Revalidating ‘Theory’ as a Component of ‘Cultural Studies’:

An Illustration through Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, and Mistry’s Chronicle of Corpse Bearer 

- Dr. Prakash Joshi
Dr. Prakash Joshi
From the opening argument to the conclusion, the paper moves through three stages. In the first stage, the paper argues in favour and support of ‘theory’ and its sustaining validity in spite of the fact that academia the world over has for some time been looking for some alternative(s) for further researches and studies. In the second stage, it attempts to validate ‘Cultural Studies’ as the open interdisciplinary space and domain that includes ‘theory’. In the third stage, the paper takes up three texts -- one each from Latin America, North Africa, and South Asia -- to illustrate the contentions made in the earlier two stages.
The paper examines the three texts mentioned in the title from two standpoints. First from the standpoint of structural ‘theory’, and then from that of ‘Cultural Studies’ as an open mode of study inclusive of theoretical praxis. Through the examination of the texts, the paper sets out to prove that the open and inclusive domain of ‘Cultural Studies’ incorporates maximum aspects of cultural products like literature and arts – aspects that are empirical and transcendental, practical/practicable and theoretical, pre-human and human and post-human and a-human and super-human and extra-human. The examination of the texts and the conclusion are aimed at arguing that all our artistic and meta-artistic exercises and productions/creations add up to the modes of ‘Cultural Studies’. 

The fundamental premise of the preliminary argument in this paper is that theorizing is one of the secondary instincts of man: as much instinctual for him as thinking, making shapes and designs, and creating structures and so on. Taking our theories of evolution as evidence, it can be legitimately assumed that even in the earliest stages man had enough developing brain to theorize on the basis of his observation. So, we have all these classical theories of nature’s origin and of man’s in it, theories of the origin of whatever man could see and experience, theories of how he would go about surviving and thriving, of how he would live in groups. All our sociological, anthropological, political and psychological theories have their essential beginning and origin in the primeval theorizing of primeval man. By whatever of them survives for us to see, the indigenous religions and their sociocultural systems serve as reference and evidence of this idea of theorizing as secondarily instinctual for man. ‘Secondarily’ in the sense that this theorizing is evolutionary as contrasted against the basicness of the basic instincts. The evolutionary character of theorizing has one of its first evidences in the way the indigenous religions either grew into or were replaced first by more theoretical pagan and then by ideological formulations of individuals apotheosized as prophets. It is quite a documented history from those ideological formulations existing inside the mythologies of religions to the secular philosophical theories of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries serving as the background to the theories in Social and Human Sciences.

Moving from the preliminary to the core argument of the paper, ‘theory’ vis-à-vis literature (in its traditional sense) as cultural product has two forms. One of the two has for millennia been the theory about literature; and the other, of a recent birth, the theory in and of literature. To make it clearer, theory about literature contains the Eastern (Classical Indian) and Western (Classical Greco Roman) aestheses that attempt to evaluate literature chiefly on the basis of its effect. For example, the Ancient Indian doctrine of Rasa theorizes about the ways a good work of art (drama) kindles emotions in their entire range starting from the antecedent emotions to the transient to the stable to create aesthetic pleasure/experience, denominated as ‘Rasa’, for the audience. The same way, the Greco Roman theory of the Sublime in literature concerns itself with linguistic and other elements in literature that would create aesthetic elevation for the audience. Understandably, this kind and mode of theorizing had to and did meet its superannuation because of the fact that it sought to keep literature or any other arguably aesthetic/artistic product isolated from the very circumstances, social and other, in which the actors and the role players and the characters and the audience and even the author lived-- much like a god in a temple that keeps outside of barricades the very people that venerate him.

However, the other form of ‘theory’ earns an everlasting longevity and undying relevance by bringing literature and arts out of their isolation to show them as ever active and open arenas of play for all-- the personae and beings as the actors and the role players, and the audience and the author. With their sociological, economic, political and cultural positions to direct their actions and thinking, these actors et al invite all and sundry ‘theories’ to interact with and to have their different says in and about literature and arts. Theory, thus, is under an unending process of evolution; and, therefore, is ever valid, ever topical and ever contextual. It is here, at this juncture, that literature and arts earn an undeniable interdisciplinary character permeating human, social and even basic and applied Sciences. To quote Jonathan Culler to borrow support for this argument:
The genre of ‘theory’ includes works of anthropology, art history, film studies, gender studies, linguistics, philosophy, political theory, psychoanalysis, science studies, social and intellectual history, and sociology. The works in question are tied to arguments in these fields, but they become ‘theory’ because their visions or arguments have been suggestive or productive for people who are not studying those disciplines. Works that become ‘theory’ offer accounts others can use about meaning, nature and culture, the functioning of the psyche, the relations of public to private experience and of larger historical forces to individual experience (Culler 04).
Taking a clue from Culler, it can further be averred that there is an unstoppable commerce always going on between literature and arts on the one hand and all those non-literary disciplines listed by Culler on the other. As a part of this commerce, ‘theory’ uses literature and arts as the arenas of play and operation; and in exchange offers to literature and arts, to re-quote Culler, the “accounts” of  “the functioning of psyche”, of “public and private experience and of larger historical forces” (04).

Having seen the character of interdependence, interdisciplinarity and coexistence between literature/arts and theory, it is time to briefly talk of the practical aspect of theory known as ‘practice’/ ‘praxis’ in the context of literature. As we understand and do it now, the ‘practice’ of theory in literature and arts is an outcome of the shift from ontological thinking to epistemological that happened around the Seventeenth Century. As Hazard Adams writes in the Introduction to Critical Theory Since 1965, the world of ontology embodied by the terms “mimesis” and “didactic” gave way in time to “the world of epistemology, usually marked in its beginnings by the science of Galileo…” (Adams 02). The current form of the practice of theory in literature and arts, thus, is one of the outcomes of that ‘epistemological’ turn. By reference to M. A. R. Habib, the practice of theory can be summarized as a double mechanism. One, as the employment of the theoretical methodologies and ideologies of “thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault and Kristeva” carrying the thoughts of “great thinkers” like “Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hegel” as the antecedents in their methodologies and ideologies (Habib 02). And, two, as the delineation of “diverse reactions against mainstream bourgeois thought, ranging from Romanticism through symbolism to Marxism, Freudianism, and existentialism” (Habib 03). Added to this repertoire of Habib to create a comprehensive ‘praxis’ system would be many postmodern and poststructural standpoints derived from the conceptual formulations of Roland Barthes, Giles Deleuz, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Jean Baudrillard, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai and others. It is quite inconceivable that this open field of theory and praxis should ever go obsolete. The illogic of the attempts to send theory into an impossible obsolescence grows from three prime factors. One, ‘theory’ has dismantled all boundaries among arts, aesthetics, humanities, philosophies, sciences and all past, current and possible future braches of enquiry. Two, ever since the arrival of postmodernism and poststructuralism, ‘theory’ has opened itself to all past, contemporary and future theoretical conceptualizations and formulations. And, three, ‘theory’ after the happening of poststructuralism has become a system of reciprocation in the sense that it both informs and gets informed by the disciplines, texts, discourses, cultural objects and practices it focuses on.

The two preceding paragraphs successively talk about the formal and the practical aspects of theory, and assert its ever irrefutable relevance due to its interdisciplinary form and its postmodern and poststructural modes of practice. This theory would escape and elude any manner of sending it into obsolescence because, as Frederic Jameson says, it is “all or none of those things at once” (1962). By “all of those things” Jameson means the various “different discourse(s) of other academic disciplines”, which would include all the disciplines listed by Culler in his Very Short Introduction to Theory that we have cited above (Jameson 1962). With this pervasive existence across disciples past, present and future, theory earns an immanence which makes it beyond empirical limits of ‘the end’. Being “a kind of metadiscourse”, as Terry Eagleton calls it, theory just can’t and won’t be passé (Eagleton viii). To establish the continuing remarkable relevance of theory, it would be appropriate to quote the testimony of Eagleton in the preface to the 25th anniversary edition (2008) of his Literary Theory: An Introduction:
I hope that the republication of this book on its twenty-fifth anniversary will help recapture the intense excitement theory was able to inspire at the time it was written. If the book's continuing popularity is anything to go by, that tide of excitement has by no means ebbed. I do not know whether to be delighted or outraged by the fact that Literary Theory: An Introduction was the subject of a study by a well-known U.S. business school, which was intrigued to discover how an academic text could become a best-seller (Eagleton x).
While Eagleton assures us of “the tide of excitement by no means” ebbing in that cited piece from the said preface, he also points at a kind of ennui or fatigue that theory has given to its followers. Of course, he keeps out those “philistine objections to theory, which for the most part reflect more of an animus than an argument”. It is here that he expresses his fear in the form of a question: “Has theory, then, been institutionalized?” (vii). Looking closely and critically, this ennui or fatigue or boredom leading to the desire to look beyond theory could be the result of a dissociation between theory as a genre on the one hand and cultural products on the other. Just passingly mentioning this dissociation, Culler refers to the those ‘writers’ of theory who make “too much discussion of non-literary matters, too much debate about general questions whose relation to literature is scarcely evident, too much reading of difficult psychoanalytical, political, and philosophical texts” (01). This theory that alienates literature is, in Culler’s words, “a bunch of (mostly foreign) names; it means Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Louis Althusser, Gayatri Spivak” and so on (02).The central argument in this paper, therefore, is that theory, however universal it may be or appear, does or should operate under the broader framework of Cultural Studies. For the clarity of the context, the paper uses the notion of Cultural Studies in its evolved 1980s and post 1980s forms because Cultural Studies till 1970s had predominantly been influenced and informed by Marxism. In 1980s, the “earlier Marxist interest in social class was suddenly ‘decentered’ by an increasing preoccupation with the cultural effects of other kinds of cultural difference - gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality - and by the growing influence of post-structuralism and postmodernism” (Milner 02). An easy inference drawn from this statement of Andrew Milner is that theory, of whatever hue, functions inside cultural locations. Logically and factually, therefore, theory operates as a part of Cultural Analysis/Studies. Theory, which in fact embodies certain ideological values, must separately seek its definition, application and validation for every cultural location. The central argument of this paper draws its logicality from two special features of Cultural Studies. One of these two is the feature of Cultural Studies as an inclusive and dynamic field and mode of analyzing cultural products - a method and mode which includes the entire quantum of theory along with “a moral, ethical, and political dimension to the degree that it takes stock of that reality” (Ryan xi). This feature grows from the fact that “cultural studies has, particularly since the 1990s, spread spatially around the globe and conceptually into a wide range of traditional fields and disciplines” (White 01). The second special feature of Cultural Studies is an offshoot of the first. That is, the “spatial” and “conceptual” expansion of Cultural Studies ensures that it keep itself open to the nuances of individual cultures in all geographical locations in the past, present or future. It is so because, unlike theory that remains rooted in temporal-ideological location, Cultural Studies travels in all possible directions in space and back and forth in time.

The three narratives taken up here for the illustration of the core argument of the paper are: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry. The moderate logic in this selection is that the three narratives give us three distant time frames and three distant geo-cultural locales to verify, to whatever extent possible, the sustenance of the argument of the paper. Moreover, the three narratives represent three authentic cultures, not what Gregson and Crewe call “second-hand worlds” (01). First published in 1981 in Spanish, the first of these three is located in Latin American (Colombian) culture; first published in 1956 in Arabic, the second is located in the Egypt of the second decade of the 20th Century; and, published in 2012 in English, the third is a narrative of and about the culture of the Zoroastrian community around 1940s in Bombay (then) in India. As can be observed, even prima facie, the three narratives are far apart from each other in terms of time, geographical location, culture and language. From Latin America to India via Egypt, and from 1956 to 2012, is quite a journey in all possible considerations; and to add to those massive distances in space and time are the three different narrative modes. The unidentified narrator in the Colombian Chronicle of a Death Foretold makes it a complete narrative circle by beginning at “five thirty in the morning” of “the day they were going to kill” Santiago Nasar (01) to bring it back to the point where he is seen “trying to rise up out of his own blood” at the end (121). In between these two points of time barely separated by a couple of hours or so, the narrative travels back and forth in time through several journalistic testimonies of the various characters in the novella. The Indian Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer begins somewhat medias res, in the middle of the life of the first person narrator-protagonist, and then moves progressively forward till the end of the second last chapter bringing in glimpses from the younger days of that narrator-protagonist. The last chapter, interestingly, moves ‘proleptically’ to bring the narrative to the point of where the narrator protagonist’s “old age is catching up” and he has “succumbed to the bewitchment of my (his) dreams” (245). Different from these two ‘Chronicles’, Palace Walk is a traditionally linear narrative beginning with of Amina’s childless youth, when she routinely wakes up “at midnight to await her husband’s return from his evening’s entertainment” (05), to the end many years later when her husband is returning one evening with the shocking news- “Fahmy killed”- and is worried that he would have to break this devastating news to the compassionate Amina who “wept at the death of a sparrow” (533).

Far removed from one another in every respect - thematically, culturally, structurally and theoretically - the three narratives can still be treated alike if looked at from some perspectives of theory. Of course, the ‘theoretical’ treatment of the three narratives together would require some reductive thinking on them. The most perceptible factor common in the three is the crucially and structurally important sets of binary opposites. The common binaries saliently available across the three narratives are the binaries of the recommended (or prescribed) ideals on the one hand and the practiced models on the other.

Talking first of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the Catholic ideal of compassion and modesty gets a sort of foreground in the narrative in the early chapters that make many references to the visit of Bishop and the festive preparations surrounding that visit. As the novella moves in the journalistic mode through the ‘reports’ of the characters, the Bishop’s visit and what his visit should signify in terms of the Catholic messages of compassion and love keep hanging in the background. The binaries are there right at the start, in the opening sentence of the novella- “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the Bishop was coming on” (01). The practiced model of killing for honour and its tacit approval against the Catholic ideals of pity and forgiveness come for the closest brush in the report of Clotilde Armanta, a store owner and witness:
“For the love of God, murmured Clotilde Armanta. “Leave him for later, if only out of respect for his grace the Bishop”. “It was a breath of the Holy Spirit”, she often repeated. Indeed, it had been a providential happening, but of momentary virtue only. When they heard her, the Vicario twins reflected, and the one who had got up sat down again … “They looked at him more with pity”, Clotilde Armanta said (14-15).   
However, it is the practiced ideal of killing for honour only that works and Santiago does get killed by knife stabs. Among the other binary opposites in the novella, there are the ones of ‘religion’ (which is abstract) versus ‘life’ (which is actually lived), and ‘apparent’ versus the ‘hidden’. For the former, there is all that atmosphere that builds up around the visit of the Bishop set against the actual sordidness and commerce of life in the narrative; and for the latter, there is Angela Vicario’s apparent modesty and shyness set against her secret affair in which she also has her first sex experience allegedly with Santiago Nasar.

Mahfouz’s Palace Walk presents the same binary opposites of the prescribed ideal and the practiced model in an apparently different setting, the setting of Islam in Egypt. The binaries structurally and thematically important in this narrative are the binaries of the ideal of a life of prescribed austerity and chastity without any addiction to intoxicants (particularly alcohol) against the practiced model of a machismo/manhood supposedly realized in a debauched living and drinking. The binaries come for a close dramatic encounter in a conversation between brothers Yasin and Fahmy when the former is already bored in his marriage with Zaynab. Yasin’s “wife is perfect…a perfect lady…the daughter of a respected gentleman…her mother from a distinguished family. Beautiful?...Refined?...Yes…” (360). In spite of all theological and religious prohibitions, Yasin, the husband of this beautiful and refined Zaynab, begins to understand and even admire his father Ahmad’s numerous adulterous relationships. “I have come to understand my father’s position perfectly”, he says, “I know what turned him into that boisterous man who’s always chasing after romance. How could he have put up with a single dish for a quarter of a century when I’m dying of boredom after five months?” (361). Yasin and Ahmad are not the only men living that life of booze and adultery in contravention of the religious prescriptions; in fact, it is a kind of private life in that narrative that many men live, including all those in Ahmad’s circle. The binaries cited above may be the most visible in Palace Walk, but the most interesting is the binary opposition between sanctioned polygamy against the practiced model of monogamy in the narrative. In the course of this long narrative in the heart of Islamic culture with conditionally permitted polygamy, there isn’t a single man with so much as even two wives. Ahmad married Amina only after divorcing his first wife; and Yasin remains without a wife after he is forced to divorce Zaynab (433) as a consequence of his rape of a middle aged Black maid (410).

As seen in the Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Palace Walk, the man-woman relationship is right there at the root creating the binaries discussed in the context of those narratives. The same man-woman relationship creates the structural and thematic binaries in Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer too- it is the love of a Zoroastrian high priest’s son, the narrator-protagonist Phiroze Elchidana, for Sepideh, the daughter of a low caste corpse bearer (a Khandhia), whom he insists on marrying, which creates the structural-thematic binary between the ideal of the recommended profession for a high priest’s son and profession he adopts for the sake of his love. The closest encounter between the two, the traditional/family ideal and personal model, happens when the news is brought in a telltale way by the brother of the protagonist to their father. The family gathering then is the site of that encounter. Breaking the worst part of the news, Vispy says, “Temoo Kaka’s ultimatum to Phiroze is that if he wants to meet Sepideh again, he should be willing to marry her. And work and live with her at Doongerwadi”, the place with the ‘Tower of Silence’ in it, the tower where the Zoroastrians in Mumbai dispose of their dead (81). “Saalo badmash”, the father responds, “An insult to our family! Proposing such a thing to the son of a high priest! How dare he talk like that, the drunkard! HE should be thrashed! Flogged with sticks and chains!” (81). It is at this juncture that the occupational hierarchy in the Zoroastrian system brings to a point of conflict the high occupation of the high priest against the low of a corpse bearer in the form of another set of contending binaries.

The three narratives, thus, thrive on the strength of these binary conflicts which provide them the scaffoldings on which the stories mount thematically and structurally. As the narratives grow, they also incorporate the theoretical concept of the ‘Subaltern’ in some of its variant shades. In the Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the idea of the Subaltern appears in the form of a subtle but perceptible racial prejudice. Though it doesn’t ever catch the highlight in the novella, the internal division between two sets of immigrants, one of Arab decent and the other European, is there to be noticed on a close reading of the text. Santiago Nasar is the child of a “marriage of convenience” and has inherited from his father his “Arab eylids”, “the manipulation of firearms” and his “mastery of high-flying birds of prey” along with his cattle ranch (05-06). His Arab descent and his cavalier and libertine life style make him the ‘other’ in that predominantly Catholic social set up. In the entire novella, which has been constructed in the form of a collection of witness reports of his murder, the witnesses speak of Santiago as the other. It is easy to surmise that Angela Vicario, the lady who was sent back by Bayardo on the wedding night for not being a virgin, would have found it more than convenient to quietly accuse Santiago for having ravished her maidenhood. And, in fact, neither of her two brothers cares to enquire whether Angela spoke the truth. Entirely missing in all these reports is the collective resentment that one would expect to see in this close knit community. In Palace Walk, the play of the concept of the Subaltern is, again, there in the form of racial prejudice, and is to be seen in the unfair treatment meted out to Black African women serving rich families. The one off example is the rape of Nur by Yasin. From the beginning to the end of the rape, Nur, quite knowing her position, has been mildly telling “shame” on Yasin instead of shouting or making a forceful effort to protect herself (409-10). On being discovered in the very act by Zaynab, it is she who gets lambasted as “you scandalous black slut”, and has to quietly leave home and her employment “with a large bundle in her hand” (411-12). The Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer has another turn of the Subaltern in it. Something typical of Indian contexts, this turn is inwardly directed in the sense that the prejudices and discriminations are intra-community rather than inter-community. The ‘untouchability’ of the class and caste of the pallbearers, called Khandhias, and their physical and psychological segregation circumscribed within Doongerwadi, is less noticeable because of the introverted character of the Zoroastrian community in India and their limited spread.

The focus of theory on the three narratives also brings to light discoveries for feminist perspectives. Taking stock only and solely of the leading women characters in the three narratives, Angela in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Amina in Palace Walk and Sepideh in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer are women in three distinctly different socio-religious milieus. Angela Vicario is a Roman Catholic in a Latin American locale; Amina is a Moslem woman in Egypt, and Seppy is a Parsi (Zoroastrian) in Bombay. Theory has a lot to do by clubbing them together and train the same feminist thought on them to spot their similar and yet different predicaments. Angela is humiliatingly abandoned because she is discovered not to be a virgin on her wedding night (46-47) and because she doesn’t “feign her lost possession” to show the “linen sheet with the stain of honour” (38). Amina serves her womanizer husband slavishly without being loved and yet under a constant fear of being divorced (09-10). And Seppy is a rebel, “a gawky, yet beautiful child of nature” (12). In a Foucauldian manner exposing the huge imbalance of power structures and the resultant unfairness, feminist theory would question the requirement of being a virgin for a bride, and would eulogize Angela her for not “feigning” virginity and would simultaneously denounce her for having “a helpless air and a poverty of spirit” (31). It would denounce Ahmad for being a womanizer and denounce Amina for being meek (05-11). It would in some way hold up Seppy as a kind of model of rebellion (12).

Quite obviously, the three narratives covering a huge trajectory from Latin America to India through Egypt are subject to ‘theoretical’ treatment. But, this theory does not consider the incomparable cultural circumstances and locations of the three narratives. In that Latin American conservative Catholic society in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, ‘virginity’ for a new bride is a requirement. That is why all those old wives’ tricks to feign virginity. If Angela is abandoned for not being a virgin, her mother and brothers find nothing out of the way in her husband Bayardo’s act. Rather, they find fault with Angela and the person who may have done that to her. Likewise, in the heart of the Egyptian Islam in Palace Walk, Amina and her mother, find nothing much objectionable in Ahmad’s debauchery (in spite of its prohibition). Seppy’s rebellion in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, is not in fact a rebellion at all. With her mother dead and her father a drunkard, she is a neglected child and whiles away her time playing in the jungle and also mixing with boys till she falls in love with Phiroze. The moment these cultural differences and values and nuances are brought in as they should be, the apathy of the theoretical focus and the stridence of theory diffuse. It is here and now that a scholar of Cultural Studies begins to examine Chronicle of a Death Foretold to take note of the mystery of a murder in cold blood by men who swear to be Catholic to the core, and of the psychology of the euphoria of the crowds of people thronging the riverside to get a glimpse of the Bishop who just passes by without getting off his boat. It is here and now that the scholar of Cultural Studies begins to see the importance of the ever present motif of the shrine of Al Husayn hovering over all that happens in Palace Walk; it is here that the scholar of Cultural Studies begins to see the significance of the regular invocations to the “Oneness of God” and to His Benevolence and begins to understand the intricacies of the system of women’s confinement in that social set up. And, it would only be through a theory enshrined in Cultural Studies that one would understand the tragedy of the pallbearer narrator-protagonist in a Zoroastrian community in Bombay (Mumbai) in Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.
Table of Contents, December 2016