Wai-Chee Dimock

Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time

Wai-Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time, Princeton University Press, 2006 (hardback), 2008 (paper). 264 pp. ISBN: 0691114498 (hardback). £19.95 (UK), $35 (USA). ISBN: 0691114501 (paper). £17.95 (UK), $24.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Richard Gravil
(published online July 2009)

It is a sign of the difficulty of what Wai-Chee Dimock undertakes in this book—arguing the case for the global consideration of literary works—that its publisher should promote it by printing on its back cover five short comments which between them use the term ‘American’ eleven times. The reviewers find in it a compelling vision of ‘American literature as a global phenomenon’; they see it as ‘altering the boundaries of American literary scholarship’, or beginning a new relationship between ‘comparative literature and the study of American literature’; redrawing ‘the map of American literature’; or reconceiving American literature ‘on a planetary scale’. I do not imagine that the authors of these comments consciously perceive the rest of the world (over the last two or three millennia) as merely an adjunct to American experience of the last two or three centuries—one of them does describe American literature as simply ‘one of the tributaries of the planet’s literary system’—but if they did so, they would be turning the book on its head.

The work itself has two theses, one of which is so close to the mission statement of Symbiosis that it might appear on the journal’s masthead. The first is that it is unreal to treat American Literature (or perhaps any literature) as ‘a world apart, sufficient unto itself’ (2). Even if one’s focus is American literature, one necessarily has to take account of ‘import channels, kinship networks, routes of transit, and forms of attachment’ (3), and there are ‘categories of experience, such as beauty or death, that seem not entirely predicated on the temporal and spatial boundaries of the nation state’ (5). Its second thesis is temporal: there are studies—such as genre study—that may need a time-frame of thousands of years to be adequately grasped, and in any case, time is not a mathematical constant, or divided into periods with impermeable frontiers; hundreds or even thousands of years have a habit of vanishing to a mere point when an affective connection realizes itself across historical time, as in Lowell’s troubling nickname Cal (for Caligula). So this book is ‘an attempt to rethink the shape of literature [sic] against the history and habitat of the human species, against the “deep time” of planet earth’ (6).

Now it is true that ‘American literature’ appears in the book’s sub-title, and that the ‘othering’ of those ‘other continents’ is also implied in the main title, yet the author is clearly a citizen of the world, and the fact that her critical horizons seem almost unlimited in space or time leads this reader, at least, to take her book as concerned with the way we read literature—not how we study America.

There was a foundational debate, at the time of the launch of Symbiosis as a journal of ‘Anglo-American Literary Relations’. A number of people, trained in an American Studies perspective, took a ‘yes-but’ approach to the chosen focus, arguing that it was fine to study British-American connections but wrong to exclude European ones from the remit even though the result of including them would have meant—in effect—launching not merely another comparative literature journal, but one that made America central to that field. Others thought we should be open to examining the all strains within American culture. Both objections, it seemed to me then (and now) were based on the assumption that Symbiosis was a Journal of American Studies rather than a Journal concerned with the sufficiently large field of literary exchange within the Anglophone circum-Atlantic. The very notion of a field, Kate Fullbrook pointed out in that debate, entails exclusion, often arbitrary: in this case the exclusions were not at all arbitrary. The focus being Anglophone, but not Commonwealth, culture, the matter excluded was literatures not in English and oceans not Atlantic, the editors making no pretensions to any sort of expertise in (for instance) Spanish, French, German, Italian, Dutch or Polish cultures, let alone Asian or African ones. Thirteen years on, one curious legacy of the success of instituting Transatlanticism as a field of study, in which Symbiosis was one of several lead-players, is a new tendency to substitute American for Atlantic, making America both centre and circumference, as in that new form of American isolationism known as Trans-American studies. To that development, Wai-Chee Dimock’s book is the aptest of retorts.

Through Other Continents is of course an American-centred book in that every chapter has to begin somewhere, rather than nowhere, and this book’s chapters usually start in America, with Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, James, Lowell, Snyder, before enlarging to Hafiz, Christianity, Islam, Ancient Egypt, Gilgamesh, Kant, Sanskrit, Chinese or whatever. The James chapter, however, starts with epic and ends with James, propounding an interesting thesis about the scope of James’s ‘historical canvas’ en route; and the Snyder chapter begins (very symbiotically) with Jeremy Bentham. A chapter on ‘black English’ reports on studies of creolization in such a way as to make the American experience a small and not especially significant part of global language diffusion and successfully prises ‘African-American’ literature away from the nation-state.

A second claim of the book’s pre-publication reviewers was that it marks a ‘new approach and a new method for the study of American literature’. If that hyperbolic claim proves correct, the day is not far off when we will all, with some re-tooling, be able to discuss aspects of black-American English in relation to the creolization paradigm as it affects Latin and Gaulish, French and Celtic, Spanish and Iberian, provided (of course) that we are conversant with the linguistic researches of Chomsky, Stewart, and Damasio; or to set Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ beside the Bhagavad Gita, so as to see how the conversations between Krishna and Arjuna illuminate the choice (of modes of resistance) made by John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison; or to place Lowell illuminatingly among Horace, Newton, Plato and Einstein; or read Gary Snyder alongside pre-Christian Sanskrit and sixteenth century Chinese; and—somewhat less ambitiously—to track Emerson and Fuller in relation to their reading in and their debates concerning the ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible. (Admittedly, the last of these fields is comparatively well researched, as is the Transcendentalist investment in German studies which dominates the ‘World Religions’ chapter of this book).

Perhaps we should be able to study our own literatures in this fashion. But for most of us, I suspect, it would be a sufficiently challenging task to track the barely noticed Anglo-American transactions in this remarkable book. How much of Emerson’s knowledge of Islam, for instance, derives from W. F. Thompson’s Practical Philosophy of the Mahometan People? The title page of Thompson’s 1839 book describes him as ‘of the Bengal Civil Service’, but who was W. F. Thompson, and how might his own heterodox interests relate to those of Emerson or of Harriet Martineau at her most scandalous? A slower, more pedestrian book might also have commented on, rather than merely noted, the potentially interesting fact that it was in a translation by Sir Charles Wilkins that Thoreau encountered the Bhagavad Gita, whereas Ghandi knew it first in the one by Sir Edwin Arnold; and that Thoreau cites Warren Hastings on its importance. What might be said about tenacity of such imperial legacies in Anglo-American culture?

In the concluding chapter on ‘Ecology across the Pacific’ this issue (of whether the most productive view is provided by a wide-angle or a telephoto lens) arises most forcibly. The subject of the chapter is Gary Snyder and ‘Ecology’, but it opens with Jeremy Bentham on the problem of animal rights and Bentham’s modern disciple, Peter Singer of Animal Liberation. Thereafter Dimock cites Matt Ridley, Lawrence Tribe, Kant, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Arne Naess, Martin Rees, Leslie Silko, moving on to ‘Coyote’ and Paul Radin’s The Trickster, and from there to Hanuman, the monkey trickster of the Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the sixteenth-century Chinese novel His-yu Chi (as translated by Arthur Waley), Levi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology, to end with a substantive discussion of Vizenor’s Griever: an American Monkey King in China (1987). The sweep is immense, and the defining issues seem to me to get rather sidelined. These are, as enunciated early on, first the question of how humanity is affected by human relations to the nonhuman world, animate and inanimate; and second, how, because of language and cultural monuments, our species is uniquely made up of former members as well as current ones. This latter point is a recurring theme of the book. Chapter 3 (‘The Planetary Dead’) describes us as a species made up of ‘two populations’, the living and (nicely) ‘a body of people we call “the dead”’ (52); and (one trusts humorously) that the dead are in urgent need of theorization (58). We are, Dimock comments ‘the only creatures on this planet capable of hearing the dead; that auditory relationship makes us relational beyond the limits of biology’ (69). Yet neither Whitman nor Wordsworth, for whom both of these questions were not merely central but definitive, appears in the index of the book, even if only as Gary Snyder’s most obvious grandfathers. Why not? Should we not concern ourselves in the first place with the demonstrably or arguably relational, however parochial, rather than with apparent parallels—however intriguing—across ‘deep time’?

The author’s answer to my predictable, perhaps pedantic, question would certainly be ‘no’. Her point is that if we take a wide enough view, in time and space, through deliberate ‘scale enlargement’ (p.5) new patterns will emerge. What stands out in one culture as a unique instance or a significant connection will become less significant; more examples of affinity, across much wider spaces, will appear, and establish the recurrence, on a planetary scale, of features or insights we may otherwise suppose to be culturally specific. Genetically, this book belongs to the ‘out of Africa’ party, arguing that ‘we have all of us one human heart’ because we are one human race; but it also takes pleasure in what might be called the multiple (cultural) genesis argument, in so far as our common humanity seems capable of creating forms that are, though manifestly unrelated, nevertheless versions of each other. And a planetary view, it argues with grace and passion, is what we stand most in need of.

© Symbiosis, 2009