The Economy of Postcolonial Literature: Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey



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Such a Long Journey: Literary Criticism

Critical Essay by Deepika Bahri
SOURCE: Bahri, Deepika. "The Economy of Postcolonial Literature: Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey." In Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature, pp. 120-51. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
In the following essay, Bahri examines Such a Long Journey and contends the strength of Mistry's writing comes from mixing native Indian dialects with the English of his primary reading audience.


No Realist contents himself with repeating forever what is already well known; that would not demonstrate a living relation with reality.
--Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke (translated by author)
In an otherwise complimentary review of Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (1991), Glenn Carey is chagrined to note a "serious flaw," to wit, the lack of an "appendix of Hindi expressions used in the story, with English translations" (127). David Ray's review of the novel in the New York Times Book Review also draws attention to Mistry's use of various languages: "The novel frequently poses a problem for all but the polyglot reader. Words from several Indian languages are dropped in liberally. Some passages are veritable pastiches of two or more languages. A glossary would have been welcome" (13). Although not traditionally part of the bailiwick of critics, book reviews and jacket notes--the extra-textual surround of literature--increasingly function as crucial accessory signs of the dynamics of the production and consumption of postcolonial products. Necessary handmaidens to the "marketplacing" of postcolonial intellectual and artistic goods, they serve to provide telling tales of the vectoring of the artist and critic in the ideological graph mapping intellectual exchanges in the global market. Quite apart from the fact that the appendix proposed by the first reviewer would not be too helpful to the general reader in understanding the many Parsi-Gujrati expressions also used by Mistry--a fact Ray at least is aware of--what is recalled by the reviewers' observations is a much earlier debate on "intelligibility" and "universality" in "emergent" literature (Wlad Godzich's term), and its import for a contemporary reckoning of the historical dimension of aesthetic norms.1
More than a decade ago, in his review of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood, John Updike bemoaned the profusion of untranslated Swahili and Kikuyu words in the novel. As Reed Way Dasenbrock notes, Updike was hardly alone then in making an implicit appeal for universality, a tendency Chinua Achebe had earlier denounced as synonymous with "the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe" (11). Carey and Ray's comments on the polyglossia of Mistry's novel once again raise the issue of linguistic bondage to the colonial center; equally importantly, they unwittingly exhort an examination of the larger question of the orientation and purpose of postcolonial literature, criticism, and pedagogy, and consequently of their place within the First World academic marketplace that has proved so hospitable to all three. While the presence of the English-language postcolonial novel may be said to function as a potent sign of a lamentable de facto glottophagia that disappears vernacular scripts from the larger postcolonial text, the anglophone postcolonial novel that repeatedly challenges standard English obliges us to conceive of polyglossia not only in terms of discrete languages but within the same one. In the case of an overtly polyglot novel like Such a Long Journey, vernacular language use functions as a blatant sign of what we might also consider the larger question of literary codes. The distress caused by the elision of vernacular "postcolonial" literatures and the displacement of "real others" often illogically obscures the problems arising from a politics of reading favoring either the consumption model or a hermeneutic of suspicion of "successful" literature. If "literature itself is a social institution," as Annette Kolodny points out in her observations on the theory, practice, and politics of feminist literary criticism in "Dancing through the Minefield," "so, too, reading is a highly socialized--or learned--activity" (153).2 Compare, too, Derek Attridge's observations about the expectations held of South African literature:


The demand that the production and judgment of literature be governed by its immediate effectiveness in the struggle for change (or against change) has been immensely powerful, and has given rise to a suspicion of anything appearing hermetic, self-referential, formally inventive, or otherwise distant from the canons and procedures of the realist tradition.
(243)
Those sorts of readings of texts that refuse to accord literature its literariness or deny the imbrication of sociopolitics within an aesthetic scheme are no less motivated by the technologies of inclusion and exclusion than the process of canon formation that "selects certain kinds of authors, texts, styles, and criteria of classification and judgement [including language], privileging them over others which may also belong in the same period" (Ahmad, In Theory 123). Without a critical commitment to a method capable of incorporating literary and aesthetic concerns, the text's strategies of revolt against literalism are likely to remain underappreciated.
As it stands, Such a Long Journey, yoked to its First World context, can be used (and apparently is used) to invoke a predictably smelly, chaotic mass of others who reinforce the superiority of the West, doubly so because the more resourceful among them, the author and many an expatriate postcolonial critic attempting to explicate the work, inter alia, have clearly voted on this issue with their fleet, transnational feet.3


Rohinton Mistry's need for peace, order and (relatively) good government--Canada, Brampton version--is understandable when you read his novel, Such a Long Journey. It is a tidal wave of humanity at its smelliest and most chaotic.
(Ross 2)
The easy slippage evidenced in Ross's comments between Mistry, the smelly subalterns, and the whole civic and governmental structure available to this "tidal wave of humanity" should convey something of the challenges posed in particular by postcolonial texts that operate in the mimetic register of realist fiction. The realist mode of Mistry's "fiction" and the ensuing propensity for it to be read as a representative and transparent text of postcolonial India further complicates the issue, for it is bootless to insist that it is, after all, a fiction and must be read with an apprehension of the ambiguities of "realistic" literary representation. The literary and disciplinary revetment behind which such a "retreat" (for this is how it will be seen) might have been possible (through what will inevitably be construed as "withdrawal" into discussions of techniques of storytelling, or of the dignity of the individual hero, or into the intransigence of the signifier, for example) has been unprofitably and prematurely eroded by the same wave of political interests that brought postcolonial cultural work into the purview of First World academe in the first place.
If attention to "the historic positional value" of the postcolonial and its commodification enjoins that we teach the conflicts (as Gerald Graff suggests), or the market (as Bishnupriya Ghosh argues), however, it also introduces us to an ideological context in which the order of aesthetics has been suppressed. Confronted with the economy of postcolonial literature in the global marketplace, criticism has attended but poorly to the development of an organon capable of dealing with the economy of the individual text--its functional arrangement of elements within a whole, its thrifty and careful management of its "resources," and those components of value that contest its reduction to exchange value alone.
The particular challenge of Such a Long Journey is that of unlocking the complexities of mimetic representation in the tradition of realism in the precise historic moment that demands representation from the postcolonial text. If realism is all too glibly associated with naive epistemological assumptions, mimesis--its modality--occasions considerable anxiety in a great deal of contemporary discourse. If Plato's critique identifies the danger of mimesis in its "undermining of a stable notion of truth," contemporary suspicion of mimesis is directed toward "a false belief in the fixity of meaning" (Jay, Cultural Semantics 121, 120). In the traditional estimation, mimesis is a "conservative reproduction of existing signs," as Barthes insists (quoted in ibid. 120). Apt to engender "confusion of linguistic with natural reality," mimesis in the realist genre can be a risky trope for the postcolonial writer because it is associated with such terms as "copy," "reproduction," and "imitation," and so in danger of contributing to rather than challenging the problems of fixed identity that postcolonial discourse has consistently struggled against. In the register of realism, the slice of life was traditionally expected to reproduce the totality of social relations through a faithful copy of the world in which it is placed. The formal order of the novel--which also alerts us to its artifactuality--sometimes reinforces rather than attenuates this expectation. Mimesis allied with the powerful literary convention of realism can lead us to mistake the representational for the representative, the artistic copy for exact replica, the particular for an undifferentiated tidal wave of smelly subalternity, the representation of a character's discomfort with the crowd for an auctorial and textual stance of rejection of the masses. A whole set of conceptual exchanges can be precipitated not only despite our understanding of instrumental commodification but precisely because of it.
For Adorno, however, mimesis can function as a valuable resource in the struggle against the reigning power of instrumental rationality in the modern world. "If art were simply equivalent to rationality," he argues, "it would disappear in it and die off" (Notes to Literature, I, 147). Adorno points out that mimetic comportment "does not imitate something but rather makes itself like itself" as a contiguity rather than an appropriation or domination (Aesthetic Theory 111).4 This interpretation of mimesis capitalizes not on the arbitrariness of the sign so much as it does on the foundational understanding that "the mimesis of artworks is their resemblance to themselves" (104). As Adorno insists even when conceding the status of art as fait social, "Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity" (1). The danger that mimesis will produce the illusion of "knowledge" is rejected in Adorno's scheme of artistic nonfulfillment of the concept:


The survival of mimesis, the nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with its unposited other, defines art as a form of knowledge and to that extent as "rational." For that to which the mimetic comportment responds is the telos of knowledge, which art simultaneously blocks with its own categories. Art completes knowledge with what is excluded from knowledge and thereby once again impairs its character as knowledge, its univocity.
(54)
Without the awareness of this nonfulfillment in the text's negotiation with its object, the "struggle for the sign" (Voloshinov's phrase) ends in the establishment of rational knowledge and the surrender of the text to the rule of equivalence (earlier referred to as "identity thinking"). The mimetic comportment of art may well be a response "to the telos of knowledge," but its success lies not in its reproduction but in its disjunctive modes of integrating into its fold that which exists in another order of reality:


In artworks, the criterion of success is twofold: whether they succeed in integrating thematic strata and details into their immanent law of form and in this integration at the same time maintain what resists it and the fissures that occur in the process of integration.
(7)
Form, thus broadly conceived, is the internal economy of literature. The saturation of content in form permits literary art its unique realm of experience. It is the formal comportment of art that intimates to us the proviso that if art has a cognitive content, it is not available as series of propositions. If there is a truth-content to art, it resides in its engaged alienation from a material world governed by instrumental reason and the rule of equivalence. Its immanent laws disallow the transparency we expect in identical thinking. In Notes to Literature, Adorno insists that "[art's] idea is as different from propositional language as aesthetic resemblance is from resemblance to things" (I, 171).5 It is precisely what Adorno refers to as the principle of "nonidentity" that allots to art this peculiar privilege:


Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identify. Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the work's own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence.
(Aesthetic Theory 4)
Even experimental forms that challenge traditional genres, or traditional disciplinary boundaries--as is the case with much historiographic fiction--are recognizable owing to certain considerations of form that are closely imbricated with content. Marcuse insists that "a work of art is authentic or true not by virtue of its content (i.e., the "correct" representation of social conditions) nor by its "pure" form, but by the content having become form" (Aesthetic Dimension 8). Although it may be true that the aesthetic is inherent not only in form but in ways of reading that uncover its operations as essential to content, to seek precise correspondences between content and form is to succumb to another sort of fantasy of transparency in service of the sociopolitical. To stop at the historical-biographical significance of the novel is to cheat ourselves of the intelligence available from attention to stylistics and form; to engineer a contrived correspondence between sociohistorical significance and the text's formal elements, however, is to miss the point of the un-containable transformation of content becoming form, or that of the ways in which intention is extinguished in the content (Adorno, Notes to Literature, I, 161). Attention to the conjunctions between the formal and thematic choices can reveal both how figuration and narration work together as well as the gaps that emerge in the process of transformation.
To propose that the unique experience of art (in this case literature) cannot be separated from its immanent law of form is not to subscribe to formalism as we traditionally understand it. Although devotees of "close reading" and formalism come in many guises, a certain sort of formalism understood by what Murray Krieger has referred to as "a very narrow definition" that "equated formalism with aestheticisim as a doctrine which would cut the art object off from the world while treating only its craftsmanlike quality as an artifact" has been all but totally discredited (96).6 New formalisms have by now succeeded new criticism's early expression of interest in form. Krieger himself relates formalist aestheticism to a philosophical aesthesis or "immediate sense perception" (97). Immobilization of the principle of aesthesia, in the classic sense of "the capacity for feeling and sensation," prevents us from recognizing the artistic object as an "intentional object" (Krieger 97). Krieger's useful discussion of the intentional object as aesthetic would seem to sound a timely tocsin as the dangers of conflating mimetic as real grow in the reading of postcolonial literature. Krieger insists that "the peculiar nature of the intentional object as aesthetic--whatever else it is--is surely duplicitous" (101). To be blind to our own collusion in the process of taking "the mimetic as real" is to deny the extent to which the intentional object, here Krieger refers explicitly to drama, "wants us to be alive to this doubleness" (101).
Herbert Marcuse has argued in The Aesthetic Dimension that "literature is not revolutionary because it is written for the working class or for "the revolution""; rather it is revolutionary, as, "in a meaningful sense only with reference to itself, as content having become form" (xii; emphasis mine). Part of Mistry's novel's innate structure is polyglossia, linguistic and otherwise. The novel's "serious flaw," then, is precisely what points us in the direction of what I have earlier referred to, pace Adorno's view of philosophy, as the Sisyphean labor of interpretation. Robert Scholes had reminded us almost a quarter of a century ago in Structuralism in Literature that "there is no single "right" reading for any complex literary work" but that readings are "more or less rich" (144-45). It is not "multiple readings," however, that are indicated by the concept in my reading of the novel, so much as polyglossia as a constitutive structural principle in the work, and of that play between sign and signification that Benjamin describes as the "foreignness of languages" (75). Moreover, if each language is an entire culture, as Upamanyu Chatterjee suggests in English, August, the métissage of language(s) in Mistry's novel reveals a material context that has itself been creolized and rendered considerably more complex than any one model or interpretive grid alone can explain. In fact, if in the current moment Mistry's is a diasporic tale in the West, in a precolonial context, that of the Noble family is a continuation of an older diaspora, dating back 1300 years to the expulsion of Zoroastrians from Persia at the time of the Arab invasion when a handful fled to India and were given sanctuary by Yadav Rana. As a persistently unintegrated minority with a millennial residence in the subcontinent, the Parsi fragment of the Indian nation is also a minor fragment of world history, scattered by a much older colonial order that Islamized the Zoroastrian lands of Persia in its own bid to globalize.
The slow accretion of complexities that have resulted over the course of a long and tumultuous, often contested past in the history of the cultures described in the novel should render futile any simple recovery of an underlying and suspiciously serviceable teleological structure. Although a formalistic reading of the text may reveal the technics of textual design, the novel as a social text cannot be reduced to a puzzle that must be pieced together to yield a serviceable and representative profile of the cultures that form its subject, unless we are willing to concede, with Adorno, that "this puzzle is constituted in such a fashion that it remains a vexation" (Aesthetic Theory 121). To confuse the novel's particular rendition of human suffering with the representatively aggregate condition of the postcolony is to fall prey to the oldest of colonial fallacies, one that Memmi refers to as "the mark of the plural": "The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity ("They are this." "They are all the same.")" (85).7 If "this" can only happen in India, if "this" is how "they" are, the postcolonial can never be other than an amorphous other serving dubious needs and anxieties in those with the power to name and judge, creating an aggregare object "riddled," as Benjamin puts it, "with error with doxa [conjecture]" (Charles Baudelaire 103). Sybil Steinberg's review of Such a Long Journey captures the spirit of this exchange in a metaphor celebrating the consumption model; the novel, she notes approvingly, "serves up an exotic feast" (66). The reception of the text constitutes something of its context, but it is scarcely the constitutive content of literature. Adorno specifically castigates that form of commodity consumption that uses art as target practice for subjective projections, whether they are sentimental identifications or disdainful ones:


Insofar as the now typical attitude makes the artwork something merely factual, even art's mimetic element, itself incompatible with whatever is purely a thing, is bartered off as a commodity. The consumer arbitrarily projects his impulses--mimetic remnants--on whatever is presented to him. & As a tabula rasa of subjective projections & the artwork is shorn of its qualitative dimension. & What the reified artworks are no longer able to say is replaced by the beholder with the standardized echo of himself, to which he hearkens.
(Aesthetic Theory 17; emphasis mine)
If the economy of the culture industry permits art to be treated as "merely factual," in the alternative economy of art and literature, the distilled model of the phenomenal world carries analogies and resonances, not dutifully representative reductions or unmediated reflections of the real world. The capacity for aesthetic sublimation, moreover, is hardly confined to poetry and drama alone; "The realistic novel," too, as Marcuse insists, "must transform the reality which is their material in order to re-present its essence as envisioned by art" (Aesthetic Dimension 44). Mimesis, within this economy, "is representation through estrangement, subversion of consciousness" (45). For Adorno, mimesis affords an alternative form of knowledge, representing an attempt to approximate nature and that which is not there--a notion intimately tied to the prospect of utopian thinking.
The revolutionary potential of art resides in this alternative economy, itself suspended in a geopolitical economic context that both enables and restricts it. If anything, Marcuse proposes that it is the aesthetic experience that is capable of "breaking through the mystified (and petrified) social reality, and opening the horizon of change (liberation)" through "its invocation of the beautiful image (schöner Schein) of liberation" (xi, 6). "The only requirement" for a "historical reality" to challenge the world, Marcuse maintains, is that "it must be stylized, subjected to aesthetic "formation"" (44). If it is at all possible to talk about utopia in Such a Long Journey, it is so not because Mistry's portrait of middle-class Parsi family life in 1960s and 1970s Bombay alludes to it in the characters' conversations or narratorial asides, but precisely because the miniaturized world of the novel, operating within a mode we recognize as realism, has undergone a process of formation. Language is thus "tightened or loosened, forced to yield insights otherwise obscured" while "restructuring takes place through concentration, exaggeration, emphasis on the essential, reordering of facts" (Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension 45). Its order and its language operate within the work as a whole to carry the import of aesthetic transformation. If this process "turns into indictment," it also becomes "a celebration of that which resists injustice and terror, and of that which can still be saved" (45). Art's treatment of utopia is scarcely confined to content alone. Indeed, at the level of literary plot resolution, the triumph of liberation would seem to serve as little more than hollow promise. The fracturing of the image of liberation by reality remains one of art's more potent means of indicting that reality. In the alembic of content having become form, the image of liberation surfaces not as a politically correct vision, but one that can only be politically correct if "it is also correct," as Benjamin insists, "by literary standards" (quoted in Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension 53). One might argue that the vision may actually bypass the arena of praxis altogether, thereby remaining inaccessible to it, but nevertheless calling praxis up and into question. The very possibility of conjuring up this image of liberation, as transgressive of the known reality, thus lies in its inadequation to this reality.
In the reading that follows, I will pay particular attention to the novel's use of walls and journeys, literal and metaphorical, personal and collective, cognitive and spiritual, as they function within the economy of the text. These figurative devices manage the burden of content in the book, organizing mimesis and diegesis into an interactive whole. Girded by an elaborate formal structure, the novel is organized such that its cosmos (etymologically, "adornment" in Greek, a connotation tied to aesthetics) perforce recalls the absence of order in the world without. The tight construction of the novel, tying in various motifs--of journeys begun and ended, undertaken and delayed, mourned and celebrated and of the many types of walls that protect even as they limit--overworks the principle of order, recalling in every plot resolution all that is left unreconciled in reality. The stuff of the poetic is lodged in the disadequation between this "ordered" world and that reified world which is administered but lacks the symmetries and resolutions that would reconcile it with truth and nature. The political import of the text's allegorical construction of the problem of utopia lies precisely within the purview of its aesthetic dimension rather than in its availability as a portable program for change. In the aesthetic dimension it becomes possible to allude to the possibility of a vision neither conceivable nor understood in the language of a world dominated by the rule of equivalence.
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