On The Flip-Side: Colonist the Subaltern in “Shooting An Elephant”

I found reading “Shooting An Elephant” particularly refreshing in contrast with the rather intense, in-your-face kind of texts we’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the darkness of Conrad’s fiction or the heavy-handedness of A Passage to India, but Orwell’s short story managed to encapsulate and tie together some key ideas about colonialism that have been bouncing around in my head over the last half of the sem.

One thing that struck me was the unspoken power of passive aggression against colonialism, embodied in the “petty” way in which the Burmese responded to the Europeans. The narrator makes it clear that these efforts are mere pinpricks, at least initially, but they do have an extraordinary effect of making him feel “imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner [he] chucked up [his] job and got out of it the better”. Often we preoccupy ourselves with a patronising sense of pity for the subaltern, the one whose voice is perpetually silenced. But the subaltern is not silent, he is active in his own way.

In fact, what was most fascinating about the story was the narrator’s epiphany of an alternative side of reality nearing the end of the story: the white man is in his own way, trapped, and perhaps, one might venture to suggest, silenced too. I could not help chuckling to myself reading about how he realises he was “only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind… when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys…”

Perhaps this is the most disconcerting truth about colonialism is not what it does to the “natives”, but the unperceived, certainly unexpected effect it has on the colonist. Something worth musing over, certainly.

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)

canonicity and other thoughts

I really enjoyed reading the Chinua Achebe’s article this week as he really articulated his beliefs with so much conviction that I find myself being persuaded to adopt his view. Admittedly, Achebe seems rather passionate to the point of being offensive, calling Conrad out for being a flat-out racist (343) as well as one who is xenophobic (347), viewing Africa through jaundiced eyes. But I do think he got our attention and made us realize and acknowledge the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that psychoanalysts and critics fail to comment on this. Instead, Conrad’s texts are still widely distributed and widely read around the world. This definitely raised a flag in my head about canon making and how canonicity is built around male, Eurocentric texts. This erases the voices of many subalterns: women, racial and ethnic minorities, queer studies etc and deny them a place in literary history. I think in many ways, this Eurocentric canonization of texts reinforces the idea that British literature is the standard and ‘new’ literatures like those from Africa are ‘lesser’ works. Like the Gikandi reading, it calls attention to this pressing need to review historical scholarship and readjust our definitions of what “the greatest novel” should be. I think it is heartening to know that postcolonial studies is coming to the fore and giving a voice to the subalterns, telling about the colonization experience from a colonized perspective, something that is lacking in Heart of Darkness.

I think Achebe is perfectly reasonable in wanting the West to “rid its mind of old prejudices and begin to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications” (348). He wants Africa not to be seen as a political, economic entity, not as beasts, not as an antithesis to England but as people. He wants them to have a Prospero moment, to acknowledge, “That thing of darkness I consider mine” and to accept that their “humanity is…like yours…Ugly.” Achebe I think is trying to show how we are not all that dissimilar and as fellow human beings, they have a right to be treated with respect. That isn’t too much to ask.

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.

Thoughts on Gikandi’s reading

The Gikandi reading was interesting as I for one have long regarded Picasso as the grandfather of modern art but now, I have my doubts. The first thing that came to my mind was the question of plagiarism. I mean, Picasso didn’t exactly credit the Africans for “borrowing” their pieces of cultural artifacts and instead, he as well as other scholars have shied away from acknowledging the African influence in the history of modernism. He defended himself by saying that Africa had a psychological effect on him but it was not a formal influence on modernism. But how does one differentiate a subconscious effect from a formal influence? I personally feel that there are many close similarities if not blatant imitations of African masks in Picasso’s work eg. the Grebo mask. As such, is Picasso guilty of plagiarism? If so, can he still be hailed as a great modern artist? I think that we as appreciators of art need to redefine our standards of what a great artist is. We are very much contributors to this cycle of exploitation if we fail to acknowledge the Africans’ art culture and their role in the history of modern art.
Also another question to ponder: are the Africans subalterns since the modernists have erased their existence from history? If so, can their voices ever be represented authentically using the English language given the many issues concerned with translation? Sorry this post has more questions than answers ☺