Fifth Proposition

History has many cunning passages.*

5.1 Historically, there have been many ways of thinking interculturally. One well-established tradition grants culture A, often located in the distant past, a normative (sometimes universal) status which then defines or set the standards for a more contemporary culture B. This is the strategy Matthew Arnold adopted when he made a case for looking back to ancient Greece in Culture and Anarchy (1869). Drawing on a European intellectual genealogy dating from the middle ages, he invoked the Hellenistic (Apollonian rather than Dionysian in his case) ideals of human perfectibility and intellectual freedom, holding them up as a standard for Victorian England to follow as it faced what he saw as the threat of an unruly, potentially anarchic modernity, or, more positively, the promise of a new phase in the history of its developing democracy following the Reform Act of 1867. Crucially, he believed the state had to be the ultimate guarantor of these ideals (see Chapter 1 of the book). For an earlier and related appeal to the Greeks, see Letter VI in Friedrich von Schiller’s The Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), and for an alternative reading of the Greek legacy see Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

5.1.1 The strategy in this case is explicitly part of a larger, frequently conservative argument about heritage, values and policies. The same kind of thinking can also be seen to work implicitly when a writer adopts the literary heritage of another culture, reinforcing its contemporary currency at the level of creative practice. Consider, for instance, the use Arnold made of the ancient Greek poet Theocritus in his poem ‘Thyrsis‘, a pastoral elegy he wrote in memory of Arthur Hugh Clough, or the claim T. S. Eliot made about the way Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey in Ulysses (1922). In ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth‘ (1923), Eliot praised Joyce for ‘manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’ as ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (478). This says rather a lot about Eliot’s own Apollonian thinking, and something about his creative practice in The Waste Land (1922). As we shall see, it has little or no bearing on the way Joyce thought or wrote.

5.1.2 These are all literary examples. As the many neoclassical buildings that began to emerge across Europe and America in the mid-eighteenth century testify, this way of thinking also found expression in architectural design.

Frontispiece of The Athenaeum Journal

Like the Athenæum, the London club to which Arnold belonged (see webnote e), the literary journal that bore the same name, which first appeared in 1828, identified itself with ‘that sacred edifice dedicated to Minerva, in which the poets, orators, and philosophers of Greece recited their several compositions’ (pictured above). The editorial then went on to describe how the journal would act as a bulwark against the ‘flood of degeneracy’ precipitated by the advent of mass printing technologies, upholding literary and intellectual standards ‘like the ATHENÆUM of antiquity’ (2). Across the colonial world, whether in buildings like Government House in Calcutta or the South African Library in Cape Town, these grand architectural designs took on a new meaning. If they continued to express the desire on the part of the ruling elite to identify itself and its idea of English (and/or European) culture with ancient Greece in its Apollonian guise, they also asserted its claim to be the norm-creating and standard-setting custodian of that legacy. The complex, inevitably fraught history of these intercultural allusions lives on in the logo UNESCO adopted in the late 1940s when it saw its mission in similar terms.


5.2 A related way of thinking interculturally treats culture A less as a model than as another or earlier instance of B. Put in the idealist terms that permeated nineteenth-century European thought, the two cultures in this case are understood to be expressions of the same abiding ‘spirit’. As an example consider the way the philosopher Thomas Case defined the University of Oxford’s educational mission in the late-nineteenth century. Anxious about a proposal to add modern languages, including English, to the curriculum and eager to defend Literae Humaniores (Classics), then the flagship subject of Victorian Oxford, he argued that the University had an obligation to continue ‘her own peculiar mission—a classical education in a liberal spirit as the basis of modern civilization’ (14). He made this claim in 1887. Gilbert Murray, who was Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1908 to 1936, reinforced it in more explicitly idealist terms three decades later. By studying the classics, he wrote in 1921, students would learn that the ‘ancient inscriptions or Grammata’ of Greek ‘philosophy and poetry’ not only expressed the ‘liberal spirit’ of the Greeks but bore witness to the ‘continuous tradition of literature on which the life of modern Europe and America is built’. The reason: each artefact of ancient writing has a ‘soul and still lives’ (14-15 and 25).

Third-century fragment of Plato’s Republic

5.2.1 This kind of thinking survived well into the twentieth century, though sometimes in a less idealistic guise. For the social anthropologist Jack Goody and the literary critic Ian Watt, it was not the abiding ‘liberal spirit’ that guaranteed Murray’s ‘continuous tradition’ but what they called ‘phonetic writing’ (312). In ‘The Consequences of Literacy‘ (1963), they argued that ‘the alphabet proper’, which emerged in ancient Greece ‘probably in the eighth century B.C.’, formed the ‘essential basis’ for ‘many characteristic cultural institutions of the Western tradition’ and for ‘the distinctive features of Western thought’ (320). Throughout the article they contrasted this writing system and the tradition it supposedly underpinned to the ‘non-literate’ cultures of West Africa and the ‘proto-literate’ culture of China (332). (For a dexterous dismantling of this deeply entrenched genealogical habit of thought, see John Dunn’s Democracy: A History (2005) and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2016 Reith Lecture ‘There is no such thing as western civilisation‘.)

5.3 In the first decades of the twentieth century Tagore marked a clear departure from what we could call the Arnoldian tradition by proposing a radically different way of thinking interculturally. Rejecting the idea that any culture could lay claim to a normative, let alone universal, status, he focused on the potential cultures have to transform each other when they come into contact – hence his belief in the vitalizing shock of the foreign. This was the burden of an open letter he wrote to Gilbert Murray in 1934. Taking issue with the reifying ideals of unity, transparency and purity he associated with the dominant traditions of European thought, he insisted that all cultures are constantly ‘evolving’, never ‘present to us as a whole’, and always ‘giving to and taking from all the world’ (59-60). It followed that any efforts to ‘set up barriers between us and the world, splitting us into mutually exclusive sections’, or to turn a particular tradition into an object of ‘special worship’ to be retained unquestioningly ‘in perpetuity’, were in the service of ‘false gods’ (49). Thinking interculturally in Tagore’s terms therefore involves a double challenge: on the one hand, he rejects all attempts to fetishize ‘our own culture’ by those who want to guard ‘against the touch of others, considering it as a contamination’; and, on the other, he insists we develop ‘our culture’, however partially understood, by ‘generously’ extending ‘hospitality to the world’ – ‘taking all its risks however numerous and grave’ (51). Aware that he was writing at a time when Europe was the dominant world power, he recognized that this kind of intercultural engagement would be possible only in the properly post-imperial age that was yet to come.

5.3.1 In his letter to Murray Tagore traced this way of thinking back to Ram Mohun Roy, the early nineteenth-century Bengali scholar and reformer, describing him not only as an emblem of ‘modern India’ but of ‘the broad mind which, only because it is conscious of its own vigorous individuality, is not afraid of accepting truth from all sources’ (52). Roy was among the founders of the Hindu (later Presidency) College in Calcutta which inaugurated the formal study of English literature in India in the 1810s, two decades before Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote his ‘Minute on Education‘ setting the terms of the English Education Act (1835). Effectively articulating a colonialist version of the Arnoldian tradition, Macaulay took it for granted that the English language and what he took to be its culture had a normative status. Tagore could equally have looked back beyond Roy to Chandidas, the celebrated medieval poet who did much to shape the Baul tradition of Bengal with which Tagore himself identified (see Chapter 4 of the book). One song attributed to Chandidas declares in Jeanne Openshaw’s translation:

I have made the world my home
And my home the world.
I have made ‘others’ my own people,
And my own people ‘others’.

This succinctly describes the intercultural ideals Tagore made central to the educational mission of Visva-Bharati, the university he founded in 1921. The name can be translated as ‘World Learning’ – Bharati is linked to Saraswati, the Hindu equivalent of the Roman goddess Minerva or Greek Athena (see Third Proposition).

5.4 Joyce spent his writing life subverting established traditions of intercultural thought, including Arnoldian Hellenism, partly because he shared Tagore’s aversion to cultural fetishism of all kinds. At one point, speaking for all aggressive nativists, the violently ‘nationist’ Shaun-figure in Finnegans Wake, who makes an idol of Irish culture, condemns his vagabond brother Shem for being a transcontinental ‘Europasianised Afferyank’ – in effect a citizen of nowhere (FW 191). For Joyce, however, politicized fetishism of this kind was only an instance of a larger philosophical (specifically ontological), even quasi-theological problem that owed as much to the (neo)Platonic theory of forms as to the Christian idea of the incarnation – the two main progenitors of the Euro-American idealist tradition to which Gilbert Murray and, as I argue in the book, T.S. Eliot remained committed. Since ‘every person, place and thing in the chaosmos of Alle’ is ‘moving and changing every part of the time’, as one Wake-voice puts it, any attempt to give unity or continuity to a culture by appealing to an abiding or even evolving ‘spirit’ was for Joyce a wishful exercise in capnomancy or divination by smoke (FW 118). Understood in his post-infusionist terms (see Fourth Proposition), cultures are fragile, all-too-human works in progress caught in the crosscurrents of world history, evolving, like writing systems and languages, in an endlessly ‘exprogressive process’ of ‘decomposition’ and ‘recombination’ with other cultures – ‘miscegenations on miscegenations’ (FW 18 and 614-15). The word he coined for this unpredictable, reciprocally transformative process was ‘MUTUOMORPHOMUTATION’, an appropriately interlingual neologism combining the Latin root for ‘mutual’, the Greek for ‘form’, and the Latin for ‘mutate’ – it is a term Tagore would probably have appreciated (FW 281). For Joyce, then, ‘manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’, to recall Eliot’s assessment of Ulysses, or, rather, creating a continuous conjunction of cultures, traditions and languages as he did in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, was not ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. It was a way of engaging with an ‘everintermutuomergent’ modernity – or what the Wake also calls the ‘citye of Is’ which is at once ‘urban and orbal’ – by thinking beyond the reifying categories of the Europeanized nation-state and the grasp of infusionist thought in all its many forms (FW 55, 601). Joyce’s imperfectly spelled lost ‘citye of Is‘ also tacitly rejects the many idealized Cities of Ought envisaged as the source of all ultimate value in the Euro-American tradition (see, for instance, Book 9 of Plato’s Republic and St Augustine’s City of God). 

5.4.1 Yet Joyce was not a quasi-philosophical advocate of a secular, anti-statist and post-infusionist view of the world. He was a writer who fashioned a way of experiencing what it might be like to think in these terms by interfering with the English writing system, producing a maze of shape-shifting graphemes or grammata that refuse to incarnate any single phoneme, meaning or language, let alone any transcendent ‘soul’. Consider just one example from the Wake: the phrase ‘idol worts’ (FW 378). While it looks like a blend of the English word ‘idol’ and the German for ‘word’ (Worte), or possibly a creative translation of the German word Wortaberglauben (‘word-superstition’) which Joyce took from the philosopher Fritz Mauthner, it sounds like ‘idle words’ or the German eitel Worte, meaning ‘vain words’. ‘Wort’ also means ‘medicinal plant or herb’ in English, and the phrase ‘idle word’ occurs in the King James version of the Christian New Testament (Matthew 12:36). In all its shifting permutations, then, ‘idol worts’ says as much about Joyce’s creative practice as an interlingual, post-infusionist writer as it does about his Tagorean attitudes to cultural and linguistic fetishism. (As it happens, Shem, the name Joyce gave the Wake’s writer-figure, is an example of Wortaberglauben. As Mauthner noted, orthodox Jews sometimes say ‘Shem’ (or ‘Ha-Shem’), which can mean simply ‘the name’, to avoid the religious interdiction against pronouncing the letters YHVH (Jehovah).)

5.4.2 Joyce not only parted company with Eliot by treating the continuous conjunction of languages, cultures and traditions very differently. He challenged one of the animating impulses of Eliot’s writing – his search for the transcendent ‘Word’ that would redeem the world and bring order to what he took to be the anarchic chaos of modernity. The Waste Land (1922) ends in a despondent mood of patient expectation. Turning his back on the world’s ‘Unreal’ cities with their ‘falling towers’, the final first-person voice invests his hopes in a ‘hooded’ third figure (possibly Christ), before articulating a minimalist Brahminical code of ethics in Sanskrit (‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata‘; ‘Be charitable. Be merciful. Be self-controlled’) and reciting what Eliot in his notes calls the ‘formal ending to an Upanishad‘ (‘Shantih shantih shantih’). Also romanized as ‘Shanti’ or ‘Santhi’, this is a Sanskrit (शान्ति) mantra meaning ‘be calm’. “‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent”, Eliot explained in a gesture of intercultural and interfaith translation referencing St Paul in the King James version of Philippians 4:7. By the time he came to write ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), which became part of Four Quartets, he had clearer sense of the presence and promise of the incarnate (idol?) ‘Word’ in the messy world of endlessly unstable words.

                                                   Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation (V, lines 13-20)

The final lines allude to the temptation of Christ in Matthew 4:1-11. Highlighting its infusionist preoccupations with the unifying ‘Word’ and developing a series of further intercultural connections, ‘Burnt Norton’ begins with an epigraph from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ‘τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν‘ which can be translated as ‘although the Word [Logos] is common, the majority live as if their thinking is their own’ (i.e. live as individualists). In the book I consider how this kind of thinking influenced Eliot’s traditionalist conservative theory of cultural diversity (see Chapter 2).

5.5 In Part 2 of the book, I discuss a number of more contemporary ways of thinking interculturally, focusing on a range of writers from South Africa and India. Chapter 4 considers what Es’kia Mphahlele’s indebtedness to Tagore and Tagore’s indebtedness to the Baul singers of Bengal reveal about the intricacies of the intercultural process, the challenges of translation and the question of humanism. Chapter 5 shows how J. M. Coetzee opens up a way of thinking interculturally by probing the limits of the European novel and the English writing system. Chapter 6 examines a number of Antjie Krog’s projects as a writer-translator committed to a version of Joycean ‘mutuomorphomutation’. Chapter 7 centres on Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s preoccupation as a poet-translator with the ‘interplay of languages’ and cultural ‘osmosis‘. And Chapter 8 considers how Salman Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri’s elective affinities to Joyce and Tagore invite us to re-think the concept of multiculturalism. In each case, I set their work in the context of the evolving debates about linguistic and cultural diversity within UNESCO after 1945. In the Postscript I return to the question of writing and state power via a discussion of the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing.


*From T. S. Eliot’s ‘Gerontion‘, Poems (1920). For the other reference to Eliot’s poems, see Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 71-73, 189 and 194.

Unsigned, ‘English Literature’, The Athenæum, 1.1 (2 January 1828), 1-2.

Thomas Case, An Appeal to the University of Oxford against the Proposed Final School of Modern Languages (Oxford: Parker & Co, 1887).

Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard, eds., The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: The Perfect Critic, 1919–1926 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd, 2014).

Jack Goody and Ian Watt, ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5.3 (April 1963).

Gilbert Murray, ‘Religio Grammatici; The Religion of a “Man of Letters”‘, Essays and Addresses (London: Allen & Unwin, 1921).

Gilbert Murray and Rabindranath Tagore, East and West (Paris: International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, 1935).

Jeanne Openshaw, Seeking Bāuls of Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), epigraph.

For more on the interlingual and intercultural in Joyce, see Len Platt, ‘Corresponding with the Greeks: An Overview of Ulysses as an Irish Epic’, in James Joyce Quarterly, 36, 3 (Spring 1999), 507-23;  and Kimberly J. Devlin and Christine Smedley, eds., Joyce’s Almaziful Plurabilities: Polyvocal Explorations of Finnegans Wake (Gainesville: Florida University Press, 2015).