Europe and the World
European and Western powers and the colonial and post-colonial world — India, Algeria, and Viet Nam
Western colonial domination of the ancient kingdoms of India, Vietnam, and Algeria may have marked 19th century world history. But anti-colonial resistance to this oppression marked the ideological debates of 20th century world history. However, the 20th century also saw the rise in the West of the concept of the ‘common individual’ both as a collective concept under communism and as a psychological phenomena with the rise of popular Freudian psychology in England, France, and America. Thus, while post-colonial societies themselves may have exhibited plurality of collective and individualistic forms of economic and political resistance to colonial oppression, when speaking to the West formerly colonized peoples often articulated resistance to oppression is articulated as an individualistic and personal concept of human liberation as well as national liberation.
This melding of the personal and the national is best seen in the examples of Indian resistance articulated in White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. The friendship between two men, the white Cockney and Indian protagonists, is shown to heal both the wounds of colonialism, societal racism, and personal turmoil. The martial meshing, via a relationship, of Black and White British woman and man also becomes an imperfect testimony of the ability of personal relationships to heal political rifts in Britain, and as the daughter, the progeny of this union, proceeds to find happiness and love despite her mixed heritage. In fact, because of her dual exposure as a young person, to two different and contrasting cultures, she is able to be attracted to men of a variety of heritages. This also reflects the often-strident sense of British collective cultural imperialism that marked its domination of India, in everything from alterations in dress to sport.
In Smith’s novel, through achieving interpersonal, familial and sexual unity, the characters achieve the decolonization of the mind advocated by Aime Cesaire in his “Discourse on Colonialism.” Cesaire stresses both those who share the heritage of the oppressors as well as the oppressed must be healed — Cesaire speaks specifically of Algeria, of course, but Zadie Smith also suggests this is true of a multiracial postcolonial England. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola‘s portrayal of immediate American involvement in Vietnam, however, both Smith and Cesaire see hope for redemption outside of government constructs of nationhood and narrow definitions of identity, once nationhood has been achieved and military objectives are no longer of primary concern. Cesaire portrays France’s less intrusive but still stridently nationalistic colonization of Africa is as a creating void of national identity, rather than as an imposition and a source of cultural clash and conflict, as chronicled in India by Smith.
It is important to remember of the earlier document of Cesaire that the author spoke to a populace still attempting to define itself anew, linguistically as well, as a nation after the legacy of French involvement, as embodied in the film “The Battle of Algiers.” Cesaire thus gave more emphasis to national and collective psychological healing than healing personal guilt and interfamily conflict, given his own historical vantage point and his own cultural context in a less stridently self-examining world than Smith’s Great Britain, and a nation less immediately comfortable with its personal identity. Also, unlike India, Algeria was a more religiously and linguistically unified society and had a more coherent ‘identity’ to articulate in response to the French imposition upon African language and culture.
And it is still, when reflecting upon the psychological consequences upon a nation and upon persons, important to recall the practical sentiments of Phuc Viet and Vietnam Hon in their “An Appeal to the League of Nations for the Rights of Self-Determination of the Vietnamese People.” These Vietnamese people stressed that concepts of societal improvement and national prosperity cannot be realized without the achievement of the former, or vice versa. Cesaire wrote to stress that economics and national separation were not enough, while the Vietnamese nationalists in defense of their own nation’s struggle wrote that psychological and national identity were not enough to ensure economic success. They ‘wrote’ their own national coming of age, not in terms of American angst, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s film, but in the language of the desire to advance themselves economically. However, despite the two former French colonist authors’ different emphasis, in their writings both Cesaire’s Algeria and Vietnamese statement show that a sense of independent identity remains important to the formerly oppressed, as is often the main language understood by the Western powers, with the West’s obsession with achieving personal as opposed to a collective sense of independence.
Apocalypse Now Redux. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
The Battle of Algiers.” 1967.
Cesaire, Aime. “Discourse on Colonialism.” 1955. Class handout.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Random House, 2000.
Viet, Phuc and Vietnam Hon, “An Appeal to the League of Nations for the Rights of Self-Determination of the Vietnamese People.”
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