Note-taking for week 13

In the first presentation, we attempted to define nationalism in general and determine which sort of nationalism it is which Stephen advocates. The presenters defined nationalism as “the assertion by members of a group of autonomy and self-government for the group’s solidarity and brotherhood in the homeland, and of its own history and culture, seeing it as a natural progression which follows colonialism and decolonization”. However, we see in Portrait that things are not as simple as that and the progression is never linear. Going back to the past before colonization is impossible because that heritage cannot be reclaimed, only perhaps as romanticized past. Going forward is what Stephen seems to think as ideal, by using the very tools of colonization like language to reassert one’s individuality and identity. Some critics argue that it is not possible to assert individuality using the language of the colonizers. However, in Homi Bhaba’s “Mimicry”, it is said that English is not owned by anyone and so its usage may be transformed by the colonized writer to write his own freedom into being.

 Initially, Stephen was shown to be colonized and indoctrinated by the coloniser’s values and discourse as he learns by rote and memorises things. This is shown by his quoting from different sources like his school textbooks and religious texts. He also quotes from Aristotle and Aquinas in a way which seems to suggest his lack of understanding according to the presenters and sometimes even quotes wrongly. This shows his discomfort with an imposed sort of learning and culture which erodes his own Irish heritage. However, later he breaks free by playing with the form of language especially in his diary entries in which he finally shifts from the 3rd person to the 1st person which emphasizes his individuality. He makes his own language and his own form of art to express himself and in doing so, expresses Irish identity.

 In the second presentation, the use of symbols and impressions reflects Stephen’s impressions of nationalism and Ireland. The politicians are “intangible phantoms” and patriotic propaganda is reduced to “hollow sounding” “voices”. Surrealism and symbolism makes it obvious that language is vague and ambiguous by nature, and writing in that way self-reflexively draws attention to that fact. By doing so, both the form and content shows imperial ambiguities and ambivalences which supports the assertion of the text being modernist. However, if modernism was supposed to be defined by empiricism (psychology of locke and Hume), then Joyce could be seen as anti-modernist because he destabilizes the notion that we may understand the essence of things and Truth by observation. If observation is unreliable, then the notion of a stable self is also problematized. Thus, modernism which places so much emphasis on the individual’s point of view becomes inadequate. Modernism is too vague to be defined as a single entity and cannot hold it own against realist literature. However, we need not see modernism as simply an offshoot of the enlightenment ideas of scientific positivism (empiricism/ Locke and Hume). There are other ways of defining modernism since it is a broader concept than that thus Joyce can still be a modernist writer even if he contradicts the precursors of modernism as a movement arising from the enlightenment.

Land-bush thing.

I had to transcribe an MOE interview some years ago for some money – times were hard; but that’s another story – and I got stuck on this phrase. The interview sounded slightly muffled thanks to the poor recording quality, and the interviewer was not the most articulate person, but for the most part it was manageable until the interviewer went all lexically-innovative and used this phrase: “land-bush thing”. So after repeating the audio segment for the 60th time, I finally figured out what it was – “language thing” (Don’t even get me started on how such informal phrasing made it into the interview. It was one of the NUS Sociology professors being interviewed what’s more). This sparked off furious conversations the next day with my friends, who were also doing transcriptions, along the lines of “the appalling state of English in Singapore”, “people talk like that how to work in MOE” and “liddat I oso can do interview already”.

Obviously there is some hierarchy of language and register being discussed in our conversations, as Fanon seems to suggest is present with the issue of languages. And certainly Singaporeans have some idea of what good English is like, more often than not tinged with the image of an European seated behind a desk shot at mid-length discussing the probability of rain over the next seven days. But do we take on a culture in speaking another language? I have friends who learn French (they’ll tell you I’m jealous about not understanding it hence I pretend to. Don’t believe them. Je comprend.), but I can tell for sure they aren’t French. And how is it that Fanon does not seem to take into account the power that the colonized can have in adapting the colonizers language? I suppose language and identity will always be debated points, but what Fanon’s article has prompted me to think is that they might be linked, but do not necessarily have to be viewed as reinforcing each other. People don’t become French by travelling to Alliance Francaise twice a week; nor do we become Chinese or Malay or Indian by speaking the respective languages. As for myself, as sure as I sit in my HDB flat, have served NS, and carry my pink IC, I know what I am.

I’m British.

I speak, therefore I am

Fanon’s article examines the inferiority complex of the black man by highlighting the role of expression in the creation of an individual’s identity. By speaking the language of the white man and “[renouncing] his blackness”, the black man believes that he is able to “come closer to being a real human being” (Fanon, p. 18). This reveals the internalization of the racial hierarchy that positions the white man above the black man that results in the loss of the cultural heritage of the native.

It would seem, then, that the problem is this: In the Antilles, as in Brittany, there is a dialect and there is the French language. But this is false, for the Bretons do     not consider themselves inferior to the French people. The Bretons have not been     civilized by the white man. (Fanon, p. 28)

A ‘dialect’ seems to be a substandard means of expression that is associated with the ‘inferior’ native, as compared to a ‘language’. In this case, the native is expected to be less able to converse in the language of the colonizers because he is not sophisticated enough. This recalls Chateerjee’s article on the rule of colonial difference where imperialism and the civilizing mission is justified by the rulers establishing an inherent difference between the rulers and the ruled. Through this Manichean division of white man and native, the white man naturally establishes himself as superior and civilized, and the native as inferior and uncivilized. Fanon posits that this is internalized by both white man and native through the use of language. In speaking to the black man in pidgin-nigger, a language that the white man presumes is suitable for the inferior native, the white man is automatically “classifying [the black man], imprisoning him, primitivizing him, decivilizing him” (Fanon, p. 32). The simplification of language by the white man when speaking to the black man creates and reproduces the myth of white superiority, and the identity of the black man as inferior; this despite the inability to “accept as scientifically proven the theory that the black man is inherently inferior to the white, or that he comes from a different stock” (Fanon, p. 30). The Negro is then reduced to an archetype, “the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (Fanon, p. 35). Drawing again on the rule of colonial difference, the Negro who expresses himself properly threatens the binary division between white man and black man because if language creates identity, speaking like the white man bridges this division.

I then realized that the novels that we have been reading are written by the white man (although they may be outsiders in colonial society), whether they are anti-imperialists or not, and that native expression has been confined or reduced to simple, broken English (no doubt because English is an adopted language for the natives), and I wonder if this perpetuates the inferiority complex of the colonized and the encourages the condescension of the colonizer.

Language and identity as performance

Fanon’s discussion on language and its inherent power structures really got me thinking about how we use language today, and all the things we never think about. It’s a discussion we’ve had in class more than once, about the ‘postcolonial condition’ of speaking, writing and even thinking in the language of our colonisers. What the article really highlighted for me was the way in which language, something performed externally, was really part of the coloniseds internal knowledge structures. To speak in French would be to ‘think in French’, in French ways—in the ways of the coloniser. Yet, no matter how internalised this language of the coloniser becomes for the colonised, the French white man will never see the black French-speaking man as his equal, or even as someone similar to him. In this way, as much as we talk about how identity is performed, it’s too easy to forget that the performance of identity is one that requires ‘audience participation’—without the recognition of the identity one is performing, the performance becomes meaningless. A black man can speak flawless French, and ‘be’ more French than a white Frenchman, but ultimately, his skin colour makes him nothing but a “joke” (25), both to the white and black men.

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.

Caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Irish possessed an interesting position within the British empire. On one hand, they had been annexed by the British and had functioned as part of the empire for some time. On the other, they themselves were colonized by the British. Jackson argues that Ireland represented the problems and struggles of the colonial empire. This crisis of identity is evident in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Stephen Dedalus constantly thinks about the Irish, the Irish identity and their relation to the world. The colours green and maroon are associated with Dante and the Irish resistance leaders, reinforcing Dedalus’ need to reclaim his Irish identity.

While Jackson posits that the complexities of the relationship between the Irish and the British are most evident in the economy, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this complexity is manifested by through the language that Stephen Dedalus chooses to use. Here, we see language as a symbol and by extension, an agent for colonization. Stephen Dedalus wants to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”- he uses his art (language) in order to subvert the hegemony of the British and thus reclaim his Irish identity.

However, I am quite certain that the Irish would not consider their colonial counterparts in the other colonies (India, Africa, South East Asia etc) their equals. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen during the California Gold Rush in the USA, where despite being immigrants themselves, the Irish began resenting the other influx of immigrants (the Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans).

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.

Stephen Dedalus, the Irish Greek: Unity through Art

It seems that one of the most obvious aspect of Portrait is the protagonist’s issue with language. I think it reflects, especially towards the end of the text, the direction that he wants to develop his art. He champions for an Irish autonomy that unites instead of disunites — division that is based on an English vs Irish and/or Catholics vs Protestants rivalry. In other words, Language becomes an important premise in the driving forward of such a desire.

If we look at the scene between Stephen Dedalus and his dean, Stephen recognizes that the language he has been taught all his life is an “acquired speech” (195) and this serves as a reminder of his subservient position as he is being cast in the “shadow” (195) of a heritage that he does not identify with.

True enough, the English language belongs to the English or the Anglo-Saxons and differs from Irish historical heritage – that is, Gaelic. However, at the same time, the Irish language is becoming overly charged and associated negatively with (extreme) Irish nationalism. This deters Stephen from accepting it willingly becomes it disunites Irish people, it is obvious that Stephen adopts Parnell’s vision of unity where the differences of factions are negotiated and reached. I believe this is the reason for Stephen and even Joyce’s inclination towards something different, an art that uses the colonizer’s language (I guess strictly speaking, Ireland can be considered the colony of England) but undermines it by subsuming it within a Pan-European experience. And I guess this explains the framing of this text with Greek imageryand Latin, and not just English.

For one thing, Joyce’s inclination is illustrated by the name of Stephen Dedalus, where both names are of Greek origins. Furthermore, Dedalus is the name of a skillful artist from a Greek myth who designed the labyrinth to keep Minotaur ‘imprisoned’. Perhaps, Stephen, the artist and character is tasked with this task to use his art to keep ‘extremism’ and violence, as symbolised by Minotaur in check.

Ego credo Joyce’s work est simpliciter atrox, bloody atrox.

I tend to become very excited for various reasons when talking about Ireland. For one, they have leprechauns and the fey, we have… Well. We have the Merlion. They have the internationally-acclaimed Riverdance (how Irish it is exactly leaves much to be debated, but for purposes of argumentation, bear with me), we have Riverfest. And as a country not that much larger population-wise (6 million; Wiki) than Singapore, they have contributed great writers in almost every field of English literature: Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and of course our much beloved Joyce, this despite having been colonised (or oppressed, if you will) by the British since the 1600s with the Plantations of Ireland.

Or instead of “despite”, perhaps the operative word used should be closer to “because”? That these great writers wrote in English cannot simply be a coincidence (Beckett did write in French though), and language and communication for the Irish seems to be one of those prominent issues like the GST or ERP are for Singaporeans. I once interviewed an Irish couple for a project on the Merlion:

Me: “Describe the Merlion in one word.”

Husband: (thinks for a second) “Very grand.”

Wife: “ONE word.”

Husband: (laughs) “It’s a problem we Irish have. We speak too much.”

In Joyce’s work then, the use of language becomes not just a means of developing Daedalus’ consciousness, but each and every word used is itself a contest between Irish heritage and English oppression, especially so in light of how English, in becoming the dominant language, has gradually reduced the position of the Irish language. And following the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, when the Irish were forced to live on the least fertile land, Irish as a language came to be recognised as that of the backward and lower-class, while English was the language of the more urban-minded. The discussion of the tundish with the dean is perhaps the best example of this “battle” of the languages.

Isn’t Irish-accented English the sexiest thing around, by the way? (Next to Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-English in Trainspotting)

Art and Religion

Can language truly liberate us from ourselves as social beings? Joyce’s question struck me – ‘What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?’

The former, upon which Joyce’s childhood and world view was brought about,  ‘an absurdity which is logical and coherent’, refers to the structure by which religion is constituted, it is absurd insofar as it is an invisible structure founded upon by our faith and belief in the supernatural, the miracle and a higher divine order that transcends ourselves and our earthly realm. The Bible as the canonical text is essentially ‘logical and coherent’, since it informs us about the values and beliefs of Christianity which is founded upon the teachings of Jesus, moral goodness, the depravity of sins, amongst others.

Yet to ‘embrace one which is illogical and incoherent’ – that is to embrace the atheist life of a modernist writer and to forge a path for himself in an aesthetic experiment which demands that he becomes the creator, basing his art on the experiences of reality and everyday life, while doing away with past burdens and beliefs, seems a terrifying but nonetheless exhilarating experience to me. As much as the world is governed by systems, laws, rules and order, one’s consciousness and feelings often times remain in Joyce’s words, ‘illogical and incoherent’. Even as Stephen goes ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’, I get the sense that Joyce’s semiautobiographical work of art has achieved precisely this aim, in his ability to articulate and pour forth his “stream-of-consciousness” into the ordered world of language and cement his place as one of the greatest modernist writers of the twentieth century.

meaning and comprehension in Portrait

Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I really felt that this was by far the ‘most’ modernist text we’ve encountered in this module.  I found the book quite hard to fully comprehend, but at the same time strangely compelling. The first part of the novel really reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Boy (albeit a very fractured and hard-to-understand version). There is that same sense of a ‘little boy lost’, and the impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style really emphasised that for me. What I found particularly interesting is the way Joyce seems to constantly use language as a way not of communicating (either between characters, or with the reader), but as ‘obstructing’ understanding. Whether it is his thoughts as a young boy first entering boarding school, during that painful Christmas dinner, or in his various journeys as he grows older, Joyce’s modernist style seems to make language a barrier that stands between us and true comprehension. As I was reading, I was constantly reminded of the whole signifier-signified dichotomy, because I could never be sure I was understanding what Joyce wanted to convey, fully or at all. Perhaps in a sense the text is Daedalus’ maze, and we’re to try and find our way out.

Language, and the Growth of the Artist

 “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” can be seen as a sort of Kunstlerroman, the growth of an artist. It, in a way, describes the growth of the artist from a boy to an artist.  However, by “becoming” an artist, Stephen Dedalus abandons the religion and culture that is “native” to Ireland. On the other hand, to remain “Irish” (eg. Catholic) would be to reject the growing into an artist.

I think that language reflects the growth of the artist. The English used in writing the novel gets increasingly more complex as the novel progresses and as Stephen gradually “grows” into an artist, perhaps reflecting his growing ability to express himself. However, English is the language of the colonizer. By using it in the novel, there seems to be assimilation or a submission of his “Irish” identity to that of the colonizer. This is especially so, because as his English gets more complex, arguably, we can also say that he becomes more comfortable with the language of the colonizer, and more assimilated into the discourse of the colonizer.  

However, maybe we can see this in a different way. As Jackson has mentioned, the Irish view of the British is quite paradoxical as many Irish viewed the “Empire was [as] both an agent of liberation and oppression” (123). In that sense then, even while Stephen allows the language of the colonizer to oppress him, maybe, by using the language of the colonizer, he also liberates himself from the stifling confines of the “Irish” identity. I don’t think the novel offers Stephen’s dream of flying past the nets as a good or conclusive solution. However, perhaps we might be able to see this novel as a breaking of the binary between Colonizer and Native. Perhaps the novel is suggesting assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing, though it is also not necessarily ideal. After all, it is by speaking the language of the colonizer that he can redeem Ireland, and “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276).

Women as perpetrators of colonialism

Colonialism has been a much debated topic and for many, the focus has always been centered on how it functioned as a tool of not only European superiority but also, a tool for substaining the European patriarchal society. There were instances in the novel which seemed to uphold patriarchal beliefs such as when it was mentioned in the novel that “the women members of the club had no votes.” This corresponded to  our common belief of male domination and the helplessness of the women who were completely dependent on men for their survivor. Yet, after reading the novel, I felt that it made us looked at the position of  the European women in a different light.

The women in the novel seemed to enforce a system of colonialism of their own. This “system of colonialism” was evident in the way the European women entertained certain beliefs and how they sought to impress them onto the behaviour of the white men around them or in the way they judged the natives. Elizabeth exemplified this in the way she chose to uphold her beliefs about the “white man.”  This can be seen in “she was perfectly certain that that was not how white men ought to behave” and “she was grasping, dimly, that his views were not the views an Englishman should hold.” She also perpetuated this system of colonialism in the way she viewed marriage for it was said in the ending of the book that “her servants live in terror of her, although she speaks no Burmese” and “she fills with complete success the position for which Nature had designed her from the first, that of a burra memsahib.” To me, Elizabeth’s “colonialising” of her servants served as an re-enactment of the colonialism enforced by the European men. Here, it is suggested that the “white woman” functioned as a mirror for the “white man.”    

Contrary to the image of a “strong” woman created for the readers through her hunting trip with Flory, in her desperate attempts to find a husband in Flory and Verell respectively, Elizabeth perpetuated the stereotypical image of women who were completely dependent upon marriage  for their livelihood. This hence contributes to the idea that as much as men relied on colonialism to maintain a sort of pride, women also embraced colonialism to maintain order in their lives. As much as the fact that there were changes being affected, the colonial women were unwilling to adapt to the outcomes which these changes might bring and therefore, perhaps strove to uphold colonialism more than the men did. The novel hence, I felt, brought out another truth which we might have neglected with the knowledge which we were being equipped with to look at colonialism. It made us look at the cupability of women which not many of us would have regarded given the fact that the European women were always portrayed as victims in one way or another.

Of course, the flux in the impressions which readers get of Elizabeth in the novel also points out the flux of language.  The complexity of women as both victims and perpetrators shows that perhaps, there are more “truths” to be discovered and this is only possible through the use of language by other writers such as the Anglo- Indian other than the European himself.

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.

Writing Orwell: Falling into Modern English

I read an essay by Orwell in high school that had a profound impact on the way I view the English language. Written about a decade after “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” is Orwell’s tirade of sorts against “modern english”: a new stage of the language that, to him, was ruining it. He argues that “the tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Citing overused metaphor, pretentious diction and meaningless words and phrases as things that have redirected modern prose, it’s interesting to note that he uses all of them in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Although he does slip in some Latin – in saecula saeculorum, in terrorem – and utilize extremely common descriptions of the Burmese, especially in the opening paragraphs, Orwell’s writing and his later critique on modern prose seem to highlight the crisis of knowledge that stems from Orwell’s situation in Burma. He is on the side of the Burmese in as much as he hates the colonial oppression, and yet he is very firmly one of these oppressors in how the Burmese react to him and his consequent dislike of them. In other words, having concrete prose would detract from this feeling of internal conflict: how clear can one’s conscience be as an ambivalent colonial authority?

In characterizing, Orwell’s “modern English” goes great lengths to highlight the Modernist problem of knowledge, foregoing clarity of prose to emphasize the lack of clarity in the mind.

“You don’t think yourself a – a – cur?”

In Lord Jim, words do not contain singular meanings and its plurality results in the confusion over meaning. The word “cur” means different things to different characters, depending on various contexts, and this results in misunderstandings that arise between characters. The innocent remark made by Marlow’s companion in relation to the yellow dog, “Look at that wretched cur” (Conrad, 58), is misunderstood by Jim. He comprehends it as a personal verbal attack, assuming wrongly that he is being criticized by both Marlow and his companion: “I won’t let any man call me names outside this court” (Conrad, 59). This disjuncture between the companion’s intended meaning and Jim’s perceived meaning results in hostility on Jim’s part towards the initial meeting between Marlow and himself. Since Marlow does not share Jim’s understanding of the remark, he is unable to understand the initial hostility shown by Jim. Later, Jim uses the same word twice – that he took offense at – on himself when he questions his decision to abandon ship, “you don’t think yourself a – a – cur?” (Conrad, 66. And again in the next chapter, Chapter 8).

Another example in the novel of the plurality of meaning in language is seen in the begging of water by a passenger. Jim admits his incredulity at the meaning of the word: “Water, water! What water did he mean?” (Conrad, 73). Jim does not share the passenger’s context and this leads to his mistake in comprehending the word. Jim’s focus on the immediate potential danger that the sea poses results in the confusion of meaning, and he realises only later that “[the passenger] wanted some water – water to drink” (Conrad, 73). Language is vague in the novel and Conrad does not offer clarity.

Conrad rejects the presentation of a simple, singular meaning in his novel to portray a reality that is complex and multi-faceted. This plurality of meaning in language compliments the ambiguous nature of his novel that seeks to pose more questions that to answer them. I also think that much can be said about the metaphor of the sea and its various meanings that is contained in Lord Jim.