Styles of Criticism: Thoughts on the works of Luke and Aphra Bahn
Yesterday night I had the pleasure to sit in and listen to a talk that some doctoral students were giving in the University of Puerto Rico about Aphra Bahn’s Oronoko, a book claimed by some scholars as the first novel (predating Robinson Crusoe) but considered by other scholars, for whatever technicalities, as being a “novelette” or some text more akin to the “French romances”, which are not considered (once again for whatever arbitrary reason) as real novels. This talk, for reasons that I will explain later, made me think back to Luke 19:25 – 26.
Harken back to some time ago when I had an argument regarding Luke 19. In this chapter Jesus is talking to some people in a town and proceeds, as he often did, to narrate a parable. The parable he spoke was about some tax collector who went to some high king to be nominated to be local lord, and he gave three of his peasant servants some money and asked them to circulate it and make more money. The peasants in general sent a delegation to the high king saying “we don’t want the tax collector to be our king”, and when the tax collector returned he was the king. As the king he asked his servants to return the money he gave them with interest. One servant said “here’s 10 times what you gave me” and the tax collector-king gave him command over ten cities. Another servant gave him 5 times the investment and was given command over five cities. The third one said something like “I know you’re a harsh master who sows what he does not seed, so I kept it safe to return it”, and the master says something like “you should’ve put it in the bank to return a bit more” and ordered his servants to take the one gold from the servant who kept it safe and gave it to the one who had ten. The master then proceeds to say something like “and so he who has will be given more and he who does not have even that which he has will be taken from him. And take those who spoke against me and slay them before me”. That’s the end of the parable, and of the section. In the next section Jesus is elsewhere talking about something else.
In a video by the prominent “youtuber” Thunderf00t, he argues that Jesus is setting down his policy of “if you go against me I will punish you”. Religious conservatives reply that Thunderf00t does not know what he’s talking about and that the RIGHT way to interpret this passage is as a “morale” that money should be managed well. Some of the more corporatist interpretations argued in favor of the banks. I suggested that what Jesus was really trying to say in that parable was that if you don’t follow the establishment and try to live outside of it, as did the servant who kept the one coin outside of the bank and did not encourage the economy by “investing”, will be punished and what they have will be taken from them and given to the wealthy, AND that if you speak out against the establishment you will be labeled as a traitor and killed. Apply those interpretations to the modern world however you want. One thing that came out of this heated debate is something that almost everyone engaged in the debate (except for one particular hardcore pro bankers conservative) agreed with: that no single interpretation of the Bible is correct. This is something that Blake (Romantic poet) and those of the Dissenting tradition (some of the brightest minds of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) agreed with, and something that is true of ALL literary texts. No matter what the text, interpretations are individual and subjective, and given that said interpretations are based on certain fundamental facts that can be found both in and outside of the text, and if you want to do an interpretation or analysis of a text that takes into account ONLY the text itself (New Criticism) then that is just as valid as if you do a cross-analytical or a multidisciplinary reading of a text including historical documents, author biographies, or theory.
Flash forward to last night. Two students were doing a collaborative analysis where one student would talk about what was happening in Oronoko and the other student, call her María, was giving her interpretation of the text. At one point María asked the other students sitting in what they thought, and one particularly brave doctoral student, let’s call her Estelle, suggested that Oronoko was a post-colonial anti-slavery narrative. María replied with the classic “is it?” followed by silence that literature professors (myself included, although I tend to follow my “is its?” with a counter statement) use when uncertain of how to approach the point raised by the debater and need the debater to elaborate on their points (to take them apart afterwards) and some more time to gather their thoughts.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with Oronoko’s narrative, it is the story of an African prince who is in love with a certain woman. The king, his grandfather, sends this woman a bridal wreath and she cannot refuse the king. The king is the 100 year old grandfather of Oronoko, and Oronoko is the only surviving descendant of the king, as all his other sons and grandsons died glorious deaths in battle. Oronoko, who was off halfway around the world buying 300 slaves (reference to the Battle of Thermopoly?) for his beloved, returns to find that his love has been taken from him by the king. He remarks that he would rather she had been kidnapped by anyone else because being married to the king made her family – she would be like his grandmother. Oronoko, with the help of a friend, manages to visit his beloved and he finds out that her marriage to the old kind had not been consummated, so he proceeds to consummate his love with her. The old king, Oronoko’s grandfather, finds out and sells her as a slave, but since this would be the ultimate shame for Oronoko, he decides to tell him that she was killed. After hearing these news Oronoko falls into a depression.
After some events regarding war and the rescue of a town under siege Oronoko sees a familiar slave trading vessel approach from the distance. The captain of this vessel, whom had dealings with Oronoko regularly, invites him to drink aboard the ship, and after Oronoko is drunk enough he is captured and taken across the sea to be sold as a slave. While in the boat Oronoko decides to not eat and the other slaves follow his example, but the captain persuades Oronoko to eat so that he other slaves eat by offering him his freedom. Oronoko is not freed. This is the first of many broken oaths during Oronoko’s time of slavery. All throughout the novel Oronoko displays an air of magnificence beyond that of any character. A curious thing about this part of the novel is the gruesome depiction of the masters’ abuse towards the slaves, but the focus of the story is Oronoko’s ordeal and his relationship with his beloved.
After Maria’s “is it?” Estelle replied “absolutely”, and proceeded to explain that in this time (eighteenth century) women were not allowed to speak out, were only allowed to write romances, and were, all in all, highly censored. Estelle argued that because of these reasons, the depiction of gruesome acts from the slave owners, and the emphasis on how Oronoko was royalty, certainly qualified this as a post-colonial and anti-slavery narrative, but that it was not taken further because of the censorship against women voices. Maria, however, argued that this was wrong because it could not be proven with the text itself and she always told her students that something was a correct interpretation if they could prove it with the text. The argument raged on for about twenty minutes.
Now, I certainly agree that the New Criticism (look at the text itself and never mind the context in which it was written, the author, or anything outside the text) in which Noam Chomsky based his excellent (sarcasm) notion of how language research could be conducted based only on personal experience and knowledge, objective observation, data collection, or outside influences on language be damned, has its place in the reading of some texts (although I can’t think of any off the top of my head), but in the case of Oronoko at least a look at the historical context is warranted to arrive at any appropriate conclusions. I bet I lost you in that sentence.
So, what do I think, and why should you care? You shouldn’t care, you should come to your own conclusions, but I agree with Estelle – Oronoko is one of the first post-colonial anti slavery narratives, and I feel that if Estelle had argued that in Aphra Bahn arguing that Africans had the potential to be educated royalty she was arguing that they were, in fact, humans and should, therefore, not be slaves, she would have won the argument. As it stood, Maria’s “is it?s” and closed reading arguments won the argument.
That Maria managed to come out on top in this debate, however, does not mean that her reading is THE correct reading. As I mentioned before, when engaging with a literary text any interpretation, as long as it is evidenced, is valid, and if you want to claim that Oronoko is a love story that argues that the Dutch are harsher slave masters than the English and evidence it with what the text says and ignore the historical context and biographical information of the author then you are welcome to do so; but if you want to use external evidence to make the case that Oronoko is the post-colonial anti-slavery piece that it clearly is, you are more than welcome to do that as well.
Remember that literature only has one meaning before it’s published, and that meaning is whatever meaning the author wants it to have. Once it’s in circulation, however, the text stops being the author’s text and becomes the reader’s text, and the reader, given that they don’t engage in such blunders that go against facts like arguing that Thomas Paine was a conservative (as media star Glenn Beck recently suggested), can do with the text whatever he or she wants.