Post-colonial bad jokes

The whole history of the West is — to confound the simplicities of the woke — one gigantic act of “cultural appropriation”

This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Have you noticed post-colonial literature? It’s everywhere these days, and I don’t mean in bookshops. Instead it’s the academic specialism du jour. Priyamvada Gopal, the shrill-voiced, foul-mouthed (read her tweets) high priestess of woke, who memorably proclaimed that “white lives don’t matter” and got promoted for it, is Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Cambridge; while the more fragrant Corinne Fowler, who masqueraded as an historian to compile the ahistorical and error-laden National Trust “Report on the Colonial Countryside”, which I anatomised in the last issue, is likewise Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature at Leicester.

Clearly there’s something in the water. To find out what, I turned to the once-impeccable source of the British Academy. This publishes a helpful-sounding introduction, “What is postcolonial literature?” by Professor Ato Quayson, FBA, who is professor of English at (the not-very-British) Stanford. But alas I didn’t get very far since Professor Quayson’s introduction begins with a lengthy paragraph on whether post-colonial should be spelt with a hyphen: thus, “post-colonial”; or whether it should appear without: thus, “postcolonial”. The different usages, apparently, are the key to both the periodisation of the “discipline” and its categorisation.

What the post-colonial literature brigade don’t understand is that we’ve been here before

With or without a hyphen! Could the crassest mockery invent it? It makes Swift’s struggle between Big-enders and Little-enders seem substantial and the Byzantine fight-to-the-death over a vowel — between “homoousian” and “homoiousian” — satirised by Gibbon seem fundamental (which of course it was, if you believe in that kind of thing).

But if the proponents of post-colonial literature turn it into a bad joke with their sub-scholastic disputations, let me try and rescue the idea, homeopathically as it were, with another joke. I think it comes from a pocket cartoon by the incomparable Marc (Mark Boxer). 

 Two women are in conversation: an English grande dame, all old diamonds and attitude, and an Indian, in her saree. Their children have decided to marry and there are tensions. The grande dame has a bright idea on how to defuse them. “We too are immigrants,”, she declares loftily. “My family came over with William the Conqueror.”

Nice, isn’t it? But pointed too. Because what the post-colonial literature brigade don’t understand is that we’ve been here before. But with the experience being the other way round. We were post-colonial in the Middle Ages having been the conquered; we are post-colonial in the twenty-first century having been the conqueror. The first has major implications for the second. And it is only the current unhealthy obsession with race as the only important signifier of difference which obscures the fact.

But not only is English literature — all of it — post-colonial. So and more importantly is the English language as well. For English, though it may now be the world lingua franca, is a comparatively new language. And it is itself a post-colonial mongrel. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, was a fully-inflected Germanic language with a rich written culture. This was because in Anglo-Saxon England the vernacular, not Latin, was used as the language of government, law (like the Laws of Aethelberht in the Textus Roffensis) and even historical writing (like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

All this disappeared within a half century or so of the Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. The conquered English, with their aristocracy and clerisy destroyed or dispossessed, became untermenschen, while the word “English” itself became a term of opprobrium and contempt. The language went the same way. Latin and French were the languages of the Norman conquerors and the only written ones. Shorn now of its written form, Anglo-Saxon degenerated into a peasant patois and lost most of its inflections.

The whole history of the West is — to confound the simplicities of the woke — one gigantic act of “cultural appropriation”

Over the next two or three centuries, however, there was a rapprochement of conquerors and conquered. The Anglo-Norman aristocracy began to think of themselves as English even when they spoke French, and the English began to see their country as their own again. The result of this coming together was the linguistic fusion we call English: the bones of the language remain Germanic, but stripped down and simplified, while half or more of the vocabulary is French or Latin. 

These developments solidified, as it were, between the late fourteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries. Chaucer set himself to translate the French literary canon into the new language and, in doing so, brought it to an early adulthood. Henry V, deliberately invoking an English national consciousness against the French enemy, went out of his way to use English in official documents. In the reign of Edward IV, English replaced French as the language of acts of parliament and the king addressed the assembly in the native tongue.

Finally in 1532 a government-sponsored edition of Chaucer’s complete works was printed with a preface which claimed that Chaucer was the English Homer and the English in which he wrote a great language, to stand equal with the modern tongues of French, Italian and German or the ancient ones of Greek and Latin. The English Bible (1539), largely the work of William Tyndale, and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (1549-51) made the claim good.

But what do the aficionados of post-colonial literature want to do with these direct anticipations of their concerns? They want to abolish their study. And Corinne Fowler’s own department at Leicester leads the way. If its current proposals are put into effect, it will scrap the teaching of medieval literature and reduce that of early-modern to make way — “in response to student demand” of course — for “lessons on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity”.

But even larger issues are at stake. For the whole history of the West is — to confound the simplicities of the woke — one gigantic act of “cultural appropriation”. Or rather several. It is a series of complex, hard-fought and yet fruitful cross-cultural clashes: with the Judaeo-Christian tradition in religion and the Classical world of Greece and Rome in everything else. These clashes reach a double climax in the sixteenth century with the cry of ad fontes (“to the sources”) in both Renaissance and Reformation: back to the Bible in religion, back to Cicero in Latin, and back to Vitruvius in architecture.

We do not try to ban the burka. Or impose a uniform laïcité. Or require English as an official language

There were echoing calls to “purify” the vernacular languages by a return to their origins too. In France these culminated in the cultural straitjacket of Louis XIV’s Académie and the fossilisation of the language. There was a short-lived attempt to re- Anglo-Saxonise English as well. But, in the face of suggestions like replacing the foreign and Latinate “lunatic” with the native and Germanic “mooned”, they died the quick death of ridicule.

And good riddance. For the mongrelism of our language and culture, which is a product of our first, historic experience of conquest when we were the vanquished, has had profound consequences for our behaviour in our second, present-day experience, which is the roll-back from when we were the victors. We do not try to ban the burka. Or impose a uniform laïcité. Or require English as an official language.

If anything, indeed, we have recently gone too far in the opposite direction and flirted with the fragmenting chaos of multiculturalism. Rather, we should listen to Richard Moryson, Henry VIII’s wily propagandist. Responding to calls for England, like elsewhere in Europe (including Scotland) to adopt Roman Law, he suggested instead a codification which would take the form of Roman law but keep the spirit of English. And it would be as easy to do this, Moryson claimed, as “for an English tailor to make of an Italian velvet an English gown”.

And he is right. Just as we have made an English dish of curry or fish and chips. An English word of cul-de-sac (the French is impasse). A perfect English country house of Palladio in architecture and Claude Lorraine in landscape. An English garden of plants from every continent. An English wit of Oscar Wilde. A great English novelist of Joseph Conrad and perhaps less great ones of Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith. An English politician of Benjamin Disraeli or Rishi Sunak.

And, above all, as these infinitely diverse examples illustrate, a very English success, understated but remarkable, of post-colonialism — whether with or without a hyphen.

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