Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hermeneutics and diasporic novels

The Comparative Literature department of Jadavpur University played host to author Judy Fong Bates today and it was both gratifying and heartening for me to be a part of the audience. That is one good thing about being a student of JU. You get to meet, and even interact, with writers and poets from both Oriental and Occidental backgrounds.

The session introduced us to this woman-author who is Chinese by birth but has been living in Canada and hence her works are primarily diasporic, like those of Jhumpa Lahiri.
To be quite honest, I had had a heavy lunch that was having its soporific effect, making it difficult for me to direct my complete attention to what she was saying. On a couple of instances, I even dozed off, much to my chagrin and one Miss DDR will not be a happy person when she reads this.

But good ideas come to people either when they are in their bathtubs (please refer to Archimedes) or when they are just out of a nap. After failing to benefit much for the most part of the session (since I was groggy and also because the voice wasn't loud at the back bench where I was seated), I redeemed myself somewhat towards the final 5 minutes.
It was accidental, I would say in my defence, but the idea did fascinate me, and for a few moments, even I became my own fan.  *grins sheepishly*

Hans Robert Jauss' theory of hermeneutics erupted out of me all of a sudden (wish it had done so during the sem exam) and it struck me that a diasporic novel can have as many as four categories of readers who will receive the same piece of work with dissimilar emotions. In Judy's case (whose protagonist is Chinese living in Canada, like herself), these four kinds of readers will be:

1. A Chinese reader living in China and reading the story of a Chinese living in Canada.
2. A Chinese reader living in Canada and reading the story of a Chinese living in Canada.
3. A Canadian living in Canada (a local) and reading the story of a Chinese living in Canada, and
4. A neutral reader, say an Indian living in India and reading the story of a Chinese living in Canada.

Now, there is a good and subjective scope to analyse it, and this is where, I perceive, Jauss' Reception Theory springs into action.

The 1st kind of reader is a Chinese who presumably has never been to Canada. While reading the text, he will feel for the protagonist who shares his nationality but finds himself thrown into an alien world where he will be subjected to racial and cultural discrimination. The reader will undergo multiple emotions. He will be bemused at times, shocked on occasions, grieved and even disturbed in certain situations. He will feel the agony of the protagonist since there is a fraternal connect with him. However, he is an external reader who reads the story from the outside, knowing that it is not going to happen to him in his immediate surroundings. So, there is pity but not fear. (Like Ruskin Bond, at the recently held Kolkata Literary Meet 2015, had described reading a horror story as an experience of "safe fear"- you are scared for the protagonist, yet you feel safe, knowing that it is not going to happen to you).

But for the 2nd kind of reader, the reception of the text will be more personal. He is a Chinese living in Canada and thus shares the geography and associated circumstances of the protagonist. He will draw parallels with the journey of the protagonist and will often squeal, "oh yes, it happened to me too" or feel a jolt of fear, realizing that it may happen to him some day.

The 3rd kind of a reader is a Canadian and he will try to find himself not in the Chinese protagonist but in the authoritarian/discriminating/chauvinistic Canadian. He will either i) be quietly ashamed of the way outsiders are treated in his country or  ii) haughtily agree with the oppressor instead of pitying the protagonist (in this case, the reader is what I would call a 'passive racist'), or  iii) be indifferent, thereby playing a totally neutral reader (theoretically possible, though practically less probable).

So, for the 3rd kind of reader, we actually get three sub-categories, since individual readers will employ their personal subjectivity to arrive at three different viewpoints (and emotional response to the text) as expatiated above.

Then there is the 4th kind of a reader, the only kind that is totally unrelated to the protagonist and the anti-protagonist in terms of both nationality and immediate geography. He, therefore, has the liberty of reading the text for the purpose of pure pleasure and without undergoing the emotional burden of taking sides. However, complete neutrality is hard to achieve as it necessitates the reader to be completely isolated from such circumstances and also to employ an emotionless approach. So, he may get influenced disparately, depending on his background and cultural roots. For instance, an Indian reader, with a colonial past, is more likely to empathise with the Chinese protagonist in the book, while a European reader may not feel pity for the protagonist in the same degree and may even side with the anti-protagonist.

Coming back to the seminar at JU, perhaps I didn't frame my question to the best of my abilities but when I asked Judy as to "her target reader out of these four types", I couldn't extract out of her the answer I was looking for. Perhaps, she is herself unaware of the reader she is instinctively targeting (as she stated) but on my part, the profitable thing that came out of this session was my deeper understanding of hermeneutics.

-Ritesh Agarwal
Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University


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