My Literary Bildungsroman

When I read Portrait for the first time in another class (I was year 2 then), I remember that the thing which stuck with me most was the idea of Stephen being stuck in an impasse because in as much as he wanted to “fly by those nets” (220) cast upon him by his national inheritance, there is a simultaneous inability to break through those nets because it was always the acceptance of the Irish themselves of their subjugated positions that make this “flying” literally impossible.

Now, when I’m reading it again, I realize I understand the nuances of this impasse a lot better. Having learnt what modernist art attempts to do by challenging traditional modes of representation (is any form of realist representation real in the first place?) and what post-colonial politics are involved with every writing process ( especially when the writer/artist figure has been previously colonised), I realize that Stephen’s impasse involves many more layers of subjugation than those of his literal circumstances. Because it’s not the just the double binds that Stephen finds himself in: being an artist, no one understands his art and he is thereby an exile; but by following the crowd, he is essentially contributing to Ireland’s continual subjugation because “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (220), it is also the inability to find a language outside of which that he has inherited. This is because English is a language that is not of his own heritage but is also ironically the only one through which he knows how to express himself, hence this mode of artistic representation will forever be self-ironizing no matter how he tries to fly by those nets.

Yet, I think having understood much of what modernist texts try to do with art and representation, the saving grace of Portrait is the idea that perhaps the art is in using the inherited foreign language that is English to convey the subjugated psyches of the Irish. This is very much like what Chinua Achebe talked about in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, where the redemption that an African writer can do for his art is to appropriate the use of English for his art because English is part of his history/heritage and to accept that is to move a step forward in better self-representation. So the importance isn’t in denying the self of the use of English but to appropriate it with one own’s cultural contexts such that English becomes merely the mode of Art through which one’s cultural disposition can be expressed. And in Portrait, the constant self-ironizing, I believe is therefore the way Stephen understands and represents the Irish condition that is in and of itself very ironic in the first place.

Impressionistic Aesthetics in Growing

I’m going to hop on the fictionality bandwagon here too. I found the autobiography to be strangely surreal and impressionistic in the way everything is portrayed such that, like Russell, Peiyi and Yuying, I found the believability of this self-claimed autobiography quite questionable. However, to me what really highlighted the artifice of this autobiography is not just the references to the fictional characters or the theatrical elements mentioned in the text that my classmates have already brought up. Instead, I believe that this questioning of the text’s reliability can also be examined via its aesthetics.

The impressionistic way in which the landscapes are drawn up in Growing – the descriptions elephant pass and the “thick jungle thin[ning] into scrub jungle and then into stretches of sand broken by patches of scrub” and the “gaunt disheveled palmyra palms […] sticking up like immense crows” – sounds a lot, to me, like rather vague and brush-stroke-blending way of glossing over the landscape. While the writing of an autobiography banks a lot on memory and remembrance, I couldn’t help but notice how the writing is really veiled by a layer of rose-tinted of nostalgia, and that the descriptions are reflecting psychological landscapes and the overall impression of the place rather than placing emphasis on any type of accurate representation. And this is why I want to suggest that his writing is actually very impressionistic; because the attention he pays to detail in the landscape isn’t really a matter of trying to convey accurate and realistic portrayals of landscape-mapping but rather, his descriptions perform an attempt in trying to achieve an overall effect of what it looks like the perceiver’s mind’s eye. And it is the impressionistic element of his writing that, to me, undercuts a lot of the reliability of what he is saying in the text. I’m not suggesting that he is deliberately lying or changing facts but I think the impressionistic aesthetic really highlights just how re-constructed his stories and recounts are and we really ought not to take everything he says to the last word, because there is a sense that these stories are told as he remembers them in the overall memory he has of Ceylon, more so than what exactly transpired in that land.

White women as conveniently flattened

The Ann Stoler reading this week asks us to consider why the deep-seated racial anxiety on the white man’s part always has to be expressed through sexuality. While the reading suggests many different possible explanations for this like the “sexual structures [..] as antithesis of the idealized self” and “sex as the ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance” (46), I felt that the reason very simply is that via a sexual discourse, the game of power becomes a very easy one to play. By conquering something – landscape, a native land, woman, treasure coves or otherwise, the white man necessarily has control over what he perceives as the weaker ‘Other’. Sexuality here therefore becomes a very useful metaphor for such a power discourse because sexual triumph is about conquest and demarcation of territory as well.

However, the complication arises as Stoler points out exactly how the white women are “rarely the object of European male desire” (44). This is because if the sexual conquest of the woman is so important in buttressing the masculinity of the white men, then why are the white women excluded from this similar violent conquest of womenfolk? It struck me that the reason is really rather simple. In a foreign land, where Europeans are few and far between, it is more important to put race before sex – in that, it is more important to subjugate the racial ‘other’ before the sexual ‘other’, simply because maintaining white supremacy is of utmost importance. By sexualizing the native women and neutering the white women, I want to suggest that white men can therefore maintain a layer of homogeneity in the way white society is portrayed. Simply put, white women are not seen as a sexual ‘other’ because women must not be perceived as sexual preys to the white men, in the natives’ eyes so as to maintain the purity of the ‘white’ class.

Yet, incidentally, I want to suggest that the subjugation of white women here is thus even more insidious. Applying the logic we have acquired from Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ a couple of weeks ago, we can see here that white women are the most utterly discriminated in the way they are neutered, desexualized, flattened and forced into the backdrop of “white” superiority, so as to prop up white masculine supremacy. Hence, while the native women are the victims of the white men’s sexual conquests, the white women are the victims of the white men’s negligence.

The Elephant as the Burmese Moby-Dick

I really liked reading “Shooting an Elephant” (not because it’s short) but because I thought that for once, there is a story that is not completely swept over and obsessed with the colonist-colonised dichotomy. While I agree that it is still a trope to be considered in the story, I think what I really enjoyed about reading this is the way it portrayed fears of embarrassment, personal dilemmas as something more human than anything else. The biggest thing that was staring back at me, especially in the beginning, is the way the elephant reminded me of Moby-Dick, because it isn’t until the end that we finally get to meet the creature and up to the point when we do meet it, all that we understand of it is constructed by the stories heard about it or told about it. In the same sense, the way that the Narrator is chasing after the elephant, hunting it down and being haunted by the ways that the elephant eludes him, made me think that on some level the narrator is a fusion of both Ahab and Ishmael.

This parallel is useful to me because I feel that the elephant is more important in bringing out the character’s individual failures and flaws, than being a creature itself; the same way Moby dick is more important as a canvas for Ahab and Ishmael’s personal nightmares to be played out than as a deadly whale itself. The reason I say this is because we never do see the elephant thrashing about or destroying anything the way that we have been told it does. Instead, we see it grazing in the distance. So there is a sense that when the narrator convinces himself that he should kill the elephant because the elephant could potentially be dangerous, we find it a difficult argument to accept because his reasons are purely hypothetical and possibly even imagined at worst.

Yes, one may argue that the villagers have witnessed and have told stories of the elephant’s horrific doings but the way the story is framed – i.e. the elephant we see is harmless instead of thrashing about, and that even the narrator suspects the villagers’ accounts (“Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have hear of any elephant. I had almost made up my mind that the whole story was a pack of lies.”) suggests that perhaps the reason for shooting the elephant is not really because the elephant is posing a very plausible danger, rather it is because of the character’s own inner inability to own up to his own uncertainty and to admit to his mistaken decisions.

Also, on a side note I think it’s interesting how after the narrator kills the elephant, the natives actually “stripped thehis body almost to the bones”. In a sense, I think what this reveals is that perhaps it is the colonist’s self-aggrandizing acts (and of course, the introduction of capitalist desires/pursuits) that actually brings out the savagery and the worst in the natives, because the way that the colonist ritualises his actions and “justifies” any wrong act by virtue of his racial superiority ultimately only permits the natives to be even more savage and hungry for loot.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 7) – Part I

Topic of Class

The presentation today was mainly concerned with the overarching theme of narrative (both the oral and written tradition) and how these narratives help shape the construction of identities in Lord Jim. The presenters explored the use of frame narratives, missing narratives and misappropriated narratives in order to highlight both the inadequacies and strengths of such an act of storytelling.

One of the biggest inadequacies was the way that the failure of language highlights the instability and subjectivity of narratives, particularly the oral ones. Because there is a sense that many oral stories are told can be altered according to the way audience response. (Said: “…a storyteller has the power to shape his material to match his audience’s response)

But the group also suggested that this was also a strength for the oral tradition, because it involves many more people than a writing process would, which in Said’s words, is essentially a “work of solitude”. The valorization arises from the fact that oral traditions are rooted in the idea of the Gemeinschaft (community) which places value on the plural and fluid multiplicity of perspectives. Hence, by putting these various perspectives together, Conrad not only manages to highlight the fact that having a singular coherent narrative is impossible, highly artificial and unconvincing, he also manages to effectively highlight the narrative gaps in the story, suggesting that indeed there are many multiple ways of approaching and understanding a part of the “Truth”, as opposed to one hard and fast method of doing so.

The group also discusses however the fact that oral narratives necessarily beg the complicity of the reader/listener. This is because in listening to the story, not only are the listeners made to become “keepers of Marlow’s story”, their participation in reproducing the story also therefore means that they have an ethical responsibility towards the text and future readers/listeners as well.

The group then explored the idea that the written tradition provides a foil to the unofficial oral tradition, in that a written narrative which is considered “official” is often left unquestioned as a unified objective understanding of the “Truth”. Through various explorations of underlying assumptions, the presenters hence pointed out to us the need to question the singularity of writing exercise and the way it blanks out and obliterates multiplicity. They suggest that the function of written narratives is not to provide plurality or a chorus of voices, rather, they are there to define, archive, remember and also confine. i.e. in trapping Jim in a static text, one can then look at him with retrospective glamour or nostalgia. However, there’s also the increasing awareness that the act of writing is also an act of appropriating, selecting and mediating, so that at any one point you can never really retrieve the essence of the moment anymore – i.e. “No live-entering”. Worse, the power of writing diminishes when one realizes that the final outcome is fixed and immutable and that ultimately, language sets you further away from the truth than it brings you closer.

Lastly, the presenters considered how the construction of Jim’s identity is done via the mediums of other characters like Marlow, Brierly, Brown and even Tam’Itamb. Also, even Jim’s construction of his ownself is highly problematic. He will not and has not forgotten the fact that he jumped ship but he lives in this narrative and fictionalised reality so that he can re-write the guilt and the past. So the juxtaposition of these narratives raises the increasing awareness that Jim’s glorified narratives are constantly undercut by his past narrative upon the Patna. As a result, Jim is always in a personal tug-of-war with himself. So, there is a sense that the Jim we know is the collection of various perspectives we have retrieved so far. Yet in our pretended belief that we are getting closer to who Jim is, there is also an increasing sense of estrangement from his character. This is especially so if we consider the open ending – an ellipsis. Here, the audience/readers can take away whatever they want from the ending and therefore construct Jim for the way they assumed him to be. Seeing how this is subjective, then can one then ever really know his character?


EG. Official written as unquestionable? Wallace’s reading was considered one of “best scientific travel books”. While you believe him because of the empirical evidence methodology that he utilises and because of his authority as an established biologist, there is a sense that as he describes what he observes, he ends up prescribing our constructed imagination of the dyaks, chinese and malay respectively. As a result, a strong racism is embedded in the narratives passed on as truth!

E.G. Ethical complicity: the man on the verandah “He paused again to wait for an encouraging remark, perhaps, but nobody spoke; only the host, as if reluctantly performing a duty, murmerd – “ You are so subtle, Marlow’” (Conrad, 256) So, the man on the verandah becomes complicit in listening and responding to the story that the narrator. Then, “He existed for me, and after all it only through me that he exists for you. I’ve led him out by the hand and I have paraded him before you” (Conrad 172) As a result, as listeners to this tale, we also implicitly become “keepers of Marlow’s story”

E.G. Writing as defining; as archiving; as remembering and as confining. “Wallace associates a Charaxes kadenii butterfly with a moment in time when a boy brought it to him. “ “And Stein similarly felt a huge sense of happiness in capturing his butterfly”(Conrad 161). Here, while being able to capture the immense overwhelming force and internalising it as fulfilling, the inherent fallacy then becomes evident when you realise that everything is still selected and mediated, and that it’s not just merely collection.

E.G.: Construction of Identity through others: Brierly saw himself in Jim and in a sense because he recognised his own ability to be cowardly and guilty, it’s as if all his attempts to stay together in one piece and to be honorable and ideal previously were pointless and futile. Hence he commits suicide (Wake 92-3) Brown as Doppelgaenger: “And there ran through the rough talk a vein of subtle reference to their common blood, an assumption of common experience, a sickening suggestion of common guilt, of secret knowledge that was like the bond of their minds and hearts” (Conrad 296) Tamb’itam echoes Jim’s thoughts: “’It is not safe for thy servant to go out amongst the people,’ said Tamb’itam…It was not safe for his servant to go out amongst his own people!” (312)

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

The questioning of the reliability of narratives whether oral or written is not a new topic. We have done with Heart of Darkness and to a certain extent we even questioned the gaps of narrative in Passage to India when we no longer heard the narratives of Mrs. Moore, Adela and Aziz (at different points in the book). Today’s discussion really opened up this debate and extensively highlighted both the successes and failures of reading/writing. However, there is also the fact that because we are aware of the shortcomings, therefore there is the possibility that we are not disempowered by this lack of total knowledge; rather, we are empowered in the sense that we have access to a plurality of perspectives that puts us in a better position to understand and approach the heart of the matter. That being said, this is also nevertheless undercut by the fact that every subsequent story we tell will never allow use full access to the past already. (Think: No live-entering argument) So perhaps our sense of empowerment as a reader also depends highly on how aware we are of our shortcomings, assumptions and responsibilities as readers to a text.

The Unnatural nature of Naturalised arguments in Wallace

Maybe I owe it to my class in Psychoanalysis but when I was reading the Alfred Russel Wallace reading, I could not help but be quite disturbed about how Wallace, with much ease, naturalised his arguments for the “primitivity” of the Dyaks. Naturalisation here means that he is attributing many reasons for the condition of the people to their biology and seeing how you cannot debunk biological evidence, the arguments he has set up for himself are therefore infallible.

To me, this naturalisation of argument goes beyond the simple positing of the White man as the “higher” race (70) and the Dyaks as the other-ed, categorisable object of anthromorphological observation. More insidiously, it’s the way Wallace suggests, that the reason why the Dyaks are not procreating fast enough is because the women are subjected to “hard labour” and “heavy weights [that] they constantly carry”, that such work “limits her progeny” (70). He attributes the reason of the Dyaks’ lack of “prosperity” (because of the lack of offspring) to the fact that dyak women are not confined to the domestic space. This is not only ethnocentric in my point of view – considering that Wallace is definitely comparing the Dyak culture to the late Victorian English code of femininity here, but also highly problematic because more than anything else, I think this observed evidence of the Dyak women will help the English justify the way they have restricted the female to the domestic space at home.

Also, if we take note of the fact that he is asserting, without justification, that “an increase in population” is indicative of “increased happiness” (75), we can then observe the problems with this assumption: because it not only destabilises all of Wallace’s arguments about why the womenfolk should stay at home, but  what is more disturbing to me is the fact that Wallace manages to get away with simply reducing the reasons for needing to put a woman “in the household”, where she would have “duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field”, to the naturalised and unverified conclusion that her hard work is inhibiting her fertility.

Hence, on these two levels – i.e. the unverified conclusions that increased population = increased happiness (I’m thinking about the post-war baby boom here); and that working in the field = inhibited fertility, I found the Wallace reading highly disturbing and unconvincing. Granted, I probably should consider the fact that this was written in 1890, but still.

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.

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)

Versions of Truth in Passage to India

If we can suggest a thing such as “the Truth”, then in the eyes of the reader, the “Truth” is that Mrs. Moore did nothing to bail Aziz out of his plight; instead it was Adela who woke up from her stupor and rescued Aziz from a lifetime of reprehension. Yet the fact Aziz never forgives Adela and instead looks to the deceased Mrs. Moore as a figure of recuperation, fondness and “love” only complicates our understanding of what “Truth” really is. While we may be (reductively) inclined to say that Aziz is deluded, I think it is actually more complex than that because his version of the “truth” is not any less valid than our sympathetic reading of it either. After all, his is also the result of how he has chosen to comprehend the turn of events. 

 Using Adela’s words “we must all die; all these personal relations we try to live by are temporary. I used to feel death selected people, it is a notion one gets from novels, […] Now ‘death spares no one’ begins to be real” (249), I would like to posit that Aziz is therefore “writing” his own life story by immortalizing Mrs. Moore – because that is the only way he can construct his version of reality and come to terms with the illogical horrors that happened to him. 

Death had selected Mrs. Moore rather randomly, yet Aziz makes a martyr out of Mrs. Moore exactly because she died. To me, I think this is because putting Mrs Moore on the pedestle is a much easier task than forgiving the living Adela for Aziz. Upon death, Mrs. Moore can no longer speak, so Aziz is free to do whatever he wants to her memory. Without contradictions, Aziz is then able to construct a coherent narrative (like that of a “novel” in Adela’s words) that helps him cope with the unexpected and bizarre accusation that he was faced with out of nowhere. In a way, I could not help but wonder if Mrs. Moore had lived and continued to display her apathy towards all that happened (including Aziz), would he still have elevated her to such a status?

 And I think the implication of this is therefore the impulse that is inherent within Modernism itself too– that, in the end it’s not about what reality is (if we can even access it in the first place) but the stories and versions of truth that we tell that is more important to giving our existence meaning and coherence. This is however not to say that our versions of truths are blatant lies in any way; rather it is the way we have chosen to look at life; and it is need not always exist in line with what really happened from a neutral third party’s point of view (a la the reader in this story). 

Is the concept of Racism a new thing?

As we talked about racism/racist opinions of the colonials masters in the Gikandi reading, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I recognised the racism immediately the way the colonial masters did not.  When I was reading Passage to India, I found several similar moments again in the text when I felt that the British racism is beyond acute; and yet disturbingly enough, the British (once again) manages to naturalize the racism – as if it’s only natural that the Indians are lesser beings because they weren’t white. Such moments include, “ Most of the inhabitants of India do not mind how India is governed. Nor are the lower animals of England concerned about England” (Forster, 104) and “when an Indian goes bad, he goes not only very bad, but very queer” (158) when Fielding is trying to argue for Aziz’s innocence and McBryde suggests Indians have no sensibilities to hide evidence even when they’re guilty of the crime.


All these things made me wonder subsequently, if our concept of ‘racism’ and the values we attach to ‘racism’ – i.e. that it is not a desirable thing, is really a result of post-colonialism; in that, I’m wondering if indeed it’s because we have come a long way from treating the subaltern as sub-human to a point where we see the need to see them as equals that we have become so aware of the racism inherent in such texts. It certainly cannot be that the British recognized their own racism in the colonial times but chose to ignore it. Rather, I believe that the concept of racism, and by extension – the ability to recognize racism, is possibly therefore still a rather new thing – one that is borne out of a changed consciousness in modernity.

Silencing and the assertion of power

The Gikandi reading made me deeply aware of the fact that in fighting for a new kind of art that would rival their predecessors, Modernist artists necessarily have deny and subjugate another marginal group so as to assert some kind of individual power/strength. Despite the various meditations, to me, Picasso’s “avant-garde” technique is really just an extraction of what he chose to see and appropriate from the African artifacts. Not only is this really an arbitrary standard, more importantly it does not acknowledge or recognize the Africans who crafted those artifacts as “producers of culture” themselves (Gikandi 456).

By insisting that the African works have a “perceptual” rather than “conceptual” influence on his work, Picasso is necessarily exiling the African subject from the space, which he had appropriated for his own exercise of individuality, and I see this a refusal to give credit to the African “Other” as indicative of a deeper anxiety on Picasso’s part. I think Picasso’s methodology really highlights a deep-seated struggle for power and self-assertion: by exiling the African subject and reclaiming the African space for himself, he manages to maintain power and control over his appropriated “object/empire”. But perhaps what motivates such a self-congratulatory position is really the fear that if he should admit that African culture had a constitutive affect on his work, he would also necessarily admit that the artwork is not completely a product of his own personal artistic genius; and that the silenced African subject was actually more poignant/important than he had (arbitrarily) allowed it to be.