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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.

Credit: Slavs and Tatars, Dig The Booty, 2009, vacuum-formed plastic, acrylic paint, 64 × 91 cm.


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

For another take on Tagore’s relevance to these contemporary debates, see Sumana Roy, ‘Beyond the Guilt Tax: Revising the postcolonial syllabus‘, 29 January 2021. 

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.

See also Torner’s essay ‘The Mother Tongue of Babel‘ (21 November 2019) from which the following quotation comes:

June 1995, Gandia, in the País Valencià. What shall we call it, this collective subject? Is it the nation? The people? The Kurdish, Aymara, Mayan, Inuit people…? The Mapuche, Quechua, Tibetan, Maori nation? We arrive at a consensus, make it public here in Gandia, and decide what the first article of our declaration will be: we will call it linguistic community.


Linguistic Rights cover

Rights Commitee 1

Rights Committee 2

PEN 2005 conference
2005 PEN Seminar in the city of Diyarbakir, a focal point of clashes between the Turkish state and Kurdish groups. The languages on the banner are Kurdish, English and Turkish. Credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

‘Camille de Toledo’s’ turbulent u-topos

Dans L’Inquiétude d’être au monde (2010), Camille de Toledo écrit:

A nowhere land, une terre sans mot,
sans doute pas même une terre.
Un non-lieu que je nomme u-topos,
où nous pourrions bien apprendre
à penser ; non pas dans la langue de l’autre,
mais dans l’entre, là où nous sommes également muets,
traversés par le même effroi.
Là, justement, où nous devons apprendre à vivre,
dans l’inquiétude de toute chose.


In antwoord skryf Catherine du Toit:

A nowhere land, ’n aarde sonder woorde,
sonder twyfel nie eens ’n aarde nie.
’n Geenplek wat ek u-topos noem,
waar ons miskien kan leer dink;
nie in die taal van ’n ander nie
maar in die tussen, daar waar ons almal ewe stom is,
met dieselfde vrees deurtrek.
Juis dáár, waar ons moet leer lewe,
in die onrustigheid van alles wat is.


In answer Peter McDonald writes:

Une terre de nulle part, a land without words,
probably not even a land.
A non-place that I call u-topos,
where we might learn
to think; not in the language of the other,
but in between, where we are all equally mute,
gripped by the same fear.
There, exactly, where we must learn to live,
amid the turbulence of all things.


Darauf erwiderten Tom Kuhn und Margit Dirscherl:

A nowhere land, ein Land ohne Wort
gewiss nicht einmal ein Land.
Ein Nirgendwo, das ich u-topos nenne,
wo wir wohl lernen könnten
zu denken; nicht in der Sprache des Anderen
sondern im Dazwischen, wo wir unterschiedslos stumm sind
ergriffen von derselben Furcht.
Genau dort, wo wir zu leben lernen müssen
inmitten der Unrast aller Dinge.


:رنا عيسى ترد

بلاد اللامحال
بلاد بلا مفردات
ربما لم تكن بلاد أصلا.
أسميه اللامكان
هناك بإمكاننا أن نتعلم
أن نفكر، ليس في لسان الآخر
ولكن بين الألسن
حيث نخرس جميعا
يجتازنا نفس الخوف
بالظبط هناك علينا
أن نتعلم كيف نحيا
في قلق كل شيء


Mar freagra, scríobh Bernard O’Donoghue:

A nowhere land, tír gan briathar:
gan amhras ní tír in aon chor é.
Neamh-áit a ainmníonn mé u-topos,
inar tuigfimid I gceart
cad is smaoineamh ann: ná I teanga eachtrannach
ach sa lár, ina bhfuilfimid uile balbh,
traochta leis an eagla céanna.
Ansin, cruinn san áit inar bheibh orainn tuiscint
cad is cónaí dúinn sa bhuairt rud go léir.


जवाब में Arvind Krishna Mehrotra / Sara Rai लिखते हैं :

अ-जगह, एक शब्दहीन देश,
शायद देश भी नहीं।
एक अ-स्थान जिसे मैं कहता हूँ u-topos,
जहाँ हम सीख सकते हैं
सोचना; किसी अन्य की भाषा में नहीं,
मगर उस बीच की जगह में,
जहाँ हम सभी एक जैसे मूक हैं,
एक समान डर की गिरफ़्त में।
वहीं, बस वहीं हमें जीना सीखना है
उन तमाम बेचैनियों के दरमियान।



UHleze Kunju uphendula athi:

Umhlaba ongekhoyo, umhlaba ongenamazwi,
mhlawumbi ayisingomhlaba.
Indawo engekhoyo endiyibiza i-topos,
apho singafunda khona
sicinge, hayi ngolwimi lomnye,
kodwa embindini, apho sonke sizizimuma,
sigutyungelwe luloyiko.
Apho kanye, sifunde ukuphila,
kweso siphithiphithi sezinto zonke.



Som svar skriver Tore Rem:

A nowhere land, et land uten ord,
kanskje ikke engang et land.
Et ikke-sted jeg kaller u-topos,
hvor vi kan lære
å tenke; ikke i den andres språk,
men et sted imellom, hvor vi alle er like stumme,
grepet av den samme frykten.
Der, akkurat, hvor vi må lære å leve,
midt i alle tings uro.




A nowhere land, 一个无言之地,
一个我叫u-topos 的非地之地,



En respuesta Xon De Ros escribe

Em nenhum lugar, un espacio sin palabras,
quizás ni siquiera un espacio.
Un no-lugar al que llamo u-topos,
donde se podría aprender
a pensar; no en la lengua del otro,
sino entremedio, donde todos guardamos silencio,
dominados por el mismo temor.
Es ahí, precisamente, donde se ha de aprender a vivir,
en el desasosiego de todas las cosas.


With thanks to Catherine du Toit, Tom Kuhn, Margit Dirscherl, Rana Issa, Bernard O’Donoghue, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Sara Rai, Hleze Kunju, Tore Rem, Biao Xiang and Xon De Ros.

Further contributions to this translation archive welcome.

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.

Tagore In the midst
‘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. For more on South Africa-India relations at this time, see D.D.T. Jabavu’s In India and East Africa/E-Indiya nase East Africa (1951), translated in 2020 by Cecil Wele Manono. 

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.

For some more recent reflections on African Connections, see Achille Mbembe’s essay  ‘Afropolitanism’, Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent, Simon Njami and Lucy Durán, eds (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2007), pp. 26–30; as well as Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo’s ‘What Is Asia to Me? Looking East from Africa’, World Literature Today, 86 (2012): 14–18. Also relevant is Ngũgĩ’s Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

El Loko’s Cos/Asemic 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. It also bears comparison with the early-nineteenth century Vai script from Liberia, which came to Momolu Duwalu Bukele in a dream. Unlike the found icons in Book from the Ground, Loko’s script is illegible, though, as he 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 ‘Cosmic Alphabet’ 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 unique features of the site and the materials Loko used are key. While inventively turning the ghostly grain silos into metaphors, he 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 Rosaire Appel, Marian Bijlenga, Willem BoshoffAugusto de Campos, Mirtha Dermisache, Cui Fei, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Parastou Forouar, William KentridgeJoseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Maria LaiGlenn Ligon, Brody NeunschwanderEd Ruscha, el Seed, Christopher Skinnerthe Slavs and Tatars collectiveAntoni Tàpies, Gu Wenda, and Jorge Wellesley.

For more on the art of the asemic, see, asemic magazine, Tim Gaze’s Asemic Movement, Michael Jacobson’s the new postliterate, and bright stupid confetti. And for a glimpse into Jim Leftwich’s extraordinary oeuvre on flickr click here.

Peter Schwenger’s Asemic: The Art of Writing (2019) is an essential introduction. For my review of it click here.

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’. And watch Neunschwander’s compelling ‘Brush with silence‘ (2009-), Jakub Wróblewski and Katarzyna Bazarnik’s FIRST • WE • FEEL • THEN • WE • FALL (2016), and explore William Kentridge’s Studio (2021).






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’shíèr 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 transgressive 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 erotic 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) — like Lurie, Lord Jim, and Don Quixote, Emma’s desires are fueled by books (including, in Lurie’s case, Madame Bovary). 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 erotic 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’ — add to these all the references to Madame Bovary (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 ‘Getting past empathy’ 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).

For another take on the questions of re-reading and Coetzee’s Disgrace, which also dwells on its opening sentence, see Panashe Chigumadzi’sHistory through the body, or Rights of Desire, Rights of Conquest‘, Johannesburg Review of Books, 4 September 2017.

Scott’s paradox: between hill and valley

Most of the terms that we would translate as crude, unrefined, barbaric and, in the Chinese case, raw refer directly to those who live in the hills and forests.

1. James C. Scott makes this observation in the introduction to The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009). As I have noted elsewhere on this site (see First Proposition, 1.4.1), this particular set of lexical associations links the concept of culture, understood as a catch-all for the processed, refined, civilized or cooked, to relatively settled agrarian polities and so to the history of state-making whether in its ancient, national-colonial or contemporary guises. This makes the concept itself a vital constituent of valley thinking in Scott’s terms, that is, of the wet-rice cultivating polities that emerged in the river valleys of Southeast Asia, or Zomia, defining themselves against the peripheral, mobile and state-evading peoples of the hills. The ‘barbarians’ (βαρβάρους), as the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy recognized at the turn of the last century, have always been ‘a kind of solution’ (μια κάποια λύσις) for state-makers in this respect, helping to clarify and shore-up their own self-understanding as the exclusive custodians of culture.

2. Yet, as Scott continues, and as I argue across this site and in the associated book, these emphatic assertions of difference take place against a background of a ‘centuries-old, brisk traffic in people, goods and culture [in the sense of artefacts and practices] across the very permeable membrane between the hills and the valleys’ (28). Hence Scott’s ‘paradox’: despite the abundant evidence of intercultural movement and exchange the ‘divide’ between these communities remains a ‘stark and durable’ part not just of their respective self-understandings but of their ‘lived experience’ (28).

2.1 How are we to make sense of this? To begin with, Scott suggests, we have to abandon the ‘just-so’ story favoured in the colonial era but which still forms part of ‘popular folklore today’: namely, that the hill “tribes”—the term itself belongs to the lexicon of the state—are ‘the historical remnants of an earlier stage of human history: what we [i.e. the valley people] were like before we discovered wet-rice agriculture, learned to write, developed the arts of civilization, and adopted Buddhism’ (28). Instead, ‘we’ [again the valley people but also scholars who share their assumptions] should recognize that ‘valley states and hill peoples’ are ‘constituted in each other’s shadow, both reciprocal and contemporaneous’—that is, part of a composite, always evolving modernity, not a sequential narrative of progress, where the statist valley communities define themselves against and depend on the anti-statist hill peoples, and vice versa (28). Joyce coined the term ‘mutuomorphomutation’ to describe this process (see Fifth Proposition, 5.4). As Scott notes, this applies not only to regions of Southeast Asia on which he focuses but, among others, to ‘Amerindian societies of South America’ and the ‘structural opposition between Arabs and Berbers’ in the Maghreb—for the former he references Pierre Clastres’s La Société contre l’état (1974) and for the latter Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas (1969). ‘Far from being successive stages in social evolution,’ Scott concludes, ‘such states and nomadic peoples are twins, born more or less at the same time and joined in a sometimes rancorous but unavoidable embrace’ (29). Following Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction (1979), this logic could be extended to the structural conflicts between literate elites and those deemed to be the non-, il- or semi-literate masses (within the same state) or those identified as belonging to an exclusively oral world (outside the state)—but think also of UNESCO’s founding commitment to the global extension of literacy in the late 1940s and beyond (see the Prologue to Part II of the book).

3. In fact, for Scott, the most debatable element of his own alternative ‘non-state-centric history’ arises in relation to the question of orality and literacy (38). While he is reasonably confident about seeing the ‘economic, political, and cultural organization’ of the hill people as ‘a strategic adaptation to avoid incorporation in state structures’ (39), he acknowledges that the evidence for making the same claim about the ‘maintenance (if not creation) of nonliteracy’ (note: not illiteracy) is ‘almost entirely circumstantial’ (220). He none the less proffers this as a plausible reading of the ‘oral legends’ many peoples around the world, not just the hill communities of Southeast Asia, tell to explain how they came to be without writing, many of which centre on one key theme: ‘the people in question once did have writing but lost it through their own improvidence, or would have had it had they not been cheated of it by treachery’ (221). On this account, orality too has a strategic dimension: ‘if swiddening and dispersal are subsistence strategies that impede appropriation; if social fragmentation and acephaly hinder state incorporation; then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provides freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’ (220).

Baul singers in Santiniketan (Credit: ptwo)

3.1 The Bāul singers of Bengal, who, as I note in Chapter 4 of the book, had a definitive influence on Rabindranath Tagore, clearly recognize the advantages Scott outlines, though in their case the enemy is not the state as such but the sometimes state-aligned authority of institutionalized religion embodied in the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque and the associated written traditions (look and listen here; see also the Baul Archive). Much the same can be said of the ways in which the Zen tradition downplayed the importance of the Buddhist sutras, a challenge the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing has extended to include the canonical forms of Chinese literate culture as well: the newspaper and the printed book (see天书/Tiānshū (1988), webnote x, and Postscript).

3.1.1 Yet, as Xu Bing’s own works show, and as the writings of Tagore, Joyce and many of the contemporary authors I discuss in the book and on this site confirm, it is equally clear that certain forms of literary writing and artistic practice can also be said to create ‘freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’, opening up other ways of thinking about writing and culture itself. So, ‘writing’ may generally be ‘on the side of the law’ as Clastres put it in a statement from La Société contre l’état Scott cites as an epigraph; but, taking Finnegans Wake as a paradigm case, there are also notable exceptions to this rule (220). It is just that valley thinkers don’t much like them because they threaten their self-understandings as literate elites and guardians of the state’s idea of culture.


James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009).



天书/Tiānshū (1988) by permission of the Xu Bing Studio

Anarchist Geography

Metchnikoff coverThe following maps and images come from the largely forgotten works of two anarchist geographers of the late-nineteenth century: Léon Metchnikoff and Élisée Reclus. Like many leading anarchists of the period, they rejected political versions of geography based on the Westphalian model of state sovereignty that privileged land and territory and fetishized human difference in the nationalist and colonialist terms that became increasingly dominant over the course of the nineteenth century. Instead, in a move that was at once historical and geographical, they looked back to the longer, transcontinental history of civilizations (not nation-states), focusing on their interdependency (in trade, culture, language, etc.) and on the role rivers and oceans played in their formation and evolution. Without denying the violent realities of state-making whether ancient or modern—or what Metchnikoff called ‘the madness, hypocrisy and criminality’ of human history (1)—the new, anti-statist form of human geography they developed underpinned an alternative political vision based on the principles of freedom, co-operation and voluntary, non-hierarchical networks of association—for a detailed account of this political and scholarly conjunction, see Philippe Pelletier, Geographie & Anarchie (Éditions du Monde libertaire, 2013), and for a reaffirmation of the tradition, see Simon Springer, ‘Anarchism! What Geography still ought to be‘, Antipode, 44.5 (2012) and James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009), especially Chapter 2 which considers the part rivers played in the formation of ancient states.

The first series of maps comes from Metchnikoff’s major work La civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques (Paris, 1889) from which Joyce borrowed in process of writing Finnegans Wake (see Chapter 3 of the book).

Metchnikoff fig 1
Metchnikoff: Main sea routes connecting civilizations

Metchnkoff fig 2
Metchnikoff: Origins and expansion of ancient river-based civilizations

Metchnikoff fig 4
Metchnikoff: Civilizations of the Ganges

Metchnikoff fig 3
Metchnikoff: Civilizations of the Nile

Reclus cover
Cover image for Reclus’s L’Homme et la Terre (1905-1908), showing the twin figures of geography and history and the global reach of his vision.

Earth image
Iconic photograph of Earth from Apollo 17, December 1972 (Credit: Nasa)



The Earth at night (Credit: Nasa)

Relative density of internet connections globally (Credit: Chris Harrison)

Beyond the magic circle: Re-reading Humboldt

jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis

1. A series of citations, appropriations and translations gave the following two sentences from section §9 of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s posthumously published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (On the Diversity of Human Language Construction, 1836) a canonical status in the English-reading world:

Man lives with his objects chiefly—in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively—as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another. (9, italics added)

The quotation comes from Language and Myth, Susanne K. Langer’s 1946 translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Sprache und Mythos (1925). Her rendering of Cassirer’s citation of Humboldt’s original German (see below) appears to mark the moment these sentences crossed over to English for the first time. (In the introduction to the book I discuss the way Marshall McLuhan used this particular quotation in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).)

Uber title page1.1 Many aspects of Langer’s translation remain debatable, beginning with her insertion of the adjective ‘magic’. As Cassirer correctly had it, Humboldt referred only to einen Kreis (a circle), avoiding any hint of conjuring. Her choice of ‘ensnares’ was equally loaded. In the 1988 Cambridge edition of On Language, now the standard English version of Über die Verschiedenheit, Peter Heath used ‘spins’ (for spinnt), following Humboldt’s underlying analogy which figures language as an intricately-patterned fabric (Gewebe). In his own version from 1982, J. M. Coetzee also chose ‘spins’ (‘weaves’ is also possible). When it came to ‘the people’, however, the phrase Langer and Heath both used for Humboldt’s das Volk, Coetzee opted for ‘the national linguistic community [Volk]’, giving the key term a different political inflection while at the same time allowing for its untranslatability (181). The single word ‘nation’ has sufficed for other translators. Conscious of the racialized ethnolinguistic assumptions underpinning apartheid, Coetzee was no doubt thinking of the Germanic word’s specific resonances in Afrikaans. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of the Old English (Old Frisian/Saxon) ‘folc’, meaning ‘a people, nation, race’, to a sixteenth-century edition of Beowulf but it traces many of the compounds, where the word means ‘popular’ (e.g. ‘folklore’, ‘folktale’), to the 19th century. It also notes that the meaning of the Anglo-Norman (Latinate) word ‘people’ changed from the 14th to the 17th century, shifting from ‘the mass of the community as distinguished from the nobility or the ruling classes’ to ‘the whole body of citizens of a country, regarded as the source of political power or as the basis of society’.

1.2 Langer had a particular attachment to the phrase ‘magic circle’ because she thought it went to the heart of Cassirer’s larger project in Sprache und Mythos. Following in the tradition of Humboldtian philosophical idealism,  Cassirer set out to challenge the prevailing positivistic theories of knowledge in early twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy.  Concerned as they were ‘with “facts” and the development of orderly thought about facts’, she commented in her preface, the mainstream Euro-American positivists of the time invariably dismissed older mythic and poetic forms of thinking as mistakes or ‘vulgar superstition’ (viii). Rejecting this, Cassirer insisted that ‘language, man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency’ (viii). He also argued that ‘the mind’ expresses itself ‘in different forms, one of which is discursive logic, the other creative imagination’. His point, however, was not to affirm the latter at the expense of the former. He acknowledged, as Langer put it, that ‘myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas’, while ‘language, born of the same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds’, thereby taking ‘us from the mythmaking phase of human mentality to the phase of logical thought and conception of facts’ (ix-x). As this suggests, Cassirer shared the positivists’ progressivist conception of intellectual history. The difference was that while they discarded the prelogical poetic phase, he wanted to keep it in play. This influenced his own reading of the passage from Humboldt which, he wrote, ‘holds, perhaps, even more for the basic mythical conceptions of mankind than for language’ (9). Langer reinforced this in her translation, effectively recasting Humboldt’s neutral Sprache (language) as poetic ‘mythmaking’ in Cassirer’s sense—hence her choice of ‘ensnares’ and her eagerness to add ‘magic’.

2. Cut adrift from their initial moorings, re-framed by Cassirer’s reading, and re-worded in Langer’s English, these two sentences became something of a snare for Humboldt himself, sealing his fate as a caricature linguistic relativist for whom language, understood as the exclusive property of a Volk, determines thought, and casting him as a founding figure in a longer story about the historical origins of what came to be called the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ (see Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue, 2012, 6-10). Re-reading these sentences in their original context reveals a figure at once more complex and enduringly significant: a Humboldt for our own times who has surprising things to say about relativism in all its contemporary guises—cultural and cognitive as well as linguistic—and about the public value of literature (or poetic thinking in Cassirer’s sense) in today’s intercultural and increasingly interconnected world.

3. One of Humboldt’s main purposes in section §9 of Über die Verschiedenheit was to challenge an overly rationalistic ‘picture of language’ as a tool for naming things ‘already perceived in themselves’ (i.e. independently of language) and for serving ‘the need for mutual assistance’ or ‘sociality’ (i.e. communication, 60). ‘Man, as a species, is a singing creature’, he insisted, anticipating Cassirer, since language has always exhibited ‘a wealth and multiplicity of expressions that everywhere exceeds what is required’ merely for the sake of communication or labelling (60). Put in the terms of his other key analogyTweed fabric—language as a fabric—we could say that humankind is a spinning creature, only the artefact being spun in this case is not a piece of finely-woven cloth but a language with ‘a characteristic world-view’ (Weltansicht, 60). Crucially, as Underhill notes, Humboldt used the latter term to refer only to the lexical and grammatical ‘patterning within which we think’ not to any content-laden beliefs whether religious (e.g. Catholic), say, or political (e.g. Nationalist)—he used Weltanschauung (‘world-conception’) for the latter (106). So, while serving various practical needs or instrumental purposes, each language also does something more: it creates what Humboldt called a ‘conceptual fabric and mode of presentation,’ making certain ways of thinking possible (60).

3.1. In so doing, it also draws ‘a circle’ around das Volk to which it ‘belongs’ (angehört). Humboldt’s purpose in adding this further geometrical analogy was not to define a clear cognitive boundary, let alone imagine languages as snares or prison-houses. He wanted only to affirm the benefits of multilingualism in a diverse world, while acknowledging the finite, visceral way we inevitably experience language. ‘To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint’, he remarked in the next sentence, ‘but because we always carry over, more or less, our own world-view, and even our own language-view, this outcome is not purely or completely experienced’ (60). Here the qualifications (‘more or less’, ‘not purely or completely’) are as telling as the distinction between ‘world-view’ and ‘language-view’. In the preceding paragraph, he noted that ‘the native tongue possesses a strength and intimacy so much greater than any foreign one’ not so much because of ‘its mental content’ (the world-view) but because of ‘the very thing that is least explicable and most individual, its sound’ (the language-view or specifically phonology). This reflects the fact that our relationship to language is first and foremost bodily, specifically aural, rather than conceptual or cognitive—hence Humboldt’s emphasis on song. A native speaker cut off from her language for an extended period is likely to experience her re-immersion as a ‘sudden magic’, he wrote, because of the way ‘it greets the ear’ (59). Conversely, when she learns another language, the challenge is not so much to pick up its linguistic-cognitive patterns (the ‘conceptual fabric’) but to adopt its sounds and rhythms, something he believed she could never achieve completely. At some moments, no doubt when its speech patterns were most alien, her already well-trained tongue/brain would betray her visceral embeddedness as the speaker of different first language—hence the Old Testament story of the word ‘shibboleth’ (Judges 12:5-6). Stressing the ineluctable finitude of bodily experience was another feature of Humboldt’s anti-rationalism.

4. His other main purpose in section §9 was to show how the circle purportedly demarcating the circumference of each language can never be rigidly defined. This is in part because each belongs not just to das Volk but to ‘the whole human species’, a fact that makes it all but impossible to conceptualize as a bounded sphere, countable thing or object of positive knowledge (62). What each community might think of as its own language ‘flows out from an unknown wealth that is still to a certain extent discernible’, he observed, but, since it also shares an ‘infinitude, without beginning or end, with the whole existence of mankind’, it ‘then closes off, leaving only a sense of unfathomability’, a ‘dark unrevealed depth’—hence its ‘peculiar existence’ as something that both does and does not express ‘the soul’ (der Seele) of each Volk (62). As this wording suggests, Humboldt’s philosophical idealism was complicated by his anti-rationalism: if each language expresses the ‘soul’ of das Volk, on his account, it never defines its identity once and for all ‘for nowhere, not even in writing, does it have a permanent abode’ (62).

4.1 This peculiarity is also evident at the individual level. ‘When we think how the current generation of a people (einem Volke) is governed by all that their language has undergone, through all the preceding centuries’, he wrote, ‘it then becomes evident how small, in fact, is the power of the individual compared to the might of language’ (63). This sounds like straightforward articulation of linguistic determinism. Yet Humboldt immediately continues: ‘the manner in which language is modified in every individual discloses, in contrast to its previously expounded power, a dominion of man over it’ (63).

4.2 The idea that there is a constant interplay between individual and community, freedom and constraint, change and regularity was central to Humboldt’s philosophy of language. ‘In the influence exerted on [the individual] lies the regularity of language and its forms’, he continued, ‘in his own reaction, a principle of freedom’ (64). This anti-deterministic affirmation of creative potentiality once again put the boundedness of languages in question. By coining new words, importing others, or violating phonetic, orthographic and grammatical rules, any and every member of das Volk (in its populist sense) could, he argued, add to the ‘inexhaustible storehouse’ of the language (61). This aspect of his thinking had a direct influence on the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in the 1920s (see Chapter 3 of the book) and on Noam Chomsky in the 1960s. Yet, as a figure who owed much to the German Romantic tradition of the late-eighteenth century, Humboldt also believed that ‘a genuinely new and great talent’—above all a great writer—could do something more than the ordinary speaker (61). By opening ‘a vista’ beyond ‘the field of past achievements’ and by making it possible to think and feel in ways ‘for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances’, the emergence of a genuinely inventive writer, always an indeterminable event, could both transform a language and advance the ‘intellectual struggle’ of humanity as a whole (61, 64). ‘We should misconceive the nature of language, and violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena’ (64).

4.3 Humboldt returns to the generative capacity of language in section §20 where he describes how ‘the mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed, but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself’ (157). This was because ‘the nature of man has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region’ (157). In effect, simultaneously rejecting the basic tenets of linguistic relativism and determinism, he insisted that it is only by means of language that the ‘conceptual fabric’ of das Volk can be creatively stitched, unstitched and re-stitched, making it possible for new ways of thinking to emerge and its Weltansicht, that is its embedded conceptualizations, to be transformed. Again, he believed inventive writers were central to this, since it is through its literature that the language raises ‘itself to the pure evolution of thought, and to free expression’, and thereby ‘develops its character’ (151).

5. Langer’s translation of the two sentences from Über die Verschiedenheit itself highlights the generative possibilities and the potential perils of ‘stepping out’ of the ‘circle’ of one language into another, even for those as closely linked as German and English. This is especially clear in the case of a word like Volk which, despite having a life in both languages, simultaneously invites various translations, each with a different political inflection (‘people’ vs. ‘nation’), and tests the limits of translatability itself. Much the same can be said for Weltanschauung which the OED treats both as a loanword (itself a questionable metaphor given what it presumes about ownership) meaning ‘a particular philosophy or view of life; a concept of the world held by an individual or a group’ and as a calque (‘world-view’) meaning ‘a set of fundamental beliefs, values, etc., determining or constituting a comprehensive outlook on the world; a perspective on life’. It claims the calque, which it dates to 1848, entered the language twenty years before the direct loan. It also has an entry for Weltansicht, though it identifies it as a rare loanword meaning ‘world-view’ dating from 1892. Each interlingual transfer—loan or calque—added a new thread to the ‘conceptual fabric’ of English, extending its expressive capacity, though, as the definitions suggest, the particular use Humboldt made of the two terms did not make the crossover. In fact, the technical distinction he drew between Weltansicht (which is an exclusively linguistic phenomenon) and Weltanschauung (which encompasses extra-linguistic values and beliefs) remains peculiar to his philosophical lexicon even for speakers of contemporary German. Langer’s translation of den Gegenständen (‘his objects’) and seinen Vorstellungen (‘his perceptions’) raises other questions. While the first can be rendered literally as ‘the objects’, which makes no specific claims about ownership (simply the totality of things in the world, rather than those with which humanity is especially preoccupied), the second can more plausibly be translated as ‘ideas’ or ‘conceptions’ since Vorstellungen have less to do with what is seen with the eyes (the visible surface) than with what is imagined (the conceptual structure), framing rather than looking. Inevitably, with the Latinate English words we also lose some of the ‘conceptual fabric’, specifically the spatial or prepositional underpinnings, of the German originals: ‘objects’ are literally things that stand opposite you (Gegen-stand as ‘towards/against-stand’), whereas the more active ‘conceptions’ put things in front of you (vor-stellen as ‘before-set’).

6. In Humboldt’s original German, the two sentences appear as follows:

Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handeln in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer anderen hinübertritt. (Über die Verschiedenheit, 58-59)

I am grateful to Tobias Heinrich and Tom Kuhn for their advice on various aspects German usage.


Ernst Cassirer, Sprache und Mythos (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1925).

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946).

J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, ed. D. Attwell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). The essay ‘Isaac Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language’ first appeared in the Journal of Literary Semantics, 11.1 (January 1982), 3-13.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (Berlin: Koniglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1836).

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language, trans. P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. 

For further reading on Humboldt and relativity, see Aneta Pavlenko, The Bilingual Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Gunter Senft, et. al., eds, Culture and Language Use (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009); Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

For an engaging contemporary take on the centrality of phonology, which bears comparison to the emphasis Humboldt placed on sound and song, see Ray Jackendoff, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially pp. 43-44 and 103-107.

See also Lera Boroditzki’s blog Notes on Intercultural Communication.

And for a creative engagement with these questions, see Zineb Sedira’s three-part video installationMother Tongue‘ (2002).