Response to Peter Hulme Misrepresentation, Ego, Nostalgia:
Misreading "Misreading the Postcolonial Tempest"
"What's going on? How'd it get so wrong?" (Cuddy and Keelor 1993)
1. Peter Hulme claims I misrepresent "Nymphs and Reapers," the Tempest essay he wrote with Francis Barker in 1985. He quotes from my 1991 piece "Against 'Ideology,'" "The trouble with original meaning, they tell us, is that it's irretrievable with any certainty," and remarks that this "is Pechter's paraphrase. Neither of those phrases . . . appears in 'Nymphs and Reapers', and nor does any statement that could possibly be construed as having such an import" (2002: 25; all references to this and other Early Modern Culture pieces are to the numbered paragraphs). This last cannot be altogether so. After all, I did construe such an import, and even if Hulme is right to suggest I am functionally illiterate ("can't read even in the least complex sense of the word" ), some statement or other in "Nymphs and Reapers" must have served to trigger my hallucination. It's not far to look. In the third paragraph, Barker and Hulme identify their practice with "an alternative criticism" that "has sought to displace radically the primacy of the autotelic text by arguing that a text indeed 'cannot be limited by or to . . . the originating moment of its production'" (p. 192, quoting Tony Bennett). Strategically placed at the beginning of the piece, this identification is also secured in the strongest possible terms: "alternative" and "radical" designate the supreme values for the collection in which Barker and Hulme's piece appeared.1 Thus "Nymphs and Reapers" not only acknowledges that textual meaning cannot be fixed in a determinate original inscription but makes this acknowledgment the inaugurating gesture and ground for its own critical method.
2. Barker and Hulme spend little time explaining why it ought to be discredited, but they don't have to. Writing in 1991, George Dillon refers wearily to the "repeated polemical and by now ritual slaying of positivism, foundationalism, correspondence theories of truth, and Methodology" (2), and even in 1985 it must have seemed unnecessary to do more than flash the "autotelic" card in order to make the point. Barker and Hulme's main quarrel, however, is not with the old historicism but with the new radicalism--or at least with a certain tendency among their fellow alternative critics who, starting from the same anti-positivist unprivileging of original inscription, invest in a critical practice that might be called reception history (my term, not theirs). From Barker and Hulme's angle, reception history, by dispersing its focus among a range of successive appropriations of relatively equal interest, "denies to itself the very possibility of combating the dominant orthodoxies" and thus proves "only too vulnerable to pluralistic incorporation, a recipe for peaceful co-existence with the dominant readings, not for a contestation of those readings themselves" (193). As Hulme puts it in the current piece, "the danger of dissolving the text into 'an indeterminate miscellany of inscriptions' (193)" is that "such a dissolution would remove the grounds for contestation: 'alternative' readings would become merely additional or supplementary because they would have removed themselves from the claim to contest readings of the 'same' text" (24). As a better alternative, Barker and Hulme advocate a "properly political intertextuality" (194) which, while still refusing "to reinstate the autotelic text with its single fixed meaning" (193), would nonetheless "attend to successive inscriptions without abandoning that no longer privileged but still crucially important first inscription of the text" (194, emphases in the original here and in all subsequent quotations).
3. One conclusion to draw from all this is that Peter Hulme has a real complaint: in stating that the "trouble with original meaning, they tell us, is that it's irretrievable with any certainty," I simplified the complex argument developed in "Nymphs and Reapers." In fact, the absence of any single fixed original meaning is not a problem for Barker and Hulme; they fully embrace the antifoundationalist critique of a positivist historicism. The problem, rather, is with antifoundationalism itself that, by failing to go beyond the wholly negative consequences of exposing all interpretive privilege, loses the purchase necessary for anything more than a weakly relative authority. But another conclusion to draw from all this is that elements of simplification and elision in Barker and Hulme's own argument at the very least helped me overlay their fine tuning with some static of my own. For it's hard to see what leverage, exactly, original inscription provides. Once it has been emptied of its ontological "privilege," how we can we determine what that "first inscription" is, let alone why it is "crucially important?" In the current piece, Hulme acknowledges that this "is very far from being the last word on the question of 'the text in itself', nor does it present itself as being so" (24), but the table-thumping italics of "properly political" and "crucially important first inscription" claim as much authority as one can expect in the postmodern contingency of a world where the last word is never spoken.
4. If my fuzziness mirrors theirs, however, that's hardly an excuse. Misrepresentation is never excusable (my turn for blustery italics now, and I'll return to this point). Besides, the reciprocity claim (I was sloppy because they were sloppy), apart from its transparently self-serving motivation (Pechter does never wrong but with just cause), doesn't get us very far in answering Blue Rodeo's second question at the top of this piece. How'd it get so wrong? As an account of misrepresentation, reciprocity offers a bit more explanatory power than illiteracy and hallucination; but we need a more detailed story, and Hulme nudges us in the right direction to find one. "Pechter clearly associates 'left' criticism with a dismissal of the problem of original meaning. . . . We are located on the left, therefore we must be saying that original meaning is irretrievable" (26). Association: we all do it all the time; it's the indispensable basis for perception, let alone complex analysis. Hulme says I'm doing it illegitimately: to identify left criticism with an indifference to historicism would be lumping. Maybe so, but this identification is one I never made. In the 1980s, a politically (as distinct from theoretically or epistemologically) inflected left criticism was nothing if not deeply committed to historicist responsibilities. "Always historicize!" was the urgent injunction and "are we being historical yet?" the worried question of choice.2 In this context, I was not about to associate left criticism with an insouciant disregard for historicism--old, new, or anything in between.
5. Why then does Hulme attribute the association to me? what's his reason? I am a "humanist" (so he calls me ). His evidence for this designation? Presumably, it's that I contest the claims of "Nymphs and Reapers." I was arguing against the materialist left, therefore I must be on the humanist right (who's lumping now?), protecting original inscription and the autotelic text against the radically alternative vandals at the gates. This is a good story, with an exciting plot and recognizably sympathetic or despicable characters (in my cameo appearance, I am cast as a less-smart and less-learned version of Brian Vickers). But it's not true. Over the years I've been a sucker for lost causes; but that I was then, am now, or ever have been a member of the humanist party, that I utterly deny. Well, maybe once, in a book I wrote about Dryden in 1975, but by the time I wrote the piece at issue here, the scales had fallen from my eyes to reveal an antifoundationalist creed from which I have never seen reason to backslide.
6. Writing out of this belief in "Against 'Ideology,'" I held no brief for the autotelic text against Barker and Hulme's critique. On the contrary, I agreed with them entirely in rejecting the interpretive privileges claimed on behalf of authorial intention, the text in itself, original inscription, wie es eigentlich gewesen, and all the other slain dragons in Dillon's menagerie. For the same reason, I agreed entirely with their view about reception history. Although we might decide that some of the interpretations produced over time are better than others (in fact, we always do), and even that one is best of all, the preference would be determined from a position not above interpretive history but rather within it--more precisely, from within that part of it in which the preferred interpretation is located. Here too, any claim for a regulating privilege must be abandoned.
7. From this angle, we find ourselves looking at a simpler and more elegant explanation for my misreading "Nymphs and Reapers." I blurred Barker and Hulme's distinction between original meaning and reception history because the distinction did not matter for the purposes of my argument. I shared their skepticism about both these critical modes. My quarrel, rather, was with the "properly political" practice they recommended instead. In this authentically radical alternative, we are enjoined first to identify "the dominant readings" of a text (193) and then "to proceed by means of a critique of the[se] dominant readings" (194). In this way, according to Barker and Hulme, we can rise above the weak relativism of reception history, in which "the only option becomes the voluntaristic ascription to the text of meanings and articulations derived simply from one's own ideological preferences," and finally achieve that solid "ground" required for "combating the dominant orthodoxies" and for "a contestation of those [dominant] readings themselves" (193).
8. Identifying the dominant--that's the linchpin in this apparatus, the chronologically and ontologically prior move from which everything follows and on which everything depends. Since it is always only from within the present that we identify dominance, Barker and Hulme's approach requires us to focus on current readings. In retrospect, then, their fudging on that "no longer privileged but still crucially important first inscription" is largely without consequence: it's really only the judgment we make now, about that first inscription or anything else, for which privilege is crucial. And it is precisely there, in the privilege retained for defining the dominant, as signaled in terms like "ground," "themselves," and of course "properly," that I focused my argument. I responded to "Nymphs and Reapers," in other words, not with humanist anxiety but with antifoundationalist irony. Having (I thought) deposed the monarch, Barker and Hulme now want to restore a royal interpretive prerogative (new radical is but old priest writ large). This is what I said (verbatim, with only the notes changed to be consistent with the usage here) in the two paragraphs following the passages Hulme quotes in his current piece:
But why assume that the contemporary dominant is any easier to determine than original meaning or critical history? What allows Barker and Hulme to believe they have direct access to it--the contemporary dominant as in itself it really is, unmediated by their own interpretive interests? Such questions arise when you consider that the text they chose to illustrate contemporary orthodoxy, Kermode's New Arden "Introduction" to The Tempest, was thirty-four years old at the time Barker and Hulme's piece was published, and written by a critic who, it may sometimes seem, has done nothing but change during the course of his career.3 Even more problematic is their definition of the critical views that they say constitute the dominant orthodoxy. Though "no adequate reading" of The Tempest "could afford not to comprehend both the anxiety [of irresolution] and the drive to closure it necessitates," it is just "these aspects of the play's 'rich complexity,'" Barker and Hulme tell us, that "have been signally ignored by European and North American critics, who have tended to listen exclusively to Prospero's voice: after all, he speaks their language. It has been left to those who have suffered colonial usurpation to discover and map the traces of that complexity by reading in full measure Caliban's refractory place in both Prospero's play and The Tempest" (204). But despite this claim, there were plenty of humanist critics around before Barker and Hulme who were able to recognize and respond to just such subversive energies in the play. In the New Penguin "Introduction" (published almost exactly halfway between Kermode and Barker and Hulme), Anne Barton emphasizes at length how the play works against the resolving gestures of conventional closure (40-44). And the claim that the dominant version of the play is uttered by or within Prospero's voice simply ignores the very substantial body of nonalternative interpretation that has made a nasty Prospero into such a regular feature of Shakespearean interpretation both academic and theatrical--arguably even the dominant feature.4
To reverse a memorably tendentious phrase from Stephen Greenblatt's High Functionalist period, Barker and Hulme can be described as transgression producing authority (the dominant orthodoxy) as a way of extending its own (counterhegemonic) legitimacy. From this perspective, Barker and Hulme's entire rationale for concentrating the struggle in contemporary criticism disappears. Stick to the current stuff, they tell us, and the argument will not be "wholly dissolved into an indeterminate miscellany"; but this move merely displaces the problem of indeterminacy onto the very question (what is the current stuff?) that was supposed to eliminate it--and thus turns out to be a horizontal rather than vertical move. Let's get beyond "simply . . . one's own ideological preferences," they urge us, to provide a ground from which to critique ideology; but what I am suggesting is that, since Barker and Hulme's understanding of the dominant orthodoxy is perforce derived in fundamental ways from the interests they bring to the question, it cannot satisfy their desire to ground the critique of ideology because it is itself ideologically constituted. (Pechter 1991: 84-5)
9. It should be clear now that, while my misrepresentation of "Nymphs and Reapers" had no significant consequences for the argument in "Against 'Ideology,'" Hulme's misrepresentation of "Against 'Ideology'" has major consequences indeed. By selective quotation (he fails to cite anything from these two paragraphs, even though they are at the center of the argument) and, more important, by an act of violent recontextualization ("Against 'Ideology'" is said to be motivated by humanist values), Hulme avoids engaging with the claims I made. In the absence of effective engagement, I assume that the argument of "Against 'Ideology'" stands as securely as when I first made it: right then, right now, and right into the future for as far as the eye (this eye, anyway) can see.
Know ye not then, said Satan, fill'd with scorn,
Know ye not mee? (Paradise Lost, 4.827-8)
I didn't mean to treat you so bad,
You shouldn't take it so personal. (Dylan 1966)
10. What's this about, anyway? What's really going on here?
11. I'm on campus yesterday, schmoozing with a colleague. Kate (call her Kate) became a dean last year, so we haven't seen each other much recently, and we're catching up. After the preliminary trivia (family, friends, our decaying middle aged bodies), we get down to business ("what are you working on these days?"), and her interest, when I tell her, sounds like more than conventional politeness.
"When did it come out?"
"Oh, earlier this year, I think. It's an on-line journal and--"
"No, no, the first piece."
"You mean mine? Well, 1991."
"1991?" She looks perplexed. "And the original? His piece?"
"Well, actually . . . it was 1985."
12. "1985?" Her eyes cloud over, and I turn away to the window. Across the Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Mountains look close enough to touch. Washington State; America, the Beautiful. I've been listening to Warren Zevon's last (both senses) album, and his riff on the Star Spangled Banner bubbles up in my head.
It's the home of the brave and the land of the free
Where the less you know the better off you'll be.
A half-century earlier or more, Huddie Ledbetter had troped the national anthem in a similar way. Alan Lomax brought him up to DC to record for the Library of Congress, and when they checked into a hotel, they ran into Jim Crow ("no colored"). An embarrassed Lomax tells Ledbetter not to take it to heart. Washington, says Lomax, is "a bourgeois town." That night, in a more accommodating hotel room, Leadbelly writes the "Bourgeois Blues":
Home of the brave, land of the free
I don't wanna be mistreated by no bourgeoisie
Lord, in a bourgeois town, yeah, a bourgeois town . . .
13. I look back at Kate, trying (it seems) to disguise a look of alarm. I start to work up some self-justifying explanations, but my heart sinks; I shift gears ("so, what are you working on, Kate?"), and we proceed to the familiar rituals of disengagement. Yes, we must have lunch, and soon. As I wander down the hall, trying to absorb this neo-Lomaxian embarrassment I'm feeling into the sense of a happy ending, I hit on the fact that neither of us said do lunch.
14. But the question won't go away. Why invest time and sensibility defending comments I made more than ten years ago about a piece that is itself almost twenty years old? All roads lead to the same answer: it's ego, the bruised ego. "Oh, I forget your name," someone says at a party. It's innocuous, it happens all the time, but there's a twinge of pain, because it's more than your name--it's your identity that has somehow been not just forgotten but denied. It's worse when they misread the articles you write, because it isn't just your physical self on the line, this muddy vesture of decay, but your professional self--almost, if you thought you had one, your pilgrim soul. Peter Hulme has had to deal with this for almost twenty years. Bate, Coyle, Hamlin, Levin, McDonald, MacKenzie, Pechter, Skura, Vickers, Will--they're all getting him wrong. His skin, he acknowledges, is less thick than the "Greenblatts and Bhabhas of the academic world" (4), so it makes sense to turn a blind eye, but for some reason he seems to "find it easier to check on how we are quoted and summarised" (4), actually seeking them out, all these instances of misreading, and then storing them all up, and now you can feel his pain. By you I mean me, even the Miltonic/Satanic mee, for when it comes to sense of injured merit, I yield to no man (nor woman, neither). Mistaken assaults from the left, misguided embraces from the right, and worst of all those malicious omissions (it feels like malice) by people who, though they must know your work (my work), have erased me from their notes, deleted me from their bibliographies, and cast me into the outer darkness of oblivion. I remember every face of every man who puts me here.
15. Despite Dylan's words-not the ones I just quoted (1967), but the "Sooner or Later" lyric at the top of this section--I take things personally, and I think we all do. Jay Gatsby dismisses Daisy's feelings for Tom Buchanan as "just personal" (Fitzgerald 160); but if ego (which of course just means "I") is at the motivational center of every interest, then how can we take things other or more than personally? Ego is routinely represented as a nasty thing we are meant to jettison on the path to enlightenment, but unless you're committed to Calvinism (a doctrine considerably more repugnant than humanism), the repertoire of ego-driven actions must cover the whole range of possibility, extending beyond the instances of envy and resentment I have been cataloguing here to include Mother Teresa's performances as well. (If you take a hard Christopher Hitchens line on Mother Teresa, substitute your own candidate for a putatively selfless sanctity.) A long idealizing tradition has consigned personal interest to the category of the to-be-transcended (Gatsby, according to Nick, "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself" ), but a thoroughgoing renunciation of personal interest, as I understand the idea, would lead not to virtuous action but affectless inertia.
16. Nonetheless, the inherent naughtiness of ego is by now so securely ensconced in our feelings that recuperative efforts may be a waste of time. If so, we do well to follow Hulme's lead, elevating the discussion to a "larger debate" about "quotation, paraphrase, and misreading" (1)--our professional responsibility to get things right. "I wrote this essay because I think we need to complain" about misrepresentation, Hulme declares, "not just to put the record straight, but also to further intellectual conversations which are worth having" (3). He returns emphatically to this idea in his final words: for "our discussions to be fruitful we must read and quote and paraphrase the words of others with due care and, if we don't, we deserve to have our readings of literary texts taken with less seriousness" (53).
17. Fair enough; misrepresentation is "always inexcusable." Trying to get things right has to be at the center of our endeavor as scholars, critics, teachers. But for reasons already familiar when Dillon was writing in 1991, we're bound to fail. Representation is always misrepresentation. Every quotation, because it detaches words from their original context, is a misquotation. Even if we could reproduce the whole piece, we would still be recontextualizing, appropriating other people's words for our own purposes, stealing their intellectual property. Writing in itself, as an "essential drifting, . . . cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the authority of last analysis, orphaned, and separated at birth from the assistance of its father" (Derrida 316), is a kind of misquotation or theft--in this case from the self, or least from those aspects of selfhood that might claim property rights in their own words. Speech too. "I have nothing with this answer," Claudius says, feigning ignorance or innocence, after one of Hamlet's veiled threats. "These words are not mine." Hamlet responds, "No, nor mine now" (Evans 3.2.96-98), as if he has become alienated from his own words merely in consequence of the time it took to utter them.
18. This situation can be registered as loss and denial (language writes man), but it has an affirmative dimension as well. Even as the speaking subject recedes into shadow, language itself emerges into clearer focus--more powerfully radiant than we could otherwise imagine. Interpretation routinely begins with questions about an author, but as Foucault argues, "who is speaking?" may generate less interesting answers than "who is listening?" (160). Even this transfer from intention to effect may seem like an unnecessary restriction. There's a sense in which any claim to interpretive authority--whether by assigning words to authors or to audiences--must defer to the power of language itself.5 Language writes language; when we catch glimpses of this self-creating power, the effects can be surprising, shocking, stunning, beautiful, sublime. An alert (or wisely passive) attentiveness to these effects, an attempt to communicate their power--these, I take it, are at the center of our endeavor as scholars critics, teachers. Without these, who would take us seriously?
19. We've got to get it right, we can't get it right. It sounds like Beckett, but in practice the situation is less catastrophic and certainly less funny. It adds up, rather mundanely, to compromise and the exercise of judgment in determining what Hulme calls "due care." We make allowances for some misrepresentation but not too much, and for little if any about the really key issues. How much is too much? What issues are really key? I've argued that while my misrepresentation of "Nymphs and Reapers" is inconsequential, Hulme's of "Against 'Ideology'" is a "violent" distortion, but I'm reasonably sure Hulme sees things the other way around. We could go on indefinitely in this vein, arguing about how we argue, but that way Monty Python lies: "this goes beyond legitimate misrepresentation"; "no it doesn't"; "yes it does"; "no it doesn't"; "yes it does"; "this isn't argument, it's just contradiction"; "no it isn't"; "yes it is . . . " Alternatively, we can focus on the topic that generated the argument in the first place--the values we half perceive and half create in Shakespeare's Tempest. These are not mutually exclusively or perhaps even significantly different subjects. To reiterate a claim I developed at length some years ago, if "our beliefs about the world and about what constitutes 'fair play' or a legitimate entitlement to the advocacy of such beliefs are generated out of the same position" (1995: 119-20), then our argument about The Tempest and our argument about our argument about The Tempest add up to two versions of the same thing.
20. I am claiming now that we're better off concentrating on the beliefs than on the rhetorical protocols, debating The Tempest rather than our techniques for debating The Tempest. The play offers a richer repository of ideas and sentiments, accumulated over a long critical and theatrical history, than the narrowly predictable range of topics for determining representational legitimacy. I am purporting to provide reasons in support of my preference, but "better off" and "richer" may not add up to reasons in the Miltonic sense ("Reason also is Choice") so much as repetitions of the preference they claim to justify. Rorty once said that the choice between "the Kantians and the dialecticians" is "about as serious as the issue between normal and deviant sexual practices." It "is not unserious in the sense of unimportant," he adds, but "it is not a serious issue in the sense of a debatable one, on which there is much to be said on both sides. It is not an issue which we all ought to pitch in and try to resolve (in some more discursive way than massacring the opposition)" (106-7). It may be that all our choices boil down to a desire that cannot be grounded on anything other than itself--turtles all the way down. In this case, we are all inside the Python skit I evoked a moment ago: preference is what we've got, opinions generated out of a fund of experience that is "just personal" and mediated, as always, by the ego.6
"When I was a boy, everything was right." (Lennon and McCartney 1966)
21. In trying to rehabilitate the concept of ego, I have not abandoned Hulme's conviction that we can still talk to each other "fruitfully"; there's room to maneuver inside the Python skit (as much as in Plato's Academy, anyway). But there are some real constraints, and as Hulme acknowledges, we "may not in practice succeed in persuading our intellectual opponents of their errors" (53). One implication of this comically understated point is that some readers (perhaps including Hulme himself) will persist in believing it's better to focus on questions about the representational legitimacy of our writing, and I won't be able to change their minds. But for readers on my side, including those hedging their bets but willing to go along for the ride, let's abandon the "larger" issues of professional responsibility and get down to The Tempest. What does Hulme's piece tell us about Shakespeare's play--or rather, since the largest question of the ego remains, about Hulme's understanding of The Tempest and its commentary during the last twenty years?
22. "For better or worse," Hulme introduces a summary passage near the end of "Stormy Weather," "what I've been discussing as the postcolonial reading of The Tempest is now the 'orthodox' approach (Dawson 1988: 68). The achievement in establishing that new orthodoxy should not be underestimated. Since it has hardly been welcomed by elements of the Shakespearean establishment, it must obviously owe its position to the force of its arguments." In this paragraph, which I have quoted in its entirety (48; it's the shortest in the piece), Hulme offers a very different perspective on the formidable array of negative arguments leveled against his work. Instead of potential threats requiring defensive maneuvers to "put the record straight," Bate, Coyle, and all the other misreaders I listed earlier on now appear as witnesses to the postcolonial reading's irresistible power. The mere fact of resistance signifies authority (in the contentious discourse of academic criticism, opposition, rather than imitation, may be the highest form of flattery); and the postcolonial reading has not only generated but defeated opposition, moving with breathtaking speed from a marginal insurgency to occupy a position at the orthodox center of the critical landscape.
23. Hulme attributes the success of the postcolonial reading to "the force of its arguments," as though truth, like murder, would out on its own; but given the monumental inertia of Shakespearean critical and theatrical traditions, and given the charismatic aura radiated by The Tempest within these traditions, such a remarkable transformation of opinion could not have come about just by itself. A variety of auspicious factors must have coincided to make it happen: a critical mass of listeners predisposed to hear the new story with sympathy; a proliferation of smart and learned critics, all applying their rhetorical gifts in a way to make the story heard. Of these critics, Hulme's prominence is amply displayed by the many publications listed in the bibliography of "Stormy Weather"; and of these publications, "Nymphs and Reapers" is preeminent, the piece that more than any other established the postcolonial Tempest at the heart of the Shakespearean critical establishment. From this perspective, "Stormy Weather" is not a reaction to the failure of communication but an assertion of its stunning success, an "achievement" not to "be underestimated," and its foundation has been constructed largely if not uniquely by Peter Hulme himself.
24. Not that there is anything self-congratulatory in the piece. This absence may be interpreted as strategic (Coriolanus's "Alone I did it. Boy!" is not a role model for effective ethos), and Hulme is certainly not averse to rhetorical calculation.7 But the lack of triumphalism in "Stormy Weather" may be not so much tactical avoidance as simply the fact of the matter. "For better or worse" goes beyond conventional sprezzatura to acknowledge Hulme's genuine feeling: the establishment of the postcolonial Tempest is, after all, a mixed blessing--a triumph, but also a defeat. The sense of loss recorded in the dedication at the very beginning should not be dismissed as "just personal." A sense of loss, as I read "Stormy Weather," suffuses the entire critical argument.
25. To begin supporting this probably-perverse-sounding claim, consider Hulme's remark, just after the paragraph I've been discussing here, that during "the last ten years, the most interesting postcolonial readings have been those which have illuminated The Tempest's 'Mediterranean' discourse, enriching our sense of the play's contemporary contexts and deepening our understanding of the complexities of sixteenth-century colonial and cross-cultural relationships" (49). In this representation, the Mediterranean Tempest constitutes a friendly amendment by which the interpretive authority of the original New World inflection is augmented or more securely established. This view is entirely consistent with Barbara Fuchs's claim that her purpose in emphasizing Mediterranean and Irish materials is "not to refute American readings of The Tempest; I agree with Peter Hulme that placing New World colonialism at the center of the play" has made it "fundamentally more interesting" (45-6), as well as with Jerry Brotton's insistence that to "reintegrate this [Mediterranean] world into the geographical fabric of The Tempest is not to dismiss the New World dimension of the play, but to suggest that the play has a much more complex and overdetermined awareness of geography than has often been thought" (2000: 132).
26. But not all versions of the Mediterranean Tempest fit so comfortably into the "enriching" and "deepening" frame of Hulme's representation. In an earlier piece, Brotton argued far less accommodatingly that by "dismissing the significance of the Mediterranean, or Old World references in The Tempest, colonial readings have offered a historically anachronistic view" of the play (1998: 24), adding that the attempt, at least by American critics, to center the play in the Caribbean might be seen as itself a kind of colonizing gesture.8 Richard Wilson reiterates this idea in his Mediterranean version, remarking that "this last comedy has been Americanized on campuses as a tragedy of the New World" (333). Hulme includes Wilson (as he does the earlier Brotton) among the latter-day postcolonial critics who have added to the Caribbean dimensions of the play, but Wilson himself emphasizes his incompatibility with or at least his difference from the original version. Setting is one difference, but genre is another. In moving the play from the Mediterranean, the Americanizers have (as Wilson sees it) also transformed it from a comedy to a tragedy. The point deserves special attention because the connection between setting and genre was anticipated in "Nymphs and Reapers" itself: "a generic analysis would have no difficulty in showing that The Tempest is ultimately complicit with Prospero's play in treating Caliban's conspiracy in the fully comic mode. . . . That this comic closure is necessary to enable the European 'reconciliation' which follows hard on its heels--the patching up of a minor dynastic dispute within the Italian nobility--is, however, itself symptomatic of the text's overanxiety about the threat posed to its decorum by its New World materials" (203). The claim here, that a Mediterranean-and-comic emphasis works to recuperate the New-World-postcolonial Tempest, seems to be corroborated when Wilson, at the end of his interestingly eccentric piece, associates his work with Bernard-Henri Lévy's desire
to honor the ghost of "a colonial humanism that might be thought of as stupid, absurd, or reprehensible, and has been condemned by history, but which cannot be described as infamous." In particular, it is the European involvement in North Africa, Lévy argues, which proves empire "an event the nature of which muddies our terms of reference," as "any distinction which appears clear-cut in the light of historical judgment, or behavior I would be embarrassed to countenance today, was infinitely more blurred at the time," when someone could be implicated in colonialism "without being a monster." Such is the ambivalence restored by returning The Tempest to its Mediterranean context." (352)
From this angle, Barker and Hulme's preemptive strike against what has come to be called the Mediterranean Tempest may be justified.
27. But if this is so, it is not clear how Hulme can now designate Wilson's essay as an enrichment and deepening of the postcolonial reading in its original form. The uncertainty opens up to a number of general questions. At what point does friendly amendment turn into hostility? How much can a thing be expanded-enriched, deepened--before it is bent out of shape? What is the postcolonial Tempest anyway--its quiddity, its essence, the qualities without which it turns into something else? Early on in "Stormy Weather," Hulme tells us that "I'll use the term 'postcolonial' as a shorthand to refer to readings that have emphasised the importance of colonial questions," but this usage, he admits is a "simplification" that ignores "the distinctions between New Historicism and Cultural Materialism" as well as "the related question of differences between U. S. and British approaches" (7). But then (to ask the same question again) at what point does a blurry simplification become an illegible oversimplification? At the end of the enrichment and deepening claim I quoted earlier, Hulme seems to equate "colonial and cross-cultural relationships," but if the dynastic squabbles among European aristocrats are equivalent to the European conquests of New World indigenes, we have expanded "colonial questions" to an amorphous and ubiquitous inclusiveness--"power relations," tout court--whose interpretive specificity has arguably vanished into thin air.
28. One way to get around this problem is to shift from content to attitude. The postcolonial reading may not have a coherently stable conceptual identity, but even as it changes its places, geographically and topically, it maintains a consistent posture to its varying materials. The postcolonial reading depends on a skeptical detachment from what passes in the play for received authority. It evinces a healthy suspicion about Prospero's assertions of legitimacy and, on the other side, extends a sympathetic ear to Caliban's claims ("This island's mine") by "reading in full measure Caliban's refractory place in both Prospero's play and The Tempest" (Barker and Hulme 204). In short, the postcolonial reading may be defined in terms of its revisionist stance. Hulme initially adopts the word from a critic with whom he has his disagreements--"In the 1980s these readings were sometimes simply called 'revisionist' (Skura 1989: 43)" (7)--but he makes it his own and gives it a privileged status in explaining his ability to welcome Mediterranean versions into the family: the "postcolonial reading of The Tempest separates the 'colonial' reading of the play from a mere identification of 'American' or 'New World' elements: these have often been identified over the years, but there is nothing necessarily revisionist in the readings of the play associated with them" (49).
29. This neat separation of setting and attitude, however, may be too neat. If New World Tempests are not inherently revisionist, then Mediterranean Tempests must not be inherently recuperative. Hulme has evidently changed his mind since "Nymphs and Reapers," where the relocation to Europe constituted at the same time a generic translation into "ultimate . . . complicit[y] with Prospero's play." Hulme's current view seems plausible (the European setting need "not necessarily" entail either comic or recuperative effects), but in practice, as the Wilson piece suggests, the Mediterranean location at the very least tends to soften the revisionist image of an aggressively dominating Prospero. Moreover, it works the same way with Caliban (or the other way around), as witness Hulme's current claim that he never identified Caliban as a Native American.
Any such imputation would imply a distinctly impoverished notion of the relationship between the literary text and the historical world. Indeed, to call Caliban a "compromise formation" was precisely an attempt to think otherwise about the question of representation. The arguments that he is an American Indian, or is a medieval wild man failed to register (I suggested) that his "monstrosity" consisted of his excess of characteristics, many of them registered by those who perceive him and comment on him. (44)
But whatever Hulme originally intended or intends now, the setting within which we identify Caliban must significantly shape our attitude toward the play. A Native American, exploited by European conquest and (as most current spectators will know) facing something like cultural genocide, is bound to generate more sympathetic interest than a wodewose or wild man rampaging through the forests of medieval Europe. Kermode identified Caliban chiefly as the latter (1954: xxvii-xl), and that Kermode's reading of the play "stems" (in Barker and Hulme's view, 201) "from its continuity with the grain of unspoken colonialist assumptions" seems like a natural if not "necessary" consequence. Just as the European setting makes Prospero someone who, to recall Lévy's words in Wilson, has ceased "being a monster," so it makes Caliban less human--less a being whose claims we can acknowledge as our own.
30. With its appreciative interest in multiple settings and identifications, in "overdetermination" and "compromise formations," "Stormy Weather" endorses an un-"impoverished relationship between the literary text and the historical world." The special openness of "the literary text": it's an old topos, going back as far as to the Romantics (if not to the time of good neighbors), and one with special relevance to The Tempest. Both Anne Barton ("compels a peculiarly creative response") and Stephen Orgel ("tempts us to fill in its blanks") locate The Tempest's interest and value in terms of such openness9; and the idea is at the center of "The Tempest" and Its Travels, the collection Hulme co-edited in 2000. Dedicated to the proposition that the play travels well, the editors emphasize the play's "extraordinary ability (even by Shakespearean standards) to translate and be translated" as testimony not just to the "appropriative" momentum of critical history, but to the play's own capacity to regenerate interpretive interest. "The power and mobility of its language and themes" along with its "endlessly malleable" theatricality "have made it a renewable resource like few other texts." By virtue, then, of its literary/theatrical power (they quote Orgel's description of an "'openness'" so "full of 'blanks' that it 'tempts us to fill in'"), audiences across space and time have been enabled to bring meanings outside the play's initial purview back into its original orbit so that "the play itself" may be said to exist "in many places at once."10
31. Hulme's current hospitality to literary openness raises again the question of limits: at what point does a compromise formation constitute a deformation? In "Nymphs and Reapers," Barker and Hulme were in an uncompromising mood. They insisted that the "different discourses" intersecting in any text "are related to each other in a complex but ultimately hierarchical way" (197), and they emphatically located "English colonialism" at the top of The Tempest's hierarchy, its "dominant discursive con-text" (198), "the articulatory principle of The Tempest's diversity" (204). But as David Kastan argues (in the name, precisely, of the "literary text"), if "text and context" are construed to be "related dynamically rather than hierarchically," the "number of meaningful contexts is apparently boundless" (195). In this situation, any authority to claim to identify "the articulatory principle" of textual diversity is substantially diminished if not annihilated.
32. In his Introduction to Alternative Shakespeares, describing the "serious challenges" to "the existing dominant paradigm of literary studies" mounted by "a diverse variety of alternatives," John Drakakis remarked on the "surprising" invulnerability of Shakespeare studies, its "seemingly infinite capacity to absorb and domesticate the most hostile of challenges. But what ardent admirers are disposed fanatically to regard as the plenitude of Shakespearean texts is no longer adequate as a means of fighting off or neutralizing the force of alternative accounts" (1-2). With "struggle," "combating" and "contestestation," "Nymphs and Reapers" replicated both Drakakis's claim and his fiercely argumentative tone, but Hulme now admits to registering "some unease with these military metaphors" (note 7), and he has considerably moderated the substance as well as the rhetoric of his original claim. Instead of issuing challenges to the fanatical admirers of Shakespearean plenitude, Hulme in fact seems to have joined them.
33. That Hulme has shifted or even reversed course is not a criticism. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and maybe even solipsism: the world changes and we change with it. Hulme helped to make the Shakespearean world invest in a revisionist reading of The Tempest, but then the postcolonial Tempest became the dominant orthodoxy and therefore abandoned the revisionist claims on which it was founded. Like any successful revolutionary agenda, the postcolonial Tempest got co-opted (Milton's new presbyters and old priests again). But it would have been worse to be ignored. If there's no success like failure, failure's no success at all. "Stormy Weather" thus remains the triumphal story of an "achievement" not to "be underestimated," but the success has come at a cost. As versions now proliferate themselves routinely, the postcolonial Tempest has, if not altogether lost its shape, certainly lost its edge, its edginess, its transgressive ambitions. And "Stormy Weather," even as it celebrates its triumph, mourns the loss.
34. From this angle, consider the narrative structure of the piece. After a one-paragraph introduction, a pretext that is clearly an afterthought, "Stormy Weather" begins by summoning up a memory from the past. "One Friday morning, late in 1983, Francis Barker and I had travelled down to London to take part in one of a series of meetings that Methuen had organised for discussion of the Alternative Shakespeares volume which John Drakakis was editing, and to which we were contributing an essay on The Tempest, which I'll refer to here simply as 'Nymphs and Reapers'" (2). That Hulme takes off from an anecdote is hardly a shock. Opening anecdotes are regular features of current critical work. But this one seems to have nothing much to do with an homage to Greenblatt, and its purpose is far from clear in terms of the overall argument of the piece. As it develops, with "Kate Belsey . . . muttering to herself" about an instance of inaccurate (indeed, invented) quotation, the anecdote serves to introduce the "larger" subject of misrepresentation, but it would have been easy enough to introduce the topic without the anecdote. "For me," Hulme adds just afterwards, "this anecdote has always remained inseparable from 'Nymphs and Reapers'" (2), but the claim that "Nymphs and Reapers" has been repeatedly misrepresented occupies space in a public domain in fact quite easily separable from its personal--"just personal"--associations in Hulme's mind. The associations themselves are developed in a similarly superfluous detail. That it's a late fall Friday morning is neither here nor there in terms of the argument, but very definitely there and then in terms of the specific time and place. The reality effect here reinforces the sense of personal immediacy. That meeting really happened, and Peter Hulme was really there, and his being there is the origin of everything to follow.
35. But what then is to follow? If we locate this question in a chronological rather than conceptual context, the answer is, another anecdote. Here in toto is the paragraph that begins the next section of his piece.
A couple of months after Alternative Shakespeares had appeared, Howard Felperin came to Essex to give a departmental seminar. He began by announcing that he was going to talk about New Historicism, and that Essex was an appropriate place for such a talk since the Literature department was home to two New Historicists, Francis and myself. We looked at each other in some puzzlement since neither of us had heard this strange phrase before. Felperin's labelling was at the time a mystifying but in no sense hostile or mischievous categorisation. (5)
This anecdote, too, exceeds its ostensible function. Hulme has already established the general theme of misrepresentation, and although the benign and "clearly unavoidable" (6) form illustrated here contrasts with the gratuitous malice discussed elsewhere, the idea could be put on the table much more economically without the illustration. In fact, if you eliminate paragraph 5 altogether, "Stormy Weather" seems to lose nothing at all in terms of its logical coherence.
36. How, then, does the anecdote earn its place in the story? Like the Methuen strategy session that Friday morning in the fall of 1983, Felperin's address enriches the atmosphere of personal reminiscence. Like a fiat, it produces a moment of self-discovery. Like Molière's bourgeois gentilhomme, who discovers he is speaking prose, Hulme's "puzzlement" must include a strong element of excited delight as well. "Je parle New Historicism!" The identification would require some fine tuning, but at the time it coincided with a widespread belief that criticism was on the verge of a transformation so vast as to transcend local habitations and names. In this context, the Felperin anecdote has less to do with misrepresentation than with revelation. In contrast to the identify-annihilating misreading elsewhere, Felperin affirms Hulme's existence. More than just an isolated critic, Hulme has achieved prominence as part of a collective, even international project--"to break" (as Drakakis says at the end of the Introduction published just before Felperin's epiphanic manifestation at Essex) "the dominant paradigm of Shakespeare studies" (23).
37. From this angle, the two anecdotes work to reinforce each other in evoking the spirit of world-altering excitement alive in the mid-1980s--the nostalgic commemoration of a time that is now lost. Felperin himself seems to have mysteriously vanished from our small academic world. (What happened to him? Like Hulme, I liked Felperin and admired his work, but when I ask about him at conferences, I get shrugs.) Methuen too has vanished, or turned into Routledge (sounds like "Rummidge," what a cacophonous falling off is here!), which has in turn been leverage-bought-out or hostilely-taken-over by or amicably merged into the Taylor & Francis Group. Taylor and Francis are proper names without faces, the Group declares offices all over the world, but it's probably a tax shelter for Kraft Foods or Ciba-Geigy, and its real home some virtual space on an abandoned AOL-Time Warner website. The international project dreamed about in the 1980s has turned into the nightmare of globalization. Routledge continues to produce self-declared counter-hegemonic titles, but in a routinely predictable proliferation that seems more like normal science than a new paradigm, including a second volume of Alternative Shakespeares which, though hugely interesting, as is inevitable with any Terence Hawkes production, nonetheless illustrates, like Henry IV Part Two, the also apparently inevitable exhaustion of sequels.11 Hulme's own current collection, "The Tempest" and Its Travels, is a tremendous book, but has and makes no claim to bold innovation, and I'm sure that its publisher, Reaktion Books (no comment), did not invest in hosting strategy sessions for its contributors.
38. In Day Late, Dollar Short, Peter Herman collects essays from the "next generation," surveying their prospects in the "new academy" after the ambitious theoretical programs of the previous generation have been absorbed into received knowledge: "most of the next generation has uncritically and unproblematically accepted these theoretical paradigms," Herman remarks. "For most of us, the primary, overarching priority in graduate school was not to change the world but to land one of the ever-more-elusive tenure-track positions. Consequently, taking on our teachers in print, going in a completely different direction, entails taking a considerable risk" (2, 213). Herman's topic, belatedness, goes back a long way--at least as far as to Dryden's remark about Shakespeare's leaving "no praise for any who come after him." Hulme, who participated influentially in those earlier triumphs, looking back now, like Antony, with the eye of someone who has outlived his achievements, evokes the perhaps even older topic of nostalgia. Not that he is losing his powers (on the contrary, he moves in his current work from strength to strength); but the stage on which his criticism is performed is much diminished from what it was when John Drakakis met his contributors on New Fetter Lane and Howard Felperin addressed the Colchester seminar room in that happy age before the flood.
39. There were giants in those days, or at least huge ambitions--Shakespeareans claiming that their work contributed "to bring[ing] down capitalism."12 From the current perspective, when normative expectation about the consequences of our work seems reduced to some scraps of merit, distributed by a sympathetic dean once the boys in Commerce and Engineering and, of course, the dean herself have received their fair lion's share, such ambitions probably seem heroically remote. That time is now no more--an air of glory whose light doth trample on our days. But although nothing will bring back the radiance that was once so bright, Hulme, who was there, can at least testify to its reality. "Stormy Weather" communicates the expansive excitement of that hour--and not only to those who also lived through it. Even the many readers for whom 1985 is history--just history--can get a sense of what it felt like from the inside. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. To be young was very heaven.
IV. Misreading "Misreading the Postcolonial Tempest"
"This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine." (The Tempest, 5.1)
40. Is it really a rush of nostalgia that is driving "Stormy Weather?" Would Peter Hulme recognize himself in this description? Probably I've just misread him, yet again. I do this all the time, mistaking interpretive constructions for a real presence in texts produced by accountable authors, then wanting to thank them for touching readers' hearts or, like Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, finding myself revolted by them for making us admit to kinship with unspeakable evil. "I do not want to read this, she said to herself; yet she had gone on reading, excited despite herself. The devil is leading me on: what kind of excuse is that?" (178). All this personalized sensibility lavished on discursive effects, on "imitations"--there's nostalgia for you. I must be the product of my pre-structuralist training. Maybe Hulme's right. In my pilgrim soul, if I thought I had one, I'm just an old humanist after all.
41. And while I'm in the midst of embarrassing confessions, here's another one. I was wrong. No exculpatory explanation of how I lumped original inscription together with interpretive history has any bearing on the fact that I did so. Neither does any claim, justified or not, that the mistake had no major consequences, for scholarship requires "complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument" (Nuttall 191). I was wrong, and I owe an apology to Peter Hulme, to the memory of Francis Barker, and to any readers I may have misled. I beg your pardon.
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1 "Alternative" is the title epithet for the collection in which "Nymphs and Reapers" was published, and the editor repeatedly underscores the "radical" nature of its contents from the first page of his Introduction (Drakakis 1985).
2 For the establishment of "Always historicize!" as "the one absolute and we may even say 'transhistorical' imperative of all dialectical thought," see Jameson (9). For "are we being historical yet?" see Porter.
3 Kermode of course went on to write, among other things, The Sense of an Ending (1967), and subsequently to write that during the half a dozen years after its publication, "I remember feeling rather dismally that quite a lot of work had gone into a book which became antediluvian almost on publication" (1981: 3).
4 For the theater I am thinking of Derek Jacobi's recent RSC performance, as described in various reviews and by Jacobi himself in a recent Shakespeare Quarterly interview. For academic criticism see Cutts, Berger, Pearson and Abrams. (My thanks to Richard Levin for calling my attention to the Cutts and Pearson items.) Curt Breight can mention "the fact that audience is outside Prospero's play and can therefore view it with critical detachment" as though this were self-evident--that is, the dominant contemporary view (9). Of course Breight is publishing five years after Barker and Hulme, but the change he serves to illustrate was hardly limited to those five years. For a brilliantly interesting discussion of the general pattern represented by Barker and Hulme, see Howard Felperin's argument about The Tempest, chaps. 2 and 9. Felperin's basic point is that The Tempest's romance qualities are always already demystified, and that claiming to have progressed to the point of seeing the romance ironically "is to reveal . . . the mythic status of modernism itself" (33).
5 Two "just personal" examples from these pages: 1) The default question for initiating interpretation of the Warren Zevon lyric I quoted earlier would be to ask, "Why echo Leadbelly?" but why assume Zevon expects us to recognize the echo or, for that matter, recognizes it himself? He may never have heard the "Bourgeois Blues," never even heard of it; in this case the echo is a pure coincidence of reception. 2) Coming back to "Nymphs and Reapers" after many years, I was struck with the phrase Barker and Hulme quote from Tony Bennett, "wholly dissolved into an indeterminate miscellany of inscriptions." It sounded familiar and, sure enough, there it was in a book I wrote on Othello, published eight years after "Against 'Ideology,'" in which I said of performance history that it "might (and often does) dissolve into a miscellany of greatly memorable realizations, momentous but also momentary as a sound" (7). I knew I was stealing from A Midsummer Night's Dream, but not from Barker and Hulme, and as for Tony Bennett, I never read him at all.
6 In this spirit, I offer a piece of "just personal" history to support--or reiterate--the claim I have been making here. After thirty-one years of marriage, my wife and I have amassed a substantial archive of argumentative topoi, including a version of the transfer I have been describing here from (to use State Department lingo) policy to process. "You see what you're doing there," one of us says (it's usually my wife, I rarely do wrong and never without just cause), "you're twisting my words, you always do that," to which the response follows as the night the day, "I'm twisting your words? You never let me finish my sentences . . . " and on it goes. But not for very long: by the time our arguments reach this rhetorical turn, we have exhausted our interest in whatever got us going to begin with--or maybe just exhausted ourselves, period--and we tacitly agree to wind this one down, make up, and proceed to the hiatus, generally pretty long, that intervenes until we can start a new argument (what you get married for if you don't want arguments?).
Everything I've been saying here is transferable to the issue of politeness or civility, to which Hulme refers in passing (31-34). Like fair and accurate representation, civility is necessary to keep the critical conversation going in a "fruitful" way, but we will always disagree about what constitutes appropriate civility because of the different beliefs we are advocating. The question is important, but I'm claiming we've got more interesting things to do than argue whether phrases like "'rails against'" or "'censorious and shrill'" or, for that matter, "can't read even in the least complex sense of that word" have gone over the top (or under the bottom) of appropriate civility.
7 I am thinking of the engagingly disingenuous self-effacement by which Hulme includes himself in "Those of us who have only ever written a couple of pieces which anybody seems to have read" (4). My attribution of rhetorical self-consciousness to Hulme is meant as a compliment (would we want to read writers who are indifferent to their audience?).
8 "In claiming an exclusively American context for the play's production, American new historicist critics overinvest something of their own peculiarly post-colonial identities as American intellectuals within the one text that purports to establish a firm connection between America and the culture which these critics analyse with such intensity: early modern England" (27).
9 "Spare, intense, concentrated to the point of being riddling," says Barton, "The Tempest provokes imaginative activity on the part of its audience or readers. Its very compression, the fact that it seems to hide as much as it reveals, compels a peculiarly creative response. A need to invent links between words, to expand events and characters in order to understand them, to formulate phrases which can somehow fix the significance of purely visual or musical elements is part of the ordinary experience of reading or watching this play. . . . The Tempest is an extraordinarily obliging work of art. It will lend itself to almost any interpretation, any set of meanings imposed upon it: it will even make them shine" (19, 22).
As Orgel puts it, The Tempest is "a text that looks different in different contexts, and it has been used to support radically differing claims about Shakespeare's allegiances. . . . The question of correctness is not the issue in these readings; the play will provide at least some evidence for all of them, and its critical history is a good index to the ambivalences and ambiguities of the text[,] precisely that complexity of sensibility which is what we have come to value most in Shakespearian drama, and in Renaissance culture as a whole.
"More even than Hamlet, the play tempts us to fill in its blanks, to create a history that will account for its action, and most of all for its hero," but these "readings probably testify . . . more to the play's ambivalences and ambiguities than to its psychological consistency. It offers to the psychologizing imagination primarily a world of possibilities, enormously suggestive, but incompletely realized and in significant respects unresolved. [A]ll interpretations are essentially arbitrary, and Shakespearian texts are by nature open, offering the director or critic only a range of possibilities. It is performances and interpretations that are closed, in the sense that they select from and limit the possibilities the text offers in the interests of producing a coherent reading" (11-12)
10 The material here is lifted from my enthusiastically appreciative review (2002: 343-44), where page references may be found.
11 See Woodbridge's review of Alternative Shakespeares vol. 2 and see Pechter (2002: 339-42) for some skepticism about the newness of the recent volumes in Routledge's "New Accents" series.
12 I am quoting from the last sentence of a piece Alan Sinfield wrote for Political Shakespeare. The full sentence is, "Teaching Shakespeare's plays and writing books about them is unlikely to bring down capitalism, but it is a point for intervention" (1985: 154). Sinfield has recently complained that the remark has been taken out of context to in a way that "suggests that I expect cultural commentary to work a vast political change; a silly idea" (2001: 8).
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