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Many Lives of the Literary Text

G.N. Devy

By Sukanto Chaudhuri
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 225, Rs. 495.00


It was said of Albert Camus’s Outsider that having read it, one cannot relate to the world again the same way as before. It leaves you so changed. Something similar can be said of Sukanto Chaudhuri’s Metaphysics of Text. Here it is not the world but the literary text that is the subject.   The questions ‘What is literary or linguistic text?’, and even more, ‘What it is not’, have been obsessively discussed by numerous thinkers over the last hundred years. They have been on the radar of literary scholarship in the West for a few centuries. In India, they had attracted the line of Sanskrit aesthetics for a good millennium.   Probably, the literature classroom has long back nearly banished literature from its precincts and has brought in description of theory to replace it. The production of books and essays in this area so far has been so copious that any new book or essay in the area even with a degree of brilliance has barely a chance of being noticed at all, let alone being read. Given that the metropolis of theory is already over-crowded, Sukanto Chaudhuri’s collection of essays deserves to be hailed as a riveting contribution.   Some of these essays were originally put together as public lectures and conference presentations; but within the covers of the volume, they present an enticingly consistent perspective on the many lives of the literary text. Walter Benjamin had used the phrase ‘afterlife of literature’ to describe translation. Sukanto Chaudhuri’s title ‘Metaphysics of Text’, quite conscious of Benjamin, covers an amazing array of the existential and transitional identities of literary expression.   It brings within its analytical sweep the pre-verbal—the para, pashyanti, madhyama as described in Bhartrihari’s sphota view of language, the intuitive and purely imagined as in the compositions of Wordsworth and Blake, the scribbled—from ancient tablets to John Keats’s occasional notes in book copies of his friends, the rewriting involved in performing Shakespeare plays, the grammatically challenging verse of e.e. cummings and fiction of James Joyce, hand-written works, typed manuscripts, printed books, mimeographed print pages, the oral as recorded on wax-discs as also in audio-visual media, the electronically transmitted copy, the digital signals stored in the memory processing units, the ‘writing’ on the computer screen, the texts circulating in the internet, the texts as placed under the transformative processes in textual commentary, editing, ...

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