To understand Spivak

It is quite bizarre to read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and be able to understand anything. It is even more bizarre to agree with her views about mundane things like the news or being a little anxious about having a job next year, to find out the toilet bowl is one of her stations of reading, to find out some NYT interviews just needn’t exist. Very every-day things. To be fair, this is only because I have only interacted with her work through her books, and many of them are quite inaccessible, even syntactically if not intellectually, to people outside literary theory.

So to read an interview of her and find her saying these very understandable, even relatable, things is… pleasantly surprising. Maybe it was silly of me to assume she wouldn’t be like everyone else, but you must admit that is hard to do when you can understand so little of that person’s work even as you are told that that work is awesome. I am sure there have been other interviews of her and maybe they were easy to read, too; I am taken by the one I am referring to, published by The Fabulist in December 2018, simply because it was the one I stumbled on.

Another thing I found notable about this interview (props to Nico Muhly, the interviewer) is that it highlighted, once more, the twilight of literary multilingualism among India’s (or among India-connected) public intellectuals.

NM: Is your reading practiced primarily in English?

GS: The large part of it is necessarily in English, but a good bit of it is in German. And of course a lot of it is in French. Bengali also, Bengali I read a good deal and I produce in Bengali. Which is, of course, something that people who know me only through my English material cannot really know. I give these huge talks. Like the Mystery of Democracy or the Poverty of Thinking. Also, sometimes to the left of the left. I also read a little bit in Hindi, very little, unfortunately. And of course my Greek and Latin are not good. Since I am a Europeanist I read a great deal, but I really hit my head against classical Greek and Latin. I read Sanskrit more easily. Narrative Sanskrit I can read without a dictionary. Philosophical Sanskrit I’m fine but I do find difficult: I in fact need someone to tell me. A dictionary is not enough. I have been studying Chinese for seventeen years. I speak and read simply and badly. For some years I had tutors. For the past decade or so I have taken a class.

Ram Guha had lectured in 2009:

For Gandhi, and for Tagore, the foreign language was a window into another culture, another civilisation, another way (or ways) of living in the world. For them, the command of a language other than their own was a way of simultaneously making themselves less parochial and their work more universal. Their readings and travels fed back into their own writing, thus bringing the world to Bengal and Gujarat, and (when they chose to wrote in the foreign language) Bengal and Gujarat to the world. Bilingualism was here a vehicle or something larger and more enduring – namely, multiculturalism.

In an obituary for Girish Karnad in News Laundry, Karthik Malli took after Guha to remind readers of Karnad’s place in this now-waning tradition.

… it’s important to remember that participation in the literary tradition of a certain language was contingent on numerous factors—geography and education, for example—and was not limited to the rigid, fixed dimension of one’s mother tongue, or the language one’s family spoke at home. Karnad’s life and work is a great example of this, and it is by no means an isolated example either.

He continues later:

In an essay, noted literary critic and translator of Telugu literature Velcheru Narayana Rao … lays the blame for the decline of India’s multilingual literati squarely at the feet of linguistic nationalism—the “nationalist identification of languages with regional populations”, as he puts it. Writers started taking pride in the supposed “purity” of their languages and traditions instead, ignoring histories of mutual borrowing and influence, he contends. He even goes so far as to argue that the concept of a mother tongue was an alien concept to Indians before linguistic nationalism took root.

Anyway, here are some choice excerpts from the Spivak interview I particularly enjoyed.

Yes, the problem begins when you think you know what’s going on.

Today there is a great deal of interest in online resources, in going behind the nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistics where in order to establish a language as language, we have to box it in a box, and give it a name. Give it a grammar. Give it a vocabulary. Give it a thing. Give it a script. And a boundary. Cut it off from other languages. It’s absurd having to teach algebra, for example, in Bengali. Because these days they make up these very Sanskritic Bengali words for ‘equation’ and ‘formula.’

I’m not that interested in news; I have made myself read the New York Times and look at various channels on TV, etc. “I must be interested in the news,” I tell myself. It’s irresponsible not to be interested in the news, and so I make myself keep up.

The humanities have become useless. A corporatised educational system must trivialise the humanities because they are not a cash cow. … I say that the humanities at their best provide health care for a culture and can produce a general will for social justice.

At seventy-six I always have to appear young in my thinking. Even if I’m not.

I call reading “a prayer to be haunted”—a prayer to be haunted by the text.

I highly recommend you read the whole thing, if you haven’t already left this page, if only for the easy conviction with which Spivak speaks and how they illuminate her self. It will take no more than a few minutes of your life.

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.