Melville and Coetzee/ Postcolonial Aberrations : A Forum Note
Among the sophisticated, cutting-edge papers delivered at the 2nd Forum for Modern and Contemporary English Literature (Central China Normal University, December 5-6, 2016), two galvanized my thinking about how literary discussion can often sharpen or expand awareness of non-literary issues. Without violating the integrity of works of art, literary criticism draws attention to timely moral and ethical issues. Xu Bin’s “Moral Panic and Home Anxiety: ‘Imperial Boomerang’ in Caryl Phillips’ The Lost Child” expanded my reflection on national anxieties in European countries; David Attwell’s “A New Footing: Re-reading J. M. Coetzee’s Barbarian Woman” sharpened my ideas about how narrative features in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno illuminate ideology in contemporary American life. Neither Xu nor Attwell mentioned American literature. Xu argued convincingly that Phillips’ novel “illuminates the delayed effects of 18th century British imperial politics on the racial and political assumptions of the 20th century British national ego “(Xu’s abstract). Attwell, whose most recent book is J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing, questioned the limits of postcolonial theory by suggesting the magistrate, the narrative focaliser, in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians unsettles assumptions about what is “essentially subaltern” and what is representative of “the permanent stasis of alterity” (Attwell’s abstract). Listening to Xu and Attwell encouraged me to reconsider why reading can be a rich, situated response to perplexing allegories of guilt and perversity.
Two hundred years ago, Amasa Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) was published, and in 1855 Melville published what he appropriated from Delano’s locating desire in history as Benito Cereno. Is it tendentious to believe Melville wrote postcolonial fiction that casts light on American issues in 2017? No. America did have several colonial histories. It is a matter of seeing/reading Delano's travel writing and Melville's transformation of it into psychological fiction as tools for dealing with contemporary manifestations of intention and desire. Delano was complicit with Spanish imperialism (slave traffic); Melville, influenced by Abolitionist discourses I presume, focused on American blindness in dealing with appearance (the subaltern/slave's lack of power) with reality (the subaltern/slave's exercise of power). Recognizing the odd postcolonial status of 19th century American literature enables us to see a little more clearly how democratic boomerangs function in contemporary American society and alert us about postcolonial aberrations, the distortions that theory sponsors when we fail to be skeptical about theory.
The kinship between Melville and Coetzee is an entwining of the literary, the aesthetic, and the moral. From different temporal zones, Melville and Coetzee critique the flawed perspectives of those who gaze upon either the enslaved or the barbarian as the typical Other without recognizing that they themselves are the authentic Others. made all the more enslaved and barbaric for wearing the masks of civilization and Empire as narrative focalisers of what they can't or refuse to see. Coetzee and Melville help us to assess moral panic in the United States before and after November 8, 2016. And Coetzee's NYRB (January 19, 2017 issue) review of Antonio Di Benedetto's Zama (1956) tell us a great deal about the authentic Other and Empire.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. January 2, 2017