Michelle Cahill Reviews The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness Ghosts From Elsewhere by Tabish Khair
The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness, Ghosts from Elsewhere
By Tabish Khair
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2009
ISBN 978 0 230 23406 2
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
Tabish Khair’s, The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness, Ghosts from Elsewhere provides new readings of how the colonial/racial Other is negotiated through Gothic tropes in the work of colonial and postcolonial writers. Khair describes how the Gothic genre first emerged in a Eurocentric context as a narrative engagement with displacement, terror and the racial Other. He is less concerned with how postcolonial literatures reconstruct identity using Gothic characters and settings, an area that has already received much attention. His concerns are with the “invasion” of the centre, rather than with depictions of the racial Other in the colonies. This interest leads him to evaluate the theories of subjectivity and difference, of emotion and identity which are relevant to Gothic and postcolonial literary texts as they test the boundaries between Self and Other, between home and elsewhere.
Khair’s career as an expatriate Indian poet, novelist, critic and academic equip him to write the kind of book that might appeal to both the creative and critical reader. He writes with clarity, restraint and erudition. There is a fluidity to the way in which he references the relevant historical, philosophical and literary influences and traditions which shape his arguments. The book’s ordered structure comprises essay chapters which develop a hardly surprising binary dialectic that weighs the strengths and failures of the Gothic against those of the postcolonial. The scope and frame of the research here is sensibly delineated to Gothic writing from the British empire in English and its postcolonial counterpart. Khair’s interpretations of how the Gothic arose and how it may be read is, to his credit, always appropriately and carefully referenced. These interpretations extend beyond theories, to a review of historical research, such as the work of Nabil Matar and R Visram which documents the presence of Moors, Jews, Arabs and Indians in the port cities of Elizabethan, and later eighteenth century England. Khair’s own research in travel writing acknowledges the entry to England of black American soldiers, slaves, servants and lascars after the American War of Independence, as well as settlers returned to the motherland from the colonies.
Further historical excavation is undertaken to locate colonial Gothic texts: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is read with consideration to Malchow’s theory that slave revolts in the Caribbean were contemporary influences. The negroid depictions of Frankenstein, the racial depictions of Satan and the racial associations of cannabilism are elucidated with purpose. A chapter devoted to the evolution of the Satanic imaginary describes its gradual emasculation from the era of the Middle Ages when science and alchemy, when piety and barbarism were not seen as absolute opposites. Sketching the development of Gothic literatures as a reaction to the logocentricity of the Enlightenment, Khair shows how, as a literature, it engages with Otherness, and the fear provoked by the Other, be it Satan, demon, vampire, monster, immigrant; racially or sexually different.
The “invasion” of England by outsiders from the colonies, and the terror this stirred in ‘the literature of nightmare,” to quote Elizabeth MacAndrews, is narrated as a half-presence, a ghosting of the racial Other in Gothic literatures. Khair adopts familiar critical perspectives in his book, observing how these characters and presences are partially narrated. He argues that either they have hidden origins, like the protagonist of Lewis’ The Monk, or they remain obscure and mysterious, like the Indians in The Moonstone, or like Bertha Mason, Rochester’s mad Creole wife in Jane Eyre, who becomes the protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea. Khair alludes to how this reversal of dramatic tension as a narrative choice is a familiar and potent postcolonial strategy.
Influenced, perhaps, by Terry Eagleton’s Lacanian analysis of the law in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Khair gives an insightful reading of Heathcliff as a terrorist, a displaced and disturbing persona from elsewhere attacking the centre and the heart of English civilisation:
Imagine an intelligent dark-skinned person, slipping into the countryside of a peaceful European country from somewhere disturbingly ‘postcolonial’, lying dormant for many years and then snaring the families that harboured him in a net of violence, revenge and terror. It might sound like an account of the so-called ‘sleeper agents’ that organisations like Al Qaeda are said to send into the heart of Europe, but actually it would be one way of describing Heathcliff. (p 64)
To know the nature of terror is vital to a deeper understanding of globalisation, this book suggests. Moreover, we are reminded that terror has economic causes; the choice to be local or global is essentially one of the empowered. Khair’s concerns expand thus into contemporary colonial encounters and to social contexts of racial and religious intolerance. Terror is that which threatens or complicates identity. “I am Heathcliff!” Catherine speaks, in what is arguably one of the most profoundly disturbing and beautiful passages in English literature. Drawing from and quoting notions of alterity proposed by Levinas, Buber, Bhabha, Todorov and de Certeau, Khair convincingly shows how “the relationship of ‘elsewhere’ to home is also the relationship of the Other to the ‘Self’.” (71)
Khair’s analysis of the philosophies and critical studies on emotions draws from the work of Nussbaum, Punter, even Aristotle. Emotions which arise when the self interacts with the Other have the potential to destroy or complete. Emotions are evidence of alterity, exceeding the language of the speaking subject. It’s an engaging theme in the book, and a turning point for its premise. Khair shows how this is problematic for postcolonial narratives, which seek to narrate the Other predominantly in language, and to avoid what he describes as “the negative half of the rationality-emotionality binarism.”(97) The Spivakian question of whether the subaltern can speak facilitates his perspective that the Other exists in a language beyond the language of the Self. He argues that since the subaltern is constituted by a relationship of power, and since language is an agency of power, so the Other, when narrated in the language of the Self, becomes the subaltern, reduced to the same.
Some repetition of these ideas in the book borders on tautology, and perhaps an inclination to over ponder the philosophies at the expense of textual analysis. This is noticeable in the analysis of Peter Carey’s eponymous Jack Maggs, a novel which intertextualises with Great Expectations. According to Khair, the alterity of Magwitch is created by Dickens’ gaps and silences, whereas, Carey’s Maggs is narrated with such detail that his otherness is erased. Yet Carey’s novel is also a contested space. Hermione Lee notes the many overlooked Other(s) in Jack Maggs: hurt children, freaks, prisoners, the displaced and the dispossessed. Khair’s analysis does expose the problematics for transparent or easily consumed narrative tropes. He is critical of conflated forms of hybridity which are deficient in, or careless about structure, having no cause for a relation to the real. While he gives due respect to writers like Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee, who narrate, speak and write back to the Empire, he highlights their extensive reliance on the language of the Self. This materiality, while being a strategy of empowerment, carries with it, for Khair, a predicament of its own. The Gothic, with its transcendent elements creates a space of ambivalence. It locates an imaginary for the excesses of terror and horror, where the Other resides.
This book may be open to criticism for its very binarism, the way it pivots Self and Other, materiality and space, verbosity and the non-verbal as opposites, since this establishes a criteria founded on dialectic tensions. There is a subsequent tendency to shape the author’s analysis towards the philosophical and away from the literary or the cultural, although he is always responsible and careful in how he negotiates this path. In some instances one wonders if a more literary analysis of postcolonial texts is warranted. The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness is intrepid and objective in its critique of postcolonialism and in its defence of the tangential possibilities of Gothic narratives. The book is an important text, particularly for its transhistorical (and ethnographic) analysis of colonial Gothic fictions. With a compelling scrutiny it explores how the ambivalences and tensions of consciousness are constructed and narrated.
MacAndrew, E. Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, p3
Eagleton, T. Heathcliff And The Great Hunger.Verso: London: 1995, 46
Hermione Lee reviews Jack Maggs by Peter Carey http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1997/sep/28/fiction.petercarey