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Wednesday, 19 May 2010



Politics of literary criticism today

Last Saturday the 88th birth anniversary of the late Regi Siriwardene was remembered by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). Then this columnist remembered an essay written by Regi Siriwardena. The title of this longish but a vey useful easy was ‘Politics of Literary Criticism Today’. This article was published in the now defunct Pravaada dateline Nov-Dec 1995 (Vol 4, No 4). The journal’s editors were the late Charles Abeysekera and Jayadeva Uyangoda.

Regi Siriwardena

What I propose to do in this week’s column is to present to you selective excerpts from R S’s essay and in between my own responses to the writer’s observations for the benefit of our readers, especially students of literature.

Talking of structuralists, Regi said that’’ only a minority of literary critics, especially in Britain and the States were structuralist. On the other hand, the progenitors of the earlier critical evolution- Eliot, Richards, Leavis – can be quite acceptably called ‘modernist’, and their ideas were closely linked with the creative movements of modernism’

Regi prefaces that “When I speak of post-modernism here, I really mean politically radical post-modernism” He adds “Relations of power- whether class, ethnic or gender - articulated in literature are the main concern of post- modernist criticism.”

What I liked in Regi’s pronouncement is this: “…it is desirable that radical-post-modernists should recognize that hey are themselves part of the power structures they criticize.

They are no doubt a dissenting group within those structures they criticize, but they are nevertheless part of them: firstly, by virtue of their high proficiency in the English language, which carries with it in our society a position of intellectual privilege; secondly, through their acquaintance with and ability to deploy with competence and skill a new body of ideas and a novel critical language that are still unfamiliar to the majority even of the Sri Lankan English-speaking intelligentsia; thirdly, through the positions they occupy in the university establishment, several of them being in fact members of English departments. All these are indubitable sources of power”

Apart from the lucidity and the way he writes which I admire most, his follow up statement is dear to my heart. This is what he says:

Yet there is a paradox here, because power is actually what post-modernist criticism, or those trends within it on which I am focusing, claims to be subverting. Relations of power- whether class, ethnicity or gender – as articulated in literature are the main concern of post-modernist criticism. But articulated, not necessarily overtly, because much of the endeavour of post-modernist criticism consists of teasing out of literary texts those unspoken, or even unconscious, pre-conceptions and assumptions that reinforce class, race or gender hierarchies.”

I wish that I quote more from Regi’s essay, but space would not permit to do it.

Last Saturday (May 15, 2010 marked the 88th birthday anniversary of the late Regi Siriwardena. To remember him the ICES organized a memorial lecture creditably presented by Ranjini Obeysekera on the subject the difficulty of attempting to translate from one language to the other particularly literary texts.

Though academic in fashion, the presentation was worthy to listen to particularly of the reading of the early Pali and Sinhala texts. The function was chaired by former Sunday Observer editor Lakshman Gunasekera who connected the contribution of Regi towards intellectualism in the country.

Two young ladies read excerpts from Regi’s poetry and a play. I liked the reenactment of the play by their superb reading. It was amusing in its content too.



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