Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire
Columbia University Press, 2013
When a reviewer turns to a book with the term “banality” in the title, the possibility of numerous quips and puns on the “banal” and “boredom-inducing” quality of the text inevitably springs to mind. It is with great regret, however, that I, lover of puns that I may be, shall have to endeavour to restrain myself from such jokes. For though the title of Saikat Majumdar’s first academic monograph includes the word “banality”, this appears alongside a whole cast of strikingly broad terms: “Prose”, “World”, “Modernism”, and “Empire”—we might start to consider that this monograph can’t actually be long enough. The book is some 200 pages, but a bibliography of the material that has been written on these subjects since just the turn of the 21st century would not fit between the covers. To write across, suture together, and traverse all these huge topics would require the development of a complex theoretical paradigm that conceptualises an historical framework for a very long 20th century. And of course Saikat Majumdar, Associate Professor at Stanford University, has attempted exactly this.
No small feat then. The component parts of the book’s title are in fact taken from just two quotations: that opening confident and somewhat totalising phrase, “Prose of the World”, is sourced only once throughout the text and is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a quotation of Hegel. The reader of this review should be warned that if they think a text heavily inflected with Hegel is going to attempt to configure the broad motions of history into a convenient yet intricately theorised narrative, then, well, they would be right. This globe-encompassing theory is developed in the book-end chapters that serve as introduction and epilogue and that speak generally and confidently as only an Associate Professor at Stanford might. The geographical breadth of the argument (the “world”) is matched only by the historical weight that Majumdar ascribes to his argument. Though there has been much critical work in recent years that has traced the subversive impact of modernist literature on the discursive constructs of “Empire”, Majumdar pushes this further, extending it to a critique of Enlightenment thought more broadly. Though this conceptualisation is far from original (it has been present in critical discourse at least since Jean-François Lyotard coined the term “Enlightenment Grand Narratives” in 1979, if not before), no one has before argued that literary texts perform these subversive motions through a “narrative aesthetic of the banal”.
The central argument Majumdar develops is basically this: colonial and postcolonial history is littered with extremely important and often violent events—from genocides to wars of independence to the rise of various nationalisms—that quite rightly often become subject matter for (post)colonial anglophone literatures (one of the few limits Majumdar places on his analysis is to restrict it to the English-speaking world, as formed by the British Empire). These “dramatic” (Majumdar’s word) events are often invoked in postcolonial literature as part of a project of anti-colonialism and de-colonisation, depending on where the texts fit into the historical progress of the struggle. However, in direct contrast to these dramatic episodes is the ongoing banality of life on the colonial periphery. Indeed, the contrast becomes a complex dialectic. This is not only recorded in much of this body of literature, but finds formal articulation in a specifically “banal” narrative aesthetic that Majumdar argues becomes intensely subversive of the dominant power structures and historical narratives in each historic-geographic moment. The “Prose of the World” is, for Majumdar, writing that gives priority to all those in-betweens, those non-events, the spatio-temporal arenas that form the unarticulated backdrop to the movements of upheaval and political contestation in the global history of the 20th century.
This was unfortunately not made clear to me until I’d finished the epilogue, and though retrospectively I now understand that this was being gestured towards throughout the text, the introduction and intervening chapters didn’t serve to drive it home. Though from the title we might have expected the Fredric Jameson of the “Modernism and Imperialism” essay to emerge, it is in fact Jameson’s more controversial article, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”, that serves as a critical foothold for Majumdar’s argument. Majumdar at first constructs a binary between dramatic and banal, locating the political impetus of the former within the concept of the National Allegory as theorised by Jameson in that much-contested essay. He then demonstrates how such a binary, based inherently on a deeper opposition of political and apolitical, is in fact misconstrued and false. The “banal” narratives that Majumdar identifies are just as political as those more obvious allegories of anti-colonialism and nationalism: they often serve as a reflexive critique of those postcolonial narratives by disaggregating postcolonial populations into varying sub-groups such as the local, gender, class, and so on. This configures, for Majumdar, a political movement that subverts the grander allegorical narratives.
The significance of this is that in order to draw forth such a theorisation, it is necessary to generate the beginnings of a critique of early postcolonial novels, such as Midnight’s Children—indeed, Salman Rushdie bears the brunt of Majumdar’s chapter on Amit Chaudhuri, though the argument operates mostly through positive rather than negative critique. Much of Majumdar’s argument is implied rather than conveyed through direct attacks, but it is well done and refreshing. Within Majumdar’s project is the poignant implication that—because many of the anti-colonial movements are now a half-century in the past—we can begin to recover all those other narratives, produced from the more banal locations and gaps in the spatio-temporal paradigm that postcolonialism takes as its field of inquiry, and re-configure them as playing an equally central, political role in the evolution of various post-independent nation-states in the second half of the 20th century. Majumdar seizes the historical moment for this articulation wisely and makes it with a care and sensitivity that should be admired and adopted by other postcolonial critics.
Nonetheless, there are some difficulties with Majumdar’s monograph, rooted perhaps in the book’s subtitle, Modernism and the Banality of Empire. The term “banality” is, as an opening epigraphic quotation informs us, taken from Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid. And yet, Kincaid’s work features nowhere else in the text, aside from a brief mention of the cited quotation in the introduction. Virginia Woolf too is deployed in this way, her own critical work drawn on throughout the introduction but with no attention paid to her literary role in this process. Majumdar acknowledges this oversight, claiming that his concern is with the movement between colonial periphery and imperial metropole and that therefore Woolf does not fall within his “literary archive”. But such an acknowledgement overlooks Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), and a reading of this relatively neglected text would have been appreciated by this reviewer at least. It should be pointed out in fact that despite Majumdar’s grand theorising, there are one or two notes regarding the limitations of his argument’s applicability, comments we then swiftly lose sight of when Hegel returns to the conversation. Majumdar could simultaneously cast his critical net wider, bringing in not only Virginia Woolf but also Leonard’s The Village in the Jungle—and perhaps Joseph Conrad, another eerily absent figure—while honing his theoretical configurations and engaging with a little more historical and geographical specificity.
The work primarily focuses, then, on four authors, two “colonial” and two “postcolonial”, in the technical or temporal sense. James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield receive a chapter each in the first half of the book, and Zo√´ Wicomb and Amit Chuadhuri in the second half. Rather unsurprisingly, Majumdar struggles to write across such contrasting and disparate geographical and historical locations: colonial Ireland and New Zealand, apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, and postcolonial India. Though Majumdar impressively tackles each author’s œuvre—encompassing everything from Ulysses to the manuscript of Stephen Hero in his analysis of Joyce, and including Chaudhuri’s work as a literary critic as well as his novels—there is very little comparative work, leaving the actual application of the broader theories negotiated in the introduction and epilogue somewhat problematically untransferable across the spatio-temporal locations of each author. Majumdar’s clear enthusiasm for Joyce is an exception to this rule: the buoyancy of his narrative in the chapter on Joyce is noticeable when contrasted with the others, and Joyce is the only author to recur with any sort of regularity throughout the remainder of the book. Aside from this, the author-based chapters hang like individual essays somewhat isolated from one another, raising doubts as to whether Majumdar can in fact theorise such a general and broad topic as “Prose of the World”.
Majumdar does offer a generalised key to each of these authors, located very explicitly in his concept of the “banal”, a word that recurs in each of his analyses. However, banality becomes rather too broad and un-falsifiable for what is otherwise an impressively rigorous academic study. We are presented with banal objects, banal time, banal space—almost anything in fact that suits Majumdar’s reading and that can be configured, very roughly and a little arbitrarily, as banal. In a work of such sharp technical theorisation, this fluid and unspecific term is unsatisfying. It feels like Majumdar has attempted to marry two clearly inter-related but nevertheless distinct literary interests: modernism, in the form of Joyce and Mansfield (but especially Joyce) and postcolonialism. These two have a long heritage of intersection in critical debates over the past few decades, but the pertinence of Majumdar’s argument is not quite grounded in the modernist canon on which he draws. This is not to say that such a grounding would not be possible—and indeed, Majumdar opens various lines of inquiry that might be pursued to solidify this process in various and more convincing ways. But from a literary critic of such skill, with such a breadth of knowledge and refreshingly conscious socio-political engagement, I would expect a slightly tighter methodological and thematic approach. Puns aside—and do excuse a moment of self-indulgence—the only banal aspect of Prose of the World is the concept of ”banality” itself.
Dominic Davies  is reading for a D.Phil. in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.