“New English Literatures”

There’s a new trend in German academia to refer to English post-colonial literature as “New English Literatures” or “New Literatures in English.” This means that the course I recently signed up for at the Universitaet Hamburg is not necessarily about English lit. Neuerscheinungen, or newcomers, but rather about a more specific branch of Neuerscheinungen, and while many of the works published today are “post-colonial,” the term can be applied to much older works.

That last clause is debatable, and I’m going to have to spend some time defining the term first.

The quickest etymology of the word “post-colonial” is to take the prefix and recognize that it means “after.” Therefore, “post-colonial” means “after colonialism.” This means that “post-colonial literature” refers to literature that was written after colonialism, right? So, after colonization was…

Sure, this is an adequate conclusion if you want to simplify matters and say that colonialism is over and that it ended with the relinquishment of the British colonies just at the end of World War II. But what about the U.S. and Puerto Rico? What about the Soviet Union? Furthermore, as John McLeod points out in his book Beginning Postcolonialism, even when the colonizers release any economic or political power in the the country, many formerly colonized nations and their former colonizers continue to operate within colonial relationships that still exist. “Colonial ways of knowing still circulate and have agency in the present; unfortunately they have not magically disappeared…” (McLeod 32). Even when the colonizer is no longer physically present, structures still perpetuate.

One of my favorite structures to talk about is language (I’m a philologist and literature student), and I see the topic of language in “post-colonial” literature as important to think about when thinking about this kind of literature. Often, post-colonial literature is written in the language of the former colonizer. Much post-colonial literature is written in English. Initially, it seems that talking about oppression, for example, in the language of the former oppressor seems to perpetuate the extent of that oppression. However, one can also look at the use of the language as a medium to give the former colonizers access to the way the formerly colonized felt and feel. If these texts were written in Bengali, a Nigerian language, or Jamaican, they would reach a much smaller audience. Furthermore, language changes and the way it’s used by many of these authors is different. Often, the language is appropriated by the writers (one of the key strategies of post-colonial writing, along with assimilation and abrogation).  So while the structures, like language, still perpetuate, there are other factors at work.

Because of these observations, I think we can agree that “post-colonial” is a bit inadequate to describe the works we’re reading in this class, especially since many works in many different languages are post-colonial, but we’re only looking at English ones.

There I go again, though, talking about works that are post-colonial without saying what makes a work post-colonial…

Let’s start with who is entitled to being post-colonial. Is it the former colonized? Or can it include the former-colonizer? what about the fact that there’s tensions in national and individual political and cultural identity? what about the fact that post-colonialism addresses present day transformation from the past, and yet is still formed by the past? these works explore oppression, but also describe/enact counter-movements to this oppression.

McLeod summarizes that postcolonialism involves one of more of the following (on page 33):

  • Reading texts produced by writers from countries with a history of colonialism, primarily those texts concerned with the workings and legacy of colonialism in either the past of the present.
  • Reading texts produced by those that have migrated from countries with a history of colonialism, or those descended from migrant families, which deal in the main with diaspora experience and its consequences.
  • In light of the theories of colonial discourse, re-reading texts produced during colonialism; both those that directly address the experiences of Empire, and those that seem not to.

I spent my first official sitting in my “New English Literatures” class discussing with the professor and the others about the term and what it can apply to. A lot of discussing. What can be called “post-colonial” is perhaps even more complicated leaving class than entering it, but I came up with a working definition for the term that I will be revising throughout the course of my MA thesis writing. My MA thesis has to do with literature written by/about migrants/migration, and therefore I need to have a good definition to declare early on in my thesis:

Right now, I see post-colonial literature as literature written by “former” colonized or colonizers, who explore the boundaries left (or opened) by colonization and question the “established” “truths” of nation, language, identity, heritage and perspective.

Of course, my definition is still includes colonization, which is why I don’t see my literary focus as post-colonial literature, but rather cultural studies… stay tuned for a post on what that is all about.

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The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus

Not to be confused with Johann von Goethe’s Faust (Books One and Two), or with Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, or with dozens of other theatrical, musical and literary reworkings of the story, this play is inspired by the same real life persona (sources differ on which one it is): Dr. Johann Georg Faust of the 15th century. The basic gist is that Faust is a learned scholar who becomes dissatisfied with all he can learn and do with human knowledge, and turns to alchemy and “dark knowledge.” It’s not so much the fascination with the dark magic that forms the crux of these tales, but rather the lengths to which a person’s soul will go to obtain that beyond his/her reach and what s/he does when s/he obtains it. One should probably elaborate on that further, but first I wanted to address the short summary on the back of my edition of the 1604 Quarto:

Marlowe was an English poet, dramatist and translator [no Oxford comma!] in the Elizabethan period. Faust is the famous story of a man selling his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. On a deeper level man’s decay from choosing material things over the spiritual is depicted.

I don’t think this is a bad summary of the play or the story. It’s not inaccurate and captures the main idea of the story pretty well. Faustus’s main goal is to gain knowledge and power after he has achieved the highest levels of learning in science, medicine, philosophy and theology. He wants more knowledge because it grants him, to some extent, more power. I see his greatest vice as being pride, with a close second as gluttony, but this does not contradict the summary. Where I find the summary lacking is the supposed “deeper level” of the play. I don’t think material wealth over spiritual is the main point at all. I see this interpretation weakly when the “Good Angel” and “Evil Angel” enter for the first time:

GOOD ANGEL. Sweet Faustus, think of the heaven and heavenly things.

EVIL ANGEL. No, Faustus, think of hounour and of wealth.

Clearly, the reader is introduced to two opposing forces here. Yet the struggle cannot be so deep when the one thing is as a “thing” while the other is tangible and strikes the desires more closely. I think the struggle lies even deeper, and to understand where I think one should look at where Faust is first tempted to repent. It happens right after Faustus  asks Mephistophilis about heaven and who created the earth. Mephisto explains how there are nine heavens and spheres, but will not tell Faustus who made the world. It is “against our kingdom.” Denied this knowledge, Faustus wants to repent and the Good Angel and Bad Angel enter again.

However, why did Faustus want to know? And why wasn’t he told? And why would not being told and still not knowing make him want to repent? I think this has to do with the nature of knowledge and the deeper struggle at work here. It does not have to do with wealth so much as with faith and the ability to accept that there are things unseen and unimaginable. Thus, it is humility that I think Marlowe tries to teach the reader with his play, not so much a particular religious message that spiritual wealth is better.

This interpretation is fueled in part by my knowledge of Marlowe’s other play, The Jew of Malta, which also walks fine lines between religious beliefs, tolerance, and stereotypes, but in the end questions other values.

Mephisto is always my favorite character. He’s neither good nor bad (I mean, why else would he speak in favor of the poor farmer who wants to buy Faustus’s horse?), but he’s more of a joker figure. Plus, when Arthur Darvill plays him, it’s only better.

So, while I appreciate what I got from this play through Marlowe, I still like Goethe’s better. In Goethe’s works, the moral ambiguity is more strongly portrayed and Faust isn’t irrevocably damned. He is able to redeem himself. Maybe I’m just a sucker for happy endings, I guess.