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Cosmopolitan Fantasies, Aesthetics, and Bodily Value: W. E. B. Du Bois's Dark Princess and the Trans/Gendering of Kautilya

  • Author(s): Alston, Vermonja R
  • et al.
Abstract

The recent turn to a transnational American literary cosmopolitanism, coupled with efforts to move beyond what Paul Gilroy calls “ethnic absolutes,” have generated a resurgence of interest in W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1928 romance novel, Dark Princess. In addition, the last two decades have witnessed tentative movements to bridge the gap between American ethnic studies and postcolonial studies. This essay begins with the premise that there are compelling reasons to reread Dark Princess in light of twenty-first century debates about postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism, but it also points to some of the hazards of reading the novel outside of the social and aesthetic politics of the decades between the two world wars. The main part of this paper is an attempt to address the gendered and sexualized body politics of Du Bois’s aesthetic practices through an analysis of his essay “Criteria of Negro Art” and his novel Dark Princess. Allusions in the novel to the fourth-century BCE Indian political philosopher Kautilya and his treatise Arthasâstra suggests that Du Bois’s naming of his princess, Kautilya, was neither accidental nor insignificant. This trans/gendering of Kautilya speaks to a gender and sexual politics inherent to German theories of the aesthetic, to which Du Bois remained wedded. Scholarly fantasies of cosmopolitanism tend to ignore the extent to which such fantasies depend upon ideologies of family and the reproductive bodies of women.

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