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Bengali, English and the anxiety of influence -The Asian Age


Roughly speaking, there are two models of literary/ cultural influence and originality to choose from. One is that proposed in T. S. Eliot's classic essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", where he suggests wisely, pithily and to some extent gnomically, that a great writer can only be born when he or she has mastered the classics of his or her culture.

In this view, originality is at a discount; what matters is mastering tradition, for Eliot is at pains to say that one cannot passively accept it but must labor to get the greatness of the greats of the past in one's veins if one is to come up with something really new.

Only then can one hope to extend that tradition and claim a place in it! The other view of influence is the much more radical one proposed by the American critic Harold Bloom: According to him, and I simplify what is really a provocative, even outrageous thesis: a great poet becomes great by, so to speak, wrestling his ancestor poet to the ground and finishing him off, appropriating what he needs, and even mis-reading him perversely, as it were, energized by what he calls "the anxiety of influence".

These two models of literary/cultural influence may at first appear mutually exclusive, for the first implies appropriating tradition even a foreign one! for use by an individual or a culture and the second suggests that the successor poet must mis-appropriate and react against whatever his ancestor poet has to offer.

In fact, they are essentially complementary. For the great and strong writer, as opposed to the weak and enervated one, not intent on imitating or replicating past masters, will muster the classical writers only to upset, subvert and go beyond them creatively. It is only thus that the truly original writer is born mastering and re-visioning his or her ancestors; it is only thus a tradition is revitalized, by taking over and going beyond its own to other traditions. .

If all this sound too abstruse, let us try to illustrate our proposition that we need to be influenced if only to be original through appropriation as well as misappropriation by taking some concrete examples. Would the glorious flowering that we know as the European renaissance been born if the Greek and Latin classic had not been transmitted to the west in the early modern era?

But the writers of the renaissance were great precisely because they were not content to mimic and mummify the classics as was the wont of the medieval schoolmen whose work it was to mostly collect, translate and transmit the classics for posterity but whose reverence for authority made them unable to rebel or recast what they were intent on hoarding as treasures.

But perhaps we can clarify the importance not only of mastering tradition but also rebelling against it for original work by taking concrete instances of poets and not merely literary periods. Would Wordsworth have been able to write his masterpiece, The Prelude, if he had not mastered Milton?

Would he have gone anywhere with his attempt to write an epic if he had not rejected his immediate predecessors neo-classical poets like Dryden and Popewho were bent on imitating/replicating the Greek and Latin epics in every possible way?

Or to take an example from Bengali literature, would Jibanananda Das be the sublime poet that he is and the greatest poet of the post-Rabindranath era if he had not known Rabindranath well enough to know that there was no future under that great banyan tree that poet had become for his contemporaries?

In other words, knowing Rabindranath and the Bengali poetic tradition intimately, had not the young and inwardly rebellious Jibanananda decided that he had to come out of his and its overarching influence by turning to the modernizing western tradition represented by Yeats, Eliot and Auden to become the first and the greatest modern poet of Bengali literature?

II

To sum up my argument till now: just as with the individual talent, a culture or a tradition can only extend, fortify and enrich itself by exposing itself to other cultures and traditions. No man or woman is an island and no language, nation or culture can grow up or mature or mutate into something more than it is by isolating itself from other languages, nations and cultures.

After all, don't we know that incest is awful from the genetic point of view! Narcissus, we are told, drowned out of self-love. Let us remember, also that nationalism/patriotism is often the last refuge of the jingoistic politician.

Not that a nation would be what it is without nationalism, but there comes a time when its citizens must realize that mere nationalism can lead to a cul de sac just as the healthy individual must know that solipsism can be suicidal! Isn't that the reason that Rabindranath the greatest Bengali writer till now opted against nationalism and urged a universal vision and isn't this the true legacy of the viswa kabi?

Bangladesh grew out of the language movement and linguistic nationalism definitely ignited the spark that led to our independence. We will always celebrate Ekushey February and honor our language martyrs till eternity; as we are all aware, anyone who ignores history is condemned to repeat it.

But the righteous indignation that led us to despise those who would make Urdu the only state language of the people of East Pakistan and propelled us towards liberation had served its primary purpose by the end of 1971.

We now have not merely Ekushey February and the Boi Mela but also Pahela Boisakh, Boshonto Utsav and the treasures of our literature, music and dance as testimonies of the vibrancy of our national culture and its overwhelming and validating presence in our national life.

And, of course, Bengali is well-entrenched as the state language even as we are beginning to recognize that the primacy of the language must not blind us to the other "mother languages" that thousands and thousands of our people have.

But why must we concentrate all our resources on being a monolingual nation? And why must the cultivation of Bengali be an excuse to marginalize the English language and push it into a corner? Can we imagine Bengali literature to be what it is if it had not been fertilized by English in the early nineteenth century?

Would there be Bankim Chandra Chatterjee without Sir Walter Scott and Michael Madhushudhon Dutta without Milton? Indeed, can one imagine Rabindranath's poetry without the Romantic and pre-Raphaelite poets, his novels and stories without his reading of English and European fiction short or long and his paintings without western painterly expressionism?

For that matter, would we have Bengali modernism without the European modernism that came to Bengal via the English language? Surely much that is good in contemporary Bangladeshi writing too would not have been possible without exposure to postmodernism, science fiction, or the works of Latin American authors such as Garcia Marquez whom we read in English translations! Would we be able to access the paradigm shifts that have taken place in the humanities and social sciences since the poststructuralist revolution not to mention the paradigm shifts that have taken place in the hard sciences, medicine and engineering since the nineteen-sixties without the conduit of English?

And yet there are people in Bangladesh who did their best to ensure throughout the seventies and eighties and even in the early nineties of the last century that English education be downgraded and the language made to look responsible for all sorts of evils. The animus that was directed against Urdu till 1971 seemed to have been redirected by not a few educated people who should have known better against English, although the archetypal colonizers had departed by 1947.

In the 1970s, heady with a cocktail made out of nationalism and socialism, and oblivious of the dangers of chauvinism, some "progressive" intellectuals cried out against English, forgetting that it had nothing to do with the Pakistani interregnum in our part of the world.

I remember reading a fatuous comment by a leading professor of Bengali of the University in Dhaka immediately after the liberation of Bangladesh that implied that now that Urdu had been driven out we would have to decide if we were going to keep English or opt for French or German if we had to choose a second language.

Things got worse when in the 1980s the Great Dictator, as grotesque and as omnivorous as Charlie Chaplin's movie monster, declared with an eye to populism that English would no longer be taught in degree colleges. He did his best, let us remember, to minimize its presence in Bangladesh although his son was sent to an English-medium school.

And, yes, there were no shortage of arguments put forward by well-meaning but short-sighted intellectuals and politicians to drive English out of the country for a long time. For instance, we heard that retaining English and allowing English medium schools would increase inequality.

This is undoubtedly a cogent-seeming argument, but is the cause of disparity in income and discrimination in our country the English language or is social inequality really caused by a fundamentally inequitable society operating under the laws of capitalism in its rampant phase?

Isn't it actually the case that bias in the job market will lessen if Bengali-medium schools produce students with adequate if not excellent English skills as was the case in the 1950s and 1960s, where English medium institutions had no real impact on private employers and head-hunters, whether government or private?

The final blow in the downsizing of English came surely from the DFID/British Council sponsored plan to teach what British universities and their ELT graduates branded optimistically as "Communicative English" in the 1990s. The chief consequence of this and the other "initiatives" discussed above was that the infrastructure that had produced Bengalis who knew Bengali perfectly and English adequately till the 1970s was done away with.

From the mid-1990s our schools and colleges began producing graduates supposedly equipped with English language "communicative "skills propagated through the "teaching" of English for Today, the textbook created by ELT "experts" mostly created and promoted by the British Council/DFID scheme, but the truth was that the products of this pedagogy knew little or no English because only the skeleton of the language was being taught to them by their trainers and that too through rote learning in most places.

The consequences of all these developments are thinness in our cultural productions, etiolating of knowledge, especially as far as higher studies in most subjects are concerned, and impoverishment of the sensibility of a great number of people.

We now produce politicians who have little or no sense of the traditions of democracy, students who get their knowledge of the subject they are supposed to be specializing in from potted versions of textbooks and half-digested class notes, and scientists and intellectuals who suffer from a time lag as far as their knowledge is concerned.

No wonder by the turn of the millennium English medium schools and colleges were flourishing as never before and private universities advertising that their curriculum was based on English, for if parents could, would they send their children to institutions that produced graduates with little or almost no ability to communicate orally or verbally in English?

III

What Bangladesh needs now for sure is not only to ensure that Bengali keep its pride of place in the national curriculum but also that English be cultivated assiduously at all levels of education as the second language.

The National Education Policy adopted by the Government of Bangladesh was obviously a step in the right direction in the way it stressed that the language be taught from the primary level but I believe that we have to go even further as we move into this new millennium by declaring English as the second language of the country.

But what we need also is to get rid of the bunkum of so-called "Communicative English" and reject all short-term, quick-fix solutions to teach the language.

We also need to go back to traditional ways of teaching that had worked well in our part of the world for generations and that is still working well in our neighboring country, incorporating, of course, the best of ELT pedagogy that prescribes drills and teaching methodology appropriate for large classrooms. But more reading, more writing, more grammar and translation work and an attempt to make classrooms participatory must be the solutions to our English woes.

The bulk of our teachers, too, need to be retrained, for we have largely lost the old generation of skilled English teachers by now and have mostly the products of the sandwich English courses disseminated by the "communicative method" and the English for Today textbook circulating since the end of the last century working in our schools and colleges.

And as for our literary/cultural nationalists, I would like to stress that they need not have any anxiety of the English language overpowering Bengali in the years to come. They must realize that mastering past masters of other cultures as well as contemporary classics of English literature and other literatures through the medium of English will enrich our language and literature. Undoubtedly, English will become even more indispensable for higher education than it is now in a fast globalizing world.

Mustering the greats of other traditions through the medium of English for our use can only do us good. And if it produces any anxiety of influence in us in the Bloomian sense, which is to say, if it makes our writers decide to re-vison and reject western styles after taking a hard look at them so that they can create their own authentic idiom, that can only be salutary for our nation!


The writer is Pro-Vice-Chancellor,
East West University, Dhaka