Skip to main content Accessibility help

Resurfacing Symptomatic Reading: Contrapuntal Memory and Postcolonial Method in The Remains of the Day

  • Sonali Thakkar


This essay on The Remains of the Day and modes of reading takes as its starting point the novel’s historical setting of July 1956, which coincides with the beginning of the Suez crisis. Although the crisis never explicitly registers in the narrative, various moments of imperial affirmation and anxiety suggest that it may have the status of a symptom. I read with and against this supposition. In the essay’s first section, I show how the repression of imperial crisis in Stevens’s narrative is entangled with his memories of fascist appeasement and complicity. Prompted by the text’s pervasive and self-conscious interest in Freudian figures of memory—its untimeliness and displacements—the second part argues that The Remains of the Day incorporates the symptom as an aesthetic and historical strategy in order to itself theorize a postcolonial symptomatology. The novel thus helps us complicate the proposition that symptomatic reading is something critics do to texts and suggests, in its allegory of symptomatic reading, the contours of a postcolonial interpretive method.



Hide All

I am grateful to Zach Samalin for his inestimable help at every stage of writing this essay and to Nasser Mufti for his perceptive and generous comments on an earlier draft.



Hide All

1 Ishiguro, Kazuo, The Remains of the Day (New York: Vintage, 1989), 223 . Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

2 Said, Edward, Culture and Imperialism [1993] (New York: Vintage, 1994), 96 . Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

3 Of course, the topographical and perspectival position of a surveying view from above, which is here being ironized, is crucial to practices of imperial visuality and representation. For instance, in her classic account, Mary-Louise Pratt identifies what she calls “the monarch-of-all-I-survey scene,” in which a traveler’s narrative insists on the landscape’s aesthetic and painterly qualities but also derives from the apparently “passive experience . . . of seeing” a dynamic that allows the viewer “if not to possess, at least to evaluate this scene.” Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2e (New York: Routledge, 2007), 198, 200–01.

4 Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt [1988] (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 9 .

5 Ibid., 12, 13.

6 Ryan Trimm pays particular attention to the tropes of the colonial gaze that I have only briefly sketched here, in order to formulate an argument about the novel’s critical reflections on English nationalism in the postwar period. Philip Whyte seems to read symptomatically when he notes of the novel’s allusion to Suez “the discrepancy . . . between the magnitude and gravity of the monumental happenings thus evoked from afar and the manner in which they impinge so little on the events which, within the novel’s actual economy, shape the life and feelings of the central protagonist.” But Whyte is suspicious of what he describes as “an overabundance of symbolic weight” to this single allusion and orients his reading elsewhere, focusing on the “materiality” of the manor house, the “thick description” of which he imagines “counteract[s] this imbalance.” Similarly, James Lang affirms the text’s postcolonial status based on the reference to Suez yet writes: “colonial politics and issues affect Ishiguro’s novel only marginally.” Neither Whyte nor Lang reads the scant attention to Suez as significant for its very paucity. John P. McCombe and Susie O’Brien identify what O’Brien calls the novel’s “postcolonial politics” primarily in what they consider its representation of the transition of imperial power from Britain to postwar America. Trimm, Ryan, “Telling Positions: Country, Countryside, and Narration in The Remains of the Day,” Papers on Language and Literature 45.2 (Spring 2009): 180211 ; McCombe, John P., “The End of (Anthony) Eden: Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Midcentury Anglo-American Tensions,” Twentieth Century Literature 48.1 (Spring 2002): 7799 ; Whyte, Philip, “The Treatment of Background in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ,” in Commonwealth 30.1 (Autumn 2007): 75 , 76, 77; Lang, James, “Public Memory, Private History: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ,” in Clio 29.2 (Winter 2000): 152 ; O’Brien, Susie, “Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ,” Modern Fiction Studies 42.4 (Winter 1996): 788 .

7 On attention in Ishiguro, among other modernist writers, see Rebecca L. Walkowitz, On Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (New York: Columbia, 2006), to which I am indebted. Her observation that “conditions of national and transnational affiliation depend on narrative patterns of attentiveness, relevance, perception and recognition” speaks directly to my observations here as to how Stevens’s (mal)distribution of attention precludes his recognition of the historical and geopolitical connections between fascist appeasement in the 1930s and imperial crisis in the 1950s (6).

8 For sustained reflections on scale and value in Ishiguro, see Walkowitz, Rebecca L., “Unimaginable Largeness: Kazuo Ishiguro, Translation, and the New World Literature,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction 40.3 (Summer 2007): 216239 .

9 Etymologically, it derives from the Latin praeoccupat, which in its English verb form survives until the eighteenth century and similarly means “to take possession of (the mind) in advance; to prepossess; to influence, bias, prejudice,” also “to usurp,” or “to meet in advance; anticipate; forestall, pre-empt.”

10 Freud, Sigmund, “Screen Memories” [1899], in Collected Papers, Vol 5., ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic, 1959), 47 .

11 Ibid., 51–52.

12 Ibid., 52, 62.

13 By extension, we might read Stevens’s failed romance with Miss Kenton as part of this metonymic chain—a screen for a screen, romantic regret pointing to political shame. Such a view dovetails with Renata Salecl’s caution against reading for depth vis-à-vis the novel’s romance plot, and her argument that although the novel “impl[ies] that there is something suppressed or hidden behind this ideological machinery—passions of the individuals engaged in rituals, their secret ‘true’ loves,” it is in fact “useless to search in Stevens for some hidden love that could not come out because of the rigid ritual he engaged himself in—all of his love is in the rituals.” Renata Salecl, “I Can’t Love You Unless I Give You Up,” Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, eds. Renata Salecl and Slavoj Zizek (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 180, 185.

14 In his 1907 additions to the chapter on “Childhood Memories and Screen Memories” in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), he observed that screen memory has a collective as well as individual dimension, offering “a remarkable analogy with the childhood memories that a nation preserves in its store of legends and myths.” Sigmund Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901/1907), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. VI, trans. Alan Tyson, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1960), 48.

15 Media theorist Marita Sturken’s analysis of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, was an influential early example of such a reading. Sturken employed the term screen memory both to describe elements of Maya Lin’s design for the memorial (its reflective walls), as well as to characterize the dynamics of the political struggles over whose experiences of that conflict the memorial ought to recognize and commemorate. Sturken, Marita, “The Wall, the Screen, and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Representations 35 (Summer 1991): 118142 .

16 In an influential reading of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the film theorist Miriam Hansen suggested that the primacy of the Holocaust in American cultural discourse might function as a screen memory, blocking and displacing violent histories closer to home. A number of others have echoed and elaborated this caution (see, for instance, Dominick LaCapra on Albert Camus’s writings on the Holocaust and on Algeria, and Andreas Huyssen on the Holocaust as a “universal trope” of transnational memory culture). Hansen, Miriam Bratu, “ Schindler’s List Is Not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory,” Critical Inquiry 22.2 (Winter 1996): 292312 ; LaCapra, Dominick, “Rereading Camus’s The Fall after Auschwitz and with Algeria,” History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998): 7394 ; Huyssen, Andreas, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 14 . But while Hansen and these other scholars’ reflections on screen memory preserve the Freudian dynamics of the concept, some critics have forgone Freud’s emphasis on displacement and association to argue instead for outright substitution in what Michael Rothberg has described as a form of zero-sum logic. As illustrative of this tendency, see, for instance, Novick, Peter, The Holocaust in American Life [1999] (New York: Mariner, 2000) and Michaels, Walter Benn, “Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism,” American Literary History 18.2 (2006). Michael Rothberg has offered incisive analyses both of the pitfalls of what he calls “competitive memory” and the extent to which such a perspective ignores the associative and metonymic dynamics of Freudian screen memory in favor of a metaphorical relation of substitution. Rothberg, Michael, “Against Zero-Sum Logic: A Response to Walter Benn Michaels,” American Literary History 18.2 (2006): 303311 , and Rothberg, Michael, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 116 . Relatedly, Neil Levy shows how the complex rhetorical and memorial status of the Holocaust in the politics of Australian cultural memory demands an alternative conceptual vocabulary, though, unlike Rothberg, without differentiating between displacement and substitution. Levy, Neil, “‘No Sensible Comparison?’ The Place of the Holocaust in Australia’s History Wars,” History and Memory 19.1 (Spring/Summer 2007): 124156 .

17 See especially Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory; Schwab, Gabriele, Haunting Legacies: Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Hirsch, Marianne, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Silverman, Max, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Sanyal, Debarati, Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).

18 Elsewhere, Said described “the problem of connecting things to each other” as the “ethic” of the book. Said, Edward, “Response—Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: A Symposium,” Social Text 40 (Autumn 1994): 23 .

19 Indeed, Hirsch’s notion of “connective histories” has an obvious resonance with Said’s understanding of the contrapuntal as the “perspective [that] is required in order to see connection[s]” (32), and to his view that seeking such connections is both a method and an ethic (see previous note). Hirsch is explicit that such a connective approach is reparative in Eve Sedgwick’s sense; her readings depend on symptomatic interpretations whose implications can be theorized in connective or reparative terms. As I will discuss, such a doubled gesture also characterizes Said’s contrapuntal reading.

20 Kathryn Lachman has in fact turned to contrapuntality to describe dynamics very similar to those Rothberg and Hirsch term multidirectional or connective, both in the work of the novelist Assia Djebar but also in Said’s own writings on Israel-Palestine. Lachman, Kathryn, “The Allure of Counterpoint: History and Reconciliation in the Writings of Edward Said and Assia Djebar,” Research in African Literatures 41.4 (Winter 2010): 162186 . Though not focused on memory per se, for related reflections see Mufti, Aamir R., “Auerbach in Istanbul: Edward Said, Secular Criticism, and the Question of Minority Culture,” Critical Inquiry 25.1 (Autumn 1998): 95125 , and Cheyette, Bryan, Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 1832 .

21 Sedgwick, Eve, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; Or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling: Affect, Performativity, Pedagogy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 123151 .

22 Arac, Jonathan, “Criticism Between Opposition and Counterpoint,” in boundary 2 25.2 (Summer 1998): 57 . On the instability of the separation between paranoid and reparative, see Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 128–29, but also cf. 141; on Sedgwick’s productive ambivalence see Love, Heather, “Truth and Consequences: Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Criticism 52.2 (Spring 2010): 235241 . It is interesting to consider, though too far afield for me to pursue here, the extent to which Said’s avowedly reparative orientation in Culture and Imperialism responds to and modifies what might be more aptly characterized as the paranoid ethos of Orientalism.

23 Love, Heather, “Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41.2 (Spring 2010): 382 .

24 Current debates about literary method and the status of symptomatic or suspicious reading have made it clear that critics hold competing views of symptomatic reading and the posture it entails toward texts and the work of interpreting them. Many of the accounts expressing skepticism of or exhaustion with symptomatic reading draw, explicitly or otherwise, on Fredric Jameson’s formulation of the political unconscious of the text. It is therefore in this sense that I use the term, both because I take up these recent critiques on their own terms and because, as I will discuss, Said’s contrapuntal readings track closely with Jameson’s understanding of “interpretation proper” as that which recovers a text’s “underside or impensé or non-dit”—what, ideologically, it “fails to realize” or “seeks . . . to repress.” As others have warned, however, it is reductive to treat symptomatic reading as synonymous with Jameson’s account in The Political Unconscious, thereby ignoring important differences between Jameson’s understanding of symptomatic readings and Althusser’s approach to reading Marx, from which Jameson adopts the term. Timothy Bewes, stressing what he describes as Althusser’s “generous” mode of reading, makes the point especially forcefully, arguing that “the names Althusser and Jameson, then, stand in the current critical conversation for two different versions of symptomatic reading predicated upon two different relations to the symptom. . . . The first requires that we approach literary texts not as objects but as readings. . . . The opposite tendency is to turn a reading (a text) into an object.” Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act [1981] (London: Routledge, 2002), 45, 34; Bewes, Timothy, “Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism,” Differences 21.3 (2010): 8 .

25 Jameson, The Political Unconscious, 33.

26 Best, Stephen and Marcus, Sharon, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108.1 (Fall 2009): 14 ; François, Anne-Lise, Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), xvi .

27 Susan Fraiman questions what she terms Said’s “collapsing of author into character,” contending that as a consequence he misses Austen’s “critique of the moral blight underlying Mansfield’s beauty” and, by extension, Austen’s skepticism about the “ethical basis for its authority both at home, and by implication, overseas.” David Bartine and Eileen Maguire observe that Said’s contrapuntal reading practice hews to a classical harmonic/tonal understanding of counterpoint, rather than the forms of atonal counterpoint associated with modern music that might throw into relief Austen’s own fidelity to dissonances Said does not perceive: “Contrary to Said’s reading which finds Austen establishing and sanctioning at the outset of the novel what she considers to be a form of harmony in which the imperial/paternal order is assumed to be positive . . . it is our contention that many clues provided by Austen tell us that the harmony Said finds the novel issuing from and returning to is a false harmony that cannot fully hide the dissonance that resists it.” And George Boulukos—who questions on historical grounds Said’s interpretation of the silence that follows Fanny’s mention of the Antiguan estate as indicative of the novel’s repression of the imperial context—takes issue not with Said’s excessive suspicion, as Fraiman and Bartine and Maguire do, but with the hastiness of the recuperative move that equates “silence to complicity and speech to resistance.” Said’s interpretive commitments, Boulukos argues, are “to an ideal of interpretation as breaking the silences of the past, dependent on the model of the ‘colonial unconscious.’ ” It’s this dimension of contrapuntal reading, which calls for reading canonical works in such a way as “to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented” that suggests its reparative aspirations (Said 66). Fraiman, Susan, “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 21.4 (Summer 1995): 812 , 810; Bartine, David and Maguire, Eileen, “Contrapuntal Critical Readings of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Resolving Edward Said’s Paradox,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 11.1 (Fall 2009): 41 ; see also their companion piece, Bartine, David and Maguire, Eileen, “Contrapuntal Critical Reading and Invitations to Invention,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 11.2 (Spring 2010): 3871 ; and Boulukos, George E., “The Politics of Silence: ‘Mansfield Park’ and the Amelioration of Slavery,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 39.3 (Summer 2006): 361 .

28 Su, John J., “Refiguring National Character: The Remains of the British Estate Novel,” Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (Fall 2002): 552580 .

29 “Present/absent, manifest/latent, and surface/depth” are among the conceptual pairs that Best and Marcus argue characterize symptomatic reading. Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 3-4.

30 Rita Felski, “Digging Down and Standing Back,” in The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 52-84; Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading,” 9. Felski, despite expressing reservations about Marcus and Best’s turn to the figure of the surface, adopts very similar language. See Felski, The Limits of Critique, 55 but cf. 6, 12.

31 Marcus and Best, “Surface Reading,” 8. See also Felski, The Limits of Critique, 12, 84; Love, “Close But Not Deep,” 381, 386.

32 MacPhee, Graham, “Escape from Responsibility: Ideology and Storytelling in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day ,” College Literature 38.1 (Winter 2011): 195 .

33 Rushdie, Salman, “Outside the Whale,” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991 (New York: Penguin, 1991), 87 , 89.

34 Ibid., 92.

35 Felski takes up this question, observing that a tradition of literature that she identifies in particular with modernism “teaches readers to tread warily and read skeptically,” in large part because of formal elements and devices, including metafiction, fragmentation, and unreliable narration; The Remains of the Day is in fact among her list of works that constitute “a virtual armada of deceptive or self-deceiving narrators who school readers to discount or delve behind obvious meaning.” And yet, this tells us very little because although she notes that “rather than being innocent victims of suspicion, literary works are active instigators and perpetrators of it,” she does not try to tell us why that may be the case or what it might mean, beyond indicating its connection to modernist aesthetics and to what she alludes to as the affinities between critique and “the agendas of those artists and writers estranged from, or at odds with, the mainstream of social life.” Felski, The Limits of Critique, 16, 42–43.

36 It may be relevant to recall, as both Christopher Nealon and Ellen Rooney remind us, that Althusser’s self-designated symptomatic reading of Marx is a profoundly sympathetic one. Nealon, Christopher, “Reading on the Left,” Representations 108.1 (2009): 23 ; Rooney, Ellen, “Live Free or Describe: The Reading Effect and the Persistence of Form,” Differences 21.3 (2010): 127 .

37 On reading with, or listening to, one’s aesthetic objects in the context of these debates about method, see Hensley, Nathan K., “Curatorial Reading and Endless War,” Victorian Studies 56.1 (2013): 5983 , and Tyler Bradway, “Critical Immodesty and Other Grammars for Aesthetic Agency,” Arcade: Literature, the Humanities, and the World, Colloquy on “We, Reading, Now,” curated by Dalglish Chew and Julie Orlemanski,

38 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985): 243261 ; McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 14 ; Sharpe, Jenny, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). In the early-modern context, see for instance the range of essays in Post-Colonial Shakespeares, eds. Ania Loomba and Martin Orkin (London: Routledge, 1998).

39 Sharpe, Allegories of Empire, 8. For a methodological reflection on such strategies of reading the colonial archive, see Quayson, Ato, “Postcolonial Historiography and the Problem of Local Knowledge,” Postcolonialism: Theory, Practice or Process? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000), esp. 59–63.

40 With respect to this question, I find illuminating Christopher Nealon’s incisive reframing of the apparent discontents of symptomatic reading; he restates the relationship between criticism and literature as a mimetic one, observing that criticism reads “literary texts for marks of how they imagine themselves as literary” in a way that is “referential of literature’s shifting position in the history of ‘social effort.’ ” Nealon, Christopher, “Reading on the Left,” Representations 108.1 (Summer 2009): 2250 .

41 An early touchstone, of course, is McClintock, Anne, “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term Post-Colonialism,” in Social Text 31/32 (1992): 8498 . See also, in the same issue, Ella Shohat, “Notes on the Post-Colonial,” in Social Text 31/32 (1992): 99–113.

42 If, as Leela Gandhi has suggested, “postcolonialism can be seen as a theoretical resistance to the mystifying amnesia of the colonial aftermath,” which entails “returning to the colonial scene” in order to “disclos[e]” its elements (4), it is equally an anamnesic practice beset by its own belatedness and incompleteness—the very source of the ambivalent temporality embedded in the term postcolonial. Gandhi, Leela, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 4 , 5–8.

43 Behdad, Ali, “ Une Pratique Sauvage: Postcolonial Belatedness and Cultural Politics,” The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, eds. Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 77 .

I am grateful to Zach Samalin for his inestimable help at every stage of writing this essay and to Nasser Mufti for his perceptive and generous comments on an earlier draft.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry
  • ISSN: 2052-2614
  • EISSN: 2052-2622
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-journal-of-postcolonial-literary-inquiry
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed