13 April, 2024


Imperialism, Ideology & Art

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –

Prof Charles Sarvan

The ballet ‘Adam and Eve’, a short sketch, depicts in dance the Biblical ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve into temptation, and the consequence of that ‘Original Sin’. The opening lines of Milton’s epic poem, ‘Paradise Lost’, declare that it will be about humanity’s first disobedience, a disobedience that brought “all our woe”. The ballet is simple, one would say naïve and simplistic, but not without interest. The transgression of Adam and Eve led to such misery as humanity has endured over the centuries. (In Buddhism and Hinduism, present suffering is not due to ancestral sin in the distant past but is the consequence of one’s own misdeeds in an earlier existence though, unfortunately, we have no knowledge at all of that previous birth.) Whether generations of human beings should suffer for the one sin of their distant ancestors, leads to theology: an area that is terra incognita to me. I here merely share some thoughts arising from seeing this ballet. It’s up to the reader to agree, modify or disagree and reject.

In what follows, I use the conventional but inaccurate division into ‘white’ and (all those who are not white) ‘black’. The paper we write on is white: there are no white people. “The so-called white races are really pinko-grey”: E M Forster,  A Passage to India’ (1924). Jeffrey Boakye, in his ‘Black Listed’ offers “pinkish beige”. No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black (Boakye). In this ballet, Adam and Eve are white while the negative forces unleashed are all African. What’s more, they are Africans of past representation: savage, atavistic, lusting to possess white female bodies. This last motif was seized upon, deepened and spread by the Ku Klux Klan, with horrific consequences for African American men, youths and even boys. That powerful and poisonous silent film of 1915, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (original title: ‘The Clansman’), comes to mind. In these times of token, or at least pretended, ‘political correctness’, the ballet is surprising.

By way of an analogy, I turn to language. In 1887, Polish Zamenhof constructed Esperanto and hoped it would become the world’s auxiliary language: the word Esperato is derived from “one who hopes”. Though Esperanto did not gain anything like the currency its creator had hoped for, today in the English language, we have a living Esperanto. One no longer refers to ‘native speakers’ but to the ‘first language’ of a person or group.  By ‘first’ in this context is meant not biographical chronology but that language in which a person is best able to express herself. (Bilinguals do so in two languages.) Seen in this light, English is the first language for many in many different parts of the world. Christianity is a world religion, and no one country or people should claim special rights and status over it. Similarly, if English today is the world’s language then, contrary to what is claimed (and often obtains) no one variety should lay claim to authenticity and superiority. (Unfortunately, “English” refers both to a people and to a language. Indians don’t speak a language known as Indian etc.) Besides, not all so-called ‘native speakers’ have native-speaker competence in the language. As one who once lived in England and still is a British citizen; as one who has taught English in England, I know this at first-hand. The insecurity and inferiority expressed in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ – “The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine” – is now mostly gone. Chinua Achebe in his essay ‘The African Writer and the English Language’ was emphatic that he did not want to write like a native speaker: he wanted to write like an African, a Nigerian. “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use” (ibid). In another essay, titled ‘Colonialist criticism’, Achebe wrote: Let every people bring their gifts, and humankind “will be all the richer for the variety and distinctiveness of the offerings”. Yet some varieties of English are regarded as being superior: (a) on non-linguistic grounds and (b) even by those who do not speak that ‘superior’ variety. Turning yet again to Achebe, in the essay, ‘The novelist as teacher’, he writes that if he were God, he would regard it as the worst of sins the acceptance and internalisation of inferiority (by the non-white world).

English is the world’s lingua franca because it was the language of an imperial and colonising power. Earlier, it was Latin, the language of imperial Rome, and scholars in Europe wrote and corresponded with each other in Latin. For example, Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (1516) was written in Latin.  And, as with language, so too with religion and colour. Christianity, the religion of a small group in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, became a world religion when persecution shaded into toleration and, finally, to conversion: imperial Roman territories followed suit with the Emperor Augustine sending Christian missionaries to England in 597 CE” (Sarvan, ‘The English Language’, Colombo Telegraph, 7 August 2019). Christ and his disciples were Jews but the religion was taken over and spread by the imperial West, particularly by Britain, France and, in South America, Spain. In short, Christianity was brought to the non-Western world as a Western, white religion. (The situation is now different, and there are instances of non-Westerners doing missionary work in the West, exporting what was originally imported.) The Bible tells us: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Though there are many “images” of humanity, the Christian image of god was white. (In representations of the Buddha in colour, he is invariably white.) For example, a casual search in Google will yield many representations of the Virgin Mary. Particularly in Renaissance and Baroque art, she is often ‘pure’ white, has blond hair and blue eyes. The Virgin was made European, and there is little trace, if any, of her Jewish, Middle Eastern, origin. In a thought-provoking short story, ‘The Black Madonna’, Doris Lessing relates how an Italian prisoner-of-war in Africa does otherwise in what he creates. He argues that the Virgin was a peasant: “This is a peasant. Black Madonna for black country”. God created man in his image and, in turn, Europeans created God in their (white) image. Having done so, they used that identification to bolster and project their conviction of superiority. Technological and military superiority was taken also to mean moral and spiritual superiority. Though we all originated in Africa, it was thought that white was the norm, the default setting, to use computer jargon. Non-white peoples did not have the confidence and courage to picture god in their image (as white people had done and do). Even as god had made them in his image, non-white people did not make god in their image. On the contrary, accepting the valuation of the West, non-white people built a hierarchy based on degrees of pigmentation. Lighter-skinned folk looked down upon those who were darker. Vijay Prashard, in The Karma of Brown Folk’ writes of his fellow Asians in the USA distancing themselves from Africans in an attempt to gain acceptance from white America. They do not think that “Black is beautiful”.

This ballet, ‘Adam and Eve’, perhaps unwittingly, reinforces prejudices one had hoped were of the past. However, the final scene is of ‘white’ Eve being rescued from the ‘black’ Africans by an enigmatic angel: male, with glowing white wings. As far as I can make out, the angel is neither fully white nor fully black. Whether thematic significance is intended here in the ambiguity, in the ‘neither nor’ of the figure and, if so, what it could mean, I leave to the reader.

I end by returning to words in my very first paragraph – “such misery as humanity has endured over the centuries” – and with a thought from the novel ‘Disquiet’ by the Turkish writer Zülfü Livaneli. (I thank my friend, Professor John Hillis, for drawing attention to this work.)  The ‘narrative voice’ in the novel suggests that the gods, having done the work of creation, are tired and take their rest: that is why humanity’s cries of pain and distress over the centuries have gone unheard and unheeded. Excluding ancient myths and stories, no ‘deus ex machina’ has ever made an appearance and rescued a folk, a people or a population group. Much of humanity’s suffering and sorrow has been (and is) caused by human beings. Ipso facto, alleviation and healing must come from us – and not from God or the gods. No one else but we must cure the negatives that we ourselves have created, and still create.  But human nature has not changed in essentials over the centuries. Racism and its hatreds; the cruelty of self-righteous religious fanaticism; greed and its selfishness, and other evils remain undiminished. There are no grounds to believe that things will change for the better; no cause for optimism. To ironically and sadly misapply words from doxology: “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be”. Yet we are forced to make the effort, if not to cure, then to lessen: there’s honour in fighting to the end in the face of certain failure and defeat.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    One reads this and wonder if there are yet people who disagree. For if we had a basic education, if our first language is English and we understand what’s written here, then we must know the article is sensible and its ideas self-evident; that if we thought differently, then such thinking is a result of earlier programming meant for innocent and simple times, but which no longer sync with our present times.

  • 5

    Thank you, Professor Sarvan, for introducing Zülfü Livaneli, both his novel & the man. I came across something about him a couple of years ago & was very keen to read one of his novels but it’s not easy in this benighted country to indulge one’s ceaseless hankering after foreign treasure. And it’s difficult to select just one book by this amazing, prolific writer — who is so much more than “just” a novelist. I greatly miss the bookshop browsing I enjoyed many years ago.

    “As one who” was born in England but is no longer “a British citizen”; as one who has studied “English in England,” I am also keenly aware of the frequent absence of “native-speaker competence in the language” there. Indeed, my English mother often used to say my SL father taught her her own language.

    But I am shocked about the casting in the ballet — in this day & age! You have left it to your readers to find out more about this — where and by whom, it was performed. Has there been any public reaction to this?

  • 3

    Reading Prof: Sarvan in these rather sombre days is like a fresh air blowing through.

    Manel Fonseka: I am
    sure this would interest you!.
    The English Language: A very short introduction
    by Prof: Simon Horobin.
    Magdalen college
    Date of Birth 1972. [ 6 pounds or USD 9. Free delivery world-wide]

    How English became English: A short History of a global language.

    Does spelling matter?

    Studying the History of Early English.

    • 2

      Thank you, Plato, for telling me about Horobin’s book. And, guess what! It’s available free online in a pdf! Lucky me! I already have another book in this Short Intro series, on the Spanish Civil War.
      I wonder what H has to say about Anglo-Saxon — I had to read the whole of Beowulf, in the ‘original’ back in the day — but his contents, alone, look fascinating.

  • 1

    Simply fantastic Professor. I’v lively listen to one female Prof. when she spoke about Arab literature to student of English literature at Warwick Uni. and it was mesmerizing. This is the second time I read another piece of write up with fascination.

  • 2

    Prof. Sarvan:

    “In short, Christianity was brought to the non-Western world as a Western, white religion.”

    In other words, it was a product of colonialism. Some Tamils claim that St. Thomas brought Christianity to Kerala/Tamil Nadu back in the first century, AD, implying it wasn’t at that time a Western religion. I have always been skeptical of such claims.

    “Non-white peoples did not have the confidence and courage to picture god in their image (as white people had done and do).”

    Only partly true. I think in the Hindu imagination, Lord Shiva has been depicted as dark. There is Hanuman who isn’t depicted as light-skinned. I think even Rama/Krishna is depicted in a mixed way, sometimes taking on a dark-skinned ‘avatar.’

    “Much of humanity’s suffering and sorrow has been (and is) caused by human beings. Ipso facto, alleviation and healing must come from us – and not from God or the gods.”

    This is not the right argument. There is plenty of suffering in the world that is not caused by human beings in the way you describe.


    • 3

      Indeed, suffering starts at birth–as a child is delivered into a world it doesn’t understand from the safety of its position in the womb. And the mother herself suffers– carrying the child through 9 months of pregnancy and painful delivery. Indeed, suffering is an inevitable fact of life.

      As Darwin observed, the existence of so much suffering in the world militates against the existence of a God– a benevolent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent being.

      So faith is misplaced. Instead, mankind should look for reason and civic and cultural definitions of morality to minimize suffering.

  • 1

    No God or prayer can remove suffering. You are your savior. Suffering is the default state of life.

  • 0

    Thanks, Professor Sarvan.
    This article gets the messages across very effectively.
    For anyone coming to it, please view that two minute video before reading straight through. The article itself leads very smoothly, testifying to the care with which Prof. Sarvan writes.
    Having read it, I viewed the video again. Yes, Manel Fonseka is right. It shocks that Adam and Eve are seen as “White” and the rest as savage blacks.
    Could that even have been deliberate, I wonder?

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