Language as a tool of entrapment

In Wallace’s article, he continually espouses the goodness of the Europeans and Sir James Brook in particular for bringing civilisation and freedom to the dyaks who were “oppressed and ground down by the most cruel tyranny” by the Malays and Chinese. It is ironic that he is unable to see that the Europeans practiced the same kind of oppression with colonisation and that colonial rule brought more hardships to the natives rather than benefits. Moreover, he seems to practise colonialism in his writing as well for through the use of words and language, he imposes boundaries upon the natives in his story. His article is written as if he knows that what he sees and reads are irrevocable facts.  

I feel Wallace’s perception of the Europeans and the Dyaks bears strong resemblance to the way Jim and the natives is being represented for us in the novel, that is through Marlow’s eyes. This is seen when Marlow says, ” Evidently I had known what I was doing. I had read characters aright, and so on” (Pg. 143). While reading the novel, I constantly feel that Marlow is trying to fit Jim into a certain mould which he finds acceptable. It is as if he is trying to enforce a frame around the story and he is fitting Jim into this frame, cutting out pieces which do not fit into his idealised picture and he refers to this in ” I put it down here for you as though I had been an eyewitness. My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligeible picture” (Pg. 262). Both Wallace and Marlow use language and words to impose boundaries. This is similar to colonial rule which divides race and perhaps to an extent, religion into categories and boundaries.

 Thus, language fails as it becomes a tool which entraps the natives as seen in Wallace’s article and Marlow’s narrative. Even Jim becomes a victim of language in Marlow’s story. As such, Doramin’s shot which kills Jim at the end of the story is significant for “the shot” grants Jim his freedom from his entrapment. The imagery of the shot also fragmentises the narrative which has been carefully controlled by Marlow.

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.

The Legitimacy of Language

Conrad, as a modern writer, explores the role of language through Lord Jim as he had done in Heart of Darkness.  His focus, like most modern writers, is on the ability of language to evade and alter the truth in the process of its disclosure.  Conrad’s emphasis on the constant quest for meaning, and elusiveness of ultimate truth are inherently modernist concerns, despite the geopolitics of Lord Jim and its reactionary anti-imperialist undertones.  Marlow’s narrative is couched in ambiguity.  The language of facts and the domain of the artistic narrative intersect as their boundaries are permeable by the inherently deceptive nature of both: “There shall be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (Lord Jim, 256).

For Conrad, the structure of language implicitly validates the social order, which demarcates the limitations of creative thought by playing with the framing and documenting of memory and perception.  Language, when viewed as a means of documentation, is an act intended to be objective but one that cannot help but be subjective, owing to its deeply flawed structure .  The language of facts is something that is completely arbitrary as we see when reading Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a legitimate scientific article based on the theories of (and dedicated to) Charles Darwin.  Truth and accepted reality become the one and the same under this line of thought, which is one of the unfortunate by-products of using language as a means of documenting experience.

In Lord Jim, this is dramatized in Marlow’s growing belief that the idea of social cohesion is an illusion and that communal solidarity is not indomitable–and  is, as all things believed to be stable, vulnerable to the individual.

Wallace and the creation of history

Wallace’s article was unexpected to me. Either I had forgotten what had been said in class about the context in which it was written, or the context was never brought up in discussion. So I went into the reading thinking that it would be an academic article from our time and was extremely surprised to find comments such as “I am inclined to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral character they are undoubtedly superior to them,” (68). It is interesting though that Wallace’s piece was considered an academic article in his time. The things he shared were considered unchallenged knowledge about a people and area of the world. I suppose that the first half of the article could have been judged as subjective by some readers even then, but the latter half, which talks mostly about his encounters with bugs, birds, and nature, was meant to be read as very factual and full of biological evidence. From a modern perspective though even the “science” in the piece is undermined by the mentality with which he views the Dyaks, Malays, Siamese, and all other races he mentions.

But I agree with one of the posts that brings up the question of the perspective we inevitably bring to the reading. There is probably something that we are not seeing and that we feel cannot be made visible unless we somehow revert back to colonial mentalities. If this was something that influenced Conrad when writing Lord Jim, it makes me wonder how what we read and take in as facts, science, truth, and knowledge affects our writing. It can be argued that literature helped to perpetuate imperialism so it is not so far-fetched to think that the literature our generation produces will help to create history as well.

Wallace and his exoticization of Malay Archipelago

Reading Wallace’s writing got me thinking of his detailed description of the sights and observations in his travel to Borneo and Java and whether it is exoticized like Conrad’s writing. I think it is difficult to avoid writing in an ethnocentric way because Wallace got to know of and was attracted to the Malay archipelago by similar travel writings from Englishmen like Raffles. I guess, like any other modern travellers of today, the sights we observed and take note of are those measured through our lens of understanding and knowledge (like travel guides etc). He is obviously doing the very same thing, observing and measuring the accuracy of what he has saw with what he has read from his compatriots’ accounts. But, one thing that caught my attention is the similarity in the way in which he describes the Dyaks and other natives with that of the animal specimens he had collected.

If we look at the detailed description of the Dyaks that focuses largely on the superficial features like skin colour and unique bodily features that make the Dyaks stand out – “The Dyak … are characterized by a reddish-brown or yellowish-brown skin of various shades…by the rather small and broad nose…” (67). Similarly, his take on the exotic insects – “the superb Papilio arjuna, whose wings seem powdered with grains of golden green, condensed into bands and moon-shaped spots” (87). Obviously, there seems to be this urge for Wallace to categorize everyone and everything neatly. Furthermore, even though Wallace does not obliquely exoticize the natives like Conrad, his act of having a picture of a Javanese Chief (84) displayed, creates a juxtaposition with all the other exotic pictures of insects, plants etc., what does this suggest about how Wallace views his world?

The illusion/delusion of the colonialist

Researching for my EN4223 class, I came across a book in which the writer pointed out how for the English colonialists in India, an illusion was a major part of coloniser-colonised relations. This illusion was that the English thought that the natives thought of them as some kind of gods, due to their incredible ability to fight and administrate. They would then play into that type, acting a little like gods.

Wurgaft underscores that the English were aware that they were putting on an act. What is more interesting for me, though, is that it is perhaps a DELUSION, more than an illusion – was it really true that the Indians treated them like gods? Or was it the colonialists’ self-deception, self-aggrandisation? It seemed to me that this was another instance of the whites imputing to the natives a tendency towards believing the supernatural. In any case, it does sort of explain why Kipling came up with his notorious term of the  ‘white man’s burden’.

Reading Wallace, it became a lot clearer. The reason why the colonialists thought the natives treated them like gods was because they did behave like gods, from the outset — the very act of colonisation, when they took to domineering them and deciding right and wrong – ‘Equal justice was awarded to Malay, Chinaman, and Dyak.’ (p.71) – is an act of a race that saw themselves in a sense like gods. Thus, the delusion preceded colonialism.

Who were the ones with the tendency towards supernaturalism now, then?

The Dyaks and Sir James Brooke

While the Wallace travel narrative does read like what a travel narrative is supposed to be, it is imbued with a moralistic tone. He seems to describe the Dyaks through European lenses and measuring their morality (if any) by European standards. While he does try to subvert common descriptions of the Dyaks at that time, by measuring them through European lenses, his description of the Dyaks and their morality is counterproductive.

Moreover, while he bestows morality on the Dyaks, a quality that makes them human, he does not relinquish the notion that they are still savages. This is obvious in the section where he says that “these people have passed beyond that first stage of savage life in which the struggle for existence absorbs the whole faculties, and in which every thought and idea is connected with war or hunting, or the provision for their immediate necessities. These amusements indicate a capability for civilization.” (Wallace, 68) Thus, despite the fact that the Dyaks are morally superior to the Malays in Borneo, compared to the civilized Europeans, they are still savages and bestowing morality on them is only a matter of principle.

Further, the way in which Wallace describes the Dyaks almost seems like he is overcompensating for something. He repeats how “truthful” and “honest” they are numerous  times throughout his text. But it becomes clear throughout the end of the Borneo section why he seems to be overcompensating. By describing how morally superior the Dyaks are, despite being savages, Wallace is simply trying to emphasize how Sir James Brooke managed to “civilize” these savages. This reminds me of Achebe’s discussion of Heart of Darkness and how some considered the natives, and to a larger extent Africa, to be merely a backdrop to the unfolding of the degeneration European mind. Here, the presence of the natives seem to serve a similar purpose, to glorify the civilizing power of Sir Brooke. It seems as though the only reason Wallace ascribes all these moralistic qualities to the Dyaks simply to exalt the power of the European mind to “civilize” the savage.

Even though it is problematic to constantly compare the natives by European standards, it would have been quite difficult at that time to describe the natives without referring to Europeans as a sort of a benchmark. I think that perhaps it would be acceptable to compare the natives with the Europeans, however, it is not necessary to see Europeans as the superior counterpart (in terms of morality, physical features etc) simply by virtue of their race. It is also important to discard notions of binaries between the natives and Europeans but instead acknowledge that perhaps there isn’t much difference between these two races.

Reading colonialists and their texts

What I found most interesting about the Wallace reading was not so much Wallace’s portrayals of the natives, but the way in which he presented his “observation[s]”. His writing in the chapter affects a sort of scientific, ‘factual’tone , with his cross-comparisons of Britain and Sarawak, and the way he sets forth clear causalities for many of the Dyaks’ attributes. To me, this pointed to a clear agenda within the text, despite the fact that Wallace says his are more casual, personal observations. The fact that he frequently drew straight comparisons between Britain and Sarawak intrigued me, because it seemed almost forced—not just defining the self as ‘not-Other’, but, more, defining the Other as definitively not-Self. Perhaps this was a manifestation of subconscious (or unconscious) ‘white guilt’? I doubt Wallace was overly plagued by a sense of white guilt, as his interest was more of a ‘biological’ nature, but still, I think the impulse to constantly remind the reader how unlike Britain Sarawak was does point to a neglected recognition of the moral grey-ness of colonialism.

On the other hand, I suppose we could also see Wallace’s constant references back and forth to be nothing more insidious as a reflection of the extent to which we approach new things (people, texts, etc) with preconceived notions. Which led me to think about how we read Conrad and other colonial writings—the stance of a ‘postcolonial’ reader has always troubled me, because of the (seemingly) inherent bias we have against the colonialists. Achebe’s article on Heart of Darkness is one good example of this. Yet, in that way, aren’t we reading the colonialists in the same, framed and restricted way that they ‘read’ the natives they encountered? I’m not sure how else we can read these texts—it seems hard to come up with a convincing reading sympathetic to the colonialists, and I’m not positing that we should (or I’m not sure whether I am or not). It’s kind of a scary thought, to me at least, that as much as we like to vilify the colonialists for their greedy condescending, we as readers seem to be reading from a position not much different from that of the colonialists ‘back in the day’.

Possibility of friendship?

Conrad was influenced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s article on the Dyaks while writing Lord Jim, thus when reading Wallace’s article, I could not help noticing parallels between the figure of Sir James Brooke and that of Lord Jim. Wallace justifies the imperial presence in Sarawak by valorizing the deeds of Sir James Brooke.

“Sir James Brooke found the Dyaks oppressed and ground down by the most   cruel tyranny. They were cheated by the Malay traders and robbed by the Malay chiefs…From the time Sir James obtained possession of the country, all this was stopped.” (Wallace, p.71)

Brooke is portrayed as the heroic figure in Sarawak, whose intervention brings justice and peace to the natives. Like Brooke, Jim is similarly portrayed as the heroic figure who brings peace to Patusan. The white man’s deeds are valorized in both texts and this serves to justify imperial presence by positing the white man as a superior being who comes to save the native.

Although Conrad shows Jim’s integration into the Patusan community, by valorizing his deeds, Jim is set apart from his adopted community. This brings the question of the possibility of friendship between the white man and the native. In A Passage to India, the cultural differences between the white man and the native figure overcome any possibility of friendship. However in Lord Jim, Jim does have a close friendship with Dain Waris and even finds a lover in Jewel. While Jim achieves what Fielding failed to in his connection with the natives, it is note worthy that Dain Waris and Jewel are described as having European influences. Dain Waris “knew how to fight like a white man … he had also a European mind” and Jewel is the daughter of a Dutch-Malay woman. This again highlights the divisions between the white man and the native, since the possibility of friendship only arises when the native figure is not completely seen as the ‘other’.

The ‘Burden’ of Malaya

This excerpt, taken from Alfred R. Wallace’s record of his fieldtrip to Malaya in the years 1854 to 1862, reeks of that benevolent, white colonist mentality which was ubiquitous among his contemporaries. The notion of racial superiority – albeit woefully and wholly self-conceived – is evident in Wallace’s physical comparisons between the ‘Malayan races’ and the ‘high-class European[s]’. Not only are his commentaries utterly superficial, they are also imbued with the typical moral judgments, specifically in terms of the Malayan’s uncultivated ‘capability of civilization’. Literally speaking, Wallace may be congratulating them for having ‘passed beyond that first stage of savage life’, but his inherent sarcasm is simply too amusing to ignore.

The ‘need’ for the white men to bring their ‘culture’ to these savage lands, therefore, qualifies the colonial ‘burden’ for two primary reasons: to ‘confer blessings on the afflicted’ by a quasi-God figure with ‘pure benevolence’, as well as to inculcate the ‘system’ of trade among these ‘semi-barbarous’ brutes. The former is seen through Wallace’s valorization of ‘Rajah Brooke’ as a ‘superior being, come down upon earth’ who, like ‘Tuan’ Jim, ‘must go on’ with his civilizing mission despite the burdens of being ‘sneered at as an enthusiastic adventurer, or abused as a hard-hearted despot’. James Brooke is thereby transformed into the hero figure who is compelled to strive for a romanticized quest, one which is from the beginning deemed to futility.

The supposition of Christian redemption (or salvation) aside, Wallace also imposes the need for these lower peoples to build up an economic ‘system’. He suggests that the financial empowerment from trading with the Europeans is the very means through which ‘the people are [now] well-fed and decently clothed’. However, it is not difficult to discern the greed of exploitation from the seemingly self-congratulatory, sacrificial tone in Wallace. (‘It must be remebered, that the [colonial] Government expended capital for years before any return was obtained’.)

To me, travel writing such as this is quite plainly written so as ‘to excite wealthy amateurs to explore them [that is, the ruin mess of uncivilied lands] thoroughly’ as well as to anchor the civilizing rhetoric among what Marlow called ‘the priveleged reader[s]’.

Binaries and the Breaking of Binaries in “Lord Jim”

Colonialism seems to tend to draw a binary between the good, moral white man and the evil, immoral native. The adventure tradition, upon which Lord Jim draws strongly, tends to espouse this view. Some of the stereotypes for example, include the righteous white hero, the “noble savage”, the evil, scheming native villain. In light of that, I think it is striking that there are a multiplicity of races and nationalities in Lord Jim. For example, there is the French Lieutenant, the British Jim, and the Australian trader among others (not to mention the natives in Patusan, the pilgrims on the Patna, the Malays on the Patna). On the surface, this seems to disrupt the binary presented by colonialism. After all, there is no longer a clear, distinct circle of “whites” and “natives”. Instead, the “whites” are fragmented into different nationalities, different individuals, with different ideas on morality, for example, while the “natives” are fragmented into the group ruled by Doramin, the group ruled by Sherif Ali and the group ruled of Tunku Allang.


However, I think this is problematic, as even as the binaries are broken up into multiple groups, certain stereotypes still remain. For example, the white men all express multiple views on issues such as morality and Jim’s actions, while the natives don’t seem to exhibit the same level of intellectual discourse. Doramin seems mainly concerned with establishing his son as ruler of his land through Jim’s help, while Tunku Allang seems only concerned with establishing his own power base. In fact, even though there are a variety of white men with different personalities, the natives seem to fall quite neatly into stereotypical images of the native, such as Tunku Allang, who seems to be the cowardly but violent native. In that sense, even as Conrad disrupts the stereotypes of the “white man”, he seems to reinforce the stereotype of the “native”.

exoticism… can we ever escape it?

To add on to Russell’s observations about Conrad’s portrayal of natives, I do feel that it is difficult to escape this whole exoticization of the Orient and its people. One way of identifying oneself is in opposition to the other. So Conrad and Wallace define the native figure using the white, european male as the standard. thus the dyaks are described as shorter than europeans, their behavior favourable because they treat the europeans well etc. So in that sense, Wallace and Conrad are using their own ways of western knowledge to conceive the Other and construct the Other for us. And it is through these observations of their physical characteristics that meaning is later ascribe and judgement passed on their moral character and mental capacity. And it is through this process that myths such as that of the lazy native, the sensual native woman etc. come about and actually stick and these labels are hard to shrug off.

I mean, even in movies today, this exoticism of the native figure from long ago comes into play eg. Pirates of the Caribbean and its portrayal of Singapore as this dangerous, pirate-filled, opium-consuming place and how Sao feng is a brutal, cunning Chinese pirate (affirming Wallace’s observation that Chinese are untrustworthy) as well as in popular fiction like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club where Chinese-ness is defined by eating dumpling, single eyelids, playing mahjong and well, myths of Chang-e (how apt since mid autumn festival is right around the corner). In many ways, popular media is perpetuating this notion of the exotic East and the scary thing is that these movies and books later become the top grossing film or best seller at the bookstore. So we as consumers are complicit in this system. How often are we attracted to book covers featuring a sensual woman with a flower in her hair eg. Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory? Well i for one stop to take a second look. So can we ever break free from this constraints of exoticism that is commodifying our asian culture and objectifying its people? I sure hope we do.

The Unnatural nature of Naturalised arguments in Wallace

Maybe I owe it to my class in Psychoanalysis but when I was reading the Alfred Russel Wallace reading, I could not help but be quite disturbed about how Wallace, with much ease, naturalised his arguments for the “primitivity” of the Dyaks. Naturalisation here means that he is attributing many reasons for the condition of the people to their biology and seeing how you cannot debunk biological evidence, the arguments he has set up for himself are therefore infallible.

To me, this naturalisation of argument goes beyond the simple positing of the White man as the “higher” race (70) and the Dyaks as the other-ed, categorisable object of anthromorphological observation. More insidiously, it’s the way Wallace suggests, that the reason why the Dyaks are not procreating fast enough is because the women are subjected to “hard labour” and “heavy weights [that] they constantly carry”, that such work “limits her progeny” (70). He attributes the reason of the Dyaks’ lack of “prosperity” (because of the lack of offspring) to the fact that dyak women are not confined to the domestic space. This is not only ethnocentric in my point of view – considering that Wallace is definitely comparing the Dyak culture to the late Victorian English code of femininity here, but also highly problematic because more than anything else, I think this observed evidence of the Dyak women will help the English justify the way they have restricted the female to the domestic space at home.

Also, if we take note of the fact that he is asserting, without justification, that “an increase in population” is indicative of “increased happiness” (75), we can then observe the problems with this assumption: because it not only destabilises all of Wallace’s arguments about why the womenfolk should stay at home, but  what is more disturbing to me is the fact that Wallace manages to get away with simply reducing the reasons for needing to put a woman “in the household”, where she would have “duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field”, to the naturalised and unverified conclusion that her hard work is inhibiting her fertility.

Hence, on these two levels – i.e. the unverified conclusions that increased population = increased happiness (I’m thinking about the post-war baby boom here); and that working in the field = inhibited fertility, I found the Wallace reading highly disturbing and unconvincing. Granted, I probably should consider the fact that this was written in 1890, but still.

Women (what women?) in _Lord Jim_.

One of the things that struck me in reading Lord Jim was the absence of women in the text. With the exception of Jewel, there are no significant women mentioned at all. Following the adventure narrative, which has traditionally privileged the male explorer anyway, this is not surprising I suppose. That being said, I’m interested in looking at Jewel. I think she is symbolic of Jim’s potential for acceptance in spite of what he has done, and yet the flipside of that symbolism is that in her importance to him and his to her, his abandonment of her represents his greatest failure. It’s almost as if his earlier abandonments following the jump off the Patna, are forgivable, or if not, at least understandable, but this abandonment is as damnable as his jump.

When he keeps quitting his jobs the moment the Patna incident is mentioned, we understand he is afraid and in some way even though it’s irresponsible, we can find some reason to excuse his fears or weakness. But when he abandons Jewel, it’s as if events have come a full circle and he is repeating events from the ship. The parallels are interesting – the passengers onboard are dependent on him for their lives, for safe passage. Likewise, Jewel now defines herself, and is protected, by Jim. When he abandons her by going before Doramin, he is doing almost the same thing, except possibly even worse given that he, in his “responsibility” for Dain Waris’s death, does this intentionally, knowing the consequences of his action, knowing he is devastating her.

The woman in the text, as represented by Jewel, is most pathetic because she is at his mercy, she could beg him to stay but he won’t. The man is empowered, even if his use of that power is arguably self-centred. It would be interesting to develop the gender argument further, although given the limits now I can’t.

Conrad in Singapore?

I was in the vicinity of Fullerton Hotel last weekend, trying to find my way amidst the flurry of road blocks and road closures when I chanced upon a Joseph Conrad plaque just outside Fullerton Hotel! Yes, imagine my surprise! Why in the world do we have a plaque of Conrad here in Singapore?

Apparently, the plaque was erected as one of national heritage board’s (NHB) heritage trails, and begins with the following words: “Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski, a Pole by birth, British Master Mariner and a great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world.” To read the rest of it, please go here:

It got me thinking—even if Conrad did make “Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world”—what kind of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known to the world? Looking at how Lord Jim draws on and repeats ideological constructions of Southeast Asian natives, to say that a less than flattering impression of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known would surely be an understatement. Here we have a description of immigrants from Celebes: “the men of that race are intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than the other Malays, and restless under oppression” (Conrad 196). Compare this with Wallace’s desire “to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral characters they are undoubtedly superior” (Wallace 68). Keeping in mind that Conrad’s information on Southeast Asia was drawn from many sources, including Wallace, Brooke and McNair, surely Conrad is perpetuating the inherent ethnocentrism present in these sources? The ideological effects of enabling such racial generalisations are extreme! I wonder if NHB considered this before erecting the Conrad plaque in recognition of his putting Singapore and Southeast Asia on the world map.

Conrad for Soft Imperialism?

“I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.”

While reading Alfred’s Russel Wallace’s “Borneo –The Dyaks”, there were moments when i couldn’t help sniggering to myself. While his writing was most earnest, I guess for modern readers like us…it’s just difficult not to notice how distant and ironic reality can be, from an individual’s perspective. While I do not disagree that Sir James Brooke had acquired much merit with the laws and changes imposed under his reign over Sarawak, for instance, the protection he rendered to the natives and the abolishment of slavery, I believe that Wallace’s faith in this white ‘Rajah’ as a heroic and noble figure reaffirms the British ideal of masculinity and how this evidently translates into the desired character of how the ‘Colonizer’ should be.

Having aided the Sultan in the Bidayuh Uprising, Sir James Brooke later coveted the power by threatening the Sultan himself with military force. During his reign, his pockets grew fat and both the natives and English back home reverenced him. It is undeniable that he took possession over a land that was never his to begin with, imposed his own laws and customs and reaped tremendous wealth and fame in the process, just as other colonizers did. Except that he deviated from the normal exploitative and inhumane models. Therefore, if Conrad’s Lord Jim was devised from James Brooke, then it seems likely that Conrad is indeed, racist and believes that the natives belong to a race that needs to be regulated and salvaged by the white man’s laws and customs. This then, validates SOFT IMPERIALISM?

Note taking (week 6 part 1)

Topic of Class

Lord Jim: the romantic “hero” of the adventure novel

The presentation examined the identity of both the text and the titular character in relation to the adventure romance tradition, and Conrad’s re-appropriation of conventions to critique dominant ideologies. The adventure tradition is affirmed in Lord Jim through the formal conventions that Conrad appropriates in his writing. However, it is later subverted because the pro-imperialist ideology that is inherent in adventure fiction is destabilized: the civilization, morality and rationality of the white man is questioned in the text and becomes ambiguous.

The romantic tradition is identified in Jim’s character as the idealistic hero who upholds strict ideals. His self-exile to Patusan and his eventual death does not provide a satisfactory conclusion to his strict adherence to romantic aspirations. The examination of other white characters that may provide satisfactory alternatives to Jim’s failure to embody the ideas of honor and morality reveals the idealistic aspirations inherent in the notion of the English gentleman. These ideals are strictly upheld by the characters however, they are undermined because honor and duty become self-serving and unrealistic. While the white male characters failed to adequately represent English superiority, the native characters serve to reinforce the binary distinctions between the white man and the other. The Patusan natives are either associated with degeneration or that are in deference to Jim.

Ultimately, the identification of the adventure romance tradition in the text and the simultaneous undermining of that tradition ties in to the modernist concerns with the obscurity of truth. Lord Jim and Lord Jim fail to fit adequately into proper categories resulting in ambiguity and ambivalences.


Jim’s romantic imagination of seeing himself “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line… in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book” is undermined in his abandonment of his ship.

When crisis arises, Jim fails to act on his ideals and abandons the ship in an act of cowardice. This romantic imagination is thus critiqued by Conrad as unrealistic and not substantiated by action.  In addition, although it may be argued that Jim’s eventual death was an honorable and redemptive death because he dies for his values, it begs the question of the futility of values.

While Jim’s movement to Patusan is viewed as an attempt at self-redemption, it also reveals his egotism; Jim desires to uphold his ideas of honor so that he can live out his heroic aspirations (emphasis mine). His morals and values are ambiguous since they are not borne out of his duty, but are seen as self-serving. Likewise, pro-idealist ideology that was prevalent in the adventure tradition is destabilized because the colonization motive of bringing civilization to places outside England is revealed to be an egoistic enterprise that reinforces white superiority.

Topics from Other Weeks

Forster adopts the Manichean view of the white man and the figure of the native in the beginning of A Passage to India: the division of physical location between the English and the natives is apparent. However like Conrad, Forster undermines the pro-imperialist ideology through his critique of organized religion, in the form of Christianity (the religion of the white man).

The English characters do not practice the Christian virtues of love, forgiveness and consideration to others. Adela’s accusation of Aziz is unsubstantiated but believed because the word of the white woman is privileged over that of the native. This results in Aziz being condemned by the English before being allowed to speak; the native’s voice is excluded. Christian virtues are not embodied in the characters instead, the English characters worship the idea of white superiority. The notion of white supremacy is thus undermined and viewed as morally inferior to Indian religion (in particular, Hinduism) that is accommodating. However, the binary views are not re-established by positing Hinduism as a fully satisfactory alternative to Christianity.

Convention is re-appropriated to comment and to critique itself by modernist writers. Conrad and Forster breaks down pro-imperialist ideology to highlight its flaws and to create texts and characters that are hard to define.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 6)- Part 2

Topic of class

The question that dominated the second part of the class was whether we could consider Lord Jim, with its self-proclaimed subtitle, to be a romantic text. ‘Romance’ refers largely to the late 18th century movement, Romanticism, with its notions on idyllic/ gothic nature (a reaction against civilization), and the prizing of journeys over destinations. It can also refer to the novel in its early, vernacular form (romances of the medieval ages).

Some argue that certain aspects of form and themes in the text are romantic. For example, Jim can be seen as the typical romantic hero/figure who sets off on a quest when young, grows in the process, yet also fails spectacularly. He is the quintessential over-reacher, and arguably, so is Marlow and the reader, for they are attempting to reach some sort of ungraspable truth of Jim and understanding of the events in the novel.

However, keeping in mind Conrad’s Polish heritage and family background, it appears more likely that Conrad is writing in reaction to Romanticism. He is making use of certain conventions in order to critique and undermine the movement. Conrad shows how Jim’s futile imagination leads to cowardice and how the romantic dream, with its ideals of morality and honor, fails in modern life and in the context of imperialism.


‘He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies…’ (Chapter 1)

This choice example highlights the way in which Conrad critiques the romantic imagination and its brand of heroism. Jim’s daydream prevents him from taking action (genuine work seems to be a concern of Conrad; it saves Marlow’s sanity in Heart) and he is too late (so says the captain of the ship) to save anybody. Yet, the ‘pain of conscious defeat’ didn’t deter him and he swore to ‘affront greater perils’ the next time. We all know what happened to that in chapter three.

Connections with other topics from other weeks

We have seen how Forster uses the idea of the quest only to debunk it in A Passage to India. Similarly, Conrad has shown in Heart of Darkness that his work is a mixture of (what we now perceive as) modernist and non-modernist elements, as well as being both (possibly) racist and anti-imperialist. It is therefore not surprising that in Lord Jim, he both relies on and departs from the romantic tradition. The modernist movement does not come out of a vacuum but breaks new literary ground by reacting to something before it.

Doubly removed from natives

In both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Lord Jim’, Conrad employs the framed narrative to describe the colonists’ experience in the colony. The character, Marlow reappears in ‘Lord Jim’ and this time he describes Lord Jim, much like how he describes Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness.

Many studies are concerned with Conrad’s use of framed narrative and how it creates a sense of distance between the author and Marlow; between the reader and Marlow and also Kurtz. The reader’s perspective of Marlow is always limited by the narrator. And his perspective of Kurtz is further limited by Marlow’s narration.

What is often not emphasized is that the reader’s perspective on the natives is always limited by the narrator’s, Marlow’s and possibly even Kurtz’s perspective. In Conrad’s novel, the emphasis is often on the white man’s experience (perspective) of the native and never on the natives themselves. Achebe’s reading of Conrad seems to fit in here (that Conrad is a thorough racist). While we can never be sure if Conrad’s description of natives are part of his modernist tendencies, but what is quite clear is that Conrad does not seem very interested in the natives. In his evaluation, the experience of the white man is put above the experience of the natives. To me, this is a subtle yet powerful form of racism.

Oh Humanity!

“This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable” -Joseph Conrad to William Lyon Phelps, 1923

This sentiment is evident in all of Conrad’s works so far, first in Heart of Darkness and now in Lord Jim. Both narratives have a protagonist who is a member of the colonizing class, and both protagonists are incredibly flawed human beings who have committed “inhuman” crimes. The fact that these narratives were largely accepted to be based on real events shows us how far away the gap between “inhuman” and “human” are, and how the “human” can easily slip into the ranks of “inhuman”. Here lies a major issue that modernists were preoccupied with- the issue of humanity. What is humanity? Is there a universal recipe for humanity? What differentiates humans from each other and everybody else?

On another note, I have a huge problem with both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim– they are both so intrinsically biased towards the colonializer that when I read them I do not know whether Conrad is trying to comment on colonialism or is he just trying to tell a story. It disturbs me that Conrad places colonizers in colonialized settings, then has him commit heinous crimes and expect us to feel sympathy for him. Most of all, I hate the monstrous silence that is attributed to the subaltern.

In my opinion, Conrad was right. What was considered humanity then was indeed unimprovable because of the “humans” inability to look beyond themselves and the idea that humanity is universal. Only until people began subscribing to the idea that humanity could be told from an individuals personal perspective, regardless of race, language or religion, could humans then move beyond themselves and not strive to improve, but to understand.

Thank God for revolution and progress.

Reading Conrad (gives me a headache!)

When I was reading Lord Jim, what really struck me most was, again, how ambiguous and un-concrete everything in the story felt. Perhaps it’s because of the large amount of time I spent thinking about ‘truth’ in Heart of Darkness, but when I read Lord Jim, the complexity of the novel and the way so much is left to the reader to judge, really brought this point home to me.

The fact that Conrad creates an explicit audience in the text makes it hard for me not to think about my responses to the text, and in that area, I found Lord Jim rather disturbing to read. Its close similarities with Heart of Darkness, combined with a setting that is much closer to home, made me continuously question my reading of the text, and, in particular, my responses to it. I found myself asking even more questions than perhaps Conrad had intended the reader to do. By the end of the story, I simply did not know what to make of everything—even Jim’s death struck me as rather anti-climatic, because I had become quite confused as to my feelings towards him as a character. Conrad seems to deliberately create an audience in the text (by positioning Marlow as a storyteller), to draw the reader in and destabilise the assumptions and norms we have. The more I read Conrad, the more I think he’s more postmodernist than modernist—I can easily imagine a David Lynch Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim movie.  Now that’s a scary thought.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

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

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

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

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

Oral tradition of Storytelling

I think the way that Jim is portrayed in the novel is very much like that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where both characters occupy a central vacuum upon which stories of them are told, inter-woven and re-appropriated constantly. They do not really exist in and of themselves; rather, they exist through the stories that are formed around and about them, quite like the heroes of traditional oral storytelling in non-European cultures. And I would like to suggest that the oral tradition of storytelling in both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness not only cements the mystique of perceivably more-“primitive” cultures, but it also provides an alternative method of attaining some kind of understanding of a human being.

To me, I believe that the oral tradition is one that places emphasis on a communal understanding of the world – a world-view that is shared by and participated in by all its listeners because everyone is an author in some way or another. Hence, this is how cultures create heroes that are important to every household, because their legend becomes a part of the community narrative; and in the passing down of such stories from person to person, the hero’s characteristics/actions get aggrandized and cemented as heroic eternally. What this does is to immortalize the hero in the given culture and make his heroic qualities forever desirable to the community.

Yet on another level, I want to suggest that this is also Conrad’s way of returning to a more coherent narrative of a world that is highly chaotic and unpredictable, where human nature is not kind and when human failure is abound, especially in certain moments of weaknesses (like Jim did when he jumped ship). I want to suggest that oral storytelling may not be the more accurate depiction of an event, but its combination of various versions can help us build up a more coherent understanding of the highly arbitrary and failure-ridden world.

Jim/Marlow: Public vs Private truths

“Its extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dulness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had see, hear, understand ever so much- everything- in a flash- before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence” (110). I was drawn to this passage as I was reading the novel for I felt that while we have talking about how modernism reiterates that there is no fixity of truths; it can never really be as easy to distance ourselves from the “truths” presented to us through socialisation for they provide an order in which we live our lives. There are times where we may discover different truths for ourselves. However, society does not allow us to act on these truths for they threaten the order and form of our lives. Perhaps, this also relates to the lecture we had on modernism and empire as a crisis of politcal economy and its concern with the social contract.

Jim has to fulfil certain expectations of that as a sailor which is reinforced by Marlow’s reference to an unwritten code of conduct that sailors have to uphold regardless of their predicaments. This code of conduct serves as a form of truth for Jim. Although it is explicitly made known to us that he only endeavours to become a sailor after reading some “light literature,” and that he becomes part of the Patna crew through unforeseen circumstances, he is unable to deal with the guilt and shame arising from his violation of the expectations laid out for him because of the social responsibility he has. This is representative of the dilemma of having to choose between a public and a private truth for almost everyone who forms part of a society. The private truth is representative of freedom and the allowance of an alternative truth and perspective to things but it may be detrimental to the big “T.” As seen, Jim with his private truth wanders from job and job. He is only able to instill order in his life again when he integrates into Patusan through accepting another public truth.

This contestation between the public and private truth is evident in Marlow. With “Heart Of Darkness,” we have seen how he always takes a step back from seeing the truth every time he has a chance and with him as the narrator of Jim’s story, once again, we see instances in which he steps away from the truth. He pieces together Jim’s story, and through various retellings, he seems to be enforcing a certain truth, a big picture despite the awareness that the fragmentations may reveal differing “truths.” Yet, it is the act of retelling which entrenches the truth which Marlow wants to present because it enforces a form of order in the novel. The death of Jim is then significant for it can be viewed as the only way with which this order/ truth remains unchallenged.


Having read Heart Of Darkness before Lord Jim certainly made the latter more digestible, even though it seems highly unlikely that one man can go on talking for so long and have the undivided attention of the people around him. I’ve never had that privilege. What I do find believable in both works by Conrad is how the search for truth in its various forms (moral, ethical, reality, self-discovery for example) can never be separated from the circumstances that surround that quest. It’s as if Conrad is suggesting that truth can never be found in antiseptic, sterile, laboratory-style environments with people in white coats performing thought experiments ad nauseum, and instead a person needs to delve into the seedy, sordid, brutal and horrifying as a test for himself and to the beliefs that he adheres to. So the colonized landscape forms the perfect backdrop for this quest; Marlow and Jim, with their ideals and beliefs, set off in the respective stories for a little-known alien land and culture, to see how far their truths will take them. The modernists likewise with their art works, dreams and philosophies venture into an age they thought man had control over, but tough luck:

It’s a proverbial jungle out there.

On an Errand of Faith: Portrayal of the Pilgrims on the Patna

In the spirit of Ramadan, I thought I’d have a look at the passage in which the Muslim pilgrims board the Patna, headed for Mecca. One of the concerns of Lord Jim is the “one of us” attitude that Marlow takes when relating Jim’s story. Apart from the practical uses in making a connection with the reader by situating himself and his “hero” Jim on the same side as the reader, this attitude also highlights the presence of the colonial mindset present in the context of Marlow’s tale.

When the 800 pilgrims board the Patna, the captain remarks, “Look at dese cattle” (11). Although one might think of the sea of white-linen-clad pilgrims moving in unison as reminiscent of cattle, the actual description Conrad gives appears to give the pilgrims some sense of purpose (in other words, a sense of humanity, distinguishing them from the skipper’s “cattle”).  That is not to say that he does not posit them as inferior: they “stream” on board from their jungles and campongs, covered in dust, sweat, grime and rags (11). However, the pilgrims’ strong “faith and hope of paradise” makes them relatable, understandable and harmless.

The way in which the pilgrims board the ship, filling it up like water, and are said to have come from all walks of life (from “their prosperity, their poverty”) captures them not as a savage people or as an isolated other. These Muslims are captured instead as an indifferent “them” with the allowances of humanity that are allowed of “us.”

Marlow’s account (technically, Jim’s account) of the “human cargo” of the Patna proved a refreshing change (improvement?) from some of the previous “others” we have come across in our readings.

Marlow and morality

While the text itself is titled Lord Jim and that it chronicles Jim’s fall and “rise” in the Patna and Patusan episodes, what is most interesting is Marlow’s struggle at representing Jim. Conrad in choosing to introduce Marlow as a the narrator in Chapter 5 instead of having the omniscient narrator throughout introduces a human dimension in looking at Jim and in effect introduces the notion of the difficulty in representing someone through narration. Even though he was “one of us”, in Marlow’s words, he seems to grapple in telling the story of Jim. This is perhaps due to the fact that he finds himself moralizing Jim and his actions and thus unable to present Jim as he is, but instead a moral Jim.

Marlow’s moralizing ways probably arises from the fact that he finds himself trying to find excuses for Jim’s moral fallibility in the Patna episode and thereby he seems all the more eager to recount the romance that is the Patusan episode. It almost seems that in telling the story, Marlow is projecting his own anxieties on Jim, which I feel is reflected in his opening in Chapter 5 where he addresses the fact that “each of us has a familiar devil as well.” (26) Even though Marlow with his own set of moral ideals seems morally infallible, unlike Kurtz or Jim, he acknowledges that he too might eventually fall in a moment of weakness and therefore he found it necessary for him to “straighten” Jim out. Moreover, even though the Patusan episode seems rather disparate from the Patna episode in that there is totally different feel to the narration, that the Patusan episode was described almost as a romance, this disparateness was necessary for Marlow to quiet his moral anxieties.

Marlow the Ancient Mariner

I would like to depart from the tendency in looking through Marlow to Conrad rather than at Marlow as an object of interest in his own right.  Reading Marlow’s behavior as inwardly motivated (as a character in the book rather than a mouthpiece offering little more than narrative distance for Conrad), would lend a pyschological dimension to his narrative machinations.

A note-worthy observation regarding Marlow would be his obsessive need for narration and categorization.  He has an obsession for “the idea of Kurtz” in Heart of Darkness, just as Jim’s story haunts him in Lord Jim.  This obsession acts as a lubricant in the narrative motion of the texts in question and also highlights the subjective nature of narration and truth-telling (little ‘t’) in modern texts.

In Lord Jim, Marlow becomes a “receptacle of confessions,” fascinated (to the point of obsession) with Jim’s story as seen by his collecting of various narrative sources.  Marlow becomes a kind of Ancient Mariner figure, whose role is to compulsively record and repeat what, by extension, haunts him.  He sees this obsession as a curse (“diabolical”) for which he admits “is a weakness of (his)”.  This motif runs through the text with Marlow’s compulsion to narrate (or rather, form narrative threads) is likened to debauchery and addiction (drink, women) repeatedly.

If we are to see Marlow as a cursed Ancient Mariner-type figure, then we could see the act of narration (the framing of the little ‘t’) being one born out of an unknown compulsion.  Just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner told his tale as a for redemption (out of guilt), Marlow’s “diabolical” compulsion may be one spawned from the basic human desire for the capital ‘T’ Truth, while the narrative itself is framed through the subjective (hence unreliable) view-point of Marlow, and as such can only take the form of the little ‘t’.  Perhaps what is diabolical is not so much the compulsion to narrate, but the inadequacy of the human frame of reference to fulfil the desire for the Truth in its limited form of representation.

Marlow’s Medium, Conrad’s Message

The use of dubious and mixed narrative perspectives in Lord Jim, as I see it, does more than having epitomized the high aesthetics of modernism. I would argue, indeed, that this very maxim intricately anticipates the foundation of today’s ‘post-modern’ media industry, that which has the distinguishing characteristic whereby “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964: 7).


I shall begin with a condensed explanation of McLuhan’s thesis. He was then critiquing how modernity has customized our response to the ‘content’ of any medium (including literature) as our focal-point de facto to the extent of becoming ‘blind’ towards the character of that medium. Literally speaking, therefore, a twentieth-century writer (such as Conrad himself) has to deliberately engage ‘potent’ techniques such as temporal fragmentation and narrative ambiguity in order to procure the reader’s contemplation on the meaning behind the text. This, in a nutshell, is the very message per se.


With this, one can consequentially ask: what does Conrad want us to see from the narrations of Marlow and the other unnamed, third-person narrator in Lord Jim? It is quite obvious that any plausible answer to this would not be found in the text. To me, this endearing enigma serves to provoke a retrospective reflection on the literatures that preceded itself, with a concurrent view about the treatment of contemporary issues – be they imperialistic or otherwise.

Jim: The man chasing his ideals

After reading Lord Jim, the title of the novel becomes a site of questioning for me. I had picked up a book and had expected it to be about the adventures about an respectable man who has impacted on the world. But it became a story about a young man struggling to make sense of himself, in a world that he tries to fit into as he has a very idealised view of the world. But the question is – is the idealised world view that Jim has essentially wrong?

I think we can examine this by looking at Stein’s diagnosis of Jim as a romantic. Even though this seems to oversimplify Jim’s situation, his additional observation that eventually became a postulation of a paradox , that Jim is “very bad … very good too” (158) greatly influenced how I went on to see Jim. Just like the very notion of good and bad, Jim’s ideals are needed, for example, his belief in his inherent superiority as a white man gave him the confidence to take charge in Patusan. However, at the same time, his ideals lock him within Patusan, subjecting him to continually reassert his whiteness. We eventually saw him resorting to wearing imperial uniforms. In other words, in his pursuit of the ideal, he might sink deeper and deeper in his own selfish desires and eventually lose himself and sacrifice others for himself (as we come to see when he decides to set Brown free).

Ultimately, I think Conrad is not trying to give us an answer to what ideals are correct and wrong, but he tries to illuminate the possibilities in the real world by taking an equivocal position –  just like the title of the book. Whether we see Jim as Lord Jim or the multi-faceted white man, it’s really up to us and dependent on our values to decide.