Tradition and the Marginalized Talent: Reading Wilson Harris's Carnival as a Postcolonial Revision of Dante's Commedia

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Author: Robert Bennett
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,782 words

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[(essay date spring 1999) In the following essay, Bennett studies the relationship between Harris's Carnival and Dante's Commedia, suggesting that Harris's novel, in its narrative structure and aesthetic form, critiques and reframes the colonialism of Dante's work.]

T. S. Eliot's 1919 essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," advances a theory of modernism that focuses on the dialectical interplay between tradition and innovation as a crucial dimension of modern literature. While this essay and the theory it espouses proved to be a powerful influence on the development of New Criticism in the decades following its publication, by the 1970s Eliot's reverential view of tradition had begun to be replaced with more agonistic theories of tradition like Harold Bloom's. According to Bloom's theory, authors enter into the literary tradition not by reverentially submitting to the weight of tradition but rather by reconfiguring tradition itself through the exertion of their own poetic strength. By valorizing such an agonistic stance against tradition, Bloom's theory provides a useful starting point for theorizing how marginalized writers such as women, ethnic minorities, and victims of colonization might use their marginal position to their advantage: while marginalized writers might be disadvantaged in their attempt to imitate an alien literary tradition, their location on the margins might offer them a distinct advantage for agonistically revising it.

Even though Bloom's theory offers a more agonistic theory of influence, it nonetheless poses severe problems for analyzing postcolonial and other marginalized literatures. In particular, it fails to consider non-western writers' unique relationship to western literary canons, it altogether ignores non-western cultural traditions, and it dismisses the significant role that historical and socio-political forces play in the production of cultural texts. Consequently, numerous feminist and minority theorists have revised Bloom's theories to emphasize how marginalized writers develop a different relationship to the literary tradition. By focusing on the unique position of marginal writers, they critically revise Bloom's theories in two ways. First, they argue that Bloom's attempt to historicize literary criticism does not go far enough, so it needs to be augmented with historical methods of analysis such as Marxism, feminism, or postcolonialism. Second, they criticize Bloom's theory of influence for reducing literary revisionism to a single, monolithic, phallocentric, neo-Freudian paradigm. By exploring marginalized writers different relationships with diverse literary traditions, these critics show how different writers develop complex relationships with multiple literary traditions. Thus, they maintain Bloom's radically dialectical view of influence, but they show that even agonistic literary revisionism itself depends on historical, political, and cultural variables rather than conforming to some universal, essential constant.

Throughout the postcolonial world, numerous authors have produced a wide variety of revisionary dialogues with the literary tradition by imaginatively revising its central canonical texts. Wilson Harris's Carnival, in particular, develops its narrative strategy through a complex, systematic postcolonial revision of Dante's Commedia. Consequently, Carnival provides an excellent example of Bloom's thesis that literary texts are primarily a response, and specifically an agonistic response, to past literary texts. Specifically, Harris develops Carnival's narrative structure,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100102708