||The Colour of Literature
by David Solway
I have long been uncomfortable with the set of prescriptive beliefs and presuppositions current in the literary and academic communities about the proper way of reading (and writing) literary texts and of aligning their relation with the social world. According to this rationale, if a work of art offends the values or the sensibilities of a particular "interest group," it may be legitimately sanitized or even suppressed. And when strong ethical pretensions accompany the staking out of potentially dubious rhetorical positions, the predicament is only compounded. A restrictive and dogmatic state of mind begins to pass itself off as an advanced mode of social reasoning, illumining the dark corners of a putatively illiberal and chauvinistic culture. But what we are getting is really censorship in another guise¨censorship rendered justifiable and even laudable, censorship as a form of enlightened thought though it may be nothing less than the canniest form of intolerance.
I am referring in particular to that burgeoning cohort of neo-colonialists who insist on examining literature, to cite Robert Alter from The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, "as a symptom of something else [which] requires neither a special liking for literature nor an ability to discriminate between derivative and original, second-rate and first-rate writers." It becomes especially disconcerting when writers who have acquired a measure of acclaim and are therefore in a position to wield considerable influence take the easy road of received opinion toward approved and indeed trendy destinations. It was thus with some dismay that I read George Elliott Clarke's tendentious article in the National Post for Friday May 10, entitled "Can only white authors teach anti-racism?" The assumptions he so readily mobilizes¨that literature is colour-specific (witness his use of terms like "black-authored" and "white-authored" texts), that novels are primarily sociopolitical documents, that heritage may be conceived as generating literary authenticity and that in the assessment of literary works social questions must take precedence over the fundamental morality of the imagination¨have become so prevalent as to be virtually unassailable, contemporary instances of default thinking.
The problem is that beneath the arguments made by Clarke and others like him lurks an ideological motive which both simplifies and distorts the issues they address. We all know that society seethes with innumerable forms of prejudice and that the history of oppression must be grasped and dealt with if we are ever to live in an approximately just world. But in our eagerness to acquire understanding and rectify the ills which bedevil us, we tend to draw distinctions and initiate social movements that are sometimes callow and unreflected and that may very quickly grow fashionable. As a consequence of such haste and superficiality, paradoxes become cripplingly inevitable. In this country, for example, the next step would be to abolish the Charter of Rights and Freedoms since it was "authored" mainly by a tyrannical constituency of privileged white males who cannot pretend to speak for the disenfranchised and marginal. At the same time, the uncompromising positions so heedlessly adopted by our pseudo-progressives may lead to what may appear as a type of hypocrisy or self-interest. Clarke manifestly had no objection to accepting the prestigious Governor General's award in an entirely "white-juried" competition. And in fact, for many blacks as well as fellow travellers, punishing whites for their indubitable sins has grown into a rather lucrative business¨prizes, university posts, high platforms of address¨which exploits precisely that pervasive white guilt it affects to denounce.
The great historian Jakob Burckhardt warned us against the intellectual maneuvers of les terribles simplificateurs and he was never more right than at the present moment. Clarke is a case in point. The thesis he develops with respect to the primacy of racial origins over questions of literary merit is distressingly "black and white" and consorts all too conveniently with the programs of that caste of "leftish" academics, social theorists, political cruisers and pop sociologists which gather under the general rubric of Political Correctness¨campaigns which I suspect have served to complicate rather than remedy the quandary we are in.
Thus we are confronted with the spectacle of supposedly intelligent people vehemently opposed to what they call "voice appropriation," condemning writers who presume to write in the voice, idiom or diction of suffering minorities whom their own ancestors helped to oppress. So much for Melville's Queequeg. We find ourselves debating with "educators" who wish to despoil the curriculum of books, often great books, in which what they target as "negative stereotypes" and offensive language tend to figure. So much for Huckleberry Finn. We gaze in wonderment at literary organizations which protest against discrimination not only on the grounds of race, religion and gender, but talent as well, since a writer is no more responsible for his or her creative equipment than for colour, inherited creed or sex. So much for quality of work. We watch the mayor of Washington fire a city official for using the word "niggardly." So much for political discourse. We contemplate with some bemusement the legion of tenured academics who indict the Western literary canon as a conspiracy of Dead White Males. So much for Virgil and Dante.
In his own In his own black/white framework, Clarke is unimpeachable when he claims that the works he objects to¨To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball, and Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker¨are more about white guilt than about black history. This may be true. And he is surely correct when he suggests that we might redress the balance by listing the works of authors who write from inside their particular worlds and dilemmas. But this is as far as his deposition should be allowed to go.
I would argue against Clarke that the history of white guilt is at least as important as the history of black oppression and that there is no viable reason why these books should not be considered as an appropriate subject of study. Obviously, they should be supplemented (not supplanted) by the works of the specifically implicated¨but there is a sense in which we are all implicated. It is a mistake to regard what should be an implicit collaboration as an outright contest. I would argue too that there is a peculiar bias or¨let's use the word¨prejudice in Clarke's foregrounding of "black" texts against their apparent lexical competitors. He proposes augmenting the discussion of racism with the "often superior" works of black authors like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. No objection here. But let us be candid about this. We discover names in his catalogue of superiority like Dionne Brand and M. NorbeSe Philip who, in any fair estimation, cannot be assumed to rival Harper Lee. Here, for Clarke, it is plainly skin colour that determines artistic credibility and value, not imaginative power or narrative competence. Finally, and in line with the preceding, I would argue against the facile and invidious distinctions borne by those loaded and patently absurd terms, "white-authored" and "black-authored" texts, which Clarke so insouciantly deploys. Insight, verbal authority and creative ability carry no pigmentation, and frankly, I wouldn't care if the author of a given book were a polka-dotted hermaphrodite from Planet X if the book were well-written, honest and compelling.
Like Clarke, I too derive from a persecuted people and I too grew up in a small bigotted community riven with intolerance and hatred. But neither I nor my parents ever objected to Shakespeare's cunning Shylock whom we appreciated as a character in a play that expressed contemporary attitudes to the "interloping" Jew. The fact that Shakespeare wasn't Jewish didn't bother us for a moment and, indeed, we could detect a quality of mercy in our noblest writer that rendered poor Shylock more complex and even established a case for him. And I must say that we were equally fascinated by Dickens' suave, cruel and fawning old Jew Fagin, one of the most memorable characters in all of English fiction. It never occurred to us¨and it still doesn't¨to tar Dickens as an anti-semite or to view his work as causing irreparable harm to "our people" or displacing our struggle for recognition. After all, there were more than enough Christian villains in his novels to bring the good name of the Church of England into serious doubt. I realize that many of my co-religionists would disagree with this argument. The answer, however, lies not in censorship but, so far as possible, in sound, contextual teaching. The repression of any work that is not a deliberate and incontestible species of "hate literature" is an evil not only in itself but in that it sets a precedent, figuratively as well as literally, for the burning of libraries.
The issue we are treating has to do with the free and passionate sweep of the creative human mind and not with the blurring of boundaries between social and discursive realms. A novel, a poem or a play, like a painting or a symphony, is not primarily an ideological document. Certainly it can be used or misused as such, but it is in essence a work of imagination which offers to enrich and clarify and even trouble and disturb our experience of the world. And it should be judged this way. No literary work is "white-authored" or "black-authored" or "Jew-authored" or "male-authored" or "woman-authored" except in a secondary and tributary sense. The criteria of judgment are before anything else aesthetic, substantive and talent-based in nature: is the style resourceful and apt, are the characters believable, is the language clear, opulent, effective or energetic, is the structure functional, is the story absorbing and the subject interesting or pertinent in the larger sense, and is the author up to the task? These are the relevant questions. Anything else is only a kind of special pleading, a newly-fashionable clichT or the intrusion of a political agenda which belongs in another area of discourse and activity. Equal opportunity is a lofty aim but it applies exclusively to providing access into a profession or a social institution, not to the appraisal of results. It is astonishing how the ostensibly revolutionary may become merely another specification of conventional sentiment, devitalizing and quite beside the point despite its ideological gloss. And currency of ideas by no means guarantees their fundamental seemliness or rectitude.
Clarke and those like him should know this if they wish to survive mere cultism or modishness. In literature as in any of the arts, imagination and talent come before everything else. For in terms of origin, all literary works are author-authored. ˛