esse quam videri: Fanon the modernist arguing for truth.

In reading Fanon’s article on “The Negro and Language”, I was particularly fascinated by the discussion on the use of pidgin to communicate with the Negro, the complete disregard and indeed dismissal of any possibility that the Negro may in fact be more than capable of understanding “adult” French, and not actually require a simpler form of language in order to communicate. Further, I loved Fanon’s argument that colonial discourse has been so internalised that one is unconscious about one’s condescension, and indeed as simplistic an argument as this seems, it is this kind of reflexivity that perhaps we need even now, in overcoming prejudice that undercuts even the most well-intended interactions.

Yet, Fanon’s most scathing criticism is not for the ignorant / condescending white man, but for the Westernised Negro, the native who upon returning can almost immediately be identified as “European” (hence, black skin, white masks). His greatest contention is not merely that colonialism has told the native figure he should be _____, or that he is _____, but that the native comes to believe this is true. And in believing in his inferiority, the native attempts to overcome it by being like the white man. Fanon argues this is in itself impossible, for even with a white mask, black skin is still black skin (one thinks of Michael Jackson but that is beside the point).

What Fanon stands for, at the end of the day, and what is reiterated throughout the book, then, is the concept of esse quam videri, or to BE, rather than appear to be. There is a desire for truthfulness in one’s identity that Fanon is calling out for. No shame in being “native”, only in pretending to be white when it is an impossibility. And briefly, then, Fanon fulfills the Modernist ideal of pursuing truth, and rejecting past “truths”.

Fiction vs. autobiography

Like Russell and Peiyi, I was also struck by the rather ‘fictional’ feel of Leonard Woolf’s Autobiography. Not only does he make allusions to literary figures and fiction in general, the general tone, pace and structure of the writing seemed very Victorian-fiction to me. What particularly struck me was this sentence: “I set out for Jaffna with a Sinhalese servant, my dog, a wooden crate containing Voltaire, and an enormous tin-lined trunk containing clothes” (23).

If this were a piece of fiction that we were doing a close reading of, I think we’d all fixate on the choice of these things that accompanied him on his journey, and look for structural symbolisms and other, deeper meanings to them. Yet, I’m not sure if this speaks more to our ‘over-enhanced sense’ as literature students, or the blurred lines between fiction and autobiography. At the same time, it occurs to me that the most enjoyable autobiographical writings are those that read like fiction (here I can’t help but think of Roald Dahl’s Boy). I mean, that is precisely the reason I find Virginia Woolf so unreadable—’high Modernist’ writing that rejects the conventions of rigidly controlled linear-narratives propelled by events might be closer to ‘life as it was lived’, but it’s definitely hard to read, or it is for me at least.

Taking the consideration of fiction-vs-reality in another direction, can autobiography ever really capture ‘truth’, or recap events as they happened? To a certain extent, isn’t all writing re-creation, fiction? Personally, whenever I’ve read autobiographical works, I’ve always wondered how on Earth the authors remember tiny details—for example how could Leonard Woolf possibly remember what he brought with him on that journey, much less the details of what type of trunk his books were packed in?

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.



The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.


Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

Like A Passage to India, Lord Jim can be read through The Trial as a quest for knowing the Truth. A trial embodies an investigation into a case, not just for the “fundamental why, but the superficial how, of [the] affair” (45).

Jim is fully aware of the trial’s objective, trying “to tell honestly the truth of this experience” (23), and to “go on talking for truth’s sake” (26). He knows the trial seeks facts, but more importantly, he realizes that facts cannot explain everything, that these “questions did not matter though they had a purpose” (45). The sailors are precisely looking for something beyond facts, “the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions” (45), which Jim understands he is unable to ever provide a satisfactory explanation for regardless of his truthfulness.

When Jim recounts “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer” (27), it reflects the realization of the inadequacy of language to accurately express emotional truth. This is similar to how Brierly’s only response is not via copious explanations which would ultimately fail him, but by committing suicide and bringing the secrets with him into the sea. In A Passage to India, Aziz’s trial may have revealed the truth of his innocence, but it can never articulate the truth behind the caves and echo that caused such a profound psychological and emotional impact on Adela, resulting in her accusation of him.

The Trial thus symbolizes how humans seek to find meaning on two levels: the first as that of tangible facts. But facts do not satisfy and humans still seek meaning on a deeper level, i.e. the Truth, the emotions beyond the facts, or the real meaning of the caves and echo. The Trial represents how ultimately, it is difficult to reach this Truth and reflects instead the failure of language in attempting to articulate the Truth.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Lord Jim and Modernism

I’ve always had a kind of sketchy view on what “high Modernism” really means, but in reading Conrad’s Jim, I think I might be starting to understand the shift to Modernist aesthetics. What struck me most was the fact that Conrad seeks not only to debunk the idea of glorifying and romanticising sea stories, but also works to undermine the very essence of “heroism”. Modernism (to me) rejects the idea of a SIMPLE truth, and explores whether this “truth”/Truth can ever be knowable through not only action, but language as well.

In Jim, “facts” (25) are described as “something else besides, something invisible…” (25). Not only is truth made invisible to those who seek it, but Conrad personifies the seeking mind as “a creature” (26). This makes me think that Modernists do not DENY the existence of Truth, but that they define it as something fluid (maybe even alive like the case of the Marabar Caves) and ultimately undefinable. We actually see hints of this in 19th Century poetry by the likes of Keats and Shelley- Shelley’s poem, “To A Skylark” is an (self-proclaimed) attempt to pin down and define that which is ultimately undefinable.

Thus, Modernists believe that Truth is so elusive and difficult to conceive because it is something that is alive, and possibly constantly changing, and therefore always remaining out of reach. For Conrad, he portrays the inadequacy of the human mind to conceive the notion of “heroism” by exaggerating Jim’s ideas of it, of “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line…” (7). High-flown notions are thus easily recognisable and exist to expose the artificiality of “questing for truth”, yet we are left with the question of: if what we know is false, where is truth?

Note-taking for Heart Of Darkness (Part I lecture five)

As discussed, the central problems posited by the group’s presentation may be broached upon through several questions: Why truth? How is modernism’s representation of truth relevant to our understanding of Empire and colonial imperialism and why is it important? How may language and in that sense, modernist techniques, obscure and bring us further and further away from Truth? Also, is there really an all-encompassing Truth reflecting reality – the essential reductive quality of Kurtz’s famous epiphanic vision, or are there simply many various versions of truth co-existing in a plethora?

Firstly, the examination of “Truth” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  is important because it helps us determine the extent to which the text may be deemed as critical to the workings and exploitations of colonialism if we accept Marlow’s judgments at surface value. Yet the deeper underpinnings of the text may be read by its “failure of representation and communication” – whether thematically, structurally or in terms of narration – and how the modernist concept of “Truth” evades and eludes us. The inability of Marlow to approach such moments of truth and admit to it, highlights the undercurrents of the novel, where far from merely criticizing the greed and ills of imperialism, actually unveils the way in which the text is complicit in and subconsciously reinforcing the ideological powers of Empire.

One prominent example raised by the group is the way in which the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise not only differ in their altruistic ideas and actual practice, but also the insidious exclusivity of colonial imperialism, which seeks to demarcate between the white colonists who have the access to “truth”, against the ignorance of the wider public who are left to propagate the myth of Empire and harbor romantic delusions about civilizing the barbaric outside world. There is also a gendered aspect to this reading in the spatial and ideological demarcation within the text.

The issue remains that language cannot fully encapsulate the horrors of what Conrad is trying to convey, for while it is the modernist impulse to uncover the Truth, it paradoxically reveals how we can never actually get to it. Every reading and secondary interpretation have a way of defining the little truths about the text, but every determining statement for language necessarily eliminates other possibilities and as such, Truth remains mysteriously elusive, much like the dense fog which literally and metaphorically obscures Marlow’s vision in the novel. One question remains unanswered, that if modernism veers away from the Truth and contends itself with the plethora of perspectives, is it finally unable to adequately address the wrongdoings and guilt of colonialism? Finally, the point is raised that while the novel may be read as a critique against imperialism and Empire, there is also a competing narrative to the story in the personification of Africa (effeminate, wildly sexual but also untameable), which does not fully spell out the secrets the land promises within the engulfing darkness of the novel.

The Eternal Flame

As I was reading Heart of Darkness I noticed that the motif of the flame, light and darkness appeared several times. To Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (48). The figure of the harlequin seems conspicuously out of place in the dark narrative of Heart of Darkness. Marlow talks about envying his possession of “this modest and clear flame” (119), the harlequin’s single-minded devotion to Kurtz and to what he knew as right or wrong.

I would like to put forward the notion that this glow represents our attempt to explain, interpret and share all that we know. When you light a candle, the flame can only illuminate a small portion of darkness.  It is the glow of the flame that casts light on the things around us. The flame is the medium through which the Truth is represented and conveyed to the masses. In the case of Heart of Darkness, this would be Marlow’s storytelling. In the center of the flame, there exists a black dot that we cannot access without getting scathed by the flame itself. This black dot represents the Truth, which is eternally inaccessible and unknown to us. Therefore the quest for Truth in Heart of Darkness can be represented by the motif of the candle and the flame- the eternal flame.

Truth sets the native free, or does it?

I will look at a quote from Fanon’s article: “Truth is what protects the “natives” and undoes the foreigners” (14). This problematizes modernism as a form of decolonialization because it rejects naming absolute Truth, perhaps not so much because there isn’t any but because they feel humans lack the means of communicating it. For example, the caves always echo back “boun”, no matter what you say, which I think, illustrates the inadequacies of language.   


So, if “Truth” is what sets the native free, by refusing to bring the “Truth” to light, does Forster continue to keep the colonized “penned in”? For example, by refusing to reveal the truth about Adela’s attack, Forster makes Adela’s naming of Aziz as her attacker an ambivalent gesture. If she named Aziz as her attacker because she was assaulted by an Indian, and in the darkness had mistaken the Indian for Aziz, it reinforces the colonial mentality of the “absolute evil” of the colonized. If Adela had not been attacked, her naming of an Indian as an attacker could then be read as the colonial impulse to label the natives as “absolute evil”, as she had projected a shapeless, terrifying situation into the form of an Indian. However, I think that it is arguable that instead of penning in the native, the refusal to reveal the Truth might give readers the room to form their opinions on what happened, and thus force them to review their reasons for choosing to take a particular perspective.

Modernism and Anti-colonialism


What struck me in the novel is how modernism in theory (multiple perspectives and lack of an objective “Truth) seems quite compatible with anti-colonial sentiments. For example, even at the end of the novel, it is still unclear exactly what happened to Adela in the caves. As the episode was seen from Aziz’s point of view, the reader only knows that Aziz did not do it which only illustrates the “truth” as what it is “not” as opposed to what it “is”.


The lack of clarity on exactly what happened makes every opinion invalid, because they are simply speculation. In fact, I think what becomes important through this episode is not what really happened to Adela but how the multiple perspectives illustrate the underlying distrust the Indians and British have for each other. However, in order to continue to present a voice for the “Other”, there must be an “Other” to begin with. Through claims like “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour… in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend” (263), Forster clearly defines Indians as inherently different to the British. Moreover, he seems to focus on the “primitive” nature of India, like in his description of the “incredible antiquity of these hills” (115), how “India is really far older” (115), which defines it as “Other” to relatively modern Britian. Even though this is not necessarily a negative portrayal, nonetheless, his text still positions India as primitive and exotic, incomprehensible even to sympathetic British characters like Fielding.

The Quest for the real India; A Quest for Truth

Both Adela and Mrs Moore seek to experience the “true India” (42), something more exciting and mysterious, but instead, are “disappointed at the dullness of their new life” (21). It is highly apt that Adela’s last name is Quested, as her quest is to see “the real India” (21), something other than elephant rides. For Mrs Moore, her first thought is that India is “a beautiful goal and an easy one. To be one with the universe, so dignified and simple” (71). However, both ladies later realize they cannot grasp the true India ultimately. There are no easy answers, “nothing in India is identifiable” (78), and to seek for Truth is in vain, just as everything said in the caves only amounts to a “boum” sound. I think it is this futility of getting to the Truth or depth that Nietzsche speaks of.

Another example that strikes me vividly is the instance of Adela and Mrs Moore seeing the moon’s reflection in the stream. “The water had drawn it out, so that it had seemed larger than the real moon, and brighter” (21). Adela then asks if Mrs Moore managed to see the (real) moon when she was in the Ganges. Once again, the desire to see something ‘real’ is articulated. However, the reflection of the moon that is larger and brighter than usual is just a diversion from Truth, and even when one is able to view the moon in the sky, it is never the “real” thing, ultimately pointing at the futility of the quest for Truth.

No one truth: a matter of perception in _A Passage to India_

I found, in my reading of A Passage to India, that (either to my benefit or detriment), my reading of the Introduction by Pankaj Mishra opened, if not created, a lens by which I viewed the novel not merely as a work of fiction but as a more personal musing over the complexities of India and the absence of “outlines and horizons” (Introduction: xviii) On a personal level, this perspective was both useful and indeed, important to have, given that as a result of realising Forster’s attempt “to indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds” (Intro: xix), I was made all the more aware that things presented in the novel are, simply put, not what they seem.

Perception and the play on one’s subjective view then become vital to our appreciation of the text, especially in witnessing the interactions between the Indians and English. One could not, to my mind, read this text without recognising undercurrents of judgment throughout every encounter they have with one another. Each judgment, in turn, is never allowed to be accepted as “truth”, for one can only judge as far as one is personally capable, and to find one truth is then to oversimplify matters altogether. Forster’s skill at presenting multiple perspectives, while to some, confusing, was, to me, perfectly in line with the complex, overlapping relationships and issues present throughout the text.