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The World Turned Upside Down

The Dictionary of Global Culture

edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Knopf, 771 pp., $35.00

The publishers of this large double-columned book, throwing modesty to the winds, as publishers perhaps must in these hard times, claim that it “provides what every American needs to know as we enter the next century.” The editors, “two of our most esteemed scholars,” offer “the global citizen’s guide to world culture, emphasizing the achievement of the non-Western world.” By way of justifying this emphasis the publisher points out that “in the year 2000, half the world’s people will be Asian, and one eighth will be African…. Of the world’s twenty largest cities, none will be in Europe or the U.S.” These figures make it not unreasonable to argue that we are on the threshold of a new age; half a millennium of “domination by Europe and people of European descent” is coming to an end.

So this looked like a suitable moment to provide a new cultural map, registering worldwide cultural achievement, and, while recording “more frankly the evils that were done in the course of Europe’s expansion,” remaining ready “to celebrate the very real achievements of those Western cultures” and their useful technological advances. To this end the editors, both Harvard professors, have enlisted a large number of expert contributors to draft a couple of thousand dictionary entries, meant to inform Americans about the large remainder of world culture, while doing justice to such parts of the very real Western achievement that in their view still deserve a place in the new order.

They admit that they cannot hope to be exhaustive and may even seem haphazard. They foresee that like such comparable enterprises as the Encyclopédie and Johnson’s Dictionary their book is likely to go out of date quite quickly. And what they offer cannot be a grammar of the new global culture, only a lexicon. But they are sure the work was worth doing, and by way of endorsing this opinion the publisher announced a first printing of 50,000 copies.

Few will dispute the demographic arguments outlined above. Without much doubt there are going to be major changes in the cultural map, and Professors Appiah and Gates want to introduce and celebrate them—authoritatively, but with as little overt aggression as possible. They silently avoid appearances of extremism; moderate Afrocentrists, they do not claim the African origin of all Western culture, or assert that the philhellenist Western cultural tradition was invented to support European imperialism. It is not claimed here that Greek culture was essentially African. Indeed there is no mention of Afrocentrism, nor is there an entry for Professor Leonard Jeffries. The entry on Socrates is milk-and-water stuff, with no allusion to his probable color. On the other hand, opportunities to celebrate the Arabic origins of algebra, the Indian and Arabic invention of zero, and other very real non-European achievements that Europeans have found useful are naturally, and quite reasonably, not neglected.

It is easy to forget that “Western” conceptions of culture have long allowed for a continuing interest in the non-European world; the debt was acknowledged, and it was often quite urgently suggested that it should be increased. Renaissance scholars struggled to understand and to imitate Egyptian hieroglyphs. The eighteenth-century orientalist craze is familiar history. Learned philologists like Sir William Jones, friend of Dr. Johnson, inventor of the science of comparative philology, and expert in Sanskrit, translated many works from that language, and also from Arabic and Persian, to the considerable enrichment of later literature. In his ethical mode Matthew Arnold, apostle of European culture, extolled the Bhagavad-Gita. More fashionably, Paris in the last years of the nineteenth century was in love with Japanese prints, Balinese dancers, and other oriental manifestations. Gide explored Morocco, and E.M. Forster, along with many others, India. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was venerated, translated, and awarded the Nobel Prize. T.S. Eliot intoned the Upanishads, Ezra Pound discovered and adopted the Fenellosan Chinese character, and Yeats, who spent a lot of time attending to Tagore and other Indian sages, wrote Noh plays and celebrated the mask, the samurai sword, and the Japanese dancer. The early years of the present century witnessed a revolutionary cult of African sculpture.

Not all such enthusiasms can be dismissed as imperialistic self-indulgences, mere primitivism, “orientalism,” chinoiserie or japonaiserie; some were taken very seriously and some had a direct impact on Western culture. Indeed one could almost say that it has been in the very nature of Western civilization to study other cultures for its own use and benefit, and to revalue pasts that have been obscured by historical accident; hence our interest in lost alphabets, lost languages, mysterious henges and cromlechs, and so on. But it can still be argued that all this archeology, even at its most disinterested, was nevertheless part of the process of incorporating into the acquisitive European tradition whatever was valuable because exotic. Some cultural goods were brought in like silks from the mysterious East, their success dependent on Western money and Western ideas of luxury and the needs of various avant-gardes. On arrival they were made over into European goods.

The true object of this dictionary is to question deep-rooted assumptions of European preeminence, and let white culture—despite its sins of oppression and exploitation—take its proper place, diminished but accorded the measure of respect now thought decent, in a global account that includes all the others. This plan, however polite, cannot be other than defiant, and the Western presence in this book has the teasing air of an act of reverse tokenism, a provocative gesture of tolerance and good will. Western representation is therefore sparse compared with the rest—not that it matters much, for this after all is not the reference work you’d consult when seeking information on Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Descartes (who are included), or Melville (for whom, however, you will look in vain, as you will for many other dead white males whose “very real achievements” are, fortunately, and without prejudice, amply recorded elsewhere).

The editorial policy of requesting a lot of scholars to furnish fifty of “the most important cultural contributions from the region in which they were expert” has had consequences that even the editors found surprising, and no wonder.

Pascal evades inclusion, and so do Coleridge and the Schlegels. Among modern philosophers, C.S. Peirce, J.L. Austin, W.V. Quine, Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, Frege, and Russell are missing, and so on and on; though Alain Locke, an African-American philosopher, is here, not, apparently, for anything special he did in the philosophy line but because he actively encouraged the Harlem Renaissance. Musicians treated, sometimes rather perfunctorily or selectively, include Schubert but not Schumann, Strauss and Stravinsky but not Schoenberg. There is a curious reference, in Diaghilev’s entry, to “the underhanded heroic achievements of Wagner.” Modern American classical music is hardly represented at all, though Bo Diddley is here, and, understandably, all the big jazz names. No Elvis Presley, though.

The first interest for white folk of this compilation will be to see what, of their culture, has seemed worth a place in the global context. What, for instance, of modern American literature? Well, we find Amy Lowell but not Robert, not Auden, though the New Zealand poet J.K. Baxter is here. Allen Ginsberg and Elizabeth Bishop (rather unexpectedly, possibly helped by her Latin American connections) are honored, though not to the extent of Oscar Micheaux (a partiality that may be explained by the editors’ apparent passion for movie directors, who abound). Seeking to discover the place of Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams or Ezra Pound or Hart Crane in the global setup, the inquirer finds that they have none. The search for Ashbery, who should occur between “Asé,” a metaphysical concept central to the Yoruba religion, and “Ashkenazim,” is futile. On the other hand the Australian poet Banjo Paterson is included, and so is A.D. Hope, a worthy choice indeed, but still, considering such omissions as Seamus Heaney, a surprising one; possibly Hope is being thought of as an oppressed colonial, a description which would certainly surprise him.

Non-anglophone poets are on the whole preferred, but somewhat randomly selected: Homer and Pindar, not Catullus or Horace, Paul Lawrence Dunbar but not Mallarmé or Valéry. Some well-known novelists are missing. Looking for Saul Bellow, you find not him but Andrès Bello, a Venezuelan poet and diplomat (1781-1865). Looking for Norman Mailer you find Miriam Makeba, looking for André Malraux you find René Maran, looking for Robert Frost you find Northrop Frye (a freedom-loving Canadian?). Sarah Orne Jewett is here, and so are Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, and Philip, but not Henry or Joseph, Roth. Dylan Thomas is out, but the Welsh novelist and poet Saunders Lewis is in, by virtue, presumably, of his value as founder of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and as “a critic of Wales’s colonial status within the British empire”; although the Welsh have plenty to complain about, their status can hardly, except as a pardonable gesture of propaganda, be described as “colonial.” Wyndham Lewis, perhaps because of his political opinions, perhaps by accident, is excluded, but so is Gaudier-Brzeska. Anaïs Nin is in, Henry Miller isn’t. Willa Cather, George Sand, Gertrude Stein, talented women, qualify. The Korean-American novelist Ronyoung Kim, oppressed by Americans, and the Japanese-Canadian Joy Kogawa, who wrote a novel about oppression by Canadians, comparing wartime internment to the Holocaust, are sure of their places, but John Steinbeck, who wrote of the oppression of white people, isn’t.

Politicians are oddly treated. Franklin, Theodore, and Eleanor Roosevelt are included, and so are John F. Kennedy and James Polk, but not Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, or Clinton. Space is found for Senator McCarthy, Deadwood Dick, and Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, to say nothing of Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda (separate entry). Khrushchev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin don’t count, though Catherine the Great is well covered. (“Although it is a popular myth and often repeated as fact, Catherine the Great did not die bearing the brunt of a horse during a sexual maneuver, but instead died of a stroke in her lavatory.”)

Postcolonial African leaders (Kaunda, Nyerere, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Mandela, but not Amin) are given their due, as are a great many revolutionary movements and revolutionary leaders, Castro and Guevara, Fanon, the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso, and so forth. The entry on Soweto might have been written before the triumph of the ANC, and the editors should surely have updated it. Malcolm X is here, of course, but not Elijah Muhammad or (in his own right) Louis Farrakhan, his place taken by Forugh Farrokhzad, a female Iranian poet of social protest. (But Muhammad and Farrakhan do get into the entry on the Nation of Islam.) The Ayatollah Khomeini is given even-handed treatment, but Saddam Hussein (like his alphabetical neighbor Husserl) is ignored.

Sporting talent is represented by the Harlem Globetrotters and Babe Ruth, but not, curiously, Jackie Robinson. Joe Louis is here, and Mohammed Ali, but not Jack Dempsey or Sonny Liston. Tennis doesn’t make it at all, despite the fame of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Non-American sports are virtually ignored; soccer, a game fanatically followed almost everywhere in the world, and not least in South America, seems to be represented only by the great Brazilian Pelé; Maradona, world-famous for a goal scored “by the hand of God,” and still adored by third-world millions, is absent. Cricket, another sport central to West Indian, Pakistani, and Indian culture, is represented not by great players such as the West Indian Garry Sobers and the Australian Don Bradman but by the admittedly distinguished West Indian journalist C.L.R. James, who, as it happens, wrote not only about cricket but about Marxism and the Pan-African movement. He takes up more space than Henry James, who is censured because his later writing “became…abstract and verbose.”

Latin America gets favored treatment. Here there is certainly instruction for the ignorant. Severo Sarduy, a Cuban poet, novelist, critic, and painter, went to Paris and, we are told, formed a transvestite motorcycle gang called the Gasoline Girls, with the cooperation of “art critic Roland Barthes,” as well as introducing Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges to European audiences. The Brazilian Clarice Lispector, born in the Ukraine, wrote stories and novels popularized by rock-and-roll groups; they addressed questions of identity and oppression in universal terms, and have been admired by Hélène Cixous as examples of écriture féminine. The entry for the Argentinian-Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga, who wrote modernist short stories, is tragic, but not without some black comedy: “His young wife, Ana Maria,…took poison and died a slow death in 1915. The ten years that followed constitute Quiroga’s most prolific period.” Then his second wife left him, but far from entering a new creative phase he fell sick, took cyanide, and died penniless.

If we except Vargas Llosa and Márquez, most of the known South American literary names seem to be here, and some of those, hitherto unknown to me, I was glad to be told about. Alfonsina Storni, for example: she was an Argentinian poet and critic who confronted the patriarchal state, proclaiming the “impossibility of love between men and women, when women are subjugated.” She too committed suicide, by walking into the ocean. Victoria Ocampo, Argentinian writer and publisher, went to prison for her beliefs and was “thoroughly enmeshed in the international intellectual scene.” These entries are informative, though not very well written, which can be said of many entries, and not only those on South American writers.

The Philippines are also remembered warmly, for example in an entry on Bienvenido Santos (concerning the “psychological exile” of “cynical and despairing aliens” marginalized in the USA). José Rizal, physician, novelist, poet, and patriot, wins a long entry for his achievements in the last of these roles. There is no doubt that the value attributed to most writers is political value; opinion about any other merits their work may have is rarely offered except in perfunctory superlatives. And on the whole the best entries are those which concern themselves directly with politics.

Native Americans (though the term “Indian” seems to be preferred) include Sealth or Seattle, who was afraid that having a city named after him would disturb his posthumous peace, since any mention of his name would cause him to turn over in his grave. Sequoyah, although illiterate, constructed the Cherokee alphabet, eighty-six characters borrowed from English (i.e., Latin), Greek, and Hebrew. Slavery is properly given space, with an interesting entry on Quilombo, a sixteenth-century Brazilian republic of runaway slaves who later abducted other slaves and kept them in slavery.

Even linguistic and religious information is proffered in such a way that the balance is obviously in favor of languages that may strike the blinkered “West” as exotic. African languages (Khoisan, Bantu) are recognized but the Indo-European languages, though they surely still have their place in the global scene, are not, while “Aryan” is defined as for the most part a racial/racist term, popularized by Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.

There are many entries on African tribal religions and the political history of Africa; on Judaism; on South American religions before the arrival of the Spaniards; on Montezuma. Indian religions are also well served, and so are the politics of the subcontinent. Islam is amply represented. By these standards Christianity is given short measure. There is a brief biography of Jesus and a briefer one of Paul, though it will be admitted that these figures continue to influence religious sentiment (and politics) in large parts of the world. Somebody attempted a brave brief summary of the entire Bible, and it is noted, under “Christianity,” that “in the twentieth century…Christianity has made great inroads” in Latin America, and is a formidable political force in the Eastern European countries emerging from communism. There seems to be little if anything on American fundamentalist Christianity. Globally Christianity seems to be regarded, despite its valiant rearguard actions, as slipping into marginal status.

Two objections seem obvious, one rather trivial, the other less so. The trivial one is that the African-American editors are right to call their choices haphazard. This is probably more serious in respect to the non-white entries, since it means a lack of balance—that some small matters are recorded and some big ones aren’t. As I remarked, this randomness doesn’t matter much in the European entries, since few are likely to use this dictionary for information about white cultures, however marginal they may be. The important point remains that although haphazardness may also affect the vast remainder of the book, its omissions and its choices are systematic enough to make it clear that the editors are treating things as they are as if they were what they wish they were, and hope they soon may be. Anyway, half the fun for the browser is deciding why some people and themes are omitted, and the remaining half is wondering why others are not. Despite its title the dictionary isn’t really global; the concessions to Eurocentricity are tactical, and the true purpose is to establish a new and aggressive point of view.

What I have sporadically reported of the book will make it sound sporadic, and so it is: indeed the scatter of shot is far wider than I’ve been able to suggest. At first sight it seems amazing that so many diverse bits of information should have got into the book; admittedly this could as well be said of such a work as the Columbia Encyclopedia, though in The Dictionary of Global Culture the collocations are surely more bizarre. I open the book at random and find Hong Lou Meng (“eighteenth-century Chinese novel”), “Hong Kong film industry” (which goes back to 1909, and the films To Steal a Roasted Duck and Redressment of Justice by a Porcelain Pot); A.D. Hope; Horyuji (Japanese Buddhist temple, built CE 607); Houphouët-Boigny, Félix, first president of the Ivory Coast (“increasingly corrupt”); Hoysala temples, Hindu temples of the Hoysala dynasty; Hrabal, Bohumil, a Czech author who “purports to present the differences and similarities of life experiences in a topsy-turvy world”; Hua Mulan, legendary Chinese woman warrior; Huang He, Chinese river; Huang Zongxi, Chinese scholar; Hughes, Langston; and so on. A topsy-turvy world, indeed.

Contributors have sometimes been required to perform with stringent economy; asked to describe the European Renaissance in four hundred words you might prefer to tackle Macumba (“Afro-Brazilian religion”) in five hundred, or Charlemagne in six hundred. No wonder some entries, though by no means all, are dull and carelessly written. And occasionally one finds a statement as baffling as those I’ve cited concerning Barthes and Wagner; for instance, in this account of one of Hitler’s blunders, he “did not anticipate the intervention of forces from the United States and the Soviet Union.”

The editors say at the outset that the whole project has been great fun for them, and also enlightening. And their book certainly contains a vast amount of information which hardly anybody can keep in their heads; few can have known that a great deal of it even existed. If the book has any real value at all, it lies there, and in the amusement it offers the browser. It has little or no value as a guide to “white” cultures, and the sheer miscellaneity of information it offers on other matters goes a long way toward defeating its object. As the editors admit, the book is lacking any visible notion of structure, as dictionaries, slaves of alphabet, must do. They might have added in extenuation that like other dictionaries it does, nevertheless, have a guiding principle, which constitutes its only structure, and that principle is to marginalize ideas of culture they want to regard as obsolete. The “white” entries are therefore calculated concessions, meant to give the work an appearance of fairness and balance. That can be said, I think, without disrespect to the motivation of the compilers, which is surely understandable.

There have of late been press reports of an ambitious African-American cultural Putsch with its headquarters at Harvard. Professor Gates seems to be the commander-in-chief, and is also an editor of the immense new Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.* Here, of course, there is no provision for invidious comparisons, and the anthology does give a serious account of its subject, from the vernacular tradition (Spirituals, Gospels, Blues, Worksongs, Rap) to the literature of slavery, and black writing in the present century, which occupies more than two thirds of the space—a celebration of what the editors call “a renaissance in quality and quality” that has been achieved against resistances they also describe, with force yet with moderation, in their preface. It seems a pity that the dictionary that has also occupied the resourceful Professor Gates couldn’t also have avoided the temptation of globality, and been designed as a dictionary of non-white cultures, so compelling attention to the achievements of those cultures without constantly inviting disparaging or irrelevant comparisons, and wasting a lot of space. The claim to be global means that any readers who may be induced to depend on this book will be deprived of information about a fair number of very real achievements.

  1. *

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. MacKay, editors (Norton, 1996).

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