An Extremely Brief glance at the ‘Modern Epiphany’ in Portrait

Modern texts place a lot of attention on the mundane and subjective in experience, and likewise a notably strained effort to find someway of reuniting the two.  Taken together, they are hallmarks of the alienated modern sensibility and their separation is at the heart of this alienation.

The Modern epiphany is more difficult to achieve for the modern writers because Truth in general is not clearly  manifest to the writer in everday objects as it was to the poets of earlier periods.  Hence Joyce’s identification of the epiphany as a manifestation through “vulgarity of speech or of gesture” [the clearly mundane, alienated from Truth to the point of seeming profane].  Hence the Modernist epiphany deliberately strains to identify the mundane or particular with something revelatory and in Joyce we see this in his identification of things which are in this very respect quite different, even opposite, such as the anonymous  Bloom with Elijah or Moses, or the Irish with the Greek people exalted in Homeric poetry, or hot cocoa with the sacramental blood.  For Joyce, the effort at reuniting the mind with the objects of experience turned in particular to increasing attempts at identification of the moment with all of time.

In Joyce’s technique, epiphany replaces the role carried out in traditional narrative by the event; the collocations of numerous textual themes in associative moments are the events of the mature works, and they are multitudinous.  Hence the reader should take his understanding of epiphany as axiomatic; explicitly identifying each one by the term “epiphany” would become excessively redundant.

Notes on Burmese Days (Week 9, Part I)

TOPIC OF CLASS

In their presentation, Jingxuan and Frederick focused on the discourses of Power in Orwell’s Burmese Days and how these discourses reinforce each other insecuring the dominant ideology of the Imperial hegemony.

1. Jingxuan, in the first half of the presentation, explored the theoretical framework of power in Burmese Days by borrowing Michel Foucault’s definition, asserting that for our reading of the text, it is not useful to see power as a universal and all-encompassing force, but rather should be seen as something that only exists when put into action;  i.e.: when “certain actions modify others” (The Subject and Power).

Power, hence, becomes a dialectic in the text that exists in a kind of liminal space between the Coloniser and the colonised. Colonial power needs to beactivated by the colonised through actions that modify (hence reinforce) the actions of the Colonist (see Examples 1-3).

2. As power is understood as being born out of symbiosis, power loses agency when it is not constantly volleying back and forth within the hierarchy. Hence it can be activated and de-activated, and cannot by definition remain static (see Examples 4-5).

3. Foucault goes on to state that power comes from the prescribing of an identity on the individual who then has to behave within the boundaries of this identity in order to be accepted in society. If this identity is rejected by the individual, the power illicited from the reverence of others is lost.

4. Distribution of power in Burmese Days is not strictly based on racial discrimination as power is a by-product of a symbiotic process. Hence, individuals can gain power by adhering to the code of conduct established by the hegemony (see Example 6)

5. Frederick decided to narrow down the group’s discussion of power to the role of women in the text, using Urmila Seshagiri’s “Misogyny and Anti-Imperialism in George Orwell’s Burmese Days”.  He looks at the power that comes from sexual aggression in the form of the literal rape carried out by U PoKyin and the various sexual encounters throughout the text.

6. Sexual power is also seen as symbiotically formed, established by the aggression of the male and the bartering of sex by women (see Example 7).

7. Ma Hla May is the embodiment of Burma, just as Elizabeth Lackersteen is the embodiment of England. This framework already highlights the politics ofpower between the colony and the empire (see Example 8).

EXAMPLES

1. U Po Kyin embodies the inherent power in the figure of the Colonised in his ability to penetrate the European psyche: “No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof. A few anonymous letters will work wonders. It is only aquestion of persisting; accuse, accuse, go on accusing – that is the way with Europeans” (Burmese Days 12).

He uses his understanding of difference to assert his power in manipulating the system he knows so well (albeit within the Imperial ideology), which in turnreinforces the status quo. The adage “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” applies to the way in which U Po Kyin functions within the text. His ability to read and analyse people is what gives him the power to destroy his enemies internally.

2. Dr. Veraswami is aware of the underhanded threat U Po Kyin poses on his prestige (the be-all and end-all of the colonial subject’s identity): “My friend, in these matters prestige iss everything. It iss not that U Po Kyin will attack me openly; he will libel me and backbite me. And whether he issbelieved or not depends entirely upon my standing with Europeans”. The signifier “prestige” holds great value as it is a linguistic and physical manifestation of power in the Colonial framework and the knowledge of its power is what gives the various characters the feeling of having the upper-hand [another form of power].

3. Both U Po Kyin and Dr. Veraswami see gaining club membership would up their prestige in society, which in itself is their willing subscription into the Colonial framework of power, which in turn gains its power [prestige] from the reverence of the colonial subjects who regard a place in the club as a highly coveted honour.

4. Flory is able to deactivate his power as a Colonist by refusing to subscribe to the behavioral codes supporting the Colonial ideology (by not behaving asother white men in colonies do).  However, to what extent is he successful in separating himself from the hierarchy of the hegemony if he is permanently marked by his whiteness, which codes him almost unforgivingly and permanently in the text (vis-a-vis Ma Hla May).

5. Flory rejects his identity as Colonist and is in turn rejected by the Colonists for his “Bolshie” ideas (34).  This puts Flory in the position of the reluctant colonist as he struggles against the identity he is inextricably linked to (that of a non-native).

It is this inextricable tie Flory has to his identity as a European man that ultimately leads to his failure to struggle against the Colonial power structure, as he behaves like a Colonist in the end: his convictions in defending Dr. Veraswami are only secondary to his feelings of solidarity and fraternity towards the Englishmen.  Secondly, his love for Elizabeth Lackersteen is what kills him in the end, as his choosing of the white woman over his Burmese mistress highlights a kind of implicit acknowledgmentof the English code of conduct.

6. Although skin color is a marker for power in the colonial context, race becomes a performative element more than anything, as the native “finds himselfrewarded for performing according to the codes of the dominant power, whereas an Englishman who attempts ‘going native’ even incompletely finds himself ostracized and disoriented” (Waterman 95).

This implies the power gained by U Po Kyin is one that reinforces the Colonial power structure as it involves him acting within his boundaries, understanding the European psyche while remaining outside the European demarcation.  His whiteness becomes a promise of power to Ma Hla May who reacts to him because of this physical marker, which supplies the power he deactivated by conscious choice.

7.  As Seshagiri writes, “rape becomes an unquestioned privilege and by-products of masculine colonial ambivalence,” U Po Kyin’s rape of young girls being akey example of this literal form of sexual aggression (57).  Tom Lackersteen’s penchant for Burmese prostitutes, Maxwell and his Eurasian mistress, and of course, Flory and his prominent affair with Ma Hla May, all act as examples of a kind soft-rape, sexual aggression directed at women co-opted into the system by having to serve the role of companion-consort without the legitimate ideological marker of “wife”.

8.  Ma Hla May, like Burma, is servile and engages Flory in the Master/Slave dialect that parallels the Colonial ideology.  She is left in the end as Burma is in the wake of imperialism: “Look how he has ruined me! Look at these rags I am wearing!” (273).  Yet her predicament post-Flory seems almost intuitive of a post-colonial Burma: “her good looks are all but gone, and her clients pay her only four annas, and sometimes kick her and beat her… she regrets the good time when Flory was alive” (285).

9.  Similarly, Elizabeth Lackersteen embodies the mercenary attitude of the Colonial mission in her potential unions.  The figure of the burra memsahib fits her well as she rules with fear over those she does not (want to) understand, and has the greatest disdain for.

CONNECTIONS WITH TOPICS FROM OTHER WEEKS

This presentation gave a fresh perspective to the politics of Colonial power.  In previous weeks, we had looked at the Colonial framework as a bureaucratic hierarchy that focused on the marginalisation of and subjugation of the native figure.  Orwell’s text read within Foucault’s theory allows us to see how the constantly shifting nature of power makes it possible for even the natives to have agency and a kind of voice (albeit weak) in the Colonial mission.  Our discussion regarding narratives and the mute or oppressed voice of the subaltern are re-evaluated with the ideas thrown up in this presentation.

In the colonies, the minority had control over the majority as power was almost literally grabbed out of the hands of the natives.  However, the fact remains that although the Colonial discourse was set by the British, it only succeeded and reached the extent it did because of he aid of natives, the emphasis being on the two-way power (Master/Slave) dialectic.  With the natives imbibing the Western formulation of power, the notion of heirarchy and white superiority is enforced without active pursual.  U Po Kyin’ success and Flory’s death suggests that natives are complicit in reinforcing power hierarchy, being dependent on the Colonist for this power.

Laughter as the Best Anti-Colonial Medicine

Orwell is very aware of the ambivalence of colonial discourse and the contradiction of Whiteness, especially with regard to aggression.  He expresses his own ambivalence as a unit in the colonial machine, reaffirming the imperial ideology, while thinking that “imperialism was an evil thing”.  When Orwell implies Whiteness, he speaks of it as a technicality, a system or ideology in ordering the world, similar to the systems inherent in pre-colonial states (India).

“A white man musn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives'”, and the worst that he fears is being mocked and laughed at.  Laughter here becomes the only weapon at the natives’ disposal, yet it is so subversive that the entire machine of colonialism can be threatened by this act of derisiveness.   After all, “every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at”(153).  Power that propagates and fuels the system is not servility or obedience if it is understood and prefigured to be temporary.  The power of the imperial mission seems to be predetermined as one that is inherently unstable by any ethical and rational code, unless explained away by the dismissal of the Asian subject as intrinsically flawed and incapable of self-rule [the mark of civility].  Laughter from derision and pity becomes something that is couched with subversive power to destabilitize and overthrow an established rationale behind a sketchy justification.

This reminded me of Cixous and her theory of laughter being something that inhabits a liminal space between the transgressive and subversive. In this context, it serves to stabilize the hierarchy between different social groups, but it is also transgressive since it discloses aggressive desires (anti-colonialism). I feel that the honesty of Orwell’s narrator-persona here allows for us to see how laughter ties to male pride, colonizer pride and even concepts of national pride. Laughter’s subversive quality and its role in the text highlights the modernist’s concern with the power of the mute and marked bodies of the colonized non-white masses that has the potential to far surpass the function of language (that is inherently empty and desperate for signification and meaning-making).

The Legitimacy of Language

Conrad, as a modern writer, explores the role of language through Lord Jim as he had done in Heart of Darkness.  His focus, like most modern writers, is on the ability of language to evade and alter the truth in the process of its disclosure.  Conrad’s emphasis on the constant quest for meaning, and elusiveness of ultimate truth are inherently modernist concerns, despite the geopolitics of Lord Jim and its reactionary anti-imperialist undertones.  Marlow’s narrative is couched in ambiguity.  The language of facts and the domain of the artistic narrative intersect as their boundaries are permeable by the inherently deceptive nature of both: “There shall be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (Lord Jim, 256).

For Conrad, the structure of language implicitly validates the social order, which demarcates the limitations of creative thought by playing with the framing and documenting of memory and perception.  Language, when viewed as a means of documentation, is an act intended to be objective but one that cannot help but be subjective, owing to its deeply flawed structure .  The language of facts is something that is completely arbitrary as we see when reading Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a legitimate scientific article based on the theories of (and dedicated to) Charles Darwin.  Truth and accepted reality become the one and the same under this line of thought, which is one of the unfortunate by-products of using language as a means of documenting experience.

In Lord Jim, this is dramatized in Marlow’s growing belief that the idea of social cohesion is an illusion and that communal solidarity is not indomitable–and  is, as all things believed to be stable, vulnerable to the individual.

Marlow the Ancient Mariner

I would like to depart from the tendency in looking through Marlow to Conrad rather than at Marlow as an object of interest in his own right.  Reading Marlow’s behavior as inwardly motivated (as a character in the book rather than a mouthpiece offering little more than narrative distance for Conrad), would lend a pyschological dimension to his narrative machinations.

A note-worthy observation regarding Marlow would be his obsessive need for narration and categorization.  He has an obsession for “the idea of Kurtz” in Heart of Darkness, just as Jim’s story haunts him in Lord Jim.  This obsession acts as a lubricant in the narrative motion of the texts in question and also highlights the subjective nature of narration and truth-telling (little ‘t’) in modern texts.

In Lord Jim, Marlow becomes a “receptacle of confessions,” fascinated (to the point of obsession) with Jim’s story as seen by his collecting of various narrative sources.  Marlow becomes a kind of Ancient Mariner figure, whose role is to compulsively record and repeat what, by extension, haunts him.  He sees this obsession as a curse (“diabolical”) for which he admits “is a weakness of (his)”.  This motif runs through the text with Marlow’s compulsion to narrate (or rather, form narrative threads) is likened to debauchery and addiction (drink, women) repeatedly.

If we are to see Marlow as a cursed Ancient Mariner-type figure, then we could see the act of narration (the framing of the little ‘t’) being one born out of an unknown compulsion.  Just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner told his tale as a for redemption (out of guilt), Marlow’s “diabolical” compulsion may be one spawned from the basic human desire for the capital ‘T’ Truth, while the narrative itself is framed through the subjective (hence unreliable) view-point of Marlow, and as such can only take the form of the little ‘t’.  Perhaps what is diabolical is not so much the compulsion to narrate, but the inadequacy of the human frame of reference to fulfil the desire for the Truth in its limited form of representation.

The African subject in the Victorian Consciousness

Post-colonial criticism recognises the text as “a vehicle of imperial authority “(Achebe 10). Heart of Darkness would therefore be seen as one in this canon, relying on ‘myth and metaphor’, which serves in propagating the Colonial enterprise–the creation of a hierarchy of being, where the colonizer reigns supreme.   The myths in the case of Heart of Darkness is the popular Victorian notion of the subhuman nature of the African as the savage “antithesis of Europe, and therefore of civilization” (2).

The novella is wrought with animal imagery, the comparison of Africans to Apes being the most striking: “Six black men advanced in a file… Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails” (Conrad 22).  Throughout Heart of Darkness, the Darwinian frame of reference is crucial, as it is in almost all cultural and academic artifacts of the time.  To justify imperialism it was necessary to create an inferior or the Colonial Other. Thus the Africans filled this place for Marlow, whom being the Colonizer, is in the privileged position of defining the Other.

The difference between the Indian Colonial subject and the African Colonial subject seems clear this week.  The Indian subject in the Victorian consciousness is attributed the servile and unthreatening de-masculinized role of subordinate, while the African subject is pushed even further down the social hierarchy past the Oriental eunuch figure to that of a humanoid beast .  The horror in Heart of Darkness comes from the intolerable moments of realization (however temporary and fleeting), when the African subject is recognized as legitimately human.  If the Asian subject is a socio-political eunuch then the African is a tool for enterprise.  This line of thinking of course, reduces the colonial impulse to its commercial roots alone.  As such, it is only natural that the image of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ overshadows the self-proclaimed ethical justification for Colonialism (White man’s burden).

The English-Educated Indian and the Cycle of Imperialism

Being colonized by a language has larger implications for one’s consciousness as assuming a language is equated to the assumption of a culture.  Speaking English means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the English, which comes with ideology that profiles and disengages the darker ethnicities, such as the Indian “psychology of crime” (Passage 187), or that “darker races are physically attracted to the fairer but not vice versa” (243).

With this in mind, the place of the educated Indian in the novel and within in the sociohistorical context of British India becomes one of interest.  Language has the potential of being an equalizing force or a subversive tool for the educated Indian.  It is what separates the “useful” Indians from the ones that could cause problems for the British Raj, as is noted during the Bridge Party.  However, as seen in the case of Aziz, it appears that the mastery of the colonizer’s language is something that elevates the subaltern in his own eyes to the level of the colonizer.  He makes the figure of the non-English educated Indian the new subaltern figure, relegated to the role of the comic gull who can be mocked (Mahmoud Ali) .

The derision towards the new subaltern supplies the power for the educated Indian, who fails to utilize the subversive potential of language to break the cycle of Imperialism.  Instead, as he fuels the colonial machine further by using the language of the colonizer as a marker for the colonial subject; by allowing the colonial power/colonial subject  divide to exist, albeit (from their point of view) with fewer on the latter side.

Writing as an act of Colonization

Written from within a liberal ethos, in the style of ironic discourse, A Passage to India seems to acknowledge that what is defined as India by Colonial rule is an amorphous mass of land, people, culture, lumped together on the basis of its foreignness–it’s exoticity, a word in itself that suggests a relationship akin to that of spectator and spectacle, while pointedly demarcating perceived civilization from barbarity.

This creation (India) is acknowledged as “India — a hundred Indias– “, an original network of cultures and identities that reflect a legitimate system of knowledge that allows for an alternative world view. The structure of the novel, triadic in form, reflects the diversity of the assumed homogenous India and effectively undermines the politically constructed concept of India as understood under the British Raj. It is a straight refusal to see India as a “frieze” of glamour and spectacle.

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Fig:  The Madras Club– highly popular with the Anglo-Indian population at the time, and also one of the many clubs in Colonial India with the “No Indians, No Dogs” signs outside.

General thoughts on Modernism

Upon reading through the suggested literature for this week, Gikandi’s essay on the role of Africa in Picasso’s oeuvre seems to best embody the relationship between Modernism and Empire the module seems to call into question. In tracing the birth of Modernism back to a localized incident in the African context, Gikandi highlights the fact that in the legitimate and recognized realm of contemporary culture, the non-European, non-white elements are relegated to the peripheries by default.

The ‘other’ is given a voice through the vehicle of Modernism, but only momentarily, and that too, for the purpose of defining the ‘self’ by what it is not. The ‘other’ is stripped off any individual identity independent of one that has no correlation to the mainstream European ‘self’, hence any power delegated to African culture is one contained within the parameters of the white gaze as objects defining and supporting the pre-established principles and identity of European aesthetics.

An image congruent to this would be that of postive and negative space in aesthetics, wherby white and black can stand for either/or, despite the fact they are chromatically binary opposites.

Sbmoth

Fig 1: Spaces between Moth (donald mackay, www.spacesbetween.ca)


The use of equal amounts of positive and negative space in a composition is what classically defines visual art as ‘good’, and with Modernism being a reactionary movement celebrating the upheaval of the classical, this formulaic nature of aesthetics is re-evaluated in literal terms in the aesthetic works themselves, yet with respect to the influences and foundations of the form itself, it ironically reverts back to the concept of defining what it is by what it is not–and what it can never admit to being influenced by.