Fordham literary scholar Christopher GoGwilt, Ph.D., lives in a world of empire and Victorian fiction and blowback.
It is a world that the professor of English and literary criticism has come to know intimately through the work of novelists like Wilkie Collins, who wrote in the mid-19th century, when England’s power and influence extended to the far corners of the globe.
His years of close analysis of those narratives and the works of a wide range of intellectuals, including 19th-century geographers, led him to write The Fiction of Geopolitics: Afterimages of Culture, from Wilkie Collins to Alfred Hitchcock (Stanford University Press, 2000), which traces the collapse of 19th-century notions of culture. What followed that collapse, he says, is the rise of geopolitics.
According to GoGwilt, Victorian novels such as Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), unsettle Britain’s presumptions about its privileged place in the world. In the novel, a diamond looted from an Indian temple wreaks havoc upon a quiet English household. This “Victorian blot,” as GoGwilt calls it, anticipates what we today refer to as “blowback.” When one culture violently dominates another, it is also infiltrated and transformed in turn.
“The Moonstone brings together the domestic plot with foreign entanglement,” says GoGwilt. “It’s a text of empire, written just as Britain was formalizing its empire in the wake of the so-called Indian mutiny of 1857.”
By the time novelist Joseph Conrad published the British espionage thriller The Secret Agent in 1907, GoGwilt says that the meaning of culture had shifted. Fiction in the 20th century anxiously tries to reconstruct an idea of English, and indeed Western, culture as the pinnacle of advanced civilization.
“The turn of the century brought the collapse of the hypothesis informing debates about culture in the 19th century, the hypothesis that human history can be told and narrated as one story,” says GoGwilt. “Geopolitics subordinated those debates to a view of the world as a political conflict of separate cultures or civilizations.”
The discourse of geopolitics sensationalizes fears of blowback—or backlash—as reflected in literature and film, he says. He cites Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage as one such example. Foreign terrorists, who have infiltrated London’s daily life, attempt to bomb one of its symbols and epicenters, Piccadilly Circus.
“It shows the process of empire; not just how an Empire imposes itself upon the world, but at the same time how that process transforms an Empire into something else, too.”
GoGwilt’s longstanding interest in geopolitics can be clearly seen in his choice of courses he has taught, ranging from “Literature and Imperialism” and “The Novel and the Nation” to “The Age of Conrad” and “Spy Plots and Conspiracy Theories.” He has a keen interest in educating students about authors from around the world and their importance not just for literature, but for politics as well.
Last year, he interviewed Chinese-born author Ha Jin at a presentation at Fordham. He has also brought to campus the Scottish poet Alastair Reid, Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, and the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a leading opposition figure in Indonesia.
Not only does foreign literature bring the exotic to American readers, he says, but it deepens their perspective on world history. One of Toer’s works, for example, describes the existence of an earlier, more extensive Magna Carta, developed by the Javanese long before England developed what is considered by some to be the precursor to the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“It articulates a long, misrecognized history of interdependence between Indonesia and the world,” GoGwilt says.
Foreign literature also reveals that “we are constantly [living]experiences that we haven’t yet [fully]discovered, or that haven’t yet discovered us, if you want to use the analogy of blowback,” he said.
Although works by foreign authors have gained in popularity, GoGwilt says there are political reasons—both good and bad—why much writing is not translated into English. A book translation deal might go to a foreign writer when he receives a Nobel Prize, like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk. Another writer, like Toer, may see his works languish in relative obscurity for a decade or more if the political climate is stacked against international recognition.
And reluctance still exists, GoGwilt says, among Americans to read foreign writers, for personal reasons. Indonesian literature is the perfect example.
“There is an amnesia about the U.S. involvement in Indonesian politics,” he says, citing the CIA’s role in the toppling of the nationalist leader Sukarno in 1965. “Sometimes, we Americans don’t want to know about (foreign experiences) because it is not a pleasant thing to think about our involvement in creating a hell for people and aiding and abetting in genocide.”
“Yet literature provides a way to bring that home and also to bring it home in a human way,” he says. “That’s very important.”
– Janet Sassi