Why Keep Western Civilization? Because It Waited So Long To Be Remembered

Image for post
Image for post

I just read an article about universities (yet again) abandoning the Western Humanities in the face of a relentless drive to embrace diversity and a multicultural outlook. The article decried the loss of a rich culture in the face of a loose hodgepodge of approaches, none of which offers a coherent curriculum to university students. As an eighteenth-century British scholar and someone who wrote a Master’s Thesis on South Asian literature, I’m torn. Do I want to preserve a world where Homer, Sappho, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Johnson, and Jane Austen still have a place in the curriculum? Absolutely. But I do want that to be the only voice in the curriculum, so students have no idea that there was a Golden Age of Indian Literature? Or never encounter Taoism? Or remain ignorant of names like Tagore, Narayan, Naipaul, Desai, Lahiri, and Rushdie? Not on your life.

For me, the sticking point is diversity and inclusivity. Too many people define diversity as “replacing one thing with another.” Too many people can only read multiculturalism as “my culture, fuck yours.” And far too many people are intimidated and confused and appalled by the past, so find it better to scrap it. In short, there’s too little of the past remaining to get rid of any of it. It’s also useful and valuable, not to mention beautiful and inspirational as well. Even when racist beliefs and ideas crop up in the works of, say, Haggard and Kipling and Conrad, that’s something we can work with. It’s important to see how even the visionary writers struggled with zeitgeist, how even an artist is a member of a society that exists in a specific age of the world. In one hundred years, how few of us will be read or remembered because of our own ‘barbaric’ or racist views — views which now seem to us common place or merely facts?

Another sticking point is that so-called ‘diverse’ writers are usually readers of culture on the largest scale. They know the past and are children of that past, even when they find need to correct it. I’ll never forget an interview with the late Toni Morrison, who, when asked what one of her favorite books was, the book she would keep by her side to the end, she answered Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When pressed on this, she spoke mostly of the way he wrote, his gorgeous prose and powerful logic. It was a book that inspired and guided her, even though she wrote as part of an entirely different tradition; a tradition, many would claim, which is directly opposed to Gibbon’s ideals. A tradition that would banish his book to the dustbins of history.

Another great writer of the 20th century, V.S. Naipaul, was an Indian by way of Trinidad who emigrated to Britain, knew Western culture backwards and forwards (he studied Spanish literature at Oxford), and contributed to putting Trinidadian literature on the map. He also went on to contribute to the rich field of what we often call ‘postcolonial’ literature, as has been the subject of countless books, articles, and university syllabi. Granted, some people despise him and think he’s reactionary, etc., but his story isn’t unique. Look at any great postcolonial writer, and you’ll find someone who knows and confronts the West without outright rejection — Rushdie, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Anita Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri (who just wrote a book about learning Italian to study Italian literature, such as Dante!), etc. etc. The idea that you can only enrich one thing by destroying another, however checkered its cultural past, is ahistorical and I think profoundly ignorant. Indeed, Naipaul’s books are often about people stuck in the cul de sacs of history, where ignorance of the past makes it impossible to plot the way forward.

This reminds me of a famous story by the great Indian novelist, R.K. Narayan, which used to be more well-known than it is today. The story is called “Lawley Road,” and is about a colonial-era statue of Frederick Lawley which stands in the fictional town of Malgudi. In the days of post-Independence, many people decide it’s disgraceful to see the sun rise and set over this embarrassment of the past, so they decide to pull it down. A local man rips it down and hauls it home, where it sits until he vainly finds someone to buy it (there aren’t many takers). In desperation, he hangs a sign on the monument which reads, “STATUE FOR SALE. TWO AND A HALF TONS OF EXCELLENT METAL. IDEAL GIFT FOR A PATRIOTIC FRIEND. OFFERS ABOVE TEN THOUSAND WILL BE CONSDERED.”

The kicker is that after a little digging, the town leaders realize that Lawley was a local hero: “He established here the first cooperative society for the whole of India, and the first canal system by which thousands of acres of land were irrigated from the Sarayu, which had been dissipating itself until then. He established this, he established that, and he died in the great Sarayu floods while attempting to save the lives of villagers living on its banks. He was the first Englishman to advise the British Parliament to involve more and more Indians in all Indian affairs. In one of his dispatches he was said to have declared, “Britain must quit India someday for her own good.”

So the city demands that the statue be returned, but its new owner refuses, since he stands to make a profit from history. A clever little tale, and one that is surely symbolic for our current predicament. Sure, one decent Englishman alone might not merit a statue, but it also doesn’t merit contempt. If Lawley died to save human lives, whether British or Indian, he should be remembered as more than a colonial eyesore. Otherwise, we’re tempted to re-write history in favor of propaganda, where all the British were evil, and no one saw the foolishness of the colonial enterprise.

We have a real life Frederick Lawley in English literary studies: Rudyard Kipling. He’s become a poster boy for British Imperialism, racism, and outdated culture. And yet he was born in India, spent his early professional life there, and wrote about India in a more thoughtful, sensitive way (despite some bias) than anyone before him. He loved the culture and was very critical of the British imperial project, even though he later came to champion it in his unique way. But none of his works are blindly pro-Western, and even his so-called jingoistic works such as “If” or “The White Man’s Burden” have darkness and nuance. And his richest works, such as the Jungle Books, Kim, and his many short stories (such as “The Man Who Would Be King”), are as profound as anything written in the 19th century and pointed the way toward postcolonial studies in the first place.

Part of the problem for modern readers and thinkers is that we’ve forgotten that literature is a performance. The narrator is not the author. The characters are not the author. A good writer has to channel and reflect their culture. They have to include voices they don’t agree with, that are antithetical to their own values, to create a story that has any chance of reflecting our shared experience. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda and doesn’t merit re-reading. Writers like Austen and Dickens and Kipling were masters of adopting many voices within the dominant narrative voice, suggesting the true heteroglossia of a culture’s speech. Kipling, especially, would often adopt the voices of his contemporaries in a bizarre mix of performance-art and satire, at times approaching the comic sublimity of The Colbert Report. Consider the opening lines from “The White Man’s Burden”:

Take up the White Man’s burden —

Send forth the best ye breed —

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild —

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

Okay, many would say, this is abominably racist: “half-devil and half-child”?? But consider that Kipling was one of these” half-children” himself, and when his parents shipped him back to England as a small child (terrified that he was ‘going native’), the boarders that took him considered him positively foreign (he wrote about this traumatic experience in the story “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”). So is this him writing the poem, or is it a voice from his culture, a surly, conservative martyr drumming up support for what is increasingly a hopeless cause? The lyrics certainly conjure up the sense of a recruitment poster, though Kipling cripples the language with irony, so that even the jingoism falls flat: “Go bind your sons to exile/To serve your captives’ need.” This is similar to the conservative voices you hear today in middle America who support the troops but decry having to spill their blood for “those people.”

There’s something pathetic and hilarious about the invocation to “Send forth the best ye breed…To wait in heavy harness.” So ultimately, the great white race is no better than cattle, loaded down in harness while the people they seek to colonize “flutter” wild around them. The poem goes on to say,

Take up the White-Man’s Burden —

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard —

The cry of hosts ye humour

(Ah, slowly!) toward the light —

“Why brought ye us from bondage,

Our loved Egyptian night?”

Each time he repeats the bugle-cry of “Take up the White-Man’s Burden,” it gets more ludicrous and downtrodden, like a music box running out of steam. And what’s it all for? Here Kipling slips in his own critique of the venture: “The blame of those ye better/The hate of those ye guard.” In other words, the people you’re trying to improve want none of it , because (surprise, surprise) they don’t consider themselves in need of reform. And do the British really think that these “half devils” are capable of improvement and civilization? Apparently not, as Kipling suggests in the line, “The cry of hosts ye humour.” It’s all humoring, posturing, an excuse to hide the true reason of the colonial enterprise: power. But it’s nothing the mere soldiers will ever enjoy, as they are inevitably wasting away in foreign lands fighting rich people’s wars.

As a way to underline the hypocrisy of it all, Kipling has a Biblical resonance in the last two lines, when a new voice (one of the colonized), asks “Why brought ye us from bondage/Our loved Egyptian night?” In short, they were happy in Egypt, and to civilize them according to English values merely destroys them both in the name of ‘progress.’ Such is the White-Man’s Burden: a mindless Catch-22 that no amount of jingoistic verse can parade as fact.

However, this isn’t Kipling’s voice — he’s using a dramatic monologue (a throwback to Robert Browning) to inhabit the voice and perspective of someone who still believes in conquering the “heart of darkness.” Yet his impersonation is so spot-on, that most people can’t even imagine it is an act; and of course, most people don’t even bother to read the poem. Otherwise, they might be disappointed that the “statue” is hollow and is meant to be taken down. History has a way of being less predictable and inevitable than we would like to believe. Only literature stands in the way of those assumptions, and the less of it we allow ourselves to read, the more it will vanish into a utopia of trend and doublespeak.

To conclude with one more piece of the ancient past, this time a fragment from one of Sappho’s nearly-forgotten poems,

“I declare

That later on,

Even in an age unlike our own,

Someone will remember who we are” (translated by Aaron Poochigian).

The line “an age unlike own own” is key here: literature doesn’t require the right fashion to appreciate its merits. We can find the entire civilization distasteful and still find the ‘human’ in the greatest works. Indeed, one of the glories of literature is how a culture which had slaves and confined women to obscurity could still rise to the most sublime heights of art in defiance of that very culture. Sappho knew that future ages would understand her, even if we spoke a different language and worshipped different gods. Like life itself, literature is vast enough to hold everything — great and small, good and bad, East and West. To confine it to a narrow island of thought in some misguided hope to protect it, and us, is the surest way to destroy it — or to destroy what it waited thousand of years to tell us.

English professor at East Central University (OK); PhD from Miami University (OH); eternal student and lover of books

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store