Textual Harassment

Claude Rawson

  • The World, the Text and the Critic by Edward Said
    Faber, 327 pp, £15.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 571 13264 2
  • The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy by Christopher Norris
    Methuen, 201 pp, £4.95, December 1983, ISBN 0 416 36140 4
  • The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. VIII: The Present edited by Boris Ford
    Penguin, 619 pp, £3.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 14 022271 5

In a recent review in this paper, Edward Said used the word ‘narrative’ about thirty times. This might have seemed a lot even in the present state of litcritspeak, and even in an essay on, say, narrative. On this occasion, however, he was writing not about literary texts but about the Palestinian troubles: an affecting topic, on which he writes with eloquence and with a generosity of vision which deserves the respect even of those whose loyalties are opposed to his. My concern here is not with this theme, but with the role of ‘narrative’ within it. The word is used most often, perhaps, in the phrase ‘Palestinian narrative’, variously meaning or implying ‘history’, ‘story’, ‘predicament’, ‘side of the question’, ‘perspective’, ‘version of events’ and occasionally nothing at all. There is an accompanying vocabulary of story, tale, romance, but ‘narrative’ is the main word, and it acquires an increasingly bizarre orchestration as the discussion progresses. Arab diplomats are reported, in some improbable distillations of style indirect libre, as using phrases like ‘collective Arab narrative’ in their conversations with Said at the UN, and David Gilmour, one of the authors under review, is equally improbably described as being frustrated by the ‘non-narrative character of Lebanon’s problems’. Reports of events since the fall of Beirut are described as ‘pre-narrative or, in a sense, anti-narrative’. As to terrorism, its ‘indiscriminateness ... its tautological and circular character, is anti-narrative’.

If you think that, you might as well think that the setting of a car-bomb is ‘surely [sic], at this “post-political” stage, an art-form’, and Said does. The aestheticising of conflagration, carnage, bombs, gun-fire, has a quaint history which goes back to Nero. It has exercised a certain type of Romantic sensibility from Sade to Mailer, and some bards of fascism or para-fascism from Marinetti to Céline. Said on car-bombs is not lyrical in their fashion, but I suppose it’s more in keeping with the times to ‘theorise’ than to enthuse. In the age of what one writer has called ‘post-contemporary fiction’, we are less likely to read paeans to ‘fiery orchids of machine-guns’ than declarations of the aesthetic character of car-bombs in the ‘ “post-political” stage’ of their narrative. The ‘surely’, the quotes around the ‘post’-word, and a certain heavy-hearted jauntiness in the whole sarcastic formulation, suggest some attempt to protect his rear by an act of pre-emptive auto-deconstruction. The nervousness is justified: a great human desolation risks being trivialised by the preening and incongruous array of terms of art. No wonder that after announcing that ‘the Palestinian narrative’ has been ‘barely in evidence’ since 1982, he felt the need to add: ‘This is not an aesthetic judgment.’

These remarks are not intended to deride Said’s heartfelt account of the Palestinian cause, and are more concerned, as I implied, with the present state of literary studies than with Said’s political sentiments. Said is an academic practitioner of literary criticism as well as a passionate and informed commentator on public events. The combination is honourable, potentially vitalising in both directions, and regrettably rare. The point about the language of his article is not just that it is a carry-over into the world of action and suffering of a terminology belonging to the literary academy, or that the specific examples seem inappropriate (though they do). It is also a reflection on the academy itself, even as it pursues its own specialist business: on the state of literary discourse (and indeed of intellectual discourse on a broader front, including many forms of political and social analysis) in a world where the discussion of books and ideas has largely been taken over by university teachers. The predicament is diffused over a wide field, and Said voices disquiet over some of its manifestations. It underlies the way in which ‘empirical’ has become a dirty word even within disciplines concerned with the recording of facts, which is something he probably dislikes. It includes the idea that ‘theory’ is a revolutionary activity as well as the idea that events are ‘narratives’ or ‘texts’. Said’s new book expressly insists on the opposite proposition that ‘texts ... are events,’ but in practice constantly reverses the equation; and when you call indiscriminate terrorism ‘anti-narrative’, where does that leave selective terrorism? Or anti-terrorist acts?

A feature of the same collective state of mind is the process by which the word ‘gender’ has come to replace ‘sex’. There’s an understandable awkwardness, semantic and otherwise, about the word ‘sex’ in certain contexts. My point isn’t that the word does not raise problems, but that the term chosen to replace it (and in a particularly active context of social and political restructuring) should be one which is conventionally used to indicate grammatical rather than human distinctions. It’s now usual to read phrases like ‘gender relations’, ‘gender roles’, ‘class, gender, family and nationality’, ‘gender-oppression’, ‘gender harassment’ and even ‘textual harassment’, the latter in a (woman)-donnish access of half-jokeyness in a learned journal, but undoubtedly destined to become no joke at all and to acquire wider currency. One incidental effect of ‘gender’ is that it sanitises ‘sex’ in a way which promotes the conditions for an odd convergence with the Mary Whitehouse type of morality, a convergence which is beginning to assume a disquieting character as some radical feminist groups press for the banning of books they consider obscene.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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