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.

Achebe’s Heart of Anger and the Ethics of Re-Appropriation

When I read Achebe’s essay, I was struck by his strong desire to make us (Westerners, colonizers, outsiders) view Africa as something other than commodity, colony and “the other” foreign land/culture. As a fan of Things Fall Apart,  I am interested in what fellow colonial/postcolonial writers have to say about each others’ works, but I felt that Achebe was much too exaggerated and emotional in his response to Conrad, especially considering the neccessity of colonial discourse as the only way in which to deal with colonialism.

Yes, I did have some uncomfortable encounters in read Heart – most disturbing was Marlow’s description of the Inferno that he witnessed, and a little after that:

     one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and west off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped        out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone. (64)

The depiction of the Africans as mere animals is probably exactly what Achebe is so incensed about- the “savage” pitted against the “refined” (341), making the latter look that much more civilised in the wake of so much “frenzy” (341).

YET, the way in which Achebe glosses over the narrative voice in Conrad’s Heart is unfair. The narrator is narrating a story narrated to HIM by Marlow, and while Achebe views this as “set[ting] up layers of insulation”, I feel this gives Conrad’s image of Africa a kind of fluidity; we are still aware that multiple “eyes” and voices are behind Heart, and compelling as Conrad’s narrative is, we are still aware that interpretation is not always stable, or straightforward.

Additionally, Achebe’s point about the “other world” (338) effect of making the River Thames calm and placid in stark contrast to its “antithesis” the River Congo, while compelling, I feel is not the only interpretation of Conrad’s intention. When I was reading Heart, I felt the whole point of establishing this “kinship” between the two rivers was for Conrad to convey to us that darkness is not only present in Africa, but in the British colonizers as well; for what is the figure of Kurtz but one that gets consumed by the darkness- not of Africa, but of his own mind- as well? The darkness in Heart therefore does not come from Africa, but rather, from the British that have brought this darkness to Africa.  

Lastly, if we were to take a look at Fanon again; he mentions that it is essential for the colonizers and the colonized to enter the discourse of colonialism in order to deal with its history. The “kinship” that Conrad establishes between the colonizers and the colonized is thus a recognition of the neccessity to enter the colonial discourse (which does involve creating an “other”) in order to communicate as a colonial writer.

Of course, Achebe’s essay does bring up some interesting points about the ethics of re-appropriation. If Conrad’s Congo is merely a metaphysical space to depict the emotional depravity of “one petty European mind” (344), then Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon comes to mind. Does re-appropriation depend/matter strictly to the artist? If not, then what kinds of implications does re-appropriating African culture onto Western concerns (in these two cases, with vice and depravity) have? What does re-appropriation do to the original “appropriated” culture/material?

Of embracing fear and the crisis of representation

Embracing Fear

What strikes me about Levine’s “Ruling the Empire” and Gikandi’s “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference” is the fear of natives and their possible influence on the West. Fear of the alleged savagery and lack of civilization of these “lesser peoples” (Levine 105) form part of the basis for the West’s civilizing missions. Even then, fears still exist: that of “contamination” (Levine 107) when colonizers marry colonized women.  This fear is similar to the “anxiety of African influence” (Gikandi 458); the need to play down any direct association between Picasso’s works and tribal objects.  The African is seen as the Other, everything the civilized West is not. To suggest an African influence on the West would then mean a threat to the civilized West and what it stands for. However, where fear becomes a reason to reject the African, Picasso then embraces it, producing his own version of the unmodern, presenting, representing, and re-presenting the African/ African culture’s influence on his art.

Crisis of Representation

The link between modernism and empire, of fear and actions to quell that fear, is exemplified in Levine’s article. When we speak of modernism and form, Picasso’s works playing on the idea of perspective and complicating the meaning of things compels me to recall Auerbach’s discussion of how different peoples’ consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse gives different perceptions of the “real” Mrs Ramsay.

We are thus confronted with a crisis of representation, of having to deal with fear and re-presenting it in a different form.

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.

Thoughts on Gikandi’s reading

The Gikandi reading was interesting as I for one have long regarded Picasso as the grandfather of modern art but now, I have my doubts. The first thing that came to my mind was the question of plagiarism. I mean, Picasso didn’t exactly credit the Africans for “borrowing” their pieces of cultural artifacts and instead, he as well as other scholars have shied away from acknowledging the African influence in the history of modernism. He defended himself by saying that Africa had a psychological effect on him but it was not a formal influence on modernism. But how does one differentiate a subconscious effect from a formal influence? I personally feel that there are many close similarities if not blatant imitations of African masks in Picasso’s work eg. the Grebo mask. As such, is Picasso guilty of plagiarism? If so, can he still be hailed as a great modern artist? I think that we as appreciators of art need to redefine our standards of what a great artist is. We are very much contributors to this cycle of exploitation if we fail to acknowledge the Africans’ art culture and their role in the history of modern art.
Also another question to ponder: are the Africans subalterns since the modernists have erased their existence from history? If so, can their voices ever be represented authentically using the English language given the many issues concerned with translation? Sorry this post has more questions than answers ☺