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.

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.

Crisis of representation: the model of modernist art and fiction

In “The Brown Stocking” Auerbach elaborates in detail the insignificance of exterior occurrences to interior processes as established in the narrative form of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In the passage Auerbach quotes from the novel, Woolf presents a discrepancy between physical and subjective dimensions – characterizing Mrs Ramsay by a mode of multiplicity (performing various tasks enabling the exterior events without neglecting the more significant inner events represented by her thoughts, Woolf creates synchronic dimensions in a diachronic narrative, a “multipersonal representation of consciousness” that is evident also in the art of the modernist period. Monet’s “Water Garden and Japanese Footbridge”, for example, portrays a similar multiplicity of reality in that the emphasis on light and how it changes our emotions and perceptions is more significant than the external image itself. Rejecting the idea of one fixed reality, a characteristic of modern art is it prompts for an investigation of objective reality by means of subjective impressions received by various individuals and at various times. This multiplicity that characterizes the modernist crisis of representation seems to registers the breakdown of traditional certainties and the attempt to construct alternative meaning and order.

On modernism

In general, the works that emerged out of the period reflect a radical breakaway from traditional methods of representation. There is no longer a fixed center, perspective or meaning to be found, let alone a proper solution or closure to the proposed issues, hence Auerbach’s suggestion that “there is often something confusing…hazy about them, something hostile to the reality which they represent” (p.551, “The Brown Stocking”). From Pablo Picasso to Virginia Woolf, the modernist artists seem intent to demonstrate an inherent sense of disorder and disunity in their works.
I find Gikandi’s interpretation of Picasso’s works and his use of the Black body to be particularly disturbing. ‘Picasso adopted African forms as a way of thinking through the limitations of the forms of representation favoured by the art academy, namely a sense of order, proportionality, and idealization. The African body formed the embodiment of disorder’ (P.462) In other words, underlying the great master’s artistic visions, were seemingly ethnocentric perspectives and a deeply ingrained European mentality that the Africans represent a state of being which was far from being rational or ideal. Their ‘otherness’ was being idenified and valorised in Picasso’s paintings as an antithesis to the Europeans’ understanding of themselves and the idea of civilization. In this sense, modernism operated as an high aesthetic art that continued to silence the African subjects, denying them their personal and authentic voice, and this further solidates their position and function as the ‘Other’ in the eyes of the Europeans.

The difficulty of explaining what the term “modernism” really meant struck me on a discussion with a friend about the subject. Suffice to say that I – fourth year literature major with all my intellectual ideas and pretensions – struggled to present a precise and coherent definition of what modernism ought to be.

It is not until several readings that I begin to suspect that perhaps the essence of modernism (with its many –isms) lies in its sheer complexity (form, perspectives, techniques, modernist attitudes towards subject matter). Erich Auerbach’s reading of To the Lighthouse exemplify the complexities of Virginia Woolf’s novel as he posit that in framing objective reality as an external realm, modernist writers like Woolf strive to plunge beyond the surface meanings to expose the multi-layered nature of and the intricate relationship, between language as a mirror and medium to our understanding of  life. But I may be going a few steps too far as the situation seems to entail a paradox – Woolf goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of objective reality against the fluidity and flux of human consciousness; but rather, her writing shows how our subjectivity in turn shape perception, and reveal the constructedness of reality (as opposed to the realist novels of the nineteenth century whereby the external shapes the inward).

In “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference”, Simon Gilkandi sheds a closer insight into the power relations between the West and the Other, as he exposes the deep hypocrisy by which modernist artists like Picasso (how about Gauguin and his Tahitian paintings?) subsume and objectify the Other into the modernist aesthetics and simultaneously disentangle themselves from the subservient and degraded position of the Other (treating the Other as art object rather than rightful human beings); in so doing, the Other become the aesthetic means to the high modernist ends. In a sense, Pablo Picasso did not paint the Africans out of a complete understanding and empathy with them, but the contrary, he painted them as he saw them and chose to objectify the Africans into his own nihilistic vision of art, politicizing his art against the conventions of western traditional mediums. Perhaps it is how the great painter himself betray the mentality of the white colonialist – in his eagerness to represent modernist art as he saw it, his paintings unwittingly unveil the deep-seated anxieties which mark the problematic power relations between the colonial white man and the Other.

Lee Wenting

Modernism: Truths and Realities

Personally, I think people tend to enjoy residing in their comfort zone, allowing many things around them to go unquestioned. Hence, allowing those with power to take on a paternal-like role in deciding how life is to be led as they represented objectivity and the truth. This is where, I believe, the role and purpose of Modernism – as a movement, serves. That is, to challenge and, if I may put it, to ‘mess around’ with the ‘normal’ perception of how things are and should be.

To put it simply, I think Modernism definitely comes across as confusing and unfathomable to some, with its seemingly incongruous form – forms that illustrates that our thought process is actually illogical and inconsistent in reality whilst our consciousness – arbitrary. This, as Auerbach has discussed, demonstrates how individuals would assign meanings to their surrounding based on their experiences. In other words, a hundred individuals will likely assign a hundred different meanings to a single entity. I feel that this recognition is a salient trait that drives the movement of Modernism, making it distinctive. Paradoxically, the driving force of Modernism is also its bane, as it faces the irreconcilable issue of representing truth and reality. Given that we are all unique in our experiences and thinking, what then is reality and truth?

The British Empire- a problematic construct of self and identity

Whilst I was reading through the article by Levine and trying to see how this is related to the other reading on “The Brown Stocking”, it struck me that one common theme explored is the desire to define and pin down something precise, by a pre-existing structure, or method of ordering. Mrs Ramsey as the figure of the artist in “To the Lighthouse” is someone who brings order to her household and she is adamant that the doors remain shut whilst the windows remain open.  I read this as the desire to be able to gain access to what is outside whilst making sure that nothing from the outside actually comes in to disrupt the pre-existing order. This is in parallel with the British colonizers’ desire to gain access to the colonized whilst making sure that their own cultures(order) remains untainted.

Windows suggest that the one inside is able to view what happens outside but remain separate from it, taking on the subjective position of one in power. This is in line with what the British colonizers do, when they view themselves as the centre of the empire and look upon the colonized, calling them uncivilized savages. However, just as Mrs Ramsey discovers that she cannot stop her children and various members of the household from leaving all the doors open and bringing things in from the outside which contribute to the gradual disarray and disintegration of her household, the colonizers soon find that their attempts to maintain a stable sense of self despite interactions with the natives is futile. The old order falls apart and a new method of ordering is called for.

Modernism and Perception

Both Auerbach and Gikandi” raise the idea of perception, how modernist artists wished to use their works to provide a different (or many differing) perspective on issues (including art) by using unconventional forms and themes. There seems to be a focus on the “Other”, what is “Other” to the standards and values of conventional art and fiction. Thus, it could be understood why modernist writers might turn to the portrayal of “Other” races (i.e. non-white races) as a way of showing a different perspective on issues like colonialism.

However, there is the possibility of the “Other” being reduced to a tool, of being silenced by the artists even as he is represented in their works. As in Heart of Darkness, the “Other” is viewed through the eyes of the narrator or other characters (eg. Marlow), but never given a chance to speak for himself. Thus, it might be possible to argue that to modernist texts, it is not important to show what the “Other” is but how the “Other” is perceived by other characters. The focus is then not on changing the representation of the “Other”, but on changing the perception of perceiving. On that note, given the focus on multiple perspectives in the modernist texts, what then is the role of the author or artist? Does the author’s shaping of the text so it provides multiple perspectives undermine the modernist impulse towards multiple perspectives because it reinforces the perspective of the author, that there should be multiple perspectives?