An Unfamiliar Sensation; and, More on Post-Colonial Criticism

I think it’s called a “lull.”

I’ve just crossed off the last teaching-related task that I can do for now. This afternoon my Mystery and Detective Fiction students are writing their final exam and my Victorian Faith and Doubt papers are due at 4:00. Until these milestones are passed, however, I am free. Free, that is, to work on other things, like my Soueif paper! But a change is as good as a rest, no?

So, about that paper. In between my other recent activities, I’ve been thinking more about post-colonial criticism and why I’ve been assuming that it is a necessary component of this project. Some time ago I asked “whether working on Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory.” The always-helpful Aaron Bady responded that a more productive version of my question might be “how to determine to what extent the meaning of Eliot in Egypt is determined not merely by Eliot herself, but by the meaning of ‘English literature’ in Egypt.” Now that I’ve looked at least a bit more closely at what it means to “use” post-colonial theory (or, properly, to do “post-colonial readings”) I think I understand better the difference between these options. If (though I realize now that this is debatable) a “post-colonial reading” means reading with a specific focus on how the text under consideration is “implicated” in imperialism, then that is not the right angle from which to approach a text like In the Eye of the Sun, which is itself (perhaps) a post-colonial text. If a post-colonial reading is called for in this project, it would presumably be a reading of Middlemarch, in order to see how (or whether) Soueif’s engagement with that novel is an engagement with it on those terms. My own preliminary sense of In the Eye of the Sun is that this is not what it is doing with Middlemarch–but I can’t be sure unless I can grasp what a post-colonial interpretation of Middlemarch might entail, so there is a reason to continue my exploration of this theoretical approach. Priority reading, then: Nancy Henry’s George Eliot and the British Empire and Patrick Brantlinger’s new volume Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies. I’ve spent some time with Henry’s book before and recall it focusing primarily on Daniel Deronda. So far I’m not aware of any specifcially post-colonial reading of Middlemarch.

Returning to Aaron’s reformulated question, though, about the meaning of ‘English literature’ in Egypt, this turns out to be quite an interesting question to think about, and not an easy one to answer. A slight refinement of it might be, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean to Soueif–or, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean in In the Eye of the Sun? What does it mean for an Egyptian novelist to invoke this novel as a touchstone in a novel about an Egyptian woman studying English literature in Egypt and then in England? What interpretive freight does Middlemarch carry here? There is a textual dimension to these questions (what is actually said about literature, for instance, or about Middlemarch). But there’s a contextual dimension too, such as the conditions by which English becomes a subject of study in Egyptian universities in the first place, so that Soueif herself, as well as her character Asya, has anything to do with Middlemarch at all. Here too, colonialism is clearly a factor. So far, I haven’t found much scholarship addressing the history of English studies in Egypt; more attention has gone to English studies in India, such as Guari Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest, which emphasizes the role of literary studies in “strengthen[ing] Western hegemony” and imperial control. I was prompted by Amardeep Singh’s extremely clear and helpful comments here to order Priya Joshi’s In Another Country (on sale now at Columbia UP, in case you are interested), but I think there too the focus is on India. I’ve found one book on the history of Cairo University, Donald Reid’s Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt, which gives some useful insights into the competing imperial impulses and nationalisms that shaped the formation of that institution. English studies get fairly brief mention, though what is there is certainly interesting. For instance, did you know that Robert Graves taught at what was then the Egyptian University for a while, or that Jehan Sadat’s PhD thesis was on “the influence of nineteenth-century English romanticism on twentieth-century Egyptian writing” (219)? Reid’s explanations of the Egyptian educational system more generally, as well as his account of the “Islamist challenges” of the 1970s and 1980s, certainly help place Asya’s experiences in the novel for me, especially her uncomfortable encounters with veiled students on her return to the university after her years abroad (I learned, for instance, that in 1981 Sadat imposed a ban on students wearing the niqab, a ban which was overturned in 1988). More specific analysis of the curriculum of English studies, or the value attached to it, or its ideological implications in a specifically Egyptian context I haven’t yet found. In fact, at this point it seems to me that English-Egyptian relations have received far less scholarly attention than English-Indian relations, at least in the areas where such scholarship would overlap with literary scholarship. I may learn otherwise as my research continues, but if I’m right about this, that in itself is kind of interesting. In the meantime, I can consider what has been said about English literature in India to see what insights there might seem portable to my own context. Again, I have a preliminary sense that In the Eye of the Sun is not setting English literature up as an antagonist or ‘problematizing’ English studies on political or nationalistic grounds, but everything I learn about how and why someone in Egypt would be reading Middlemarch is helfpul to my thinking. Though in exploring these issues I will be thinking about relationships between a former colonial power and a former colony, I don’t believe that probing these questions qualifies as doing “post-colonial criticism.”

One final thought about all of this: I really do think one of the reasons I have been worrying about post-colonial criticism even though it’s not clear to me that its concerns are my concerns, is anxiety about the expectation that Soueif’s novel is best understood as a post-colonial critique of Middlemarch–that I will get questions from the floor along those lines, for instance, and not know how to answer them. Even if those questions might represent a kind of unwarranted knee-jerk assumption about how Victorian novels always already function in a post-colonial context, there I’d be fumbling the question about Said or Homi Bhaba or whatever and my protestations that the question is a sort of category mistake would just make me look either ignorant or evasive. The work I’m doing right now may turn out to be largely irrelevant to the arguments I ultimately make about In the Eye of the Sun, but at least I will be better prepared to explain why I have done the project I have done, and not something else.

And now, off to invigilate my exam and (circumstances permitting) read Viswanathan.

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