André Dao on George Eliot
‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’ So says Antonio Gramsci, the renowned Italian Communist in his Prison Notebooks—3,000 pages of history and philosophy written across 30-odd notebooks smuggled in and out of the Fascist prisons in which Gramsci spent the last eleven years of his life.
What I think Gramsci was saying is that revolution begins with self-knowledge, and that self-knowledge is not—despite what bourgeois literature and neoliberal self-help manuals would suggest—introspective. It is not even, properly speaking, subjective. It is objective; we are not self-forming subjects but objects, formed by historical processes.
I am, then, the product of French imperialism, of Roman Catholicism, of 3,000 years of Sino-Vietnamese war and culture and interbreeding, of American imperialism, of Leninist-Marxism, of the Sino-Soviet split, of capitalism—proto-, Golden Age, late stage—of settler colonialism, of British imperialism, of patriarchy in its many cultural guises, of heteronormativity, of the rice-based agriculture of the Red River Delta, of successive advances in irrigation technology, of the Internet, of English literature, of identity politics, of 1990s Californian pop-punk, of 2000s trailer park chic, and so on and so on.
Of course, such a list is entirely useless. It is only an accumulation of abstractions, when the point is to find the concrete—as Gramsci says, to inventory the traces deposited in me by each and every one of these forces. The point, then, is to begin with the concrete trace—to catalogue these traces and only then to synthesise them into abstract processes.
So—to Gramsci. I first came across him as a forbidding name to which was attached even more forbidding concepts. It was only later on, when I began to write a book about my grandfather that the man behind the name came into focus. Gramsci was thirty-five when Mussolini’s fascists imprisoned him. I write these words now the day before my thirty-fifth birthday.
Here is a manoeuvre characteristic of my technique as a writer, such as it is—the drawing of a false equivalence, the making of banal, self-aggrandizing comparisons. For in tracing the parallel, I am wondering, aloud, as is the wont of the bad, sentimental reader—if they took me in next week, would I write my own Prison Notebooks? I would want to. I would try. I am not a strong swimmer.
My only excuse for this hubris is that I have been doing this since I was very young. I have always been asking, as a sweet habit of the blood: would I have got on a boat, would I have been able to start again, where I know no one and nothing, not even the language? Most of all, I have been asking, would I have survived, as my grandfather did—if indeed, he had—ten years in Chí Hòa prison?
Such questions are ridiculous, I know. They seem to do the opposite of what I want, which is to get concrete, to understand the historical processes the formed me. They are idle, frivolous questions. And yet—it was by asking such questions that I was able to write Anam. By imagining that Gramsci, for instance, might be a mirror for my grandfather—eleven years in prison versus ten, a Communist imprisoned by Fascists versus a Catholic imprisoned by Communists, 3,000 pages of writing versus nothing, death in custody versus a dubious kind of survival—this imagining, banal, self-serving as it is, nevertheless allowed me to draw out something concrete about my grandfather, and about myself.
Though I thought about Gramsci as I wrote Anam I did not come across the quote about compiling an inventory until after I had finished, as a reference in the introduction to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Another exalted name from my undergraduate days, though I had in fact read this book—had gone as far as referencing it in my essays. But I had not noticed this quote, nor Said’s response to it, the most intimate note in the book:
‘Much of the personal investment in this study derives from my awareness of being an ‘Oriental’ as a child growing up in two British colonies…In many ways my study of Orientalism has been an attempt to inventory the traces upon me, the Oriental subject, of the culture whose domination has been so powerful a factor in the life of all Orientals.’
And so, retrospectively, I have begun to think of Anam as an inventory of the cultures and forces that have dominated and shaped my own life.
‘The essence of counterpoint,’ writes Edward Said, ‘is simultaneity of voices, preternatural control of resources, apparently endless inventiveness. In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music.’
He is thinking of Glenn Gould, the genius pianist and interpreter of Bach. The apotheosis of counterpoint is the fugue; a phrase is introduced in one voice (the soprano, the oboe) and then it is repeated, and developed, by other voices.
Said makes counterpoint a central metaphor for his technique: ‘We must therefore read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented [in] such works. In practical terms, ‘contrapuntal reading’ as I have called it means reading a text with an understanding of what is involved when an author shows, for instance, that a colonial sugar plantation is seen as important to the process of maintaining a particular style of life in England…contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.’
Reading Daniel Deronda contrapuntally, Said shows first that Eliot’s presentation of Zionism is in keeping with her long-standing interests in idealism and spiritual yearning. It is not only the Jews but well-born Englishmen and women who suffer from a ‘generalized condition of homelessness.’ Zion, for Eliot—according to Said—is ‘one in a series of wordly projects for the nineteenth century mind still committed to hopes for a secular religious community.’ If salvation and belonging can no longer be found in the Church, then some other organic community must take its place: a national homeland.
Counterpoint: there is, in Daniel Deronda, ‘the total absence of any thought about the actual inhabitants of the East, Palestine in particular.’ The novel ends with Deronda setting sail for the East, presumably to help advance the great cause. The ‘Question of Palestine’—the question of what will happen to the current inhabitants—is answered, obliquely, by Mordecai Cohen, Deronda’s spiritual guide: ‘[The Jews] have wealth enough to redeem the soil from debauched and paupered conquerors…There is store of wisdom among us to found a new Jewish polity, grand, simple, just like the old—a republic where there is equality of protection, an equality which shone like a star on the forehead of our ancient community, and gave it more than the brightness of Western freedom amid the despotisms of the East.’ Zionism will be, for Eliot, the ‘method for transforming the East into the West’.①
F. R. Leavis, the great zealot of English literature, famously wanted to cleave Daniel Deronda in two. ‘There are two George Eliots,’ he writes, ‘and they both—neither, it seems, embarrassed by consciousness of the duality—play dominating roles in the massive book: they dominate it together as if they were one. But the essential spirits in which they dominate are so much not one that the creatively vital of them by its mere presence as what it unmistakably is exposes the creative impotence of the other.’ The good half of the novel he proposes to call Gwendolen Harleth—a ‘major classic’, indeed, a model, and a superior one at that, for Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.
The half that is to be purged is thus Daniel Deronda himself, and the whole Zionist adventure. Though the problem, for Leavis, was not so much the Zionism itself, but that in writing about Deronda Eliot betrayed her own genius—‘her truly noble and compassionate benignity’—by her ‘profound need to feel benignly and compassionately disinterested, and sometimes this prevails as a kind of intoxication that licenses for self-indulgence the weak side of her femininity. The egoism and falsity of day-dream manifest themselves as sentimentality.’
What must be expunged, if Eliot is to be saved from herself, is her femininity, her sentimentality.
‘A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and—kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.’—George Eliot, Daniel Deronda.
Another name for an inventory of traces: nostalgia, the longing for a home. Not just any home, but, as Eliot says, an early home, that time-place where a human life might be well rooted in some spot of native land, and not through sentimentality, not through effort and reflection, but a somehow natural working of early memories, by the sweet habit of the blood.
On a personal level, this resonates. Who doesn’t remember, with something more than fondness, the first scene of belonging? Who would argue for rootlessness?
I think of Jasmin, who flew from Palestine to Australia thirty-six weeks pregnant. When her daughter was born, in Sydney’s Royal Hospital for Women, the staff asked for Jasmin’s country of birth. ‘But they couldn’t find Palestine. We could find any country except my country. I found out they put that I’m from Iran, they just picked any country.’ ②
When we asked her what home meant to her, Jasmin said, ‘I can see tomato plants, cucumber, capsicum, eggplants. Small farm, little kids playing around, and some chickens. I miss these things. We used to have the chickens just living in the whole farm and laying eggs anywhere. It was like I won the lottery if I found eggs before my brothers.’
Early memories. Sweet habits of the blood. But something strange happens when Eliot’s nostalgia is transposed from the personal to the political: it gets twisted, becomes grotesque.
Eliot’s final novel follows two characters—the beautiful, egotistical Gwendolen Harleth, and the serious and moral young man, Daniel Deronda. The arc of the novel traces the beneficial influence on Harleth of Deronda’s moralism (‘her feeling had turned this man into a priest’)—through him, she is able to overcome her cynical instrumentalism of others to develop a sensibility of wider communal obligations.
But as F. R. Leavis points out, Deronda’s solution to the problem of egoism is ‘the religion of heredity or race’. That is, Deronda’s sense of higher duties is linked to his discovery of his ancestry—he is a Jew.
‘It was as if he had found an added soul in finding his ancestry—his judgment no longer wandering in the mazes of impartial sympathy, but choosing, with that partiality which is man’s best strength, the closer fellowship that makes sympathy practical—exchanging that bird’s eye reasonableness which soars to avoid preference and loses all sense of quality for the generous reasonableness of drawing shoulder to shoulder with men of like inheritance.’
Later readers, including Amanda Anderson and Kwame Anthony Appiah, will try to reclaim Deronda as a paragon of universal, humanistic concern—a good cosmopolitan. ③ (The bad cosmopolitan being the one who wanders through the ‘mazes of impartial sympathy’, the one who takes the perspective of ‘bird’s eye reasonableness which soars to avoid preference’. It is a rootless, risible cosmopolitanism, and an attitude Eliot identifies at the heart of British imperialism: ‘Meanwhile enters the expectant peer, Mr. Bult, an esteemed party man who, rather neutral in private life, had strong opinions concerning the districts of the Niger, was much at home also in Brazil, spoke with decision of affairs in the South Seas, was studious of his Parliamentary and itinerant speeches, and had the general solidity and suffusive pinkness of a healthy Briton on the central table-land of life.’)
But what is the source of Deronda’s ‘generous reasonableness’, his good cosmopolitanism? It is in ‘drawing shoulder to shoulder with men of like inheritance’. It is, in other words, in turning to ethno-nationalism. One overcomes individualism by absorbing the ego in the nation—a nation that is understood, in the Romantic German tradition, as having a soulful, organic essence. The empty pursuit of individual gratification gives way to the honour of higher duties. For Deronda, the higher duty, the honourable inheritance, is Zionism.
As I write this, the Israeli Defence Force is conducting ‘Operation Home and Garden’, its largest attack on the occupied West Bank in two decades. I look online at photos from Jenin, Jasmin’s home city, the site of the raid. In one family home, ‘three small boys knelt on the tile floor, picking up hundreds of spent bullet casings left by Israeli snipers who had used their kitchen as a firing position.’ ④
Read the full piece here.
✷ 1. Edward Said, ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ (1979) Social Text Winter, No. 1, 7-58.
✷ 2. Khan, Hafsar, Aziyah, Jasmin & Abbas, ‘Still Lives’, Meanjin (Winter 2021).
✷ 3. Aleksandar Stevic, ‘Convenient Cosmopolitanism: Daniel Deronda, Nationalism and the Critics’ (2017) Victorian Literature and Culture 45. 593-614.
✷ 4. Bethan McKernan and Sufian Taha, ‘“It’s just like the intifada”: Palestinians reel from Israel’s raid on Jenin’, The Guardian 6 July 2023.