Criticism has long sought the political significance of literature in its engagement with an immediate historical context. Yet this approach fails to account for one of literature’s most important effects: its interaction with readers distant from its moment of creation. The transhistorical travels of literature are usually seen as antihistorical aesthetic transcendence, as a flight from political relevance. This essay argues, using Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s repurposing of Joseph Conrad as a case study, that the literary aspiration to write for the future is instead an invitation to multiple historical uses. Ngũgĩ makes use of Conrad not by engaging with his historical context but by dehistoricizing his literary forms and themes for anti- and postcolonial purposes. Conrad’s novels are usually assimilated to a narrative of modernist experimentation in which innovative literary form becomes politically progressive through its representation of the uncertain and unknowable; for Ngũgĩ, however, the literary techniques are tools for generating political judgments and commitments. Later authors’ uses of their predecessors illuminate not just the possible political uses of earlier works but also the effects of literary form on a wide array of readers.

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