Language as a Labyrinth

Stephen Dedalus declares that, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning” (269).

And he sees himself as Dedalus/Icarus – the master builder who has the power to create. In fact, at the very end of the book, he refers to Dedalus to stand by him (“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”). Thus, we can see Stephen’s aim as the desire to create a new form where he can express freely, and wholly his opinions, unfettered by past English traditions. Yet he forgets that Dedalus was trapped in the Labyrinth that he created himself! Language becomes a type of labyrinth for Stephen, in which he becomes trapped. In expressing his own ambitions, Stephen falls back on the language forms which he wants to escape from. In fact, the name Dedalus refers back to Greek mythology, which is the foundation of English literature. It is as though Stephen’s identity is forever entrenched in the English culture/consciousness.

Joyce’s ambivalent and open ending can be seen in both the negative and positive light. The negative reading is that Joyce himself cannot escape the labyrinth of language and thus gives up the attempt altogether. The positive reading is of course that we are never sure what new forms of discourse/art Stephen manages to create and he might eventually be successful in expressing himself wholly and unfettered.

Note taking: Week 11, Woolf “Growing”

Topic of Class
This week’s class discussion centred around Leonard Woolf’s “Growing”. The presentations touched on the autobiography form and how memory functions, as well as the sense of displacement the colonist experiences. During the question and answer session, the idea of the displaced colonist arose again. More specifically, the class discussed how Woolf, as a Jew is an outsider in the British society. His position as a colonist therefore is unique because he is simultaneously within and without the colonial society. This position causes him to be more sympathetic towards the colonized, yet he is unable to escape the expectations put upon a colonist. Like Woolf, Conrad share the same position of being inside and outside the colonial rule as well. Conrad’s parents were leaders of the anti-Soviet (anti-colonist) rule in Poland, yet when they moved to England, Conrad inevitably becomes complicit in Britain’s empire-making processes.
Another issue that was raised during the class discussion was on the justification of violence. We referred back to Fanon’s idea that violence is inevitable for lasting changes. Somehow argued that violence can be justified if there is a ‘worthy’ cause, yet the class recognized that the idea of a ‘worthy’ cause is really subjective. Ultimately, violence as a means to liberation will always be pitted against the option of a gradual progression towards liberation. I personally believe that where we position ourselves in this dichotomy is really dependent our social status. Violence will typically destroy the possessions of the privileged, while the under-privilege has little or nothing to lose, thus the privileged would avoid violence as a means to liberation.
Example(s)
I think the film “Chocolat” provides examples to clarify the two points raised in the discussion. Firstly, France shares the same position as Woolf and Conrad – being both within and without the colonial rule. She grows up in Cameroon and is familiar enough with its roads to travel on foot/public transport when she returns to the country yet she is mocked by the black stranger for trying to “go native”. In this way, she is forever marked by her white-ness. As a young girl, she seems to share a greater affinity with her black servant, Protee, and is relatively distant from her French parents. Yet, she is mocked by other black children when she hurries Protee to get back home. The episode demonstrates how she can never be part of the native community and how she can never fully bridge the gap between Protee (the servant) and herself (the master).
While the movie does not discuss the justification of violence, but there is a sense of impending doom in the film. The atmosphere in the film seem to suggest undercurrents of antagonism. This is felt most in the scene where the children follow behind France on her donkey, chanting and imitating her earlier commands to Protee. In the scene when the natives rush towards the house, leading the passengers of the stranded plane, it almost seems as if they are rushing at the white men in a riot. The scene also gives a sense of the potential violence that may break out any time.
Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks
The presentation also touched on the how Woolf is aware of his role as a performer, and how this performance does not bring him closer to the understanding of his environment. The performativity of the autobiographer relates back to the idea of how colonist power is really performed. This week’s discussion helped add another dimension to earlier discussions of performativity by highlighting that narrative/writing can be performative too. In other words, in writing, the writers are actively performing the role they see themselves as playing – either as a reluctant colonist, a superior race etc etc.
Finally, the idea of the colonist who is both within and without the system links back to the idea of the reluctant colonist. Both colonist characters are in contradictory positions where they have to perform the functions of the colonist yet they seem to sympathize with the natives or simply are against the colonial enterprise.

Topic of Class

This week’s class discussion centred around Leonard Woolf’s “Growing”. The presentations touched on the autobiography form and how memory functions, as well as the sense of displacement the colonist experiences. During the question and answer session, the idea of the displaced colonist arose again. More specifically, the class discussed how Woolf, as a Jew is an outsider in the British society. His position as a colonist therefore is unique because he is simultaneously within and without the colonial society. This position causes him to be more sympathetic towards the colonized, yet he is unable to escape the expectations put upon a colonist. Like Woolf, Conrad share the same position of being inside and outside the colonial rule as well. Conrad’s parents were leaders of the anti-Soviet (anti-colonist) rule in Poland, yet when they moved to England, Conrad inevitably becomes complicit in Britain’s empire-making processes.

Another issue that was raised during the class discussion was on the justification of violence. We referred back to Fanon’s idea that violence is inevitable for lasting changes. Somehow argued that violence can be justified if there is a ‘worthy’ cause, yet the class recognized that the idea of a ‘worthy’ cause is really subjective. Ultimately, violence as a means to liberation will always be pitted against the option of a gradual progression towards liberation. I personally believe that where we position ourselves in this dichotomy is really dependent our social status. Violence will typically destroy the possessions of the privileged, while the under-privilege has little or nothing to lose, thus the privileged would avoid violence as a means to liberation.

Example(s)

I think the film “Chocolat” provides examples to clarify the two points raised in the discussion. Firstly, France shares the same position as Woolf and Conrad – being both within and without the colonial rule. She grows up in Cameroon and is familiar enough with its roads to travel on foot/public transport when she returns to the country yet she is mocked by the black stranger for trying to “go native”. In this way, she is forever marked by her white-ness. As a young girl, she seems to share a greater affinity with her black servant, Protee, and is relatively distant from her French parents. Yet, she is mocked by other black children when she hurries Protee to get back home. The episode demonstrates how she can never be part of the native community and how she can never fully bridge the gap between Protee (the servant) and herself (the master).

While the movie does not discuss the justification of violence, but there is a sense of impending doom in the film. The atmosphere in the film seem to suggest undercurrents of antagonism. This is felt most in the scene where the children follow behind France on her donkey, chanting and imitating her earlier commands to Protee. In the scene when the natives rush towards the house, leading the passengers of the stranded plane, it almost seems as if they are rushing at the white men in a riot. The scene also gives a sense of the potential violence that may break out any time.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

The presentation also touched on the how Woolf is aware of his role as a performer, and how this performance does not bring him closer to the understanding of his environment. The performativity of the autobiographer relates back to the idea of how colonist power is really performed. This week’s discussion helped add another dimension to earlier discussions of performativity by highlighting that narrative/writing can be performative too. In other words, in writing, the writers are actively performing the role they see themselves as playing – either as a reluctant colonist, a superior race etc etc.

Finally, the idea of the colonist who is both within and without the system links back to the idea of the reluctant colonist. Both colonist characters are in contradictory positions where they have to perform the functions of the colonist yet they seem to sympathize with the natives or simply are against the colonial enterprise.

Orwell a true anti-imperialist?

Most critics see “Burmese Days” as Orwell’s reaction against the atrocities he witnessed in Burma and thus are quick to categorize “Burmese Days” as an anti-imperialist text. While the anti-imperialist elements in the text are obvious – Flory’s discourses on the ills of imperialism etc, Orwell seemed to have failed in dissociating himself completely from imperialist discourse. This is especially so in his portrayal of natives. The novel does not have a single fully respectable native character. U Po Kyin is a scheming native, Dr V. is a imperialist parrot, mindlessly extolling the values of imperialism. Even Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife who initially seemed like a potential check against the greediness of her husband was eventually enticed by the idea of gaining club membership. As for the Nationalist movement in Burma, Orwell seemed to be belittling its work altogether. In “Burmese Days”, the final rebellion is less of a nationalist movement, and more of a revenge against Ellis. Thus, it seemed odd that in an anti-imperialist text, native characters are portrayed as poorly as they are in earlier pro-imeperialist text.

I think the discrepancy really points to how Orwell is unable to disentangle himself from earlier discourses. While he removes himself from the ideals of imperialism, he has yet to find a new discourse that can effectively represent his new ideas. Specifically, Orwell has not found a new discourse the natives. Indeed, this is the most positive way to see Orwell, the anti-imperialist. If it is not a problem of representation, then Orwell falls back into the category of writers/thinkers who are anti-imperialist but racist. My own position probably falls in the middle of these two extremes. I think that Orwell has not sufficiently considered the position of the natives and is primarily concerned with the white man’s position in the colonized land. Therefore, he is unable to find a new discourse to talk about the natives. Yet, his lack of consideration for the native position is essentially a self-centred (white, male self) and therefore a racist attitude.

Rule of colonial difference backfires!

In Chatterjee’s article, we are introduced to the concept of the “rule of colonial difference-of representing the “other” as inferior and radically different, and hence incorrigibly inferior” (33). In the article, we understand this concept via its application by the colonizer to the colonized. In other words, the Englishman employs the rhetoric of colonial difference to benefit himself.

However, in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”, we see how the rhetoric of the rule of colonial difference has backfired on the colonizer. In “Shooting”, we see how the narrator is pressured to act against his own will only because he tries to avoid looking the fool in front of natives. He sees himself as different from the natives because he possesses arms and perhaps superior rationalizing skills, therefore able to take control of the situation. However, his possession of the rifle and supposedly higher intellect are the very things that pressure him into acting against his will. The narrator sees how the natives were all expecting him to shoot the elephant because he called for the rifle. The possession of rationality, higher morality and legal knowledge pressures the narrator to resolve the issue ‘properly’. Therefore, he was relieved that the Indian coolie had died, justifying his killing of the elephant – be it in moral or legal terms.

Thus, claiming the rule of colonial difference may not often be beneficial, even if you are differentiated to be the ‘superior’ race!

Dyaks and Peacocks

Wallace describes the Dyaks as people of higher morality, intelligence compared to the other Malayan races. He assumes a moral and intellectual high ground by putting himself in the position of a judge. He sees himself and the white man is superior and capable of judging and ranking other races. Yet, while he takes the moral high ground, he fails to realize his own hypocrisy. He equates the Dyak’s participation in head-hunting as something “which no more implies a bad moral character than did the custom of the slave-trade a hundred years ago imply a general morality in all who participated in it” (68). Here, he excused all (in the west) who participated in the slave trade, absolving them of any individual fault. Yet, Wallace condemns the Malay traders for oppressing the Dyaks through slavery (71). Wallace’s own moral judgement is prejudiced, revealing his hypocrisy.

It seems to be that despite the praises that Wallace plies on the Dyaks, he does not really regard them as fellow men. They perhaps comes closest to being a human being, but still closer to a savage. Perhaps, to Wallace, the Dyak and the various Malayan races to him are no more than a specimen of birds/insects etc which he so assiduously collects information on. Just like how he praises the peacock to the most superior of all birds, the Dyaks in this case becomes the most superior of its specimen (the Malayan races). I do not think it is far fetched to argue that Wallace see the Dyaks and the various Malayan races as ‘specimens’. In his description of his journey out of Buitenzorg, he writes, “I had coolies to carry my baggage and a horse for myself, both to be changed after every six or seven miles.” In a single line, he puts coolies and horses in the same category. Animals, coolies, birds and Dyaks all belong to one same category of inferior beings to Wallace!

Doubly removed from natives

In both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Lord Jim’, Conrad employs the framed narrative to describe the colonists’ experience in the colony. The character, Marlow reappears in ‘Lord Jim’ and this time he describes Lord Jim, much like how he describes Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness.

Many studies are concerned with Conrad’s use of framed narrative and how it creates a sense of distance between the author and Marlow; between the reader and Marlow and also Kurtz. The reader’s perspective of Marlow is always limited by the narrator. And his perspective of Kurtz is further limited by Marlow’s narration.

What is often not emphasized is that the reader’s perspective on the natives is always limited by the narrator’s, Marlow’s and possibly even Kurtz’s perspective. In Conrad’s novel, the emphasis is often on the white man’s experience (perspective) of the native and never on the natives themselves. Achebe’s reading of Conrad seems to fit in here (that Conrad is a thorough racist). While we can never be sure if Conrad’s description of natives are part of his modernist tendencies, but what is quite clear is that Conrad does not seem very interested in the natives. In his evaluation, the experience of the white man is put above the experience of the natives. To me, this is a subtle yet powerful form of racism.

Achebe’s standard of great art

“The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in this world. And the question is whether a novel that celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. ” (Achebe 344)

In “An Image of Africa”, Achebe reacts very strongly against what he perceives as Conrad’s racism. However, his chief concern is not with a single person’s xenophobia but an entire civilization’s xenophobia. The question of what should be considered “a great work of art” is not merely a question of aesthetics but a question of politics. In fact, Achebe does not doubt Conrad’s artistic talent – he commends Conrad for writing one of the most memorable passages in English literature. Yet, he insists that by categorizing Conrad’s work as a great work of art is to be complicit in his racism. By categorizing “The Heart of Darkness” as a landmark piece in English literature is to stand by the Conrad’s racist outlooks. And to Achebe, it is proof of an entire civilization’s racism.

For Achebe, an artwork is not merely measured by its aesthetics but also by the type of values it promotes, subtly or otherwise. Achebe’s standard of great art highlights one of the central problems of modernism. Modernism wishes to celebrate art for art’s sake. Yet, very often art cannot be divorced from its own political/social implications.

Perhaps, the modernist’s aspirations can only be fulfilled when his art is kept within the safety of Europe. Once the work is exposed to the colonized world, the modernist will be forced to examine the political/social/economic implications of his work. He must then answer the questions of Achebe and the likes on what can truly be considered “great art”.

Fanon and the process of decolonization

Fanon argues that the colonists’ basis for colonizing foreign lands is the belief in the native’s ‘ “negation of values “. Because of the native’s lack of values, the colonist deems his own action reasonable and altruistic. It also gives him the right to continue to lord over the ‘immoral’ colonized. Such a line of reasoning also implies the colonist’s ‘divine right’ to rule over the colonized.  As the colonists becomes increasingly absorbed and bought over by this line of thinking, the barbaric nature of colonization is lost upon them.

But the natives are not spared from adopting this line of thinking themselves. The ultimate solution to achieving peace in the colony is to convince the natives that they are unable to run their countries themselves, and they would return to the Middle Ages once the colonists leave. Thus, Fanon insists that violence is at the core of de-colonization. Violence is perhaps the only way to break the belief that the colonized is inherently inferior to the colonist.

Unlike Fanon, I do not think that violence must take the form of colonized against colonist. Britain’s de-colonization in South East Asia can be a case in point. For Singapore’s case, violence against the colonist was not the key that brought about de-colonization. Instead, it was the violence of WWII inflicted upon Britain that convinced them to leave. The war torn Britain could no longer sustain their colonist position economically. Furthermore, her defeat to Japan in SEA demystified its superior colonist image.

Thus, while Fanon’s argument on the process of de-colonization is useful but it cannot be applied generically to all colonies.