On Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks

As I was reading Fanon’s article, what instantly sprang to mind was Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectics. The black man has internalized what Chateerjee terms as the ‘rule of colonial difference’ and understands his own position in relation to white man and his authority and superiority. I agree with what Fanon has pointed out about the nature of language– the fact that in taking on a language, one is necessarily interpellated within a certain symbolic order, the community and even its culture, no matter how foreign a tongue it may be. However, I think Fanon posits more than one possibilities when it comes to the consequence of a Black man who attempts to assimilate into the French culture and language. He did recognize that acquiring the French tongue can ‘open doors’ for the native if he is able to use it as a tool. Knowing the language and using it to his advantages certainly allow him to be aware of his own conditions. What dejects Fanon perhaps, is the idea of a Black man who renounces his own origins, tongue and culture in order to take on the identity and culture of the French, wishing to be associated with the assumed qualities that come with the ‘whiteness’. This is a sign of self-denial, indicating that the Black man acknowledges at heart, that being civilized and being cultured means being (acting) like a white man.

Tundish? – English or Irish?

– That? – said Stephen. – is that called a funnel? is it not a tundish? –
– What is a tundish? –
– That. The…funnel. –
– Is that called a tundish in Ireland? – asked the dean. – I never heard the word in my life. –

This was really one of those ‘moments’ that struck me when I read Portrait of the Artist for the first time some years ago. It just seems so ironic that the dean, who is an Englishman, ‘a countryman of Ben Jonson’, needs to be taught by Stephen on what the English word ‘tundish’ is about, or that it actually is an English word to begin with. In spite of his brilliant grasp of the English language, Stephen also suggests how the borrowed language makes even the most familiar things seem distant and foreign when he says, ‘How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot read or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words…’
The idea of an ‘acquired speech’ is really what hits home, i supposed. In spite of its foreignness, the underlying self-referencing that this borrowed language belongs ultimately to the English conqueror, imposed upon the subjugated Irish, the English language is however, central to Stephen’s own artistic quest. As he acknowledges towards the end of the novel, the only way for him to utilize this condition is to shape the English language into a medium for him to convey and express the conditions of the subjugated Irish race.

On Leonard Woolf’s autobiography

I must say I really quite enjoy this piece of autobiographical work by Leonard Woolf. However, the reason why I thoroughly enjoy the work is mainly attributed to the fact that it read like a work of fiction/travel literature more than anything else, a work of memoirs that had been dramatized and enhanced through whimsical and even hyperbolic expressions. This really raises the concern of slippages between fact and fiction, though. If the work is meant to be autobiographical, the contents would more or less be seen as factual events that had transpired in the author’s life, how then do we draw the line when it comes to interpreting the truth behind the elegantly composed and fictionalized aspect of the work? Woolf draws much amusement when he compares certain real life personalities to Jane Austen’s characters and at one point even suggested that ‘people in rotten novels are astonishingly like life’, further blurring the boundaries between reality and representation, and almost evoking the idea that there isn’t one to really begin with in the first place.
However, certain statements in the writing are reminiscent of ideas underscored by Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Burmese Days -the performativity aspect of identity. Woof also points out that the Anglo-indians and imperialists were essentially ‘displaced persons’ and that they all ‘pretended to be tougher, more British, more homesick….’, etc. And if we take into consideration that Woolf himself, having similarly undergone the pressure of an imperialist just as Orwell did, there is certainly a similar tract in their portrayal of the psychological stress that the white, imperial figure finds himself being entrapped within.

English Club and performation of the ‘white’ identity

Throughout the novel, Orwell frequently uses the symbol of the English Club as a locus of actions where the perfomation of identity as a pukka sahib is most ostensible and the English men and women in Burma constantly reinforce each other’s ‘whiteness’ and superiority over the Burmese. It is important to note that in spite of the violent mob carried out by the natives in their anger over Ellis’ abuse of the school boys, the English Club emerges from the crisis shaken, but with all its essential principles and racism intact. There continues to be objections to electing a native representative to the club and the desperation to preserve the club as an all-white domain remains strong. In addition, not only did the English men not blame Ellis for the outbreak of the upheaval, they fault the natives for the disorder throughout the entire process. The English club is not only a recognized institution of power by the white men, but by the locals as well. Dr. Veraswami associates the membership with eternal protection and superiority, satisfied to be an ‘adjunct’ to the white man. U Po Kyin also recognises this and plans to grab this privilege for himself by eliminating Dr. Veraswami altogether.
The English Club is perhaps, also a center of survelliance whereby the Anglo-indians must confront each other and ensure that their superiority as the white race would not be compromised by any unbecoming beahviour by any of the members. For instance, Flory is constantly being rebuked for his ties with Veraswami and in front of the members, he hardly dares to speak up for his true beliefs and express the disdain for the imperial ideology, and is constantly torn between his private and social identity.

race, image and power

What really intrigued me when i read Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant, is the depiction of an inversed power struggle. So often we come across texts in the module that emphasize on the oppressive nature of colonization and the silenced position of the natives, but Orwell is able to present a different aspect of this power struggle by enabling a glimpse into the white man’s own dilemma. As the character in the story laments, “For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him…every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
Colonial enterprise and the civilising mission had been established on the grounds that the natives belonged to an inferior race and were in need of the laws, grace and values of the white men. Race was therefore associated with power and ability and this essential difference separating the colonizer and the colonized provided a justification for the imperialist ideology and colonial rule over the ‘weaker’ race. Therefore, in order to facilitate the colonial enterprise, the colonizer would naturally have to constantly project and assert control and power over the colonized subjects. Orwell’s character highlights this obsession with control and power that links the idea of race with power. Even the white man whose very own heart is against the cruelty and hypocripsy of the empire finds his own face growing to ‘fit’ the ‘mask’, his will subject to maintaining the image of superiority associated with his race, and he feels compelled to do so not just for the sake of asserting his position among the “natives”, but also among his own people.

Conrad for Soft Imperialism?

“I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.”

While reading Alfred’s Russel Wallace’s “Borneo –The Dyaks”, there were moments when i couldn’t help sniggering to myself. While his writing was most earnest, I guess for modern readers like us…it’s just difficult not to notice how distant and ironic reality can be, from an individual’s perspective. While I do not disagree that Sir James Brooke had acquired much merit with the laws and changes imposed under his reign over Sarawak, for instance, the protection he rendered to the natives and the abolishment of slavery, I believe that Wallace’s faith in this white ‘Rajah’ as a heroic and noble figure reaffirms the British ideal of masculinity and how this evidently translates into the desired character of how the ‘Colonizer’ should be.

Having aided the Sultan in the Bidayuh Uprising, Sir James Brooke later coveted the power by threatening the Sultan himself with military force. During his reign, his pockets grew fat and both the natives and English back home reverenced him. It is undeniable that he took possession over a land that was never his to begin with, imposed his own laws and customs and reaped tremendous wealth and fame in the process, just as other colonizers did. Except that he deviated from the normal exploitative and inhumane models. Therefore, if Conrad’s Lord Jim was devised from James Brooke, then it seems likely that Conrad is indeed, racist and believes that the natives belong to a race that needs to be regulated and salvaged by the white man’s laws and customs. This then, validates SOFT IMPERIALISM?

Lord Jim

In Lord Jim, the authority of Marlow as the narrator of Jim’s story is constantly being undermined or destabilized. Rather than really controlling the judgments that readers should cast on Jim, Marlow makes it clear that even his own intimate, first-hand contact with Jim, fails to allow him to come closer to the truth of what the man really is. As he declares, “I wanted to know –and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess.” Just as Heart of Darkness, in which the framed narrative underlies how the limitations of observations and Marlow’s own omission of details may deter readers from obtaining the true account, Lord Jim also reveals such complications, and to a much larger degree. Truth is rendered so elusive that judgments become very difficult at time. Marlow is so often in doubt of his own judgments, “I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog –bits of vivid and vanishing detail…upon the whole he was misleading.”
Marlow’s encounters with other characters sometimes provide a platform for readers to assess the different viewpoints and how they may contribute to painting a ‘big picture’ for clearer understanding of Jim’s character. However, this can contribute to the moral ambiguity as well. For instance, how is Jim to be judged for his actions for the incident of Patna? The French Lieutenant earnestly admits, “Man is born a coward…” Therefore, rather than enforcing a universal standard or reading, it seems that Conrad prefers to let readers be confronted by the shortcomings of human ideals, actions and inerpretations and judge for themselves.

Sigh*! Heart of Darkness

I find Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness as a novella that not only exoticizes, but dehumanizes the Africans as subjects, very enlightening and convincing. The eurocentric position which tends to silence the natives and portray them as savages in need of white men’s salvation is afterall, a familiar strand embedded within many european novels of the period. In the eyes of the West, Africa existed for a long time as a ‘dark continent’ that was mysterious and untameable and perhaps even Conrad himself as an ‘outsider’ seemed unable to dispose of the white man’s lens when it came to understanding and portraying the Africans, whose social and cultural identity proved to be so antithetic and illogical to the former.

While Conrad seems to have denied them an authentic and personal voice, at least he does not mask the hypocritical nature of the colonial enterprise. If the image and interests of the Africans have not exactly been exalted or served in the novella, at least the author’s position is not a waffling one. Imperialism is acutely denounced and exposed for its greed, exploitation and unruly hold over the colonized natives. It is portrayed and understood to be barbaric and inhumane, overthrowing all the moral ideals that supposedly uphold the enterprise and forces a re-evaluation of the white men’s superiority and values. Kurtz’s death may be viewed as a punishment. He dies bode down by the knowledge of his own corrupt nature and shredded conscience despite being regarded throughout the years as one of the most successful by his fellow countrymen.

Friendship between Fielding and Aziz

The ending in Passage to India which depicts the emotional yet resolute parting between Fielding and Aziz testifies to the unbridgable gap between the colonist and the colonized. The power structure that dictates their friendship proves to be the fundamental obstacle from the beginning to the end. As pondered over by Fielding, ‘All their stupid misunderstandings had been cleared up, but socially they had no meeting-place. He had thrown in his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a country woman…and already felt surprised by his past heroism. Would he today defy all his own people for the sake of a strange Indian? Aziz was a memento, a trophy, they were proud of each other, yet they must inevitably part’ (p. 303).
I think Forster makes it pretty clear that throughout the process of their friendship, in spite of genuine affections, both Fielding and Aziz struggle to get past the ‘otherness’ of each other in his own eyes. They are also constantly conscious of the unbalanced positions which they inherit within the colonist-colonized power structure. Aziz’s responses to Fielding appear to be at times, emotional and unreasonable, though he refuses to admit his own biasness and thrusting of personal frustration regarding the ‘colonial enemy’ in their conversations. Fielding’s reflections towards the end of the novel also implies that he finally finds himself succumbing to the prevailing notion that the East-West divide is ultimately impossible to cross and he assumes an even more complict position with his marriage, which further consolidates his Anglo-Indian identity.

Marabar caves

There seems to be a striking parallel between the experience of india and the experience of the Marabar caves. When beheld from a distance, the caves exude extraordinary beauty and vastness, the entire landscape is rendered exciting and fascinating. However, as discovered by the main characters (both british and indian), a journey to explore the caves only prove to be a gruelling and unpleasant affair. Every cave looks like the other, yet they are never the same. It is difficult to pinpoint or fathom one’s position within, or the relation that one truly bears to the surroundings. This overwhelming sense of ‘muddle’ that one experiences in an attempt to explore or grasp the Marabar caves can be applied to the various characters’ understanding and experiences of India.
For instance, the newly arrived Adela and Mrs Moore express romantic illusions and fascination with the country and are ever eager to ‘see the true India’. This initial attitude stands in stark contrast with the ‘anglo-indians’ or more seasoned white inhabitants of the place. To the latter, years of experience within the country have instilled the idea that India is a place without ‘order’ or ‘reason’, and represents a ‘muddle’ that they do not even bother to solve, just as the Marabar caves. While India is vast and magnificient, it is also divided and rooted in diverse traditions and customs. Like the caves that appear to be same but are never the same, the indians do not always identify with each other despite bearing the same nationality. Aziz himself proves to be critical of his fellow indians who are hindus. Therefore, even the natives themselves struggle to identify their position within society, a situation that is further complicated by the presence of the British.

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.