How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms

How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms

How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms

How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms

Synopsis

In this book, Marc Caplan argues that the literatures of ostensibly marginal modern cultures are key to understanding modernism. Caplan undertakes an unprecedented comparison of nineteenth-century Yiddish literature and twentieth-century Anglophone and Francophone African literature and reveals unexpected similarities between them. These literatures were created under imperial regimes that brought with them processes of modernization that were already well advanced elsewhere. Yiddish and African writers reacted to the liberating potential of modernity and the burdens of imperial authority by choosing similar narrative genres, typically reminiscent of early-modern European literatures: the picaresque, the pseudo-autobiography, satire, and the Bildungsroman. Both display analogous anxieties toward language, caught as they were between imperial, "global" languages and stigmatized native vernaculars, and between traditions of writing and orality. Through comparative readings of narratives by Reb Nakhman of Breslov, Amos Tutuola, Yisroel Aksenfeld, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Isaac Meyer Dik, Camara Laye, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Wole Soyinka, Y. Y. Linetski, and Ahmadou Karouma, Caplan demonstrates that these literatures' "belated" relationship to modernization suggests their potential to anticipate subsequent crises in the modernity and post-modernity of metropolitan cultures. This, in turn, leads him to propose a new theoretical model, peripheral modernism, which incorporates both a new understanding of "periphery" and "center" in modernity and a new methodology for comparative literary criticism and theory.

Excerpt

“ … [A]s a Jew, I was acquainted, as perhaps a Negro might be,
with the alien and the divided aspect of life that passed from sight
at the open approach, but lingered, available to thought, ready to
reveal itself to anyone who would inquire softly. I had come to
know a certain homelessness in the world…. the world is not
entirely yours; and our reply is: very well then, not entirely. There
were moments, however, when this minor world was more than
universe enough.”

—Isaac Rosenfeld, Passage from Home (1946)

Just as Eleazar ben Azaryah declares in the Passover Haggadah that “I am likened to a man of seventy years but lacked the merit to claim that one recalls the exodus at night until I heard the explanation of Ben Zoma,” so too had I been at work on a comparison of Yiddish literature with Anglophone and Francophone African literature for what felt like seventy years without being able to articulate my motivations, until I attended my teacher Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s lecture at the 2001 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in New Orleans, Louisiana, entitled “Out of Africa: Language, Knowledge, and Empowerment.” As always, Ngugi gave an inspiring presentation, defending the right and necessity of Africans to preserve their native languages against the hegemony of globalization, American popular culture, and the English language. These comments offered a rejoinder to the often-implicit assumptions that intellectual work in Africa necessitates writing in a colonial language; that an African culture ceases to exist when it is not perceived by the colonizer; and that the processes of globalization are inevitable, irresistible, and irreversible. Yet the highlight of Ngugi’s address occurred at the end of his remarks, when the Native American poet Simon Ortiz addressed Ngugi in his native Acoma Pueblo language. the audience reacted ecstatically, and more so when Ngugi re-

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