My unfortunate partiality for “colonising texts”

When I first came under the spell of Shakespeare some forty and more years ago, I failed to realise that I was siding with a tool of colonial oppression. And now, it’s too late to do anything about it: I am too stuck in my ways.

I suppose it has much to do with my family background. One never escapes the cultural ambience one grows up in; even those elements we reject define us: they define us by the very fact that we have rejected them. And there are other elements that one rejects, but later comes back to. And, finally, there are those elements in one’s family background that, consciously or unconsciously, become integral parts of one’s very being. My love of Shakespeare belongs, I think, to the third category.

Not that my parents read Shakespeare: my late father, who loved and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Bengali literature, often lamented to me that his English wasn’t good enough for him to read and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. I think he was wrong in this: his English most certainly was good enough to enable appreciation to a significantly high degree, but, given the level to which he understood and appreciated Bengali poetry, the standards he set himself were high. He did love watching the plays though, and never spoke of Shakespeare with anything other than respect. As a man steeped in Bengali culture, and who had lived the first twenty-one years of his life under British rule, if there was any resentment to be felt about “cultural imperialism”, he was well placed to feel it: but he didn’t. Yes, it did distress him that the Bengali culture he loved and valued so much was so little known outside the Bengali-speaking world; but the idea that Shakespeare was a colonial imposition was something that never even had occurred to him.

And this, I think, is only to be expected from someone who was so steeped in Tagorean ethos as was my father. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Indian nationalist sentiment, though in its infancy, was establishing itself as a potent force, Tagore wrote possibly the most startling of all patriotic poems. (It is No. 106 in the Bengali Gitanjali, for those who have access to it.) He does not here proclaim the greatness of India; and nor does he speak, as he was fully entitled to do, of India’s violation by foreign powers. Instead, he calls for people from all around the world, of all cultures and all backgrounds – even, quite explicitly, the imperialist rulers, the British – to bring to India their cultural riches, and thereby enrich the Indian mind and the Indian soul. The very concept of “cultural imperialism” was to Tagore utterly alien.

Looking back, that was the ethos in the household in which I grew up. My parents obviously thought it important that I, a five-year-old newly arrived in the country and unable to speak a word of English, should learn the language, but their motives were by no means purely utilitarian: even before I knew who Shakespeare was, I knew that this strange language I was to learn was “the language of Shakespeare”; and that if I learnt it well, I would have the privilege of being able to read the original works. This reverence – which, contrary to popular belief, does not preclude critical engagement – that was inculcated into me remains with me still. And, somewhat absurdly I suppose (since it reflects no credit on me personally), I find myself rather proud of this: my love of Shakespeare, far from being a foreign cultural imposition, is an aspect of my Bengali, Tagorean heritage.

And so, when I see an article in the arts pages of a prestigious newspapers that tells us, with obvious disapproval, that “in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation? And when the author then goes on to refer to these plays as “the master’s colonising texts”, something inside me, I confess, dies a little.

There are many other aspects of that article that I find – to put it politely – puzzling. The author, Preti Taneja, says of a recent Catalan film, Otel.lo, that it is “genuinely far more entertaining, political and provocative than many contemporary productions of Shakespeare in the UK”. Presumably, she is stating her own personal opinion here, and if so, that’s fair enough. There’s no arguing with personal opinion: de gustibus, and all that. But I can’t help wondering what the point of this comparison is. For one thing, comparing a Shakespeare play with a film in which a Shakespeare play is used as the basis for a new work of art is not a like-for-like comparison. And secondly, while I am sure that there are indeed productions of Shakespeare in the UK that are mediocre or worse – quality, after all, varies in all areas of human activity – the standard of Shakespearean performances in British theatres remains, despite the often desperate state of theatre finances, very high. Preti Taneja’s slur seems to me frankly gratuitous and churlish.

And there’s more. “It’s time to break this national monopoly on Shakespeare,” the headline proclaims. What “national monopoly”? The article itself tells us of the various productions and adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays from all around the world. Translating Shakespeare into other languages, adapting Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare through different cultural prisms to arrive at new levels of meaning – this has all been going on for a few centuries now, and none of it requires special pleading. From Verdi’s Otello to Kurosawa’s Ran (Italy and Japan both countries in which Shakespeare looms large, despite the rather inconvenient fact that neither has ever been colonised by the British), the plays of Shakespeare have formed the basis of new works; and often (as is certainly the case with the works of Verdi and Kurosawa), these new works themselves are widely acclaimed as masterpieces in their own right. So, once again – what national monopoly? What, in short, is Ms Taneja complaining about?

Personally, I welcome new adaptations of Shakespeare. I can’t imagine any lover of Shakespeare who doesn’t. Otel.lo may no doubt be a very fine film, and I would be keen to see it. But it remains somewhat dispiriting that in order to praise new adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, Preti Taneja feels the need to disparage the very fine work that is going on in theatres all around Britain. And it is equally dispiriting to see these endlessly enriching works characterised as tools of colonial oppression.

As for me, I shall go on revering the plays of Shakespeare. I owe it to my Bengali heritage, after all.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Carolyn on November 16, 2014 at 2:05 am

    Hello Himadri,

    The trouble with the argument of colonising texts in the context of having the literature of a culture known to the world is that without that text (be it Shakespeare or Goethe or Tagore or Einstein or Chinese writings or whoever writing about whatever) there would still be no knowledge of the “colonised” literature. People would still not know Tagore outside India, or Maori stories outside Aotearoa, or Native American ones outside the American continent (I don’t know its name in a Native American language or even if different tribal groups have different names for it – that is how much such languages are absorbed in the outside world). In fact they would probably know it less, since there would not be a tradition of literature being loved and the literature of the non-colonised place would not be available to the wider world in a language they could read.

    I suppose theoretically every word written by an outsider could be consider ‘colonising and oppressive’ but it’s a very divisive way of looking at the world. I am pleased there is Maori literature, now written, though I can’t read it, but I don’t think Maori people are other than enhanced by also being able to read English writings. (Though some might choose to be without this literature if they could revert to their own ways of living and ruling themselves, however that is a time long gone. As it is in India and other colonised countries.)

    Colonisation has a very bad name now, but people have always been taking over other countries and remaking them in their image forever (if possible, though it’s really quite difficult – the Normans never did manage to change the language of England or the English in India. South-East Asian history is beyond me but I think China and Japan have been linked closely, but still retain very separate identities now).

    This is all such a complicated issue that I have muddled myself and no doubt everyone else reading this.

    Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,

      I suppose theoretically every word written by an outsider could be consider ‘colonising and oppressive’ but it’s a very divisive way of looking at the world.

      Indeed. And it does perturb me that literature, which enriches regardless of political boundaries, should be seen as a battleground for identity politics.

      I think we may agree that, in general, colonialism is a Bad Thing. No people have ever dominated another people for the latter’s benefit: it is by nature oppressive, and exploitative. But that is a political judgement. But Western literature has not suppressed Indian literatures (at least, not in India itself): if anything, contact with Western literature revitalised Indian literatures. (At least, that was the case in Bengal.) To see literature in terms of identity politics I do find rather depressing.

      Reply

  2. Hello Himadri,

    I’m Lebanese and we have been mandated by the French, from 1920 until 1943. In theory, a mandate is a bit different from a colony in that independence is a matter of when not if, though to obtain our independence we had to fight for it. Accordingly, the French were supposed to establish governmental institutions, support in the development of a constitution, the development of the education system, etc… which they did. Contrary to the Maghreb countries, they did not enforce the French language. It was made official next to Arabic but it never replaced it.

    Its widespread adoption was a matter of choice, and French quickly became a mark of sophistication and consequently distanced the francophones (who formed the larger part of the population before the end of the civil war) form the rest.
    Undoubtedly, as you mention, French added to the Lebanese culture in 2 obvious ways: 1) it opened up to us the entire French culture, 2) it allowed the spreading of French names among the Lebanese by, for example, adapting French theater into the Lebanese language, names like Camus, Genet, etc…

    Less obvious is the enriching of the Lebanese language as a result of these adaptations; theater in Lebanon is tending more towards the Lebanese rather than towards the Arabic. Lebanese is the informal language that we speak and it is quite different from the official Arabic that we write.

    Another advantage to us, which could be seen as an aberration, yet I still see it as an advantage of having a “mandated” language over a native population, is that works in Lebanese or Arabic are finding new markets when being translated into French! I’m not sure if it is something characteristic of our country, but people revere and really cherish French, so much that it is possible to have original works in the official Arabic, which is considered difficult or artificial for us who speak it, finding more readership when translated into French.

    This does not worry me at all having another language breathing fresh air into works in an original language because the cultural exchange the effect of one culture on another are not so clear cut and measurable as humanities might like to think. A personal opinion, is that I prefer to have the work of a Lebanese writer finding new readers and forcing publishers to issue new prints in whichever language in its own country than having a Lebanese work collecting dust on bookstores’ shelves.

    Reply

    • Hello Nino, and thank you for your informative and quite fascinating post. The matters you address I know nothing about, and it encourages me to look further. What you say does seem to support very strongly the argument that when cultures come into contact, they revitalise each other – or, at the very least, have the potential for doing so. I think there is no doubt, for instance, that contact with Western literature revitalised Bengali literature; the late 19th – early 20th century is regarded, with good reason, as a Golden Era for arts in Bengal.

      I’m not sure if it is something characteristic of our country, but people revere and really cherish French…

      English is also revered and cherished by a great many educated people in India. And it does so without diminishing the stature of Indian languages!

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Martin Johnson on November 16, 2014 at 10:45 am

    Himadri (TAOG)

    At the risk of sounding like an agent of colonial oppression, I must nevertheless comment on your rant! Among other results of the Lawrence enquiry we learnt for the first time that racism is defined by those that experience it. Such may be the case for colonial oppression. You make the case against the Guardian article very eloquently yourself, so there is no need for me to add anything to that. However, I do feel the need to demolish the straw man that sits at the top of your article. I have on my shelves works by Tagore and distinguished representatives of cultures other than my own, which is white, Western and predominantly English. I have rarely been compelled to read such exotic work but, had I been, it would not have been possible to put it down to oppression, mainly, of course, because the hegemony resides at present within the Western dominant culture. This dominance serves to depress the significance and the reach of other cultures and, to me, that is the tragedy. The universal reach of Shakespeare is a consequence of his unique and incomparable gift. He should be seen as a world-wide artist, whose works and performances, even in translation, are among the greatest ever written. Some of the translations and adaptations have become classics of their home countries. He is, of course, a product of his own culture and times, and reflects the religious and political tensions of his time. And yet, over 400 years, people all over the world have found universal and timeless themes in his work, expressed in language of a quality that has never been surpassed. Other cultures have taken mainly voluntarily to him, though of course the British colonial adventure (sorry!) was a major vector. When we, in the 22nd century and beyond, are bending the knee to an Indian and Chinese hegemony, I very much doubt that the great writers of the dominant cultures will reach as far as Shakespeare has, or be loved as much.

    Of course, I know you will agree with much of what I say, as I do with you.

    Best wishes

    Martin

    Reply

    • Hello Martin, and welcome.

      You make a number of interesting points that deserve discussion in greater detail than perhaps I can go into in lunchtime. But let’s make a start, at any rate!

      You say:

      Among other results of the Lawrence enquiry we learnt for the first time that racism is defined by those that experience it. Such may be the case for colonial oppression.

      Indeed. But, since no group of people of any reasonable size is monolithic, the question this raises is surely: “Whose voice do we listen to?” I myself grew up in the 60s and 70s, and have, naturally, experienced racism from the receiving end. I was born less than 13 years after independence: both my parents were born during the British Raj. And yet, my understanding and perception of these issues differ greatly from that of many others in positions similar to my own. In particular, I generally try to steer clear of identity politics, which I think are destructive; and, as is perhaps obvious from my post above, I find myself objecting when arts and humanities are used as a battleground for identity politics. Although many in positions similar to my own feel much the same way as I do, not everyone does. So when we speak of hearing the voices of those who have experienced racism, or have experienced colonial oppression, the question “Whose voice?” does seem pertinent.

      I agree with you fully when you say “the universal reach of Shakespeare is a consequence of his unique and incomparable gift”. And I think this is why I find myself objecting to the thesis, often stated directly and even more frequently implied, that, as Preti Tanuja puts it, “one of the root causes of Shakespeare’s presence in different parts of the world [is]colonialism”. Such a judgement detracts, I think, from “his unique and incomparable gift”: it is effectively to say “his stature is not wholly due to his gifts, but due to his works being forced by the colonisers on the colonised”. Yes, Shakespeare was taught in colonised countries; but the fact – and it is a fact – that he is and has been for centuries a major cultural presence also in countries that had not been colonised seems to indicate that colonialism is not among the major root causes..

      (And even if my analysis here is wrong, there seems to me no reason to regard Shakespeare’s presence in formerly colonised countries as anything other than a beneficient side-effect of colonialism, and something to be celebrated.)

      The question that I have been avoiding so far, and which you raise, is the extent to which the presence of a foreign cultural figure, imposed by colonial force or otherwise, holds back the native culture; or, as you put it, “dominance serves to depress the significance and the reach of other cultures”. This is an interesting issue because it does seem to me that, within the last few decades, Indian writing has been internationally recognized purely on the basis of writing in English: writing in Indian languages has been almost entirely ignored. I have had a few good rants on this before (here, for instance).

      However, this development is a relatively recent one, and has transpired long after the end of the British Raj. During the period of the Raj itself, there is no doubt whatever that contact with Western culture revitalised Bengali culture (and, I think, other Indian cultures also), and not merely in the field of literature. And it has worked the other way round too (though not in the same scale): Goethe referred to Kalidasa’s Sakuntala as the greatest work of art he knew; Schopenhauer was devoted to the Upanishads; Wagner long considered writing an opera on Buddhist themes, and his last work, Parsifal, does indeed contain many elements of Indian philosophy; and so on. I personally think that awareness and understanding of cultures other than one’s own can but enrich. There is no doubt about it in my mind at all.

      There’s a lot more to say on all this, I’m sure, but this is getting long enough as it is, so I’ll stop here.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Hi Himadri

    This is one of the reasons why I avoid most writing about the theatre in national newspapers – the comments are often ignorant, opinionated, London-centred nonsense, which merely reveals that the writer has very little experience of current trends in UK-wide theatre. There are so many errors in Preti Taneja’s article that my husband and I had a good laugh about them, but undoubtedly others will be influenced by her words, and that’s a shame, because there are already so many obstacles to ordinary people finding the joys of Shakespeare in performance that she does us all a disservice by setting up these facile criticisms. Clearly the RSC’s Complete Works festival of 2006/7 passed her by – not based in London – in which many theatre companies from around the world showed what they were doing with Shakespeare’s work, be it in English, in translation or in adaptation. Many European countries accessed Will’s works originally from the German translations that were done very quickly, and some people consider those translations to be a better source than the original English, not to mention believing that Shakespeare himself was German! There are so many mash-ups of Shakespeare’s works being produced nowadays that it’s become unusual, outside the Globe itself, to see contemporary Elizabethan dress for a production, never mind any other historical period, and sticking to the text has largely become optional. Many recent productions have been challenging, and if they’re not to Preti’s taste, fine, but a bit more accuracy and awareness would have gone a long way to improving her article.

    I can’t comment on the colonising aspects of Shakespeare; I will just point out that it was only recently that the UK established its own Shakespeare Association – we were at the inaugurating meeting – despite many other countries having their SA for decades. And as for Shakespeare being compulsory in other countries, perhaps Preti hasn’t noticed yet but he’s been compulsory in the UK for many years as well.

    Your blog, as ever, continues to entertain and educate.

    All the best

    Sheila

    Reply

    • Hello Sheila,

      To be honest, there was so much in that Guardian article that I objected to that were I to try to counter every single point, my own post would have become hopelessly unfocussed. I decided in the end to ignore those little asides such as “Britain’s responsibility and legacy in the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict” (if India and Pakistan still haven’t sorted the problem out after nearly 70 years, the responsibility lies more with them than with Britain, I’d have thought, however poisonous Britain’s legacy may be); or that utterly gratuitous dig near the end about “Etonian vowels”: that few working class actors are emerging these days in classical theatre is certainly a concern; but to have a go at the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dominic West, etc. (I imagine these were the people she was implicitly having a go at) simply because she disapproves of their Eton/Harrow background does seem to me to be hitting below the belt.

      She seems to equate UK theatre with the Establishment, and foreign translations and adaptations with anti-Establishment, and, without feeling the need to present any argument or evidence, disparages the former while extolling the latter. This seems to me, quite frankly, mere adolescent posturing of a kind that is sadly too common in many arts pages. It is doubly ludicrous when, as you say, the RSC and the Globe have gone out of their way to present Shakespeare productions from other countries, and in languages other than English.

      When artists, both inside and outside UK, use Shakespeare as a basis for their own works, then yes, that is to be welcomed. But I cannot think of anyone who doesn’t welcome it. This has been happening, as I said, for centuries. Why Taneja characterises this as a confrontation rather than as a conversation I do not know; why she speaks of translators and dramatists “talking back” to Shakespeare rather than “building upon” Shakespeare I don’t know either. To see in Shakespeare’s work important issues that affect us in the here-and-now is not to “talk back”: it is, rather, to honour Shakespeare.

      In much of this blog, I do realise, I come across as a bit of a grump, always bemoaning cultural decline. But our theatre, despite shocking neglect and underfunding, has, by and large, maintained standards heroically. Even if one cannot attend plays regularly, one need only read your blog to realise how high standards are in general. How sad that someone writing in a national paper should see fit, without any evidence or argument whatever, to denigrate this aspect of our cultural life that we should all be proud of.

      I’ll try to get to see the Catalan film Otel.lo she mentions. But, frankly, I’d rather go to Stratford and see their productions of Loves Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won (Much Ado About Nothing).

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. It could be that the RSC has grown stuffy and conservative – I just don’t know – but Britain’s monopoly on Shakespeare stagings only exists in some narrow minds. Curiously, Alexander Pushkin – who taught himself English in the 1820s – wrote what is considered his worst, seldom read long poem, Angelo, based on Measure for Measure, probably the least known of Shakespeare’s plays in Russia. In 2012, one of Russia’s best directors, Yuri Butusov from St. Petersburg, commissioned a new, uncensored translation and staged Measure for Measure at the Vakhtangov theater in Moscow. The production was shown at the Globe in 2012, apparently to some acclaim. Michael Billington, The Guardian‘s theater critic, wrote:

    I know it’s a cliche but it’s true: foreign-language Shakespeare, necessarily an adaptation, often has a liberating effect on directors and actors. That is certainly the case with Yury Butusov’s invigorating production of this complex comedy for Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre, the latest production in the World Shakespeare festival, which takes liberties that might be frowned upon if they came from the Globe’s resident team.

    The irony is that, although Butusov altered the ending, the translation he used was closer to the Bard’s gritty language than is typically the case with Russian Shakespeare renderings. I read the play, annotated, hours before I saw the production in Moscow so I could compare the Russian version while the original was rather fresh in my short memory. Two more reviews here and here. Of course Butusov is merely the latest in a line: the first were probably Gordon Craig and Stanislavsky when they jointly staged Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theater in 1911-12.

    The way Butusov portrays Othello in another production owes something to Pushkin’s remark (quoted by Dostoevsky in TBK): “By nature, Othello is not jealous – on the contrary, he is trusting. Voltaire realized it and, developing Shakespeare’s creation in his imitation [Zaïre], put this verse in Orosmane’s mouth: Je ne suis point jaloux … Si je l’étais jamais!..” One suspects that Pushkin might have had a special interest in Othello because of his own African heritage but in any case Shakespeare entered Russian literature almost at its inception. Pushkin wrote of his Boris Godunov: “Studying Shakespeare, Karamzin and our old chronicles gave me the idea to bring to life, in a dramatic shape, one of the most dramatic periods in our history. I imitated Shakespeare in his free and broad depiction of characters; I followed Karamzin in a clear development of events; in the chronicles, I tried to surmise the language of that time – these are rich sources; whether I made good use of them, I do not know.”

    Reply

    • Hello Alex,

      As Sheila writes in her comment above:

      Clearly the RSC’s Complete Works festival of 2006/7 passed her by – not based in London – in which many theatre companies from around the world showed what they were doing with Shakespeare’s work, be it in English, in translation or in adaptation.

      As you rightly say:

      Britain’s monopoly on Shakespeare stagings only exists in some narrow minds

      Both the RSC and the Globe have presented us with performances of Shakespeare from countries other than UK, in languages other than English. And their own productions remain of a high quality. Why that Guardian piece chose to have a go at the RSC and present them as stuffy and insular, one can only conjecture.

      As in the rest of Europe, Shakespeare was, as I understand it, a major presence in Russia. I’ve read ,em>Boris Godunov only in translation, but it’s obviously the work of a man who knew Shakespeare well. (Similar comments may be made about the historic dramas of Schiller, or Ibsen’s historic drama The Pretenders etc.) Also, I believe, Boris Pasternak made some remarkable translations of Shakespeare, and that it was these translations that were used in the famous Kozintsev films of Hamlet and King Lear.

      The problem with language – i.e. how much of a Shakespeare play survives translation? – is one Preti Tenuja dismisses, but it is surely an important issue. As is well-know, the plot of most of Shakespeare’s plays are derived from other sources: what distinguishes these plays is how Shakespeare presents the plot, and, particularly, the language in which he presents it. The language, in short, is not an optional extra, but an integral part of the work. The language creates the drama. Thus, if we were to go over to another language – or to another form such as, say, operatic – either the new work must create its own language to convey at least something of Shakespeare’s drama; or it takes Shakespeare’s work as a starting point for something that is quite new. (There may of course be many shades of grey between these poles.) Either way, jettisoning Shakespeare’s language and replacing it with something else (that “something else” may be fine in its own right, of course – as, I believe, is the case with Pasternak’s translations) inevitably takes the new work away from the original: I don’t see how it can be otherwise. Similar observations apply also to translations of other dramas in verse – Phèdre, Boris Godunov, Wallenstein, Peer Gynt, etc. etc. And yes, it is certainly an important issue that is worth discussing.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • By the way, the Russian Wiki entry on Hamlet lists 32 (!) Russian translations and one early imitation, by Alexander Sumarokov, dating back to 1748 and based on a French prose rendering by Pierre-Antoine de laPlace published in 1746. But out of the 32 translations over 200 years, only two are considered “canonical” and both are relatively recent, by Mikhail Lozinsky (1933) and Boris Pasternak (1940) – and both are endlessly discussed and compared with each other by Russian poets and translators. The latest Russian Hamlet of note appeared in 2008, to the best of my knowledge.

  6. Posted by alan on November 18, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    This conversation reminded me of this.

    Reply

  7. Posted by alan on November 19, 2014 at 7:45 am

    I’ve tried to read that newspaper article and it seems confused and fearful rather than wanting to be mendacious. I suspect that the author is trying to square her love of Shakespeare with the received political attitudes of her social group; perhaps this is the only way she can do it, and keep her friends.

    Reply

    • I don’t know that I’d care to speculate on that. Even if I personally knew the author, I’d truy to steer clear of ad hominems, I think. But I do agree that the article isn’t mendacious, and i hope I hadn’t implied that it was!

      Reply

  8. Excellent psot, Himadri!

    Reply

  9. […] have commented on Argumentative Old Git‘s post on Shakespeare performances outside Britain. Preti Taneja’s call in The […]

    Reply

  10. Posted by Charley on November 19, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    This is why I find myself constantly drawn back to this site. Here’s a subject that I THOUGHT I had little interest in, yet the comments and observations have proved so engrossing and reference so many things that I now feel like finding out more about them.

    It’s like sitting having a drink with a group of particularly erudite people who respect each other’s viewpoints, realising that you yourself have little to contribute and so might as well just settle back and enjoy having your horizons broadened. It just never devolves into the tawdry and ultimately boring mud-slinging that some blogs do.

    Whoever said that blogs were ‘graffiti with punctuation’ never visited this one.

    Great stuff. Now please…continue.

    Reply

  11. Don’t mind the Guardian too much, these days (?) it appears to be desperately courting all trendy politics, cultural and otherwise. Whereas 10-15 years ago it was trendy among white intellectuals to wallow in white guilt it seems these days people of all backgrounds are feeling guilty for daring to appreciate and be inspired by each other’s culture.

    ““in India and countries in Africa, Shakespeare’s works were made compulsory in schools, as they were seen as a mark of civilisation”, I struggle to understand what there can be in any of that that the author finds objectionable: does the author think these plays aren’t a mark of civilisation?”

    You could spark a hot debate with just this. I think that yes, there are certain people who see Shakespeare and any similar foreign influence on their culture as colonialism only. What you think of as civilisation they see as oppression. There is of course a hint of superiority in the very term “civilisation”. We don’t seem to mind being “civilised” when it comes to adopting scientific discoveries made by others but the influence of foreign arts raises something tribal in people. It’s silly, though, because cultures have been influencing (and refreshing) each other since forever – mostly for the better. It’s especially silly to object to Shakespeare instead of to Dan Brown.

    Reply

    • Hello Dehggial,
      Indeed, as you say, there are those who do indeed “see Shakespeare and any similar foreign influence on their culture as colonialism only”. Culture has long become a battle-ground for identity politics, and it is terribly sad. This is not the correct way to approach literature, or, indeed, any other art. What may seem like cultural progressiveness will lead merely to cultural ghetto-isation.

      You make a very interesting point: while people are happy to use technology or medicine developed in cultures other than their own, they become tribal and parochial as soon as they come to culture and the arts. It is very sad. And, as far as I can see, this sort of narrow-mindedness is rarely challenged.

      While I am naturally very happy (and flattered) to get so many comments largely in agreement, I was hoping that there would be at least a few who would express disagreement, so we could have a good debate on this. I for one would genuinely love to learn what it is people get out of seeing culture in such tribal terms.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

  12. Posted by Martin on December 7, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Apropos of not very much, I was chastened to learn that the Berber camel driver leading us on a trek in Morocco was currently reading the book (Siddhartha) which was also at that time the current read of my local literary group, whose pretention is such that they began with Proust.

    Reply

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