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.

You can’t be anything but colonized

Of interest to me in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is a particular scene where Dedalus holds a conversation with Davin. Dedalus refuses to learn Irish (219), and is criticized for that. Davin implies that by refusing to accept the Irish language, he is somehow not “Irish” (219). At the same time, Davin also suggests that if Dedalus had stuck to supporting English, he would not be criticized either. Davin says, “One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against Irish informers” (219). It’s almost as if Davin is insisting Dedalus should choose a side, and be either pro-English or pro-Irish. I think Dedalus implies that by forcing him to choose reinforces the binary of colonizer and colonized as he insists of flying by those nets of “nationality, language, religion” (220).

What this highlights is I think something Fanon talks about in “The Negro and Language”, that the mindsets of the colonized has become entrapped in the discourse of the colonizer such that the colonized can only envision himself in respect to the colonizer. To be pro-English means to accept being colonized, to be pro-Irish appears equivalent to being anti-English, which is to reject being colonized. Either way, it appears that Davin can only see himself as an Irish in respect to the British. Whether by accepting colonization or rejecting colonization, he can only see himself as colonized. This becomes restricting as there is then no identity outside that of being colonized.

Portrait and Identity Construction

As i read Portrait, the scene that was most intriguing was the Christmas dinner. When you thinks about Christmas dinner, you’d think that it would be a heartwarming, happy affair where people get together, feel thankful, bask in the christmas spirit and maybe enjoy some turkey and ham. But Stephen’s Christmas has got to be the most uncomfortable event ever. Dante gets in a row with Stephen’s dad and Mr Casey as she defends the Catholic Church’s role in destroying Parnell while the two men attack this institutionalized religion and its long-standing opposition to Irish republicanism. 

But Stephen recalled that in the past, Dante was a Parnell supporter as she “hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God Save the Queen at the end” (37). So she is essentially anti-British but not anti-Catholic. But what perplexes me is how the two cannot be separated as the Church often supports and echoes the British position. I think if anything, this instance shows how institutionalized religion is so influential and how it is a net that inhibits the Irish to find their own unique identity. Thus Stephen finds it necessary to “fly by those nets” and the only way that he sees this happening is to exile himself. 

What is interesting for me as a modern reader is how Joyce feels that the Irish identity is fettered by British colonialism and his solution is to escape. But it just doesn’t seem possible (to me) to escape this colonial past. Shouldn’t this be an integral part of constructing identity? By embracing this post-colonial/diasporic condition? I mean, if his name, Stephen Daedalus is a borrowing of Greek Myth and Catholic tradition (St. Stephen), then why not accept the fact of British colonialism and its effects (whether bad or good) on his identity construction? Another issue that troubles me is how he intends to write about Ireland if he is in exile? One could claim that he would have better perspective but this distancing could also make him lose touch with reality.

Woolf’s “Growing”

“… the cafe waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously ‘acting the part’. If there is bad faith here, it is that he is trying to identify himself completely with the role of waiter, to pretend that this particular role determines his every action and attitude. Whereas the truth is that he has chosen to take on the job, and is free to give it up at any time. He is not essentially a waiter, for no man is essentially anything.” – Sartre on “bad faith”

With Sartre’s quote we may try to apprehend the moral crisis of identity which often faces the figure of the reluctant colonist – be it Woolf or Orwell – in his uncomfortable feelings towards imperialism and empire. In Growing I feel that Woolf paints his autobiographical character with greater depth and conviction, for if Orwell’s Flory’s interests and contemplations are often self-serving, Woolf incorporates both the psychological interior and exterior dilemmas of the reluctant colonist in his theatrical personae, the public mask and façade of the surroundings, as well as the dilemma of being the colonial administrator which entails making difficult decisions affecting the native people in various operational duties.

Woolf likens his initial experience in Ceylon as a kind of ‘second birth’ and I feel the need to link this second trauma of alienation and estrangement, of being brought into an entirely new world, to explain why the colonizer acts as he must as the enforcer of imperialism. He has to validate his existence in an alien world and justify his righteous power over the people. Coupled with Woolf’s moralistic ideals and his altruism, such tensions doubtlessly surface in his self-reasoning: ‘to them I was part of the white man’s machine, which they did not understand. I stood to them in the relation of God to his victims: I was issuing from on high orders to their village which seemed arbitrary and resulted in the shooting of their cows. I drove away in dejection, for I have no more desire to be God than one of his victims’.

The way in which Woolf depicts his orientalist attitudes towards native life and culture, together with his humanist philosophy towards animals, nature and even Buddhism, are at odds with the façade of his public personae as the  harsh and no-nonsense colonial administrator. But like Orwell, Woolf is at least faithful to a genuine depiction of colonial experience through the lens of a former colonist. One cannot begin to attack a system until one has had real experience of being in it, as is the case for imperialism and the complicity of the reluctant colonizer.

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.

Women and Empire

Stoler seems to highlight exactly how tenuous and precarious are the women’s relationships with the patriarchal colonial empire, ‘because of their ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierarchies and as agents of empire in their own right’ (41). As much as the men and perhaps even more so, white women in the outskirts of empire have to articulate their femininities via the constructed roles created for them by colonialism, most often through the choice (or lack thereof) of men they pick in marriage, in order to command the status, riches and respect as the “burra memsahib”.

 Stoler’s reading becomes interesting in her suggestion that European women are crucial to the reinforcement of colonial boundaries and imperial hierarchies through ‘bolstering a failing empire and to maintaining the daily rituals of racialized rule’ (56). In Burmese Days this becomes particularly relevant because the caricature of the burra memsahib in Elizabeth typifies such a woman. Strict racial lines are drawn as she rejects Flory’s attempts to show her native life in Burma, by turning her nose in disgust at the festive show, the Chinese merchant shop and even refusing to step into the headman’s house. It seems peculiar that Orwell inverses the sexual power relationship between Flory and Elizabeth whose relationship was doomed from the start because Flory was never the sahib that he ought to behave as, while Elizabeth represented too much of the idealized English woman he could never possess. Elizabeth’s final rejection of Flory because of her hatred for his ‘dishonorable’ and ‘unforgivable’ birthmark also takes on racial and symbolic overtones as Flory is deemed to transgress racial frontiers when his liaison with Ma Hla May was brought to light.

Redeeming the colonial wife

Originally, when I first read Burmese Days, I found Elizabeth quite an appalling character. The way Orwell portrays her as flitting from man to man in search of a husband, regardless of how she feels towards the person in question romantically, seems to illustrate a very negative image of a materialistic woman who uses men to advance her own standing. After reading Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” however, I find myself wanting to redeem Elizabeth.

 

As Stoler points out, European women were “to be almost as closely policed as colonized men” (60), and they were confined to colonial spaces as “custodians of family welfare and respectability and dedicated and willing subordinates to and supporters of men” (61). This can be seen in Elizabeth’s story. As a professional woman, a teacher in Paris, she is subjected to poverty and sexual harassment from her employer. As a single woman entering the colonies, she is immediately subjected to pressures to get married. For example, her uncle and aunt, in their first letter to her, immediately pointed out the many unmarried men present in the colonies who would appreciate her company. Furthermore, as a single woman in the colonies she is subjected to sexual harassment by her uncle, and her only way of escaping that is to marry someone else. In short, reflecting Stoler’s argument, Elizabeth is driven towards marriage (being a wife and mother) by the social pressures on her (her aunt and uncle’s pressuring of her to find a husband), and the impossibility of a single woman gaining any wealth or respect on her own (as the multiple attacks on her modesty and her poverty in Paris illustrates). Thus, in that sense, we might be able to claim that Elizabeth turns out to be the materialistic person that she is because the confinement of women to the colonial spaces of motherhood and marriage drives her to it.

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.

Women and Colonialism

In this post, I would like to discuss the portrayal of women in Burmese Days. Admittedly, I am only about half way through the novel, so my discussion will be limited to what I know of the novel up to that point. Up till now, there have been four prominent women in the novel: Mrs Lackersteen, Ma Hla May, Ma Kin and Elizabeth. Significantly, according to their racial category, the women fall into two broad categories: white women who wish to elevate themselves to a superior position, and natives who want to elevate themselves by riding on the white man’s prestige.

 

For example, Mrs Lackersteen laments the lack of “authority over the natives nowadays… In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home” (29) while Elizabeth imagines “barefooted white-turbaned boys reverently salaaming” (96) her in India. Both European women seem to strive to reaffirm the artificial neat boundaries between races that Ann Stoler points out is part of the colonial ideology.

 

The text seems to disapprove of Elizabeth’s strict fixing of the racial lines by pointing out how much of her desire to distinguish the Europeans from the natives stems from an innate desire to live like a rich person, to be superior to somebody. However, even as the text comments on the neat and unfair categories, it also reaffirms them with the portrayal of the hypersexual women like Ma Hla May who only wishes to use her sexuality to gain wealth from her white lover.  

 

For example, Ma Hla May complains that Flory never gives her any “presents of gold bangles, ad silk longyis” (53) anymore and discusses how a lack of this display of the wealth he gives her would make her “ashamed before the other women” (53). Ma Kin, while seemingly moralistic and reprimands her husband for his evil deeds, stops viewing her husband’s plans with disapproval as when he tells her how his evil plans could get them into the European Club, he had “planted a grain of ambition in ma Kin’s gentle heart” (144). Thus, even the gentle and moral Ma Kin is susceptible to greed, thus reaffirming the colonial stereotype of native women.    

 

That the women from both races affirm and stick to their culture’s ideologies and ideas, I think, further reinforces the idea of women as the bearers of a culture’s ideology, just as Marlow’s aunt in Heart of Darkness was.

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.

Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 

 

In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.

 

Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

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”.

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.

Reading colonialists and their texts

What I found most interesting about the Wallace reading was not so much Wallace’s portrayals of the natives, but the way in which he presented his “observation[s]”. His writing in the chapter affects a sort of scientific, ‘factual’tone , with his cross-comparisons of Britain and Sarawak, and the way he sets forth clear causalities for many of the Dyaks’ attributes. To me, this pointed to a clear agenda within the text, despite the fact that Wallace says his are more casual, personal observations. The fact that he frequently drew straight comparisons between Britain and Sarawak intrigued me, because it seemed almost forced—not just defining the self as ‘not-Other’, but, more, defining the Other as definitively not-Self. Perhaps this was a manifestation of subconscious (or unconscious) ‘white guilt’? I doubt Wallace was overly plagued by a sense of white guilt, as his interest was more of a ‘biological’ nature, but still, I think the impulse to constantly remind the reader how unlike Britain Sarawak was does point to a neglected recognition of the moral grey-ness of colonialism.

On the other hand, I suppose we could also see Wallace’s constant references back and forth to be nothing more insidious as a reflection of the extent to which we approach new things (people, texts, etc) with preconceived notions. Which led me to think about how we read Conrad and other colonial writings—the stance of a ‘postcolonial’ reader has always troubled me, because of the (seemingly) inherent bias we have against the colonialists. Achebe’s article on Heart of Darkness is one good example of this. Yet, in that way, aren’t we reading the colonialists in the same, framed and restricted way that they ‘read’ the natives they encountered? I’m not sure how else we can read these texts—it seems hard to come up with a convincing reading sympathetic to the colonialists, and I’m not positing that we should (or I’m not sure whether I am or not). It’s kind of a scary thought, to me at least, that as much as we like to vilify the colonialists for their greedy condescending, we as readers seem to be reading from a position not much different from that of the colonialists ‘back in the day’.

Binaries and the Breaking of Binaries in “Lord Jim”

Colonialism seems to tend to draw a binary between the good, moral white man and the evil, immoral native. The adventure tradition, upon which Lord Jim draws strongly, tends to espouse this view. Some of the stereotypes for example, include the righteous white hero, the “noble savage”, the evil, scheming native villain. In light of that, I think it is striking that there are a multiplicity of races and nationalities in Lord Jim. For example, there is the French Lieutenant, the British Jim, and the Australian trader among others (not to mention the natives in Patusan, the pilgrims on the Patna, the Malays on the Patna). On the surface, this seems to disrupt the binary presented by colonialism. After all, there is no longer a clear, distinct circle of “whites” and “natives”. Instead, the “whites” are fragmented into different nationalities, different individuals, with different ideas on morality, for example, while the “natives” are fragmented into the group ruled by Doramin, the group ruled by Sherif Ali and the group ruled of Tunku Allang.

 

However, I think this is problematic, as even as the binaries are broken up into multiple groups, certain stereotypes still remain. For example, the white men all express multiple views on issues such as morality and Jim’s actions, while the natives don’t seem to exhibit the same level of intellectual discourse. Doramin seems mainly concerned with establishing his son as ruler of his land through Jim’s help, while Tunku Allang seems only concerned with establishing his own power base. In fact, even though there are a variety of white men with different personalities, the natives seem to fall quite neatly into stereotypical images of the native, such as Tunku Allang, who seems to be the cowardly but violent native. In that sense, even as Conrad disrupts the stereotypes of the “white man”, he seems to reinforce the stereotype of the “native”.

On an Errand of Faith: Portrayal of the Pilgrims on the Patna

In the spirit of Ramadan, I thought I’d have a look at the passage in which the Muslim pilgrims board the Patna, headed for Mecca. One of the concerns of Lord Jim is the “one of us” attitude that Marlow takes when relating Jim’s story. Apart from the practical uses in making a connection with the reader by situating himself and his “hero” Jim on the same side as the reader, this attitude also highlights the presence of the colonial mindset present in the context of Marlow’s tale.

When the 800 pilgrims board the Patna, the captain remarks, “Look at dese cattle” (11). Although one might think of the sea of white-linen-clad pilgrims moving in unison as reminiscent of cattle, the actual description Conrad gives appears to give the pilgrims some sense of purpose (in other words, a sense of humanity, distinguishing them from the skipper’s “cattle”).  That is not to say that he does not posit them as inferior: they “stream” on board from their jungles and campongs, covered in dust, sweat, grime and rags (11). However, the pilgrims’ strong “faith and hope of paradise” makes them relatable, understandable and harmless.

The way in which the pilgrims board the ship, filling it up like water, and are said to have come from all walks of life (from “their prosperity, their poverty”) captures them not as a savage people or as an isolated other. These Muslims are captured instead as an indifferent “them” with the allowances of humanity that are allowed of “us.”

Marlow’s account (technically, Jim’s account) of the “human cargo” of the Patna proved a refreshing change (improvement?) from some of the previous “others” we have come across in our readings.

Maintaining colonial superiority

I really enjoyed reading Achebe’s article because when I was reading Heart of Darkness, I found Conrad’s racism so unnerving. But of course, in his defense, he was writing at a time where such racism was considered normal by Western standards, in fact encouraged.

I found Achebe’s discussion on how the representation of the native Africans, the other, as an antithesis to the civilized Westerners especially interesting. The whole notion of projecting Western anxieties onto a foreign other seems rather blatant in Heart of Darkness especially as Achebe’s article points out, in the contrast between the Amazon woman, who is simply described as “savage and superb” (Achebe, 785) and not given a voice,  and the European woman who had the “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering” (Achebe, 786). It is significant that Conrad chose those exact words to describe the European woman because it represents civility which the African, according to Conrad, seems to lack.

However, the desire to paint the Africans as barbaric stems from the Western anxiety of maintaining superiority. The fact that if Africans were to be “trained”, they would be able to behave perfectly as civilized Europeans simply show that when it comes down to it, there is not really much difference between the “savages” and the Westerners. This troubles the Westerners as they are no longer able to maintain this notion of superiority and in effect the rationale for colonialism, “the civilizing mission”. As such, Conrad is complicit in maintaining the colonial enterprise by perpetuating the barbaric native image.

The instance whereby Conrad perpetuates this barbaric native image is especially apparent in Conrad’s reducing African speech simply to “indistinguishable grunts” and when he does provide speech to the natives, it is only to prove their own barbaric nature. Thus, by taking away the native’s ability for speech, Conrad is not only taking away the civilizing quality of the Africans but also what makes them human. As such, Conrad is guilty in perpetuating the stereotype of the barbaric African but going a step even further by refusing them even their humanity.

In Opposite Corners: Colonist vs Colonized in Fanon and Forster

In the beginning of Fanon’s chapter “On Violence,” he states that:

…[t]he colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.

The entire idea of “fabricating” the colonized subject made me think of Said’s Orientalism, and the tendency of the colonist to make the colonized appear simultaneously exotic and uncivilized. Said argues that the colonist projects their “dark” side onto the colonized–attributing cruelty, stupidity, laziness, lack of hygeine etc to the “hysterical masses”–while exemplifying themselves as the polar opposite of the colonized. As Fanon puts it, “to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.”

Nonetheless, Fanon appears to be writing from this Eurocentric standpoint, positing the colonial world as a “compartmentalized” and ordered world and the decolonization process as a process of violence caused by years of envy and anger on part of the colonized people. His description of the “native” sector as disreputable, famished, and prostate suggests that his sympathies lie with the colonists.

In addition to using Said’s binaristic language to describe the colonist and colonized, Fanon makes an interesting decision in acknowledging the colonist as the foreigner, but still labeling the colonized, “the others,” emphasizing that the indigenous population is marginalized, and therefore inferior to to the colonists.

With regards to Forster’s Passage, Fanon’s illustration of the relationship between the colonist and the colonized, specifically the “colonized intellectual,” and his definitions of the “foreign” and “native” sectors facilitate insight into the interactions between and the opinions held by the “foreign” and “native” characters in the text.

Is the concept of Racism a new thing?

As we talked about racism/racist opinions of the colonials masters in the Gikandi reading, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I recognised the racism immediately the way the colonial masters did not.  When I was reading Passage to India, I found several similar moments again in the text when I felt that the British racism is beyond acute; and yet disturbingly enough, the British (once again) manages to naturalize the racism – as if it’s only natural that the Indians are lesser beings because they weren’t white. Such moments include, “ Most of the inhabitants of India do not mind how India is governed. Nor are the lower animals of England concerned about England” (Forster, 104) and “when an Indian goes bad, he goes not only very bad, but very queer” (158) when Fielding is trying to argue for Aziz’s innocence and McBryde suggests Indians have no sensibilities to hide evidence even when they’re guilty of the crime.

 

All these things made me wonder subsequently, if our concept of ‘racism’ and the values we attach to ‘racism’ – i.e. that it is not a desirable thing, is really a result of post-colonialism; in that, I’m wondering if indeed it’s because we have come a long way from treating the subaltern as sub-human to a point where we see the need to see them as equals that we have become so aware of the racism inherent in such texts. It certainly cannot be that the British recognized their own racism in the colonial times but chose to ignore it. Rather, I believe that the concept of racism, and by extension – the ability to recognize racism, is possibly therefore still a rather new thing – one that is borne out of a changed consciousness in modernity.

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?