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Some Questions about the Indian Art Market discusses some issues pertaining to India's booming art market today and reflects on its reliability to the investor in art.
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Phalanx SpacerLetter to the Editor
A sharply critical response to the review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss in the first issue of Phalanx and also a reply to this criticism from the reviewer.
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Reclaiming the Present for Colonialism
Since the lecture finds itself exhibited on the Reserve Bank of India's web page, this piece reflects on Meghnad Desai's First P. R. Brahmananda Memorial Lecture delivered on September 20, 2004 at Mumbai, in which the economist attempts to draw similarities between the economic growth of India during the last 40 years of the 19th century and the neo-liberal era following 1991.
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Development and Accounting Malpractice
This is a reaction to a key argument offered those (especially industrialists) favoring large scale development of 'backward states' who appear to be riding on an accounting malpractice.

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The Age of Shiva: A Novel by Manil Suri
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Phalanx SpacerArticles list of Issue
Coffee as a Global Commodity
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A Study of the Finances of Karnataka After 2000
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The Choices Involved in the Nuclear Deal
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Pluto: A Human Comedy
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In Search Of A Family Doctor
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The World as Narrative
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Things fall apart: The cinematic rendition of the agrarian landscape in Kerala
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uses and ab uses: Baudrillard, simulacra
and America
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A Novelist on 'Writing the Self'
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Home > Contents > Article: MK Raghavendra
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Response to the review of The Inheritance of Loss
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Gayatri Devi
Mr.Raghavendra's review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss provoked many questions in me. I am curious to know more about the evident interest in the review to "read" Desai's novel as some sort of a testament to what Raghavendra calls "theory," evidently an epistemological and textual reading practice he holds in barely concealed disdain. Why would a review of the novel include a digression on the alleged shortcomings of "theory"? For instance, it is rather lazy to say that Desai's novel "If it is sensitive, it is not so much to experience as to the hazards of falling foul of theory and theorists." How does Raghavendra know that the novel is not sensitive to "experience"? Whose experience might that be? Moreover, why pit "experience" against "theory" and "theorists"? Raghavendra does not clarify the theory, theorists and theoretical school that Desai allegedly panders to with this novel, though his reference to Gayatri Spivak leads me to believe that most of the disdain is directed at deconstruction, a form of reading practice and epistemological critique, as we understand it in literary studies. It is also curious that Raghavendra would use criteria such as the following to read a literary text: "To use an analogy from science, the first criterion that a theory must fulfill is that it must be 'vulnerable'. A theory that cannot be falsified is evidently worthless and 'falsification' implies measuring it against experience." What is the worthless "theory" that Desai is propounding in this novel? Raghavendra does not specifically say what it is. The sort of empirical positivist approach that Raghavendra appears to favor-"falsification implies measuring it against experience"- might work in science, but it is never the most fruitful way to read literature. You bring your empirical stack and I will bring mine; that does not really tell us anything about any work of literature being discussed. In fact, in Raghavendra's empiricist reading of the novel, most of Desai's description has no "use." Desai's description of Cho Oyu as situated "'at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga' is a gratuitous cinematic image, Raghavendra asserts. It is not; the five peaks of the Kanchenjunga frame the eventual reunion of Biju and Cook in a sublime, emblematic moment; the mountain peaks contain the emotion of that reunion. Ultimately Raghavendra's review of the book speaks more about himself than about Desai's novel. The relationship of people to money is Raghavendra's interest in this novel; thus his insistence on finding the "function" and "usefulness" of this novel. It is interesting that Raghavendra wants every subtle effect spelt out flatly: he complains "Biju works in an eatery in Manhattan but we don't learn much about the social lives of immigrant laborers or the precise economic relations they are governed by. Since Biju eventually loses everything, it would only be by letting the reader see the trouble taken to earn the money that Biju's story might have been made tragic." That is precisely the point of the novel; Biju's loss of money is not tragic to Desai; he comes back to Kalimpong because the American Dream is a fantasy and he figures it out. Thus Desai's tendentious use of Borges's great poem "The Boast of Quietness" as the epigraph to the novel: "My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty." Every inheritance is tinted, tainted with loss. This is a mature insight from such a young author. It would have been useful if the review considered the narrative, political or epistemological levels of the novel. Where does it stand on issues? How do the different levels of the text-narratological, political, epistemological-- interact with each other to produce meaning? It would be useful to hear criticisms of Desai's novel along those lines. And there are valid criticisms to be made on each of these aspects. Raghavendra does not offer any such readerly insights in his review. He merely makes some hackneyed complaints against "theory" and "theorists." Also it is not clear at all what Raghavendra means when he says that "When Desai gives Gyan and Biju voices, for instance, it is not because she has any understanding of people like Gyan and Biju and their actual situations." Gyan and Biju are fictional characters created by Desai; what does Raghavendra mean by their "actual situations"? Stranger still is Raghavendra's professed intent in his review: "A new work of fiction is perhaps like an unknown object and needs to be described and classified accurately, its intended function determined before its usefulness can be evaluated." It is very curious that Raghavendra would use such blatantly anthropological language to speak about a work of fiction, as if he is an "expert" who obviously has the interpretive tools and authority necessary to "describe" and "classify" an "object" to "determine" its "function" and to "evaluate" its usefulness." When did book reviews become anthropological discourses at the expense of reading and responding to texts as singular works of literature?
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Gayatri Devi teaches world literature and linguistics at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania
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Reply from reviewer
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I have difficulties with this response and can only get its general thrust. Phalanx is printing it without changes so that the intrepid reader can make more of its arguments. Take the following words for instance: "Desai's tendentious use of Borges' great poem The Boast of Quietness.." The Oxford Dictionary indicates that the word 'tendentious' is normally used in a derogatory way. If this is so, how can a writer (apparently deserving our admiration) be lauded for making 'tendentious' use of a great poem? This provides evidence that Gayatri Devi employs language in a rather unfamiliar way and I will therefore excuse myself from replying to her criticism point by point, only making a few observations of my own about constructing meaning in literary fiction and how 'Theory' is related to it.
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A novel (like any text) yields different kinds of meaning depending on who is interpreting it and to what purpose. The 'evaluation' of the text (the task of the 'reviewer critic' but not the 'interpreter critic') depends on how he/she has read it. Still, all readings cannot become the basis of 'reviews' (i.e. the basis of evaluations) and I will duly expand upon this here.
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To my understanding, the four broad ways of making meaning of a text are:
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1. The reader constructs a concrete world out of the text and simply looks at the story, its construction and the use of language. In the case of Kafka's Metamorphosis, for instance, this would be to understand what happens to Gregor Samsa, the relationship between the different people, how they respond to him and why.
2. The reader moves up a level of abstraction and assigns a conceptual meaning to the text. Metamorphosis could now become a treatise on the way people react to human suffering.
3. 3. The reader may construct a symbolic or implicit meaning. Metamorphosis could, for instance, be probed for its religious symbols and it could be about Original Sin. Why does Gregor Samsa suffer thus and are there pertinent references to his kind of fate in the Old Testament?
4. If 1, 2 and 3 assume that the text knows what it is doing, the perceiver/ reader may also construct a 'repressed' or 'symptomatic' meaning, assuming that the text does not know what it is doing. The symptomatic meaning of Metamorphosis could include Kafka's castration complex or an incestuous longing for his mother or sister. The repressed meaning is not necessarily psychoanalytical and could also be political/ ideological. It might imply racial prejudice, for instance, or it might contain an implicit discourse privileging certain power structures. As opposed to 1, 2, and 3 above, 4 is a 'deep' interpretation though this 'depth' has nothing to do with profundity.
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These meanings are, generally speaking, different territories apportioned between different kinds of readers. I will suggest that the lay reader confines himself/herself to (1) and (2) above. Number (3) is usually the territory of the literary essayist who appropriates for himself/herself the freedom to deal with the material in any way he/she chooses. Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, concerns himself exclusively with the kind of insect Gregor Samsa becomes - whether cockroach or dung beetle - and the bearing this has on the world of the novel. Territory (4) is the chosen space of the academic critic and it is where 'Theory' is usually employed.
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Evaluation of a novel (through a 'review') is required in the novel's early history and one does not therefore 'review' Kafka today. Since evaluation through a review is usually done for the benefit of the lay reader, the reviewer examines the same aspects that the lay reader might be attentive to, i.e. plot construction, language, characterization, its view of life etc. The reviewer also uses everyday language in which words carry their understood meanings. The word 'experience' used in my review, therefore, has no more than its usual connotations, the same connotations that Gayatri Devi might admit when away from her university.
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The symptomatic meaning is not relevant to a 'review' - and not only because Kafka's incestuous longings might not do him credit. The author writing the novel addresses the general reader (and the reviewer) because he/ she seek immediate responses and approval rather than an exposť of his/her latent phobias or prejudices which might not be of much benefit to him/her, which is not to say that the uncovering of a prejudice or a phobia in a piece of writing cannot do the image of a writer any harm. Still, generally speaking, academic criticism and Theory may be useful in the study of literature but they are as pertinent to literary practitioners (and the production of literature) as ornithology is to birds.
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A problem with some writers of literary fiction today is their addressing the academic rather than the lay reader; the outcome they hope for is not the satisfied book lover as much as the scholar working on his/her PhD thesis. Perhaps they labor under the misapprehension that their own worth is directly proportional to the number of pages written about their phobias. In my review of The Inheritance of Loss I detected this tendency in Kiran Desai that I (being a reviewer) found appalling, but which is welcomed by Ms Gayatri Devi because she is an academic and looks for 'symptoms' rather than readable fiction.
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M.K. Raghavendra
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