Notes on Growing (Week 11, 29 Oct)

Daniel and Vanessa gave a presentation entitled “Growing Disillusioned”, arguing that Leonard Woolf in the “Jaffna” of Growing undergoes a process of disillusionment, highlighted by the difference of opinion across the half-century separating experience and writing, the emphasis of the theatricality of life, as well as of the alienating nature of the environment. Personally I don’t find a colonizer growing disillusioned so much as an administrator becoming happier and more confident in his role as colonizer in an alien land, particularly as Woolf’s power increases. This is most evident in the resounding success which he attributes to his exploits in the Pearl Fishery and the revolutions in office efficiency, as well as his emphasis of the “unheard of” (125) speed of his promotion.

Daniel began his presentation with a quote of Jerome Bruner (source unknown) which posits that the autobiography both confirms culture and proffers individuality. A close inspection of this opposition in the text would generate an interesting analysis of Woolf’s opinions of both himself and his culture, namely that of imperialism. An example of a disjuncture of self and culture is when Woolf writes, “It shocked me that these people should think that, as a white man and a ruler of Ceylon, I should consider the brown man, the Tamil, to be one of ‘the lesser breeds’ and deliberately hit him in the face with my riding whip to show him that he must behave himself and keep in his place” (113).

Daniel also brought up the idea of theatricality, how Woolf saw life in Ceylon as on a stage (24-25). Daniel misses out the point that it is an English stage, for Woolf speaks of the backcloth of imperialism (25). Daniel also misappropriates a quote from The Haunted Stage, where theatre is said to make memory. Here, it is the converse: memory makes theatre. Woolf also frequently relates his experiences to literature, whether Austen (42), Kipling (46), Hardy (54), Forster (63), or Coleridge (81). Daniel pointed out that this highlights the specifically English or Western frame of mind and references with which Woolf’s world is interpreted.

Vanessa argued that Woolf displays a political schizophrenia, being both a malevolent colonialist and a benevolent overlord. There is however no real evidence of any dysfunction or confusion in Woolf’s leadership. Even if he draws values from both imperialism and humanism, these do not contradict each other. I would say Woolf sees himself as a benevolent colonialist. He has no problems doing the Empire’s work, or lording over natives, yet seems to believe in executing his duties in a humane manner: “There was a great deal to be said against our rule of Ceylon, which, of course, was bleak ‘imperialism’ or what is fashionably called colonialism. One of the good things about it, however, was the extraordinary absence of the use of force in everyday life and government” (92).

Vanessa raised the idea of geographical displacement in relation to psychological displacement. Woolf himself acknowledges that “topographical details are not unimportant psychologically”, and increased the indescribable sense of “imperialist isolation” (49). The physical landscape alienates and overwhelms him. Perhaps the best example of this is his description of tropical nights at the Tangalla Rest House (71-72), where one appears “minute, helpless, infinitely insignificant” (71).

In the class discussion, Dr Koh asked whether the class knew Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and what significance this has. It was generally consented that Woolf as a Jew, and Conrad as a Pole, both experienced life in a minority, gained insight into outsiderhood. Not being “English English”, they therefore were unlikely to subscribe to Kiplingese imperialism.

The second half of the class was spent viewing the first half of Chocolat, a French film by Claire Denis from 1988. There is a clear intention in the film to explore racial tension, or the problems of interracial existence in colonial Cameroon, particularly with the repeated use of the two shot to tightly frame a black person and a white person together. Examples of this are in the scenes of Protée and the young France riding in the back of a truck, and of Protée lacing up Aimée’s corset in front of a mirror. The adult France makes an interesting comment near the beginning of the film, where, upon being asked whether she was a tourist, replied “sort of”. She is not a tourist because she is revisiting the land where she grew up in, yet in another sense she will forever be a tourist, an outsider to the land of Cameroon. The film seems to give allegorical names to its main characters: France, Aimée (beloved), Protée (Proteus, perhaps suggesting either mutability or primordiality).

One thought on “Notes on Growing (Week 11, 29 Oct)

  1. Good, Fred. But it would have been better if you had given some summary comments on your notes to begin with.