I’d like to address here a common thing I see, which is North Americans assuming that Western Culture is automatically superior to the cultural output from other countries.
To begin, I will never say a bad word about the literature of the Canon—my point is a more basic one: how can anybody who only reads English possibly judge non-English literature? People judge culture based on its prestige. The literary heroes of the Canon are the best writers from the countries with money. Military and political centres. It is no accident! Let’s not confuse fame and prestige with talent.
Again, I am not taking away anything from Proust, Kafka, Bellow, Nabokov. Love these writers! I do, everyone should. But I can’t read Bhattacharya in his native Bengal, I can’t read Ghalib’s ghazals in their original. Or for that matter, Kafka or Proust, Or Belano in Spanish, or Tolstoy in Russian. When people say Western Culture is superior, what are they actually saying?
Western books are often considered, rightly, to be the bedrocks of literature because generations of writers around the world read the Bible and Homer, Shakespeare and Joyce. Often, an angry type of critic believes that removing these books from the centre of the discussion is nouveau philistine junk. I’d like to pause here and consider a few things.
The cornerstones of Western Literature were often originally banned in Western countries. Ulysses, Madame Bovary, Lolita. The notion that the West has always embraced what is now considered Western master pieces is simply not true.
With music, its record is worse. America only let Duke Ellington and his musicians enter through the back door of the club, and Jimi Hendrix wasn’t discovered in America. Black American blues musicians had to be validated in the UK before America embraced what it had. Son House, John Hurt, Frew McDowell…
But there’s another side to this. When I was young and the Maple Leafs won a game, I’d say to my mom, “we won!” She would tell me, correctly, “you didn’t do anything.” So when people talk about “our” culture, what do they mean? What did they do? The answer: jack shit.
This so-called cultural conversation is often just people co-opting the prestige of famous books they didn’t write, or even read, because they happen to have incidental geographic circumstances in common with the author.
The point that wealthy countries have their author’s celebrated is interpreted by some as a war cry—it sounds, to them, like what I’m really saying is political concerns should impact, or even determine, aesthetic judgments. This is not what I’m saying! On the contrary, my point is that only the aesthetic masterpieces from rich countries get their due celebrations, while masterpieces from poor countries languish, relatively.
Put another way, the aesthetes are more influenced by politics than they think. They will likely reject this notion, it will offend them, because they think they are driven solely by detached and impartial Eyes for Art.
Western Classical music is rightly beloved, but a lot of people judge other music by its terms, and just sound stupid when they shit talk music they don’t understand. I suspect African poly rhythms were too sophisticated for people conditioned to only understand Western harmonies and rhythms, and they’d criticize it as “savage” or “primitive,” which beyond the racist connotations is literally them just misunderstanding music because it is too complex for them to understand. If you asked such a person to identify the beat or the time signature, they couldn’t. But to them, it just sounds like noise.
People say this of hip hop, a beautiful, rich and varied art form. People relate to art made by people like them, because it reflects them, the listener/reader, and when they approach art that reflects someone else, they think the art is bad, when really what’s happening is, for once, the art they’re looking at reflects somebody else. They are making political judgments, not artistic ones, though it’ll be impossible to convince such a person that this is what they’re doing. They are convinced in their bones they’re viewing Art Only.
An open mind for literature/art isn’t necessary from a political point of view, but from an aesthetic one. Nabokov’s essay about the struggles of translation (fidelity to meaning, rhythms, a million other esoteric things to convert) is required reading for anyone who thinks they can sound off on books written in another language. VN tells us that a writer can’t be judged by a reader who can’t properly pronounce that author’s last name.
Can you pronounce Ghalib properly? Gogol? Tagore? Even Kafka, Proust, Goethe? It’s from an Art perspective that the imperialistic backers of Western art show deficiency. There’s a kind of foundation you need to understand foreign literature that they don’t have, but the international prestige of Western literature (that blessed, blessed thing!) convinces them that any haughty declaration of Western cultural superiority is justified.
“Western Literature” is a funny term, anyway, for suggesting it all comes from one place — the supposed united thing called The West is made up of countries that warred with each other relentlessly for centuries. Even Homer’s Greece had the Peloponnesian War (centuries later, but still), because “Greece” was a bunch of city states, not a country as we know the concept today. France and Germany and the UK went at it forever, and the US fought a war to separate itself from England — suddenly, there is one thing called The West which produces authors who fall under one category?
The authors who excelled from these countries probably did so despite the national influence on them, not because of it. Joyce wrote outside Ireland. Gogol never saw the Russian countryside he appears to have depicted in Dead Souls but from a passing carriage, and fled the country whenever he published a new work. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Church and was out of favour with the government when he died alone in a train station, even though Putin’s Olympics had a ghastly Tolstoy caricature running around during the Sochi Opening Ceremony. Putin co-opting Tolstoy’s prestige is not very different than a strain of critic I see today, boosting themselves for being born in the same country as literary giants they had nothing to do with.
I don’t like the business of ranking literature—anyone concerned, like me, with art for art’s sake also doesn’t care about ranking. Nabokov judges each book one at a time—he loves Anna Karenin, thinks War and Peace is a rollicking historical novel for children, and thinks Late preacher Tolstoy is mostly garbage except for Ivan Ilyich, a true masterpiece. Gogol’s Ukrainian stories, junk. Dead Souls, immortal work of shimmering genius. What does it mean, that people feel emboldened to make judgments about “Russian literature” when each author is so uneven in their own career? What do the books in the Canon have to do with each other, exactly? Sometimes there is a link, or a direct line of influence, sometimes there really isn’t.
The thing for a critic today is to try to squeeze the most possible from every work of art, to narrow the focus. The point is to enjoy the art. This kind of nationalistic bragging is political jingoism dressed up as concern for art, and it strikes me as absurd, laughable, and embodies the smug stupidity it praises itself for being above.
Put another way, everyone bragging about Western Literature should shut up: anybody can read a book, only the person who wrote it is entitled to bragging rights. Let’s be humble, open-minded, and never forget that genius is universal, and that to take any view which limits our enjoyment of literature or art instead of broadens it is needlessly limiting, and warps our critical faculties.
It may strike one as surprising or counter intuitive that readers who emphasize the impact of colonialism on literature are actually more focused on aesthetics in literature than the ones who swear political power has no bearing on literature, and that there’s no room for political concerns in a conversation about art, but this is an odd truth.
It’s necessary to recognize both things at once: Tolstoy was a genius, but he could never have written such novels without having the leisure time on his estate to simply sit there and read and write all day. Sophia helped him with all kinds of things. Women weren’t encouraged to write, and people without money didn’t have the time to. Certain countries aren’t talked about or celebrated for their writers. But of course great writers can come from anywhere.
Because of money, power, race, nationalism, there are lost literary heroes whose names we will never know, and this should bother everyone concerned with art.