Sneha Mantri //
If you pick up your favorite world literature anthology and turn to the table of contents, you’ll notice immediately that the authors are categorized with startling precision. “Here,” the editors seem to say, “are the British writers, and in this corner we have the Africans—an entire continent’s worth! — and we’ve also included a selection of Chinese and Japanese poetry for those interested in the Oriental.” These categories might be addressed explicitly in the preface, as the editors explain their rationale for choosing and labeling particular texts. More often, though, the reasoning behind this taxonomy remains hidden, replicating without criticism the political geography of our modern—that is to say, post-World War, post-decolonization, post-globalization—world.
Yet the nationalist taxonomy of world literature hardens the fuzzy borders of literary reach by insisting that each author be assigned to one country, and one country only. Even hyphenated labels, such as African-American or Asian-American, privilege “American” as the foundation on which to build with ethnic modifiers. I’ve chosen the word “taxonomy” deliberately to allude to both these aspects—classification and hierarchy—of world literature. Like the biological taxonomy of Linnaeus and Darwin, the nationalist taxonomy of world literature creates a pedigree for texts, privileging those works that are “good enough” to be placed on literature’s family tree, which is in turn superimposed, ahistorically, on the political map of the late 20th century. This lineage of literature is both convenient and pervasive, but it’s certainly not the only way of relating texts to one another. I want to look at the ways that authors, particularly postcolonial authors, might resist this overarching political and geographic taxonomy. In these next two posts, I propose an embodied reading of VS Naipaul’s 1967 novel The Mimic Men as a way to problematize the order of world literature.
Before I turn to the text itself, a few words on what an embodied reading might mean. The term arose in the discourse of disability studies, with its focus on the body as a cultural text. Lennard Davis muddied categories like normal, abnormal, and disabled, by demonstrating their origins in the eugenics movement (3). The discourse on body and social power was then taken up by medical sociologists, including Michel Foucault, who examined the physical body of the patient in relation to the institutionalized ‘medical gaze,” and Arthur Frank, who sought to recenter medical discourse on the stories the body tells. Reactions to the “caricature Cartesianism” (Frank 2) of late 20th century medicine encouraged patients, advocates, and physicians to attend to the “embodiment of these stories: how they are told not just about the body but through it” (Frank 3). Almost simultaneously, “embodiment” appeared in postcolonial criticism, as academics began to focus on the body politics of racism (Cranny-Francis 47; hooks 57) and the stereotypes of the animalistic, physical “native” body in contrast to the European rationalist mind (Fanon 9, 190).
Underlying these metaphors of the “native” body is what David Waterman calls the “materialist sense” of the body (v). Writing about British literature of the First World War, Waterman points out that “the human body, disordered and displaced physically and psychologically, is presented as the most accurate measure of the material consequences of warfare, in effect uncovering the old lies of the dominant group(s)” (x). Waterman’s conclusions about the body in warfare are equally true for the body in the world, whose “disorder” challenges the taxonomy of world literature. What I want to do here is refract The Mimic Men through both medical and postcolonial lenses. By focusing on the literal, physical bodies depicted in the text, I will demonstrate how they become representative of a larger resistance to order.
Because The Mimic Men is, fundamentally, a quest for order. For Ralph, the narrator and failed politician of the newly independent island nation of Isabella, the tragedy of the “colonial” is that “We lack order. Above all, we lack power…There is only one course: flight. Flight to the greater disorder, the final emptiness: London and the home counties” (Naipaul 8). Thus, for the “colonial” subject, the possibility of home-grown power is already precluded. In turning to the “home counties,” that individual is forced to acknowledge his own losses. Ralph spends much of his life trying to find a way around this inevitability. Because he associates order so closely with power, he attempts to impose order on his failed life in a number of ways: seducing women in a highly scripted fashion, developing the planned community of Kripalville, and eventually, disappearing into his “suburban hotel” in London where he revels in “order, sequence, and regularity” (Naipaul 244).
At each step of his quest, Ralph is stymied when he confronts the reality of the physical body, which resists his attempts at order. Although he fancies himself a ladies’ man, his pick-ups rarely go as planned, because he is horrified at the reality of the women’s skin with its “bumps and scratches” (Naipaul 25) that challenge the smooth orderliness he seeks. His suburb, though admirably planned and egotistically named, is “speedily corrupted to Crippleville” (Naipaul 59), indicating both his inability to control the reactions of others and the primacy of the body—in this case disabled. Each time Ralph is confronted with the reality of racial tension on Isabella, he becomes intensely nauseated and vomits, symbolic purging the consequences of colonialism. His last remaining act is to become a recluse in his hotel room, comforted by the regular clicks of the electric meter and the unchanging pattern of the wallpaper.
I want to start my discussion of the body in the text by looking at Ralph’s own body, or lack thereof. Naipaul refuses to provide any physical description of Ralph, creating a chameleon of a protagonist. Indeed, Ralph refers to himself as a “natural impersonator” (Naipaul 134). Soon after arriving in London, he realizes, “it was up to me to choose my character, and I chose the character that was easiest and most attractive… We become what we see of ourselves in the eyes of others” (Naipaul 20). To that end, he allows himself to be dressed and guided by his basement neighbor, so much so that he begins to refer to himself as “the character Lieni created” (Naipaul 21). Ralph has no qualms about being completely subjugated to another’s influence. Indeed, he requires that “response in the eyes of others” (Naipaul 27), just as an actor might desire validation from a theater audience.
As the title of the book highlights, Ralph belongs to a distinct class, the “mimic men of the New World” (Naipaul 146). He is the minority even among postcolonials: when race riots erupt as violent refusals of the legacy of colonialism, Ralph shies away by mimicry of the accepted colonial mentality. In an inversion of a standard trope of postcolonial fiction, Ralph reinvents his name, “reviving an ancient fracture” (Naipaul 93) by choosing an English rather than Hindu name. His father is then required to “sign an affidavit that the son he had sent out into the world as Ranjit Kripalsingh had been transformed into Ralph Singh” (Naipaul 94). Ralph, at the age of eight, has therefore forced his family to legally acknowledge his reinvention. As readers, we can’t help but admire his single-minded commitment to self-erasure even as we are disturbed by it.
In my next post, I will turn to Ralph’s attempt to find order in not only his body, but the body of the female Other. Confrontations with Othered bodies destabilize Ralph’s quest for order, revealing cracks and fractures that ultimately explode the neat taxonomy of world literature.
Cranny-Francis, Anne. The Body in the Text. Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1995.
Davis, Lennard. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” Disability Studies Reader, Second Edition. Ed. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 3-16.
hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Bodies, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Naipaul, VS. The Mimic Men. London: Penguin, 1967.
Waterman, David. Disordered Bodies and Disrupted Borders: Representations of Resistance in Modern British Literature. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1999.