Notes on Growing (Week 11, 29 Oct)

Daniel and Vanessa gave a presentation entitled “Growing Disillusioned”, arguing that Leonard Woolf in the “Jaffna” of Growing undergoes a process of disillusionment, highlighted by the difference of opinion across the half-century separating experience and writing, the emphasis of the theatricality of life, as well as of the alienating nature of the environment. Personally I don’t find a colonizer growing disillusioned so much as an administrator becoming happier and more confident in his role as colonizer in an alien land, particularly as Woolf’s power increases. This is most evident in the resounding success which he attributes to his exploits in the Pearl Fishery and the revolutions in office efficiency, as well as his emphasis of the “unheard of” (125) speed of his promotion.

Daniel began his presentation with a quote of Jerome Bruner (source unknown) which posits that the autobiography both confirms culture and proffers individuality. A close inspection of this opposition in the text would generate an interesting analysis of Woolf’s opinions of both himself and his culture, namely that of imperialism. An example of a disjuncture of self and culture is when Woolf writes, “It shocked me that these people should think that, as a white man and a ruler of Ceylon, I should consider the brown man, the Tamil, to be one of ‘the lesser breeds’ and deliberately hit him in the face with my riding whip to show him that he must behave himself and keep in his place” (113).

Daniel also brought up the idea of theatricality, how Woolf saw life in Ceylon as on a stage (24-25). Daniel misses out the point that it is an English stage, for Woolf speaks of the backcloth of imperialism (25). Daniel also misappropriates a quote from The Haunted Stage, where theatre is said to make memory. Here, it is the converse: memory makes theatre. Woolf also frequently relates his experiences to literature, whether Austen (42), Kipling (46), Hardy (54), Forster (63), or Coleridge (81). Daniel pointed out that this highlights the specifically English or Western frame of mind and references with which Woolf’s world is interpreted.

Vanessa argued that Woolf displays a political schizophrenia, being both a malevolent colonialist and a benevolent overlord. There is however no real evidence of any dysfunction or confusion in Woolf’s leadership. Even if he draws values from both imperialism and humanism, these do not contradict each other. I would say Woolf sees himself as a benevolent colonialist. He has no problems doing the Empire’s work, or lording over natives, yet seems to believe in executing his duties in a humane manner: “There was a great deal to be said against our rule of Ceylon, which, of course, was bleak ‘imperialism’ or what is fashionably called colonialism. One of the good things about it, however, was the extraordinary absence of the use of force in everyday life and government” (92).

Vanessa raised the idea of geographical displacement in relation to psychological displacement. Woolf himself acknowledges that “topographical details are not unimportant psychologically”, and increased the indescribable sense of “imperialist isolation” (49). The physical landscape alienates and overwhelms him. Perhaps the best example of this is his description of tropical nights at the Tangalla Rest House (71-72), where one appears “minute, helpless, infinitely insignificant” (71).

In the class discussion, Dr Koh asked whether the class knew Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and what significance this has. It was generally consented that Woolf as a Jew, and Conrad as a Pole, both experienced life in a minority, gained insight into outsiderhood. Not being “English English”, they therefore were unlikely to subscribe to Kiplingese imperialism.

The second half of the class was spent viewing the first half of Chocolat, a French film by Claire Denis from 1988. There is a clear intention in the film to explore racial tension, or the problems of interracial existence in colonial Cameroon, particularly with the repeated use of the two shot to tightly frame a black person and a white person together. Examples of this are in the scenes of Protée and the young France riding in the back of a truck, and of Protée lacing up Aimée’s corset in front of a mirror. The adult France makes an interesting comment near the beginning of the film, where, upon being asked whether she was a tourist, replied “sort of”. She is not a tourist because she is revisiting the land where she grew up in, yet in another sense she will forever be a tourist, an outsider to the land of Cameroon. The film seems to give allegorical names to its main characters: France, Aimée (beloved), Protée (Proteus, perhaps suggesting either mutability or primordiality).

The Fantasy of the Oriental Woman Dispelled

Ann Stoler writes in “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” that “Colonial observers and participants in the imperial enterprise appear to have had unlimited interest in the sexual interface of the colonial encounter”, and that “The tropics provided a site for European pornographic fantasies” (43). The Orient has always been sexed and sexualized as a woman, perhaps most memorably in the harems of One Thousand and One Nights. Stoler points out that the “sexual submission and possession of Oriental women by European men” easily become “graphic representations of colonial dominance” (44). She cites Edward Said, who described Orientalism as both a “male perception of the world” and a “male power fantasy” (44). This corresponds directly and obviously with the male sexual gaze of Oriental women. What Stoler insists, however, is that this sexual domination is of more symbolic than pragmatic significance.

In Chapter Four of Burmese Days, George Orwell introduces Ma Hla May, the native mistress of the European protagonist James Flory. The entire scene of sexual intercourse together with the attendant shame which Flory experiences strongly suggests the link between sexual and imperial domination. First of all, I disagree with Stoler, and find that the sexual domination of Oriental women is far from merely symbolic. It is a harsh reality with tangible consequences, and is often a facet or an extension of the injustices of imperialism. What I would like to draw attention to, however, is Orwell’s portrayal of the Oriental woman in Ma Hla May. On the surface it is a stereotypical depiction, yet it also bears interesting departures from the usual object of male European fantasy.

There is a heavy sense of disillusionment which overhangs Burmese Days. Part of this disillusionment is with the Oriental woman, the fantasy of which is dispelled. Ma Hla May is physically described as “an outlandish doll, and yet a grotesquely beautiful one” (52). While she is attributed with physical beauty, it is more of a vague and theoretical kind of beauty. There is greater emphasis on the grotesquery of her appearance, as well as the lack of femininity in her “contourless” (52) frame, at least from the European point-of-view. As with the natural landscape of Burma, Orwell sets up a contrast between the expectation of fantasy against experience of reality. Ma Hla May hardly seems attractive to Flory. She seems to bring remorse and vexation more than she does pleasure or satisfaction. Her strongest distinguishing characteristic is her covetousness, her voice is “high-pitched” (52), and the “scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil” (52) which follows her is not a pleasant fragrance, but a lingering pungence which Flory is unable to rid himself of. In the scene of shame, after having had sex with Ma Hla May, Flory “buried his face disgustedly in the pillow, which was damp and smelt of coco-nut oil” (54).

Criminal Tentacles

Colonial power is stereotypically portrayed in the example of the East India Company (EIC) in Philippa Levine’s The British Empire. This seems to me as much fabrication as it is at the same time revelation. Perhaps “fabrication” has harsh connotations, but attention needs to be called to the one-sided and convenient depiction of colonial power as “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking” (66). In describing its monstrous methods towards power and profit, the text associates the EIC with intrigue, corruption, insensibly expensive conquests, the reinforcement of Hindu oppression, and with phrases such as “the relentless expansion of territory” and “the tentacles of westernization” (76). Two aspects are left out: other motivations, factors, contexts regarding its actions, as well as how few the number of persons who direct the will of the EIC and imperial Britain, or how large the number of those who though complicit could not be fairly charged “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking”.

In the opium saga, colonialism is plainly criminal in producing and exporting the “dulling and addictive” substance. “In effect, the company endorsed a huge and sophisticated smuggling ring.” (73) This would be an exaggerated and inappropriate statement if applied to the modern cigarette industry. Strangely, the opium trade is closely contrasted with morals (75–76).

However, the British have their virtuous moments. These are few, and amount to little more than good will, as when the 1829 ban on suttee “did little to extirpate the practice” (72).

The Truth for Modernists

In reading Erich Auerbach’s analysis of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, the Modernist attitude towards truth arises. This for me can be more simply described through a series of binaries.

Auerbach quickly notes that “inner processes” (529) dominate Woolf’s prose. This perhaps suggests that truth is not apparent, found in superficial observations, but resides in unseen, interior cogitations.

Woolf presents a mishmash of perspectives, seemingly from Mrs Ramsay, Mr Bankes, even Woolf herself. This recalls the painting which was shown in class, Woman with a Guitar by Georges Braque. As represented by Cubism, Woolf seems also to subscribe to the idea that truth is never a single perspective.

Statements made are indefinite, suggesting that truth is not clear-cut, nor fixed. Rather than finding answers, Woolf poses questions; questions themselves may be considered truth, without the need or the finality of answers. Also, feelings are prized over facts. Woolf suggests the reliability of feelings and personal thought, and throws suspicion upon hard, objective facts.