History, Statues, and Representation

Jackson mentions the “ever-impinging presence of official buildings and symbolism” in Ireland, and the kind of  “architectural response” (129) that followed the threat of self-government. This suggestion of an “architectural response” led me to think about statues and monuments, which are symbolic, larger-than-life representations of figures that have made important contributions to a country, and are erected officially for the remembrance and celebration of their achievements. In light of this, I found it particularly interesting when Stephen reflects on Thomas Moore’s statue and the commemorative slab in memory of Woolfe Tone that he passes by in Part V:

While he was striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland [Thomas Moore]. He looked at it without anger: for, though sloth of the body and of the soul crept over it like unseen vermin, over the shuffling feet and up the folds of the cloak and around the servile head, it seemed humbly conscious of its indignity. (Joyce 193)

And a few pages later…

In the roadway at the head of the street a slab was set to the memory of Wolfe Tone and he remembered having been present with his father at its laying. He remembered with bitterness that scene of tawdry tribute. There were four French delegates in a brake and one, a plump smiling young man, held, wedged on a tick, a card on which were printed the words: Vive I’Irlande! (Joyce 199)

(According to the novel’s footnotes: Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen; the slab was laid to commemorate the centenary of the Rebellion of 1798)

What particularly intrigued me was Stephen’s withering sarcasm (“droll statue”, “servile head”, “tawdry tribute”, just to name a few examples) towards these supposedly celebrated figures in Irish history and culture. While these statues can be seen to represent the official national history of Ireland, Stephen’s expression of his attitude towards these figures (and by extension, what they represent), is then his personal interpretation of history. In doing so, the official national history of the public sphere is now conflated with personal history/experiences of the private sphere. Here, we are cleverly introduced to another representation of history; a different perspective that Modernism so champions!

 (On a side note, I do think that it was an interesting choice to represent Joyce/Stephen’s general disdain towards the Irish condition via his contempt towards statues of supposedly representative figures of Irish history and culture, considering that statues are after all another form of art and representation, just as novels are).

Orwell a true anti-imperialist?

Most critics see “Burmese Days” as Orwell’s reaction against the atrocities he witnessed in Burma and thus are quick to categorize “Burmese Days” as an anti-imperialist text. While the anti-imperialist elements in the text are obvious – Flory’s discourses on the ills of imperialism etc, Orwell seemed to have failed in dissociating himself completely from imperialist discourse. This is especially so in his portrayal of natives. The novel does not have a single fully respectable native character. U Po Kyin is a scheming native, Dr V. is a imperialist parrot, mindlessly extolling the values of imperialism. Even Ma Kin, U Po Kyin’s wife who initially seemed like a potential check against the greediness of her husband was eventually enticed by the idea of gaining club membership. As for the Nationalist movement in Burma, Orwell seemed to be belittling its work altogether. In “Burmese Days”, the final rebellion is less of a nationalist movement, and more of a revenge against Ellis. Thus, it seemed odd that in an anti-imperialist text, native characters are portrayed as poorly as they are in earlier pro-imeperialist text.

I think the discrepancy really points to how Orwell is unable to disentangle himself from earlier discourses. While he removes himself from the ideals of imperialism, he has yet to find a new discourse that can effectively represent his new ideas. Specifically, Orwell has not found a new discourse the natives. Indeed, this is the most positive way to see Orwell, the anti-imperialist. If it is not a problem of representation, then Orwell falls back into the category of writers/thinkers who are anti-imperialist but racist. My own position probably falls in the middle of these two extremes. I think that Orwell has not sufficiently considered the position of the natives and is primarily concerned with the white man’s position in the colonized land. Therefore, he is unable to find a new discourse to talk about the natives. Yet, his lack of consideration for the native position is essentially a self-centred (white, male self) and therefore a racist attitude.

Power relations in Shooting an Elephant

Reading “Shooting an Elephant”, I think my responses to it were quite..’schizophrenic’ might be a good word. I was rather conflicted about how I felt, especially regarding the way power was portrayed. On one hand, it was quite a breath of fresh air to be reading a piece of writing where we see the coloniser from an entirely different point of view. The narrator himself admits that “every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at”—he is basically ‘powerless’ to the people’s demands, in that he must shoot the elephant or be humiliated. The subversion of the typical coloniser-colonised relationship is very interesting, because while other texts have shown us the ‘human’ side of colonialism, they’re still always untouchaby dignified and in control (think Passage to India). It’s almost as if there’s an invisible barrier that prevents that last ‘façade’ from being removed. Here, we’re shown this nervous policeman who hates his job because he knows just how tenuous the colonial control over the people is, which is really quite a different perspective from the way colonial power is shown in Passage to India.

Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t help but be suspicious of the way colonial power was portrayed. It struck me as, well, too sympathetic to the colonisers. At this point, I’m probably veering into angry, chest-beating anti/post-colonial area, but still, I think it bears thinking about. I’m sure the narrator’s perspective is a valid one, and colonialism most likely didn’t have the all-powerful, absolute control it portrays in many colonial texts, but nonetheless, the fact is that the natives were evidently unhappy about colonial rule, a fact the colonisers were aware of. Furthermore, they were unable to manifest their anti-colonial feelings in any way other than passive aggressive jeering, tripping or betel juice-spitting. This to me reflected the utter  power that the coloniser wielded—and if the point is only alluded to at the beginning of the story, it is made quite unmistakable by the end. The narrator kills the elephant to avoid looking a fool, but British law makes it legal for him to do so, because a coolie had been killed, and the owner is helpless to do anything because “he was only an Indian”.

The coloniser-colonised power relations is quite completely complicated in this story—where does real power lie? In the hands of the colonised or the coloniser? I really have no idea.

Oral tradition of Storytelling

I think the way that Jim is portrayed in the novel is very much like that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where both characters occupy a central vacuum upon which stories of them are told, inter-woven and re-appropriated constantly. They do not really exist in and of themselves; rather, they exist through the stories that are formed around and about them, quite like the heroes of traditional oral storytelling in non-European cultures. And I would like to suggest that the oral tradition of storytelling in both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness not only cements the mystique of perceivably more-“primitive” cultures, but it also provides an alternative method of attaining some kind of understanding of a human being.

To me, I believe that the oral tradition is one that places emphasis on a communal understanding of the world – a world-view that is shared by and participated in by all its listeners because everyone is an author in some way or another. Hence, this is how cultures create heroes that are important to every household, because their legend becomes a part of the community narrative; and in the passing down of such stories from person to person, the hero’s characteristics/actions get aggrandized and cemented as heroic eternally. What this does is to immortalize the hero in the given culture and make his heroic qualities forever desirable to the community.

Yet on another level, I want to suggest that this is also Conrad’s way of returning to a more coherent narrative of a world that is highly chaotic and unpredictable, where human nature is not kind and when human failure is abound, especially in certain moments of weaknesses (like Jim did when he jumped ship). I want to suggest that oral storytelling may not be the more accurate depiction of an event, but its combination of various versions can help us build up a more coherent understanding of the highly arbitrary and failure-ridden world.

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

Ridiculing Western Civilisation

Even though Achebe claims that Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist” and that Heart of Darkness happily ignores the deep-seated racism that the text exercises against the Africans, I feel less inclined to take such a harsh stance towards Conrad’s position as a colonist. Yes, I agree to a large extent that he objectifies, silences and mis/un-represents the Natives yet, I feel that because he is also equally scathing of the Europeans situated in the Congo that perhaps his position is more ambivalent. I understand the contention Achebe has with Conrad isn’t that Conrad is valorizing of the Europeans – but that Conrad has effectively dehumanized and ignored the Africans in his meditation of the downfall of the European male.

However, I prefer to read the Africans as representative of an older, fiercer “humanity” that is “wild and passionate” (Conrad91) and in a way akin to the Europeans. This humanity, although described by a disgusted Marlow as “ugly”, manages to – on many silent occasions even, to prove how ridiculous the institutions of Western civilization like money (“So unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them” [59]) really are when taken out of the pretentious western contexts. In times like this, even though the Africans are still silenced, the fact that even their silence can reflect the stupidity of Western ideals, to me, is enough to mediate my stance towards Conrad’s racism and take Achebe’s reading with a little bit more salt.

 That being said, I realise too that Achebe is writing in a period where the teething pains of decolonisation are starting to appear, and I can see why he would, in his position, be so adamant about writing against a whole tradition of Conradian scholarship that has effectively contributed to the continual “reduc[tion] of Africa to the role of props.” (Achebe 344)

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).

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.

Thoughts on Modernism

Just some thoughts on the nature of Modernist art and literature. The Gikandi reading really made me realise that when we think of Modernist art and literature, our reading of it is often subconsciously framed by the assumption that writers or artists who incorporate the Other/Orient/colonised in their work are sympathetic to them. For me at least, the presence or absence of the colonised in literature, and especially art, suggested that the writer/artist saw the colonised as people ‘worthy’ of being represented in their works. However, after reading the Gikandi reading, I realised that this was not necessarily true. Looking through the lecture notes on the nature of Modernist art and literature, one of the things I noticed was the fact that Modernism was largely concerned with the idea of ‘Form’ and different ways of looking and thinking. Considering that in line with the Gikandi reading, it struck me that ultimately, Modernism seemed to be less about the subject of representation and more about how that subject affected the writer or artist. So, despite the fact that Modernism as a movement had been catalysed by self-questioning in the wake of WWI, Modernists seem to me a rather ‘self-centred’ bunch. Despite Modernism’s interest in the Other, it was still for the ‘purpose’ of understanding the self—the representations of the Other in Modernism thus seem to continue the ‘exploitation’ of the Other, despite the movement’s concern with different perspectives and new ways of looking/thinking. Perhaps I approached “Modernism” from a certain (skewed?) starting point, which has led to this spiel—any thoughts?

Modernism: Truths and Realities

Personally, I think people tend to enjoy residing in their comfort zone, allowing many things around them to go unquestioned. Hence, allowing those with power to take on a paternal-like role in deciding how life is to be led as they represented objectivity and the truth. This is where, I believe, the role and purpose of Modernism – as a movement, serves. That is, to challenge and, if I may put it, to ‘mess around’ with the ‘normal’ perception of how things are and should be.

To put it simply, I think Modernism definitely comes across as confusing and unfathomable to some, with its seemingly incongruous form – forms that illustrates that our thought process is actually illogical and inconsistent in reality whilst our consciousness – arbitrary. This, as Auerbach has discussed, demonstrates how individuals would assign meanings to their surrounding based on their experiences. In other words, a hundred individuals will likely assign a hundred different meanings to a single entity. I feel that this recognition is a salient trait that drives the movement of Modernism, making it distinctive. Paradoxically, the driving force of Modernism is also its bane, as it faces the irreconcilable issue of representing truth and reality. Given that we are all unique in our experiences and thinking, what then is reality and truth?

What then, is Truth?

It was challenging and unsettling for me to come face to face with the concept of creating, condescending to and, perhaps most critically, the act of representing the colonised figure, as Picasso does in his abstract work, taking the African body as a subject of art, rather than an autonomous individual capable in some way of presenting himself. I could see the two main points of Levine’s article clearly articulated in the example of Picasso in Gikandi’s article. Firstly, that the colonised is conceptualised within the dichotomy of the “superior” colonial figure (the West), as an outsider, or Other. And more importantly, that a fundamental show of colonial power lies in the representation, or speaking for, this Other.

Picasso’s abstract representation of the African as a work of art is a fundamental disempowering of the colonised figure because as he creates his own image of this figure, he prescribes a certain way of interpreting what this person stands for, as a symbol of his culture and more widely, of his people. The subsequent lack of “voice” given to the African figure to be represented as he really is, brings to the fore the fundamental question posited in Modernist thought – that of the interpretation of truth. Picasso’s representation, in abstraction, emphasises the subjectivity of perception and therefore unhinges the concept of an objective truth: “an African is really like this” (as opposed to how Picasso represents him). This to me, was the most unsettling outcome of reading these texts.