Skip to content

Novels, Nations, Autobiographies, and Namehs

August 9, 2007

The Novel and the Nation, some say, are bricks in the edifice of Modernity.

This is a modernity with a capital M. Not modernity in the everyday sense of the word.

This is a modernity that historians social scientists trace to the Enlightenment, that aside from creating institutions never seen before, rode on the back of ideas claimed original. Whether the Enlightenment created these ideas on anew, is of course debatable. But never before the Enlightenment, I am told by those that take stock of our pasts, did these ideas germinate, proliferate and influence large global realities the way they did, during and after.

So what were these ideas?

These were ideas Ideas of organizing society. Ideas of individualism. Ideas of man’s relation to God and Church. Ideas of Man’s relation to State. Ideas of State’s relation to God and Church.

The birth of the Novel they say was an outcome of the birth of the Nation. Some of this has to do with the nation being an outcome of print-capitalism, if you believe one Benedict Anderson of Imagined Communities fame.

As you will know, the earliest novels were often implicitly or explicity married to nationalism, and by extension, colonialism. Even the most innocuous English novels you may have read if you went to an English boarding school or an English-medium school in a former colony, are likely to have in them, reinforcements of various social, racial and cultural hierarchies.

These novels were sites often, on which competing nationalist visions and paranoias wrestled, as European nations sought to define themselves in light of colonial adventures. Of course, all this and more, with greater empirical depth than I can provide, you may read in Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

Another genre that is frequently tied to ideas of Modernity, Intellectual Modernity, i.e., Modernity in the realm of ideas, is the Autobiography. This is not something I completely understand. I understand that autobiographies are treated as reflections of certain types of individualism, and individual consciousness that are associated with Enlightenment Modernity. But there are autobiographies even in the so-called Medieval period – pre-17th/18th century, post-Christianity. Also, I don’t make these chronological coordinates – often, they don’t make much sense to me.

My point is that Modernity in the history of ideas is harder to seperate from Medievality. This is perhaps easier in the history of institutions. Take for example, the fact that India’s first Mughal Emperor, Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur wrote his famous Baburnama in the early 16th century.

Autobiographies of course go really far back (Julius Caesar had a military autobiography), but literary scholars (sometimes, historians) have some sort of consensus, unbeknownst to me, on what constitutes a “true autobiography”.

Wheeler Thackston, scholar of some repute, claims that the Baburnama is the Islamic World’s “first true autobiography.” People have pointed out that Imam Ghazali wrote on too, hundreds of years before Babur. But for reasons of literary convetions and ideas on what constitutes an autobiography, Thackston’s claim is actually shared by many. Other autobiographical texts in the rich Indo-Persian and Persianate traditions before Babur, the nameh genre, seems to find no favor.

So what do you think constitutes a true autobiography? And how colonized are these genres anyway?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Sajid permalink
    August 9, 2007 5:42 am

    A conversation with a friend that may add to the post and generate more discussion:


    me: what do you make of the andersonian claim
    that novels and nations
    hav gone hand in hand
    sorry i keep steering the convvo in an academic direction today

    Prashant: i think i buy his print-capitalism claim, not really his cliam about novels which do, after all, assume wide literacy
    much of shahid amin;s work and that of the subalternists argues, i thin, for the importance of rumour and orlaity

    me: in creating communities?

    Prashant: i think so, yes.

    me: yeah, anderson would make a “scale” argument of course

    Prashant: what do mean “scale”?

    me: the idea that nations before modernity were primordial villages, or groups of them at best
    print capitalism achieved what orality couldnt
    in terms of expanding nations
    Sent at 11:22 AM on Thursday

    Prashant: true. but what’s distinctive about rumour as a form of orality is that, like print, it spreads; and unike print, it doesnt require literacy
    Sent at 11:24 AM on Thursday

    Prashant: i want to read hannah arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism fully to understand the ill-explored idae that nationalism is a form of displaced religion

    me: yeah

    i wonder how much work has been done along these lines, nationalism and rumors
    of course all-india wide rumors
    existed that gujaratis shared with bengalis
    for example
    before colonialism and nationalism

    Prashant: you think they did?

    me: yes
    pollock mentions some of this doesnt he
    not on the level of rumors
    but oral transmission
    of kavyas
    intuitively, it would be an easier case to make for rumors

    Prashant: sure, so does the guy who wrote Lives of Indian Images. i too encounter them in persian texts. but they weren’t sub-continent wide, were they?

    me: you see the thing about rumours is
    they’re authorless and thus nobody takes responsibility. that’s what distinguishes them from literature
    and a far less elitist and perhaps hence more amenable to transmission

    Prashant: hmm

    me: if i could speculate, you’ll find primordial rumors for example
    in village communities with no access to print
    in one part of bengal

    Prashant: sure

    me: that you’ll find in similar communities in very distant parts

    Prashant: wasn’t that part of gandhi’s mystique

    me: i dont think this is because of modern nationalism

    Prashant: or the arabian night tales

    me: exactly

    Prashant: gotta get back to work

    me: do you mind if i share this convo?

    Prashant: sure go ahead, man

  2. fugstar permalink
    August 9, 2007 4:31 pm

    Autobiography..the confessional ‘Didn’t I do well’.

    the risala format exists in the previous muslim cultures. ibn battuta wrote about his adventures and people read them.

    Nations and Novels as the esssential civilisational building blocks..pretty colonial idea. It helps deny the intellectual heritage and inventiveness of others.

    wrt the muhammedan hordes at the moment, novels at least are excellent business opportunities for pleasuring folks, kissing and telling, even social engineering in the present climate!

    Theres a work called ‘the history of hayy ibn yaqzan’ by Abu Bakr ibn Tufail. Its about a man who grows up in isolation and looks for the truth about existance. trippy.

  3. Syed permalink
    August 9, 2007 7:07 pm


    I don’t believe that any particular form of literature ascribes civilization to a group of people. Nations and nationalism is definitely a modern form of religion….which choses older religions sometimes to define itself [ religious nationalism] or choses to exclude older religions [secular nationalism]. There are many different writers who identified point by point why nationalism qualifies as a religion. However I do believe writing…written text..alphabets etc are quintessential for a civilization to grow. Though it is not a sufficient condition…it is surely a necessary condition for civilization to blossom….Cultural relativism and post modernism be damned.

    In stead of novel, if i were to chose an literature/artform, that defines great civilizations…it’d be an epic. Every great civilization that ever existed on earth had an epic….the “Modernity” not being an exception [Lord of the rings]. Even post modernity has its epic [ knostic in flavor I must add…The Matrix]

  4. August 10, 2007 2:18 am

    I’m surprised your friend thinks that religion and nationalism connection is ill-defined. I do believe one Anthony Smith did a lot of good work on it, as has Juan Linz in this anthology he edited. I’ll give details later once I’ve looked them up.

  5. August 10, 2007 4:16 am

    Nations are a relatively new idea, but tribalism is not. Neither is identity that cuts across class or geography. Nation states are the truly novel constructs of 18th and 19th century Europe.

  6. Sajid permalink
    August 10, 2007 4:33 am

    As you will know, Asif Da, Smith and Arendt have very different methodologies. Smith is of course better known than Arendt for works on nationalism. Which of course, doesn’t say much. Social scientists are usually better known anyway than more theoretically heavy scholars. Smith works more empirically, and then theorizes, like a sociologist. Arendt works more like a philsopher and pushes through ideas. So say for example, Smith would argue that nations are not modern. They are basically built on very old identities, often religious, that have coalesced over time. And he would provide case studes of how primordial identities run through history and are the stuff of nations. This is of course is debatable – the Anderson, Hobsbawm camp don’t agree with this long history of nations.

    Going back to methodologies.

    Unlike Smith, Arendt would probably make a more polemical claim and say the epistemology towards nationalism is exactly the same as the epistemology of religiosity.

    she would take apart what it means to have affiliation with a certain religion. She would out its instrumental rationalities – pragmatic social, political or even financial benefits this sort of affiliation provides. She would perhaps also point out the value rationalities this sort of affiliation provides – emotional, psychological and intellectual benefits, based on certain assumptions she would make about the human character (this is of course where some philosophers may run into trouble).

    And then Arendt would probably analogize this with another sort of affiliation – to the nation.

    Regarding their approaches to the study of nationalism, I am speculating, but I am trying to put forward a general difference in the way these scholars work. I read Arendt’s “On Violence” recently, and liked it a lot.

    I think my friend was getting at the fact that Arendt is an interesting voice in all this, albeit much less read.

  7. Ash permalink
    August 10, 2007 5:28 am

    In any case, would love for your thoughts on this Asif bhai, when you have time.

  8. August 10, 2007 6:35 am


    Not many original thoughts on this at all Sajid bhai! Was just going to go dig up names.

    Btw, I love the fact that everytime you say “as you will know Asif”, I end up learning a little bit more about everything:). Time on my hands – lately that has been the most unpredictable stream of resources.


  1. Global Voices Online » Bangladesh: Novel, nation and modernity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: