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.

The Eve to the native’s garden

Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago comes across as a  stuffy how-to manual on the advancing of civilization (his recommendation of Mr. Money’s How to Manage a Colony is probably the closest thing to The Complete Idiot’s Guide on the topic) as well as a feeble defense and justification of Sir James Brooke’s governance and in general, colonization.

Certain aspects of the Dyak natives are commended as though surprised that it is possible of their savage ‘younger brothers’ and usually measured against European superiority. For example, Wallace praises the Dyaks for having high moral character which he later subverts as a point of weakness (‘They are truthful and honest to a remarkable degree. From this cause it is very often impossible to get from them any definite information, or even an opinion,’ (68)) but not before he applies the same forgiving treatment to their custom of head-hunting as a defense for the colonial rulers’ participation in the slave-trade. That the article comes across as ethnocentric is not surprising with Wallace’s constant comparison of the ‘savage nations’ to the ‘civilized countries’, at the same time proposing a program of civilization that calls for the application of a tested system on countries of ‘semi-barbarous people’, resulting in the effectual dehumanizing of the natives in treating them as analogous cases.

Reading this article, I was made conscious of the act of reading itself. Even though the voice of the native other is silenced, Wallace’s article, in all its earnestness, betrays itself, making us aware as modern readers of the colonial mentality from a critical standpoint. I found Wallace’s figuring of Sir James Brooke as a figure of justice and ‘superior being, come down upon earth to confer blessing on the afflicted’ and to ‘bring the dead to life’ (71), to be most contrived, making him come across instead as suffering from some kind of Jesus Christ complex. In line with this god complex, the general tone and argument of Wallace’s article brings to mind a passage from King Solomon’s Mines: “For to my mind, however beautiful a view may be, it requires the presence of man to make it complete, but perhaps that is because I have lived so much in the wilderness, and therefore know the value of civilization, thought to be sure it drives away the game. The Garden of Eden, no doubt, was fair before man was, but I always think it must have been fairer when Eve was walking about it.”

Versions of Truth in Passage to India

If we can suggest a thing such as “the Truth”, then in the eyes of the reader, the “Truth” is that Mrs. Moore did nothing to bail Aziz out of his plight; instead it was Adela who woke up from her stupor and rescued Aziz from a lifetime of reprehension. Yet the fact Aziz never forgives Adela and instead looks to the deceased Mrs. Moore as a figure of recuperation, fondness and “love” only complicates our understanding of what “Truth” really is. While we may be (reductively) inclined to say that Aziz is deluded, I think it is actually more complex than that because his version of the “truth” is not any less valid than our sympathetic reading of it either. After all, his is also the result of how he has chosen to comprehend the turn of events. 

 Using Adela’s words “we must all die; all these personal relations we try to live by are temporary. I used to feel death selected people, it is a notion one gets from novels, […] Now ‘death spares no one’ begins to be real” (249), I would like to posit that Aziz is therefore “writing” his own life story by immortalizing Mrs. Moore – because that is the only way he can construct his version of reality and come to terms with the illogical horrors that happened to him. 

Death had selected Mrs. Moore rather randomly, yet Aziz makes a martyr out of Mrs. Moore exactly because she died. To me, I think this is because putting Mrs Moore on the pedestle is a much easier task than forgiving the living Adela for Aziz. Upon death, Mrs. Moore can no longer speak, so Aziz is free to do whatever he wants to her memory. Without contradictions, Aziz is then able to construct a coherent narrative (like that of a “novel” in Adela’s words) that helps him cope with the unexpected and bizarre accusation that he was faced with out of nowhere. In a way, I could not help but wonder if Mrs. Moore had lived and continued to display her apathy towards all that happened (including Aziz), would he still have elevated her to such a status?

 And I think the implication of this is therefore the impulse that is inherent within Modernism itself too– that, in the end it’s not about what reality is (if we can even access it in the first place) but the stories and versions of truth that we tell that is more important to giving our existence meaning and coherence. This is however not to say that our versions of truths are blatant lies in any way; rather it is the way we have chosen to look at life; and it is need not always exist in line with what really happened from a neutral third party’s point of view (a la the reader in this story). 

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.