The Critic’s Sense of the Past and the Contemporary

October 26, 2009

The following is an excerpt from the Editor’s Introduction of Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II, ed. Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: National Library Board and National Arts Council, 2009), pp. 11-21.

Julien Benda concocted the term la trahison des clercs, also the title of his most famous work published in 1927, to describe an alarming trend among the professionals of his day. What he called “the treason of the intellectuals” referred to how many of these had traded away their commitment to “non-material advantages” and mere “joy in the practice” for skewed pursuits that defended or advanced “practical aims” (43). To be sure, Benda was not so naïve as to imagine that intellectuals could be disengaged – consciously or otherwise – from the larger ideological processes of their societies. The individuals he attacked were well aware of the compromises they were making to their work from either a want of personal integrity or an inability to stay the course. Benda’s term was later revived by the late Edward W. Said in The World, the Text, and the Critic (1984) to stress the potential “betrayal” of those whose “expertise has always been a service rendered, and sold, to the central authority of society” (2). Said, however, inverted the complicity of literary critics in particular, seeing it in how these often proceeded in a sterilised textual way and downplayed the strong socio-political forces through which the “great books” could cohere.

Thus, in one of numerous counter-intuitive moves that had helped to found current postcolonial studies, Benda’s context was set on its head even as his case against academic collusion with hegemonic discourses remained. Said went on to warn against the rise of theories of pure textuality since the late 1960s, which he treated as still abstracted forms of the West’s intellectual legacy. His further notion of “traveling theory” showed how, in “an essentially heterogeneous and open area of activity,” the life of a theoretical position would change in response to its environment and so raise unique questions about its emergence, reception, diffusion, and resistance (World 230). The provocation was powerful and invariably invited the reversal of his critical glass, as seen in his interview with The Telegraph of Kolkata in 1997. The charge made to him then was that his own ideological outlook had caused significant damage to the writing of Indian history, turning critical attention away from a focus on “social, political, and economic domination” to “literary and aesthetic representations of colonial rule” (Said, Power 282). Said’s argument fumbled at this point as he insisted that both paths need not be “separate, or competing”: “The whole process of writing, whether about literature or history, involves sifting through evidence, and in the end arriving at interpretations” (282).

It is time that we – critics of Singaporean-Malaysian literature – learn to “talk back” in the way India’s social historians have by firstly exposing the key problem with Said’s retort. Of course, interpretations are in competition because the realm of mind is not forged in timelessness: the way meaning is produced, revised, and maintained is itself a worldly enterprise propped up by limitations to resources and expertise, their uneven distribution, a reliance on funding, the dynamics within the critical body, and wider infrastructural decisions. All these factors aggravate matters for a small nation-state like Singapore where, in the same period Kirpal Singh lamented the lack of “enablers,” materials to deepen the pedagogical transmission of its literature (Introduction 10), essays and books on postcolonialism that selectively drew on its texts have nonetheless increased. With Malaysian literature in English, the occasional warning that colonial “hang-ups” can “blinker the dynamic and complex nature of reality” continues to challenge the persistence of old associations made for different reasons both abroad and at home (Quayum and Wicks xiv). As postcolonial theory – with its arsenal of concepts such as orientalism, the subaltern, hybridity, diaspora, and transnationalism – fuels the excavation for what largely proves its case, the irony stands that it contorts the growth of new literatures by forcing them to stagnate along lines of a colonial past and its aftermath. The outfit further deprives the fledgling fields of expertise that could have been working to invigorate inner connections and damns them to expend much energy engaging and qualifying dominant modes of perception.

As such, the gap between theories of ideology and textuality is less clear than either set of adherents will admit even as this lays bare a series of lost opportunities with regard to inelastic historical determinants. The criminality of avoiding the roads less travelled is self-evident once we realise how a failure to document and engage present transformations, the past-in-the-making, irretractably alter the conditions through which future scholarship can proceed. In this sense, the study of history and a new literature share similar contingencies: as we cannot look back except through the texts that had participated in the generation and preservation of meaning, so the attempt to retell, update, and extend certainties and contentions is crucial to the future’s empowering. The more infrequent, misleading, non-committal, or abstract critical writing exists today, the less clarity later critics will have about the differences between facts of textual worldliness and mere interpretation. Already we link the decrease in English writing in Singapore and Malaysia up to the 1990s to either a state’s strong economic harmonisation or the nationalisation of language as if textual existence has been transparent enough to allow peeks outside the politics of print. At the same time, the reading of early writing is losing its historical nuances, seeing how the bulk of regional criticism simply leapt from close readings to postcolonial mappings, with often weak concern for literary history and none for biographies.

Consequent mysteries arising from such terrains of lack abound: for example, we ask not how to read but who reads the out-of-print Arthur Yap or, for that matter, the regularly chart-topping Catherine Lim. Who reads the massive academic anthologies of literature published in the 1980s and early 1990s, and where are we to find the demand for the recent reissuing of some long unavailable titles? Why was Lee Tzu Pheng’s “My Country and My People” once banned in Singapore, and how has K. S. Maniam’s reception changed in relation to his society’s development and to global eyes coloured by newer Malaysian writers such as Tash Aw? Where are the sites of engagement and rupture between overlapping generations of writers, and why is prose – particularly the essay form – predominant in Malaysia and poetry in Singapore? Why is Boey Kim Cheng but not Goh Poh Seng treated by the local literati as if he never migrated, and where are the considerations for Goh Sin Tub, the creator of literally hundreds of stories, maverick novelists such as Kelvin Tan and Douglas Chua, the inimitable Elangovan, multilingual and translated writers, and writers of children’s, graphic, and science fiction, fantasy, crime and horror stories, and plays for small theatrical groups? How do we discuss the changing status of Salleh Ben Joned and especially Cyril Wong, widely popular but rubbished by academia for years, and what do their cases tell us about the struggle between fringe and centre in the construals of literary merit?

These questions bring dimensions to a whole realm whose underexploration – as my own experience with teaching regional literature in Singapore tells me – is decisive. Once, confronted with a student’s puzzling insistence that Thumboo’s “Ulysses by the Merlion” was a satire, I found from a show of hands that almost two-thirds of my class agreed that it involved the commodification of identity, a national pandering to tourists and foreign talents, and the mocking Singaporean rebel as persona. While the spirit of the age required me to treat this violently cynical reading as still valid, the problem here resided in its underlying difference from the postmodern audacity that had legitimised it. The interpretation lacked an ironic awareness of having inverted some undemanding “original” meaning; it could not see the merlion the way Yasmine Gooneratne did some two decades back, as a versatile unifying symbol of hope, “a single icon, aglow with electric ‘power,’… a people’s image of itself” (9-10). Its Ulysses was oblivious to the figure of what had “sailed out of the Iliad and the Odyssey” and “doubtless by way of the texts of Browning, Tennyson, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot” into a new writing “at once oriental and modern” (Gooneratne 12-13). Even when identification drew more to a distant mythic persona than to a local invented object, it was not Singh’s “quester-self” of the Singaporean poet “pausing in his journey of self-search to wonder and reflect” (“Towards” 82).

This strange relation to Ulysses was as telling as the merlion’s cheapening: through Homeric eyes, my students would become foreign citizens able to look back with distaste at the island’s crassness as perversely their means of attachment. The twist was doubly ironic because it also resuscitated an old debate: Gootneratne’s response was itself made in the wake of Jan B. Gordon’s claim that Thumboo’s “almost obsessive need” was to flaunt “non-functional knowledge” (Gordon 48). The latter had proceeded to read the Singaporean Ulysses in terms of the government’s strict language policy resulting in a voice that was “derivative, rather than a variation or an extension of the myth,” “[a] mere literary frame for a landscape poem” (47). By listing allusions to the Marlovian Faustus, the Shakespearean Hamlet, Samuel Johnson’s Imlac, John Keat’s “realms of gold,” and W. B. Yeats’s apocalyptic half-beast, Gooneratne made clear that Thumboo had more than ably incarnated “a timeless Western intelligence and breadth of experience” (13). What she conversely revealed was how, in a refusal of identification, Gordon’s seeming academic neutrality and appeal to taste denied the poem access to the colonialists’ world and deflected its obvious universal and so postcolonial theme: mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis, or “all things change and we change with them.” My young Singaporeans’ similar alignment with cynicism was, in this light, not a simple issue of associative freedom: it signalled a gap in historical and cultural consciousness that must emerge in minds de-acclimatised to being mere “citizens of the world” (Gwee 208-9).

The loss of some inner compass makes a mockery of postmodern textual openness since its promised empowerment comes at the price of an ability to orientate sensitively in space. To be sure, my point does not concern the inherent difficulty of regional literature – an unnecessarily apologetic notion – but quite the opposite: the resistance of dominant discourses to keeping the gates of language open for mutual influence. In the face of such control, there is only one ethical course of action, a process that understands how the basis for real freedom is real choice, made in the possibility of enough idea-independent fixtures with which to negotiate meaning. The clichéd and the solipsistic reading are, from this side of things, the same, both dismissive of or embarrassed with the centrality of difference, and so describe ambience as someone moving from one room into another may describe architecture. Without grasping the nature of the distance between two texts, a text and its writer or world, two worlds, and indeed two postcolonialisms, a reader cannot begin to understand subtleties and tell irony from candour or find gravity in humour, let alone isolate the worldly importance of particular writings. He or she tends to overlook the relation of Singaporean poetry to real-world struggles and worldly Malaysian themes to a quality of language; texts like Robert Yeo’s Are You There, Singapore? (1974) fall into a disconnected past without interest for how they set the terms for art’s subsequent connections to state and society (Singh, Introduction 13).

The battles in the literature of Singapore and Malaysia are therefore not between professional objectivity and ideology, according to Benda, or between ideological integrity and criminal neutrality, as Said prescribed. Merit is furthermore exposed in the Gordon-Gooneratne debate as not an end-all but itself a modifier of power, the former’s lofty academic values defending dormant views reverberating in the current use of intellectual content to keep out sentimental worth. The Singaporean-Malaysian critic seeking not to be treacherous in his or her pursuit has to sail between the Scylla and Charybdis of two diametrical forms of surrender, institutional or nationalistic capitulation and theoretical indulgence. In doing so, he or she does not simply centralise aesthetics but must interrogate personal assumptions of art by factoring in his or her own mental proximity, the relevance of selected social truths, and a history of critical fault-lines. At the same time, there is a danger of over-intellectualising the ground where the texts themselves become non-textual, disappearing into an abstraction of historical inevitability without authorial choice and power, mere data for social sciences. The highest goal must be to make possible the reality of a future in which both literary and critical extensions and investigations can be pursued with great accuracy.

This job description fixes the Singaporean-Malaysian critic as a custodian of both the textual and historical components of literature, one who comprehends the multidirectional accountability of made meaning. The question of his or her ensuing responsibility to the writers as much as the texts of a new literature cannot either be ignored, in the name of neutrality or theoretical freedom, or answered in terms of ready blind promotion. A critic must be able to admit whether criticism has been so detached from ongoing literary processes that the latter’s hypothetical termination would do no more than shift the business of engagement to a mere archaeological mode of study, the distance unchanged. If this measure of showcase criticism comes close to describing a current state of affairs, then something must be said against the way intellectual work built on the fruits but not the struggles of artists can be deemed tolerable. The gap between the critical and the literary industry is a familiar issue in Malaysia and especially Singapore, and cries like Daren Shiau that, “If not people, then poets need poets” (66) find their haunting affirmation in poet Felix Cheong’s book on other poets discussing themselves, published by another poet. The irony today in postcolonial criticism – an ideological field without a Hippocratic oath for practitioners – lies in how its most urgent message that “we are still not yet free” keeps disappearing into the regular pontifications on its tenets.


Gwee Li Sui

Works Cited
(For the above excerpt)

Benda, Julien. The Treason of the Intellectuals. Trans. Richard Aldington. Intro. Roger Kimball. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2006.

Cheong, Felix. Idea to Ideal: 12 Singaporean Poets on the Writing of Their Poetry. Singapore: Firstfruits Publications, 2004.

Gooneratne, Yasmine. “Edwin Thumboo – Ulysses by the Merlion.” Critical Engagements: Singapore Poems in Focus. Ed. Kirpal Singh. Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1986. 7-16.

Gordon, Jan B. “The ‘Second Tongue’ Myth: English Poetry in Polylingual Singapore.” Ariel 5.4 (1984): 41-65.

Gwee Li Sui. “Two Renaissances: Singapore’s New Poetry and its Discontents.” Writing Asia: The Literatures in English. Volume 1: From the Inside: Asia-Pacific Literatures in Englishes. Eds. Edwin Thumboo and Rex Ian Sayson. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2007. 199-213.

Quayum, Mohammad A., and Peter C. Wicks. Introduction. Malaysian Literature in English: A Critical Reader. Eds. Mohammad A. Quayum and Peter C. Wicks. Petaling Jaya: Pearson Education Malaysia, 2001. x-xiv.

Said, Edward W. Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said. Ed. Gauri Viswanathan. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

——-. The World, the Text, and the Critic. London: Vintage, 1991.

Shiau Vee Lung, Daren. Peninsular: Archipelagos and Other Islands. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000.

Singh, Kirpal. Introduction. Interlogue: Studies in Singapore Literature. Volume 3: Drama. Ed. Kirpal Singh. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2000. 9-17.

——-. “Towards a Singapore Classic: Edwin Thumboo’s ‘Ulysses by the Merlion.’” The Literary Criterion 15.2 (1980): 74-87.


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