Performing the Identity

The fact that Leonard Woolf chooses to entitle his autobiography “Growing” amuses me for I do not really see signs of progression in this week’s reading but rather using a different form to articulate “old idea.” The authencity of his experiences is questionable but his autobiography also revisits the ambiguity of the representations which we have seen in the texts that we have talked about in class. One cannot help but notice that even though Woolf does not come close to the sorry figure of Flory, he does experience and portray the reluctance of having to live up to his reputation of being the imperial white man. With this in mind, while he is an enforcer of the imperialist system, I cannot help but wonder if he is a victim entrapped within the structure even with his complicity in it. This is similar to the discussions we have had of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May in which they are complicit in their entrapment. The question then to be asked is if we are also complicit in reproducing this system of entrapment when we choose to locate and revisit this continually in our readings of the texts?

Shannon Forbes wrote an article on equating performance with identity and in this piece of writing, she mentioned that an identity is re- constituted within a social structure with repeated performance of a particular role and responsibility. The repeated performance which constitutes an identity then gives rise to a social cohesion. To me, this social cohesion is bounded with the social contract in which each of us has to act out the responsibilities that are given to us. Identity then becomes a responsibility and this can be seen in Woolf who says that he has to maintain a facade among his own group for he has learned that to be different is to be condemned. Much has been said about the white man and his performance as the superior imperialist. In reading Woolf’s autobiography, I find myself thinking that the natives are also “guilty” of maintaining the binaries between the colonised and colonisers. Once they are emboldened by the knowledge that they are capable of reproducing the white man’s structure of power, colonialism is enacted by the natives on the natives. Colonialism then becomes a form of identity which materialises in different structures.

The world reacted with horror to the white man’s colonialism but initially thought that Japan’s participation in World War Two was an act of Asian bravery to the onslaught of the Europeans. Perhaps then, striped of all the focus on the white man’s superiority and natives’ inferiority, the matter boils to a fact that we live in a dog- eat- dog world. In Woolf’s words: “it is questionable whether in the end either will have the strength to eat the other.”

Performance of Britishness.

The colonialists had their own struggles with identity. While in the colonies, they bonded together by pretending “to be tougher, more British, more homesick than we really were, yet there was a pinch of truth and reality in all our posturings” (47). In actual fact, the colonialists were much better off in the colonies than at home as Leonard says,”we were all grand, a good deal grander than we could have been at home in London, Edinburgh, Brighton or Oban. We were grand because we were in the ruling class in a strange Asiatic country” (24).

Here, we see the British colonialists themselves trapped within this concept of ‘Britishness’. They are caught within their loyalty to their home country, and their enjoyment of their grander lifestyle. They feel as if they are constantly forced to perform the part of the colonizer. Woolf calls it acting upon a stage and constantly uses the words ‘facade’, ‘masks’ and ‘perform’, in addition to other words that allude to acting. We see this in Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’  as well, where the protagonist feels pressurized by the natives into killing the elephant even though he does not want to. He is compelled to perform his role as a colonizer, and feels like a great pretender. Similarly, Woolf echoes this when he says “I had put the finishing touches to a facade behind which I could conceal or camouflage my intellect and also hide from most people, both in Ceylon and for the remainder of my life, the fact that I am mentally, morally, and physically a coward” (37).

Perhaps the colonizers felt this need to act the part of a colonizer over the natives in order to maintain and reinforce their power over them. This also reveals that these differences are constructed and exacerbated. Once this wall between the colonizer and the colonized is broken, the colonial social order may crumble.