Notes for the presentation titled ‘The Artist Figure in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man’

Five points that were raised during the presentation titled ‘The Artist Figure in A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man

 1. Language as having the autonomy at making connections on its own. This is rasied with particular reference to the presence of what we call ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in the text.

 2. Loss of faith in religion as reason for rise of the epiphany. This can be seen from Stephen’s rejection of priesthood while embracing his destiny of being an artist, a realization he received from the epiphanic moment he had with the girl at the beach.

 3. The epiphany can be viewed as a narcissistic experience. This makes Stephen more of an aesthete than artist, because the latter requires humility.

 4. External reality is perceived by Stephen as a representation of something else (i.e. a metarepresentation). Thus, the connection to reality to his own consciousness makes him God-like and therefore again valorizing the artist as a supreme figure.

 5. An epiphany is always accompanied by ironies. This is an issue raised during the discussion after the presentation. The notion here is how could one create a national identity that is obliterated from any notion of nationalism at all?

Note-taking for week 13

In the first presentation, we attempted to define nationalism in general and determine which sort of nationalism it is which Stephen advocates. The presenters defined nationalism as “the assertion by members of a group of autonomy and self-government for the group’s solidarity and brotherhood in the homeland, and of its own history and culture, seeing it as a natural progression which follows colonialism and decolonization”. However, we see in Portrait that things are not as simple as that and the progression is never linear. Going back to the past before colonization is impossible because that heritage cannot be reclaimed, only perhaps as romanticized past. Going forward is what Stephen seems to think as ideal, by using the very tools of colonization like language to reassert one’s individuality and identity. Some critics argue that it is not possible to assert individuality using the language of the colonizers. However, in Homi Bhaba’s “Mimicry”, it is said that English is not owned by anyone and so its usage may be transformed by the colonized writer to write his own freedom into being.

 Initially, Stephen was shown to be colonized and indoctrinated by the coloniser’s values and discourse as he learns by rote and memorises things. This is shown by his quoting from different sources like his school textbooks and religious texts. He also quotes from Aristotle and Aquinas in a way which seems to suggest his lack of understanding according to the presenters and sometimes even quotes wrongly. This shows his discomfort with an imposed sort of learning and culture which erodes his own Irish heritage. However, later he breaks free by playing with the form of language especially in his diary entries in which he finally shifts from the 3rd person to the 1st person which emphasizes his individuality. He makes his own language and his own form of art to express himself and in doing so, expresses Irish identity.

 In the second presentation, the use of symbols and impressions reflects Stephen’s impressions of nationalism and Ireland. The politicians are “intangible phantoms” and patriotic propaganda is reduced to “hollow sounding” “voices”. Surrealism and symbolism makes it obvious that language is vague and ambiguous by nature, and writing in that way self-reflexively draws attention to that fact. By doing so, both the form and content shows imperial ambiguities and ambivalences which supports the assertion of the text being modernist. However, if modernism was supposed to be defined by empiricism (psychology of locke and Hume), then Joyce could be seen as anti-modernist because he destabilizes the notion that we may understand the essence of things and Truth by observation. If observation is unreliable, then the notion of a stable self is also problematized. Thus, modernism which places so much emphasis on the individual’s point of view becomes inadequate. Modernism is too vague to be defined as a single entity and cannot hold it own against realist literature. However, we need not see modernism as simply an offshoot of the enlightenment ideas of scientific positivism (empiricism/ Locke and Hume). There are other ways of defining modernism since it is a broader concept than that thus Joyce can still be a modernist writer even if he contradicts the precursors of modernism as a movement arising from the enlightenment.

Note-taking for the 12th.

The first half of class involved Michelle’s and KY’s presentation that focused on nationalism and language. Some of the major questions were how language is a tool of colonialism, and how is it a tool of nationalism? During KY’s presentation and subsequent discussion the focus switched to what he brought up in his last slide. We discussed modernism as it is linked to the 18C philosophy of individualism. This, in turn, led to the question of whether or not Joyce as a colonized writer is proposing a more traditional brand of nationalism or one that embraces the colonial past. During the second half of the class, we heard Rebekah and Praseeda’s presentation on the figure of the artist. This involved thinking of the artist as a product of modernity who exhibits “symptoms” of someone who lives in the urban metropolis. This presentation also discussed the role of the epiphany and how it engages with or reacts to exile. Epiphanies separates character from their authors and exiles from their past.


The main example used in the second half of class was that of Daedalus and Icarus, and how Stephen thought of himself as both. There was also the example of an epiphany when Stephen saw the woman in the sea and how it made him accept his own nature.

Note-Taking for Joyce (Jessica)

We had two presentations yesterday; we talked about language in Joyce as a tool of re-appropriation. The result of re-appropriating the English language, through deconstruction (and taking quotes out of context as Michelle mentioned) is to create an artist’s ownership of it. Most importantly, this ownership (as painted/achieved by the artist) belongs to the artist alone. Joyce therefore posits the existence of Irish Nationalism (perhaps as a means of dealing with the discourse of colonization) through the assertion of individuality (“a” portrait, not an objective, all-consuming “the” portrait), identity and creation.

However, the class had a bit of a debate over the idea of Stephen’s desire to “fly by these nets”. These nets are identified as nationality, language, religion. The fact that Stephan says “fly by” and not “fly from” strike many as significant, because it undermines the idea of totally escape and denial. During the second presentation, the exploration of myth as a motif in the text supports this idea. Even thought Stephan adamantly declares “non serviam“, he proves himself unable to disentangle his identity from the history of his own existence. If Stephen can be considered both the figures of Daedalus and Icarus, then as Daedalus, he has created art (as the second presentation mentioned, “the fabulous artificer”), but as Icarus, he is unable to escape the prison (ie, the “nets”).

Lastly, we talked about art in terms of modernity and Modernism (the aesthetic movement). Stephen’s search for transcendence has been undermined constantly in the text. His diary entries actually hint at a degeneration of sorts, and as Rebekah mentioned, there are many incidents that undermine other momentary “epiphanies”.

I don’t know how relevant this may be to the module, but interestingly enough, these “little epiphanies” can also be seen in Virginia Woolf’s texts- most specifically, in To the Lighthouse. In the dinner scene at Mrs. Ramsay’s house, she finds a moment of “stability” (Woolf 142), yet she knows that “this [moment] cannot last” (141). There is also an artist figure in the text- Lily Briscoe, who manages to complete her painting, just as Stephen is able to complete his own portrait. Yet, as the class mentioned, with so many instances of irony in Joyce’s text, how transcendental or “successful” is his attempt at transcendental art?

Very interestingly, Rebekah also mentioned that the act of pinning down truth is one that is fixed, ordered and stable. While grabbing at coherence, the act of truth-finding is reductive. This can be seen in A Passage to India, where the image of India can never really be understood or described. There is too much ambivalence, and in trying to “discover the real essence of the land”, the characters find themselves thwarted (they will never know the “real” India), violated  (Adela), or dead (Mrs. Moore).

Notes and such for 12th November

In today’s class, the first presentation regarding Ireland and nationalism framed the subsequent presentations and discussions adequately. Michelle suggested in her presentation that Joyce’s work contrasted with the notion that nationalism is part of a natural progression following colonialism and decolonialisation. Joyce’s work instead presents nationalism as an assertion of individuality which is a culmination of various factors. The final slide of the 2nd presentation suggested a reading of Joyce as anti-modernist, if the term modernist is grounded in the philosophies of John Locke and David Hume (that took up some time). One of the points raised was how the history of modernity is longer than the time frame occupied by modernism, and it is necessary not to conflate modernism with modernity. Conflation came up again in the later discussions, this time concerning the figure of Daedalus and Stephen.


I proposed an explanation of the problematic quote based on the understanding that Hume and Locke are empiricists, a field of philosophy that suggests observations as the primary source of knowledge and hence the self, developed through knowledge, is constituted of observations.In Joyce however the observable cannot constitute the individual due to the indeterminacy of language that is used to record such observations. The example of the tundish was cited by Kin Yan(?). In that sense then, Joyce would be anti-modernist IF we defined the term according to the philosophies of the two philosophers.

I think conflation as a problem arose because of the nature of modernism and the text discussed today. One example used in class today was regarding the epiphany as used in Joyce’s work, part of Praseeda’s presentation. Stephen’s epiphanies contrast with Woolfian (Virginia) epiphanies, for example, in that instead of a unity of the self with the world around him, Stephen in fact becomes more distant. While observing the girl wading in the sea, he feels that she represents all women and acknowledges the sexual feelings that accompany his observation. At the same time he distances himself from the people who experience those feelings, privileging instead her association to Ireland. The distinction Stephen makes expresses a desire to move away from conflating perspectives, choosing instead to set himself apart as an artist exiled from the larger framework of society.

In another example, it was suggested that Stephen perhaps conflates the figure of Icarus and Daedalus, and tries to straddle the position of inventor – or the “brains”, and the user, – the “blonde”.

Links to other weeks and texts:

Conflation arises as a prominent issue in discussing modernism in other texts like Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”. In this text, it has been suggested in previous classes that there is a conflation of identities in the reluctant colonialist: on one hand he is required to perform his role as colonizer, but it conflicts with his individual beliefs and identity. The conflation of the two areas produces responses to colonialism that emphasise its complexities, rather than a valorization and exoticization of the colonial enterprise, or an outright disparaging of the process. To link this to modernist concerns, the problems with identity and nationalism point to the crisis of knowledge and representation.

Land-bush thing.

I had to transcribe an MOE interview some years ago for some money – times were hard; but that’s another story – and I got stuck on this phrase. The interview sounded slightly muffled thanks to the poor recording quality, and the interviewer was not the most articulate person, but for the most part it was manageable until the interviewer went all lexically-innovative and used this phrase: “land-bush thing”. So after repeating the audio segment for the 60th time, I finally figured out what it was – “language thing” (Don’t even get me started on how such informal phrasing made it into the interview. It was one of the NUS Sociology professors being interviewed what’s more). This sparked off furious conversations the next day with my friends, who were also doing transcriptions, along the lines of “the appalling state of English in Singapore”, “people talk like that how to work in MOE” and “liddat I oso can do interview already”.

Obviously there is some hierarchy of language and register being discussed in our conversations, as Fanon seems to suggest is present with the issue of languages. And certainly Singaporeans have some idea of what good English is like, more often than not tinged with the image of an European seated behind a desk shot at mid-length discussing the probability of rain over the next seven days. But do we take on a culture in speaking another language? I have friends who learn French (they’ll tell you I’m jealous about not understanding it hence I pretend to. Don’t believe them. Je comprend.), but I can tell for sure they aren’t French. And how is it that Fanon does not seem to take into account the power that the colonized can have in adapting the colonizers language? I suppose language and identity will always be debated points, but what Fanon’s article has prompted me to think is that they might be linked, but do not necessarily have to be viewed as reinforcing each other. People don’t become French by travelling to Alliance Francaise twice a week; nor do we become Chinese or Malay or Indian by speaking the respective languages. As for myself, as sure as I sit in my HDB flat, have served NS, and carry my pink IC, I know what I am.

I’m British.

Stephen’s Voice: The Irish in Me

By appropriating what is said in Black Skin, White Masks — It can  be generalized that those who are colonized, have “no culture, no civilisation, no ‘long historical past'” (34) and it is the master’s or colonizer’s language that “is the key that can opens doors” (38). Stephen Dedalus faces a similar dilemma that eventually got resolved towards the end. Understandably, the English language is an acquired tongue of Stephen but he has learned and found the value of a language that frees him from the entanglement from the nets of “nationality, language, religion” (210). These nets would have stopped his ‘flight’ above the Irish issue that is seen myopically by many of his peers who are unable to view themselves beyond the veneers of the present. As Stephen puts it, “Ireland is the old sow that eats its farrow” (210), basically-speaking, the current condition of his country has to do, way back in the long history of Ireland when Stephen accused the country of giving up its own language and took another (209), hence losing their culture and history (since language facilitates the creation of history).

As mentioned earlier on, the acquiring of a language used by colonists opens the world to the person. Similarly, it is no coincidence that Portrait is full of Latin — the language of the learned. Stephen, it seems, is ready to embark on a journey that is beckoning him, to become an artist with his arsenal of languages, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (262) as he starts by finding his own voice as seen in the changes of the novel into the journal form – his own voice, towards the end .

Is the hierarchy of language everything?

There is a clear hierarchy of languages revealed in Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. When he tells of the Antilleans’ desire to learn French French (as if there was a definitive dialect), even as Senagalese try to speak like native Antilleans, the hierarchy becomes really stark and not a little funny. Sad, perhaps, but funny nonetheless.

But this hierarchy is not about the beauty of language alone, but more to do with power — what it connotes, with regards to one’s origins. This is why Germans or Russians who speak bad French, while maybe derided, still are given respect: it’s because their country, be it military might, culture, are respected. Not so for the Africans.

But where does that leave us? Language, as Fanon talks about, is alienating all around, for the colonised individual, whether he speaks French French or creole. Fanon himself seems to have no solution, for he ends the essay elliptically…

The hierarchy remains, today. The languages I would like to learn, in order, is this: French,  Spanish, Italian. Why not Malay, or Vietnamese? Not simply because the former are more exotic, or immediately useful in my Singaporean context, that’s for sure. And we assess people on their proficiency in English for sure: and why else does the British accent hold such awe for us?

But I want to suggest that in some ways, all isn’t as Fanon sees it — it’s not ALL about national or ethnic identity. If we see linguistic prowess as a skill, it should not be surprising that people are impressed by skilful users of language. And some skills are just naturally more sought after, even if they are not pragmatically useful; for example, piano-playing, ballet, archery, oh, and, golf? This hierarchy of desirability obtains from another mode of value-giving, I think. The first two might be considered artistic (thus ‘good’) and the latter, well, I honestly, don’t know!

On Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks

As I was reading Fanon’s article, what instantly sprang to mind was Hegel’s ‘master-slave’ dialectics. The black man has internalized what Chateerjee terms as the ‘rule of colonial difference’ and understands his own position in relation to white man and his authority and superiority. I agree with what Fanon has pointed out about the nature of language– the fact that in taking on a language, one is necessarily interpellated within a certain symbolic order, the community and even its culture, no matter how foreign a tongue it may be. However, I think Fanon posits more than one possibilities when it comes to the consequence of a Black man who attempts to assimilate into the French culture and language. He did recognize that acquiring the French tongue can ‘open doors’ for the native if he is able to use it as a tool. Knowing the language and using it to his advantages certainly allow him to be aware of his own conditions. What dejects Fanon perhaps, is the idea of a Black man who renounces his own origins, tongue and culture in order to take on the identity and culture of the French, wishing to be associated with the assumed qualities that come with the ‘whiteness’. This is a sign of self-denial, indicating that the Black man acknowledges at heart, that being civilized and being cultured means being (acting) like a white man.

A note on Colonial Language(s)

Fanon’s central argument, in my opinion, is quite ubiquitously accepted: that “language is power because words construct reality” (Bill Ashcroft). As he puts it, “the Negro wants to speak French because it is the key that can open doors which were still barred to him fifty years ago” (38).

What I do not agree with, however, is this: To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. (38) There is an ambiguity in the words “take on” and the subject to which this verb-phrase refers to.

To me, speaking a language does not necessarily assimilate / acculturate its speaker into the world or culture in which it belongs. In fact, I would argue that one can become even more distanced from that ‘world’ by the awareness of the power imbued in a colonial language that was (is?) used to subjugate its colonized subjects.

We can surely see this in Portrait, where Stephen realizes that the word ‘tundish’ he thought belonged to his native language is actually English: “The language in which we are speaking is his (the English dean’s) before it is mine” (146). Arguably, therefore, this might be the reason why Fanon immediately qualifies the subject in the second sentence – it is those who “wants to be white” who “will be the whiter”, and not just any one who “gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is”.

Mastery of a language need not (only) be aggrandizing it, surely?

I speak, therefore I am

Fanon’s article examines the inferiority complex of the black man by highlighting the role of expression in the creation of an individual’s identity. By speaking the language of the white man and “[renouncing] his blackness”, the black man believes that he is able to “come closer to being a real human being” (Fanon, p. 18). This reveals the internalization of the racial hierarchy that positions the white man above the black man that results in the loss of the cultural heritage of the native.

It would seem, then, that the problem is this: In the Antilles, as in Brittany, there is a dialect and there is the French language. But this is false, for the Bretons do     not consider themselves inferior to the French people. The Bretons have not been     civilized by the white man. (Fanon, p. 28)

A ‘dialect’ seems to be a substandard means of expression that is associated with the ‘inferior’ native, as compared to a ‘language’. In this case, the native is expected to be less able to converse in the language of the colonizers because he is not sophisticated enough. This recalls Chateerjee’s article on the rule of colonial difference where imperialism and the civilizing mission is justified by the rulers establishing an inherent difference between the rulers and the ruled. Through this Manichean division of white man and native, the white man naturally establishes himself as superior and civilized, and the native as inferior and uncivilized. Fanon posits that this is internalized by both white man and native through the use of language. In speaking to the black man in pidgin-nigger, a language that the white man presumes is suitable for the inferior native, the white man is automatically “classifying [the black man], imprisoning him, primitivizing him, decivilizing him” (Fanon, p. 32). The simplification of language by the white man when speaking to the black man creates and reproduces the myth of white superiority, and the identity of the black man as inferior; this despite the inability to “accept as scientifically proven the theory that the black man is inherently inferior to the white, or that he comes from a different stock” (Fanon, p. 30). The Negro is then reduced to an archetype, “the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (Fanon, p. 35). Drawing again on the rule of colonial difference, the Negro who expresses himself properly threatens the binary division between white man and black man because if language creates identity, speaking like the white man bridges this division.

I then realized that the novels that we have been reading are written by the white man (although they may be outsiders in colonial society), whether they are anti-imperialists or not, and that native expression has been confined or reduced to simple, broken English (no doubt because English is an adopted language for the natives), and I wonder if this perpetuates the inferiority complex of the colonized and the encourages the condescension of the colonizer.

The roles played in Empire

As I was reading Fanon’s article, I realized that the colonial enterprise only worked as well as it did was because both sides (colonized and colonizer) acknowledged their respective roles and performed them accordingly, especially when it comes to upholding the rules of language. It is only through the modernist writings that we have encountered during this module that we can see the cracks in empire as a result of either side being reluctant to play this role. In Fanon’s article, he mentions that “But we can already state that to talk pidgin-nigger is to express this thought: ‘You’d better keep your place.'” (84) Thus, there is a conscious effort to talk down to the natives as a result of the need to uphold these performative colonial roles and the  natives have to respond according to how they are expected to respond. It is when they refuse to respond as such, or even try to speak like the colonizer that there is trouble.

Moreover, the paradox of wanting to speak like the colonizer/the white man is the fact that while the colonized are described as uncivilized because of their inability to grasp the language of the colonizer, when they finally are able to grasp the language and perhaps can even speak the language better than the colonizers themselves, they are told to stay in their place, as seen in the example in Burmese Days that Charlene pointed out below.

Also as a sidenote, the point that Fanon made about “the Europeans [having] a fixed concept of the Negro and there is nothing more exasperating than to be asked: ‘How long have you been in France? You speak French so well'” (35) is still quite prevalent in today’s society in terms of how Europeans have a fixed concept of the Other, i.e people from Asia etc. I personally encountered this when I was on exchange in Glasgow last year. I had a consultation with one of my history professors regarding my essay and she commented on how my mastery of the English language was excellent in my essay and how  she was so astonished because I probably spoke Mandarin where I came from. Of course, it was awkward that I had to clarify that firstly, I did not speak Mandarin at all and secondly that English was the official language used in Singapore. But the point is that even after all these years, the European fixed concept of the Other still holds true. Moreover, the fact that she assumed that I could speak Mandarin reminds me of how the colonizers used to disregard the different cultures, and by extension languages, that existed in Africa and instead assumed that everyone spoke the same language as a means of  dehumanizing the Africans further by resisting to acknowledge the multi-farious and complex nature of their culture. But ultimately, it is obvious that language played a significant role in keeping both the colonized and colonizer in their respective places.

Language and identity as performance

Fanon’s discussion on language and its inherent power structures really got me thinking about how we use language today, and all the things we never think about. It’s a discussion we’ve had in class more than once, about the ‘postcolonial condition’ of speaking, writing and even thinking in the language of our colonisers. What the article really highlighted for me was the way in which language, something performed externally, was really part of the coloniseds internal knowledge structures. To speak in French would be to ‘think in French’, in French ways—in the ways of the coloniser. Yet, no matter how internalised this language of the coloniser becomes for the colonised, the French white man will never see the black French-speaking man as his equal, or even as someone similar to him. In this way, as much as we talk about how identity is performed, it’s too easy to forget that the performance of identity is one that requires ‘audience participation’—without the recognition of the identity one is performing, the performance becomes meaningless. A black man can speak flawless French, and ‘be’ more French than a white Frenchman, but ultimately, his skin colour makes him nothing but a “joke” (25), both to the white and black men.

The hope that language offers

Fanon’s article “The Negro and Language” mentions how white men have a tendency to ‘talk down’ to natives, citing the example of the priest who spoke pidgin-nigger to Achille. Fanon then asserts that white men “talking to Negroes in this way gets down to their level, it puts them at ease, it is an effort to make them understand us, it reassures them” (32).

Upon reading this, I was strongly reminded of what Ellis said to his servant in Burmese Days:

“Don’t talk like that, damn you – ‘I find it very difficult!’ Have you swallowed a dictionary? ‘Please, master, can’t keeping ice cool’ – that’s how you ought to talk. We shall have to sack this fellow if he gets to talk English too well. I can’t stick servants who talk English” (Orwell 26).

These few sentences perfectly encapsulate what Fanon is getting at; Ellis demonstrating exactly how the servant “ought to talk” reflects how the “European has a fixed concept of the Negro” (35) as linguistically inferior, and thus “nothing is more astonishing than to hear a black man express himself properly, for then in truth he is putting on the white world” (36). By speaking in proper English, the servant is demonstrating not just his mastery of the colonizer’s language, but also implies assimilation in the colonizer’s world (think about how the Negro ‘newcomer’ speaking only in French demonstrates “the extent of his assimilation” (36)). This is why Ellis says he will have to sack the servant if he speaks English too well, as that would break down the distinctions between colonizer and colonized, master and servant.

Speaking the colonizer’s language is therefore equivalent to taking on a world, a culture (Fanon 38). However, ‘talking down’ to the native is not merely about taking on a language that the colonized can understand. Rather, it is a means of reassuring the colonizer that he ‘talks down’ to the colonized because he KNOWS the limits of their comprehension, the impossibility of their understanding perfect English. It thus reinforces his superiority and justifies white rule. Knowledge is power, and the people who have the power to ‘know’ and to speak, are those who write history – think about Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, where he ‘knows’ the natives and thus has the power to write about them.

Therefore, “mastery of [the colonizer’s] language affords remarkable power” (Fanon 18) for the colonized, for it means the hope of being on the same level as the whites. However, in mastering and choosing to speak the colonizer’s language in his native land, the Negro newcomer is now seen as a “joke” (25) to his own people, an ‘Other’, as he is neither completely black nor white. It thus appears that mastery of the colonizer’s language is never a real solution, as not only does it compromise the Negro newcomer’s position among his people, he is never treated on equal grounds as the whites either. The issue of mastering the colonizer’s language is fraught with complexities. While it may not offer an infallible solution to raising the status of the colonized, seeming even like a delusion, it is perhaps all we have, and if we embrace it, we are in the very least offered the hope of reconciliation.

language and mimicry

To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool that language is. Rather more than a year ago in Lyon, I remember, in a lecture I had drawn a parallel between the Negro and European poetry, and a French acquaintance told me enthusiastically, ‘At the bottom you are a white man.’ The fact that I had been able to investigate so interesting a problem through the white man’s language gave me honorary citizenship” (38).

This extract to me really summarises what the article is all about. it is about the appropriation of a language that is foreign in an attempt to be something that one cannot (Liz explained this really well in her post). And what really troubles me is the fact that the Antilles Negroes still persist in wanting to speak French because they see it as “the key that can open doors which were still barred to his fifty years ago” (38). They wish to be seen as equals to their European counterparts but this cannot ever be achieved because no matter how good their French is, as it is only seen as a good imitation of an original. It is like a layman trying to sing Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” in Singapore Idol. It will never ever be able to measure up to the original version and what will you get? lots of backlash from the judges about poor song choice and a possible boot from the show. Anecdote aside, the Antilles Negroes will always be “measured up to the culture” (39) and even if their “gift of eloquence… leaves any European breathless” (39), their ‘achievement’ will be met with praise laced with condescension, oh he was a “great black poet,” or here’s a “black man who handles the french language as no white man can” (39). Race always comes to the fore and it just seems to me to be another pat on the back on the colonizer’s part.

But this is not to mean that they should stop speaking French, because mimicry as suggested by Homi Bhabha could also disclose the ambivalence of colonial discourse and disrupt its authority in creating a kind of “double vision.” This double vision is the “inappropriate” repetition of partial presences of the colonial subject that subverts the “appropriate objects of a colonialist chain of command, authorized versions of otherness”(87).

You can’t be anything but colonized

Of interest to me in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man is a particular scene where Dedalus holds a conversation with Davin. Dedalus refuses to learn Irish (219), and is criticized for that. Davin implies that by refusing to accept the Irish language, he is somehow not “Irish” (219). At the same time, Davin also suggests that if Dedalus had stuck to supporting English, he would not be criticized either. Davin says, “One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against Irish informers” (219). It’s almost as if Davin is insisting Dedalus should choose a side, and be either pro-English or pro-Irish. I think Dedalus implies that by forcing him to choose reinforces the binary of colonizer and colonized as he insists of flying by those nets of “nationality, language, religion” (220).

What this highlights is I think something Fanon talks about in “The Negro and Language”, that the mindsets of the colonized has become entrapped in the discourse of the colonizer such that the colonized can only envision himself in respect to the colonizer. To be pro-English means to accept being colonized, to be pro-Irish appears equivalent to being anti-English, which is to reject being colonized. Either way, it appears that Davin can only see himself as an Irish in respect to the British. Whether by accepting colonization or rejecting colonization, he can only see himself as colonized. This becomes restricting as there is then no identity outside that of being colonized.

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”.

The Intellectual Exile

Stephen’s decision to exile himself from Ireland “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (276) got me thinking of Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, where he devotes a chapter entitled “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals” to discuss the predicament of the intellectual exile. In it, Said differentiates between the physical condition of exile—rooted in an ‘assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from [one’s] place of origin’ (48)—and the metaphysical condition of exile; characterised by ‘restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others’ (53). In this sense, it is interesting to think of Stephen as an exile even in Ireland in a metaphysical sense, through his status as an individual at odds with his society, and therefore an outsider and exile so far as privileges, power and honours are concerned. In this light, perhaps Stephen’s physical exile at the end of the novel underscores that instead from escaping from Ireland, he escapes with it.

Said also furthers his discussion on the intellectual exile by inscribing Theodor Adorno’s comment in Minimia Moralisa that ‘for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live’ (58). In this light, it is noteworthy that the novel ends with Stephen’s journal entries, indicative of an execution of his artistic talent to supplant a void within him. Keeping in mind the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature, I believe the novel somewhat traces Joyce’s own progressions as an intellectual exile, and perhaps for Joyce too, writing becomes a place for him to live.


Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

Just a few thoughts

I have decided to use this as a way to start a few thoughts that I might delve deeper into for my paper. I came across an interesting idea in a piece from another class by Shamsul A.B. called “A History of an Identity, and Identity of a History.” Shamsul talks about how the British employed ‘modalities’ in order to classify the colonial world/project. They used these modalities to make policies, textbooks, maps, basically anything that gave the information of the region. One of the modalities Shamsul mentioned was the ‘travel modality.’ It helped to “create a repertoire of images and typifications, if not stereotypes, that determined what was significant to European eyes…these aesthetic images and typifications were frequently expressed in paintings and prints as well as in novels and short stories.” As I read this I started thinking about Modernism within the travel modality. How does it function? Is it just another way to view tourism or was it an instigator of images and possibly even stereotypes? This might lead me to compare two of the books or pieces we’ve read in class or maybe I’ll find a different book. It might be interesting to compare Orwell with Wallace in that Wallace was writing a non-fictional piece that was supposed to be very factual whereas Orwell’s pieces are fictional. How do both speak about the travel modality? I think that by looking at the travel modality it could open up a few different perspectives on the reasons the colonial world was represented in the way it was.

Caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Irish possessed an interesting position within the British empire. On one hand, they had been annexed by the British and had functioned as part of the empire for some time. On the other, they themselves were colonized by the British. Jackson argues that Ireland represented the problems and struggles of the colonial empire. This crisis of identity is evident in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as Stephen Dedalus constantly thinks about the Irish, the Irish identity and their relation to the world. The colours green and maroon are associated with Dante and the Irish resistance leaders, reinforcing Dedalus’ need to reclaim his Irish identity.

While Jackson posits that the complexities of the relationship between the Irish and the British are most evident in the economy, in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this complexity is manifested by through the language that Stephen Dedalus chooses to use. Here, we see language as a symbol and by extension, an agent for colonization. Stephen Dedalus wants to “forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race”- he uses his art (language) in order to subvert the hegemony of the British and thus reclaim his Irish identity.

However, I am quite certain that the Irish would not consider their colonial counterparts in the other colonies (India, Africa, South East Asia etc) their equals. Perhaps the best evidence of this can be seen during the California Gold Rush in the USA, where despite being immigrants themselves, the Irish began resenting the other influx of immigrants (the Chinese, Latin Americans, Africans).

Subjectiveness and Irony in Joyce

Portrait is an interesting text because it melds together both English “empire” (in Ireland), and the idea of a Bildungsroman. What I like most about this is the fact that it is so subjective. First, the title of the text betrays that it is only “a” portrait (as opposed to being “the” portrait for example). The idea of language as art, of representation as a form of art is therefore brought up (as earlier posts have mentioned). Secondly, the fact that the character of Stephan is viewed by us with irony and distance also makes the text part of the modernist tendency (not only is he not a typical protagonist, but also because Joyce presents us with a character that is so subjective).

The motif of flight appears throughout the novel as a form of desire, escape and art. Stephan holds very grand notions of flying above men, and feels that he is destined to be “a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being” (183). Stephan’s notions of grandeur thus makes him a character (who envisions that he is) larger than life, and ironic. The way he holds himself in high regard, compared to other “characterless” characters (182) is a humorous way in which Joyce has depicted a young man who fancies himself a great artist belonging to some universal prophecy. Also, the idea that the young man is portrayed “as” an artist is telling- he is conscious of his role as an artist, and is playing this very role. This adds a further distancing effect between us and him as a (believable) character.  

 Stephan concludes by telling us that he is able to “fly by these nets”, therefore transcending his marginalized existence (by being Irish), and also (physically) escaping Ireland. Yet, many critics have pointed out that although Joyce’s semi-autobiographical character (and Joyce himself) has physically left Ireland, Joyce himself has never been able to “leave”, judging by the fact that his later works still deal with Ireland. Viewed in retrospect, this adds another layer of irony to the work, leaving it indeed a subjective portrait.

Language as a Labyrinth

Stephen Dedalus declares that, “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile and cunning” (269).

And he sees himself as Dedalus/Icarus – the master builder who has the power to create. In fact, at the very end of the book, he refers to Dedalus to stand by him (“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”). Thus, we can see Stephen’s aim as the desire to create a new form where he can express freely, and wholly his opinions, unfettered by past English traditions. Yet he forgets that Dedalus was trapped in the Labyrinth that he created himself! Language becomes a type of labyrinth for Stephen, in which he becomes trapped. In expressing his own ambitions, Stephen falls back on the language forms which he wants to escape from. In fact, the name Dedalus refers back to Greek mythology, which is the foundation of English literature. It is as though Stephen’s identity is forever entrenched in the English culture/consciousness.

Joyce’s ambivalent and open ending can be seen in both the negative and positive light. The negative reading is that Joyce himself cannot escape the labyrinth of language and thus gives up the attempt altogether. The positive reading is of course that we are never sure what new forms of discourse/art Stephen manages to create and he might eventually be successful in expressing himself wholly and unfettered.

History, Statues, and Representation

Jackson mentions the “ever-impinging presence of official buildings and symbolism” in Ireland, and the kind of  “architectural response” (129) that followed the threat of self-government. This suggestion of an “architectural response” led me to think about statues and monuments, which are symbolic, larger-than-life representations of figures that have made important contributions to a country, and are erected officially for the remembrance and celebration of their achievements. In light of this, I found it particularly interesting when Stephen reflects on Thomas Moore’s statue and the commemorative slab in memory of Woolfe Tone that he passes by in Part V:

While he was striving this way and that to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland [Thomas Moore]. He looked at it without anger: for, though sloth of the body and of the soul crept over it like unseen vermin, over the shuffling feet and up the folds of the cloak and around the servile head, it seemed humbly conscious of its indignity. (Joyce 193)

And a few pages later…

In the roadway at the head of the street a slab was set to the memory of Wolfe Tone and he remembered having been present with his father at its laying. He remembered with bitterness that scene of tawdry tribute. There were four French delegates in a brake and one, a plump smiling young man, held, wedged on a tick, a card on which were printed the words: Vive I’Irlande! (Joyce 199)

(According to the novel’s footnotes: Wolfe Tone was the leader of the United Irishmen; the slab was laid to commemorate the centenary of the Rebellion of 1798)

What particularly intrigued me was Stephen’s withering sarcasm (“droll statue”, “servile head”, “tawdry tribute”, just to name a few examples) towards these supposedly celebrated figures in Irish history and culture. While these statues can be seen to represent the official national history of Ireland, Stephen’s expression of his attitude towards these figures (and by extension, what they represent), is then his personal interpretation of history. In doing so, the official national history of the public sphere is now conflated with personal history/experiences of the private sphere. Here, we are cleverly introduced to another representation of history; a different perspective that Modernism so champions!

 (On a side note, I do think that it was an interesting choice to represent Joyce/Stephen’s general disdain towards the Irish condition via his contempt towards statues of supposedly representative figures of Irish history and culture, considering that statues are after all another form of art and representation, just as novels are).

An Extremely Brief glance at the ‘Modern Epiphany’ in Portrait

Modern texts place a lot of attention on the mundane and subjective in experience, and likewise a notably strained effort to find someway of reuniting the two.  Taken together, they are hallmarks of the alienated modern sensibility and their separation is at the heart of this alienation.

The Modern epiphany is more difficult to achieve for the modern writers because Truth in general is not clearly  manifest to the writer in everday objects as it was to the poets of earlier periods.  Hence Joyce’s identification of the epiphany as a manifestation through “vulgarity of speech or of gesture” [the clearly mundane, alienated from Truth to the point of seeming profane].  Hence the Modernist epiphany deliberately strains to identify the mundane or particular with something revelatory and in Joyce we see this in his identification of things which are in this very respect quite different, even opposite, such as the anonymous  Bloom with Elijah or Moses, or the Irish with the Greek people exalted in Homeric poetry, or hot cocoa with the sacramental blood.  For Joyce, the effort at reuniting the mind with the objects of experience turned in particular to increasing attempts at identification of the moment with all of time.

In Joyce’s technique, epiphany replaces the role carried out in traditional narrative by the event; the collocations of numerous textual themes in associative moments are the events of the mature works, and they are multitudinous.  Hence the reader should take his understanding of epiphany as axiomatic; explicitly identifying each one by the term “epiphany” would become excessively redundant.

Stephen Dedalus, the Irish Greek: Unity through Art

It seems that one of the most obvious aspect of Portrait is the protagonist’s issue with language. I think it reflects, especially towards the end of the text, the direction that he wants to develop his art. He champions for an Irish autonomy that unites instead of disunites — division that is based on an English vs Irish and/or Catholics vs Protestants rivalry. In other words, Language becomes an important premise in the driving forward of such a desire.

If we look at the scene between Stephen Dedalus and his dean, Stephen recognizes that the language he has been taught all his life is an “acquired speech” (195) and this serves as a reminder of his subservient position as he is being cast in the “shadow” (195) of a heritage that he does not identify with.

True enough, the English language belongs to the English or the Anglo-Saxons and differs from Irish historical heritage – that is, Gaelic. However, at the same time, the Irish language is becoming overly charged and associated negatively with (extreme) Irish nationalism. This deters Stephen from accepting it willingly becomes it disunites Irish people, it is obvious that Stephen adopts Parnell’s vision of unity where the differences of factions are negotiated and reached. I believe this is the reason for Stephen and even Joyce’s inclination towards something different, an art that uses the colonizer’s language (I guess strictly speaking, Ireland can be considered the colony of England) but undermines it by subsuming it within a Pan-European experience. And I guess this explains the framing of this text with Greek imageryand Latin, and not just English.

For one thing, Joyce’s inclination is illustrated by the name of Stephen Dedalus, where both names are of Greek origins. Furthermore, Dedalus is the name of a skillful artist from a Greek myth who designed the labyrinth to keep Minotaur ‘imprisoned’. Perhaps, Stephen, the artist and character is tasked with this task to use his art to keep ‘extremism’ and violence, as symbolised by Minotaur in check.

Ego credo Joyce’s work est simpliciter atrox, bloody atrox.

I tend to become very excited for various reasons when talking about Ireland. For one, they have leprechauns and the fey, we have… Well. We have the Merlion. They have the internationally-acclaimed Riverdance (how Irish it is exactly leaves much to be debated, but for purposes of argumentation, bear with me), we have Riverfest. And as a country not that much larger population-wise (6 million; Wiki) than Singapore, they have contributed great writers in almost every field of English literature: Beckett, Heaney, Shaw and of course our much beloved Joyce, this despite having been colonised (or oppressed, if you will) by the British since the 1600s with the Plantations of Ireland.

Or instead of “despite”, perhaps the operative word used should be closer to “because”? That these great writers wrote in English cannot simply be a coincidence (Beckett did write in French though), and language and communication for the Irish seems to be one of those prominent issues like the GST or ERP are for Singaporeans. I once interviewed an Irish couple for a project on the Merlion:

Me: “Describe the Merlion in one word.”

Husband: (thinks for a second) “Very grand.”

Wife: “ONE word.”

Husband: (laughs) “It’s a problem we Irish have. We speak too much.”

In Joyce’s work then, the use of language becomes not just a means of developing Daedalus’ consciousness, but each and every word used is itself a contest between Irish heritage and English oppression, especially so in light of how English, in becoming the dominant language, has gradually reduced the position of the Irish language. And following the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century, when the Irish were forced to live on the least fertile land, Irish as a language came to be recognised as that of the backward and lower-class, while English was the language of the more urban-minded. The discussion of the tundish with the dean is perhaps the best example of this “battle” of the languages.

Isn’t Irish-accented English the sexiest thing around, by the way? (Next to Ewan McGregor’s Scottish-English in Trainspotting)

Divided Families, Divided Selves, Divided Ireland

Personally, I feel that Jackson’s comment that “British imperial rule in nineteenth-century Ireland generated a political culture where families might be divided through their Irish or imperial allegiance” (136) resonates with Portrait’s depiction of the predicament Stephen and his family find themselves in. As already mentioned in Caroline’s post, the Christmas family dinner scene highlights how national politics drives Stephen’s family apart. In fact even as a young child, Stephen’s world-view is demarcated along political lines, being taught that the “brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell” (3-4). In addition to tracing the division of individuals and families via national politics, Portrait also highlights how Ireland herself is divided by similar impulses, evident in the interaction between Stephen’s musings and the geographical landscape of Ireland: “The grey block of Trinity on his left […] pulled his mind downward; and while he was striving […] to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland” (194). Geographically, such a juxtaposition between the Protestant and Anglo-Irish orientated Trinity College and the national poet Thomas Moore, who represents a cultural heritage of contemporary Gaelic Catholicism, underscores how divided the physical landscape of Ireland is. This is something I could only understand when I had the opportunity to visit Dublin while on exchange last year. The city is indeed peppered with many monuments and statues that celebrate movements or individuals of different national factions. While paradoxical, I think it does encapsulate the predicament Ireland finds herself in, and reading Portrait allowed me to better appreciate the historical origins of this predicament and how such a predicament is inherited by the Irish, such as Stephen and his family.

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.

Ireland and identity

It was very interesting to read Jackson’s article about Ireland and its place in the Empire. I was always confused with Ireland’s position within the Empire and the present United Kingdom due to the separation of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and it seems that this article cleared a lot of my doubts. So far, we’ve been reading texts from a colonizer’s point of view but Joyce’s text is interesting because his (/Stephen’s) position as a colonizer or colonized is quite ambiguous. Ireland, despite being part of United Kingdom, used to be a colony and this notion causes a lot of conflict when it comes to its national identity. I visited Belfast last year, and despite Ireland having long been declared a free state, there is still conflict as to whether the Irish identify themselves as British or Irish (for example, you are not allowed to fly the Union Jack in certain parts of Belfast) and I could still see the effects of the economic drain of Empire on it. I think this conflict of identity really exemplifies the dichotomy between who was considered a subject or citizen within the empire and how this dichotomy affects the creation of national identity. I also feel that a lot of modernist writing concerns itself with the search for identity and Joyce’s text, to me, is about the search for identity – whether it be a national identity or his identity as a writer. However, I think that this identity cannot easily be defined as a simple uniform, permanent entity but a fluid, changing one.

meaning and comprehension in Portrait

Reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I really felt that this was by far the ‘most’ modernist text we’ve encountered in this module.  I found the book quite hard to fully comprehend, but at the same time strangely compelling. The first part of the novel really reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Boy (albeit a very fractured and hard-to-understand version). There is that same sense of a ‘little boy lost’, and the impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style really emphasised that for me. What I found particularly interesting is the way Joyce seems to constantly use language as a way not of communicating (either between characters, or with the reader), but as ‘obstructing’ understanding. Whether it is his thoughts as a young boy first entering boarding school, during that painful Christmas dinner, or in his various journeys as he grows older, Joyce’s modernist style seems to make language a barrier that stands between us and true comprehension. As I was reading, I was constantly reminded of the whole signifier-signified dichotomy, because I could never be sure I was understanding what Joyce wanted to convey, fully or at all. Perhaps in a sense the text is Daedalus’ maze, and we’re to try and find our way out.