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Meeting at the Crossroads: Mapping Worlds and World

Kwame Dawes

The Comparatist, Volume 36, May 2012, pp. 292-299 (Article)

Published by The University of North Carolina Press


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Kwame Dawes

Meeting at the Crossroads

Mapping Worlds and World Literature

Me and my buddies we are travelling people

We like to go down to restaurant row
Spend those Euro-­dollars
All the way from Washington to Tokyo
I see them in the airport lounge
Upon their mother’s breast
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guest
Paul Simon, “Born at the Right Time”

We should understand the crossroads. It is the place of mythical and symbolic im-
portance. In Caribbean and African traditions, the crossroads is a guarded sacred
place for it is a place of meeting not just of the living, but also of the living and the
dead. I have little doubt that our interest in this symbol is related to the idea of
intersections, the meeting of cultures, the interaction that happens when various
cultures meet. In many ways, by finding in the place of the world of literature a
metaphor that speaks of a meeting of people, ideas and cultures as well as a meeting
that crosses times and involves the living and the dead, what we are doing is sug-
gesting that the very concept of comparative literature is one marked by exchange,
by the quite positive exercise of various cultures coming together.
But these meetings are not all positive. They are meetings that unsettle our com-
forts, that remind us of what we do not know in as much as they remind us of what
we know. In the traditions of Africa and the Caribbean, there is almost always a
guardian of the crossroads, someone who is acutely aware of the limitations of
human beings in their capacity to find union and positive connection at the cross-
roads. The guardian is the keeper of the stories, the interpreter of the stories and
the teller of the stories. In many ways, we are working with a rich vein of metaphors
in this very idea. The guardian is the mapper of the worlds we are speaking of. And
it is no accident that the very incarnation of this myth of the crossroads is rooted

in a quite ancient tradition of the crossroads, a tradition that crosses so many cul-
tures—one of the few things that we can safely call universal.
The myth of the crossroads raises other fundamental questions that have been
raised since the beginning of this enterprise called humanity, and that we have not
found a useful answer for. There is a reason why we cannot find an answer. It is be-
cause the very process of the questioning is at the heart of the value of this dilemma
and it makes what we are engaged with here so important. It tells us that what we
do must be done with an openness to the possibility of what can enrich our world,
and yet with a deep sense of what the dangers are.
Most of you would know the mythos of the tower of Babel. The circumstance
that presents itself in the narrative called Genesis is one that would actually make
much of what we do in comparative literature, absolutely redundant. “Now the
whole world had one language and a common speech.” With their common speech,
the people arrived at a profound truth. They determined that if they were able
to maintain this singular speech they would be able to dominate and control the
world. For some reason, this hubris has come to be seen as a kind of arrogance—a
sense of invulnerability borne out of the monolingual power that they possessed.
They chose to build a tower to announce their power. God, speaking to himself,
determined that this was not a good idea. So his action was to destroy the remark-
able tower and create multiple languages, causing confusion among the people. The
languages pushed people apart. They went to different areas of the world. Implicit in
this moment is something else. It is the suggestion that the enmity of wars and con-
flicts emerged out of this scattering, this separation which was marked by language.
We might have long debates about the theological and philosophical implica-
tions of this narrative, but it would seem more useful to treat it as an encounter
with a myth that helps to theorize not so much about how things came to be, but
about how things are. This is an acceptable way to read the passage, even if not one
that all of us hold to. Instead, then, of seeing this as a narrative about how languages
came about, it may be a way to help us to understand the implications of languages.
Where a single language dominates, hubris is likely to emerge. But it can be produc-
tive, and it leads to the productivity that ultimately leads to hubris. And yet, there
is implicit in this narrative a sense that the world is intent on coming together in
a single language. The very idea of human experience is marked by the desire for
language to reach across its own divides and find meaning and truth. So our reality
is that the world is a place of multiple languages. But we also know that language
is not static. Language is mutable. It shifts, it moves and reshapes itself over time
and over various geographical spaces. Language is fluid, language mutates and then
becomes what it was not. We use language, thus, to control, to change, to challenge
and to obfuscate. Babel is about the reality of language as both a force of communi-

Meeting at the Crossroads 293

cation and a source of conflict. For our purposes, this is something worth keeping
in mind—something worth paying attention to.
What should not be ignored in this narrative is the implication that language
brings power, but language brings a certain level of understanding and that under-
standing can lead to power. I would not want to spend any time discussing the core
“sin” of this narrative, but what can be said is that God’s concerns here, as they did
in the Garden of Eden, surrounded the access to knowledge and understanding.
Babel separated us, but we have since that time tried to find ways to overcome the
separation caused by Babel. In the narrative of the Day of Pentecost, language is the
star. The miracle that brings about a great transformation and kicks off the march
of Christianity is one of language. Somehow the curse of Babel is momentarily and
miraculously overcome. People gain the power to speak in languages they did not
know, and so they allowed strangers to embrace this faith.
Comparative literature has to exist because of our desire to resist the separa-
tion of language. Translation is the force designed to work against the split that
languages create in our world, and in many ways, the business of comparing litera-
tures is about analyzing the products of translation. The problem, of course, that we
can’t avoid, is the realization that some languages are more powerful than others—
and in general that power is determined by the economical clout of that language.
Comparing literatures is valuable only when we appreciate the power play involved
in the dialogue that takes place at the crossroads.
Perhaps one of the ways for us to think of the challenges presented by compara-
tive literature may well be to think of the reader as a distinctive figure. I would like
to propose that for many of us, comparative literature has defined how we encoun-
tered literature at all. Indeed, for many of us, the idea of literature is an idea that en-
tails, first and foremost, negotiating the politics of power between our ideas of self
and our idea of the world around us. For us to compare literatures, we would have
to have begun with a sense of what our own literature might have been. Compara-
tive literature depends heavily on the existence of at least two literatures that are
comparable. They must have legitimacy in and of themselves, or the comparison
becomes skewed in a certain direction.
My first encounters with literature were encounters with literatures outside of
myself. I assumed that literature existed not within my own world, but in a world
that was distant from me. Without a literature of my own world, I found myself em-
bark on an engagement with literature that involved translating the emotions and
ideas of another literature into my own culture. But what I was not doing was com-
paring my literature with another literature. Thus I was positioned as the other—
outside of the literature I was reading, but discovering the power of literature—of
story, if you will—to transcend the cultural difference and distancing that existed
in a colonial world. For a long time, we never even questioned the idea that it was

294 The Comparatist 36 : 2012

important to study the literature of Europe and America without reference to our-
selves. The colonial genius was to construct a myth of greatness. Greatness and ex-
cellence were not, they taught us, relative, or fluid, and they were not defined by or
affected by culture. However, the very enterprise of colonialism was to propose that
great cultures produced great literatures and that less than great cultures simply did
not produce great literatures. Hence, as the subjects of a colonial empire, we had to
accept that the literature of the colonizer was the unassailably great and excellent
literature—a kind of Platonic “isness” of literature that existed in deep contrast to
whatever fledgling efforts to imitate that literature we might be embarked upon.
The discovery of West Indian and African literature was a revelation for people
of my generation and from my own parts of the world. I use the term “discover” be-
cause for many of us, we did not encounter these literatures until we had fully en-
gaged the literatures of Europe and America through our early education system.
But what we discovered was that comparative literature was about testing to see
how well our literatures matched up to the colonial model. For writers, the matter
was always more complicated. We were drawn to literature by the work of writers
who were by definition a part of the colonial enterprise. We grew to love those
voices and we developed a desire to imitate those voices. And yet we were also com-
pelled to write a literature that spoke to our worlds and to our experiences—a lit-
erature filled with contradictions, with rebellions against and love affairs with our
assumed enemies—the enemies of culture. At best we arrived at a beautiful détente:

Culture is flux. Flux is culture. Absolute spirit.

Is spirit absolutely true? Heart is not history. Heart of stone.
Heart is the fire caught-­up within my bones.

Heart is prophecy frothing to the stomp and rattle

of the gospeller’s Sunday. Heart is the word spoken
so deep in the stomach, so jealously protective of my soul.

Heart is my eye peering into our collective pasts

and, finding that ancient shrine in some broken hut,
drawing me. I arrive a stranger. I arrive dead. Sleep

never comes easy, for the trees of the mountain sanctuary

rustle their hymns, calling me back, calling me back.
Flux is culture. Culture is flux. We are changing inside.
(Kwame Dawes, “Flight” 154)

This engagement with literatures outside ourselves, in a world of notable and

glorious flux, would become more sophisticated as more and more of the litera-
tures of the world became accessible to us.

Meeting at the Crossroads 295

The English language is both the enemy and friend of comparative literature.
While it may be true that there are still more speakers of Mandarin, for instance, in
the world than those of English, what cannot be denied is that the universal domi-
nance of English in commerce, technology and increasingly in diplomacy, repre-
sents a new grand edifice of Babel. It may well be that this quest to master English
will render comparative literatures redundant, but that idea is predicated on the
notion that language defines culture entirely. Hence the spread of English is seen as
the spread of Englishness. But we know that language’s desire is to constantly defy
power. Are we looking at a new mutation of the English language into multiple lan-
guages? Or is language simply a vehicle that carries the distinctive facts of cultures?
Thus, we happily compare Wole Soyinka with Shakespeare, contending that despite
their common English base, these are writers working out of quite different literary
and cultural traditions:
Yet, for all the very important and valid arguments made by writers like Gabriel
Okara and Chinua Achebe for the Africanness of English, if you will, and for the
ways in which English is transformed and reimagined by other cultures, and for
all the rich and complex work that this remarkable act of survival of a language
has spawned, we cannot ignore a single unsettling truth—one that led Ngugi Wa
Thiong’o to propose in 1986 that he would no longer write first in English but
would, instead, write Kikuyu, his native tongue. Kikuyu is spoken by a relatively
small section of the Kenyan population, and read by even less. Ngugi’s project was
a political one, but also one that sought to make the point that while translation is
an important means of carrying one culture’s literature to another, for the culture
of the other not to be subsumed by the dominant culture, there has to be a place or
the perpetuation of the tongue and culture of the other culture, a place that would
lead comparative literature scholars to encounter the work, not in translation, and
thus not already filtered through by the dominant culture, but in its original and,
thus, distinctive form and context. As we know, Ngugi’s struggle was a valiant one,
but one he has not been able to battle with complete purity. The industry of pub-
lishing has made that difficult, and so have the vicissitudes of exile.
This, however, does not release the comparative literature scholars of something
of a moral responsibility to begin to think of the role that they might play in not
so much preserving languages, but in preserving the cultures that are contained in
and negotiated by these languages. It would not take much imagination to envision
what is lost when a whole language is lost. And here, I offer a challenge that many
of you may have already embraced, but that is worth reiterating. As long as there is
not a great push to expand the language requirements and range of those entering
this field to include those language groups that have not had an extensive tradition
of centrality in the realms of comparative literature and as long as there remains a
bias toward European languages as the secure footing upon which our programs

296 The Comparatist 36 : 2012

are built, we may well be complicit in the increasingly apparent business of con-
structing a massive tower of Babel—a tower that privileges a single language or a
single group of languages.
We know the challenges, we know that some languages do not have a literature
per se, and we know that our system almost demands that our students reflect our
practices and habits over the years. We know the anxieties of not having scholars
able to work with students in some of these language groups, and we know that
language is not everything. However, I suspect that we also know that we may well
not be doing all that we can do even with the constraints that exist. The comparison
of literatures can succumb to the more negative connotations associated with the
word “comparison”—a quest to pit one against the other and to arrive at some
judgment as to which is better. However, there is a way to engage the more posi-
tive aspects of comparison: the business of laying literatures beside each other and
finding out how they converge and separate, how they share patterns and how they
move away from each other. This act may indeed go against even the processes that
may have led the writers to write as they did. Many may have been engaged in pro-
cesses that have grown out of appropriation, resistance and intellectual snobbery,
and while we should bear these things in mind, we must also find a way, it seems to
me, to recover the dignity of the literatures of other cultures and in so doing, enact,
not so much the quest for a universal voice or a universal understanding, but one
that allows for multiple voices to dialog with each other in ways that can result in
understanding and, ultimately, beauty.
This week, I found a poem that moved me for its sophistication and emotional
and intellectual complexity, but that also seemed to arrive, almost as the catalyst I
needed for my talk—one that I had been mulling over for a while without a center.
The poem is called “Fragmentation.” If it leaves you bewildered and yet touched,
then it has managed to lay out for you, as it did for me, both the rewards and chal-
lenges of engaging in this act of meeting at the crossroads—meeting different
worlds and trying to make sense of those worlds, and finally, sometimes having to
relax in a defeat that is not catastrophic but always possible. I will read the poem in
its entirety as I end:

I befriended a boy in Senegal who can
recite the Qu’ran three times—all

the way through—by the time he is

eight. He is a gift to the world, truly,

goes to private school even though

his parents can’t pay the fees. I meet

Meeting at the Crossroads 297

his teachers, see their eyes, lonely &
proud. For all children in training,

the first lessons are prayers. These

are the foundation & have to be

perfectly memorized if there is

any hope at all. It is through prayer

that the Iman, leader which this

boy will someday be, sends strength

& power to the masses. The words

have been written down over & over

again: the boy takes me to the library

of a prophet who spent his life

transcribing the Qu’ran. There

is nothing in the library but a thousand

books in his handwriting & the words

of the sacred. There must be a hunger

in such rhythms for them to have

survived it all: holy wars, famine,

disbelievers. I try to speak to the boy

in Arabic, which he doesn’t understand.

I recite the only poems I know in French,

some Rimbaud, Baudelaire, & Mallarmé.

These men are landmarks of failure,

of modernity: one’s livelihood

ends in aphasia, the others abandon

their work, overcome by the notion

of the world’s fragmentation. This is

something I’m not sure I can translate,

not sure this boy would understand. We

stand in silence, feeling the graves of those

around us, all the nameless lives less

somehow than ours. I wonder what will

298 The Comparatist 36 : 2012

become of this boy, all the places he
will travel in dream & through prayer.

He smiles, touches his hand to mine.

I can only speak to you in broken

things, I say, but don’t tell him how

something of me longs to be shut.

The world is a beautiful place, he

says, almost a Paradise. The Qu’ran

says the world suffers, whispers

the boy, but I’ll never know how.
(Hemmy 308–09)

u University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Works Cited
Dawes, Kwame. “Flight.” Prophets. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1995.
Hemmy, Kirsten. “FRAGMENTATION.” The Antioch Review 63.2 (2005): 308–09.

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