NEW YORK — “Contrapuntal reading,” as Edward Said called it, is the ability to read between the lines. The reader must be able to have what is referred to, but not described, play off the main descriptive concern. This ability is particularly important with novels written while empire-building was in full force or possessing colonies was the norm, Said argued.
For him, “the perfect example” was “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen (1775-1817). It is not enough to savor “the poise and the beauty of Mansfield Park” as domestic love complications ripple through it. You must also conjure up the horrors of slavery on a sugar plantation in Antigua, which Sir Thomas, the master of the Bertram household, owns and which makes the “particular style of life in England” described in the novel possible.
It is easy to see how the idea of “contrapuntal reading” stoked the imagination of those engaged in literary criticism when it was fully presented back in 1978 or so — when Said published “Orientalism.” A literary approach enunciated as a matter of global polemics, it obviously had a strong appeal.
I thought of Said recently when I read a book by the critic Masahiko Nishi, “The Guerrilla in the Woods: Kenji Miyazawa” (2004). I have translated a good deal of the poet and fiction-writer Miyazawa (1896-1933), so I was eager to find out what the author had to say when a friend sent me the book. From the outset, I was confused.
What, for instance, does “sublimating commonplace colonial literature to Creole literature” mean? A denizen of the United States, I could think of a few things from the word “Creole,” but have Creoles produced their own literature? (Later I learned “Creole literature” produced by Caribbean writers is now treated as a separate genre.)
Next: “We are all colonials, more or less, be it as colonizer or colonialized.” Really? Even if that’s true, what does it have to do with Miyazawa? The only “colony” he visited was the southern half of Sakhalin Island, which became part of Japan after the Russo-Japanese War, didn’t it?
In the end I gathered that Nishi is speaking under Said’s influence. But then it occurred to me: Nishi’s line of analysis is an egregious variety of the affective fallacy I was taught to avoid as an English major back in the 1960s. An example is his comment on one of Miyazawa’s stories for children, “The Mountain Man’s April.”
One of the nine pieces in “The Restaurant with Many Orders” (1924), the only book of stories Miyazawa published while alive, “The Mountain Man’s April” describes a dream. A “mountain man” — in Japanese folklore a half-savage survivor of a minority vanquished long ago or a half-feral being who, unable to put up with normal human communities, has escaped into the mountains — has a dream while dozing in the sun one spring day. In it he runs into a poor itinerant Chinese vendor, who tricks him into taking a mysterious potion and turns him into a small box of “six-deities.”
The dream is as wild as any dream and, in typical Miyazawa fashion, the story is full of odd details sure to delight a child. But there is not much else to it. In it, though, Nishi sees Miyazawa’s Marxist grasp of the producer-consumer market mechanisms that had taken hold in East Asia by the time he wrote it. On what does Nishi base his insight?
Well, the mountain man, just before dozing off, briefly yearns for ame (candy), and ame, in Nishi’s view, is “a colonial commodity [made from sugar] that the native agricultural laborers cultivated, harvested, and refined as crystallization of their sweat in the sugar cane fields of the South Sea, which was then transported to the markets in the North,” i.e., Japan.
When it comes to “six-deities,” a famous Chinese medicinal concoction made of musk, bull gallstone, bear liver, toad secernent, agallochum and carrot, it is, Nishi tells us, “an inhuman commodity that was manufactured by processing human beings in the borderlands of Shanghai and Japan.” His conclusion: “If Kenji Miyazawa remains a pioneering writer to this day, it is because he felt the need to include, even in a children’s story, the ecological whole of ‘East Asia,’ from the food chain to the class system of survival of the fittest.”
That is far-fetched. Miyazawa’s grasp of science was firm (other than the fact that ecology was a nonissue at the time) and his religious beliefs fervent, but his notion of global order wasn’t ahead of his time. If anything, it was somewhat askew.
What’s going on here? Didn’t Edward Said merely hope that readers of certain literature be alert and imaginative? He did not ask them to impose their own thoughts and designs on writers and writings, did he?
When you think of it, “contrapuntal reading” — Said came up with the term because he, besides being a sterling man of letters, was an accomplished pianist — is what readers have been doing, more or less, ever since the act of reading began. The proposition was arresting when it was articulated because it came from an American of Palestine origin, someone aware of the losing, the oppressed, side. Said was a man, I understand, who was galvanized into political thought by the 1967 Arab-Israel War. Bereft of political anxieties, his “contrapuntal reading” would be just another interesting literary idea.
It can also be a seductive trap. Anyone so inclined can reinterpret and manipulate what is at hand, as the makers of the recent film versions of “Mansfield Park” and “Vanity Fair” seem to have done, or, as Nishi has with Miyazawa, find authorial intentions and ideas where there are none.
I remember reading an article Said wrote not long before his death in September 2003. It was, I recall, meant to be a review of books that tumbled out from self-styled specialists after 9/11 — books purporting to explain the whys and wherefores of Muslim behavior. With some glibly, gleefully, seeking the cause of Muslim “resentment of the West” in what they said were historical, intellectual deficiencies of Islam, it was altogether an ugly spectacle.
Said’s exasperation and despair in his article was palpable. It is in that kind of context that what one critic has called Said’s “double-vision” can help us best.
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