To Convince Oneself: The Unconscious Discourse of the Lie in Woolf’s “Growing”

I found reading Woolf’s “Growing” both an exercise in amusement and one of irony. I was certainly entertained by his anecdotes, and found it refreshingly straightforward, much like Orwell’s account of life in Burma. At the same time I was amused / entertained, I was also (perhaps as product of this course) skeptical of his account, particularly what I considered his romanticisation of the native figure.

Surprisingly, he denies that he is “sentimentaliz[ing] or romanticiz[ing] them”, yet goes on to discuss how they are “nearer than we are to primitive man… [it] is not their primitiveness that really appeals to me. It is partly their earthiness, their strange mixture of tortuousness and directness, of cunning and stupidity, of cruelty and kindness…” I do not believe it is possible for Woolf, in his capacity as an outsider, to be able to objectively observe the native people without imagining them in an idealised frame of reference.

This is not really the issue. Said would vehemently disagree but in any case I think it’s natural that in the absence of more complete knowledge of anything, much less something as foreign and as contrary to the familiar as the “native figure”, one naturally employs one’s own frame of reference to understand something else.

What I take issue with is the defensiveness with which Woolf insists even in using a European frame of reference (alluding to a Hardy novel at that!), that he is not romanticising the native. It is as if the very idea that one should be romanticising the native figure is wrong and therefore as long as one says one is not, one isn’t. It is an unconscious lie he engages in, unconscious because of the very reflexivity with which he says “I’m not doing this” then proceeds to do it anyway. And in some ways it is an interesting indication of the meeting of the reality of the East with the discourse of the West. The two are incompatible to the European mind, one cannot admit to orientalising even if it is the most natural way of expressing what one sees and understands of a foreign world. What an artificial declaration this proves to be, since what Woolf really is doing, is romanticising the noble savage.