Blindness and Deafness in Literary Reception

This essay was first presented as part of Provocations, a new public forum initiated by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Culture at the University of Adelaide tackling controversies in the arts and humanities.  The theme of the first series was ‘Who Shot the Albatross?: Gate-keeping in Australian culture’.

Recently a new English translation of Chateaubriand’s Memoirs From Beyond The Grave was published. In his translator’s introduction, Alex Andriesse comments that:

While the French are satisfied by a well-told tale, we Anglophones can’t help but fact-check. Given a choice between beauty and truth, we prefer the truth, ideally unvarnished. Just consider the colourless titles the Mémoires have been given over the years by English publishers and translators … : in doing so they belie the very thing that distinguishes Chateaubriand’s scribbling from the hundreds of other memoirs composed by his contemporaries: its artfulness, its architecture, its phrasal flair and seduction of style.

Unvarnished ‘truth’ in literature is of course only relative to the position of the speaker, often used as a bludgeoning tool which is limited to a locale, a sense of national recognition and belonging. In writing, one is continually contorting and distorting it. This has always been my motivation for writing: to write in a state of contradiction, paradox or revision in order to challenge the dominion of plain-speaking, which like fake news, appears to map truth in the bluntest terms. These so-called ‘facts’, employed together with biographical resumés, have always acted as an exercise to neatly box in complexity, multilingualism and non-identitarian literatures. Another term for it is ‘provincial empiricism’.

Let me say that this may not be a conspiracy or even a conscious intention. But it is all the more damning for being unconscious. It may simply be that the deafness and blindness of reception stems from a generalised interpretation which only comprises the economy of easy reading. Indeed, this is the country of the ‘easy read’. Certainly, it cannot deal with fragmentation, which is one of the most potent styles of displacement, of countering colonising master-narratives and creating new sites of feeling. Ambition, reach and breadth are not within the parameters of how a standardised literature is received. As Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, ‘there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’. Literary reception in Australia hasn’t even quite reached the second stage. It is mainly conceived as a kind of economic rationalism in which the free market is the measure of literary success and this known element is then standardised as the correct reception of writing. It’s interesting to note that the term ‘economic rationalism’ was invented in Australia. Margaret Thatcher loved it and employed it to great effect, engineering much hardship and social calamity.

In this atmosphere, what doesn’t sell is usually what is known as difficult. The accusation of difficulty, as George Steiner said, is a refusal to do homework … homework which may be unending. As he emphasises, ‘we need to dig it’. We need to drill down as to why writing disturbs. Of course, economically rational institutions would like there to be no linguistic disturbance. It may be one of the reasons why the humanities are on the decline. All bodily reception is lost.

If I have an unnoticed penchant for tempo and musicality in language, it is because they border naturally on bodily perceptions and rhythms. Language connects with the body before the mind, since it controls feeling. What cannot be intentionally controlled is exactly what prosody does for the body. It has a ‘presence effect.’ We’ve got to hear it when written. It always leaves me wondering and asking myself the question: ‘Where are those sharper, more informed critical inner ears that are sensitive to the atmospheres of language?’ Are they overlooking the fact that multilingual writers have the capacity to extend the world, inventing or reinventing public forms of feeling? Is the so-called ‘subaltern’ forming a social collective of affect to write back into an archive of multiple displacements? Or is this all too complex for the one-dimensional national story read with one voice, one tone and one biography? Where is our body-language in hearing the world?

Perhaps it is on account of the systemic policy of monolingualism that this deafness and blindness finds no purchase outside recognisable landscapes and parochial cityscapes. Indeed, Clancy is deaf to the overflow. After all, it has been decreed over the years that migrants have to speak English; that it is the official language of Australia; that somehow if schoolchildren place their hands on their hearts at the beginning of the school day and make a pledge in English, they will automatically become good Australians and not subversive subjects speaking in tongues. I note in passing, that shopfront advertising now has to be in English in certain municipalities in Australia. You begin to understand why ‘passing’, a betrayal of oneself, is not worth the ideal of integration.

In a way, this Anglophoneyism is not new. We still have formal English tests for migrants. This legitimates the lingual racism which has become prominent in various nationalisms around the world. I would not underestimate the insidious ways national solidarity is employed through linguistics. I was once introduced by a prominent Australian writer as ‘that tricky Chinaman’. Perhaps it was a joke. But as Freud wrote, jokes occur when speech was allowed the expression of thoughts that society usually suppressed or forbade. You are bidden to laugh along at your own cost. Along with this Orientalism, there is a put-down of any linguistic gaming as lightweight, something which threatens plain-speaking, since plain-speaking is made equivalent to truth-seeking and is very much part of the ‘community of saga’ which is sentimental, sly and smug, but should never be difficult, or at worse, clever.

It is important, as Sneja Gunew has pointed out, to leave traces of ‘acoustic palimpsests’ in order to mark the passage from naive homogeneity to sophistication; from ‘easy reads’ to secondary and tertiary levels of reading, to translate the nuances as we read; this ‘translation’ no longer being defined, as Abdelkebir Khatibi says

as the transportation of the source text into the target literary system, or inversely, the transportation of the reader in the target culture into the source text … rather, it is defined as work [and here I could say ‘homework’] within the language, a decentring, interpoetic relationship between value and significance, the structuration of a subject, and history… and no longer as content.

Khatibi’s remark about content leads me to my point on conservative gatekeeping. Content is what ranks, not atmospheres or cultural nuances, which tend to rankle.

University-rankings and publications-rankings are now the new gatekeepers formed by blindness and deafness. They indicate a managerialism of content through a biometrics which perpetuates the homogeneity of monetary and economic influences, including fudging and manipulation of these ‘quality rankings’. Quality in this context is of course a contradiction in terms. It is made up of the quantity of bland reviews and citation articles. Qualitative here, is quantitative. Institutions want a master-narrative which can be easily understood in digits, which can stand up to fact-checking and audited statistics and which contains conservative journals and publishers, the majority of which make their claims in English as institutional presses. We are all flying One World, only some are more privileged than others. The shopfront cannot be in any other language for fear of seeming suspiciously third-world. A lot of money is at stake… bets are placed on big publishers which are multi-national, but not multicultural. My works have been cited hundreds of times in Chinese, but this is not counted in Excellence in Research exercises because few in the Australian Research Council can read Chinese. My publisher Giramondo is not on the quality list. This betrayal of the intellect by the corporatisation of the institution is a prime example of chaining independent thought to market-logic.

The absence of non-traditional research indicates an agenda: by translating literature into Anglophone citations and references, the lists themselves create a form of homogenising and erasure, the primary resource being subsumed under the imperialism of ‘authority’, monetary colonialism and ‘fact-finding’ dominance. It is part of what Paul Ricoeur called ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’. Like terrorists, multilingual writers are always hiding something. If their fiction is suspect and ‘secondary’ then seriousness takes the higher moral ground of re-stabilising that ‘play’ into gate-keeping science and pigeon-holing biographies, winnowing creative writing onto the lower shelves without being conscious of the damage to the creativity of cultural nuance and emotional history.

One example of this damage is the demise of close-reading, which is capable of recovering palimpsestic feelings, forms of displacement and the cultural histories of affects. As Steiner indicated, we have to dig deeper beneath the scholarly suspicion that writers are tricky, sheltering behind immoral caveats, identity politics and inflated biographies. This has a long history. You could say it was Plato’s caveat. Interpretation is now a form of militancy spawned in an era of disenchantment. It works hand-in-mouth with economic rationalism. Indeed, shouldn’t writers become theorists of themselves and not fictionists or poets because no one else is listening? Shouldn’t you sell yourself like real-estate because there are no more interpreters, interior-designers of consciousness and architects of form? Is this self-defense and self-degradation the way of the future? Perhaps it is already the present. The albatross, symbol of good luck, a dream-like bird that could stay aloft for days and nights on end, has become a deadweight around the neck of creativity.

We now have to write research statements detailing the banalities of our novels’ backgrounds, their contribution to research and their significance in the national consciousness of how novels come into existence. For me, at least, a novel arrives because it is raining, or because a voice injects humour into the utterance of a deep melancholia. But instead, I have to process myself, layering false consciousness upon false consciousness, shamelessly and laboriously joining the dots, recursively reconsidering my ‘creative industry’ which belches forth the black smoke of burnt offerings.

This essay was first presented as part of Provocations, a new public forum initiated by the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Culture at the University of Adelaide tackling controversies in the arts and humanities.  The theme of the first series was ‘Who Shot the Albatross?: Gate-keeping in Australian culture’.

Works Cited

Thomas O. Beebee, The Fiction of Translation: Abdelkebir Khatibi’s “Love in Two Languages”, SubStance, Vol. 23, No. 1, Issue 73 (1994).
François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave: 1768-1800, introduction by Anka Muhlstein, translation by Alex Andriesse, NY: New York Review of Books, 2018.