The Progressive Case For Cultural Appropriation

July 23, 2019 Category: American Culture


In assaying the incidence of Cul-Ap in the literary sphere, we might start by noting that the father of American drama (the Nobel laureate and Irish playwright, Eugene O’Neill) adopted his style from Russian “realism” (esp. the works of Anton Chekov).  Was this a problem?  If not, then why not?  We might then ask: Was American “imagist” poet, Ezra Pound’s gravest sin that, in composing his verse, he employed an idiom appropriated from the Chinese (and Japanese)?  Considering that he also happened to harbor fascist sympathies, how shall we prioritize our moral qualms?

With respect to literature, Cul-Ap goes back thousands of years.  A prime example of literary cross-pollination is the Hindu “Ramayana”, a Sanskrit epic from Classical Antiquity.  Key elements in the work owe a debt to the Mycenaean epics of Homer.  Several of the motifs are the same–as with the abduction of a lady, as well as the subsequent conflict based on forbidden love: Sita by Ravana, Helen by Paris.  Unsurprisingly, influences flowed in the other direction as well.  As it turns out, the Hellenic “Aeneid” exhibits influences from the Vedic “Mahabharata”. {21}  Shall Indians be incensed at the Greeks?

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Silk Road–stretching across Eurasia from the Middle East to the Far East–was not just a means of interchanging goods, it was a means of interchanging ideas (including theological tenets, artistic idioms, and fashion).  Without rampant Cul-Ap, the Kushan Empire would not have existed.  (Gandhara art was the result of Buddhist motifs being infused by Greek motifs.  The Bactrian language was the result of Greek letters being used to write an Aryan vernacular.)  An illustration of this cultural alloy is the panoply of Buddhist terms that ended up in the Persian vernacular; and the panoply of Syriac / Sogdian terms that ended up in Manichaean liturgy.  The propagation of Pahlavi literature across Eurasia attests to the fact that that there was an exchange of memes as well as of merchandise…in both directions.

This was a reminder that cultures are not clearly-demarcated domains that can be memetically quarantined. {19}

Even the father of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, appropriated many of his motifs from French and Italian sources for his “Canterbury Tales”; yet neither the French nor the Italians were bothered by this.  And when Japanese author, Minae Mizumura penned a Japanese rendition of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”, the British didn’t seem to mind.  Why not?

Regarding contemporary literature, it might also be asked: Can black female authors write novels in which major characters are white men?  How about vice versa?  If an author cannot compose a heartfelt narrative involving characters that are anything other than the demographic to which the author himself belongs, then all fiction would be reduced to verging autobiography.  Shakespeare was neither a Moorish general nor a Danish prince.  Nevertheless, the English playwright was able to create the principle characters of “Othello” and “Hamlet”.  The great bard was certainly not a lovesick Venetian teenager; yet we now have “Romeo and Juliet”.

I have mentioned “West Side Story” (1957), an Americanized adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (1595).  But that wasn’t all there was to it.  As it turns out, the Elizabethan playwright HIMSELF adapted a tale that had already been widely published…both as an Italian novella by Matteo Bandello AND as a French novella by Pierre Boaistuau (about Reomeo Titensus and Juliet Bibleotet).

And even that was not the beginning.  For the Italian and French renditions that inspired Shakespeare had themselves been adaptations of William Painter’s “Palace of Pleasure” (1567)…which had, in turn, been taken from Arthur Brooke’s “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet” (1562).  And that had been taken from Luigi da Porto’s tale of Romeus and Giulietta (1524)…which had been taken from Masuccio Salernitano’s tale of Mariotto and Giannozza, entitled “A Newly Found Story Of Two Noble Lovers” (1476).  And Salernitano had taken HIS tale from John Metham’s “Amoryus and Cleopes” (1449)…which had been an adaptation of a tale in Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” (from the 14th century).  And THAT was lifted from Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, published in 8 A.D.  Gadzooks!  It was Cul-Ap from Broadway all the way back to ancient Rome!

Don’t think this counts as Cul-Ap because everyone was–as it were–IN ON the chain of adaptation?  Think again.  Everyone in this sequence of appropriation sought to make the tale an integral part of their own culture.  In each case, the fact that it had already been a part of someone else’s culture posed no problem; and was even elided.  With each iteration, the adaptors sought to make it their own.  The asserted ownership by imbuing that which had come from an exogenous culture with a distinct (indigenous) cultural flavor.  We can, then, better understand George Bernard Shaw’s cheeky quip that “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first.”

So the question arises: Is Shakespeare’s vaunted legacy in any way diminished by him having co-opted other cultures’ material?  Au contraire.  If anything, his work was ENHANCED by him having done so.  For the ability to transcend one’s own lot in life–and to imagine what it’s like to be someone else–is what enables great art.

In fact, if the proprietors of Stratford-up-Avon were beholden to proscriptions against Cul-Ap, almost NONE of the great bard’s timeless oeuvre would have been permitted on their stage.  Imagine Danes begrudging Shakespeare for Hamlet; or Italians begrudging him for the way he depicted the Montague-Capulet feud.  Shall Maghrebi Muslims be incensed over Othello?  As it turns out, we rarely hear complaints about such works; as the more sober aficionados of political correctness know better than to grouse about something so patently absurd.  It seems they would rather focus on the indiscretion of gringos eating tacos and hitting piñatas at kids’ birthday parties.

This is a reminder that the charge of illicit Cul-Ap can’t help but be highly selective; thereby reflecting the biases of those leveling the charge.  Double standards are routine in the demesne of political correct-ness.  Tragically, the doyens of p.c. fail to see that great literature–like all great art–elucidates our shared humanity; and thus transcends culture.  Shakespeare has given us some of the great Svengalis in literature–from a conniving Scottish virago (Lady Macbeth) to a conniving Venetian soldier (Iago).  We find this character in Germany (as with Mephistopheles) and in France (as with the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil).  The dysfunction of tragic heroes–manipulated by scheming villains–reflects something about humanity.  It is a vulnerability that exists irrespective of demographic profiles.  Humanity transcends ethnicity.

Shakespeare reminds us that certain themes are timeless; and that the most profound insights are immune to the artificial boundaries we have so unscrupulously constructed to demarcate one culture from another.  Artistic expression cannot be reduced to its creator’s ethnic identity.  Shakespeare’s plays illustrate that certain themes are HUMAN themes, and so not constrained to this or that cultural milieu.

Alas.  Not everyone see it this way.  In early 2019, the most fanatical of Cul-Ap-phobes opted to pillory Chinese author, Amélie Wen Zhao for penning a novel in which one of the themes was indentured servitude.  According to the complainants, as someone who was not black, Zhao had no right to write about anything having to do with one group enslaving another group…as if African-Americans were the only people in the world who had ever experienced slavery. {24}  This is nothing short of insanity.  It is also a textbook example of racism.  And it requires people to know nothing about world history.

Authors are on notice: If you want to pen a story involving minority characters, you risk being accused of exploitation if you do not personally belong to that minority.

Were we to begrudge artists who attempt to put themselves in the shoes of “the other”, adopting idioms from outside their own culture, we would be forced to censure much of the world’s greatest artistic achievements–musical, sartorial, architectural, culinary, AND literary.  In doing so, we would also betray the highest principles of humanism.

Looking around the world, we find that memetic transference is ubiquitous in literature.  Take, for instance, the notion of the quintessential seducer: From Don Giovanni (Italian) to Don Juan (Spanish) to Cyrano de Bergerac (French).  In Europe, this was nothing new. The famous “Chansons de Roland” from medieval France (c. 1100) were adapted by Italian writers four centuries later (as the tales of “Orlando”; first by Matteo Maria Boiardo, then by Ludovico Ariosto).

If we were forced to censor the literary repertoire in the manner suggested by anti-Cul-Ap crusaders, we must ask: Who would benefit?  Shall only Asians write about Asians, Africans about Africans, Scandinavians about Scandinavians, and Latinos about Latinos?  Or shall we ALL–as fellow humans–be permitted to recognize that we share in the same humanity?

As we have seen, for the answer, we need only look to Shakespeare.  His entire repertoire was a bacchanal of Cul-Ap.  Was this in any way detrimental…to ANYONE?  As Harold Bloom put it: “The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted.”

Sometimes an author seems to be writing from within one ethnic identity, yet turns out to belong to another.  When “Danny Santiago” penned a critically-acclaimed novel about Chicano barrios (“Famous All Over Town”), he was revealed to be an upper-class WASP named Daniel Lewis James.  This revelation did not detract from either the insightfulness or the literary value of the work.  He no more needed to be Hispanic to tell the gripping story than Shakespeare needed to be a Bohemian to craft “The Winter’s Tale”.  Indeed, James was actually knowledgable about–and genuinely CARED about–the Chicano communities about which he wrote; as he had worked with them intimately in the past.

This should remind us that it is the SPIRIT BEHIND the work that is truly important.  Fidelity and good intentions matter more than the demographic profile of the author.  When Kathryn Stockett penned “The Help”, the fact that a white woman had written a compelling novel about the travails of black maids in the American South during the pre-Civil Rights era did not compromise the story’s credibility.  She no more needed to be an African American to craft a poignant narrative about white privilege in Mississippi than, say, Khaled Hosseini needed to be a woman to write his novel about Muslimahs dealing with Afghan patriarchy in “A Thousand Splendid Suns”.

Felicitously, J.R.R. Tolkien engaged in OODLES of cultural appropriation (primarily from ancient Norse culture) in composing “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”.  Eight decades later, renown British author Neil Gaiman engaged in his own creative appropriation with his “Norse Mythology”.  Should Scandinavians be incensed by this?  Well, no more than Danes should be up in arms over the fact that Shakespeare ripped off their 12th-century saga, “Vita Amlethi” (itself an adaptation of a tale in the “Gesta Danorum”) when he wrote “Hamlet”.  As it turns out, they don’t begrudge ANYONE for appropriating Nordic folklore…any more than they would begrudge somebody for adopting quotidian Nordic customs.

The 1990 animated Japanese series, “Nadia Of The Mysterious Seas” (a.k.a. “Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water”) was lifted from Jules Verne’s classic, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”–composed 120 years earlier.  A decade later, Disney decided to do a take-off on the Japanese rendition–entitled: “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”.  So who’s ripping off whom?

Well, nobody.  The ideas in the story transcend culture.  For instance, the notion of a lost city of “Atlantis” originated in ancient Greece (ref. Plato’s “Timaeus” and “Critias”)…and was then taken up by the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria in the early 1st century A.D…then by the English author, Thomas More in 1516…followed by Francis Bacon in 1626.  And on and on.  Virtually all literature is appropriation.

And what of, say, the quest for the Holy Grail?  Yep.  That too was lifted from antecedent lore: the ancient Persian legend of the Grail of Jamshid (believed to be a magical cup of immortality).  Versions of the quest would later be done by Goeznovius of Cornwall (the “Legenda Sancti” under the pseudonym, “William”; in the 6th century)…then by Nennius (“Historia Brittonum” in the early 9th century)…then by Geoffrey Monmouth (“De Gestis Britonum” c. 1136)…then by Chrétien de Troyes (“Perceval: The Story Of The Grail” in the 1180’s)…then by Wolfram von Eschenbach (“Parzival” in the 1210’s).

So the tale went from Persian to Cornish to Welsh to English to French to German.  The appropriation is endless…and even crosses religious contexts: from Zoroastrian to Christian to patently secular.  (For another prime case-study, see the Appendix.)

There was a particular incident that captures the lunacy of the anti-Cul-Ap crusade. In 2017, the popular Canadian writer, Hal Niedzviecki was pilloried for averring that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”  In other words: We should all aspire to be cosmopolitan; and–in the spirit of curiosity and empathy–strive to put ourselves in the shoes of others who might be different from us.  Art–be it literature or music or anything else–is a great way to do this.

For this position, Niedzviecki was castigated…and ultimately evicted from Canada’s Writer’s Union.  Why?  For “cultural appropriation”.  No kidding. THAT is the sort of lunacy engendered by Cul-Ap-phobia.

To understand literary tradition, and to simply APPRECIATE LITERATURE, is to embrace the vital role that Cul-Ap plays in the life of the mind. From Hermann Hesse’s rendition of “Siddhartha” to James Joyce’s rendition of “Ulysses” to Ursula K. Le Guin’s rendition of the “Tao Te Ching”, there are endless examples of laudatory Cul-Ap in literature.  We find that in virtually every case, belletristic appropriation is something to be celebrated, not repudiated.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF