Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, Tom Paulin’s collection of critical essays, was published in 1992 at a significant and, for many, alienating moment in literary history. The old left, with its certainties about what constituted political action, was turning into an anachronism; it was only three years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But its decline had begun about a decade and a half before, with the rise of a new radical intelligentsia (oddly entrenched in coveted university positions), who took their cue from Foucault and Derrida, and for whom the primary location of politics and power was language itself: there was to be no innocent act of reading or writing.
A powerful and necessary offshoot of this development further altered the direction of literary studies and history. Postcolonial studies had been, in substantial part, articulated by Paulin’s friend, Edward Said. Now, battle lines were drawn: on the one hand, Europe and its literature, deceptively lucid and transparent, but actually as deeply invested as any statement of military policy in empire and domination; on the other hand, the new, non-Western literatures emerging in the Eighties, refuting, through their epic propensities, their fabulism, the bourgeois bases of the “literary”.
Now, it’s possible to see how Paulin’s essays at once embodied this striking shift of register, while arguing with it. In both learning from and disagreeing with “these various critical approaches” concealed by “the unitary title ‘critical theory’,” the essays represent a departure, and make a case for the literary that is neither dated nor nostalgic.
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