Friday, May 1, 2009

Perfection and postcolonial literature.

To start this blog off I thought it would be wise to publish a long text on the scary concept of perfection, just to make sure I lose any possible readers.

There are a lot of language related topics that I can't really make up my mind about, for which I can't really decide what my opinion is. One such topic is "perfection". There are several aspects of any language that are concerned by this devilish little concept that can make anyone break down and state that they don't know this or that language, because their knowledge of it is not perfect. First and foremost, there is "overall" perfection, when you have mastered a language well enough to speak it like an educated native, and this is what I intend to discuss. I am really uncertain about how frequent this phenomenon really is, if it is after all mostly just a myth (except for those that live abroad for decades) that make us ordinary perfectionist-mortals feel physical pain when we still discover errors in things we write and say in foreign languages we thought we were good at. What degree of perfection (if we allow it to have degrees) can coexist for different languages for a multilingual person? Or do we all just lose a little bit more of our edge as we add languages to the list?

After having spent a couple of months studying postcolonial French literature, my perspective on languages has changed somewhat. This is not a useful change, not in any way, not in this lovely strict society we live in, but it is at least a broadening of horizons kind of thing, and those are always nice.

Many have no idea at all what a huge thing colonialism was. Extremely few seem to be aware of the fact that it has left an incredible amount of cultures shattered, and that from these shattered cultures, an extremely interesting literary scene has arisen. Now, it's somewhat hard to just group it all together and put French-Canadian works next to Vietnamese ones, but there are things that unify them all. Language is one on those things. All these peoples, all these cultures, have been mauled by English, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch. I know too little of any other than the French "realm", so I will stick to that one. Let's take an African country that had a lively oral tradition, but no written language. Enter French colonialists, French schools, make them all read Molière and Racine, make them "French". Only one day someone will start to long for what was originally theirs, and they will want to express it, rebuild it before it vanishes forever, using this new tool that the French came along with: writing. Or, take a northern African country where the Arabic culture was flourishing with all that means for the women in the harems, and give these women a new language that they are allowed to use. They may all have completely different ways of viewing space and time, a completely different symbolic world. A whole lot more interesting things will happen here than in the literary creations of your random overly pretentious spoiled to pieces Jean living in Paris.

However, what is their language like? Is it perfect? It's not their first language, but their second, and their first language was probably very different. Their first language will almost always influence their French (even if their French is absolutely exquisite like in the cases of Aimé Césaire or Assia Djebar), so then they write poorly? Or do they write well? Are they merely unique? Is their French a new version of French, like Canadian French? We who come from "untouched" countries, or the old colonizing ones, aren't allowed to make mistakes or to write in another language in any literary way unless we can prove that we do so perfectly, but what is the big difference really? Some post-colonial writers have even created interlanguages and written in them - and been successful. Would this be acceptable in the perfectionist West? Jean-Marc Moura says "The purist question of errors has no say here". Could this ever be the case in, let's say France?

Are we just a little bit too obsessed with mistakes? On the other hand, how can we not be? Language is one of the most important things for people, but as the same time as it is a "personal" thing, it is also a state matter. Someone else has decided how you should use your language, either an institution or all your fellow countrymen before you, and depending on the language, you are either very strictly bound to these rules, even for what is supposed to be your personal expression, or you have some freedom to mix things up a bit. Nevertheless, your language is supposed to match that of your nation and you are somehow supposed to be automatically good at it. Many natives aren't, perhaps their language is simply more "personalized", more instinctive, but anyway we know that it is first and foremost BAD. Young Frenchmen cannot write in French, young Swedes cannot write in Swedish, young Russians cannot write in Russian - these days. But were they any better 100 years ago? And why are we always complaining about this and being outraged by it?

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