Book review published in Sartre Studies International June 2004.
Nicholas Harrison, Postcolonial Criticism, Cambridge: Polity, 2003, 221 pp, ISBN 0‑7456-2182‑1
There is something rather complacent about the idea of ‘postcolonial’ criticism. As I write, Britain and the United States are trying to impose good old colonial rule on Iraq. However that escapade ends, we continue to live in a world where a few rich nations (led predominantly by people with white skins) use various economic and military means to exploit and oppress poor nations (inhabited predominantly by people with skins that are not white). The disappearance of classical colonialism is obviously important, but to most people – except, perhaps, the ruling classes in the newly independent territories – it was not a fundamental shift. The word ‘postcolonial’ tells us nothing of the world we live in except that it is chronologically after colonialism. It is as though feminist criticism had called itself ‘post-suffrage criticism’.
The parallel with feminist criticism is instructive. Both feminist and postcolonial criticism sprang from the greater awareness of oppression born of the massive social struggles – Algerian and Vietnam Wars, student upheavals, French general strike – of the 1960s. First‑wave feminist criticism was often strident and aggressive, but it succeeded in posing certain questions which could never subsequently be ignored. Likewise, Harrison can easily show that when Chinua Achebe, in 1975, declared that ‘Joseph Conrad was a bloody racist’, he was not giving an adequate account of a complex writer. Yet for generations university English departments had been stuffed out with Leavisites and aesthetes who worshipped Conrad (particularly admiring his viciously anti-socialist stance). If Achebe’s denunciation brought shock and horror to that particular milieu, then it was wholly justifiable.
Harrison’s survey of postcolonial criticism gives a useful picture of the field. There are chapters devoted to Conrad, Camus and two North African writers, Driss Chraïbi and Assia Djebar. Harrison wrestles with such difficult concepts as ‘identification’ and ‘representation’, and with the relation between author and text He stresses the importance of historical contextualisation, showing that it is futile to judge writers of the past by standards of our own age. What we can do is examine the range of possibilities within a particular social context. Thus while he claims that Conrad was racist ‘in ways that were all but inevitable given that he lived when and where he did’, he adds the qualifier ‘all but’ because William Morris was able to pursue a vigorous anti-imperialism as early as the 1880s.
Yet there is something slightly bloodless about the account, a failure to locate ‘postcolonial criticism’ in the massive social struggles that gave rise to it. As Albert Memmi pointed out, ‘only people who fight get the public’s attention’.
This comes out most clearly in the account of Camus’s Outsider. Harrison covers familiar ground in setting the novel in its Algerian context, and pointing to such matters as the namelessness of the ‘Arabs’ (for want of a better term to describe the indigenous inhabitants of Algeria). Most students of Camus over the last thirty years will find this well-worn ground. But as Harrison points out, ‘the dominant critical response, at least until recently, took no account of its colonial context’.
In the English-speaking world it was Conor Cruise O’Brien, in his 1970 Camus, who first drew out the issue. O’Brien was perhaps partly inspired by his own experience of imperialism in Ireland, but he drew on two French critics, Henri Kréa and Pierre Nora, writing in 1961. The chronology is inescapable; it was only after the bloody struggle for Algerian liberation that Camus could be read in this light. Thus Sartre’s 1943 review of the novel, quoted by Harrison, makes no mention of the colonial context. Camus, who had already written his investigation into destitution in the Kabyle region of Algeria, was at this point far more aware of colonial realities than Sartre.
No-one can now deny the importance of the insights provided by postcolonial criticism. But an insight is not a synthesis. Postcolonial criticism focuses on what Camus did not say. Gaps and assumptions derived from deeply ingrained attitudes are certainly important, but they must be integrated with what Camus did say. And here Harrison is strangely blind to the meanings which the text held, for example, for those of us who read it in the prepostcolonial fifties.
Thus Harrison believes that Meursault ‘is odd and frequently unsympathetic’. Why, then, has he fascinated generations of adolescent readers? (The influence of Camus on British post-punk bands like the Cure and the Fall seems far beyond Harrison’s sphere of interest.) Meursault, like his creator, was working-class and proud of it; he was a rebel who despised the petty conventions of polite society. The trial scenes in the Outsider and Meursault’s alienation from the whole legal process are rooted in class far more than in the colonial context. Indeed it was Camus’s concern with class – and his identification with the poor working-class European settlers – that distorted his approach to the Algerian national liberation struggle. Harrison, however, seems largely innocent of class – unlike ‘race’ and ‘gender’, the word does not appear in his index. He repeatedly refers to Meursault as a ‘settler’, without showing any awareness of the deep class divisions within the European population.
Camus’s own central concern was with the problem of morality in a godless universe. That theme animated all his main novels. Indeed, it is the moral ambiguity of Meursault – neither hero nor villain – which makes the killing of the Arab in the Outsider so disturbing. The Arabs in the more morally positive Plague are also nameless, but nobody worries about them.
The book ends with a welcome reappraisal of Fanon. Fanon’s work was deeply rooted in European philosophy – notably Sartre – but also in the real experience of the Algerian struggle. Fanon’s experience cuts through some of the debates of postcolonial culture. Thus some writers have been deeply exercised by the problem of whether they should write in the former oppressor’s language. But this question is relatively meaningless for the illiterate majority. After a hundred years of France’s ‘civilising mission’ in Algeria, ninety per cent of the indigenous population could not read. Fanon’s attempt to develop a programme of occupational therapy for Muslim men in an Algerian hospital foundered when he discovered that less than three per cent of his patients could read either Arabic or French.
Fanon’s work thus offers some clues as to how class can be reintegrated with the insights of postcolonial criticism. But perhaps the time is ripe to abandon the label ‘postcolonial’ – in favour of ‘anti-imperialist criticism’.