Revisiting Tagore on World Literature

1. Rabindranath Tagore’s landmark 1907 essay “বিশ্ব সাহিত্য” (“Vishva Sahitya” in Roman script and “World Literature” in English) has not fared well in the US-dominated world of contemporary literary studies. In his anthology World Literature in Theory (2014), which includes Swapan Chakravorty’s 2001 translation of the essay, David Damrosch describes it as a “path-breaking” statement that “speaks of the universal values that world literature can embody” (6). In a similar but more critical vein, Pheng Cheah cites it in the epilogue to What is a World? (2016), setting it up, like Damrosch, alongside Goethe’s 1827 pronouncements on Weltliteratur, as a parallel non-Euro-American formulation of what he calls “the older vision of world literature as the expression of universal humanity” (310).


1.1 There is much in Chakravorty’s 2001 translation that makes such claims understandable, not least his version of Tagore’s concluding sentence: “It is time we pledged that our goal is to view universal humanity in universal literature by freeing ourselves from rustic uncatholicity; that we shall recognise a totality in each particular author’s work, and that in this totality we shall perceive the interrelations among all human efforts at expression” (Tagore Selected Writings 150). Yet to take this as a straightforward articulation of Tagore’s concept of world literature not only ignores the promise and perils of translation: it misses at least two key elements of Tagore’s thinking both of which reflect his partly Buddhist-inspired wariness of conceptualization as such.

2. The first concerns his idea of literature. “We do not properly understand literature (sahitya),” Tagore notes at one pivotal point in his discussion, “if we reduce it to place-time-pot (desh-kāl-pātra)” – pātra could also be “vessel” or “individual/person”, and so single author (Tagore Rabindra Rachanabali 771). Chakravorty gives the whole sentence as “literature is not viewed in its true light if we see it confined to a particular space and time,” making it plausible to see the compound desh-kāl-pātra as something like “context” in English (147–8). Yet why limit translation to a search for linguistic correspondences or even rough equivalents – or, conversely, an affirmation or acceptance of the untranslatable? Is it not sometimes more productive, linguistically, intellectually and culturally, to extend the expressive capacities of the target via the source language, creating a new English compound in this case? Considering the very long history of loans and calques, such transformative movements are after all part of the ordinary life of languages (see ‘Beyond the magic circle’ post).

2.1. As it happens, the creative potential of such movements was central to Tagore’s understanding of translation. Indeed, by marking the particular, Bangla-inflected character of his thinking, the foreignizing neologism “place-time-pot” highlights an important feature of his interlingual practice as a writer, while also reflecting the intercultural ideals he championed as an educationalist. For Tagore, literary creativity is above all an act of resistance directed against all forms of containment and reification, including the conceptual kinds many varieties of literary criticism and academic scholarship favour either actively or by default. So if literature cannot be reduced to “place-time-pot” – say, the historicist’s curatorial object – neither can it be seen merely as a “constructed artefact” – say, the formalist’s well-wrought urn – because it constitutes “a world” (ekti jagat), the creative potential of which is, says Tagore, “like the material world,” always “ongoing” and “incomplete” (772).

2.1.1. Why is this? Because, as he explains in the opening paragraphs of the essay, it is an expression of “ananda” (“joy” or “delight”). This has two important consequences. First, it sets literature apart from the sphere of calculating rationality, which Tagore associates with an arrogant will to power over others, and from the sphere of practical necessity or need, which he also links to power though this time over the environment – “water, air, and fire” become “our unpaid servants” (Tagore Selected Writings 138). Second, and conversely, seeing literature as an expression of ananda connects it to a wide range of other seemingly gratuitous or superfluous everyday activities, from the elaborate rituals of a wedding ceremony to the needless theatricality of warfare. These are also manifestations of “man’s excess (prachurya), his wealth (aisharya), that which overflows all his need” and, for that matter, all forms of rationalistic calculation whether political, economic or, indeed, literary-critical (769). As Supriya Chaudhuri puts it, literature for Tagore is “a movement of affect which binds human beings together” (84). It is partly because of this affective overflowing that it cannot be contained within a “place-time-pot.”

3. The second key element of his thinking concerns his idea of the world. Here the difficulties have less to do with translation as such than with the many unattributed allusions to the Bangla literary traditions that permeate the essay. When it comes to his understanding of the world, the principal figure is the medieval bhakti poet Chandidas and the main point of reference is the song Jeanne Openshaw translates as follows:

I have made the world my home
And my home the world.
I have made “others” my own people,
And my own people “others.” (vi)

Tagore echoes the second two lines when explaining the “connection” (Chakravorty has “bond”) ananda creates: “It is when we know the other as our self and our self as other,” or, as Chakravorty has it, “it is nothing but knowing others as our own, and our selves as others” (Rabindra Rachanabali 763; Selected Writings 139). Again, Tagore contrasts this with the connections rationality, particularly political rationality, fashions – it is “like the bond between the hunter and his prey” – and with the alliances required to satisfy basic needs – he mentions “the English trader” who “once secured his aims by bowing to the Nawab” but “eventually ascended to the throne himself” (Selected Writings 138).

3.1. Political and economic domination over others drive both these forms of connectedness. Whereas, when it comes to the ties created in a spirit of ananda, the self and the other are both undone in a process of reciprocal transformation that involves simultaneously reaching out and embracing the foreign, on the one hand, and turning inward, discovering the foreign within, on the other. Later in the essay, Tagore echoes Chandidas’s first two lines: “the heart is constantly at pains to find the world in our self and our self in the world,” which Chakravorty renders as “the heart’s longing to make the world its own and itself the world’s” (Rabindra Rachanabali 767; Selected Writings 144). Crucially, for Tagore, “the world” in this context is neither a geographical space nor a determinate set of universal values: it is an aspiration toward an ever greater understanding of and feeling for interconnectedness which, like the creative potential of literature, is always in the making, never complete. For this he took his cue as much from Chandidas as from the itinerant Bāul singers of Bengal whose vagabond, quasi-anarchic humanism shaped his own self-understanding as a poet and his ambitions as an educationalist. Hence the name he gave the university he founded in Shantiniketan in 1921: Vishva Bharati which, as Dutta and Robinson explain, is “a compound made from the Sanskrit word for universe [or world] and Bharati, a goddess in the Rig Veda associated with the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati” (literally “world-learning,” 220).

Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma

4. With these two key elements of his thinking in mind, we can return to the sentence with which he concludes the essay, retranslating it as follows: “The time has come to try to free ourselves from narrow parochialism [or village-provincialism] and to aim to see the World-Man (vishva-manab) within world literature; to find in the works of particular writers [recall one meaning of pātra] a whole, and in that whole the interrelations among all forms of human expression” (Rabindra Rachanabali 773). Importantly, the “whole” may, on this formulation, be a consequence of the writer’s own creativity – the relations she actively produces in each work – or simply an effect of the medium she chooses to adopt – the relations already embedded in the novel form, say, or the English language. As importantly, for Tagore this understanding of world literature as an intercultural aspiration has nothing to do with reified values of any kind, whether “universal” or “cosmopolitan,” or, indeed, with simple oppositions or choices between “nationalism/cosmopolitanism” and “provincialism/universalism.” Nor is it viable on this model to see world literature merely as an effect of translation and circulation understood in historical, economic, geographical or cultural terms. Encountering the world in Tagore’s sense via literature in his sense is about the way we experience the ongoing creative potential of each individual work as an intercultural effort on the writer’s part in the first instance to remake the self and the other, the indigenous and the foreign, in an open-ended, superfluous, even gratuitously wasteful spirit of ananda. This why he offered his anti-concept Vishva Sahitya as an alternative to what he called in a doubly self-distancing gesture “Comparative Literature” – he used the English phrase – which left too much securely in place (Rabindra Rachanabali 771; Selected Writings 148).

[This is a lightly revised and edited extract from “Seeing through the Concept of World Literature”, The Journal of World Literature, 4 (2019), 13-34.]

Special thanks to Rosinka Chaudhuri for her re-translations of Tagore.



Chaudhuri, Supriya. “Singular Universals: Rabindranath Tagore on World Literature
and Literature in the World.” In Tagore: The World as his Nest. Ed. Subhoranjan Das
Gupta and Sangeeta Datta. Kolkata: Jadavpur UP, 2016, 74–88.

Cheah, Pheng. What is a World? Durham: Duke UP, 2016.

Damrosch, David., ed. World Literature in Theory. London: Routledge, 2014.

Dutta, Krishna, and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore. London: Bloomsbury,

Openshaw, Jeanne. Seeking the Bāuls of Bengal. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Rabindra Rachanabali (Collected works of Rabindranath
Tagore). 13. Calcutta: West Bengal Government, 1961.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Selected Writings on Literature and Language. Eds. Sisir Kumar Das and Sukanta Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2001.


Decolonising literary studies

El Loko’s ‘Cosmic Alphabet’, MOCAA, Cape Town

Decolonising literary studies isn’t simply a matter of relieving the symptoms, substituting this author for that or setting up a new canon in place of the old. The challenge is to address the chronic underlying condition by thinking beyond the guiding assumptions and aspirations of any colonial-era curriculum.

To start with, this means ditching the ideas of language that were central to colonial linguistics. On that logic, for instance, the curriculum was thought to affirm one supposedly unitary, national language (let’s say French). Or at best, in the case of Comparative Literature, it affirmed two supposedly unitary, national languages (for example, French and English).

The reason? Language, it was assumed, is the expression of the national “character”, “genius” or “philosophy” – to put it in the most idealistic terms. Or, less metaphysically, it is the bearer of “the culture”. This was usually understood as the shared, often ancestral values, practices and forms of knowledge by which a people (or national community) sees itself and understands its place in the world.

True, there was often some dispute about the exact nature of this metaphysical dimension. Was “the English genius”, for instance, purely Anglo-Saxon or a peculiar blend of the Romance and the Teutonic? Yet, however these disputes played out, there was no doubting the underlying infusionist theology, the primary purpose or effect of which was to standardize a class-region-print version of the language, casting it as the “embodiment” of the nation’s unchanging “soul”.

This way of thinking informed the selection of great writers that gave the colonial-era literary curriculum its content and the historical principles on which it was arranged. It also defined one of its core aims: to provide the means by which the nation could come to know and affirm itself as a community rooted in one language, one history, one culture and one state.

At home this was a semi-mystical exercise in self-knowledge – the talk was all about encountering the “national soul” through literature. Abroad it was a rather more worldly instrument of self-imposition – the export version of the curriculum serving to assert the sovereignty of the colonising culture and the primacy of its language, values and ways of knowing.

To design a decolonising curriculum, we need to start by abandoning the dubiously assured metaphysical assumptions underpinning this legacy.

More secular

This means conceptualising language in more secular or earthy terms. Language as a river, say, the source of which is ultimately obscure, the mouth always somewhere further on. It’s a strange kind of river too. Many other major rivers, not just minor tributaries, constantly flow in and out of it. And no state or community (national or otherwise) can claim exclusive rights over it.

Push this rather benign, naturalising analogy too far, however, and you gloss over colonisation’s destructive effects. Backed most often by the state and its allies, some languages, after all, became vast, transcontinental canals – think of English or Spanish. And constructing these often caused others to dry up altogether – think of Aushiri or |Xam. This makes language something of a canal-river, rather than a duck-rabbit, problem.

So what would a curriculum founded on this alternative idea of language look like?

For one thing, given its central premise – no language is the product of any one history or the property of any one community – this more secular conceptualisation would put pressure on the inherited disciplinary structures of the university itself. Think of all those separate departments of English, French, Spanish, etc. Yet it need not follow that they should fall. What has to go are the canal-building assumptions on which they were often founded, and the silo mentalities they still tend to foster.

Taking the more benign river perspective first, a decolonising curriculum would begin by encouraging students to uncover the many “foreign” languages within those they have chosen to study. This would reveal how translation, far from being an anomalous or specialist activity, is integral to the ordinary life of all languages. 

In a similar spirit, it would make it possible for them to follow the shifting contours of linguistic geography, which seldom coincide with state boundaries. This would leave them free to trace the complex movement of languages through multiple speech communities and across all media.

The canal perspective would require other lines of enquiry. Here the curriculum would ask students to reflect critically on the legacies of colonial linguistics, the interconnected histories of standardisation and marginalisation, and their effects on the fates of their chosen languages and any others with which those languages have intersected.

Beyond colonial-era silos

The river and canal perspectives inevitably raise different questions of ownership, multilingualism and translation. Yet both open up ways of thinking beyond theologically inspired, colonial-era silos. And both make it possible for a properly decolonising linguistics to emerge in which the interdependence of self- and other-knowledge is central.

Literary writing, too, would have a transformed status. Since a decolonising curriculum would treat linguistic inventiveness as an ordinary feature of language, like translation, it would have no need of the colonial-era’s sacralised canon of great writers.

Equally, it would not assume that writers all sign up to canal-building national traditions simply by default. Many may have in the past, and some may well continue to see themselves in similar terms today, but the presumption has lost all currency. How innovative writers relate to communities, whether national, sub-national or supranational, can now seldom be known in advance of actually reading their work.

A decolonising curriculum would therefore consider the multiple ways in which writers negotiate the linguistic, literary and cultural legacies of the colonial era.

In the interests of revitalising marginalised languages and neglected intellectual traditions, some reject them, reclaiming precolonial forms of expression or producing indigenous-language versions of forms that originated elsewhere. By contrast, some refuse the choice, embracing the foreign and the indigenous in equal or unequal measure, working between languages and traditions, whether bilingually, interlingually or through translation. Then again, while some choose to inject new life into colonial languages and forms of knowledge by indigenizing them, or adopt them because they are unmarked by local inheritances they disclaim, others re-foreignize them, simultaneously inhabiting, undoing and reshaping them from within.

Does this mean a decolonising literary curriculum is simply “world literature” by another name? Possibly, but only in the sense in which the Bangla poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore used the phrase over a century ago when he affirmed the promise of what he called বিশ্ব সাহিত্য (Vishva Sahitya). For Tagore, this was a call to decolonise knowledge and to reinvent the university. It was also a call to learn to think (and live) creatively amid the world’s turbulence without any craving for metaphysical certainty or finality.

It is a call worth heeding again.

An abridged version of this post first appeared on The Conversation under the titleDecolonising literary studies requires ditching certainty and finality“.

Linguistic Rights: An interview with Carles Torner

This Declaration considers as a language community any human society established historically in a particular territorial space, whether this space be recognized or not, which identifies itself as a people and has developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion among its members.

Rights wordsArticle 1 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the first sentence of which appears above, lays the foundation for its central and most contentious claim: language communities, not just individuals, have rights.

Once this was agreed by all the parties involved in the drafting process, Carles Torner notes in this interview, ‘then everything fell into place’, but, equally, ‘we all knew that by acknowledging collective rights…we were condemning the Declaration‘, ensuring it would be unacceptable to many state authorities and almost impossible to make a text of international law.

This may be frustrating, Torner adds, but, given the inspiration it continues to afford marginalized communities around the world, the Declaration remains not just a landmark document in the history of human rights but a ‘utopian vision into what could be international law’. After all, ‘the issue is not whether or not you reach a utopia. It is all about the process, the pilgrimage you are making toward articulating it.’

Carles Torner, a leading Catalan writer and human rights activist, is currently Executive Director of PEN International. In this extended interview, which addresses a number of themes central to this site and the associated book (see Second Proposition), he discusses what it is to be a poet and an activist, the background to his involvement with organisations like PEN and UNESCO, the part he played in the formulation of the Universal Declaration in the 1990s, and the role he continues to play in its future. You can read the full interview here. It was conducted as part of the Writers and Free Expression project.

Linguistic Rights cover

Rights Commitee 1

Rights Committee 2

African Connections: Dhlomo cites Tagore

the country and the town, the old and the new, the exotic and the indigenous, jostle and kiss.

1. This was how Herbert Dhlomo, a leading South African writer of the 1940s, described the city of Durban in an editorial for the bilingual (isiZulu/English) Ilanga Lase Natal (‘Natal Sun’) on 23 April 1949. ‘Even its racial (and, therefore, cultural) composition is unique, perhaps—African, Asiatic, Coloured, European’, he continued, adding ‘it is also a busy port—even a boiling pot!’ The ‘boiling’ he had in mind included protests by the Industrial and Commercial Union in the late 1920s, then the country’s largest worker organisation, the Indian passive resistance campaign, one of the first mass movements against white rule, which ran from 1946 to 1948, and the communal conflicts between Indians and Africans in Durban that came to a head in January 1949. Still shocked by the ferocity of the latter, he then asked: ‘who knows if these & others were not Fate-fanned fires to produce in a different mould newer & finer racial & cultural God-wrought ingots?’ Taken together, he concluded, the port city’s cultural diversity and the more positive aspects of its activist history reflected its promise as ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ As the immediate future was another country for the architects of apartheid who came to power in May 1948, Dhlomo did not live to see his hopes realised. He died in 1956, aged 53.

Dhlomo headline

2. His editorial for that Monday in April 1949 focussed on ‘the unique collection of African art and crafts’ the Africanists Killie Campbell and her brother William had on display at their Durban home. Dhlomo wrote not just to celebrate its ‘treasures’ but to encourage ‘African leaders, patriots and artists to co-operate and to help preserve’ them by relocating the collection to ‘a public building’. Yet he also had other, larger reasons for affirming its public value. Writing less as a journalist than as a poet, playwright and author of short stories, he argued the collection had a vital part to play in the future of a new African art. To clarify what he meant he turned to the Indian ‘poet-philosopher’ Rabindranth Tagore, prefacing his editorial with the following quotation:

Tagore quotationThus placed between two contending forces, we shall mark out the middle path of truth in our national life; we shall realise that only through the development of racial individuality can we truly attain to universality, and only in the light of the spirit of universality can we perfect individuality; we shall know of a verity that it is idle mendicancy to discard our own and beg for the foreign, and at the same time we shall feel that it is the extreme abjectness of poverty to dwarf ourselves by rejecting the foreign.

Given the intercommunal (African/Indian) violence that had recently convulsed Durban, this was a multiply significant gesture to make in the pages of Ilanga Lase Natal in April 1949. Yet, for Dhlomo, what Tagore offered first and foremost was a cultural lesson for African artists of the 1940s. Glossing the sentence he explained: ‘we can only create true art and thought by being rooted in our own native soil even if outwardly we soar high and imbibe the foreign.’ Tagore’s second lesson was more broadly political. ‘Politically and socially we are fighting tribalism and building a united African nation’, Dhlomo commented, referencing the larger project to which he and other New African intellectuals of the time were committed. This made understanding the value of the Campbell collection in Tagore’s terms more significant still. While the collection would ‘help our creative spirits to merge the various tribal forms into one rich and varied national idiom,’ Tagore encouraged them to do so without succumbing to a narrow nationalism by closing themselves off to the ‘foreign’.

3. Dhlomo cited Tagore in translation. His lengthy prefatory sentence comes from the conclusion to ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’ (‘The Flow [or Tradition] of Indian History’), an essay Tagore first published in Bengali in 1912. When it appeared in Calcutta’s Modern Review a year later, the translator, Jadunath Sarkar, re-titled it ‘My Interpretation of Indian History’. As an academic historian, Sarkar probably had professional reasons for highlighting the idiosyncrasy of Tagore’s vision—he was always a little wary of his esteemed compatriot’s creative approach to scholarship and the past. Yet his rather antique Victorian English produces idiosyncratic distortions of its own. Rewording the sentence in a more contemporary English idiom, which is also closer to the suppleness of Tagore’s Bengali, puts a different gloss on Dhlomo’s citation:

In this way, falling between the push and pull of two sides, the middle true path will mark our national life and we will then realise that it is by knowing other peoples that we truly know ourselves and by knowing ourselves that we know all others; we simply must understand that just as to sacrifice one’s self in the desire for the other is useless beggary, so too, to diminish one’s own self by forsaking the other is the ultimate impoverishment.

The ‘we’ in this case refers primarily to India’s diverse communities and the ‘two sides’ to the rivalrous but, for Tagore, equally and problematically absolutist forces of British imperialism and Indian anti-colonial nationalism. Characteristically, however, he did not have in mind only the relations between the colonizer and the colonized, the foreign and the indigenous. Thinking interculturally along the lines he developed in the last three decades of his life always had as much to do with relations among India’s own communities where the ‘self’ could be Muslim, say, and the ‘other’ Hindu, or, to cite the two ancient caste-groups on which he focussed in the essay, Brahmin and Kshatriya. The alternative translation keeps all these possibilities in play. It also shows that his vision was underpinned not by a metaphysical ‘spirit of universality’, as Sarkar had it, but by an approach to knowledge (and a way of life), derived in part from the Baul singers of Bengal, which centres on the vitalizing and potentially transformative interdependency of self and other, the known and the unknown.

Amit quote
‘in the midst of the known i have found the unknown’, line from a Tagore song, part of Amit Chaudhuri’s new “Indian road signs” series.

4. Understood in these terms, Tagore’s sentence speaks as much to Dhlomo’s artistic ambitions as to his New African conception of nation-building and his concerns about Durban’s recent history of intercommunal violence, adding further weight not just to his citation but to his hopes for a future in which the city might become ‘a great centre for an African—and South African—Cultural experiment.’ Dhlomo may have been the first New African intellectual to take up Tagore’s challenge at a particularly charged moment in South Africa’s history, but, as I argue in the book, he was not the last. Having found his own way to Tagore in the early 1940s, Es’kia Mphahlele continued to draw inspiration from him well into the 1980s and beyond (see Chapter 4).


Thanks to Ntongela Masilela for alerting me to Dhlomo’s citation, Rosinka Chaudhuri for re-translating Tagore’s sentence, and Amit Chaudhuri for permission to use his street sign quotation from Tagore. This forms part of his exhibition The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta & Other Ideas at The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata, 14-18 August 2018: for a tour see the YouTube video of exhibition.

Though the Campbell collection is still in the family home ‘Muckleneuk’, the house and the collection were both bequeathed to the city of Durban in 1965 when Killie Campbell died and since then the collection has been curated by the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


H. I. E. Dhlomo, ‘Great Contribution To African Culture‘, Ilange Lase Natal, 23 April 1949. See also Ntongela Masilela’s website: New African Movement.

Rabindranath Tagore, ‘My Interpretation of Indian History: II’, Modern Review, 14.2 (September 1913), 231-36. For the original Bengali, see Tagore, ‘Bharatbarser itihaser dhara’, Rabindra Rachanavali, XIII (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal, 1990).

For more on Tagore’s creative approach to history, see Tapan Basu, ‘Caste Matters: Rabindranath Tagore’s Engagement with India’s Ancient Social Hierarchies‘, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:1 (2012), 162-71; Rosinka Chaudhuri, ‘The Flute, Gerontion, and Subaltern Misreadings of Tagore‘, Social Text, 22.1 (2004), 103-22; Rajan Ghosh, ‘Rabindranath and Rabindranath Tagore: Home, World, History‘, History and Theory, 54 (December 2015), 125-48; and Ranjit Guha, History at the limit of of World-History (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003). See also Debashish Banerji, ed. Rabindranath Tagore in the 21st Century: Theoretical Renewals (New Delhi: Springer, 2015).

For an astute, summary account of Ambedkar’s critique of caste, see here.

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El Loko’s Cosmic Alphabet


Xu Bing began to develop the pictographic resources for his Book from the Ground project in 2004 (see the postscript to the book and webnote z). A decade earlier, driven by a similarly utopian impulse, the Togo-born artist El Loko (1950-2016), started to create an idiosyncratic writing system of his own, blending stylized images of fable-creatures from his native Togo, motifs from the Christian tradition, and other idiomatically abstract designs peculiar to his own work. Unlike the found icons in Book from the Ground, the resultant script is illegible, though, as Loko commented, he too dreamed of establishing “one language for the entire world.” Over the course of the next two decades he experimented with his evolving script using various media, including paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs.

The images above and below show the last site-specific articulation of his vision which forms part of the top-floor terrace and ceiling of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa. The building itself, designed by the English architect Thomas Heatherwick, re-purposes a block of concrete silos, creating the gallery and a hotel. The silos, which were constructed in the early 1920s to store grain for export from the Cape Town harbour, had been derelict since the early 2000s. The glass-covered circles, each of which is made up of panels inscribed with Loko’s script, mark the space the individual silos originally occupied. Though everyone can see through them to the gallery space far below, no one can see through the ‘cosmic letters’ to decipher their meaning, creating an experience of ‘reading’ closer to Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) than to Book from the Ground. That the script ought, in principle, to be universally accessible but is, in practice, a cryptic example of asemic writing is no doubt part of Loko’s point about the work that still needs to be done to overcome the silo-mentalities of a multiply divided world. The specificities of the site and materials are key. While inventively turning the ghostly grain silos into metaphors, Loko also creates a more literal play on opacity and transparency by etching his unreadable ‘letters’ on glass.

(Other notable artists who engage with writing as a creative medium include Willem BoshoffAugusto de CamposIan Hamilton Finlay, Parastou ForouarJoseph Kosuth, Barbara KrugerGlenn LigonEd Ruscha, and Antoni Tàpies. See also Jeremy Deller’s collaborations with the typographer Fraser Muggeridge, especially using Thomas More’s invented Utopian alphabet8 Text Artists and the ‘Kirsty Gunn’ post under ‘Other Writers’.)














Re-reading/Coetzee’s Disgrace


1. If the Chinese writing system is not part of your cultural repertoire, this sentence is quite literally unreadable. You may recognize it as Chinese but is it Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew? Recasting it in pinyin may make it more legible in the most basic sense—that is pronounceable—if you are familiar with Latinate writing systems:

Tā juédé, duì zìjǐ zhèyàng niánjì wǔ’èrshí suì, jiéguò hūn yòu líle hūn de nánrén lái shuō, xìng xūqiú de wèntí kě suànshì jiějué dé xiāngdāng bùcuòle.

Yet, even in this form, you are still likely to be left guessing. How exactly do you say ‘xìng’, for instance? Even if English is not your first language, you will probably feel more comfortable with the following translation:

In his opinion, as a 52-year-old man who got married and then divorced, he solves the problem of sex very well.

By this point, if you have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), you may have recognized this as a version of his own first sentence:

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. (1)

Like the back translation, these twenty familiar English words pose no real difficulties when it comes to pronunciation and even their sense, individually and grammatically, is clear. And yet this is one of the most opaquely transparent opening sentences ever written, making it, for the English-reading world, the literary equivalent of a koan. Why is this? And what sense are we to make of it?

2. To get a purchase on its koan-like qualities we need to look not only to the tradition of creative doubt which is central to Zen Buddhism, but to the history of the European novel and, more particularly, to Coetzee’s dialogue with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Disgrace itself draws attention to this key literary relationship at a number of levels. For one thing, Flaubert’s boldly and, in its day, scandalously innovative novel is explicitly tagged as a part of the central protagonist David Lurie’s cultural repertoire. While dwelling on the pleasures of his ‘assignation’ with the Muslim prostitute Soraya, Lurie identifies himself with Flaubert’s heroine: ‘He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking’ (5). Later, after his dutiful, adulterous ‘congress’ with Bev Shaw, the ‘dumpy’ vet who runs an animal refuge in which he ends up working as a volunteer, he boastfully imagines Bev singing to herself in front of the mirror—‘I have a lover! I have a lover!’—again like Emma (72, 150). These allusions reflect back on the content of Disgrace itself, inviting readers to think of it as a self-conscious recasting of Flaubert’s disaster story of illegitimate desire, now told not from the perspective of a young, provincial bourgeois woman in post-revolutionary France but from Lurie’s point of view as a middle-aged, middle-class, white academic of Jewish heritage in post-apartheid South Africa.

3. Yet it is at the narrative rather than the character level that the idea of Disgrace as a creative re-writing of Madame Bovary becomes most telling. Like the basic content of the story, this is visible on every page, since it concerns Coetzee’s use of style indirect libre, Flaubert’s innovative narrative technique that contributed both to Madame Bovary’s initial notoriety and to its subsequent canonical status in the history of the European novel. The consequences of this, which are not only technical, can be seen most clearly through comparison.

3.1 I’ll take just one example from Madame Bovary: the account of Emma’s fantasies about Rodolphe, her latest lover, in Chapter 12. By this stage, she is already long-settled into her boring marriage and the disappointments of motherhood. After explicitly signalling that ‘she lay awake, dreaming other dreams’, the third-person narrator, who uses the conventionally novelistic past tense throughout, describes the glamorous life she anticipates leading with Rodolphe, shifting into the hypothetical future conditional. Among other things, Emma imagines they would ‘ride in gondolas, they’d laze in swaying hammocks, and their life would be free and flowing like their silken garments, warm and star-studded like the soft night skies they’d gaze at’ (174). In a move characteristic of Flaubert’s technique, the narrator not only enters the time of fantasy—the future conditional—he (?) ventriloquizes Emma, adopting the language she herself borrows from the popular romances she read as a girl. During her convent-school education, as we learn in Chapter 6, she developed a taste for pre-revolutionary aristocratic love stories that describe ‘wounded hearts, vows, sobs, tears, and kisses, gondolas by moonlight, nightingales in woods, and “gentlemen” brave as lions’ (34). The allusion to the Venetian scenes she read about earlier is understated, but the narrator ensures that when they resurface in Chapter 12 via the device of style indirect libre the deflationary, ironizing effect is clear. ‘Everything hovered in a harmonious, sun-drenched, bluish haze along the boundless horizon’, the sequence ends, ‘but then the child in her crib would cough, or else Bovary would give a louder snore, and Emma would not fall asleep till morning’ (174). At this point, as we move from the romanticized fantasies Emma articulates in her own borrowed idiom to the narrator’s external commentary and from the hypothetical future conditional to the dull routines of Emma’s daily life, her dream-world implodes and we are left thinking about the very different love story that is Madame Bovary itself.

3.2 Contrast this with Coetzee’s opening sentence: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well’ (1). Again, as in Flaubert, we have a disembodied third-person narrator reporting what is going on in the mind of the central protagonist. The only difference is that this narrator adopts the present tense—in this instance, the present perfect, signifying a completed action—and gives no cues about the provenance of the idiom used. Though the phrase ‘to his mind’ relativizes the second clause, there is no indication at this point that any of the words belong to Lurie himself. A few pages on, after Lurie becomes embroiled in a sexual scandal with a student, which ultimately costs him his job, various subsequent cues indicate otherwise. This is not just because, as the plot reveals, Lurie clearly has not solved the problem of sex at all, but because we begin to see that thinking of sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ is one of Lurie’s many problems. As this phrasing suggests, Lurie is not only a devotee and teacher of English Romantic poetry, he is also an adherent of the European Enlightenment tradition. Both traditions play a part in the way he thinks about desire. In his various attempts at justifying his sexual adventurism to his lesbian daughter Lucy, for instance, he switches from citing William Blake—‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’—to making rationalistic appeals to what he calls the ‘rights of desire’ (69, 89).

4. Seen against this background, we can not only identify the phrase ‘solved the problem of sex’ as Lurie’s. We can begin to appreciate its oddly self-cancelling status. It is as if we can, on a second reading, re-write the first sentence as follows: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ The same can be said for many other passages in which the third-person narrator adopts Lurie’s idiom. Take the following account of the forced sexual encounter with the student Melanie that precipitates his fall from grace:

He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that. (25)

This represents a significant re-working of Flaubert’s style indirect libre. Unlike Flaubert, who ironizes Emma’s romantic idiom, playing her future conditional fantasies off against her mundane life as a wife and mother, Coetzee uses and then cancels Lurie’s high-minded phraseology, inviting us to take it, on a first reading, as an unmarked, apparently secure justification in the voice of the narrator, and then, on a second, as a marked, and now suspect self-description or rationalization on Lurie’s part. The fact that all this takes place, for us as readers, in the perpetually unfolding narrative present only compounds the uncertainties.

Disgrace title
The self-cancelling title as represented on the initial cover design for the first UK edition

5. A passage from the postscript to Coetzee’s next foray into literary writing Elizabeth Costello (2003)—Lady Chandos’s letter to Lord Bacon which its itself a reworking of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (1902)—sums up the peculiar, koan-like effect of continuous composition and decomposition Disgrace creates when we consider its dialogue with Madame Bovary at the level of form. ‘Like a wayfarer (hold the figure in mind, I pray you),’ Lady Chandos writes, attempting to describe her own growing scepticism about language, ‘like a wayfarer I step into a mill, dark and disused, and feel of a sudden the floorboards, rotten with wetness, give way beneath my feet and plunge me into the racing mill-waters’ (228). By turning the technique of style indirect libre, which Flaubert used for ironic purposes, into a device of linguistic self-cancellation, Coetzee turned his own readers into Lady Chandos’s insecure wayfarers, patching together a narrative of rotten floorboards, and, in the process, fashioning a literary critique not just of the English language but of the Humboldtian ‘worldview’ Lurie’s culture-laden idiom encodes (see the ‘Re-Reading Humboldt’ post).

6. This is true not just of the way Lurie thinks about desire but of his worldview more generally. Take his attitudes to animals. Initially he is indifferent to them, an indifference he characteristically rationalizes by citing chapter and verse from the European tradition. ‘The Church Fathers had a long debate about them, and decided they don’t have proper souls,’ he tells Lucy (78). Later, when he is thinking about two sheep bought to slaughter for a party, Descartes, another European exponent of the belief in animals as a sub-order of useful things, now couched in the terms of Enlightenment rationalism, surfaces in a passage of style indirect libre that might be rendered as follows:

Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding. (123-24)

A few paragraphs later, all this assertion collapses when ‘a bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how’—all he knows is that ‘suddenly and without reason, their lot has become important to him’ (126).

7. Or take the account of his actions on the final pages. By surrendering the maimed dog he has befriended to be destroyed, Lurie reveals he no longer believes the Christian and Cartesian doctrines about animals he once held. Yet, in keeping with the way the Disgrace re-works Flaubert’s style indirect libre, the narrative continues to show him attempting to conceptualize his actions in various ways. The vet’s ‘operating room’ in which he works alongside Bev, Lurie now sees, having changed his mind about animals—or rather having had it changed for him—is a place ‘where the soul is yanked out of the body’, or, in another, less theological formulation, he thinks of it as a ‘room that is not a room Disgrace dogbut a hole where one leaks out of existence’ (219). Similarly, the concluding paragraphs do not resolve the question of what to call the ‘sessions’ in which he and Bev are engaged (218). Are they, as particularly freighted free indirect foreign word suggests, acts of ‘Lösung’ (218)? ‘German always to hand with an appropriately blank abstraction’, Lurie observes earlier (142). Though the word literally means ‘solution’—hence Lurie’s comments on ‘sublimation, as alcohol is sublimed from water, leaving no residue’—it inevitably carries echoes of ‘Endlösung’, the official Nazi term for the ‘Final Solution’ (142). We might also recall Lurie’s apparently final solution to another seemingly rational ‘problem’ in the first sentence. Or are the ‘sessions’ dignifying, even sacrosanct acts of ‘love’, as Lurie himself comes to learn from Bev (219)? In the penultimate paragraph he enters the surgery ‘bearing’ the maimed dog ‘like a lamb’, and, in answer to Bev’s question, declares: ‘Yes, I am giving him up’—perhaps, recalling Lurie’s Jewishness, we could say like Abraham when he is called by his Old Testament god to sacrifice Isaac (220).

8. Lurie may now understand his actions in this way, but Disgrace remains non-committal, given the use it makes of the device of self-cancellation. Probing the limits of Lurie’s world from within, it questions his language and all it carries in its wake at every turn, treating his English less as a transparent medium of expression than as a shaky assemblage of rotten floorboards badly in need of renovation—one of which is Madame BovaryYet, since Flaubert’s novel is also part of Coetzee’s repertoire as a writer, its status in Disgrace is double-edged: if it is a questionable element of Lurie’s European heritage, it is also an animating precursor that enabled Coetzee to extend his interrogation of the European novel, prompting koan-like creative doubts among his English readers in new ways and, in the ideal case, plunging them into the racing mill-waters in which their own culturally-embedded idioms and forms of knowledge might be seen more clearly for what they are and be transformed. Compare the plunge the contemporary author-figure takes into other waters in the last section of Foe (1986), the first three parts of which are patched together out of Daniel Defoe’s turgidly dense eighteenth-century English (see Chapter 5 of the book and the ‘Timothy Garton Ash’ post).


This is a revised, edited and adapted version of an extract from ‘Coetzee’s Critique of Language’, my chapter contribution to Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy and J. M. Coetzee, eds. Patrick Hayes and Jan Wilm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). I am grateful to Liang Dong for his help translating the Mandarin edition of Disgrace.

J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999).

———., 耻 (Chǐ, Disgrace or Shame), trans. 张冲 (Zhāng Chōng) and 郭整风 (Guō Zhěngfēng) (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2010). This is the Mandarin edition.

———., Elizabeth Costello (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003).

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Margaret Mauldon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).