Sliding through the bars of imperial music

Under Western Eyes
November 19, 1999

Balachandra Rajan's compilation of essays and talks in his areas of specialisation, Milton and the British Romantics, demonstrates his depth of knowledge and erudition. A well-known novelist ( The Dark Dancer , l959, and Too Long in The West , l961), Rajan is also a scholar of Commonwealth literatures.

Writing in John Press's edited Commonwealth Literature (l965), Rajan said that "identity" as a term ought to be reserved for "creative self-realisation", and that "while literature is part of social history, the value of literature is not to be judged by the yield which it offers the social historian".

It is thus interesting to read this introduction overlaid with "social history" seen through postcolonial theory: "a relationship where the dominant self defines a subjected other", and his dictum that a "struggle within the self must somehow discover a rhetoric that reconciles its own decolonisation with the aims of an empire". Is it the author's following of a trend he supposes important that causes him to pepper his work with postcolonial and colonial discourse theory?

Still, Under Western Eyes is a celebration of a long career in academia and of a rare openness of mind. It is a useful explication of the "Orientalist" bias in the works of Camoens, Milton, Dryden and Shelley. Rajan examines Edward Said's construction of "orientalism". Rajan counters Said's term "contrapuntal", asserting that "a countervoice heard within the imperial music is in the end a contribution to that music". It is interesting that this has been the fate of postcolonial theory avidly advocated by British, Australian, New Zealand and South African critics and has become a means for the founding critics to become co-opted into the hegemonic thought of these countries.

Rajan points out the irony that "hybridity once used routinely in invective against India (is) now seen as a means of deliverance from the monolithic claims of nationalism". He almost bemoans the "impoverishment" that Camoens, Milton, Dryden and Shelley undergo in this "postcolonial world". The "extraordinary completeness of Milton's similes" makes Rajan ask us "to restrict ourselves as to how India is perceived within the translation". I baulk at Rajan himself referring to Zoroaster in Shelley's terms as a "magus" but I understand the fine line between the perception of hegemony and the writers' attempts to provide agency for the "Orientals".

However, while Rajan seems to think that the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Lisa Lowe and Sara Suleri has eroded Said's "reduction of imperial relationships to binary dispositions", I believe their work has constructed an impasse of binaries in the United States academy between the social theorists and the belletristes, causing a distancing of peoples of postcolonial origins.

Perhaps a work like Rajan's will restore the credibility of those of us who work on reading the political in literature.

Feroza Jussawalla is professor of English, University of Texas at El Paso, United States.

Under Western Eyes: India from Milton to Macaulay

Author - B. Rajan
ISBN - 0 8223 2298 6
Publisher - Duke University Press
Price - £32.30
Pages - 267

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