Naipaul discusses industry through the lens of nationality/ethnicity to emphasize the internationality that underlies late capitalism. He poses industry and commodification to unite various national and ethnic contexts. “In cafés shabbier than I remembered,” he writes, “Greek and Lebanese businessmen in suits read the local French and English newspapers and talked with sullen excitement about the deals that might be made in Rhodesian tobacco, now that it was outlawed” (250). Naipaul parallels the nationality of the businessmen with the languages (alternatively, nationalities) of their newspapers. The language used to discuss the Rhodesian tobacco deals is not specified, but the papers’ languages are: French and English. Naipaul encodes English and French news material as authoritative in matters of business. Moreover, he poses these business languages as “local,” suggesting the international reach of the papers—more broadly, the French and British Empires. It’s uncertain whether the “locality” of these English/French papers indicates they’re produced in Cairo and sold locally or produced in their respective nations and distributed internationally. Whatever case, Naipaul blends these various national/linguistic contexts into a speculative discussion about the exchange value of an outlawed commodity. The common self-interest of Greek and Lebanese businessmen unites them in ways that vary from some “pre-modern” traditions of community, like religious affiliation, nationality, or language. Importantly, this modern “sullen excitement” when discussing potential profit suggests a law greater than that of the state in which the Rhodesian tobacco has been outlawed. The commodity becomes profitable in the same sentence that it becomes illegal within the state’s borders. The businessmen imagine deals beyond the borders and regulations of the state, however, entangling speculative profit and modern economic principles within an international discourse. Naipaul asks us to consider the positive social value that internationalism offers humanity as inseparable from the exploitative (in this case, illegal) profits of international business.
I’m curious why Naipaul characterizes the narrator’s driver as, primarily, bored. The driver shoos away the “beggar boys in jibbahs” as if waving at them, combining signals of dismissal and welcome in a single gesture. Naipaul’s narrator locates the driver’s personal history in these boys, saying he “once no doubt…had been a boy in a jibbah” (251). Even though the driver’s and beggar boys’ religious and cultural backgrounds may be similar, Naipaul suggests that the driver “had grown up differently” than the beggar boys (251). The narrator’s elaboration on this different upbringing revolves around one’s appearance/dress, and it works in tandem with the repeated mention of jibbahs. “He wore trousers and shirt and was vain of his good looks,” Naipaul writes (251).
Next, the driver’s boredom is associated even closer with geography and his environment. The narrator says of the driver, “[s]omehow in the desert he had learned boredom…bored with the antiquities, the tourists, and the tourist routine” (251). This boredom apparently motivates the driver to insist on taking the narrator to an unfamiliar little oasis. Otherwise, the driver would begin to argue with him (252). I’m interested here in the ways that Naipaul associates the driver’s boredom with the specific location at which that the narrator ends up. Moreover, because the driver is bored of “the tourists and the tourist routine,” he takes the narrator “by unfamiliar ways to a little oasis with palm trees and a large, dried up timber hut” (252). The scene abruptly changes after the narrator admits he “didn’t want to stay,” so the reader arrives at the rest-house full of tourists who speak European languages (252). So, is boredom, to Naipaul’s narrator, inefficient? The driver’s attempt to assuage his boredom by taking unfamiliar ways directly opposes his job as a driver, so much so that even his proclivity to get angry and contentious is a salve to boredom (252). I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’m curious how Naipaul figures this middle-level (not beggar boy, not businessman, but driver) boredom as dehumanizing.
There were several interesting elements in Naipaul’s excerpt that might be described as a “transatlantic aesthetic,” including the setting of the steam ship, the cast of nations, and the focus on money, exchange, and modernity that texture this excerpt. The character I was most struck by was the tramp, who stands in as the figure of a sort of existential refugee. This characterization is gestured to in the prologue’s opening when the narrator describes the Greek steamship as “like a refugee ship” (2672). The ship represents being in a liminal state, which is then paralleled by the tramp who seems to oscillate between the past/present, fixed/displaced. He is described as looking like “a romantic wandered of an earlier generation” with his fashionable world-explorer wardrobe, but up close “his clothes were in ruin” (2673). He recounts the 38 years he’s travelled, but the narrator states that “His speech was like this, full of dates, places and numbers, with sometimes a simple opinion drawn from another life. But it was mechanical, without conviction; even the vanity made no impression; those quivering wet eyes remained distant” (2673). Distance plays an interesting role in both the description of his clothes and of his speech; from a distance, his façade of a grand past of adventure, exploration, and cultural maturation is highly romanticized, but when looked at up close this all falls away in ruin and his “eyes remained distant,” as if he is displaced from the present. Indeed, the tramp is described as “odd” and clearly doesn’t fit in on the ship, constantly being displaced from his cabin, the ship’s deck, and the dining room, until he ultimately recovers his cabin through the threat of violence on any who trespasses. This mirrors the setting the ship is heading to, Egypt, which had just seen its own revolution that ousted the colonial government; Egypt is described in both the prologue and epilogue as reconciling with its cultural past and the European-tinted modernity that incubates during and after colonial oppression. The tramp stands in for this complex modernity, where the aftermath of global imperialism has displaced individuals and societies temporally, culturally, and geographically. The kind of transnational figure that is created from these forces is shown not as a globetrotting explorer like the tramp thinks he is, but instead a refugee of modernity.
This post is already longer than anticipated, but I do want to just throw out a final thought I’ve been thinking about in relation to the transatlantic now that the course is almost over. At the start of the semester Daniel asked why “transatlantic” and not “global”(or something similar), and that question has stuck with me for a while. I think what I’ve come to is that we could view the transatlantic not so much as a static spatial category, but instead that the transatlantic is a network of exchange and communication which gives globalization its currency in modernity. I think this perspective accounts for the emphasis on travel, transition, and displacement which seem to be at the heart of many of the texts we encountered this semester. The transatlantic isn’t so much a geographic marker like global, American, British, Caribbean, etc., but instead a collection of historical and cultural processes that facilitates the transgression of these geographic borders, which is heightened with developments in technology in the twentieth century and is captured in the modernist imagination.
In reading this, what I felt most was that Cairo is a tourist destination than anything else, and the implications that accompany that are depressing. It is no secret that this is the case, as Naipaul talks extensively about the various groups of people that are here, all of whom are sight seers or people from outside of this place. Naipaul writes, "perhaps that had been the only pure time, at the beginning, when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it as complete" (255). To me, it felt as though the ancient artist, or others who had lived long ago, were seen to be appreciative of this land mostly because that's all they had, and had never been any other place. This quote speaks to one in the beginning of the epilogue which reads, "the ancient artist, recording the life of a lesser personage, sometimes recorded with a freer hand the pleasures of that life... It was the special vision of men who knew no other land and saw what they had as rich and complete" (251). These excerpts sort of act as bookends for this short epilogue, both describing an older era of pastoral innocence. It beckons to this pure time, one well before travelling tourists came to relax and explore in the city. I posed these exceprts up against the description of certain tourists here in Cairo, where a couple of them made a game of throwing sandwhich pieces to the children outside who scrambled to pick them up from the sand. Those who didn't pay this any mind were discussing other matters, ignorant of the spectacle. I thought this conveyed some of the effects of tourism. People from other places see Cairo, or other destination landscape, as a place which is theirs to experience. The wait staff, drivers, and other working class people are shown as being highly concerned with the tourists' experiences, one waiter at first shooing away the hungry children until another threatens to tell on him. At that point, the waiter beseeches him not to do so. It's clear these peoples' livlihoods is highliy affected by these tourists, and their experiences. The way this impacts the landscape in relation to its people is sad, especially when thinking of Naipaul's remarks about the ancient artist and how he likely saw his homeland. The landscape, Cairo, now seeks and works to mirror the desires of the tourists. It is an place of new wonder, but the people who come from this place are no longer the center, but the backdrop. Naipaul even discusses how the children seem to be a part of the desert sand.
The final reading of our final reading (“The Circus at Luxor”) takes the audience on a temporal journey. Naipaul’s experience in Egypt can’t shake the ghosts of the past—the narrative is shot through with historical references and reflections: “the Museum was still haunted by Egyptian guides possessing only native knowledge… there was a reminder of the wars that had come with the revolution… extravagant columns, ancient in ancient times… they were giving me the room they used to give the Aga Khan… bright visions of the past” (241-2).
It’s in this context that Naipaul asks us to consider the action of the story: 1. Witnessing and spectating the circus travelers while being tourists themselves (not performers) and 2. Witnessing and intervening in an instance of abuse between security guards and Egyptian beggar children. As it relates to the latter, Naipaul is at the center of an ethical conundrum, one he tries to solve by interrupting and chastising the security guard. The problem here, though, is that the security guard is playing the “Egyptian game with Egyptian rules” (243). The security guard is doing his job just as the children are doing there’s—both are surviving in this new world of international capitalism and tourism. The guilty party could be the participants in the game, the security guard or the children. Or the Italian tourists who throw food to them as you would birds or fish. Or perhaps the other tourists who look onward when impoverished and hungry children risk their well-being for scraps of food. The whole episode has a very passive feel to it. Naipaul is unable to help the children, even after he shouts at the security guard and threatens to “report” him. All he can do is document the world that he sees and comment on it. Everyone then, even artists, are transfixed/paralyzed as “another, more remote empire was announcing itself” (247).
While the past suffuses Naipaul’s description and commentary of his journal entry, the final section offers another temporality: the future. Naipaul can’t square a nostalgic primitivism, a pre-modern utopic vision of the Egyptian cradle of civilization with what he experiences. The essay then abruptly moves to a train and the soldiers on the train who would (“seventeen months later”) “know total defeat in the desert” (247). As Naipaul collapses time here, he brings into perspective the changes that a wide view can bring to bear on a particular place. This view ultimately clashes with the very human, particular experience he communicates in the pages before. The past is a vision of connection with the land; the present a vision of unethical global capitalism and vapid tourism; the future is a vision of destruction. Ultimately Naipaul establishes a clear narrative of decay, one that is decidedly anti-modern.
David Walcott writes an ode to two giant literary figures of his time, James Joyce and Joseph Conrad. The first two lines mention Joyce was afraid of thunder, but lions roared at his funeral. This speaks to how Walcott views Joyce, as a figure larger than lfie. He has great respect for both men, even mentioning that it is a ‘strong rumor’ that Conrad’s death is exaggerated, as if Conrad could never die because he was immortalized based on what he wrote.
When Walcott mentions the ‘glow of the cigar’ and the ‘glow of the volcano at victory’s end’, I was unsure. The meaning of the glowing cigar is a bit tricky, but I believe it has something to do with enjoyment and refinement when it comes to the better things in life. A cigarette can be smoked quickly, but a cigar is supposed to be savored and last much longer, and much richer in flavor. This description links the better things in life to these two authors, which should be savored by people as Walcott wishes.
The glow of a volcano, like the title of the poem, harkens back to the idea of giant literary importance and presence, that even though these authors are dead, their smolders of their creations like magma and lava that create new islands have burst forth and made greatness still live on. Walcott keeps making references to the word victory, I am not sure if this is historical on some level. Is the victory ironic in the sense that people cannot appreciate these authors anymore and they will eventually be erased from time and lack of interest?
Walcott spends several lines frustrated with the idea of how much effort and skill each author put into working on and shaping their novels and seems to be worried they will be unable to be appreciated.
On the other hand, based on the mention of the ‘zoo’ in the third line, I wonder if these great authors are also caged by certain perceptions the public have pushed on them by critics in passing over the years, which can make famous authors intimidating to read and less accessible.
I’m still on the idea/concept of “time” for this week’s Walcott reading, and I see it especially in the poem “Volcano.” The poem opens up in historical uncertainty, in the mire of “legends” such as the lions that supposedly roared at Joyce’s funeral or Joyce’s death itself. It’s from this foundation that the poem transitions abruptly to the external/material/natural world (as Walcott often does—see “A Far Cry From Africa”). In this fork/split, Walcott draws us to the image of “two glares from the miles-out-at-sea derricks” which he connects metaphorically to the glow of a cigar and volcano. After the split, Walcott smooths over the seam and establishes the connective tissue which is the question of whether to be a reader or a writer: “One could abandon writing/ for the slow-burning signals/ of the great, to be, instead,/ their ideal reader.” As the literal image of glowing lights is meshed with the experience of reading great writers (their works or legends like “slow-burning signals”), the narrator is forced with a choice between writing and reading, producing and consuming. The problem is that reading requires a sense of “awe” which is a casualty of the modern world: “So many people have seen everything,/ so many people can predict,/ so many refuse to enter the silence/ of victory.” What the poem resolves into is nostalgia for the past, a lament for a lost appreciation of greatness, the unique and extraordinary. Walcott writes, “so many take thunder for granted./ How common is the lightning,/ how lost the leviathans/ we no longer look for!” In this is a loss of seeing the embers of the cigar, of not recognizing the ”masterpieces,” of “[refusing] to enter the silence/ of victory.” The final line is a resolution to read more and establish connections with the past.
In this lament, I’m struck by Walcott’s formal choices of recycling language and images. In a poem about lost and deteriorating histories, there is a fair amount of repetition: the image of cigars and volcanoes, the symbols of greatness in legends, giants/leviathans, and thunder/lightning. The poem continues to fold back in on itself (at least that’s how I understand my experience of reading it). What catches my eye most is the word “victory,” italicized and capitalized (“Victory”) in several places: first with skepticism towards an idea of victory (“Victory is ironic”), then as the end to a journey with connotations of finality but also impending catastrophe that active volcanoes symbolize (“Victory’s end”), and then as casualty of modern life, a “silent” space “indolent” people no longer explore (“so many refuse to enter the silence/ of victory”). A subtext of the poem is Walcott’s questioning of victory’s meaning. Whether the idea of victory is obscured in legends of the past or the end of an epoch and beginning of another (suggesting finality but really connoting continuance) or a clarity of meaning that people can no longer access, it is a transient and slippery concept that is reinforced by Walcott’s repeated play with the word.
“Victory” is an important concept in thinking about the historical record, since history is written by the victors. Victories also punctuate historical time periods. Wars are contests with victors and each major war symbolizes a break with the past and the birth of new era (literary periodization often coincides with war and violent events—WWI birthed high modernism, for instance). Finally, in “victory” there is a decided sense of temporal progression. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to understand Walcott’s discussion of time and history alongside a questioning of “victory,” with all of its historical implications. Further, what do these concepts (time and victory) mean to black diasporic subjects who are at once in the technological/capitalistic progression of modernity yet “legally and violently excluded from modernity’s official public spheres” (Williams 85)?
Djuana Barne’s Nightwood, is by her own admission, lacking something that the author cannot put her finger on. I agree that there are strengths and weaknesses, as sometimes I had difficulty to suss out all the meaning and experimentation she was playing with. From what I gathered, this story is about falling in love with someone that is toxic, and very probably, mentally ill. Robin is a difficult character to understand, but one of the best characterizations of her personality is, “She always lets her pets die. She is so fond of them, and then she neglects them, the way animals neglect themselves.” (Barnes 98) It is rough seeing Nora’s love for Robin being undervalued and care for Robin come to no avail. The final straw for me is when Robin ditches her for Jenny, who is physically abusive. Honestly, those two deserve each other. Unfortunately, Nora is unable to get over her love and continually suffers.
To my mind, the main weakness of the author’s story is the length. I feel like she could have done more to explain each of the three main women’s characters and actions. As it is I found Jenny and Robin a little flat, except for the signs of Robin’s mental illness. Also, some portions to me were too dialogue heavy for other characters that had no relevance to the plot, except for the driver. Experimental novels are fantastic if they work, but if they are lacking in some large way, it really effects the reader’s judgment of the greatness of the book.
As I read Nightwood, I couldn’t help but think back to one of our initial course readings, Sherry’s piece that attempts to define modernism as an era/intellectual movement concerned with time. Sherry discusses the different definitions for this (the Avant Garde proclivity of the moderns, for instance, breaks with historical/aesthetic tradition and establishes its own time, birthed on its own terms with its own rules). When thinking about “time” and Nightwood, see a similar unifying thread as Sherry sees in modernism.
From the first page, Felix is born without connections to the past, with his father dying during pregnancy and his mother dying during birth. As a result, Felix only has the two portraits as artifacts, stories of his parents, and a separation from “exact history” (10). He seems to compensate for that with an “obsession for what he termed Old Europe” (11). We see the theme of time shoot through Felix and Robin’s first interaction. Felix notices the “timeless” in her eyes which contrasts with the symbolic discussion of woman that follows: “Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding… Such a woman is an infected carrier of the past” and the connection between the current generation and their “forefathers” (41).
If I’m reading this passage correctly, Robin is initially thrown in contrast with the typical housewife who is symbolic of patriarchal traditions and their continuance through children. Robin is not this, as we learn; but Felix is invested in this project, a correction of his own childhood. In the next scene, as he speaks with the doctor about marriage and children, Felix says “to pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future” (43). Through Robin and the children he wants her to bear, he is trying to forge temporal ties that more together the past and the future. Later we learn of Felix’s vision: “the destiny for which he had chosen [Robin]—that she might bear sons who would recognize and honour the past. For without such love, the past… would die away from the world” (49). As Felix attempts to tether Robin, she wanders in “exile” as Winterson’s preface would label it. Especially once the child is born, Robin is gone for “hours, days later” as she can sense an end to time: “a catastrophe that had yet no beginning” (referring to motherhood and perhaps family life more broadly) (52-3).
At the center of the text is a contest for possession of Robin, a ghost-like, ephemeral character who appears in the text mainly in conversation. In thinking about time, Nora’s desire to possess Robin is consistently equated with the end of one’s experience of time, death (63, 69). Barnes continues this discussion with Nora and O’Connor’s conversation in his apartment (see Nathan’s post for a breakdown of this). While Nathan convincingly connects this scene to a discussion of uncertainty and fluid identities, I see it as part of a discussion of death (90, 103) and thus a discussion of the interrelated concepts of time, memory, and history. Indeed, the second half of the narrative is mostly dedicated to Nora’s grief at losing Robin. It is a processing of a lost time and a lost person. Nora attempts to forge connections with that past with a letter, but does so in vain. Robin is unmoored from time, at least from the histories of the other characters in the narrative; perhaps the final scene is her departure from the world of human history and into the world of timeless nature.
In the introduction, T.S. Eliot brings up society’s different perceptions of people who dissent from the norm, referencing both Puritanical sentiments and more contemporary outlooks on the choices individuals make - and how it affects their satisfaction in life. He says that unlike the expectations produced by older (Puritan) morality that he recalls, wherein a person will succeed if they are prudent and practical, people in present-day are more likely to blame “society” for individual discontentment. He claims that what these different outlooks achieve is relatively similar - writing, “it seems to me that all of us, so far as we attach ourselves to created objects and surrender our will to temporal ends, are eaten by the same worm.” I found this interesting, and since he’s basically giving us a book review of his own, I carried this idea into the reading of the book. In the beginning, Felix’s character is explained, and we learn a lot about his mannerisms and beliefs. Barnes writes about how Felix “had insinuated himself into the pageantry of the circus and the theatre” (15). This part struck me, as it seemed to speak to Eliot’s earlier point in the introduction, which seemed to say that ultimately everyone is subject to the same perils of life, especially when they’re based primarily in material things. Some of the circus workers take on faux titles and names that poke fun at the nobility of Paris and elsewhere in Europe, such as Duchess of Broadback and King Buffo. I found a sort of connection between the old nobility, possessing all of the perks of such titles, and the faux nobility people created with false names. Even though the latter is not attempting to become noble, but rather playing against the implications of that status, I find that both groups are similar. They are both compelled to proclaim something about themselves for their positioning in society. It is obvious why someone of noble birth would want that to be known, which is why it is so ingrained in society that the nobility are to be so highly regarded in every way. On the other hand, the people who call themselves by these playful versions of noble-sounding names are not attempting to surpass others in importance, but it does help them create a persona and perhaps even allows them to obtain certain benefits in their place of work, even if it’s simply in the form of more attention paid or how memorable they are to others. Either way, both groups are surrendering in some ways to those “temporal ends,” and who could blame them? Eliot was certainly aware that people have to give themselves a leg up in whatever way they can, but especially those not born into wealth and status. Ultimately, caring too much about what the material world could offer you if you manipulate your talents, prospects, etc. enough - will still lead to the same dissatisfaction with life. Both groups can suffer from that, and both would stem from a fixed focus on the material things of life, and how much of those things one can obtain, and what that material would signify about an individual, including their work ethic, capability, beauty, talent, and a myriad of other factors people are measured by in society and even themselves.