Shooting An Elephant: Chaos, Order & Violence

I think Shooting An Elephant very nicely illustrates the theme of Chaos, Order and Violence. Chaos wreaked by the “mad elephant” requires the police officer to “do something about it”, so as to restore order and prevent the elephant from causing anymore havoc to property and man.  However, it is ironic that the only way to subdue the chaos and instill order requires the employment of violence, which is then another kind of chaos or dis-order.

Colonialism therefore functions to tame, civilize and order the natives with institutions that function precisely on this basis of violence, whether it is the threat (causing mental chaos to instill order) or its actual implementation; a perfect example as the police force. This compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with great violence.” (23) Violence thus appears to be ultimately inevitable.

The somewhat disturbing thing about Shooting An Elephant however, is the way in which it illustrates how everyone, both colonist and colonized, are complicit in this violence. The Burman crowd is described as “watch[ing] a conjurer about to perform a trick”, giving a “deep, low, happy sigh, as of people who see the theatre curtain go up at last… They were going to have their bit of fun after all”. After the elephant is dead, their opportunistic reaction is to “strip [the elephant’s] body almost to the bones”, embodying a kind of violence too. As for the narrator, despite his assertion that “imperialism was an evil thing” and his rationalizations for killing the elephant, it does not lessen the fact that he still committed a violent act after all, what more for the sake of his (white) reputation/identity. It seems to suggest that without the chaos caused by the elephant, it would not have warranted a reason for its death either. This, we can draw a parallel to the West’s justification of the use of violence to quell chaos and instill order in the native land.

Perhaps what Shooting An Elephant is trying to underscore then, is that although it does not deny the use of violence nor the complicity of both colonist and colonized in the cycle of violence, it highlights instead how neither colonist nor colonized are spared in the oppressive cycle of guilt that accompanies colonialism and violence.

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.

The Discourse of Violence

I thought of blogging about this because it is related to my part in the presentation tomorrow, but since we have limited time to give our parts, here are some more interesting points I picked up when reading Fanon that I won’t cover in my presentation.

Fanon talks a lot about the undeniable violence wrecked on the colonised by the coloniser, and about how this violence is not limited to specific cases, but is something that is universal and “can break out anywhere” (Fanon 42). What I found most interesting is the discourse that both the coloniser and the colonised enter into in the act of imperialism. Because both parties participate in this colonial discourse, only the colonier can understand the language/meaning in the violence of the colonised (and vice versa); this is due to the fact that the colonier has also wrecked the same violence on the colonised, and will therefore recognise the similar retaliation. In Forster, despite the fact that the characters simply cannot come to any complete understanding of each other, there still exists the common recognition of violence (specifically, imperial violence) between the coloniser and the colonised.

Thus, the idea of the British Quest in India is one that is fraught with the kind of violence that Fanon identifies. Forster uses various metaphors, motifs and analogies that capture the action-reaction cycle (referred to by Fanon as “extraordinary reciprocal homogeneity” 46) of imperialism. Thus, we are forced to wonder if reciprocal violence is indeed a necessary evil in the discourse of imperialism and postcolonism. The “intuitive” (33) understanding by the colonised identified by Fanon certainly reiterates this- if the colonised know nothing but violence in the act of imperialism, they will undoubtedly think that violence is the only way of responding to it. If we think of imperialism as a unique language, then the only means of communication will therefore be using the same language.

Lastly, Fanon observes that even with independence, the colonised have regained “moral reparation and… dignity” (40), and that the only way to seek solace in their unwitting participation in the colonial discourse, they have to engage in violence to purify their history and achieve equality with their colonisers. Therefore, ironically, to cancel and forget colonial violence, the colonised have to acknowledge and even enter into that which they are trying to triumph over in order for it to vanish from the history books.

The cylcle of violence

Franz Fanon’s article ‘On Violence’ highlights the division between the colonized and the colonist that is physically manifested in the difference between their respective residential areas. Fanon depicts a ‘compartmentalized world’ of division between the two groups; the colonists quarters defined by excesses, space and luxuries while the colonized’s sector is characterized by lack, filth and overcrowding. The disparity between the two groups result in the latter’s desire to reclaim their land.  This is likewise illustrated in A Passage to India. The beginning of the novel highlights the apparent inequality by juxtaposing the privileged residences of the English with the filth of the Ganges. In addition, the injustices suffered by Aziz at the hands of the English leads him to think about an India without the English. ‘Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons… India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort!’ There is a desire for decolonization that is not without hints of violence.

Fanon states that colonialization involves violence in two ways; the taking of territories is often a bloody one and the maintenance of hierarchies of power involves threats of violence from those in power. Decolonization also involves violence towards the colonists that is effective when the colonized are united. Aziz’s desire for the purdah to fall down suggests the dissolution of religious difference to be rid of the English. The cycle of violence then reproduces itself like the imagery of the widening gyres in W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ where history seems to reproduce itself. The violence that has been imposed by the colonist results in the hurts and anger of the colonized, and this anger is channelled back via violence towards the colonists. I think that is it interesting that while independence may seem to be the end of violence between the two groups, capitalism continues to subject the former colonized to the colonist. The prosperity of Western nations is dependent on the consumers in the former colonies. After all, MacDonald’s, Starbucks and Disneyland are fast taking over the world.