On language

There’s a used bookstore way up the street. I find myself dropping by from time to time to see what they have — the first time I went I was interested only in the comics. Later, I went looking for other kinds of books, academic books. They used to have a whole set of writings of Marx and Engels from Progress Publishers that weren’t there when I visited yesterday. I also found a huge book, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings — the second edition from 1979. I looked into the most recent editions, and they are, for the most part, the same, with a few essays added here and there. I also found Rius’s Marx for Beginners. (“To Craig, A little light but politically correct humour. Happy Birthday! David. Summer, 1987.” I didn’t really find the book funny.)

There’s a shelf full of ‘classics’ of literature — Penguin Classics and the like. I saw a couple of copies of Albert Camus’s The Outsider, and I considered buying one. The problem, of course, was that it was a translation from the French. And I was supposed to have read the French in grade 12. Mme Liscio had wanted us to read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos as an introduction to existentialism and Camus’s L’Etranger as an introduction to the philosophy of the absurd. I read the former, but barely read the latter, relying instead on free online study notes — which, needless to say, were a very poor substitute. After I graduated from high school I made little effort to keep what French I had learned fresh. I did, at one point, sign out a French comic book from Robarts — Stigmates — in a failed attempt to improve what little French I had rattling around in my mind.

In the summer of 2006, as Israel executed its war on Lebanon, I realized just how much was written on the subject in French — obviously, a lot to do with Lebanon’s colonial past. But it was when I came back to Sartre — reading Search for a Method for my Marxism & Form class — that I began to regret more deeply my lack of advanced French reading skills. Then I watched The Battle of Algiers — and I could not, for the life of me, keep up with the spoken French and I had to rely on English subtitles. Then came readings of Rancière, Badiou, as well as rumblings of Althusser, Balibar, so on, and that increased the desire to be able to access them in French. Not to mention Frantz Fanon. It’s like regretting not having learned German so as to be able to read Marx, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, and others in their original language — only I did know French. And still do, to some extent.

With the help of a dictionary, I translated, summarized and analysed a rather long article from Le Monde diplomatique for a class on Western perceptions of Africa. It was about how people from various parts of Africa were exhibited quite like animals at the turn of the century in Europe and the United States. (There’s a whole anthology about the phenomenon — Africans on Stage — but it focuses mostly on anglophone experiences and, to a large extent, itself ends up putting Africans on “the stage” of its pages). What this experience indicates for me is that I can get that French going if I choose to give it a go. But, of course, I’m lazy.

And yet, I didn’t buy The Outsider because I felt like I owed it to Mme Liscio — who taught, or tried to teach me French for two years — and to myself that I read it in French.

There’s also the question of Urdu. It’s, perhaps, ironic that I read and write Urdu worse than I do French. I’ve never received any formal instruction in the former. The only thing to do is to read books of conversational Urdu — and to that end I have several books of a series of detective novels (about some guy named Imran) that were very popular in post-independence Urdu-speaking India and Pakistan, and still are. For the past four years I’ve been trying, intermittently, to get to the stack of books, but I haven’t read more than 20 pages of the first story of the first volume. It’s probably ridiculous to start from Urdu poetry, in which I have a keen interest (but not keen enough), because of its heavy reliance on Persian — not to mention the fact that it’s poetry, and not the kind of Urdu that’s typically written and read. I’m thinking it would be like watching Mughal-e-Azam repeatedly and focusing only on Prithviraj Kapoor’s dialogue as a means of learning spoken Hindi.

This need for bettering my Urdu is persistent and visceral. Like most students studying what I study, I’ve read widely from the canon of Western thought — ancient Greek, English, French and German philosophical, social and political thought. And that’s what I’m reading now and continue to read. I once sat, frustrated, in the stacks of Robarts looking at a huge shelf of books on a certain topic, realizing that it was all white — written by white people about white people dealing with white things. A straight line from Plato’s The Republic to Thomas More’s Utopia with nothing in between. And everything that came after, of course, was distinctly European or Western, but making claims for and about all of humanity. Not that that’s not what we, I, do anyway.

So the desire to learn Urdu is inextricably tied up with questions of my identity — a vulgar reaction to the Eurocentrism etched into the core of my being? (Hooray to the stereotypical fusion of the East and the West, a kurta on jeans, an immigrant on an airplane, and the accompanying schizophrenia.) That’s too fucking simple, and Eurocentric. It’s somehow okay for me to want to learn French and German (to be able to access the giants of the respective intellectual traditions), but not Urdu because I want to do it to learn more about “my culture” and “my heritage” (whatever those terms mean) — because that, that’s reactionary. “My culture” and “my heritage”, though, include the giants of those intellectual traditions. But even Iqbal, after all, got his PhD in Germany and was knighted by the British.

And so there’s nothing, really, to hold on to and say, “This is mine, whitey, you can’t have it!” But why that desire in the first place? A writer, on Africa, whose name escapes me, wonders why it’s okay for the Romans to have adopted from the Greek without losing any of their Romanness; but when Africans adopt from the West, they become somehow less African? The answer, of course, is colonialism. Ken Kawashima, a professor at UofT, when asked — the question was posed, by us, rather calculatingly — as to what ‘the East’ had contributed to ‘the West’, reminded us champions of discursive struggle of the transfer of cheap raw materials and human labour.

The reason I want to better my Urdu is because it’s my language. That’s it. And that’s true.

And yet, I know it’s equally true that I live in a world and in structures that can never let it be that simple.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    nomes » On Marxism and Eurocentrism said,

    November 6, 2007 @ 3:55 pm

    […] imagine that I’ve never had to wrestle with this sense of being detached from my own reality, of being detached and disgusted and even insulted because when I go into a library and stare at a shelf of books on a topic the only thing I can find […]

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