The Containment and Re-Deploymentof English India

"[T]hat Liberty of Writing": Incontinent Ordinance in "Oriental" Jones

L. M. Findlay, University of Saskatchewan

  1. Sir William Jones remains a key figure in the continuing history of romantic and other orientalisms. At the very mention of the idea of "Containing English India," he leaps to mind not only as part of the contents contained within any envelope or archive so designated, but also as part of the discontent and unruly dissemination of such contents. Jones is both of the Indian sub-continent and in various senses incontinent within it and when writing about it (just as he is both inside and outside the dominant versions of Englishness in the later eighteenth century). In this essay I will revisit this dialectic of positioning or location, containing and incontinence, and the related contradictions that constituted Jones's early libertarianisim in England and his later legal and philological activities in India. It would be wrong to ignore his English phase or to imply a radical breach between his English and his Indian careers, especially since colonialism always has a domestic as well as a foreign axis of articulation ("The Future of the Subject" 132ff.), and because his appointment to a judgeship in Calcutta was delayed by explicit fears that he would export to the colonies the politically advanced ideas of an elected member of the Society for Constitutional Information and a friend of Benjamin Franklin (Letters 533-34, 569-70). Questions of continuity notwithstanding, my principal emphasis at every stage here will be on the Anglo-Indian Jones. Moreover, the echo in my title of that Gulf War euphemism, incontinent ordinance, is a deliberate gesture towards two points I will stress in my conclusion: namely, that imperialism did not end with the British in India, and that imperialism's instabilities and illusions are always evident, if we care to look, in the language it uses to describe itself.

  2. Jones's life was an emphatically literary one, though not only or unequivocally that. (The deradicalized Life produced by John Shore [Lord Teignmouth ] needs to be measured against the reradicalizing efforts of Michael Franklin's recent critical study and the more sober biography by Garland Cannon). And one can gain access to Jones's career as an orientalist via his comments on literary culture in general, and writing in particular. In referring to "that liberty of writing" which is "the most valuable privilege of an Englishman and a poet," Jones defines writing by a set of political and imaginative connections both inclusive and exclusive, and this combination offers a good point of entry into a narrative about a man who so often, and in such a variety of senses and registers, tried but failed to contain himself and his native culture. The affirmation of "that liberty of writing" occurs in a letter to Lady Spencer of 11 October 1770 from University College Oxford (Letters 69-70), in which Jones defends his candour to her in terminating his role as tutor to her son, Viscount Althorp, and links that candour to the equally principled but amplified audacity he had shown in publicly condemning the tyrannical practices of Nadir Shah to "an abitrary monarch" (Christian VII of Denmark). Analogues, equivalents, and echoes of this defiant phrasing of freedom of expression can be encountered throughout Jones"s large and diverse oeuvre. I will examine first Jones's investment in liberty and the critical capacities he shows in his treatment of this and related topics, then the persistence of totalizing fictions within a personal regime of intellectual accomplishment and endless self-criticism, before concluding with the contradictions that help constitute his self-understanding, his contemporary and historical reputation, and the implications for empire's academics and fellow professionals, then and now.  

    Colonizing Liberty

  3. Liberty is an overdetermined and much fetishized concept authorizing an array of inescapably contradictory practices which vary according to historical and cultural setting. Plate 1However, to say this is not to retreat into a weakly deconstructionist relativism, but rather to highlight the importance of a politically robust deconstruction. By the time Jones sailed for India in 1783 to take up his position as a Judge on the High Court of Bengal, he had thoroughly internalized the doubleness of the liberal arts practised first by the eleutheroi of ancient Greece and liberti of ancient Rome and more recently by the "freeborn Englishman" of a certain classicizing class and inclination. The persistent tension within the liberal arts between liberty and liberality,Plate 2 between freedom of inquiry and expression on the one hand and the cultivated disbursement of funds and leisure on the other[1] could be managed effectively most of the time by a man of Jones's remarkable intellect and reformist politics. His early acquisition of a European reputation as a linguist (see plates 1 and 2) brought connections and opportunities of which he took advantage while, he thought, protecting his commitment to social justice via a universalist anti-absolutism and a specific allegiance to freedoms protected by the British Constitution.[2] However, the varieties of liberty and the varieties of writing available to or created by him destabilized this discursive domain even as they expanded it, hence staging but not confining the imperialist imperative in nuce.

  4. For Jones, most forms of liberty could be understood negatively: for instance, in opposition to press gangs, or slavery, or despotism (Letters 467-8, 230-32, 166); or needless incarceration and "domestick bondage"(second "Charge to the Grand Jury, at Calcutta" [1785]; Works 7.10-15); or narrow political partisanship (Letters 588); or uncritical nationalism, even though he was willing to support the principle that "men of letters, as such, ought, in all places and at all times, to carry flags of truce," but to do so only after he had defended (belligerently, Francophobically, self-interestedly) England's intellectual honour and unrivalled commitment to "l'homme libre" against the orientalizing hauteur of Anquetil du Perron (Advertisement to The Moallakat [1782] and Lettre a A*** du P***... [1771]; Works 10.4, 423); or illiberal education and a dull or prescriptive pedantry (A Grammar of the Persian Language [1771; Works 5.166-67.) The forms of liberty could also be apprehended positively: via "the liberal curiosity of the scholar" (Prefatory Discourse to The Speeches of Isaeus [1779]; Works 9.11); the fearless integrity of "perfect historians" (fifth "Charge"; Works 7.64]) or constitutional experts like Smith and Fortescue; and "that manly isunomia [equality of political rights], which ought to be the basis of every good government" and economic rationality and progress everywhere (Letters 11, 269; Asiatick Researches 3.492). Positive strains of liberty could also be encountered in poetry such as Ad Libertatem: Carmen (a "liberal translation" of Collins' "Ode to Liberty" into Latin Alcaics (Works 10.394ff.) and in similarly inspired prophecy of the sort that Robert Lowth had been instrumental in revaluing (Letters 267) and which Jones would connect to Asian poetry so as to win himself a place in romantic cultural theory alongside Lowth and Herder (Schmidt intro.).

  5. The grounding of liberty in law and literature brought together very different kinds of writing, epitomised for Jones by Blackstone and Lowth, and related concerns with the necessary limits to freedom required by the well ordered polity or poem.[3] The interplay of freedom and restraint is well captured in a letter of January 31 suffused with self-awareness after Jones's failure to gain a seat in the Oxford parliamentary election the previous year:

    I never dreamt of liberty unrestrained by well-enacted and well-executed laws; and, without such liberty, I am very sure, that men cannot enjoy the happiness of men; that of cattle they may enjoy in any government. I have lately made a discovery, which gives me so much pleasure, that I cannot refrain from imparting it to you [probably Robert Raikes]: I find there is at Florence a MS of Isaeus, which not only has never been collated, but contains an entire new speech, a copy of which I hope very soon to procure, and will translate as well as I am able. How much remains to be performed in the field of literature! How vast a mine is yet unexplored! (Letters 456)

    In his correspondence Jones can move more or less seamlessly from political theory to literary desire, from the liberal democratic state in question to the cultural archive in waiting, and such transitions are especially worthy of remark when the compensatory impulse is strongest. Terra incognita loses none of its allure for being textual, especially when its acquisition depends on his linguistic rather his political reputation and when it points to riches extensive enough to make any intellectual colonist's mouth water.

  6. In England he fluctuated between the law as all-absorbing and writing as a professional and civic duty, and the composing, study, and translation of poetry as a consuming passion regularly thwarted by the demands of duty and financial exigency.[4] When he arrived in India, Jones characterized his personal situation in more general terms in his presidential introduction to the first volume of Asiatick Researches:

    If this first publication of the ASIATICK SOCIETY should not answer those expectations, which may have been hastily formed by the learned in Europe, they will be candid enough to consider the disadvantages which may naturally have attended its institution and retarded its progress: a mere man of letters, retired from the world and allotting his whole time to philosophical or literary pursuits, is a character unknown among Europeans resident in India, where every individual is a man of business in the civil or military state, and constantly occupied either in the affairs of government, in the administration of justice, in some department of revenue or commerce, or in one of the liberal professions; very few hours, therefore, in the day or night can be reserved for any study, that has no immediate connection with business, even by those who are most habituated to mental application; and it is impossible to preserve health in Bengal without regular exercise and seasonable relaxation of mind; not to insist that, in the opinion of an illustrious Roman [Cicero De Officiis 3.1.], "No one can be said to enjoy liberty, who has not sometimes the privilege of doing nothing." All employments, however, in all countries afford some intervals of leisure; and there is an active spirit in European minds, which no climate or situation in life can wholly repress, which justifies the ancient notion, that a change of toil is a species of repose.

    The mixture of apology and assertiveness in this passage captures the positive and negative features of orientalizing in the orient. European class formations and economic individualism can be replicated in Anglo-India and their reactions anticipated through appeal to that implausibly essentializing entity, "an active spirit in European minds," and its dubiously portable classical past. Yet this is possible only within limits imposed by an imperial project that both requires and is expected to enable the exacting pursuit of exorbitant profit. Two forms of incompleteness, one dutiful and one leisured, mark the individual colonist and the generic professions to which "he" belongs. Psychic, colonial, and corporeal economies interplay in ways that read value as abundance (of colonial plunder), value as rarity (of opportunity for literary and philosophical pursuits), and value as regularity (of physical functions in the embodied agent of colonialisim).

  7. This version of dominant and residual, marginal, or supplementary knowledge production is then elaborated upon as follows:

    [. . .] a Society instituted at Calcutta, on the plan of those established in the principal cities of Europe, might possibly be the means of concentrating all the valuable knowledge which might occasionally be attained in Asia, or of preserving at least many little tracts and essays, the writers of which might not think them of sufficient importance for separate publication [. . .] it will flourish, if naturalists, chymists, antiquaries, philologers, and men of science, in different parts of Asia, will commit their observations to writing, and send them to the President or the Secretary at Calcutta; it will languish if such communications shall be long intermitted; and it will die away, if they shall entirely cease; for it is morally impossible, that a few men, whatever be their zeal, who have great publick duties to discharge, and difficult private studies connected with those duties, can support such an establishment without the most assiduous and eager auxiliaries. (1.iv)

    The production and distribution of knowledge is conceived as concentrating and preserving a commodity whose value is first determined by the male professional English colonist. Interestingly, the principle of the division of labour and specializiation is carried over from the earlier inventory of colonial occupations to varieties of productive colonial leisure. The dominant features of commercial society and its civil ancillaries are replicated in English India while the role of print culture in imaginatively unifying a widely dispersed community is encouraged in terms that seem consonant with claims made most influentially recently by Benedict Plate 3Anderson (Imagining 37ff.). Jones articulates a (thinking) white man's burden according to which "that liberty of writing" is pressed into the service of a particular knowledge economy, even though the "writers of such dissertations" or "tracts" remain "individually responsible for their own opinions." Dependency and independence traverse interlocking versions of established and powerful, yet nascent and vulnerable, "Society." Differences are managed, discoveries collated and disseminated (see plate 3), within a basically diffusionist scheme made plain in an essay begun in 1784, "On the Musical Modes of the Hindus," which Jones later enlarged and published in the Society's journal in 1792: "The unexampled felicity of our nation, who diffuse the blessings of a mild government over the finest part of India, would enable me to attain a perfect knowledge of the oriental musick, which is known and practised in these British dominions not by mercenary performers only, but even by Muselmans and Hindus of eminent rank and learning" (Asiatick Researches 3.62; emphasis added). Political penetration brings cultural opportunity and obligation with it, patronizing while it colonizes, grading the subcontinent while applying assumptions about the social status of the performing arts to cultures whose understanding of such matters is different from its own. The "nation" as benefactor and student of difference cannot and should not be contained within its own boundaries precisely because (political) diffusion transforms itself into (cultural) appropriation.


    Administering Perfection

  8. The linking of political to musical harmony is part of a much larger project of harmonist Plate 4interpretation directed by and towards writing (see plates 4 and 5). Jones creates for himself a civilizing and broadly beneficial space serving good government rather than Moghul imperialism, but he then lumps hindus and muslims together as non-European whenever it suits him. And such selective sensitivity to difference relies on a specifically aesthetic ideology to conceal its dissonances and disfigurements. He can idealize the nation in musical terms in writing to Lady Spencer in October 1782: "How happy would it be, if statesmen had more musick in their souls, and could bring themselves to consider, that, what harmony is in a concert, such is union in a state! But, in the great orchestra of the nation, I have found, since my return to England, so many instruments out of tune and players out of time, that I stop my ears, like Hogarth's musician tormented, and wish myself at the distance of five thousand leagues from such dissonance" (Letters 582). But such musical analogies are as ethnocentric and politically conservative as the similar analogies in Ulysses' famous speech on degree in Troilus and Cressida (I.3.101-111). Like Ulysses, too, Jones has personal reasons for looking to remote locations to offer escape (of a sort) Plate 5from domestic tensions. Writing to Edmund Burke in 1783, the day after Shelburne's resignation as Prime Minister seemed to have doomed his chances of a judgeship in Bengal, Jones resorts to a more clearly Shakespearean allusion whose colonialist implications would never become sufficiently apparent to him: "if Caliban remain in power, there will be no Prospero in this fascinated island" (Letters 604). The Caliban in question is Thurlow, who Jones felt had obstructed him Plate 6constantly in his quest for Indian preferment. Jones is using his command of Shakespeare to make a point he also made via Aristophanes and a Greek-English alliterative play on therion/Thurlow in order to emphasize his enemy's beastliness (Letters 536). But such apparently effortless allusive command is limited in its intelligibility and uncertain in its effects, even among those who "get" it. Jones draws on a cultural patrimony which will never be enough and never quite the right stuff to settle disputes at home or tensions in India that make Sanskrit and its "rediscovery" "another world," but a world both inviting and threatening (Letters 747; see plate 6).

  9. Jones could describe his goal to the Dutch orientalist, Henry Albert Schultens, as teleian eleutherian ("perfect liberty"), or less eruditely to other correspondents as "the sweets of liberty" or "a perfectly easy fortune" (Letters 227, 570, 269). But the philosopheme and "Indian scheme" of strenuous ease (Letters 268), could not stand alone without support from quasi-universals like "humanity" captured, though never entirely satisfactorily, by recourse to tags like Terence's "homo sum; nil humani a me alienum puto" (Terence 77) which Jones translates in his essay "On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India" as "We are men, and take an interest in all that relates to mankind" (Works 3. 324; emphasis added). Chremes' famous claim is narrowed to those who have a particular kind of receptivity even as it seems to be widened by the shift from "I" to "We" (and while Jones ignores the fact this apparently lofty sentiment is expressed by a busybody forced to defend his snooping). Quasi-universal tags from European literature, when cited as authorities for colonial practices, have either to be amended in translation or supplemented by commentary that enhances their fit with Indian otherness. But neither in the already written nor in the carefully rewritten can Jones bend language(s) fully to his will. He may cast positively what Terence had put negatively (as avoiding alienation or radical otherness), but in so doing Jones creates fresh ambiguity and dissonance via the expression "taking an interest." After all, interest brings with it strong links to those notoriously grasping nabobs who "the Pagan Temple daily trod,/ Where Self is worshipp'd and there Gold is God" (Clarke 41). Such implications and historical baggage he had already tried to contain and control in his Grammar of the Persian Language where he argued that the impulse of European nations to orientalize had "been animated by the most powerful incentive that can influence the mind of man: interest was the magick wand which brought them all within one circle; interest was the charm which gave the languages of the east a real and solid importance (Works 5.152-3; emphasis added). We witness the Prospero effect once again, this time binding together venal, competitive Calibans so that they can better appreciate their Eastern inferiors, though this "explanation" of resurgent orientalism turns on the conveniently double meaning of interest as material advantage and cultural "charm."

  10. If liberal-minded colonialists needed to see themselves as the purveyors and protectors of beauty, the fulfilment of that need both nourished and was nourished by similar claims on behalf of justice. Aestheticizing tendencies had to be disciplined within the domestic and colonial contexts of active citizenship (Letters 326) where the law had to be understood not only as a kind of moral ensemble ("the will of the aggregate community" [Letters 345]) but also as a work of art in its own right ("a beautiful system of liberal jurisprudence" [Epistle Dedicatory to Jones's translation of Speeches of Isaeus; Works 9.8]). When Jones eventually filled a position on the High Court of Bengal that had remained vacant for six years because of turmoil and intrigue in England, he made clear his sense of duty and vocation in six "Charges to the Grand Jury at Calcutta" made between 1783 and 1792. These Charges, quickly published and circulated at home as well as in India, are strongly abolitionist, trenchant on such matters as the overzealous pursuit and punishment of counterfeiters, and attentive to the economic and cultural dynamics of the "great and increasing" city in which he worked (Works 3.12, 32, 25). From the outset he made clear that he saw his office as above politics and endeavouring to accommodate enlightenment principles of humanity and justice to the rights and traditions of the human "aggregate" present in Bengal.

  11. However, the administration of justice needed to be captured in language both reassuring and inspiring to jurors drawn from an imported elite:

    None of you, I hope, will suspect me of political zeal for any set of ministers in England, with which vice my mind has never been infected--nor of political attachments here, which in my station it will ever behoove me to disclaim--if, in the character of a magistrate appointed to preserve the public tranquillity, I congratulate you, who are assembled to enquire into all violations of it, on the happy prospect of a general peace in every part of the world with which our country is connected. The certain fruits of this pacification will be the revival and extension of commerce in all the dependencies of Britain, the improvement of agriculture and manufactures, the encouragement of industry and civil virtues; by which her revenues will be restored, and her navy strengthened, her subjects enriched, and herself exalted. But it is to India that she looks for the most splendid, as well as the most substantial of those advantages; nor can she be disappointed. As long as the the supreme executive and judicial powers shall concur in promoting the public good, without danger of collision, or diminution of each other's dignity; without impediment, on the one side, to the opinions of government; or, on the other, to the administration of justice. (Works 7.2-3)

    Such a carefullly composed, complex charge, orally delivered, was in sore need of transcription, publication, and multiple readings. The contorted self-vindication of the first sentence gradually shifts attention from the personal and domestic to the collective and the global. The "unexampled felicity" of the English nation has been translated into a "happy prospect" of Pax Britannica, disturbed only (yet prodigiously for readers at the end of the twentieth century) by the slip from peace to an unassigned and unspecified pacification. Detail is saved instead for the judicial mimicry of old-country improvers in a discourse of development according to which nobody loses, though there will as usual be an uneven distribution of effort and reward. On India is bestowed the dubious distinction of special status among a large and growing corpus of dependencies. Bathed in the light of a colonial sublime deriving from the convergence of splendour and substance, India will be prevented from slipping from sublimity to menacing chaos only if government and its judiciary maintain separate spheres and mutually respectful public demeanours. The anxious gaze of the jurors is turned by their new mentor from his person and prospective actions towards a prospect whose physical proportions are intercontinental, its moral dimensions incontinent. Jones may claim to be free from partisan "infect[ion]," but he and his auditors have brought another kind of sickness with them to India for which there will be no lasting remedy, either personal or collective. That "necessary evil, money" (Letters 749) will reveal a more negotiable and more culpable identity within anticolonial and postcolonial systems of exchange. The bonds between private property, commercial society, and social progress will for a time hold firm, while the private enterprise vested in the East India Company both enables and resists the transition to a formally political regime and the "imperishable Empire of our arts and morals, our literature and our laws" (Macaulay in the House of Commons in 1833; qtd. in Symonds 294). But the project of empire will require regular drafts from a witch's brew of beautification and pacification, while the Prospero effect reproduces the authority and dignity of Hindu law as both epigone and mirror image of British justice: "it is a system of despotism and witchcraft, both indeed limited by law, but artfully conspiring to give mutual support [. . .]. the style of it has a certain austere majesty that sounds like the language of legislation and extorts a repectful awe" ( Jones's Preface to the translation from the Sanskrit of Institutes of Hindu Law; Works 7. 88-89). Jones the jurist and Jones the linguist work together to derive an acoustic pleasure from a legal system that he considers badly flawed. However, his appeal yet again to the power of music and the sensitivity of his own ear may leave us wondering whether the triumph of style over substance is really as marked as he suggests and whether Hindus are as easily awed as he implies. But if he is right about this, is this not more likely to be a general effect of hegemony than a particular property of these Sanskrit Institutes? No matter how skillfully he phrases things, he cannot account for the durability of the Hindu system without either infantilizing its adherents or pointing to abuses possible (if not prevalent) in every legal system. The sound of other people's ideology is of course more readily detectable than one's own, and can even offer those in power the pleasures of tasteful condescension.


    Giving Credit

  12. As translator, activist, legislator, and philologist Jones offers us versions of anti-absolutism which both dislodge and reinscribe authoritarian ideas and practices, and do so Plate 7most clearly when he attempts to play down, ignore, or sanitize the economic determinations of his personal and persistently vulnerable situation. Jones fights an admirable struggle on a number of fronts at home and abroad, but with resources of limited precision and arguable propriety often referred to inclusively as "western civilization." As he takes regular measure of himself in India, updating the self-generated "Andrometer" of his early years (Letters 178) and the Ciceronian advice to his pupil and friend, Viscount Althorp, Jones remains legitimately proud of his liberal accomplishments yet haunted by the need to do much more as judge and philologist (see plate 7). We need, perhaps as much as ever, to give him sufficient credit for enhancing intercultural understanding and dispensing justice, but we need to do so while questioning the constitution and role of credit itself.

  13. In the area of comparative jurisprudence, the author of that legal classic, An Essay on the Law of Bailments (1781), could claim four years later, as the result of heroic application of extraordinary skills, that "the fruit of my Indian studies will be a Complete Digest of Law, which a number of Pandits employed, at my instance, by the Government, are now compiling, and my translation of which will, I trust, be the standard of justice to eight millions of innocent and useful men, as long as Britain shall possess this wonderful kingdom, which Fortune threw into her lap while she was asleep" (Letters 813).[5] The recourse to fortuna here cannot obscure the ongoing role of virtu and fortune hunting in the acquisition of India, but, that said, Jones tries to use the opportunity in as broadly beneficial a way as possible. He did not achieve his objective on as grand a scale as he would have liked, but it is with great pride that he informs Henry Dundas in March 1794 of the printing of the Institutes of Hindu Law; or, the Ordinances of Menu, According to the Gloss of Culluca, Comprising the Indian System of Duties, Religious and Civil.

  14. The occurrence of the term Ordinances in the title of this first English translation of the Brahmanic code, as well as the commentary that follows, may serve to remind the reader that native as well as colonizing powers are capable of incontinent ordinance: legal and philological as well as military. And part of that incontinence derives from the undertanding of the historical and current role of any "liberty of writing." The analogy between Jones and others' proto-imperial codifying effort and Justinian's was both irresistible and insufficently scrutinized. Justinian was "the great physician, and the laws were to be his prescription for rehabilitating the empire" (Evans 202). The rest is history: complex legal history and admonitory political and military history. Justinian's was a codifying project that could not even be named without creating resistance to its claims to comprehensiveness, and so the Pandects align themselves literally with a pandektes or "all-receiver" whose limitations will help shape an incomplete totality. If the title of this neo-foundational legal corpus is translated (as it so often is) as Digest, semantic incontinence is not so much cured as recycled in a more explicitly corporeal idiom which prompts questions about who, really, will be nourished by such work and how it will fit within that other human frame of "bad digestion, the morbus literatorum, for which there is hardly any remedy" (Letters 632)[6] and which would soon be the death of Jones. While Jones tried to refuse the title of "the Justinian of India," or at least to connect it to "the pleasure of doing general good" (Letters 699), other members of the Asiatick Society had often a more obviously cleft view of comparative jurisprudence within which the great pandit Raghunandan, for instance, becomes "the Tribonian of India" and his legal digest "so curious in itself, and so interesting to the British government" (Goverdhan Caul, "On the Literature of the Hindus [. . .]," Asiatick Researches 1.352). In the letter quoted above in which he idealizes his jurispudential work, Jones indicates a few lines later that he and his wife are reading with great enjoyment Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. There is for Jones no inconsistency between capitalism and the "general good," just as he can attach to a prized item in his collection an uneasily double annotation: "If this manuscript [Vivadarnavaseta, or the Bridge over a Sea of Controversies, a short Digest of Hindu Law, compiled by order of Warren Hastings ...] be valued for its rarity, it is unique and its loss would be irreparable, if for what it cost me it cannot be worth less than thirty guineas, and I probably paid twice as much for it" (Jones, Catalogue no.441). This particular juxtaposition of value forms and systems is a small but suggestive part of that unending conflict within his correspondence and scholarly self-positioning which rose to a crescendo of creativity and calculation as he neared that "honourable competence" of thirty thousand pounds net profit from India which would permit him to live the life of a devoted orientalist with his wife back home (Letters 793; cf. 864, 922).

  15. If Jones's work of legal codification remained uncompleted, it might be claimed that his work in comparative philology came to a successful culmination with the articulation in his Third Anniversary Discourse (2 February, 1786) of the Indo-European theory on which so much of his fame still rests:

    The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, wihout believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia. (Franklin, Selections 361)

    The emphasis on structure here, rather than on the notorious vagaries of etymology, is of a piece with Jones's earlier privileging of grammar as the key to understanding and comparing languages. He offers as a basis for evaluating linguistic structures three criteria (perfectness, copiousness, and refinement) the first and last of which seem more aesthetic than scientific. Jones goes on to redeem himself, at least in the eyes of some modern linguists, by employing a "methodology of genetic classification" (J. H. Greenberg; qtd. in Franklin, Selections 361). What interests me most in the mix of certainty and circumspection here, however, is the racial, cultural, and political implications of the movement from "affinity" and "some common source" to "the same family." This is the version of commonality on which Jones proceeds to base a whole array of connections leading to a summary "result: that [the Indians] had an immemorial affinity with old Persians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians, the Phenicians, Greeks, and Tuscans, the Scythians or Goths, and Celts, the Chinese, Japanese, and Peruvians; whence, as no reason appears for believing, that they were a colony from any one of those nations, or any of those nations from them, we may fairly conclude that they all proceeded from some central country" (367; emphasis added). In answering the question of the quality of the Sanscrit language positively, Jones was forced to raise two further and related questions: if it is accepted as one of the great languages, and its users hence as one of the great civilizations, then does that not radically foreshorten the social and other distances between "them" and "us"? And if we all indeed come from "the same family" then what business do members of the Asiatick Society have in treating Indians as they do? The answers lie of course in class and gender practices at home, racist practices and medicalized care of the European self in India, and an increasingly transnational division of labour. Equality and kinship have to be asserted at a safe historical distance and made so inclusive that the current challenges specific to Indo-European and Anglo-Indian relations are dispersed in the unthreatening sameness of a primordial human stock. Comparative philology provides an increasingly secure platform but cannot fully regulate what structures and interpretations are erected thereon. Jones tries to consign the difficulties attending respectful racism and civilized greed to the mists of time and the agenda of things still to be done. But still there lingers in this account of a revolutionary intellectual breakthrough the savour of domination and appropriation.

  16. After all, knowledge derives much of its signficance from the interests it is made to serve. If fans of academic celebrity can read the word "Eureka!" between the lines of the "Third Anniversary Discourse," their enthusiasm should be tempered by consideration of the following:

    The greatest, if not the only obstacle to the progress of knowledge in these provinces, except in those branches of it, which belong immediately to our several professions, is our want of leisure for general research; and, as ARCHIMEDES, who was happily master of his time, had no space enough to move the greatest weight with the smallest force, thus we, who have ample space for our inquiries, really want time for the pursuit of them. "Give me a place to stand on," said the great Athenian, "and I will move the earth." Give us time, we may say, for our investigations, and we will transfer to Europe all the sciences, arts and literature of Asia. ("The design of a Treatise on the Plants of India." Asiatick Researches 2.345)

    As with the rewriting of Terence, so in the case of an adjusted Archimedes mastery of "the" cultural or scientific canon marks its own limits and creates its own resistance. But a politically robust deconstruction does not simply point out that there is no Archimedean point available to us, but goes on to show how the desire for such a point is tied to Plate 8imperialism of one sort or another, imperialism which is only too available and always looking for greater leverage.[7] "Genius"-- whether personal or national, whether Smith and Jones or economic modernity and European scholarship--is like liberty an overdetermined site of ideological struggle. Such struggle can subside into hegemony in ways that make one-way "transfer" in the interests of the dominant seem natural and contributing to the "general good." But the justification of such cultural and economic transfer depends on promoting one's own translations of textual authorities as definitive and those of the subaltern (erstwhile dominant Moghul in this instance) as "a mixture of gloss and text with a flimsy paraphrase of them both" (Asiatick Researches 3.59. See plate 8).

  17. As well as disparaging indigenous alternatives one can appeal to the authority of the "one golden rule for good translation; which is, to read the original so frequently, and study it so carefully, as to imprint on the mind a complete idea of the author's peculiar air and distinguishing features; and then to assume, as it were, his person, voice, countenance, gesture; and then to represent the man himself speaking in our language instead of his own" (Works 9.38). Jones is thinking of the pale-skinned, non-barbaric, Athenian Isaeus here, but his translator's presumption is as questionable in Isaeus's case as in the case of authors of oriental countenance and culture. It is good to do one's homework as a translator but bad to ignore the inevitable limits of such activity. Jones feels confident in impersonating Isaeus in a work that, aptly enough enacts while it addresses The Law of Succession to Property! But such learned and prosopoetic translation is deployed as a weapon to enhance the legitimacy of private property, a weapon still heavily responsible today for significant levels of incontinent ordinance and collateral damage. Whether the difference to be "assumed" by the translator is as palpable as skin colour or as apparently trivial as that separating "English" from "British" India, or "Oriental" from "Asiatick" Jones, it always matters. And it matters as a question of mastery for colonizers; it matters as a locus of necessary but not sufficient resistance for those colonized within the human family.


    1  See Guillory, chapter 5, but also Findlay, "Valuing Culture, Interdisciplining the Economic," 13ff. back

    2  See, e.g., Letters 10-12, 232. back

    3  Cf. Letters 260, 328-9, 334. back

    4  Cf., e.g. Letters 102, 158, 166-70. back

    5  Cf. Letters 795-800, 902, 907-8. back

    6  Cf. Justinian xlv ff. back

    7  For a range of political appropriations of Archimedes' famous claim, see Findlay, "Inviting Archimedes Over: Literary Theory, the Levers of Power, and the Politics of Narrative." back

    Works Cited

    Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd ed. revised. London: Verso, 1991.

    Asiatic Society of Bengal. Asiatick Researches; or, Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal. Vols. 1-6. 1788-1795.

    Cannon, Garland. The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

    Clarke, Richard. The Nabobs: or Asiatick Plunderers. A Satyrical Poem, in a Dialogue between a Friend and the Author. To which are annexed a few fugitive pieces of poetry. London: Printed for the Author and sold by J. Townsend, 1773.

    Evans, J. A. S. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. London: Routledge, 1996.

    Findlay, L. M. "The Future of the Subject." English Studies in Canada 18 (1992): 125-41.

    ---. "Inviting Archimedes Over: Literary Theory, the Levers of Power, and the Politics of Narrative." Textual Studies in Canada 8 (1996): 3-25.

    ---. "Valuing Culture, Interdisciplining the Economic." Aldritch Interdisciplinary Lecture and Conference for Graduate Students. St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1998. 3-22.

    Franklin, Michael J. Sir William Jones. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1995.

    ---. Sir William Jones: Selected Poetical and Prose Works. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 1995.

    Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1994.

    Jones, Sir William. Works. 13 vols. London: John Stockdale and John Walker, 1807.

    ---. Catalogue of the Library of the Late Sir William Jones, Judge of the Supreme Court of Bengal, and President of the Asiatick Society; with the books added subsequently to his death by his widow, Lady Jones. Auct. R. H. Evans, No. 93 Pall Mall. May 19 and 20, 1831.

    ---. The Letters of Sir William Jones. Ed. Garland Cannon. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

    Justinian. The Digest of Justinian. Latin text ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul Krueger, trans. ed. Alan Watson. Vol 1. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985.

    Schmidt, C. B. Auszug aus Dr.R. Lowths ... Vorlesungen uber die heilige Dichtkunst der Hebraer mit Herders und Jones's Grundsatzen Verbunden.... Danzig: Ferdinand Troschel, 1793.

    Symonds, Richard. Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause?. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

    Teltscher, Kate. India Inscribed: European and British Writing on India 1600-1800. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Terence. Heauton Timorumenos. The Self-Tormentor. Ed., trans., and commentary by A. J. Brothers. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1988.

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November 2000