About Amardeep Singh
Amardeep Singh is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His book, Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction, was published in 2006 by Cambridge Scholars Press. He has also published essays in journals like Wasafiri, Semeia, and Himal Southasian.
Posts by Amardeep Singh
Monday, August 14, 2006
The Author as ‘Master’: Colm Toibin’s Henry James
1895, London. On the opening night of his play, Guy Domville, Henry James was too nervous to actually stay and watch the performance at the St. James Theatre, where it was to debut. Instead, he went down the street to watch a recently released Oscar Wilde play, An Ideal Husband. James found Wilde’s writing to be vulgar and cheap, but the audience ate it up, laughing uproariously at Wilde’s cheeky epigrams and thin double-entendres; as with most of Wilde’s plays, An Ideal Husband would be a smash success. James himself was a famous novelist at a key moment in his career, and his own play was characteristically refined and carefully written, and some critics in the audience (such as George Bernard Shaw), liked it. But the middle-class people in the galley, who had never heard of Henry James nor read his novels, hated it. When James returned from the Wilde play to take a bow for his own play, he was greeted by a schizophrenic audience—genteel applause upfront, and deafening jeers and catcalls from the people in the rear, who either didn’t understand what he was after or knew perfectly well and had no investment in being polite.
James interpreted the reaction as a sign of catastrophic failure, and never wrote another play. Moreover, from this point on, he essentially gave up in his novels any attempt to please Everyreader. I find it an interesting incident, partly because of the unusual intersection of two very different writers. But it’s also telling as a moment where a writer, who normally maintained a strict line between himself and his readers, actually had to face them in person with total immediacy—only to be rejected. Here, for a moment at least, Henry James was not at all “the master.”
This scene figures prominently in both Colm Toibin’s recent novel The Master, a fictional biography of Henry James, and Leon Edel’s ‘real’, five volume biography, first published in 1969. In this post, I’ll talk about both biographical versions of James in turn, and make some limited comparisons between the two. Toibin, I think, draws heavily (perhaps too heavily) on Edel, but also deviates crucially from Edel’s version of James on the crucial question of James’ personal life.Continue reading "The Author as ‘Master’: Colm Toibin’s Henry James"
Wednesday, July 05, 2006
Contemporary Indian Speculative Fiction
Samit Basu has put together a wonderful series of essays and interviews on the subject of contemporary Indian speculative fiction. It’s really a small encyclopedia rather than a blog post, so here are a couple of pointers on where to start. First and foremost, go here to read about the question of Indian speculative fiction in the context of the recent flourishing of “literary” Indian Writing in English. And here Basu deals with the question of “authentic” Indian superheroes (as opposed to the bad, but familiar, ripoffs of western superheroes). Both are highly recommended links. Basu also gets into some questions about the publishing industry and the current dominance of diasporic writers over writers based in India itself here; the publishing and marketing questions are less intrinsically interesting to me than the nature of the form, but in the case of this particular genre it’s hard to get around them.
As a teaser, one of the gleanings from Samit’s discussion of India-related superheroes is a baddie called “Commcast,” who is defined on Wikipedia as follows:
Garabed Bashur, a native of India, is a cyberpath who possesses the mutant ability to psychically retrieve, interpret and store data from any form of electronic media (essentially a highly potent electronic form of telepathy). He was trained in this ability by Professor Charles Xavier, but Xavier rejected Bashur upon learning of his criminal tendencies. (link)
In an era of outsourcing and the explosion of Indian high tech, it’s not at all surprising to see Marvel Comics go this route. I think it’s funny that they’ve given him a name ("Commcast") that essentially rhymes with the name of my current Cable/Internet company ("Comcast"); and actually, it’s a pretty good name for a villain. (At least they didn’t give him the name “Teevo”...)
Friday, May 26, 2006
The True Story of Ramo Samee, the Indian Juggler (w/quotes from Hazlitt)
I was browsing William Makepeace Thackeray's wonderful and strange The Book of Snobs (1848), and I came across the following odd passage in the midst of a rant about a lady-friend's poor table manners:
I have seen, I say, the Hereditary Princess of Potztausend-Donnerwetter (that serenely-beautiful woman) use her knife in lieu of a fork or spoon; I have seen her almost swallow it, by Jove! like Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler. And did I blench? Did my estimation for the Princess diminish? No, lovely Amalia!
But, my dear fellow, who precisely is "Ramo Samee, the Indian juggler"? It turns out he was a real person, who came to England around 1819, and lived there with his wife (identified only as "Mrs. Samee") until his death in 1851. The juggling history website I looked at also speculates he may have gone to the U.S. and performed as "Sena Sama," in 1817, though that's only speculation. Ramo Samee is considered by some the first modern professional juggler in England, and he was far and away the most famous practitioner of the art in his era. He inspired royalty, journalists, and famous essayists like William Hazlitt. And yet, when Ramo Samee died he was so poor that his wife needed to advertise for financial assistance just to have him buried (cremation, I suspect, was probably not an option). Today he is, aside from the appreciation he gets from a handful of juggling history websites, completely forgotten.
Needless to say, I am pretty ambivalent about Ramo Samee (or "Ramaswamy," probably the more accurate spelling), just as I am about Sabu, Dean Mahomed, and scores of other Indian artists and hustling "Gurus" who work "exotic" stereotypes for western applause. In the African-American tradition this type of performance is called minstrelsy, and it is seen as a shameful kind of pandering to other people's stereotypes.
But Ramo Samee might be a slightly different case at least in the sense that the kind of sword-swallowing and juggling he did is in fact a real historical profession in India, which goes back hundreds of years. So while clearly part of Ramo Samee's appeal was his exotic otherness, he was doing what he did best -- what he had been raised to do. And observers like Hazlitt really did find him to be a performer of astonishing skill. So even if one can't exactly celebrate Ramo Samee's life as a triumph, he is nevertheless an interesting figure to learn about and consider.Continue reading "The True Story of Ramo Samee, the Indian Juggler (w/quotes from Hazlitt)"
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Craig Seligman on First Novels: George Eliot, Henry James, William Faulkner, William Burroughs
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Craig Seligman has a long survey of first novels in Bookforum. The essay is more driven by local observations and insights than it is by a strong thesis, but it’s generally pretty agreeable reading to this blogger. Most of Seligman’s comments on the first novels by the authors above seem correct where I’ve read the novels in question, and suggestive where I haven’t. The essay is also pretty modular—you can pretty much just read his take on the authors you’re interested in. I think it’s a strong piece, but not so strong to prevent me from doing a little nitpicking below the fold.
First, an interesting bit on pseudonyms and gender. Here’s Seligman on Eliot, after Scenes from Clerical Life:
Dickens has written to the mysterious author: “The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of”; as for her pseudonym, “I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman." Clever man.
That is clever of Dickens; I’d be curious to know what made him think that. As a side note, maybe we can draw a connection here to the article on gender and anonymity BitchPhD is working on. (It would be interesting to play “guess the gender” with excerpts from lesser known works from non-canonical authors. Anyone interested?)
Seligman has nothing but love for Adam Bede itself:
Adam Bede goes on sale in February 1859 and is not only a tremendous success (the most popular of Eliot’s novels during her lifetime) but something more, something every first novelist aspires to (preposterously, crazily, but why else break your heart locking yourself away for years on such a dubious labor?): one of the glories of the form.
And here he is on the transition to modernism:
Now comes the Great Impatience: a century of putting the novel to uses—sometimes ingenious uses—that had never been envisioned for it, like a pharmaceutical developed to deal with one malady that turns out to have surprising applications in the treatment of another. Eliot and James, poised before the novel at the outset of their careers, are like Mozart and Beethoven before the symphony: The form is ideally suited to what they have to say, and what they have to say is all they really have to think about. Eventually, James, like Beethoven, realizes that what he has to say is about the form By the new century, novelists have begun striking the novel at odd angles to elicit new sounds, ringing ever-stranger notes from it. They are grappling with the form, and the form is either bending to their vision or stiffening, intransigent.
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Monday, May 15, 2006
Where Women Rule and Mirrors Are Weapons
After my recent post on early Bengali science fiction, Desiknitter suggested in a comment that Sultana’s Dream (1905) by Rokeya Hosain ought to be on the list. She was right: Sultana’s Dream is an intriguing example of a feminist utopia—an imagined world where women are socially and politically dominant over men, and that dominance is seen as natural. Other examples of it include Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1917). Rokeya Hosain led a fascinating, activist life, which bears some looking into. Oh, and the story alludes to an old problem in optics—parabolic mirrors used as weapons—which I’ll talk about a little at the end.
Rokeya Hosain wrote Sultana’s Dream only a short while after learning English. She and her sister showed a remarkable early proclivity for books and ideas even though, as girls, they weren’t actually allowed to learn how to read (eventually, Rokeya’s sister was forced to give up the habit by embarrassed family members). Hosain was married in a ‘love match’ at the age of sixteen to a progressive Bengali Muslim, who fortunately supported women’s education and taught her English. Rokeya wrote Sultana’s Dream, the story goes, when he was away on business. Her goal was to impress him with her skill in English, and by all accounts she more than succeeded. The biographical note in the Feminist Press edition of Sultana’s Dream describes his reaction to the story: he read the whole thing standing up, and uttered, “A splendid revenge!” The story was soon published in a Madras journal.
He meant, of course, “revenge” on men for the repressive system of gender-segregated Zenana (aka ‘Purdah’). For Rokeya Hosain’s Sultana’s Dream is set in a realm where women rule and men are kept away in segregated quarters: the Mardana. This is Hosain’s coinage; it comes from the Urdu word ‘Mard’, meaning ‘man’.Continue reading "Where Women Rule and Mirrors Are Weapons"
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
Was it a Play or a Funeral? Terence Bellew MacManus on Abbey Street (Dublin, 1861)
While reading a book on colonial India at the California E-Scholarship Editions site, I browsed my way into Adrian Frazier’s Behind the Scenes: Yeats, Horniman, and the Struggle for the Abbey Theatre (1990; full text).
In the Preface ("Whose Abbey Theatre?"), one finds a discussion of an event that took place at the site of the Abbey Theatre forty-three years before it was actually opened by Yeats, Gregory, and company. The event is the burial of Terence Bellew MacManus, a rebel from 1848 who was sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). He and a compatriot escaped to California, where MacManus died in January 1861.
A small group of Fenians (including James Stephens) then organized a rather momentous bit of political theater, which Frazier suggests might well be read as theater proper—though his designation begs the question about what, if anything, ought to be called “theater.” Does theater exist as a kind of idealized, autonomous Form, or is the line between various kinds of spectacles (political, religious, theatrical) sufficiently blurry that any public performance using a theatrical presentation should be simply designated more generally (i.e., as “performance")?
What happened in 1861, according to Frazier (and corroborated in bits here and here): the Fenians disinterred MacManus’ body and moved it slowly, first across the continental U.S. to New York, then by ship to Cork, and finally by rail to Dublin. Barred from the putting the body on state in the Pro-Cathedral, they marched the coffin through the streets of both Cork and Dublin, with tens of thousands of supporters participating. MacManus’ coffin was then placed ‘in state’ at the Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street, given last rites by a renegade Dublin priest, and finally reburied at Glasnevin Cemetary in Dublin.Continue reading "Was it a Play or a Funeral? Terence Bellew MacManus on Abbey Street (Dublin, 1861)"
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Early Bengali Science Fiction
I thought I might risk going out on the limb of historical obscurity and share an article by Debjani Sengupta (PDF) on early Bengali science fiction writing.
The article is from the journal Sarai, which is published in Delhi. Some of the articles offer some truly impenetrable jargon -– even with writing on familiar topics (Bollywood, Call Centers, and so on). But there are also a number of well-written and informative articles on things like Parsi theater in Bombay in the 1800s that I would recommend.
On to Bengali science fiction. Even the fact that it existed as early as the 1880s may be a little shocking, since most studies of Bengali literature tend to center around Tagore—who was extremely doubtful about modern technology. (Read his bewildered account of flying in an airplane here.) But the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt in urban India in the 19th century just as keenly as they were in Europe and the U.S., and at least some Indian writing reflected that. Probably the best, most enduring writing in this genre came from a single family –- Sukumar Ray (in the 1910s and 20s) and his son Satyajit Ray, who was a highly accomplished writer when he wasn’t making making world class art films.Continue reading "Early Bengali Science Fiction"
Monday, May 01, 2006
Geoffrey Chaucer Defends Himself Against Charges of Plagiarism
On his blog, Geoffrey Chaucer defends himself against the allegations of plagiarism that have surfaced recently, stating, “Ich dide turne yt from a foule Italienne loue poeme ynto an historiale werke of Englysshe ful of high sentence.” Frater Thomas Walsingham has described the alleged plagiarism and Chaucer’s response to it in a recent broadsheet:
Callynge hymselfe a “huge fan” of Mayster Boccacce his poesie, Mayster Chaucere dide adde, “Aware ich was nat of how much the wordes of Boccacce dide stikke in myn imaginacioun.” Mayster Chaucere dide apologise to the soule of Boccacce and dide saye that his was the laste tyme he wolde model eny wrytynge upon hym in tyme to come, “saue for a smal werke in a frame-tale that ich endite at presente."
(Via Language Log. Also on Language Log, check out this and this. Our colleagues over there are also using semi-quantitative approaches to analyze last week’s other big plagiarism scandal, including Google Book Search and Amazon’s “Search Inside this Book.” They scan for short phrases like “was my age and died” to refute Malcolm Gladwell, who has argued that such phrases are ubiquitous in teen fiction, so their borrowing might be excusable.)
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Trans-speciation: From Margaret Cavendish to China Miéville
The best thing in China Miéville’s The Scar is the character Tanner Sack. Tanner is a prisoner from New Crobuzon (think: London), who is on board the Terpsichoria en route to a slave colony (think: Australia, with apologies to Laura). The ship is hijacked by a particularly terrifying group of pirates from the outlaw city Armada.
Tanner is a Remade, a person who has had involuntary surgery to reconstruct his body in hybrid form. The Remade are either part-animal or part-machine (one character in The Scar has the upper-body of a human woman attached to a coal-powered iron engine, and tank treads instead of legs).
In the anarchic environs of Armada, Tanner Sack learns to use the tentacles that had been implanted on him as a punishment constructively, and comes to think of himself as a water-bound being. Eventually, he comes to the realization that to express himself fully he must in fact have a further operation, and become a true amphibian:Continue reading "Trans-speciation: From Margaret Cavendish to China Miéville"
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory (and a little on Spivak)
[Part of the Spivak event]
This post was partially inspired by John Holbo’s comment on an earlier post: that he doesn’t necessarily mind what theorists do, he only wishes they would be humble and honest enough to disown the role of the all-knowing priest: “Spivak’s essay might have made a decent blog post. As an article, however, it seems to me a lead balloon. The problem is a high level of self-seriousness, combines with a high level of undisciplined messing about.” On the one hand, we could well question this statement: why is it that what makes a good blog post doesn’t make for a good article? Wouldn’t we say that a good number of posts on our respective personal blogs as well as on the Valve are also “undisciplined messing about”? Or we could flip his comment around, and point to various good things one finds in blogging, which go beyond messing about, and which are lacking in Spivak’s essays. Perhaps Spivak is writing a kind of concatenated blog post that doesn’t know what it is?
Two other prefatory/contextual thoughts: First, it isn’t just about whether or not one can stomach Spivak, or Derrida, or Hardt/Negri, or Zizek. The subtext continues to be the question of theory itself, which needs to be reevaluated and perhaps even reinvented. Secondly, I think it’s worth addressing the medium in which we’re trying to have this conversation, which is remarkably unlike the space of an academic conference or an academic journal. What might come of a conversation about theory on a smattering of blogs? How are we talking to each other? (Are we?)
Here I will propose to use ‘blogging’ and ‘theory’ as terms that refer specifically to a practice of writing, not so much an academic culture or an ideological framework. And I’ll ask: what can blogging (not ‘the blogosphere’) say to theory, and what can theory say to blogging?Continue reading "Theorizing Blogging, Theorizing Theory (and a little on Spivak)"
Sunday, April 02, 2006
Realism, Convention, and Ian McEwan’s “Atonement”
I’ve been sitting on a link to an article on realism in the novel by James Wood for awhile (thanks Shehla A.). Recently it came to mind while I was teaching Ian McEwan’s masterful novel Atonement in my contemporary British fiction seminar. I was also thinking about the definition of realism in painting after visiting the Andrew Wyeth retrospective that just opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Below I’ll comment on all three, and argue that all three (Wood, McEwan, and Wyeth) share a certain approach to realism.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
Zadie Smith and the Academic Tomato-Meter
I really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. It seems more mature and better-controlled than White Teeth, and I think part of its success is its relatively narrow focus and frame: it’s a less ambitious novel than White Teeth, and that’s actually a huge relief. Part of Smith’s new humility is her explicit embrace of literary and philosophical precedents. Besides Forster’s Howards End (Etext here), which influences the novel’s structure, theme, and style in dozens of ways, Smith is also clearly thinking quite seriously about current controversies in theories of art and aesthetics. At the opening of one chapter she quotes Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which gives the novel its title and perhaps also provides the bedrock of Smith’s broader argument on academia and aesthetic beauty. And in her acknowledgments Smith cites Simon Schama’s recent tome on Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s Eyes. (Here’s an excerpt) A chapter of Smith’s novel, “The Anatomy Lesson,” is also named after one of his most famous paintings:
I will leave it to the Rembrandt scholars to make sense of the possible self-reflexive commentary on artistic representation in the painting.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Marianne Moore’s Advice to Critics
No, not the “fastidious ants” that inhabit the famous “Critics and Connoisseurs." Today I’m thinking of a different poem, called “Picking and Choosing,” which appeared in the April 1920 issue of The Dial. Here are the first two-and-a-half stanzas (out of six) of the original poem:
Continue reading "Marianne Moore’s Advice to Critics"
Literature is a phase of life: if
one is afraid of it, the situation is irremediable; if
one approaches it familiarly,
what one says of it is worthless. Words are constructive
when they are true; the opaque allusion—the simulated flight
upward—accomplishes nothing. Why cloud the fact
that Shaw is self-conscious in the field of sentiment but is otherwise re-
warding? that James is all that has been
said of him but is not profound? It is not Hardy
the distinguished novelist and Hardy the poet, but one man
“interpreting life through the medium of the
emotions.” If he must give an opinion, it is permissible that the
critic should know what he likes.
Monday, March 06, 2006
Norman Corwin, Poet Journalist
I was intrigued by the Oscar for short documentary, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin (IMDB). So I looked up Corwin, and was impressed by the beauty of the fragments of his writing that are floating around on the internet.
The documentary that won the Oscar looks back at the legendary piece Corwin did celebrating V-E Day, called “On a Note of Triumph.” Here is a bit from the end of Corwin’s original piece, a “prayer”:
Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father’s color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of the little peoples through expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever. (longer excerpt here)
What does the style remind you of? I get equal parts Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. I’m not saying I absolutely love the writing, but rather that I’m surprised and impressed that this type of lyricism was once acceptable in mainstream journalism. Perhaps it works best when reserved for extraordinary circumstances: it would have been thrilling to hear it on the radio at the end of World War II.Continue reading "Norman Corwin, Poet Journalist"
Friday, February 17, 2006
Auden and China
My post on Auden last week generated some challenging comments, which provoked me to look a little more closely at the poems Auden wrote after his trip to China.
My goal isn’t to support my original position on irony and ethical concern, though I still think the word “irony” is appropriate to “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” Rather, here I’d like to consider the sonnets for what they are, and offer some tentative readings.