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.

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.

My Literary Bildungsroman

When I read Portrait for the first time in another class (I was year 2 then), I remember that the thing which stuck with me most was the idea of Stephen being stuck in an impasse because in as much as he wanted to “fly by those nets” (220) cast upon him by his national inheritance, there is a simultaneous inability to break through those nets because it was always the acceptance of the Irish themselves of their subjugated positions that make this “flying” literally impossible.

Now, when I’m reading it again, I realize I understand the nuances of this impasse a lot better. Having learnt what modernist art attempts to do by challenging traditional modes of representation (is any form of realist representation real in the first place?) and what post-colonial politics are involved with every writing process ( especially when the writer/artist figure has been previously colonised), I realize that Stephen’s impasse involves many more layers of subjugation than those of his literal circumstances. Because it’s not the just the double binds that Stephen finds himself in: being an artist, no one understands his art and he is thereby an exile; but by following the crowd, he is essentially contributing to Ireland’s continual subjugation because “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (220), it is also the inability to find a language outside of which that he has inherited. This is because English is a language that is not of his own heritage but is also ironically the only one through which he knows how to express himself, hence this mode of artistic representation will forever be self-ironizing no matter how he tries to fly by those nets.

Yet, I think having understood much of what modernist texts try to do with art and representation, the saving grace of Portrait is the idea that perhaps the art is in using the inherited foreign language that is English to convey the subjugated psyches of the Irish. This is very much like what Chinua Achebe talked about in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, where the redemption that an African writer can do for his art is to appropriate the use of English for his art because English is part of his history/heritage and to accept that is to move a step forward in better self-representation. So the importance isn’t in denying the self of the use of English but to appropriate it with one own’s cultural contexts such that English becomes merely the mode of Art through which one’s cultural disposition can be expressed. And in Portrait, the constant self-ironizing, I believe is therefore the way Stephen understands and represents the Irish condition that is in and of itself very ironic in the first place.

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.

Orwell: ‘to make political writing into an art’

 ‘What I most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art’, as Orwell declares, and it is not hard to see why it is the case even in Shooting an Elephant. I was initially taken by Orwell’s plain prose style and the way he strives to render an objective account of what he sees, but in the midst of researching, pondering and trying to deconstruct his essay, what I discovered instead is the sheer richness and density of his words, as with how a simple sentence in itself might convey a multiplicity of meanings.

This is essentially the challenge that modernist writers pose towards the readers, by unsettling us with their richness of experience and taking us out of the comfort zones of which we are accustomed to. While Orwell points to the performative role of the colonizer who is trapped by the expectations of the natives and the rigors of the colonial system, he is nonetheless writing from the detached role of the modernist artist who is constantly self-checking the figurative first person through the use of rhetoric, irony and sarcasm.  

It is thus useful to comment briefly on the title of the essay itself, the verb ‘shooting’ conveys a sense of action, and it is around this bourgeois colonial action demanded of Orwell that his dilemma is centred, and modernism’s commitment to the totality of depicting reality thus allows the interiority of Orwell’s dilemma to come to light, as well as to signal the possibility of alternatives in our choice between freedom and unfreedom.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Lord Jim and Modernism

I’ve always had a kind of sketchy view on what “high Modernism” really means, but in reading Conrad’s Jim, I think I might be starting to understand the shift to Modernist aesthetics. What struck me most was the fact that Conrad seeks not only to debunk the idea of glorifying and romanticising sea stories, but also works to undermine the very essence of “heroism”. Modernism (to me) rejects the idea of a SIMPLE truth, and explores whether this “truth”/Truth can ever be knowable through not only action, but language as well.

In Jim, “facts” (25) are described as “something else besides, something invisible…” (25). Not only is truth made invisible to those who seek it, but Conrad personifies the seeking mind as “a creature” (26). This makes me think that Modernists do not DENY the existence of Truth, but that they define it as something fluid (maybe even alive like the case of the Marabar Caves) and ultimately undefinable. We actually see hints of this in 19th Century poetry by the likes of Keats and Shelley- Shelley’s poem, “To A Skylark” is an (self-proclaimed) attempt to pin down and define that which is ultimately undefinable.

Thus, Modernists believe that Truth is so elusive and difficult to conceive because it is something that is alive, and possibly constantly changing, and therefore always remaining out of reach. For Conrad, he portrays the inadequacy of the human mind to conceive the notion of “heroism” by exaggerating Jim’s ideas of it, of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line…” (7). High-flown notions are thus easily recognisable and exist to expose the artificiality of “questing for truth”, yet we are left with the question of: if what we know is false, where is truth?

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

On Passage, Fielding and modernism

The tendency to read Forster’s novel in political lens, in the legacy of the colonial history that determines our ‘post’ existence today, is an inherent and unavoidable complicity on our part. Yet to read Passage outwardly from the start in the binaristic terms of “East versus West” or “Black versus White” is to miss the subtle nuances, complexities and intricacies of the novel, for while modernism at one level does not outwardly criticize colonialism, Forster’s novel nonetheless put forth a means to understanding the multiple relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, and in turn provides the platform for the questioning of attitudes towards the self-righteous hegemony of Empire.

Fielding’s problematic relationship with his colonized other Dr. Aziz in a sense emblematizes the Forster’s troubling attitude towards Empire, as in throwing his lot with the Indians and in turn becoming an outcast from the white members of the Club, he is able to empathize with his Other. Yet empathy is about as far as Fielding could push his relationship with the Other, since the colonial mentality is so deeply embedded within each party that both Fielding and Dr. Aziz needed to see one another as enemies at the very end in spite of their personal friendship. The role of Fielding in the densely psychological novel may thus be seen as a mirror of Forster’s unconscious – his superior position as the empowered colonist, which does not dismiss the feelings of complicity, guilt and empathy towards the colonized.

The nationalistic outcries by the end serve to show how modernism acts as the gateway to further postcolonial sentiments by providing that necessary rupturing of consciousness and highlighting the now shaky foundations on which Empire is build (“upon sand”), with hints of further violence to come.

Truth sets the native free, or does it?

I will look at a quote from Fanon’s article: “Truth is what protects the “natives” and undoes the foreigners” (14). This problematizes modernism as a form of decolonialization because it rejects naming absolute Truth, perhaps not so much because there isn’t any but because they feel humans lack the means of communicating it. For example, the caves always echo back “boun”, no matter what you say, which I think, illustrates the inadequacies of language.   


So, if “Truth” is what sets the native free, by refusing to bring the “Truth” to light, does Forster continue to keep the colonized “penned in”? For example, by refusing to reveal the truth about Adela’s attack, Forster makes Adela’s naming of Aziz as her attacker an ambivalent gesture. If she named Aziz as her attacker because she was assaulted by an Indian, and in the darkness had mistaken the Indian for Aziz, it reinforces the colonial mentality of the “absolute evil” of the colonized. If Adela had not been attacked, her naming of an Indian as an attacker could then be read as the colonial impulse to label the natives as “absolute evil”, as she had projected a shapeless, terrifying situation into the form of an Indian. However, I think that it is arguable that instead of penning in the native, the refusal to reveal the Truth might give readers the room to form their opinions on what happened, and thus force them to review their reasons for choosing to take a particular perspective.

Modernism and Anti-colonialism


What struck me in the novel is how modernism in theory (multiple perspectives and lack of an objective “Truth) seems quite compatible with anti-colonial sentiments. For example, even at the end of the novel, it is still unclear exactly what happened to Adela in the caves. As the episode was seen from Aziz’s point of view, the reader only knows that Aziz did not do it which only illustrates the “truth” as what it is “not” as opposed to what it “is”.


The lack of clarity on exactly what happened makes every opinion invalid, because they are simply speculation. In fact, I think what becomes important through this episode is not what really happened to Adela but how the multiple perspectives illustrate the underlying distrust the Indians and British have for each other. However, in order to continue to present a voice for the “Other”, there must be an “Other” to begin with. Through claims like “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour… in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend” (263), Forster clearly defines Indians as inherently different to the British. Moreover, he seems to focus on the “primitive” nature of India, like in his description of the “incredible antiquity of these hills” (115), how “India is really far older” (115), which defines it as “Other” to relatively modern Britian. Even though this is not necessarily a negative portrayal, nonetheless, his text still positions India as primitive and exotic, incomprehensible even to sympathetic British characters like Fielding.

The Quest for the real India; A Quest for Truth

Both Adela and Mrs Moore seek to experience the “true India” (42), something more exciting and mysterious, but instead, are “disappointed at the dullness of their new life” (21). It is highly apt that Adela’s last name is Quested, as her quest is to see “the real India” (21), something other than elephant rides. For Mrs Moore, her first thought is that India is “a beautiful goal and an easy one. To be one with the universe, so dignified and simple” (71). However, both ladies later realize they cannot grasp the true India ultimately. There are no easy answers, “nothing in India is identifiable” (78), and to seek for Truth is in vain, just as everything said in the caves only amounts to a “boum” sound. I think it is this futility of getting to the Truth or depth that Nietzsche speaks of.

Another example that strikes me vividly is the instance of Adela and Mrs Moore seeing the moon’s reflection in the stream. “The water had drawn it out, so that it had seemed larger than the real moon, and brighter” (21). Adela then asks if Mrs Moore managed to see the (real) moon when she was in the Ganges. Once again, the desire to see something ‘real’ is articulated. However, the reflection of the moon that is larger and brighter than usual is just a diversion from Truth, and even when one is able to view the moon in the sky, it is never the “real” thing, ultimately pointing at the futility of the quest for Truth.

On modernism

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

Suttee as Modernism

Levine gives a brief history of the British in India, but makes little mention of the locals and their exertions. Therefore when Levine mentions the local Indian reformers Ram Mohan Roy, and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (72), I am inclined to pay special attention to them, particularly Roy and his mission to outlaw suttee.

I would like to think of these Indian reformers as some form of modernists. Roy’s reform organization, the Brahmo Samaj, noticed that the traditional practice of suttee was outdated, if not redundant. They published a tract condemning suttee in both Bengali and English in 1818 that included “journalistic and literary accounts of women’s hideous screams of agony”, which, in my opinion, was a rather guerilla-like tactic to get the British’s attention. By publishing something that would generally be taboo to talk about at that point in time, it would serve to shock its audience, and therefore provoke new thoughts regarding the practice. This is similar to the way that advocates of modernism worked. This certainly proved to be a success, as suttee was eventually made illegal.

The repeal of suttee represents the dilemma of modernism. By outlawing suttee, one is effectively rejecting custom and creating a new alternative for the wives of the deceased. On the other hand, it also has the effect of reinforcing tradition, as Levine writes that the law “advertised the practice more widely, and also made it seem an act subversive of British rule”.