Isabel Nowak Spivak and Proust

“Proust in A la recherche, when someone is criticising Francoise’s French, writes “What is French but bad Latin?” So from that point of view, one can’t distinguish, you can’t say that it is a French position or a Roman position. This is what he is pointing at–the moment you say “this is a white position”, again you are homogenizing. I think there is safety in specificity rather than in those labels.”

I chose this passage in Spivak’s Questions of Multiculturalism because it contains allusions that I do not understand, and I have difficulty understanding its place in the article as a whole. I believe that, in understanding Spivak’s reference to another work, I will also understand her argument more clearly.

The obvious first step in understanding this passage was to find out who Proust is and what A la recherche is. After a bit of research, I discovered that Marcel Proust was a French novelist, and À la recherche du temps perdu is his most famous work. It is a story based on Proust’s own experiences, taking place in aristocratic France. In the novel, Francoise is the narrator’s maid.

Spivak claims that you can’t distinguish Proust’s phrase “what is French but bad Latin?” as a French or Roman position. I believe that this is because, though the work was written by a French author, the sentiment is more consistent with what a Roman would believe. Spivak also claims that calling this a “white position” is homogenizing, and that specificity is better than those labels. I believe Spivak is using Proust’s example to further her argument that, in multiculturalism, distinctions matter. This sentiment can be applied to her disdain of token speakers, suspicion of “speaking as”, and her emphasis on the difference between diasporic groups. This belief connects to our discussion in class about the word human. The word human, especially in the context of human rights, can both lump groups of people together, and highlight their differences. It is important to acknowledge both similarities and differences, and in this passage, Spivak focuses on defending the importance of differences. 

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