The Literature Conference 1994, Kuala Lumpur, 8 November 1994
The theme of this conference, "Ethnocentric Perspectives in Literature", is indeed very contentious. Certainly, for some, it holds out great expectations, particularly to the so-called marginalized group who will seize the opportunity to continue their assault on the canonical texts in literature. On the other hand, to others it bears the signs of the times, carrying with it the ominous forebodings of the possible nemesis of literature brought about by this winter of discontent.
The sub-text of this conference theme would suggest sympathy with the "School of Resentment" in contemporary literary criticism. As literature may be viewed as the voice of a community, it is not difficult to comprehend the historical reasons and other antecedents that give rise to this school. Understandably, as an upshot of the decolonizing process there was this burning desire to assert one's identity. These are the voices of protest -- against domination, exploitation and other forms of social injustice. Nevertheless, it would be a tragedy indeed if discourses on literature turn out to be nothing more than mere battlefields for the war between the opposing literary schools, namely, the stalwarts of the Western canon on the one hand, and the resenters of the Dead European Males on the other.
For those who have had to endure the whips and scorns of marginalization, the idea of cultivating a view of our own does seem rather invigorating. If not more, it certainly holds out the prospects of literary empowerment with this profound psychological weapon called "ethnocentric criticism". Lest we get carried away by this politics of complaint, we should be reminded of the exhortation by Edward Said of the pitfalls of compromising our intellectual integrity for the cause of "defensive, reactive and even paranoid nationalism". This is notwithstanding that he may well be one of the prime movers of the culture of resentment. It is also a theme imaginatively explored by Ali Mazrui, in his tale of the trial of Christopher Okigbo, having to answer in the afterlife why, in his earthly life as a poet, he subjected his art to the narrowness of tribalism.
Of course, one has to fight to be heard. But to abandon the ned for discernment between the good and the bad, between the great and the trivial, solely because we demand to be heard, is a new form of enslavement albeit self-imposed. Literature is not all about taste for which there is no accounting -- de gustibus non est disputandum. We have to separate the wheat from the chaff as indeed there is literature and there are books and the two shall never meet. For reasons of cultural and ethnic diversity, literary standards may and indeed do differ. But whether the emphasis should be on cognitive acuity, linguistic energy of power of imagination, all great literary works must withstand the test of time. Even as we pamper ourselves with the appreciation of the great works we ought not shut our minds to the emergence of the new literatures. Great literature emancipates and does not enslave. It is indeed significant that Harold Bloom's most recent book, The Western Canon, includes non-western works as part of the Canon. While we are quite familiar with, and for some have grown accustomed to, the anti-Islamic rhetoric, the following remarks of Bloom's bear analysis: "... once the reader is conversant with the Bible, Homer, Plato, Athenian dramatists, and Virgil, the crucial work is the Koran. Whether for its aesthetic and spiritual power or the influence it will have upon all of our futures, ignorance of the Koran is foolish and increasingly dangerous."
No doubt, the debate will continue, and it is not without its intrinsic value. But the more pressing concern of our society today is to arrest the waning interest in literature itself. There appears to be a preoccupation, quite unwarranted, with the pursuit of the mundane and the utilitarian, so much so that any attempt to indulge in the arts is sneered at. Even as we are becoming richer economically, we are becoming poorer culturally. Our society is indeed being threatened by shallowness, and a rising tide of philistinism. If nothing is done, we are surely heading towards a cultural wasteland.
Apart from religion, it is literature that will enable us to regain the fullness of our humanity. Literature, according to Lionel Trilling, is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precide account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty. Malaysia is endowed with, I dare say, all the necessary ingredients for the creation of a unique body of literature, simply by drawing upon the rich heritage of our cultural, religious and ethnic multiplicity. Given the right attitude, and the requisite commitment, the possibilities for cultural enrichment through literature are indeed limitless.
I believe it would not be asking too much of our educationists to formulate measures to enable our students, as early as possible, to be exposed to the great works of world literature. While ensuring that they are also well entrenched in our traditional works, let us not continue to force-feed our children a diet of trivia, which stunts their intellectual growth and leads to literary undernourishment. If our creative potential is to be realized at all, we must emancipate ourselves from the narrow confines of ideology, gender, language or ethnicity. There must be a resolve to rise above mediocrity, break the habit of self-congratulation, and put an end to intellectual inbreeding.
It may seem somewhat odd to some people why, in the age of economics, we keep insisting on the primacy of culture. Apart from the value of literature and the arts in the refinement of the human personality, we believe the influence of cultural forces in shaping a new world order will become more prominent in the years to come. We already know from William Blake that "Empire follows Art, and not vice versa..." Likewise, the re- ordering of the global environment must be preceded by the changing balance of cultural influence. Not only have we to fortify ourselves against ever increasing cultural bombardment, we have to be able to make a positive and lasting contribution to a new world civilization which is just and equitable.
Even today, trade and commerce is no longer a simple matter of supply and demand. Values invariably come into play. Whilst we reject the protectionist linking of trade with non-economic issues, we are fully aware that commerce and culture cannot be wholly separated. We ourselves advocate a holistic concept of economic development, infused with humanitarian values. Even as we stress the need for pragmatic and utilitarian policies in addressing current challenges, our ultimate goal must be moral and ethical progress. As we forge economic and commercial linkages with other nations, we coterminously seek to enhance cultural intercourse. It would be inevitable that questions such as human rights and the environment, for example, will be examined in such encounters -- but not without a genuine empathy with the complexities of the problems.
Taking this dialectic to a more universal level, the civilizations of the world must engage in continuous dialogue, which is the sine qua non for the establishment of what Dante envisaged as "the universal community of the human race". It cannot be achieved without, in the first place, a deeper appreciation, on the part of each of the great divides of humanity -- East and West, North and South -- of the values which the other side lives by. It is in literature that we will find the key to attain this goal. For only in the great literary works do we find reposed the noblest and most virtuous characters of humanity, juxtaposed with the most depraved and the most vicious. Whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, is of no consequence. Literature enables us to bridge the chasm of our individual separateness to partake in the universality of the human condition.