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If, as Eric J. Cassell suggests in The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, “Suffering occurs when an impending destruction of the person is perceived; [and] continues until the threat of disintegration has passed or until the integrity of the person can be restored in some manner,” and that suffering is due to both emotional and physical conditions, then there has been much suffering concentrated into the year that was 2020.1 All definitions of suffering have to find a way of aligning two central vectors: the Self as category has to be defined in all its variegated possibilities and contradictory levels and then correlated to the category of World. But often Self and World are not easily separable even for heuristic purposes given the boundaries of one overlap with the other and the two are often completely co-constitutive. Although the Self may disintegrate in direct response to reversals of fortune, it may also, properly speaking, suffer an experience of painful biographical discontinuity simply at losing the capacity to produce a coherent account of the world to itself and to others.2 This sense of incoherence is central to the conditions that were experienced under colonialism and its aftermath in many parts of the world, where the instruments for making meaning both communally and individually were often seen to have been compromised by the impositions of colonial history.
Tragedies about the suffering of migrants are not a new phenomenon. So this article quickly turns to texts from classical antiquity by Aeschylus and Euripides. It focuses, however, on poetry written over the last decade. Following the routes taken by asylum seekers from Africa and Asia through such transit points as Lampedusa and across Europe to Calais, it looks at depictions of the suffering associated with travel, disaster, and problematic arrival, and at the interaction in tragic writing between old motifs and conventions (tragedy as understood by Aristotle or Hegel) and current issues and resources. Fresh insights are offered into the work of poets from migrant backgrounds (Warsan Shire, Ribkha Sibhatu) and into a range of modes from lyric (James Byrne) through experiments with translation and performance (Caroline Bergvall) into the late modernism of Geraldine Monk, J. H. Prynne, and Jeff Hilson.
This article theorizes the Zimbabwean writer Stanlake Samkange’s turn from the novel to philosophy as an effort to circumvent the representational pressure exerted by African cultural traumatization. In breaking with the novel form to coauthor a philosophical treatise called Hunhuism or Ubuntuism in the same year as Zimbabwe achieves independence (1980), Samkange advances a comportment-based, deontological alternative to the psychic or subjective model of personhood that anchors trauma theory. Revisiting the progression from his most achieved novel, The Mourned One, to Hunhuism or Ubuntuism thus offers fresh insight into the range of options available to independence-era writers for representing the relationship between African individuality and collectivity. At the same time, it suggests a complementary and overlooked relationship between novelistic and philosophical forms in an African context.
Cynicism styles itself as the answer to the mental suffering produced by disillusionment, disappointment, and despair. It seeks to avoid them by exposing to ridicule naive idealism or treacherous hope. Modern cynics avoid the vulnerability produced by high ideals, just as their ancient counterparts eschewed dependence on all but the most essential of material needs. The philosophical tradition of the Cynics begins with the Ancients, including Diogenes and Lucian, but has found contemporary valence in the work of cultural theorists such as Peter Sloterdijk. This article uses theories of cynicism to analyze postcolonial disappointment in Irish modernism. It argues that in the “ambi-colonial” conditions of early-twentieth-century Ireland, the metropolitan surety of and suaveness of a cynical attitude is available but precarious. We therefore find a recursive cynicism that often turns upon itself, finding the self-distancing and critical sure-footedness of modern, urbane cynicism a stance that itself should be treated with cynical scepticism. The essay detects this recursive cynicism in a number of literary works of post-independence Ireland, concluding with an extended consideration of W. B. Yeats’s great poem of civilizational precarity, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”
I hypothesize that tragedy is the genre best suited to represent climate catastrophe. Tragedy, I contend, is committed to diagnosing the ideological and material conditions that make for mass, undeserved suffering—conditions of colonization and racialization, for instance, in Greek and modern drama and in modern tragic fiction. Not only does tragedy reveal injurious forms of power, it stages or incites rebellious collective action against them. These features of literary tragedy, I suggest, are non-Aristotelian. Aristotle lodges the source of crisis in individuals, who inadvertently cause their own misfortunes and suffer from them. The literary tragedy that I theorize, however, locates the origins of communal suffering in external agents of death and domination.
Examining the contestation of interpretations around this work, I argue that the proliferation of exegetical material on Sophocles’s Antigone is related to a noncomprehension of the human motives behind her transgressive action. Did she ever love, and is there any suffering in her piety? If she didn’t love (her brother), could she have suffered? I read the play alongside Kamila Shamsie’s postcolonial rewriting of it in Home Fire to elaborate on the relationship between personal loss and collective (and communal) suffering, particularly as it is focalized in the novel by the figure of a young woman who is both a bereaved twin and a vengeful fury.
In the 1920s, the Palestinian ethnographer Tawfiq Kan‘an examined the physical and narrative construction of Palestinian space by cataloguing the living archive of Palestinian sanctuaries. His collection of narratives, imbued in the sacred space of the “shrine, tomb, tree, shrub, cave, spring, well, rock [or] stone” is suggestive of cultural anthropologist Keith Basso’s elaboration of “place-making” as learned from the Western Apache. Articulating two modes of disruption, place-making narratives preserve indigenous culture in the face of colonial conquest and unsettle colonial paradigms of spatial belonging and exclusion. Despite the efforts of settler colonial erasure, this interpolative practice has been carried through Palestinian narrative traditions into the present. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2007) illustrates an indigenous mode of seeing, creating, and contesting spatial narratives, disclosing the role of place-making in contemporary Palestinian literature.
This article examines the aesthetics of representing female sexuality within colonial narratives of the West–East encounter. I consider two literary works whose female characters challenge the gendered metaphors of empire that predominated in a tradition of colonial literature and its postcolonial rewriting: the short story “La femme adultère” by the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus, and the novel Wāḥat al-ghurūb by Egyptian writer Bahāʾ Ṭāhir. In each text, the standard heterosexual troping of imperial conquest as a male activity directed at or against a feminized other is inverted to place a European woman’s sexually aroused body at the center of the drama of colonial contact. Reading these two texts against the grain of the aesthetic formulas that they employ to contemplate the political stakes of cross-cultural intimacies in a colonial setting, I argue that the phenomenological immediacy of how the female protagonist in each is shown to experience the eroticism of colonial space introduces a break in these formulas. The loss of narrative plausibility in each text that follows from these erotic interludes, I propose, ultimately testifies to the irreducibility of the body to either enforcing or disputing the epistemologies of the colonial project.
Book Forum on Kélina Gotman’s Choreomania: Dance and Disorder