lives, he only “exposes rather than solves the antinomies inherent in a rationalistic view of history.”(Chiaromonte 35)

Georg Lukacs intensifies the interplay between history and the individual by emphasizing the importance of characters to convey the meaning behind historical fiction: “What matters[…]in the historical novel is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel and act just as they did in historical reality” (42).  Therefore, the accurate “retelling” or restoration of historical facts is not the major expectation of historical fiction for Lukacs, but rather the transmission of human feelings and emotions under certain historical conditions is the prime task that historical fiction is required to fulfill. Lukacs tries to shift the core of historical fiction from the representation of historical events to the impact of history onto human beings. As a result, linear time is not the central concern for historical fiction. Lukacs’ argument bears a new ethic in the writing of historical fiction, which gives full attention to a more humanistic mentality in certain historical periods. Indeed,  the genre of time travel  serves as a good example for the new ethics of historical fiction.

Time travel fiction can be defined as an imaginative work which violates mans’ biological perceptions of linear time; it creates interactions of events and characters in different temporal and spatial zones, and therefore presents characteristic patterns of  a “chronotope.”[v]  Time travel fiction does disturb  the linear time-frame from which people normally rationalize history, while seemingly violating the Marxist progressive stages of history developments and betraying the principles of realism.  Therefore it goes against the “totality of the life” (Lukacs 219).   In contrast, conventional representations of history in literary works, such as those by Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare, intended to abide by linear time and attempted to imitate reality. However, should linear time as “an objective presentation of details and events” set the criteria for historical fiction ? (Murfin and Ray 329). Can fiction with a time travel theme be an alternative which reveals the aforementioned “poetic awakenings in history?”

Jerome de Groot discusses the function of realism in The Historical Novel: “the realism of the novel allows the reader to engage with and empathize with historical individuals and thence gain a sense of their own historical specificity” (29).  Linear time, as a supposed mimetic reality,  facilitates “a subjective concentration on personal feelings, perceptions, and imaginings of various characters” (Murfin and Ray 329).  If the alternative presentation of time in fiction  functions equally or even more effectively in this regard, time itself may embody a “communicative intention” of historical fiction (Culler 53). Most works of time travel fiction deal with different historical periods, focusing on transitions and comparisons of time and space and underline the concern of communicating emotion evoked by historical specificity through dramatically transporting characters into different historical periods. Moreover, “time travel” as a scientific act or a supernatural phenomenon is just a device to catalyze or dramatize a plot and usually does not determine the nature of the entire text. Variations of time travel do not affect historical or realistic features if a fictional work possesses them and may even help grasp the zeitgeist of different periods.

Thematically, there are three directions of time travel in fiction: the past, the present and the future. Traveling to the future in a work such as The Time Machine is based on pure imagination, detached from history or reality, but the nature of “the future” is an anticipated  one, derived from an established past and present. Derrida dispelled this illusion of “future” by distinguishing it from “l’avenir”: “The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival” (Fagan 104).  Once a text depicts a future, it becomes an “artificial” future predicted by current historical assumptions. Therefore, “the future belongs to the ghosts” (Derrida 35).  In his book Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, Fredric Jameson further describes how utopia in science fiction functions as an unsatisfied wish-fulfillment that reflects reality: “Even the process of wish-fulfillment includes a kind of reality principle of its own, intent on not making things too easy for itself, accumulating the objections and the reality problems that stand in its way so as the more triumphantly and ‘realistically’ to overcome them” (83). In other words, time travel fiction transports characters to the future as a way to project a commentary on current affairs.  The “future” is a mirror facing the present. Human history, as such, is rooted in this sub-genre of time travel fiction.

The second sub-genre of time travel fiction in which characters travel back and forth between the past and the present creates comparable experiences in different times and spaces, highlights the discrepancies of the past and present, and enables people to perceive and enhance their awareness of history. From Homer’s Odyssey, wherein Odysseus meets his mother in the underworld to the Hollywood movie Men in Black 3, released in 2012, this mode of time travel has appeared in many works of world literature (and other mediums) across space and time. In these texts, imagined scientific developments are used to rationalize the settings, while in fantasy “time-slip” and supernatural events such as resurrections, accidents, and identity exchanges are employed to make time travel believable. No matter how the author explains time travel, they have to rely on the contrast between the former historical period and subsequent happenings to build two different time periods. Hence, this sub-genre is not ahistorical, but instead, it is intimately related to history.

Therefore, it would be advantageous to discuss time travel fiction from the perspective of historical fiction. Using three time travel works from modern world literature I will discuss the ways in which the theme of time-travel evokes historical awareness and elucidates human emotions under certain historical circumstances.

The first piece is a well-known work of time travel fiction in Chinese, the novella “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” by Lilian Lee (Li Bihua) from Hong Kong. The novella became especially famous after its 1989 movie adaption Fight and Love with a Terracotta Warrior, starring Zhang Yimou and Gong Li. The novella begins with a love story between General Meng Tianfang, who is appointed by the First Emperor of China to supervise the building of the latter’s mausoleum, and the Emperor’s maid Dong’er who was about to be dispatched overseas to search for the elixir of immortality for the emperor. The maid voluntarily sacrifices her life for the general and gives him the elixir which was made by an alchemist. However, the general is buried alive in the mausoleum when the emperor dies in 210 B.C. When a Japanese spy travels to northwestern China to steal treasures from the mausoleum during the turbulent 1930s, the general wakes up and falls in love with the spy’s companion, an actress, who resembles his former love Dong’er. The novella ends when Meng becomes a worker repairing antiquities in the state-owned museum of the unearthed mausoleum in 1989 and encounters another Japanese girl also resembling Dong’er. This work portrays a man who becomes immortal, similar to Virginia Woolf’s 1928 work Orlando, but General Meng is somewhat more stable and reflects more the historicity of the ancient period.

As the winner of the 2001 Osaragi Jiro Prize[vi] Laughing Wolf [vii] by Yuko Tsushima is set in postwar Japan. A twelve-year-old girl Yuki in Tokyo encounters a strange seventeen-year-old orphan Mitsuo who claims that she has witnessed her father’s suicide, which is then followed by Mitsuo kidnapping her. The two children travel around the country by train and observe all kinds of Japanese people suffering poverty, starvation, disease and despair in railway stations and on trains after the war. Eventually the girl is rescued by the police, but only after she develops an emotional attachment to her captor. This novel features intertextuality when the children quixotically co-play the roles of Akela and Mowgli in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and Remi and Capi in Noody’s Boy by Hecor Malot. Even stranger, news clippings about social events in Japan from 1945 to 1947 paralleling and corresponding to the narrative make their way into the latter part of the novel. We see aspects of time travel in that the  length of their travel and the time required do not correspond. The children have not traveled very far or very long, yet the novel begins in1959, during postwar Japan, and ends when the girl follows her mother home and sees the leaders of North and South Korea shaking hands on television, which happened in 2000. However, all of the inserted news clippings are dated from 1945-1947.

The Russian text “Incident in Sokolniki”[viii] by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya tells a ghost story set during wartime in the Soviet Union. Lida, who lives in Moscow, is married to a pilot, but one day she learns that her husband died when his plane was shot down. She attends the official funeral, yet only sees the coffin of her late husband. Afterword, a malnourished and pale man follows her and tells her that he is her husband. They live together again for a couple of months until the man asks her to bury his flight suit that he had  left in the forest. Lida goes to the forest and covers the flight suit with dirt. As soon as she finishes, the man disappears. That evening her husband appears in her dream, thanking her for burying his body. In this story, the  husband’s ghost must embrace his previous life by resuming his past relationship with Lida in order to obtain a proper burial for his corpse. The ghost enables Lida to reconnect with her marriage and live with her husband again for a period, even though she is unaware that the husband is only a ghost desperately trying to have his corpse buried.

All three of these fictional works are set in a specific historical past and contain explicit interactions between their characters and historical events. However, the authors chose different raw material with which to reconstruct the past and to depict historical details in different ways. Notably, they all emphasize the psychological trauma that history can inflict on human beings.

“A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” is set in three historical periods: the Chin (Qin) dynasty in 210 B.C., the Republican period in 1930s and the Communist period after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in 1974. Lee chose material from the “great history,” namely influential events in Chinese history with their corresponding historiography and cultural relics to demonstrate the veracity of her historical settings. The massive mausoleum of the First Emperor of China, which was built before the emperor’s death in 210 B.C., has now become a tourist site in northwest China. Ancient Chinese historiography, such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, and modern scholarship on Chinese archeology[ix] have provided detailed information about the building of the mausoleum and the emperor dispatched envoys who searched far and wide for magical elixirs. When General Meng wakes up and meets the flirtatious actress Zhu Lili, the plot imaginatively combines the notorious Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, the genesis of Chinese cinema since 1905, and the never-ending grave robbing of mausoleums. Lee unveils the third historical period, a new diplomatic and economic epoch in China[x] by arranging for Meng to encounter the female Japanese visitor.

Laughing Wolf includes various historical events following the defeat of Japan in WWII, but the author intentionally avoids choosing any examples of grand narrative in the historiography of that period. Instead, she draws from the “public history” ignored by mainstream historiography, while juxtaposing fiction with actual news clippings[xi] which reported minor crimes as well as peoples’ suffering during postwar Japan. The psychological suffering and living conditions during that period have not been of major concern to historians in that they are  briefly mentioned or totally ignored.[xii] Important sociopolitical and international topics such as Douglas MacArthur’s administration, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and Emperor Hirohito’s controversial Humanity Declaration focused on how postwar Japan was rescued, and subsequently sped forward to achieve economic success. Mainstream historiography offers some background for the novel but the emotional movement within the novel transcends the brief and impersonal data and generalizations found in history books.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” deals, in part, with “particular history,”[xiii] episodes from a commoner’s life in Moscow during WWII. Compared to the “Great World Patriotic War,” Lida’s husband’s death and burial is far too insignificant to note in a history book and Lida’s life as a widow is too mundane to be of interest. However, the story contains vivid details such as a “ration card,” an “abandoned pilot jacket,” “labor service” and “evacuated Moscow,” all of which lend strong political and historical specificity. As a feature of “Russianness,” proper burial of “the bad death” is a long-standing form of Russian superstition and custom.[xiv] Failure to perform this ritual reveals how their authoritarian government failed in its humanitarian obligations for its soldiers and how it impugned their human dignity even after death. Moreover, Lida is portrayed as a representative of Russian women who were witnesses and victims of the war. The encounters of Lida and her husband represent the norm in that immoral historical period and the suffering of both sexes in the Soviet Union.

The power of these three works does not derive from their accurate, impersonal facts portraying a grand picture of a historical movement or from some specious logic that reluctantly explains the causality of history, rather their literary charm lies in their ability to transmit the “poetic awakening of the people who figured” in historical events and leading the reader to re-experience historical realities.

A common theme of these three works is that they reveal the physical and mental suffering of the masses during the most traumatic moments in the history of their respective countries. They all frame their stories with romance but their goal is far more ambitious than merely telling stories about people in love. These cases of dysfunctional romantic love symptomize the damage inflicted on common morality and the disillusionment of basic desires in these chaotic historical periods. Lilian Lee, a Hong Kong writer, never visited the historical locations or directly experienced the historical transitions in mainland China she writes about, but imagines the suffering people confronted in ancient and modern China. In her novella, General Meng is buried alive in the mausoleum by the First Emperor’s command while the life and death of his lover depends on the capricious moods of those in power. Their romantic relationship exposes the cruelty of absolute power in ancient China. During the 1930’s General Meng’s genuine effort to resume his romance is unceasingly disrupted by the materialism of the object of his affection, Zhu Lili. The bombs and bullets of the war eventually force him to abandon his wishful thinking.

Born in 1947, the author of Laughing Wolf, Yuko Tsushima, possesses an instinctive sympathy for the people who suffer in her novel. The children traveling among the masses of the  displaced Japanese are also depressed by an absence of  home, hob, and hope. The reality of great despair and depression overshadows their childish fantasies to act out roles from works of fiction and eventually their games are discontinued in the middle of the novel. The girl’s forced separation from her captor after they have developed an intimacy and the massive crimes they encounter during their travels suggest how disconnected and devastated the Japanese were during the postwar period.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the authoress of “Incident at Sokolniki” maintained a strong stance of dissent toward the Soviet Union. In her story, she employs a ghost who returns to the human realm to ask his beloved wife for simple human decency in order to expose how common life was traumatized by the war and socialist governance. However, the loss of her husband and the fear of burying a corpse in the dark display the grief and mourning of one female’s unfortunate life beyond any written description. Her wish that they return to their normal marital life becomes disenchanted by the ghost’s intentional subterfuge. These three works successfully capture certain devastating moments in the most intimate of human relationships under exigent historical circumstances. Those moments manifest “poetic awakenings” that naturally evoke the emotional empathy of readers from any historical period. In addition, these three works also manage to reflect certain stable characteristics of their respective historical periods by portraying characters with specific historical features.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the artless general symbolizes simpleminded loyalty to his ruler and his love that lasts forever, a stubborn brave masculinity that only existed in pre-modernity, and a humble attitude towards life that has been lost in the commercialism and materialism of modernity. His archaic mentality results in torture, as he lives in the modern world, and his longing for his emperor and the old country persists throughout the novel. The contrast between his original obedient and committed lover Dong’er and the materialistic and superficial actress Zhu Lili reflect the dramatic historical transition of human mentality during the intervening two thousand years. Even though Zhu is moved by Meng’s loyal affectation towards her and also thinks “only things from the ancient times can be like this,” in the end she chooses to sell out General Meng as a living antiquity.

In Laughing Wolf, the pervasive mentality of postwar chaos overshadows the entire novel. “Even small children had to put up with various sufferings and sorrows” (Yuko 85).  Females  fear displaying their femininity because too many males can easily take advantage of them. People everywhere are “scrawny-looking,” “sluggish” and “exhausted.” Even though the girl who was kidnapped forty years prior narrates the beginning of the novel in the form of a flashback,  she still maintains a nostalgic yet depressing mood throughout. In addition, instances of large-scale crimes in the novel are extreme outbursts of repressed emotions in postwar Japan.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “Incident at Sokolniki” focuses on a typical Russian woman Lida, who follows all of the prescribed societal norms. She becomes numb when she learns of her husband’s demise because that is the role of pilot’s wife in wartime. The Soviet Union required such sacrifices from women like Lida. However, when she could not find her husband in the woods after burying his flight suit, her instinctive fear overtook her composure. That moment betrayed the helplessness of a widow in Soviet times, whose emotional cries  mainstream historiography largely ignores. Through engaging with these three works, readers can immerse themselves in the emotions experienced by others in past historical moments.

Hence these three works employ various time travel themes, and thus unravel the poetic awakenings of people living in different historical periods while conveying the feelings and emotions that their characters experienced in the past. In this sense, these narratives fulfill the expectations of historical fiction. However, compared to conventional historical fiction, time travel fiction has its own unique structures which defamiliarize common notions of time and space. Even though Terry Eagleton points out that “defamilarization” is only a “deformed ordinary language in various ways” (3) and “an art that estranges and undermines conventional sign-systems,”(86), the time travel motif not only marks an artistic breakthrough in the genre of historical fiction but also indicates a change of perception regarding the modern and post-modern period. How then does the time travel function as a narrative device to facilitate the artistic creation of historical fiction? I will explore how these three texts use this device in order to elaborate on their structural novelty.

Viewed from the vantage point of Russian Formalism, these three stories involve three different types of relationships between fabula and sjuzet.  Per narratology, fabula describes “the raw material of story events as opposed to the finished arrangement of the plot.”(Baldick 123). It equates to histoire (story) in later French narratology. Sjuzet is the “finished arrangement of narrated events as they are presented to the reader,” (Baldick 309) which also has an equivalent recit (plot). Scholars such as Culler and Derrida have debated the relationship between fabula and sjuzet.”[xv] These three time travel texts reveal interesting interactions between fabula and sjuzet, to which we now turn our attention.

In “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” the protagonist travels dramatically forward from the remote past, but it is also a literary example where fabula dominates sjuzet.  His mentality and knowledge about life is preconditioned by everything in the historical stage of the Chin (Qin) dynasty before the male protagonist General Meng is resurrected into the modern world. His remembrance and subconscious rooted in the ancient past controls his behavior after he meets the girls in 1930’s and 1970’s, both of whom resemble his lover in the Chin (Qin) dynasty of 210 B.C. Therefore, the fabula determines his faith in love and his loyalty to the superior, which was popular two thousand years ago. This precondition overwhelmingly dominates his awkward lifestyle in the modern times. The development of sjuzet, symbolized by his interaction with his desired objects (namely his lovers in modern times) follows the fabula. Meng, the protagonist,  not only jumps through time,  but is also a passive “agent” who keeps the old ideology of his age and displays the merits of the ancient historical period.

Laughing Wolf reveals how the signposts of time can prevent active travel between locations, and how fabula and sjuzet can entangled with one another. According to the explicit records of time in the novel, the girl and her captor’s trip begins in 1959 and ends in 2000. However,  from the beginning to the end, their physical ages never change. Meanwhile, the news clippings which disturbingly ooze throughout the fictional plots are all marked with times from 1945-1949. Without these temporal markers, the sjuzet seems identical to the fabula and the characters move continuously forward.  However, distinctions of time actually become stagnant with these deliberate textual markers. The protagonists who do not age, as well as the haunting news clippings point to aspects of the fabula, and are also devices of the sjuzet. It is hard to tell, then, which plots are raw material or artistic arrangements.  Both the fabula and szujet are interchangeable and therefore questionable.  In this novel, time in the actual plot is solidified by  peoples’ static mental experience of evolution and the development of history.

The ghost of the husband in “Incident at Sokolniki” arranges to travel to the past, and in doing so, he shows that sjuzet is hierarchically superior to fabula.  The ghost attempts to restore his past relationship with Lida in order to improve his life in the other world. In this pattern of time travel, there are two sets of fabula and sjuzet. The presentation of Lida’s normal life as a wife in the beginning of the text constitute the first set while the ghost’s encounter in the other world and his seeking for Lida form the second set. The sjuzets in those two sets have overlapped and create suspense in the story when the ghost pretends he is the living husband. However, until the last moment, when the ghost of the husband thanks Lida for burying him in her dream, the meaningfulness of the husband’s strange return and the final significance of the whole incident are revealed. As in Jonathan Culler’s example of Oedipus story, (“Fabula and Sjuzhet In the Analysis of Narrative: Some American Discussions”, 29-31) the final revelation functions as a determinative force to show why the storytelling technique, namely the “sjuzet,” is responsible for the more  interesting aspects of the narrative. Actually, it has also been suggested that the two sets of the fabula and sjuzet are very popular in detective stories to attract readers (Holquist 75-101).

As I have argued above, time travel fiction can fulfill the expectations readers attach to the genre of historical fiction and also reveal some intriguing structural arrangements. However, I do not wholeheartedly agree with Terry Eagleton that the defamiliaration represented by structures of time travel only twists language artistically and inflicts a “linguistic violence” (6) onto texts. Time travel is not just a showy contraption which superficially attracts readers. To a certain extent, time travel texts, especially the three texts I have analyzed, manifest some fundamental changes of human perceptions of history, past, and memory in the modern and postmodern period.  So how does the time travel theme in historical fiction manage to reflect this transitional historical consciousness? How do these three works suggest a new trend in the writing of historical fiction?

Firstly, time travel in historical fictions implies fragmented national or collective past identities. Lilian Lee sees the long history of China, where her cultural roots lie, through three crucial moments in two thousand years;  Tsushima Yuko never expected that the Japanese people could step out of the haze of postwar trauma or embrace a brighter future; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya mourns the irretrievable happy life of a couple by hopelessly resurrecting the past. History is no longer an integral and supposedly linear object and humans cannot believe that they are progressively and continuously moving forward. History is constructed by the loops, lingering and jumping of human emotions generated from individual experiences. In most  circumstances, human emotions are ambivalent rather than clear-cut, as Hegel’s hypothesis of  progressive history suggests. Human emotions are not congruent to the the development of certain historical events. These three writers of historical fiction have focused on fragmented personal encounters in their national history rather than dedicating their works to great figures or great feats connected with a grand narrative of their national past.

Second, works of time travel fiction pose a subversive gesture to the conventional writings of historical fiction and historiography. “A Terracotta Warrior of Chin” crosses through more than two thousand years and aggravates  Chinese censors; Laughing Wolf invents a new form of novel full of pastiche and cosplay; and even with its explicit fantastic features and superstitious plot, in the “Incident at Sokolniki,” the dissident Ludmilla Petrushevskaya more than once emphasizes “I think of myself as a documentary writer.”(Schwartz 2) These three authoresses show us that no matter what length the fiction is or what period a text focuses on, historical fiction is a carnival inviting all kinds of literary features such as parody, heteroglossic voices and so on. As long as the fiction can effectively portray characters in a specific time, historical fiction can happily incorporate various literary techniques including time travel. The fact that various time travel literature and movies are thriving in the cultural industries of Asia and Hollywood  illustrates that time travel fiction reflects a deconstruction of postmodernity. Time travel fiction challenges the hierarchical realism and celebrates David Harvey’s “time and space compression.”

Last but not least, time travel fiction redefines truth, which the genre of historical fiction perennially attempts to pursue. Aristotlean philosophers seek “truth” for human life.  But since Nietzsche, thinkers have started to questions the notion of truth which has been rationalized by the Enlightenment. Perhaps we can never reach the rational truth because human intelligence can never reach the ultimate end of the universe. The only reliable truth might be in the emotions  people sense in everyday life. Nicola Chiaromonte points out that there are limitations  on historiography and fiction with respect to truth and reality: “What was left in the end was, on the one hand, the history of historians, either unreal or mythical, and, on the other, reality itself, history as it is actually experienced by the individual and the community. Between the two was an unbridgeable chasm, as between fiction and truth” (31). However, time travel may reflect man’s psychological movement in his original state by debunking the contrived formula of writing linear historical fiction and by challenging the coherence of linear time and human emotional experience. Perhaps the time travel theme just demonstrates that the historical “affect,” namely, the emotions and feelings evoked by certain historical circumstances which can be empathized with by readers living in other historical periods, is the ultimate truth.

T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets, “Only through time, time is conquered.” Historical fiction mixes literature’s ambition to conquer time with man’s consciousness of the lapse of time, which is also the reason why historical fiction has been popular throughout worldwide literature. In 1955, Georg Lukacs suggested that “the historical and formal relationship changes a great deal in modern times.”(“From the Historical Novel” 219) Two hundred years ago, the transition from historical dramas to historical novels demonstrated the changes that Lukacs astutely observed. Currently, time travel themes copiously occupy popular literature and other forms of cultural industry. Time travel is a literary invention that may not seem incompatible with the current stage of scientific knowledge and conventional human perception of concrete reality. Moreover, the genre celebrates the imaginative power of literature, a power that deserves to be preserved and protected because it is a source of generating knowledge and mining unexplored human potential.

Works Cited

Allinson, Gary. Japan’s Postwar History. Ithacha: Cornell University Press, 2004. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Print.

Baldick, Chris. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009. Print.

Chiaromonte, Nicola. The Paradox of History: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak and Others. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Print.

Clute, John and John Grant. Encyclopedia of Fantasy. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, 1999. Web.

Culler, Jonathan. “Fabula and Sjuzhet in the Analysis of Narrative: Some American Discussions.” Poetics Today 1.3 (1980): 27-37. Print.

—. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1981. Print.

—. “Toward a Theory of Non-Genre Literature.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 51-56. Print.

de Groot, Jerome. The Historical Novel. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Jacques Derrida. “Living On.” Deconstruction and Criticism. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 2004. 62-142. Print.

Dick, Kirby and Amy Ziering Kofman. Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Donn, Don and Lin Donn. Ancient China. Culver City: Good Year Books, 2003. Print.

Dower, John W. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996. Print.

Fagan, Madeleine, Ludovic Glorieux, Indira Hasimbegovic, and Marie Suetsugu, eds. Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Preface to Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.

Holquist, Michael. “Puzzle and Mystery, the Narrative Poles of Knowing: Crime and Punishment.” Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977. 75-101. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. United Kingdom: Merlin Press, 1962. Print.

—. “From The Historical Novel.” Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach. Ed. Michael

McKeon. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 219-264. Print.

Maxwell, Richard. The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

Nahin, Paul. Time Travel: A Writer’s Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Print.

“Notice of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television on the Publication of Keeping

Records of Making TV Series in March 2011.” “国家广播电影电视总局:“广电总局关于2011年3月全国拍摄制作电视剧备案公示的通知” The State Administration of Radio Film and Television of China. Web.

Petrushevskaya, Ludmilla. “Incident at Sokolniki.” There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. Trans. Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 12-14. Print.

Schneider, Susan. Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2009. Print.

Schwartz, Alexandra. “Sometimes a Small Redemption: On Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.” The Nation 21 Dec. 2009. Web.

“Time Travel Drama Doesn’t Respect History and the Four classical Novels should be Forbidden to be made into TV Series again.” “广电总局:”穿越剧不尊重历史 禁四大名著翻拍” The State Administration of Radio Film and Television of China. Web.

Warner, Elizabeth A. “Russian Peasant Beliefs and Practices Concerning Death and the Supernatural Collected in Novosokol’niki Region, Pskov Province, Russia, 1995. Part II: Death in Natural Circumstances.” Folklore 111:2 (2000). 255-281. Print. Wood, Frances. China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008. Print.

Yuko, Tsushima. Laughing Wolf. Trans. Dennis Washburn. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 2011. Print.


[i].  I am responsible for the English translation’s of the Chinese text.

[ii].  Given the fact that science fiction in which characters can travel to and from the future has never reached the mainstream, according to broadcast records around 2011 in the Chinese media, it is understandable that the government does not treat time travel fiction as a sub-genre of science fiction.

[iii].  See Schneider and Nahin.

[iv].  According to the definition of fantasy in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:A fantasy text is a self-coherent narrative. When set in this world, it tells a story which is impossible in the world as we perceive it; when set in an otherworld, that otherworld will be impossible, though stories set there may be possible in its terms.

[v].  “Chronotope” is a term initiated by Bakhtin to describe time and space as a whole presented in literature (425), but he never gives a concrete definition in his works.  In “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope.” Bakhtin scholars Cary Morson and Michael Hoquest define it as “literally, ‘time and space.’ A unit of analysis for studying language according to the ratio and characteristics of the temporal and spatial categories represented.”

[vi].  Osaragi Jiro is a Japanese writer famous for her historical fiction.

[vii]. See Yuko.

[viii].  See Petrushevskaya.

[ix].  See Wood 49.

[x].  For example, after 1974 when China and Japan signed the “Agreement regarding Air Transportation between China and Japan” and Vice Prime Minister Wang Zhen officially visited Tokyo and Osaka by airplane announcing the first reciprocal air exchanges. See

[xi].  According to the translator Professor Dennis Washburn, those news clippings are excerpts from actual newspapers printed from 1945-1947.

[xii].  See Dower and Allinson.

[xiii].  “Particular history” is defined by Maxwell as: “the life of a town, a country, or especially a renowned figure, often reproducing original documents too specialized for the purposes of general or universal history” (13).

[xiv].  See Warner 255-281.

[xv].  See Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction.

Oda al Paréntesis

by Jorge Sánchez Cruz

Oda al Paréntesis
by Jorge Sánchez Cruz

(. . . espacio infinito,
territorio (in)audible,
mar, desierto y cielo;
plano, espeso, eterno,
sin vacío,
heterotopia tropical
—sin hegemonía—
la desviación existe:
es normal, aceptable,
Paréntesis: no interrumpes
pero elaboras, enfocas, describes
—borras incertidumbres—
Paréntesis: no eres interjección,
sino definición aclarativa,
creas mundos dentro del mundo;
meta-creativo, en ti, toda lengua es
aceptable (ninguna domina),
Paréntesis: puntuación
necesaria, inscripción—
línea de demarcación,
consigo llevas la suma
(entidad colectiva)—
no eres digresión, sino
progresión, discurso silencioso,
en poli-textos, sin comienzo,
sin fin . . . ,
Paréntesis, atrápame
y no me dejes ir . . . )

Ode to the Parenthesis

( . . . infinite space,
in(audible) territory,
desert, sea, and sky:
plain, rich, eternal,
with no emptiness,
tropical heterotopia
—no hegemony—
deviance exists:
it is normal, acceptable,
Parenthesis: you don’t interrupt
but elaborate, describe, entail
—eliminating all doubt—
Parenthesis: not an interjection,
but a defining exclamation
creator of worlds within the world;
meta-creative, in you all languages
are inclusive (none dominating),
Parenthesis:  needed
punctuation, inscription—
line of demarcation,
with you  there’s a compendium
(a collective entity)—
you are non-digressive, but
progressive, a silent discourse,
in poly-texts, no origin,
no finale  . . . ,
Parenthesis, embrace me
and never let go. . . )

Spanish version and English translation by Jorge Sánchez

National Allegory and the Parallax View in Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s Maṣīr Ṣurṣār

by Robert Farley

Egyptian playwright Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s 1966 play Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (Fate of a Cockroach) has been widely understood by most critics to be a juxtaposition of two separate plays, one centered around a miniature cockroach kingdom, and the other a human married couple’s apartment. This paper challenges this separation by emphasizing the relationship between these seemingly distinct worlds and by investigating their subtle relationship through interactions, interpretations, and linguistic and symbolic continuities. Furthermore, this paper argues on a theoretical level that this structural phenomenon provides an innovative way to allegorize the nation through its presentation of two private narratives with the singular referent of the Egyptian national narrative. Because the two distinct narratives remain irreconcilable but coexistent, the notion of parallax—as a merely apparent shift in the object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective—provides a useful frame to understand a more complex and tenuous relationship of the private and the national in the national allegory.

“Come along – wake up! It’s time for work.”[2] Echoing the ethos of the Nasserist regime (1952-1970), the King Cockroach’s imperative opens Maṣīr Ṣurṣār by rallying us to emerge from our slumber to “work,” to engage as laborers in Egypt’s production-based materialist economy well underway by the play’s publication in 1966. The play undoubtedly operates as a national allegory, wherein the smaller private narrative of the work represents the larger national story. But what happens to this relationship between private and national when a work consists of two entirely separate narratives as does Maṣīr Ṣurṣār? Indeed, the play can be and has been read as two plays put together, with the first act occurring within the world of cockroaches and the remainder taking place in the human realm.[3] It would be necessary in this case to understand how two private stories might work both individually and together to convey the national story of Egypt. Parallax, as an apparent shift of an object caused by a change in the observer’s perspective, provides a useful frame with which to understand the way two private stories relate to the national. Through Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm’s Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, I interrogate the possibilities of a parallactic link between the private and the national in national allegory and the capacities of this link to portray the inescapable tension between the nationalist rhetoric of the state and the popular nationalism of the multitude. Meanwhile, I elaborate a dialectical method for reading through national allegory which will draw out the political and poetic implications of the parallactic link.

Linking the Private Story and the National Story

It would first be useful to present one of the foremost influential works on the subject of national allegory. In his seminal article, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson implores us to read all ‘third-world’ literature as national allegory. He polemically states that, “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel” (69). While his sweeping claim was the point of much criticism, national allegory still provides a useful framework for interrogating the relationship between politics and literature. As a play from the ‘third world’, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār falls under the conditions set forth by Jameson’s claim. In what follows I will use national allegory as the starting point for my analysis; although, I will depart from it only periodically in order to open up a deeper interpretation which can, upon returning to it, contribute to a stronger overall national allegorical reading.

The most important concept within Jameson’s argument is the special relationship between the literal text and the referent external to the text. Gil Hochberg successfully teases out the link between the ‘national story’ and ‘private story’ in Jameson’s conception of national allegory. She locates the crux of Jameson’s argument to be the contrast between the radical split between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ in western culture and its connection in nonwestern cultures: “Jameson describes the national allegory as a link between two separate stories, or to be more precise, as a link between two stories perceived in ‘western eyes’ as separate: the ‘private story’ and the ‘national story’” (35). It is exactly this link between the private and the national that is here subject to interrogation, namely in the event—as is the case with Maṣīr Ṣurṣār—where the existence of a singular private story is at best questionable.

Maṣīr Ṣurṣār consists of two entirely separate private stories: one belonging to the cockroaches of the first act, the other belonging to the humans of the second and third. The first act features the self-appointed administration of a cockroach society inhabiting an apartment bathroom; the King, Queen, Vizier, Scientist, and Priest debate primarily about the ongoing ant problem that has recently claimed the Vizier’s son as its latest victim. The act ends after the King, led on by the Scientist, finds himself stranded in the lake/bathtub. The second act shifts gears to the human world, that of the apartment inhabitants: ‘Ādil, his wife Sāmya, and the ‘cook’ Umm ‘Aṭiyya (who is actually a maid). ‘Ādil wakes up to find a cockroach (the King from the first act) in the bathtub hopelessly struggling to climb out. Because of his obsession with the cockroach, ‘Ādil constantly thwarts attempts by Sāmya to kill it. She calls in the Doctor to try to cure ‘Ādil of what she considers a psychological problem. Throughout the bickering, the group is eventually distracted enough to ignore Umm ‘Aṭiyya’s entering the bathroom to clean, which results in the death and subsequent wiping away of the cockroach.

Two Worlds, Two Narratives

The Cockroach as an Allegory of the State

To truly understand how disparate these two worlds are portrayed in the play, we can look at the primary basis of what constitutes a ‘world’ according to Heidegger. A world is constitutive of those relationships and ‘ontic objects’ into which a person is ‘thrown,’ only to appropriate them by perceiving them in terms of his or her own existence and utilizing it for self-realization (Habib 715). The drastic difference between the first and second parts consist of an entirely new set of characters as well as a shift in language to refer to those ‘ontic’, material objects in the apartment. The courtyard of the first act is the bathroom floor of the second and third; likewise, the lake in which the King falls is also the bathtub where a cockroach is found. Thus the two worlds of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār involve two independent sets of relationships as well as sets of perceptions of ‘ontic objects’, and it is these worlds that constitute two different private stories that comprise the national allegory.

The first act opens with the King’s aforementioned imperative to get up and work, which leads to his squabble with the Queen. As story continues, the Vizier, the Scientist, and the Priest arrive in sequence to contribute to a discussion revolving around the ant problem. Their petty bickering and absurd logic lends a comedic element that serves simultaneously as a pointed condemnation of the post-1952 regime, its projects and failures. Perhaps the most poignant moment featuring this critical satire comes shortly after the King, Queen, and Vizier come to the conclusion that the cockroaches can better forestall the ants by mimicking them in their ability to organize in columns, the Scientist enters to contribute his observations regarding past instances of cockroach mobilization:

Scientist: Yes, I once saw – a very long time ago, in the early days of my youth – several cockroaches gathered together at night in the kitchen round a piece of tomato.

Queen: Tomato?

Scientist: Yes.

King: An extraordinary idea – this matter of a tomato!

Vizier: We begin from here.

Queen:  And you say that science cannot solve the problem?

Scientist: What has science to do with this? That was no more than a general observation .

King: This is the modesty of a true Scientist. The idea is, however, useful. If we were able to get a piece of tomato, then a number of cockroaches would gather together round it.

Scientist: The real problem is how to get hold of a piece of tomato.

King: How is it, therefore, that we do sometimes get a hold of a piece?

Scientist: By chance.

Queen: And when does sheer chance occur?

Scientist: That is something one cannot predict.

King: You have therefore arrived at solving one problem by presenting us with another.

Queen: Suggest for us something other than tomatoes.

Scientist: Any other type of food puts us in the same position, for though we can find food we are unable to make a particular sort of food available.[4]

The choppy dialogue, the tomato obsession, and most importantly, the logic of deferment (of “solving one problem by presenting us with another”) all serve to articulate the lengths to which the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) under Nasser had degenerated into an absurd bureaucracy unable to come to terms with its own shortcomings. The tomato here comes to represent a number of failures. The material failure to produce food is a direct indictment of the agrarian reforms carried out shortly after the July coup, wherein land was reallocated in a seemingly socialist measure and much of it underproduced or went unused. The intellectual inability to move from the material tomato to the concept of food or any other motivations for mobilization demonstrates a failure to move from material specificities to conceptual universals. The tomato then functions as a symbolic exemplar of the multiplicity of layers of political critique featured in the first act.

The group continues to debate the ant problem while often going off on tangents and returning to the discussion until the Scientist ultimately distracts the King by enticing his interest in the lake. Looking for anything “more useful than talk about fairy tales and fanciful projects,”[5] the King disregards the question at hand of the ants and embarks with the Scientist to go see the lake, into which the King falls at the end of the act and eventually dies at the end of the play. The lake distraction is ostensibly referring to Nasser’s large-scaled Aswan High Dam project; the lake itself in the play could very well be a direct analogy to the state-owned Lake Nasser reservoir into which the water surplus was redirected after the dam’s construction. Seen in this light, al-Ḥakīm’s critique introduces what he sees as yet another failure of the post-1952 government in its distracting itself with various projects of industrialization at the expense of more pressing and critical issues.

However, to achieve the full effect of the political edge of this first act involves exploring interpretations beyond the immediate meanings provided by national allegory, which means we must temporarily bracket the allegorical reading. Obviously, interpreting anthropomorphized cockroaches outside the logics of the allegory relegates us to a realm beyond that of realism. Tsvetan Todorov allots three categorical possibilities with which a text designates such elements: marvelous, uncanny, and fantastic. The marvelous consists in comprehending the anthropomorphized cockroaches as such, that is, unnatural or supernatural. The uncanny appropriates the supernatural as a component of the natural, often by some kind of perceptual error (e.g. considering the cockroaches an illusion). Between these two, the fantastic rests upon a hesitation between rationalizing the supernatural as such (marvelous) or as something natural (uncanny) (Todorov 25). The first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār does not lend any such rationalization in either direction, and in this way it can be located in the hesitation of the fantastic. This is, of course, only if we maintain this line of thought of the allegory in absentia, which is the precondition for the taxonomy elaborated here.

Now, a fusion of the allegorical and the literal reading can open up new questions of the text, because we are now able to allegorize the hesitation inherent in the fantastic. Although Todorov would disagree in the contradiction, I would like to attempt a kind of synthesis of the political allegory and the fantastic by allowing for both the literal and the allegorical meanings to exist at once. The tension between the literal and allegorical meanings in relation to the fantastic is elaborated here:

If what we read describes a supernatural event, yet we take the words not in their literal meaning but in another sense which refers to nothing supernatural, there is no longer any space in which the fantastic can exist. There exists then a scale of literary sub-genres, between the fantastic (which belongs to that type of text which must be read literally) and pure allegory (which retains only the second, allegorical meaning): a scale constituted in terms of two factors, the explicit character of the indication and the disappearance of the first meaning. (Todorov 63-4)

Although the coexistence of the literal and allegorical meanings compromise the Todorovian sense of the fantastic (for he seems to only allow a kind of spectrum where one exists at the expense of the other), it is entirely possible for the fantastic itself to serve as an allegory. The conception of the fantastic, as teetering on the border of uncanny and marvelous, is essentially a hesitation with regards to the laws of possibility. This hesitation read in light of the various failures of the RCC allegorizes its experimental undertakings to nationalize Egypt. The hesitation is indicative of a new regime attempting to find its footing, lacking confidence but appearing otherwise. Conclusively, we have arrived at the private story of the cockroaches in the first act of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār allegorizing the state’s articulation of post-1952 Egyptian nationalism, which contrasts heavily with the popular nationalism of the multitudes evident in the realm of the human.

The Human as an Allegory for the Multitude

The latter two acts of the play shift gears entirely from the world of cockroaches to that of  humans. The second act opens similarly to the first, focusing on the couple ‘Ādil and Sāmya waking up to begin their day. Contrasting the imperative in the first, the second act begins with the interrogative from the wife: “You’re up, ‘Ādil?” ‘Ādil continues on to explain how he awakens by himself without the use of an alarm clock.[6] The dialogue between the married couple consists of constant reiterations like this of ‘Ādil’s independence from external objects and even his relationship with Sāmya. From the very beginning, ‘Ādil exudes an ethos of rebellion on the domestic plane; he even repeatedly affirms Sāmya’s explicit question as to whether he is rebelling when he prevents her from entering the bathroom: “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?”[7] His affirmation of his independence borders on ridiculous, but allegorized on the national level, ‘Ādil represents the resistance characteristic of popular decolonization movements, characteristic more of the 1919 revolution than the 1952 coup. The absurdity of the context of ‘Ādil’s insurgency begs the reader to interpret Maṣīr Ṣurṣār through the lens of national allegory.

As we did with the first act, a temporary bracketing of the national allegory can uncover new meanings behind the text. Revisiting Heidegger’s philosophy, ‘Ādil’s resistance can also be read as an endeavor toward self-actualization; his involvement with his world consists of disregarding the everyday by neglecting work and hygiene, in order to focus on the cockroach. He spends the majority of scenes two and three contemplating the cockroach, while intermittently staving off threats from Sāmya to kill it. His identification and obsession with the cockroach presents us with a kind of portrait of a philosopher quietly ruminating on the meaning of life, battling those material factors that come to him more as nuisances than anything else. When ultimately the cockroach is killed and wiped away, ‘Ādil confronts his own finitude, which for Heidegger is the key to the human attaining knowledge of itself as a whole, a “being-towards-death” (Habib 716). Here then we may uncover a hidden message of hope within the text. While the death of the cockroach forces ‘Ādil to confront his ephemerality, he is now able at the end of the play to acknowledge a responsibility to actively construct his self in relation to his world. In this way and in the private space of his apartment bathroom, ‘Ādil journeys towards the shedding of his inauthentic existence.

Returning to the national allegorical reading in light of ‘Ādil’s philosophical undertaking, we can allegorize the private search for authenticity on a national level. Certainly there exists in any decolonizing movement the task of the nation, especially of writers, to find an authentic voice outside the bounds of colonial rule. Among other things, they are faced with a series of choices to make about their practices; questions arise regarding the use of forms, genres, styles, and language associated with the colonizer. At this level it is possible to read ‘Ādil’s hopeful ending—his angst qua opportunity for authenticity—as a promising message for the Egyptian people at the time: that its then-current angst would lead to its coming into being.

The Parallax View

Now that we have established two entirely separate private stories with individual links to the national, we can interrogate the parallactic link between the private and the national. It is important at this juncture to present a major text concerned with parallax. In his book The Parallax View (2006), Slovoj Zizek elaborates on Kojin Karatani’s notion of parallax as a metaphor:

The standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stances, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or—to put it in Lacanese—the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than the object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze (17).

The difference between the two perspectives involved in parallax is so great that the object in view seems to have changed or shifted to the point of resembling something utterly ‘ontologically’ dissimilar. Viewing the relationship between private and national stories through the parallactic frame allows us to see the two private narratives in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār as two ‘observational positions’ wherein the allegorical referent, or object, is the national story. Understood in this way, the shift from the private story of cockroaches to the private story of humans between the first two acts is not a shift within the national narrative, but rather a repositioning of perspective in relation to it.

I want to restrict my analysis to the points of Zizek’s text relevant to the subject at hand. One: the gap between the two observational positions is irreconcilable. And two: the political deployment of the parallax gap (he also discusses philosophical and scientific modes) consists of “the social antagonism which allows for no common ground between the conflicting agents” (Zizek 10). In what follows, I will evaluate the way al-Ḥakīm’s play manages the parallax gap between the two perspectives of cockroach and human.

Evaluating the relationship between the two ‘private stories’ in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār (the parallax gap) will further develop the parallactic link in national allegory; this entails an interpretation from each perspective of the other. From the cockroach perspective, the humans are understood as multiple and separate sublime forces that resemble those of nature. For example, when the Scientist is explaining the disastrous occurrences when many cockroaches are assembled in the same place, he points toward supernatural forces: “This has today been confirmed from a scientific point of view. If a number of cockroaches gather together in one place, and there is a bright, dazzling light, mountains that have neither pinnacles nor peaks move and trample upon our troop, utterly squashing them. At other times there teems down a choking rain that destroys every one of us.”[8] He later debates the Priest as to whether these phenomena are natural events understood by scientific fact or the gods’ “miracle[s] from the skies.”[9] Whether they are explained by the cockroaches through science or religion, it is clear to the reader that the trampling mountains are the people that live in the apartment (‘Ādil, Sāmya, Umm ‘Aṭiyya) and the ‘choking rain’ is insecticide. The cockroaches deify and fear the humans, even praying to them. The first interaction of the two private stories in Maṣīr Ṣurṣār occurs from the perspective of the cockroach world and exhibits a hierarchical relationship mimicking that of man and the divine. Thus, the allegory of the cockroach world standing in for the state’s articulation of nationalism seems to be from this perspective subject the human world, standing in for popular nationalism. Al-Ḥakīm here insists in the power of the multitudes over the government. However, to get a deeper understanding of the parallax gap between the two private stories entails evaluating both perspectives, and so we move on to the humans.

From the ‘Ādil’s perspective, the cockroach is a point of contemplation and obsession as we saw above. Additionally, ‘Ādil holds it in a much higher regard than he does people, as a hero even. While convincing the Doctor that he has not gone mad, ‘Ādil describes the cockroach with a sense of distant admiration:

Doctor (pointing at the cockroach in the bath): That?

‘Ādil: Yes, that hero.

Doctor: Hero?

‘Ādil: Indeed a hero. Imagine yourself in a deep well with walls of smooth marble and that you found it impossible to get out despite having made exhausting efforts to do so, what would you do?

Doctor: I’d give up of course.

‘Ādil: But it hasn’t given up.

Doctor: By no means – I see it repeating its attempts dozens of times.

‘Ādil: Even hundreds. Since early morning I’ve been occupied in counting up the number of times.

Doctor: Is that what you were engaged in since this morning?

‘Ādil: Yes, I wanted to know when its struggle would come to an end.

Doctor (looking into the bath with real interest): As of now it looks as if it will not give up yet.

‘Ādil: Indeed. We’re tired from watching but it’s not tired from trying.

Doctor (continuing to watch it): What hope has it of escaping?

‘Ādil: No hope of course.

Doctor: Unless you were to intervene and save it.

‘Ādil: And I will not intervene.

Doctor: Why not, seeing that you admire it?

‘Ādil: I must leave it to its fate.[10]

‘Ādil is concerned with the cockroach, but he keeps his distance. He chooses not to intervene in its fate and yet admires its persistence. His feeling for the cockroach is ultimately ambivalence. Furthermore, the disconnect between the two occurs on the level of language,  made explicit later on when the Doctor explains that the cockroach could very well be screaming, but it is so tiny that it is impossible for the human ear to detect his voice. This ambivalence from the human perspective operating along the parallax gap allegorizes the multitudes’ reluctance to action even when the promising Nasserist regime of the 1952 coup had degenerated into hopeless. On the other hand, the distance between them begs the question if there is any possibility that the gap could be resolved.

The vast difference in these viewpoints’ perceptions of each other demonstrate the irreducible parallax gap between the two ‘private stories’. The cockroaches and humans in al-Ḥakīm’s play—allegorizing the state and the people—are living the political parallax gap, the “social antagonism that allows for no common ground.” In fact, the play dramatizes this irreconcilability in the ultimate interaction between the cockroach and human worlds, when the cook Umm ‘Aṭiyya kills the King by simply performing her duties around the house. She not only kills, but wipes the cockroach out of existence. The King was not simply ‘trampled by the mountains’ nor did he fall victim to the ‘choking rain’. Rather he was erased from history without a trace. For al-Ḥakīm, such is the fate of Nasser’s dictatorship. The only way to ‘reconcile’ the parallax gap is through its utter eradication: via the erasure of the cockroach’s/state’s observational position. Furthermore, this resolution comes from the only laborer in household, Umm ‘Aṭiyya. Thus the actual work erases the utterance, “Come along – wake up! It’s time for work,” signaling a triumph of the real material labor over the flat rhetorics of the worker-savior in the state’s articulation of nationalism.

Now, it is possible to forego all of the preceding analysis and allegorize Maṣīr Ṣurṣār‘s disruption and lack of unity as simply a representation of the abrupt and sweeping changes resulting from the 1952 revolution. But to do so would be to ignore essential meanings within the text. Politically, it would trivialize the irreconcilable social antagonism drawn out by parallax to simply a shift in the national story; it would maintain a monolithic view of the ‘national story’. Poetically, it would reduce the play to an unremarkable dramatization of the shift rather than an articulation of the complexities and difficulties of merely an apparent change. Furthermore for critics, it would involve a focus so heavily drawn to the form of the transition that it would be ignoring the substance surrounding it, resulting in a kind of buffet-style interpretation where national allegory is only applicable to convenient elements.

Al-Ḥakīm even warns us of the dangers of slipping into interpreting the parallactic link between the private and national as simply a shift in the national story. First, to do so would to presume that instead of two private stories of the cockroach and human, there is only one that experiences a shift itself. In this view, the story of the humans is merely a continuation of the cockroach story of the first act. To combat this slippery misconception, al-Ḥakīm dedicates a portion of the dialogue in the third act to distinguish that ‘Ādil is in fact not the cockroach as the Doctor’s psychiatric diagnosis proclaims (166-7). He warns of the dangers of creating a simple equation that the cockroach is the human. Instead, he maintains the cockroach-human distinction to preserve the parallax gap between them.

In light of the parallax view, the abrupt shift in the reader’s perspective between the first two acts of Maṣīr Ṣurṣār is not a shift in the private story of national allegory, but indeed an entirely different private story. Together, these two stories are linked parallactically to the external referent of the national story. Politically, al-Ḥakīm is demonstrating the importance of recognizing the existence of multiple perspectives: in this case, the state’s version of nationalism in an antagonistic relationship to the nationalist ethos of the people. Poetically, he provides an entirely different approach to writing the nation. Paul Starkey mistakenly understands al-Ḥakīm’s play as, “remarkable for little other than for being one of the most blatant examples of the tendency to a lack of unity in al-Ḥakīm’s plays” (215). But his writing off the play as a simple example of artistic preference reflects an unwillingness to interrogate this lack of unity in any kind of critical way. By doing so here, I have shown not only the artistic prowess of al-Ḥakīm to express the complexities of the Egyptian nation under Nasser in the year prior to the Naksa. but also the versatility and depth of reading through the lens of national allegory.


Arabic Appendix

(١) الملك: قومى استيقظى! … حان وقت العمل … (الحكيم ١)


العالم : نعم … رأيت مرة … منذ زمن طويل جدًا … في مطلع شبابى … بضعة صراصير اجتمعت ليلا في مطبخ حول قطعة من الطماطم …

الملكة : الطماطم؟ …

العالم : نعم …

الملك : فكرة مدهشة … مسألة الطماطم هذه! …

الوزير : من هنا نبدأ …

الملكة : وتقول إن العلم لا يستطيع حل المشكلة! …

العالم : وما دخل العلم هنا؟! … هذه ليست أكثر من مجرد ملاحظة عادية …

الملك : هذا من تواضع العلماء … ولكن الفكرة على كل حال مفيدة … إذا استطعنا أن نأني بقطعة طماطم فإنه سيجتمع حولها عدد من الصراصير …

العالم : المشكلة الحقيقية هى كيف نعثر على قطعة الطماطم؟ …

الملك : وكيف إذن نعثر عليها أحينًا؟ …

العالم : مالمصادفة …

الملكة : ومتى تأتى المصادفة؟ …

العالم : هذا شيء لا يمكن التنبؤ به …

الملك : أنت إذن جئت تحل لنا المشكلة بمشكلة …

الملكة : ابحث لنا عن شىء آخر غير الطماطم …

العالم : أى نوع آخر من الطعام يضعنا في نفس الوضع لأننا نجد الطعام … فلكننا لا نستطيع أن نوجده … (الحكيم ٢٣-٢٥)

(٣) الملك: . . . إن هذا على الاقل شيء أفيد من الكلام في موضوعات خرافية ومشروعات وهمية! . . . (الحكيم ٥٣)


سامية : »ملتفتة إلى زوجها« استيقظت يا عادل؟ …

عادل : طبعا …

سامية : هل رن جرس المنبه؟ …

عادل : لا طبعا … قمت من تلقاء نفسى كالعادة …  . . . (الحكيم ٦٥-٦٦)

(٥) سامية: رفعت راية العصيان؟! …

(٦) العالم: أصبح هذا مؤكدًا اليوم من الوجهة العلمية … إذا اجتمع عدد من الصراصير في مكان، وكان وهح الضوء ساطعًا، فسعان ما تتحرك جبال ليس لها قمم ولارءوس، فتدوس جماعتنا وتسحقها سحقا … وفى أحيان أخرى ينهمر علينا رشاش مطر خانق يبيدنا عن آخرنا … (الحكيم ٢٧)

(٧) معجزة من السماء (الحكيم ٦١)


الدكتور: »يشير إلى الصرصار في الحوض« هذا؟! …

عادل : نعم … هذا لابطل …

الدكتور: بطل؟! …

عادل : بالتأكيد بطل … تخيل نفسك في بئر عميقة … جدرانها من المرمر الأملس … وأستحال عليك الخروج معد محاولات مضنية … ماذا تفعل؟! …

الدكتور: أيأس طبعًا …

عادل : انه هو لم ييأس …

الدكتور: حقا … أراه يكرر المحاولة عشرات المرات …

عادل : بل مئات المرات … لقد جعلت همى منذ الصباح أن أحصى العدد …

الدكتور: أكنت مشغولا بذلك منذ الصباح؟! …

عادل : نعم … أردت أن أعرف منى ينهى كفاحه! …

الدكتور: »ناظرًا ياهتمام حقيقي« حتى الآن يبدو عليه أنه لن ينتهى قريبا …

عادل : فعلا … تعبنا نحن من المشادة، ولم يتعب هو من المحاولة …

الدكتور: »متابعا النظر« أى أمل له في النجاة؟! …

عادل : لا أمل طبعا …

الدكتور: إلا إذا تدخلت أنت وأنقذته …

عادل : وأنا لن أتدخل …

الدكتور: ولم لا؟! … ما دمت معجبا به …

عادل : يجب أن أتركه لمصيره … (الحكيم ١٧٢-١٧٣)


Works Cited

Al-Hakīm, Tawfīq. Fate of a Cockroach and Other Plays. Trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980. Print.

—. Masir Sorsar. Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966. Print.

Badawi, M. M. “A Passion for Experimentation: The Novels and Plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim.” Third World Quarterly 10.2 (1988): 949-60. Print.

Habib, M. A. R. A History of Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hocberg, Gil. “National Allegories and the Emergence of the Female Voice in Moufida Tlali’s Les silences du palais.” Third Text 14.50 (Spring 2000): 33-44. Print.

Jameson, Frederic. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88. Print.

Starkey, Paul. From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Analysis of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Ithaca: Ithaca Press, 1988. Print.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975. Print.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006. Print.


[1] All English citations from Masir Sursar reference the published Denys Johnson-Davies

English edition, however I have made some modifications to preserve certain nuances in the Arabic. Citatio indicate the Arabic edition, followed by the Johnson-Davies translation,

and the appropriate reference to the Arabic original available in the Appendix. I have used

the following editions: Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1966) and Fate of a Cockroach and other plays, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1980). Arabic transliterations are based on the IJMES guide to transliterating Arabic.

[2] Al-Ḥakīm, Masir Sursar, 1; Fate of a Cockroach, 2; Appendix, 1.

[3] M. M. Badawi says, “The Fate of a Cockroach is a strange work, consisting of two plays which are meant to be juxtaposed; the grotesque political world of the first play—a fable marked by the savagery of its political satire—provides the context for the absurd human relations of the second play” (Badawi 958). Paul Starkey says, “the work can almost be regarded as two plays stitched together” (Starkey 215).

[4] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 23-5; Fate of a Cockroach, 11-2 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 2. I opt for  “Scientist” and “Vizier” over Johnson-Davies’s “Savant” and “Minister,” respectively.

[5] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 53; Fate of a Cockroach, 22; Appendix, 3.

[6] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 66-7; Fate of a Cockroach, 27; Appendix, 4.

[7] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 68; Fate of a Cockroach, 28 (Translation Modified); Appendix, 5. I have replaced Johnson-Davies’s more natural “You’re rebelling?” with “Have you raised the flag of rebellion?” to accentuate the nationalist inclinations of ‘Ādil’s diction.

 [8] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 27; Fate of a Cockroach, 12-3; Appendix, 6.

 [9] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 61; Fate of a Cockroach, 25; Appendix, 7.

 [10] Al-Ḥakīm, Maṣīr Ṣurṣār, 172-3; Fate of a Cockroach, 68; Appendix, 8.