Art and Religion

Can language truly liberate us from ourselves as social beings? Joyce’s question struck me – ‘What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?’

The former, upon which Joyce’s childhood and world view was brought about,  ‘an absurdity which is logical and coherent’, refers to the structure by which religion is constituted, it is absurd insofar as it is an invisible structure founded upon by our faith and belief in the supernatural, the miracle and a higher divine order that transcends ourselves and our earthly realm. The Bible as the canonical text is essentially ‘logical and coherent’, since it informs us about the values and beliefs of Christianity which is founded upon the teachings of Jesus, moral goodness, the depravity of sins, amongst others.

Yet to ‘embrace one which is illogical and incoherent’ – that is to embrace the atheist life of a modernist writer and to forge a path for himself in an aesthetic experiment which demands that he becomes the creator, basing his art on the experiences of reality and everyday life, while doing away with past burdens and beliefs, seems a terrifying but nonetheless exhilarating experience to me. As much as the world is governed by systems, laws, rules and order, one’s consciousness and feelings often times remain in Joyce’s words, ‘illogical and incoherent’. Even as Stephen goes ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’, I get the sense that Joyce’s semiautobiographical work of art has achieved precisely this aim, in his ability to articulate and pour forth his “stream-of-consciousness” into the ordered world of language and cement his place as one of the greatest modernist writers of the twentieth century.

The state of Women and religion

From where I have stopped in the novel, I managed to make an observation. I am referring to the similarity in the position of native women like Ma Kin, the wife of U Po Kyin, with the state of the native’s religion – Buddhism.

For Ma Kin, her position in the household reflects the belief of Buddhism that women are lower than man – “the same level as a rat or a frog – or at worst as some dignified beast such as an elephant” (8).  However, my issue is with the portrayal of Ma Kin as the more morally upright and charitable figure. This seems to shed light on the shortcoming of Buddhism in its unflattering claims of women as part of the lower form of life. The irony is, the most dedicated person to Buddhism, is one of the most subdued figure in the novel.  Furthermore, Ma Kin’s portrayal is contrastive with her husband’s selfish and self-serving use of the religion to better his afterlife – “My pagodas will atone for everything” (15).  In this case, religion as a moral guide in dictating one’s way of life seems to be in question. Does this suggest that Buddhism as a religion is no longer applicable/relevant after the changes in relationship brought about by the entrance of western colonialism? After all, we can identify the impoverished state of the native’s religion just by looking at the starving monks whose devotion to the religion is ‘rewarded’ with hunger.

Note taking (week 6 part 1)

Topic of Class

Lord Jim: the romantic “hero” of the adventure novel

The presentation examined the identity of both the text and the titular character in relation to the adventure romance tradition, and Conrad’s re-appropriation of conventions to critique dominant ideologies. The adventure tradition is affirmed in Lord Jim through the formal conventions that Conrad appropriates in his writing. However, it is later subverted because the pro-imperialist ideology that is inherent in adventure fiction is destabilized: the civilization, morality and rationality of the white man is questioned in the text and becomes ambiguous.

The romantic tradition is identified in Jim’s character as the idealistic hero who upholds strict ideals. His self-exile to Patusan and his eventual death does not provide a satisfactory conclusion to his strict adherence to romantic aspirations. The examination of other white characters that may provide satisfactory alternatives to Jim’s failure to embody the ideas of honor and morality reveals the idealistic aspirations inherent in the notion of the English gentleman. These ideals are strictly upheld by the characters however, they are undermined because honor and duty become self-serving and unrealistic. While the white male characters failed to adequately represent English superiority, the native characters serve to reinforce the binary distinctions between the white man and the other. The Patusan natives are either associated with degeneration or that are in deference to Jim.

Ultimately, the identification of the adventure romance tradition in the text and the simultaneous undermining of that tradition ties in to the modernist concerns with the obscurity of truth. Lord Jim and Lord Jim fail to fit adequately into proper categories resulting in ambiguity and ambivalences.


Jim’s romantic imagination of seeing himself “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line… in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book” is undermined in his abandonment of his ship.

When crisis arises, Jim fails to act on his ideals and abandons the ship in an act of cowardice. This romantic imagination is thus critiqued by Conrad as unrealistic and not substantiated by action.  In addition, although it may be argued that Jim’s eventual death was an honorable and redemptive death because he dies for his values, it begs the question of the futility of values.

While Jim’s movement to Patusan is viewed as an attempt at self-redemption, it also reveals his egotism; Jim desires to uphold his ideas of honor so that he can live out his heroic aspirations (emphasis mine). His morals and values are ambiguous since they are not borne out of his duty, but are seen as self-serving. Likewise, pro-idealist ideology that was prevalent in the adventure tradition is destabilized because the colonization motive of bringing civilization to places outside England is revealed to be an egoistic enterprise that reinforces white superiority.

Topics from Other Weeks

Forster adopts the Manichean view of the white man and the figure of the native in the beginning of A Passage to India: the division of physical location between the English and the natives is apparent. However like Conrad, Forster undermines the pro-imperialist ideology through his critique of organized religion, in the form of Christianity (the religion of the white man).

The English characters do not practice the Christian virtues of love, forgiveness and consideration to others. Adela’s accusation of Aziz is unsubstantiated but believed because the word of the white woman is privileged over that of the native. This results in Aziz being condemned by the English before being allowed to speak; the native’s voice is excluded. Christian virtues are not embodied in the characters instead, the English characters worship the idea of white superiority. The notion of white supremacy is thus undermined and viewed as morally inferior to Indian religion (in particular, Hinduism) that is accommodating. However, the binary views are not re-established by positing Hinduism as a fully satisfactory alternative to Christianity.

Convention is re-appropriated to comment and to critique itself by modernist writers. Conrad and Forster breaks down pro-imperialist ideology to highlight its flaws and to create texts and characters that are hard to define.

What is India?

The complexities of India are made apparent in the novel and there is a sense of uncertainty about what India means/ is composed of. A Passage to India is characterised by divisions within the landscape and there is a crisis of representing India. In the final part of the novel, this crisis becomes more emphatic; Aziz questions the meaning of India and favours the inclusion of multiple meanings to the notion of a ‘general’ India.

Forster alludes to the belief that the ‘real’ is unattainable; India cannot be clearly defined. Adela’s shallow desire to see the ‘real’ India leads her to the Marabar Caves however, the trip does little to further her understanding of India. She does not arrive at a satisfactory concept of India and what happens in the caves is shrouded in mystery. The unusual circumstances that Adela undergoes while in the caves are never fully explained to us and this uncertainty hints at the inability to arrive at the ‘truth’.

In addition, the multiple religions portrayed in the text destabilises the notion of a unifying order since there is no singular god or belief. Religious beliefs are not adhered to and the different religions seem to morph into each other (‘God si love’ but the British do not embody Christian beliefs and persecute Aziz without evidences. Mrs Moore’s name is transposed onto that of a Hindu goddess, Esmiss Esmoor). The Hindu procession seems frivolous and irrational however, it redefines the tradition meaning of god and religion. Furthermore, the chanting of ‘come, come, come’ alludes to the difficulty in accessing a higher being and the attainment of a world without difference.