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.

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.



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.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 7) – Part I

Topic of Class

The presentation today was mainly concerned with the overarching theme of narrative (both the oral and written tradition) and how these narratives help shape the construction of identities in Lord Jim. The presenters explored the use of frame narratives, missing narratives and misappropriated narratives in order to highlight both the inadequacies and strengths of such an act of storytelling.

One of the biggest inadequacies was the way that the failure of language highlights the instability and subjectivity of narratives, particularly the oral ones. Because there is a sense that many oral stories are told can be altered according to the way audience response. (Said: “…a storyteller has the power to shape his material to match his audience’s response)

But the group also suggested that this was also a strength for the oral tradition, because it involves many more people than a writing process would, which in Said’s words, is essentially a “work of solitude”. The valorization arises from the fact that oral traditions are rooted in the idea of the Gemeinschaft (community) which places value on the plural and fluid multiplicity of perspectives. Hence, by putting these various perspectives together, Conrad not only manages to highlight the fact that having a singular coherent narrative is impossible, highly artificial and unconvincing, he also manages to effectively highlight the narrative gaps in the story, suggesting that indeed there are many multiple ways of approaching and understanding a part of the “Truth”, as opposed to one hard and fast method of doing so.

The group also discusses however the fact that oral narratives necessarily beg the complicity of the reader/listener. This is because in listening to the story, not only are the listeners made to become “keepers of Marlow’s story”, their participation in reproducing the story also therefore means that they have an ethical responsibility towards the text and future readers/listeners as well.

The group then explored the idea that the written tradition provides a foil to the unofficial oral tradition, in that a written narrative which is considered “official” is often left unquestioned as a unified objective understanding of the “Truth”. Through various explorations of underlying assumptions, the presenters hence pointed out to us the need to question the singularity of writing exercise and the way it blanks out and obliterates multiplicity. They suggest that the function of written narratives is not to provide plurality or a chorus of voices, rather, they are there to define, archive, remember and also confine. i.e. in trapping Jim in a static text, one can then look at him with retrospective glamour or nostalgia. However, there’s also the increasing awareness that the act of writing is also an act of appropriating, selecting and mediating, so that at any one point you can never really retrieve the essence of the moment anymore – i.e. “No live-entering”. Worse, the power of writing diminishes when one realizes that the final outcome is fixed and immutable and that ultimately, language sets you further away from the truth than it brings you closer.

Lastly, the presenters considered how the construction of Jim’s identity is done via the mediums of other characters like Marlow, Brierly, Brown and even Tam’Itamb. Also, even Jim’s construction of his ownself is highly problematic. He will not and has not forgotten the fact that he jumped ship but he lives in this narrative and fictionalised reality so that he can re-write the guilt and the past. So the juxtaposition of these narratives raises the increasing awareness that Jim’s glorified narratives are constantly undercut by his past narrative upon the Patna. As a result, Jim is always in a personal tug-of-war with himself. So, there is a sense that the Jim we know is the collection of various perspectives we have retrieved so far. Yet in our pretended belief that we are getting closer to who Jim is, there is also an increasing sense of estrangement from his character. This is especially so if we consider the open ending – an ellipsis. Here, the audience/readers can take away whatever they want from the ending and therefore construct Jim for the way they assumed him to be. Seeing how this is subjective, then can one then ever really know his character?


EG. Official written as unquestionable? Wallace’s reading was considered one of “best scientific travel books”. While you believe him because of the empirical evidence methodology that he utilises and because of his authority as an established biologist, there is a sense that as he describes what he observes, he ends up prescribing our constructed imagination of the dyaks, chinese and malay respectively. As a result, a strong racism is embedded in the narratives passed on as truth!

E.G. Ethical complicity: the man on the verandah “He paused again to wait for an encouraging remark, perhaps, but nobody spoke; only the host, as if reluctantly performing a duty, murmerd – “ You are so subtle, Marlow’” (Conrad, 256) So, the man on the verandah becomes complicit in listening and responding to the story that the narrator. Then, “He existed for me, and after all it only through me that he exists for you. I’ve led him out by the hand and I have paraded him before you” (Conrad 172) As a result, as listeners to this tale, we also implicitly become “keepers of Marlow’s story”

E.G. Writing as defining; as archiving; as remembering and as confining. “Wallace associates a Charaxes kadenii butterfly with a moment in time when a boy brought it to him. “ “And Stein similarly felt a huge sense of happiness in capturing his butterfly”(Conrad 161). Here, while being able to capture the immense overwhelming force and internalising it as fulfilling, the inherent fallacy then becomes evident when you realise that everything is still selected and mediated, and that it’s not just merely collection.

E.G.: Construction of Identity through others: Brierly saw himself in Jim and in a sense because he recognised his own ability to be cowardly and guilty, it’s as if all his attempts to stay together in one piece and to be honorable and ideal previously were pointless and futile. Hence he commits suicide (Wake 92-3) Brown as Doppelgaenger: “And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience, a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like the bond of their minds and hearts” (Conrad 296) Tamb’itam echoes Jim’s thoughts: “’It is not safe for thy servant to go out amongst the people,’ said Tamb’itam…It was not safe for his servant to go out amongst his own people!” (312)

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

The questioning of the reliability of narratives whether oral or written is not a new topic. We have done with Heart of Darkness and to a certain extent we even questioned the gaps of narrative in Passage to India when we no longer heard the narratives of Mrs. Moore, Adela and Aziz (at different points in the book). Today’s discussion really opened up this debate and extensively highlighted both the successes and failures of reading/writing. However, there is also the fact that because we are aware of the shortcomings, therefore there is the possibility that we are not disempowered by this lack of total knowledge; rather, we are empowered in the sense that we have access to a plurality of perspectives that puts us in a better position to understand and approach the heart of the matter. That being said, this is also nevertheless undercut by the fact that every subsequent story we tell will never allow use full access to the past already. (Think: No live-entering argument) So perhaps our sense of empowerment as a reader also depends highly on how aware we are of our shortcomings, assumptions and responsibilities as readers to a text.

The Eve to the native’s garden

Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago comes across as a  stuffy how-to manual on the advancing of civilization (his recommendation of Mr. Money’s How to Manage a Colony is probably the closest thing to The Complete Idiot’s Guide on the topic) as well as a feeble defense and justification of Sir James Brooke’s governance and in general, colonization.

Certain aspects of the Dyak natives are commended as though surprised that it is possible of their savage ‘younger brothers’ and usually measured against European superiority. For example, Wallace praises the Dyaks for having high moral character which he later subverts as a point of weakness (‘They are truthful and honest to a remarkable degree. From this cause it is very often impossible to get from them any definite information, or even an opinion,’ (68)) but not before he applies the same forgiving treatment to their custom of head-hunting as a defense for the colonial rulers’ participation in the slave-trade. That the article comes across as ethnocentric is not surprising with Wallace’s constant comparison of the ‘savage nations’ to the ‘civilized countries’, at the same time proposing a program of civilization that calls for the application of a tested system on countries of ‘semi-barbarous people’, resulting in the effectual dehumanizing of the natives in treating them as analogous cases.

Reading this article, I was made conscious of the act of reading itself. Even though the voice of the native other is silenced, Wallace’s article, in all its earnestness, betrays itself, making us aware as modern readers of the colonial mentality from a critical standpoint. I found Wallace’s figuring of Sir James Brooke as a figure of justice and ‘superior being, come down upon earth to confer blessing on the afflicted’ and to ‘bring the dead to life’ (71), to be most contrived, making him come across instead as suffering from some kind of Jesus Christ complex. In line with this god complex, the general tone and argument of Wallace’s article brings to mind a passage from King Solomon’s Mines: “For to my mind, however beautiful a view may be, it requires the presence of man to make it complete, but perhaps that is because I have lived so much in the wilderness, and therefore know the value of civilization, thought to be sure it drives away the game. The Garden of Eden, no doubt, was fair before man was, but I always think it must have been fairer when Eve was walking about it.”

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”.

Savage Culture: Wallace’s Dyaks and Modern Sarawak

It was interesting reading about Wallace’s view of Sarawak’s indigenous people in light of the trip I made to Kuching some months ago. Although I’m not entirely sure exactly which tribe Wallace is talking about (my guess would be the Bidayuh “Land Dayaks”) he portrays them as honest, simple people with great potential. He laments that they are cheated by the Malay and Chinese traders and is impressed with their social advancement and pleasant companionship. The faults he puts upon the “Dyaks” are that the men are idle while the women are allowed to slave like “beast[s] of burthen,” and concludes that the European example could be beneficial and not make the Dyaks “demoralized and finally exterminated, by contact with European civilization.”

Interestingly enough, Sarawak appears to have done just that: although it still embraces its natural heritage above all else, the White Rajah is shown to be a good part of their history. At the end of this past May, the Sarawak Museum in Kuching had an exhibit on the general history of Sarawak. There was an entire gallery dedicated to the White Rajahs and their lives, painting a positive picture of colonial rule that served to help the people of Sarawak.

Included in this are the indigenous people of Sarawak; contrary to Wallace’s attempted hierarchy of the people of the area, Sarawak appears to embrace all aspects of its heritage equally, including the colonial rulers.

At least from my own observations, Wallace’s optimism seems to have come true to a certain extent: European influence may have been a beneficial force on the people of Sarawak. They certainly seem to hold the same opinion of Sir James Brooke as Wallace.

The Dyaks and Sir James Brooke

While the Wallace travel narrative does read like what a travel narrative is supposed to be, it is imbued with a moralistic tone. He seems to describe the Dyaks through European lenses and measuring their morality (if any) by European standards. While he does try to subvert common descriptions of the Dyaks at that time, by measuring them through European lenses, his description of the Dyaks and their morality is counterproductive.

Moreover, while he bestows morality on the Dyaks, a quality that makes them human, he does not relinquish the notion that they are still savages. This is obvious in the section where he says that “these people have passed beyond that first stage of savage life in which the struggle for existence absorbs the whole faculties, and in which every thought and idea is connected with war or hunting, or the provision for their immediate necessities. These amusements indicate a capability for civilization.” (Wallace, 68) Thus, despite the fact that the Dyaks are morally superior to the Malays in Borneo, compared to the civilized Europeans, they are still savages and bestowing morality on them is only a matter of principle.

Further, the way in which Wallace describes the Dyaks almost seems like he is overcompensating for something. He repeats how “truthful” and “honest” they are numerous  times throughout his text. But it becomes clear throughout the end of the Borneo section why he seems to be overcompensating. By describing how morally superior the Dyaks are, despite being savages, Wallace is simply trying to emphasize how Sir James Brooke managed to “civilize” these savages. This reminds me of Achebe’s discussion of Heart of Darkness and how some considered the natives, and to a larger extent Africa, to be merely a backdrop to the unfolding of the degeneration European mind. Here, the presence of the natives seem to serve a similar purpose, to glorify the civilizing power of Sir Brooke. It seems as though the only reason Wallace ascribes all these moralistic qualities to the Dyaks simply to exalt the power of the European mind to “civilize” the savage.

Even though it is problematic to constantly compare the natives by European standards, it would have been quite difficult at that time to describe the natives without referring to Europeans as a sort of a benchmark. I think that perhaps it would be acceptable to compare the natives with the Europeans, however, it is not necessary to see Europeans as the superior counterpart (in terms of morality, physical features etc) simply by virtue of their race. It is also important to discard notions of binaries between the natives and Europeans but instead acknowledge that perhaps there isn’t much difference between these two races.

Possibility of friendship?

Conrad was influenced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s article on the Dyaks while writing Lord Jim, thus when reading Wallace’s article, I could not help noticing parallels between the figure of Sir James Brooke and that of Lord Jim. Wallace justifies the imperial presence in Sarawak by valorizing the deeds of Sir James Brooke.

“Sir James Brooke found the Dyaks oppressed and ground down by the most   cruel tyranny. They were cheated by the Malay traders and robbed by the Malay chiefs…From the time Sir James obtained possession of the country, all this was stopped.” (Wallace, p.71)

Brooke is portrayed as the heroic figure in Sarawak, whose intervention brings justice and peace to the natives. Like Brooke, Jim is similarly portrayed as the heroic figure who brings peace to Patusan. The white man’s deeds are valorized in both texts and this serves to justify imperial presence by positing the white man as a superior being who comes to save the native.

Although Conrad shows Jim’s integration into the Patusan community, by valorizing his deeds, Jim is set apart from his adopted community. This brings the question of the possibility of friendship between the white man and the native. In A Passage to India, the cultural differences between the white man and the native figure overcome any possibility of friendship. However in Lord Jim, Jim does have a close friendship with Dain Waris and even finds a lover in Jewel. While Jim achieves what Fielding failed to in his connection with the natives, it is note worthy that Dain Waris and Jewel are described as having European influences. Dain Waris “knew how to fight like a white man … he had also a European mind” and Jewel is the daughter of a Dutch-Malay woman. This again highlights the divisions between the white man and the native, since the possibility of friendship only arises when the native figure is not completely seen as the ‘other’.

The Unnatural nature of Naturalised arguments in Wallace

Maybe I owe it to my class in Psychoanalysis but when I was reading the Alfred Russel Wallace reading, I could not help but be quite disturbed about how Wallace, with much ease, naturalised his arguments for the “primitivity” of the Dyaks. Naturalisation here means that he is attributing many reasons for the condition of the people to their biology and seeing how you cannot debunk biological evidence, the arguments he has set up for himself are therefore infallible.

To me, this naturalisation of argument goes beyond the simple positing of the White man as the “higher” race (70) and the Dyaks as the other-ed, categorisable object of anthromorphological observation. More insidiously, it’s the way Wallace suggests, that the reason why the Dyaks are not procreating fast enough is because the women are subjected to “hard labour” and “heavy weights [that] they constantly carry”, that such work “limits her progeny” (70). He attributes the reason of the Dyaks’ lack of “prosperity” (because of the lack of offspring) to the fact that dyak women are not confined to the domestic space. This is not only ethnocentric in my point of view – considering that Wallace is definitely comparing the Dyak culture to the late Victorian English code of femininity here, but also highly problematic because more than anything else, I think this observed evidence of the Dyak women will help the English justify the way they have restricted the female to the domestic space at home.

Also, if we take note of the fact that he is asserting, without justification, that “an increase in population” is indicative of “increased happiness” (75), we can then observe the problems with this assumption: because it not only destabilises all of Wallace’s arguments about why the womenfolk should stay at home, but  what is more disturbing to me is the fact that Wallace manages to get away with simply reducing the reasons for needing to put a woman “in the household”, where she would have “duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field”, to the naturalised and unverified conclusion that her hard work is inhibiting her fertility.

Hence, on these two levels – i.e. the unverified conclusions that increased population = increased happiness (I’m thinking about the post-war baby boom here); and that working in the field = inhibited fertility, I found the Wallace reading highly disturbing and unconvincing. Granted, I probably should consider the fact that this was written in 1890, but still.

Conrad for Soft Imperialism?

“I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.”

While reading Alfred’s Russel Wallace’s “Borneo –The Dyaks”, there were moments when i couldn’t help sniggering to myself. While his writing was most earnest, I guess for modern readers like us…it’s just difficult not to notice how distant and ironic reality can be, from an individual’s perspective. While I do not disagree that Sir James Brooke had acquired much merit with the laws and changes imposed under his reign over Sarawak, for instance, the protection he rendered to the natives and the abolishment of slavery, I believe that Wallace’s faith in this white ‘Rajah’ as a heroic and noble figure reaffirms the British ideal of masculinity and how this evidently translates into the desired character of how the ‘Colonizer’ should be.

Having aided the Sultan in the Bidayuh Uprising, Sir James Brooke later coveted the power by threatening the Sultan himself with military force. During his reign, his pockets grew fat and both the natives and English back home reverenced him. It is undeniable that he took possession over a land that was never his to begin with, imposed his own laws and customs and reaped tremendous wealth and fame in the process, just as other colonizers did. Except that he deviated from the normal exploitative and inhumane models. Therefore, if Conrad’s Lord Jim was devised from James Brooke, then it seems likely that Conrad is indeed, racist and believes that the natives belong to a race that needs to be regulated and salvaged by the white man’s laws and customs. This then, validates SOFT IMPERIALISM?