Art and Religion

Can language truly liberate us from ourselves as social beings? Joyce’s question struck me – ‘What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?’

The former, upon which Joyce’s childhood and world view was brought about,  ‘an absurdity which is logical and coherent’, refers to the structure by which religion is constituted, it is absurd insofar as it is an invisible structure founded upon by our faith and belief in the supernatural, the miracle and a higher divine order that transcends ourselves and our earthly realm. The Bible as the canonical text is essentially ‘logical and coherent’, since it informs us about the values and beliefs of Christianity which is founded upon the teachings of Jesus, moral goodness, the depravity of sins, amongst others.

Yet to ‘embrace one which is illogical and incoherent’ – that is to embrace the atheist life of a modernist writer and to forge a path for himself in an aesthetic experiment which demands that he becomes the creator, basing his art on the experiences of reality and everyday life, while doing away with past burdens and beliefs, seems a terrifying but nonetheless exhilarating experience to me. As much as the world is governed by systems, laws, rules and order, one’s consciousness and feelings often times remain in Joyce’s words, ‘illogical and incoherent’. Even as Stephen goes ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’, I get the sense that Joyce’s semiautobiographical work of art has achieved precisely this aim, in his ability to articulate and pour forth his “stream-of-consciousness” into the ordered world of language and cement his place as one of the greatest modernist writers of the twentieth century.

Woolf’s “Growing”

“… the cafe waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously ‘acting the part’. If there is bad faith here, it is that he is trying to identify himself completely with the role of waiter, to pretend that this particular role determines his every action and attitude. Whereas the truth is that he has chosen to take on the job, and is free to give it up at any time. He is not essentially a waiter, for no man is essentially anything.” – Sartre on “bad faith”

With Sartre’s quote we may try to apprehend the moral crisis of identity which often faces the figure of the reluctant colonist – be it Woolf or Orwell – in his uncomfortable feelings towards imperialism and empire. In Growing I feel that Woolf paints his autobiographical character with greater depth and conviction, for if Orwell’s Flory’s interests and contemplations are often self-serving, Woolf incorporates both the psychological interior and exterior dilemmas of the reluctant colonist in his theatrical personae, the public mask and façade of the surroundings, as well as the dilemma of being the colonial administrator which entails making difficult decisions affecting the native people in various operational duties.

Woolf likens his initial experience in Ceylon as a kind of ‘second birth’ and I feel the need to link this second trauma of alienation and estrangement, of being brought into an entirely new world, to explain why the colonizer acts as he must as the enforcer of imperialism. He has to validate his existence in an alien world and justify his righteous power over the people. Coupled with Woolf’s moralistic ideals and his altruism, such tensions doubtlessly surface in his self-reasoning: ‘to them I was part of the white man’s machine, which they did not understand. I stood to them in the relation of God to his victims: I was issuing from on high orders to their village which seemed arbitrary and resulted in the shooting of their cows. I drove away in dejection, for I have no more desire to be God than one of his victims’.

The way in which Woolf depicts his orientalist attitudes towards native life and culture, together with his humanist philosophy towards animals, nature and even Buddhism, are at odds with the façade of his public personae as the  harsh and no-nonsense colonial administrator. But like Orwell, Woolf is at least faithful to a genuine depiction of colonial experience through the lens of a former colonist. One cannot begin to attack a system until one has had real experience of being in it, as is the case for imperialism and the complicity of the reluctant colonizer.

Women and Empire

Stoler seems to highlight exactly how tenuous and precarious are the women’s relationships with the patriarchal colonial empire, ‘because of their ambiguous positions, as both subordinates in colonial hierarchies and as agents of empire in their own right’ (41). As much as the men and perhaps even more so, white women in the outskirts of empire have to articulate their femininities via the constructed roles created for them by colonialism, most often through the choice (or lack thereof) of men they pick in marriage, in order to command the status, riches and respect as the “burra memsahib”.

 Stoler’s reading becomes interesting in her suggestion that European women are crucial to the reinforcement of colonial boundaries and imperial hierarchies through ‘bolstering a failing empire and to maintaining the daily rituals of racialized rule’ (56). In Burmese Days this becomes particularly relevant because the caricature of the burra memsahib in Elizabeth typifies such a woman. Strict racial lines are drawn as she rejects Flory’s attempts to show her native life in Burma, by turning her nose in disgust at the festive show, the Chinese merchant shop and even refusing to step into the headman’s house. It seems peculiar that Orwell inverses the sexual power relationship between Flory and Elizabeth whose relationship was doomed from the start because Flory was never the sahib that he ought to behave as, while Elizabeth represented too much of the idealized English woman he could never possess. Elizabeth’s final rejection of Flory because of her hatred for his ‘dishonorable’ and ‘unforgivable’ birthmark also takes on racial and symbolic overtones as Flory is deemed to transgress racial frontiers when his liaison with Ma Hla May was brought to light.

Flory’s birthmark

It was put forth that Flory would have been the man Orwell would have become if he had chosen to stay on in Burma. Flory, very much modeled after the figure of Forster’s Fielding but undoubtedly a shadow of Orwell himself; is not afraid to joke with his close doctor confidante that ‘the British Empire was an aged female patient of the doctor’s’, speak surreptitiously about the true nature of imperialism in various analogies, as the ‘official holds the Burman down while the business man goes through his pockets’, and half-detest and admire his fellow Europeans for not possessing the same clairvoyance as he does, yet Flory is much too cowardly and incapable of standing up for his native doctor friend to arrest the self-pitying situation which he is contend to thrive in.

The same Flory is similarly capable of exploiting his own patriarchal position vis-à-vis Empire against native women, keeping mistresses for his own lust and pleasure and dismissing them guiltily when he is done with them (Orwell’s ambiguous attitude towards the exploitation of women arises in part from his own experiences). From Flory’s long ranting monologue, the reader gains an insight to the multiple plagues of his life – the ills of alien empire depriving the colonist from the capacity to think and articulate his thoughts, to the dire performativity of the self as dictated by the ‘pukka sahib’s code’, his tacit admission that his roots had grown too deep into Burmese soil, his love-hate relationship with Burma, Empire, and himself, it is not hard to see why Flory is finally driven to suicide. The blue birthmark on Flory’s side of the face, the part of himself which he constantly seeks to suppress in silence and bitterness, surfacing time and again in the novel as a fragmentary reminder that he really  is no different from the others, simply will not go away.

Orwell: ‘to make political writing into an art’

 ‘What I most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art’, as Orwell declares, and it is not hard to see why it is the case even in Shooting an Elephant. I was initially taken by Orwell’s plain prose style and the way he strives to render an objective account of what he sees, but in the midst of researching, pondering and trying to deconstruct his essay, what I discovered instead is the sheer richness and density of his words, as with how a simple sentence in itself might convey a multiplicity of meanings.

This is essentially the challenge that modernist writers pose towards the readers, by unsettling us with their richness of experience and taking us out of the comfort zones of which we are accustomed to. While Orwell points to the performative role of the colonizer who is trapped by the expectations of the natives and the rigors of the colonial system, he is nonetheless writing from the detached role of the modernist artist who is constantly self-checking the figurative first person through the use of rhetoric, irony and sarcasm.  

It is thus useful to comment briefly on the title of the essay itself, the verb ‘shooting’ conveys a sense of action, and it is around this bourgeois colonial action demanded of Orwell that his dilemma is centred, and modernism’s commitment to the totality of depicting reality thus allows the interiority of Orwell’s dilemma to come to light, as well as to signal the possibility of alternatives in our choice between freedom and unfreedom.

Stein’s butterflies and the dream

How the romanticized myth of imperialism fuels the ambitions and dreams of despotic or hopeful men may be read as one indictment of the novel. The symbolism of Stein’s butterflies foretells men’s desire to grasp hold of every minute microcosm that constitutes the universe – to label, to showcase, to proclaim something as one’s own; as if the dream is the singular obsession which gives meaning to a person’s life. The ambition /quest to possess on colonist terms is subtly hinted at when Conrad suggests that ‘Stein never failed to annex on his own account every butterfly or beetle he could lay his hands on’.

Conrad attacks the romanticized idea of the dream as a distant ideal which can never be attained, as Stein laments ‘And do you know how many opportunities I let escape; how many dreams I had lost that had come in my way?’ By the end, it is telling how Stein is himself world-wearied, and “says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this… ‘while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies”.

The chief overreacher in the novel, Lord Jim, is also self-conscious of the one failure that haunts him like a dodging shadow to his life, in spite of his successful venture in Patusan. He is constantly aware that his existence is uncared for and unwanted by the larger world that has casted him away, in Marlowe’s words, as ‘not good enough’.    Jim’s romantic quest to be worshipped as a hero and as a successful adventurer inevitably rings hollow in his failure to acknowledge the reality of human errors and imperfections.

Lord Jim: “Millions of pink toads”

It struck me how one may similarly apply the centrality of Achebe’s arguments in “An Image of Africa” onto the reading of Lord Jim – the way in which Conrad’s metaphysical mulling about the strengths and failings of the human soul may be perceived as Eurocentric, as well as several racist elements that may be sieved from the novel.

Fragments of Jim’s character are pieced together in a non-linear fashion like an incomplete puzzle through Conrad’s dense modernist art of multiple narrators, but there is a sense that the real story is never really told – where is the narrative of the eight hundred pilgrims who were cast away and obliterated to the margins as such? Is it only heard through Marlow from the French captain? Jim as the focal character provides the basis for an insight into European-conceived notions of gentility or what is the sailor code – morality, honesty, honor, etc and his –along with the others’- defilement serves to rupture the constructedness/moral conceptions of such ideals to render a complex depiction of human nature. Yet Marlow’s sympathy with Jim raises the issue of complicity as he tries to defend the latter countless times. This excessive preoccupation and obsession with the need to side Jim as “one of us” renders the other narrative of the “masses”, being the eight hundred pilgrims, obsolete.

Secondly, deep racist sentiments may similarly be sieved from various incidents in the text. Jim in his moment of blind panic on board the Patna hit out at the man asking for water, the racial hierarchy which spatially segregates the pilgrims on the deck with the other white sailors, and the mad engineer’s oblique references to the pilgrims as “Millions of pink toads” are but a few examples. Similarly, Chester’s plan to make Jim the “supreme boss over the coolies” despite his earlier moral condemnation of Jim’s character being “no good” again reflects the unchallenged and assumed sentiments of European superiority over their inferior Others.

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 portrayal of women in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s modernist attitudes towards the New Imperialism may be discerned as containing both pro- and anti-colonial effects, with Achebe scathingly (albeit one-sidedly) attacking the way in which Heart of Darkness is really only concern about the moral degeneration of the West – with Africa acting as the muse and the entropic portrayal of human nature – and thus fundamentally euro-centric.   

The phallocentric way in which Conrad attempts to probe his female Other unhinges his deeply misogynistic attitudes in the novel, which is in spite of Conrad’s perceived liberal humanism. On one level, the masculinized sphere of colonialism has no room to include the white woman, as following Victorian tradition, still clearly demarcates the public and private boundaries in which the different sexes are permitted to present themselves in. In the two sparse and brief appearances of the white woman, as represented by Marlowe’s aunt and Kurtz’s wife, they are logically entrapped within the domestic sphere. Spatial demarcations aside, the exclusive spheres of femininity, portrayed condescendingly as an idealized and fairy world, keep them out of ideological and direct participation in imperial discourse. This may be seen in Marlowe’s dismissive saying, “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours get worse”.

Conrad’s highly eroticized and exoticized account of the African woman is a genuine reflection of the way in which the powers of imperialism allow the colonial white man to project  his sexual desires onto the doubly ‘Othered’ African woman. It is as if with the African woman (who is also aligned with the dominant tropes of silence and blackness) is stripped of those civilized and cultural codes of femininity which mark the white woman and may thus be objectified solely as the quintessential sexual object from which the collective group of empowered men (Kurtz, Marlowe, pilgrims, etc) may gawk at.

On Passage, Fielding and modernism

The tendency to read Forster’s novel in political lens, in the legacy of the colonial history that determines our ‘post’ existence today, is an inherent and unavoidable complicity on our part. Yet to read Passage outwardly from the start in the binaristic terms of “East versus West” or “Black versus White” is to miss the subtle nuances, complexities and intricacies of the novel, for while modernism at one level does not outwardly criticize colonialism, Forster’s novel nonetheless put forth a means to understanding the multiple relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, and in turn provides the platform for the questioning of attitudes towards the self-righteous hegemony of Empire.

Fielding’s problematic relationship with his colonized other Dr. Aziz in a sense emblematizes the Forster’s troubling attitude towards Empire, as in throwing his lot with the Indians and in turn becoming an outcast from the white members of the Club, he is able to empathize with his Other. Yet empathy is about as far as Fielding could push his relationship with the Other, since the colonial mentality is so deeply embedded within each party that both Fielding and Dr. Aziz needed to see one another as enemies at the very end in spite of their personal friendship. The role of Fielding in the densely psychological novel may thus be seen as a mirror of Forster’s unconscious – his superior position as the empowered colonist, which does not dismiss the feelings of complicity, guilt and empathy towards the colonized.

The nationalistic outcries by the end serve to show how modernism acts as the gateway to further postcolonial sentiments by providing that necessary rupturing of consciousness and highlighting the now shaky foundations on which Empire is build (“upon sand”), with hints of further violence to come.

The India that escapes imagination

The romanticized India that Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested set forth in good will to “see” escapes capture because of its very refusal to be confined by the narrow boundaries of western knowledge, understanding or perception. It is clear from the outset that Foster employs the politics of negation to challenge and counter traditional perceptions of what India appears to be, against what it actually is not. India, as Foster suggests, ‘has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal’.

The appearance of things becomes the general “unwritten” code of conduct governing the city of Chandrapore (as is the novel); and while Dr. Aziz seems to be represented as the agent through which the true spirit of India may be accessed in Adela’s view, we are instead presented with a man who is caught in a nostalgic romanticization of the old Mughal Empire and one who is disillusioned by the inferiority of his position vis-a-vis British India at present.

The pivotal turning point of the novel arguably resides in the symbolic echo in the Marabar cave, where all noises are reduced to “boum”, at once exposing the limits of language in its reductiveness. Like India, Marabar refused to be contained or romanticized, since “it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind”. That this reductive nothingness could expose the artificiality of language, codifiers, classification and categorization separating human society from one another from his novel is finally Foster’s trick on readers who attempt to find a unifying meaning to the complex tensions that at once seem to surface but also elude us.

The difficulty of explaining what the term “modernism” really meant struck me on a discussion with a friend about the subject. Suffice to say that I – fourth year literature major with all my intellectual ideas and pretensions – struggled to present a precise and coherent definition of what modernism ought to be.

It is not until several readings that I begin to suspect that perhaps the essence of modernism (with its many –isms) lies in its sheer complexity (form, perspectives, techniques, modernist attitudes towards subject matter). Erich Auerbach’s reading of To the Lighthouse exemplify the complexities of Virginia Woolf’s novel as he posit that in framing objective reality as an external realm, modernist writers like Woolf strive to plunge beyond the surface meanings to expose the multi-layered nature of and the intricate relationship, between language as a mirror and medium to our understanding of  life. But I may be going a few steps too far as the situation seems to entail a paradox – Woolf goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of objective reality against the fluidity and flux of human consciousness; but rather, her writing shows how our subjectivity in turn shape perception, and reveal the constructedness of reality (as opposed to the realist novels of the nineteenth century whereby the external shapes the inward).

In “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference”, Simon Gilkandi sheds a closer insight into the power relations between the West and the Other, as he exposes the deep hypocrisy by which modernist artists like Picasso (how about Gauguin and his Tahitian paintings?) subsume and objectify the Other into the modernist aesthetics and simultaneously disentangle themselves from the subservient and degraded position of the Other (treating the Other as art object rather than rightful human beings); in so doing, the Other become the aesthetic means to the high modernist ends. In a sense, Pablo Picasso did not paint the Africans out of a complete understanding and empathy with them, but the contrary, he painted them as he saw them and chose to objectify the Africans into his own nihilistic vision of art, politicizing his art against the conventions of western traditional mediums. Perhaps it is how the great painter himself betray the mentality of the white colonialist – in his eagerness to represent modernist art as he saw it, his paintings unwittingly unveil the deep-seated anxieties which mark the problematic power relations between the colonial white man and the Other.

Lee Wenting