The hope that language offers

Fanon’s article “The Negro and Language” mentions how white men have a tendency to ‘talk down’ to natives, citing the example of the priest who spoke pidgin-nigger to Achille. Fanon then asserts that white men “talking to Negroes in this way gets down to their level, it puts them at ease, it is an effort to make them understand us, it reassures them” (32).

Upon reading this, I was strongly reminded of what Ellis said to his servant in Burmese Days:

“Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

These few sentences perfectly encapsulate what Fanon is getting at; Ellis demonstrating exactly how the servant “ought to talk” reflects how the “European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (35) as linguistically inferior, and thus “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (36). By speaking in proper English, the servant is demonstrating not just his mastery of the colonizer’s language, but also implies assimilation in the colonizer’s world (think about how the Negro ‘newcomer’ speaking only in French demonstrates “the extent of his assimilation” (36)). This is why Ellis says he will have to sack the servant if he speaks English too well, as that would break down the distinctions between colonizer and colonized, master and servant.

Speaking the colonizer’s language is therefore equivalent to taking on a world, a culture (Fanon 38). However, ‘talking down’ to the native is not merely about taking on a language that the colonized can understand. Rather, it is a means of reassuring the colonizer that he ‘talks down’ to the colonized because he KNOWS the limits of their comprehension, the impossibility of their understanding perfect English. It thus reinforces his superiority and justifies white rule. Knowledge is power, and the people who have the power to ‘know’ and to speak, are those who write history – think about Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, where he ‘knows’ the natives and thus has the power to write about them.

Therefore, “mastery of [the colonizer’s] language affords remarkable power” (Fanon 18) for the colonized, for it means the hope of being on the same level as the whites. However, in mastering and choosing to speak the colonizer’s language in his native land, the Negro newcomer is now seen as a “joke” (25) to his own people, an ‘Other’, as he is neither completely black nor white. It thus appears that mastery of the colonizer’s language is never a real solution, as not only does it compromise the Negro newcomer’s position among his people, he is never treated on equal grounds as the whites either. The issue of mastering the colonizer’s language is fraught with complexities. While it may not offer an infallible solution to raising the status of the colonized, seeming even like a delusion, it is perhaps all we have, and if we embrace it, we are in the very least offered the hope of reconciliation.

History, Statues, and Representation

Jackson mentions the “ever-impinging presence of official buildings and symbolism” in Ireland, and the kind of  “architectural response” (129) that followed the threat of self-government. This suggestion of an “architectural response” led me to think about statues and monuments, which are symbolic, larger-than-life representations of figures that have made important contributions to a country, and are erected officially for the remembrance and celebration of their achievements. In light of this, I found it particularly interesting when Stephen reflects on Thomas Moore’s statue and the commemorative slab in memory of Woolfe Tone that he passes by in Part V:

While he was striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland [Thomas Moore]. He looked at it without anger: for, though sloth of the body and of the soul crept over it like unseen vermin, over the shuffling feet and up the folds of the cloak and around the servile head, it seemed humbly conscious of its indignity. (Joyce 193)

And a few pages later…

In the roadway at the head of the street a slab was set to the memory of Wolfe Tone and he remembered having been present with his father at its laying. He remembered with bitterness that scene of tawdry tribute. There were four French delegates in a brake and one, a plump smiling young man, held, wedged on a tick, a card on which were printed the words: Vive I’Irlande! (Joyce 199)

(According to the novel’s footnotes: Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen; the slab was laid to commemorate the centenary of the Rebellion of 1798)

What particularly intrigued me was Stephen’s withering sarcasm (“droll statue”, “servile head”, “tawdry tribute”, just to name a few examples) towards these supposedly celebrated figures in Irish history and culture. While these statues can be seen to represent the official national history of Ireland, Stephen’s expression of his attitude towards these figures (and by extension, what they represent), is then his personal interpretation of history. In doing so, the official national history of the public sphere is now conflated with personal history/experiences of the private sphere. Here, we are cleverly introduced to another representation of history; a different perspective that Modernism so champions!

 (On a side note, I do think that it was an interesting choice to represent Joyce/Stephen’s general disdain towards the Irish condition via his contempt towards statues of supposedly representative figures of Irish history and culture, considering that statues are after all another form of art and representation, just as novels are).

The empty shell

Leonard Woolf’s chapter on Jaffna seems to highlight the oppressiveness of colonialism which represses individuality, forces the creation of a façade, and therefore creates a kind of spiritual void in the colonizers themselves.

Woolf “feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream” and felt as if the civil servants in Ceylon, himself included, “were all always, subconsciously or consciously, playing a part, acting upon a stage”. He then speaks of how he “developed, in part instinctively and in part consciously, a façade or carapace behind which [he] could conceal [his] most unpopular characteristics”, in order to keep up the image of him as one of the good fellows. The idea of  a façade and theatricality serve to highlight the daily performance required of the colonizer (think of the narrator in Shooting An Elephant), while I found the choice of the word “carapace” extremely apt in suggesting that the colonizer is but an empty shell, forced to be devoid of individuality and spirituality. In contrast, Woolf reflects how the natives “do not conceal their individuality”.

As such, Woolf shows how as “displaced persons”, they become “unreal, artificial, temporary and alien”.  Human beings become no different from “manikins”. This induces in Woolf “a feeling of impotence, the dwarfing and dooming of everything human in the enormous unpitying universe”.  I think this very pertinently describes the effect of colonialism on its colonizers; that it robs even the colonizers of their individuality, resulting in a loss of vigour, and thus an emotional and spiritual sterility.

“We may live our whole lives behind our lace curtains in the image, not of God or man, but of the rubber stamp and the machine”  – This sentence neatly illustrates the oppressiveness of  the system of colonialism on the colonizer, pointing to the futility of existence in having to repress his individuality and become a soulless, mechanical replica of the model colonizer. Not just for Woolf but for the other civil servants, they are shown to be no more than cogs in the machine.

Perceptions and Manipulations

I found Ann Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” an interesting read, as most of the articles we have covered so far, focus on the male-centric colonial quest and do not examine in detail the role of both European and  native women in colonialism. But more than that, what really intrigued me was seeing the idea of PERCEPTIONS in play in this article.

1)  Previously, “concubinage was considered to stabilize political order and colonial health” (Stoler 48), but by the early twentieth century, “concubinage became the source of individual breakdown, racial degeneration, and political unrest” (Stoler 68).  Concubinage was thus denounced for undermining precisely what it was charged with fortifying decades earlier (Stoler 68). The practice of concubinage was no different from the past; the only thing that differed was the perception towards it, that it was now a  threat to (white) racial purity and political order.

2)  The white men’s preoccupation with their image reflected the importance of the natives’ perceptions of them. Therefore, they sought “to produce a colonial profile that highlighted the manliness, well-being and productivity of European men” (Stoler 65). As a result, this gave rise to efforts to ensure the image of white supremacy was upheld via eugenization and racial purity preserved by frowning upon miscegenation and concubinage.

Here, we see how perceptions play such a vital role in the colonial project. The white men’s obsession with presenting an image of racial superiority is attributed to having to make the natives perceive the whites as superior and thus justified in ruling them. In order to create and sustain such perceptions, actions have to be taken. Eugenization is really discrimination, but it is passed off and perceived as an action undertaken for the greater good of “safeguard[ing] European superiority” (Stoler 63). In the case of concubinage, the perception is manipulated in order to justify the action of banning it.

Thus, what is really reflected here is the insidiousness of colonialism through the power to manipulate perceptions in order to legitimate their actions.

Burmese Days: The contradiction of colonization

Burmese Days seems to highlight how the system of colonization traps even the colonizer.

One line that really stood out for me while reading the novel was what Ellis said to his servant:

 “Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

“We are the masters, and you beggars – ” (Orwell 32)

This reminded me of our class discussion last week. One of the aims of colonization is the education of natives. However, education creates a breed of men who are ‘almost white, but not quite there yet’. Even though it is implied that ultimately natives are unable to attain the same level of civilization as the whites, they are still a kind of mimic men (to borrow Homi K Bha Bha’s terms), an eerie shadow of the colonizer. Thus, this explains Ellis’ violent reaction towards his servant’s use of (proper) English. I cannot help but be reminded of Fanon’s assertion that “the ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others’” (5); the colonizer is therefore distinguished from the natives. If the native can attain a grasp of English that is almost on the same level as the white colonizers, it undermines imperial authority, and questions the colonizer’s basis for the “rule of colonial difference” (in Chatterjee’s terms).  

Ellis’ speech thus brings up one of the contradictions of colonization, that in attempting to civilize and educate the natives, they create a haunting image of themselves which in turn destabilizes their authority and justification for rule. We could perhaps say, that this reflects the colonizer/white man’s greatest fear too, that perhaps they aren’t very different from the natives after all.

Shooting An Elephant: Chaos, Order & Violence

I think Shooting An Elephant very nicely illustrates the theme of Chaos, Order and Violence. Chaos wreaked by the “mad elephant” requires the police officer to “do something about it”, so as to restore order and prevent the elephant from causing anymore havoc to property and man.  However, it is ironic that the only way to subdue the chaos and instill order requires the employment of violence, which is then another kind of chaos or dis-order.

Colonialism therefore functions to tame, civilize and order the natives with institutions that function precisely on this basis of violence, whether it is the threat (causing mental chaos to instill order) or its actual implementation; a perfect example as the police force. This compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with great violence.” (23) Violence thus appears to be ultimately inevitable.

The somewhat disturbing thing about Shooting An Elephant however, is the way in which it illustrates how everyone, both colonist and colonized, are complicit in this violence. The Burman crowd is described as “watch[ing] a conjurer about to perform a trick”, giving a “deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last… They were going to have their bit of fun after all”. After the elephant is dead, their opportunistic reaction is to “strip [the elephant’s] body almost to the bones”, embodying a kind of violence too. As for the narrator, despite his assertion that “imperialism was an evil thing” and his rationalizations for killing the elephant, it does not lessen the fact that he still committed a violent act after all, what more for the sake of his (white) reputation/identity. It seems to suggest that without the chaos caused by the elephant, it would not have warranted a reason for its death either. This, we can draw a parallel to the West’s justification of the use of violence to quell chaos and instill order in the native land.

Perhaps what Shooting An Elephant is trying to underscore then, is that although it does not deny the use of violence nor the complicity of both colonist and colonized in the cycle of violence, it highlights instead how neither colonist nor colonized are spared in the oppressive cycle of guilt that accompanies colonialism and violence.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.

 

Examples

The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.

 

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

Lord Jim, Lord of Mystery

While reading Lord Jim, I realized how Marlow always remarks how he “cannot say he [has] ever seen [Jim] distinctly” (Conrad 169) and is “fated never to see him clearly” (Conrad 185). Jim is described as an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234) who “passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart” (Conrad 318). I thus found myself asking why the need for all this mystery and obscurity around the figure of Jim.

Perhaps, by making Jim out to be this enigmatic, ultimately unfathomable figure, it also elevates his status as “Lord”, a higher being we are never fully able to comprehend or know. The mystery surrounding Jim, and the inability to place/know him, is in direct contrast to the natives, who are easily identified/ labelled.

This is easily seen in Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, in the way in which he describes with such ease the “general character of the Dyaks” (Wallace 67) and comes to simple, stereotypical conclusions such as the “natives of tropical climates [having] few wants, and when these are supplied, are disinclined to work for superfluities without some strong incitement.” (Wallace 73). Here, Wallace’s power is in “knowing” the natives (regardless of its inaccuracy), the power to (in)scribe characteristics onto them, the power to write.

Knowledge is power, and conversely, the lack of knowledge renders one disadvantaged in the power balance. By positing the colonist as mysterious and unfathomable, in this case Lord Jim, it elevates his status as superior race, god-like and all-knowing, reinforcing the justification of colonization of the natives, who are in contrast, ignorant and easily “known”.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

Like A Passage to India, Lord Jim can be read through The Trial as a quest for knowing the Truth. A trial embodies an investigation into a case, not just for the “fundamental why, but the superficial how, of [the] affair” (45).

Jim is fully aware of the trial’s objective, trying “to tell honestly the truth of this experience” (23), and to “go on talking for truth’s sake” (26). He knows the trial seeks facts, but more importantly, he realizes that facts cannot explain everything, that these “questions did not matter though they had a purpose” (45). The sailors are precisely looking for something beyond facts, “the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions” (45), which Jim understands he is unable to ever provide a satisfactory explanation for regardless of his truthfulness.

When Jim recounts “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer” (27), it reflects the realization of the inadequacy of language to accurately express emotional truth. This is similar to how Brierly’s only response is not via copious explanations which would ultimately fail him, but by committing suicide and bringing the secrets with him into the sea. In A Passage to India, Aziz’s trial may have revealed the truth of his innocence, but it can never articulate the truth behind the caves and echo that caused such a profound psychological and emotional impact on Adela, resulting in her accusation of him.

The Trial thus symbolizes how humans seek to find meaning on two levels: the first as that of tangible facts. But facts do not satisfy and humans still seek meaning on a deeper level, i.e. the Truth, the emotions beyond the facts, or the real meaning of the caves and echo. The Trial represents how ultimately, it is difficult to reach this Truth and reflects instead the failure of language in attempting to articulate the Truth.

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

Abandoning binaries, embracing perspectives

While I was thinking about the divisions between colonists/colonized or West/East, it struck me how humans have this need for easy categorizations. Fanon says “It is the colonist who fabricated… the colonized subject” (2). The image of the colonized is created in opposition to the colonist. “The ruling species is first and foremost the outsider from elsewhere, different from the indigenous population, ‘the others’” (Fanon 5), establishing the difference in race, status, and other attributes between the colonist and the colonized. We are all too familiar with classifying Indians/East as rural, primitive, uncivilized, and superstitious, in comparison to the English/West as cultured, educated and rational. It is precisely such binary modes of thinking that creates a static, stereotyped image, which I think Forster tries not to fall into in A Passage To India.

Godbole is a fine example of a character that doesn’t fall into neat categories. “His whole appearance suggested harmony, as if he had reconciled the products of East and West” (65). If we look at the significant Marabar Caves, it is viewed by the English as a “muddle”, dangerous and disorienting. What the English see as a chaotic muddle, however, the Indians view as a beautiful, spiritual mystery. Just as “good and evil are different, as their names imply… they are both of them aspects of [the] Lord” (167), once again suggesting it is a matter of perspective. I think Forster propounds adopting an unconventional approach to reading the novel and reading people: learning to embrace different perspectives, realizing there is no one truth, just as India can be “a hundred Indias” (13). Only when we are open to other perspectives, will we be able to get a more all-encompassing view of the Truth, or the ‘real’ India.

The Quest for the real India; A Quest for Truth

Both Adela and Mrs Moore seek to experience the “true India” (42), something more exciting and mysterious, but instead, are “disappointed at the dullness of their new life” (21). It is highly apt that Adela’s last name is Quested, as her quest is to see “the real India” (21), something other than elephant rides. For Mrs Moore, her first thought is that India is “a beautiful goal and an easy one. To be one with the universe, so dignified and simple” (71). However, both ladies later realize they cannot grasp the true India ultimately. There are no easy answers, “nothing in India is identifiable” (78), and to seek for Truth is in vain, just as everything said in the caves only amounts to a “boum” sound. I think it is this futility of getting to the Truth or depth that Nietzsche speaks of.

Another example that strikes me vividly is the instance of Adela and Mrs Moore seeing the moon’s reflection in the stream. “The water had drawn it out, so that it had seemed larger than the real moon, and brighter” (21). Adela then asks if Mrs Moore managed to see the (real) moon when she was in the Ganges. Once again, the desire to see something ‘real’ is articulated. However, the reflection of the moon that is larger and brighter than usual is just a diversion from Truth, and even when one is able to view the moon in the sky, it is never the “real” thing, ultimately pointing at the futility of the quest for Truth.

Of embracing fear and the crisis of representation

Embracing Fear

What strikes me about Levine’s “Ruling the Empire” and Gikandi’s “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference” is the fear of natives and their possible influence on the West. Fear of the alleged savagery and lack of civilization of these “lesser peoples” (Levine 105) form part of the basis for the West’s civilizing missions. Even then, fears still exist: that of “contamination” (Levine 107) when colonizers marry colonized women.  This fear is similar to the “anxiety of African influence” (Gikandi 458); the need to play down any direct association between Picasso’s works and tribal objects.  The African is seen as the Other, everything the civilized West is not. To suggest an African influence on the West would then mean a threat to the civilized West and what it stands for. However, where fear becomes a reason to reject the African, Picasso then embraces it, producing his own version of the unmodern, presenting, representing, and re-presenting the African/ African culture’s influence on his art.

Crisis of Representation

The link between modernism and empire, of fear and actions to quell that fear, is exemplified in Levine’s article. When we speak of modernism and form, Picasso’s works playing on the idea of perspective and complicating the meaning of things compels me to recall Auerbach’s discussion of how different peoples’ consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse gives different perceptions of the “real” Mrs Ramsay.

We are thus confronted with a crisis of representation, of having to deal with fear and re-presenting it in a different form.