Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: WENDY LAURA BELCHER. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson.

Wendy Laura Belcher. Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson. Pp. ix–286. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Cloth, £45. In 2008, I debuted my edition of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (Broadview) by presenting to a group of Johnson scholars at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. After I described my edition’s emphasis on Johnson’s indebtedness to the oriental tale, an eminent Johnsonian demurred, declaring that Johnson ‘would have been disgusted’ by The Arabian Nights. Wendy Laura Belcher’s new book, Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson, definitively argues that Johnson, far from being disgusted by all things oriental, was in Belcher’s ingenious phrase ‘discursively possessed’ by Abyssinia from the very advent of his literary career and throughout his life. Belcher’s account radically reframes Johnson’s thought while also offering a new model—‘discursive possession’—for theorizing the relationship between European and non-European cultures that should have wide-ranging resonance beyond Johnsonian and eighteenth-century studies. Scholars need to take seriously Belcher’s claim that ‘The Western literary canon is a vast graveyard haunted by self-representing others, whose voices become the uncanny language of the very text that participates in constituting the other as an object of knowledge. The legible sign of the invisible other appears through the text that displaces heterogeneity even while being transformed by it’ (p. 18). Belcher’s animating paradigm of ‘discursive possession’ shows ‘how African discourse can animate European texts,’ locating ‘agency outside of the European traveler, author, intellectual’ (pp. 6, 7). As Belcher explains, discursive possession is more profound than intertextuality or influence studies because it accounts for the agency of a non-dominant discourse to shape the discourse of a dominant culture. Belcher critiques the ‘dominant models’ of post-colonial theory for ‘a failure to recognize that Africans produce discourse’ that powerfully affects Europeans (p. 7). To explain discursive possession, Belcher draws on African concepts of spirit possession and also shows how Johnson himself defines ‘possession’ as a lack of agency inherent to the creative process (pp. 48–9). The products of discursive possession are ‘energumens,’ texts ‘through which other texts and voices speak’ (p. 8). Belcher makes her case first by outlining the powerful discourse produced by the Habesha, the people of the Ethiopian highlands, an ancient discourse of cultural exceptionalism that had penetrated Europe as early as the Middle Ages via the Habesha’s own self-representing texts and ambassadors, tantalizing Europeans with accounts of the Habesha’s pure Christianity. Belcher shows that Europeans did not discover the Habesha, but were, one might say, discovered by them and were thus the recipients of their self-representations from the start of their cultural contact. In this way she offers a direct rejoinder to Edward Said and other post-colonial theorists of orientalism who believe (in Belcher’s summary) that ‘non-Western discourse … had little opportunity to shape the Western world’ (p. 98). It is important to note that Belcher’s emphasis remains on discourse. She is not suggesting that we find ‘real’ Abyssinians in Western texts; rather she is interested in ‘whether typical Habesha discourse – from Habesha texts and traditions – appears in the European text’ (p. 102). The Habesha discourse of cultural exceptionalism drew Europeans to Abyssinia, whether to attempt to reunite the Habesha with the Roman Catholic Church (as in the case of sixteenth-century Portuguese Jesuits), or to celebrate the Habesha as proto-Protestant models of a non-decadent Christianity (as did the seventeenth-century German scholar Hiob Ludolph). Belcher argues, Habesha discourse possessed the young Samuel Johnson at Oxford as he read deeply in scholarship on the ‘primitive’ church in his own spiritual awakening. In this way Belcher convinces the reader of the centrality for Johnson’s thought of his first published work, A Voyage to Abyssinia by Father Jerome Lobo (1735), a loose translation of a French translation/adaptation of a Portuguese manuscript about the Habesha, a work Johnson scholars have long dismissed as hackwork and that only a handful examined. Belcher points out that we must account for the fact that Johnson begins his illustrious literary career not with a Latin classic or with Shakespeare, ‘but with a text about a famous African people – an African people who have long been imbricated in European debates and thought’ (p. 45). Belcher believes Habesha discourse offered the young, questioning Johnson a model of religious practice that resonated with his desire for a pure Christianity that was ancient, like Catholicism, but was not the ‘aggressive political and colonial institution’ of Rome. The Habesha church ‘offered a way of separating the spiritual doctrines from the earthly power’ (p. 70). Belcher’s compelling reading of the significance of Habesha Christianity for Johnson’s thought offers a wonderful solution to the long-standing debate over the nature of Johnson’s ‘slightly peculiar,’ seemingly crypto-Catholic Anglicanism (p. 70). From her detailed reading of A Voyage to Abyssinia, spanning three of the book’s eight chapters, to her fresh interpretation of Johnson’s early play Irene, to her analysis of Habesha discourse in Johnson’s oriental tales published in the Rambler and the Idler, Belcher sheds definitive light on works that have received little scholarly attention, particularly in the past 40 years. Again and again she shows how Habesha discourse shaped Johnson’s writing. Her analysis of the complex palimpsest that is A Voyage to Abyssinia does a signal service to Johnsonian scholarship. She shows that ‘his translation’s effect, regardless of its motivations, is to recuperate the Africans and mortify the Europeans, much as the Habesha themselves might have wished’ when he ‘recasts the Portuguese as colonial aggressors, not devoted servants of God’ or when he ‘dramatically mistranslates in the Habesha’s favor, working against the negative presentation of the Habesha that Lobo and Le Grand are trying to communicate’ (pp. 91, 94, 95). Some of this has been pointed out piecemeal by previous scholars, but never before in the service of a larger argument about the agency of African discourse. Perhaps the most surprising chapter in the book is Belcher’s reading of Irene in which Habesha discourse appears in Johnson’s representations of ‘the oriental other as a complicated, rhetorically gifted Christian’ (p. 140). Belcher’s excavation of Habesha discourse—along with her careful attention to the variations between Johnson’s text in its final stage version—in this play convincingly explains some of Johnson’s seemingly odd dramatic choices in the play as well as its stage failure. Belcher concludes with two chapters on Johnson’s Abyssinian masterpiece, Rasselas, that argue against recent scholars’ readings of it as ‘the paradigmatic orientalist text, deploying the Middle East to explore unmistakably Western obsessions’ (p. 191). Instead, Belcher shows that Rasselas is ‘a text with deep links to non-Western thought and partially co-constituted by the Habesha’ (p. 193). Belcher takes the 50-year-old scholarship of Johnsonians such as Gwin J. Kolb and Donald M. Lockhart on Rasselas’s Abyssinian sources and gives it the theoretical sophistication of her ‘discursive possession’ model, elegantly melding what might seem like very different scholarly traditions. Her interpretation of the tale itself, especially an extended reading of the astronomer’s possession by age-old Habesha rhetoric of power over their land, is ingenious and original. The last pages of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson gesture towards broader contexts in which the ‘discursive possession’ model can be useful. As Belcher notes, artists have long described the creative process as one of possession. Scholars need to take this seriously, to chart, as Belcher has done so compellingly, how ‘non-European thought, through such discursive possession, animates some texts of the European canon’ (p. 247). © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press 2013; all rights reserved

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