The grass is always sexier on the other side.

There is one particular paragraph that I find a little bizarre in this week’s Stoler reading, the gist of which can be summarized in two sentences:

Although novels and memoirs position European women as categorically absent from the sexual fantasies of European men, these very men imagined their women to be desired and seductive figures to others. Within this frame, European women needed protection from the ‘primitive’ sexual urges aroused by the sight of them. (58)

The idea of the sight of the European woman arousing the “primitive” colonized reminded me of Doris Lessing’s novel I read years ago, entitled The Grass is Singing, where an all too plain married white woman in living on a farm with her husband in Africa enters into a bizarre sexual affair with her slave. If memory serves me correctly, there’s one point in the beginning of the text where the narrator says something along the lines of “Mary just could not get along with the natives.” From what I remember, the African slave makes the first move to modify the strict mistress-servant relationship when Mary faints or suddenly feels weak and is put to bed by Moses, the slave. From that point on, Moses addresses her in a dangerously familiar, slightly controlling tone, seemingly exploiting Mary’s weakness as a woman.

However, I really don’t understand how exactly this sort of standard comes about: what is the appeal in imposing this image of sexual predation of native men on European women? Admittedly from the texts I’ve read (Lessing’s The Grass is Singing included) the rape or predatory relationship between colonized men and colonist women is about imposing control in some way on the colonist, even if only through the percieved weakest link.

I suppose this raises a few questions about whether the colonist men had this fantasy about their women exciting sexual urges in the “primitive” colonized because of this control.

Inclusion, History and Identity

When I started reading the Stoler reading, I kept finding my mind wandering back to Orwell as the isolated intellectual, especially when Stoler began talking about national identity, education and inclusion. I guess I’m curious as to whether Orwell would have been quite so isolated in “Shooting an Elephant” if these educational measures had been in place. (Perhaps the same question could be extended to Flory in Burmese Days…although I’m not sure he falls in the same category as Orwell in “Shooting an Elephant”.)

In terms of national identity, I guess this reading answers some of the questions I’d had about where history came in to the creation of a national identity. I took a class a few semesters ago that dealt with  Nationalism and the Arts: we had a guest student sitting in from Harvard who happened to make the comment that Singapore hasn’t had enough time to build a clear identity because we were less than half a century old. The professor was quick to point out that Singapore has been around for more than 50 years, it was just Independence that came much more recently.

Using Stoler’s tie-together of history and national identity, I suppose one root of having a national identity comes of having a shared history. I can see how colonialism problematizes national identity, considering the “shared history” suddenly becomes “shared histories”–one of which is placed in a more dominant position than perhaps an indigenous concept of identity tied to place.

I’m fairly curious as to the origin of “nationhood.” Is it a colonial/postcolonial construct?

Writing Orwell: Falling into Modern English

I read an essay by Orwell in high school that had a profound impact on the way I view the English language. Written about a decade after “Shooting an Elephant,” “Politics and the English Language” is Orwell’s tirade of sorts against “modern english”: a new stage of the language that, to him, was ruining it. He argues that “the tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Citing overused metaphor, pretentious diction and meaningless words and phrases as things that have redirected modern prose, it’s interesting to note that he uses all of them in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Although he does slip in some Latin – in saecula saeculorum, in terrorem – and utilize extremely common descriptions of the Burmese, especially in the opening paragraphs, Orwell’s writing and his later critique on modern prose seem to highlight the crisis of knowledge that stems from Orwell’s situation in Burma. He is on the side of the Burmese in as much as he hates the colonial oppression, and yet he is very firmly one of these oppressors in how the Burmese react to him and his consequent dislike of them. In other words, having concrete prose would detract from this feeling of internal conflict: how clear can one’s conscience be as an ambivalent colonial authority?

In characterizing, Orwell’s “modern English” goes great lengths to highlight the Modernist problem of knowledge, foregoing clarity of prose to emphasize the lack of clarity in the mind.

Savage Culture: Wallace’s Dyaks and Modern Sarawak

It was interesting reading about Wallace’s view of Sarawak’s indigenous people in light of the trip I made to Kuching some months ago. Although I’m not entirely sure exactly which tribe Wallace is talking about (my guess would be the Bidayuh “Land Dayaks”) he portrays them as honest, simple people with great potential. He laments that they are cheated by the Malay and Chinese traders and is impressed with their social advancement and pleasant companionship. The faults he puts upon the “Dyaks” are that the men are idle while the women are allowed to slave like “beast[s] of burthen,” and concludes that the European example could be beneficial and not make the Dyaks “demoralized and finally exterminated, by contact with European civilization.”

Interestingly enough, Sarawak appears to have done just that: although it still embraces its natural heritage above all else, the White Rajah is shown to be a good part of their history. At the end of this past May, the Sarawak Museum in Kuching had an exhibit on the general history of Sarawak. There was an entire gallery dedicated to the White Rajahs and their lives, painting a positive picture of colonial rule that served to help the people of Sarawak.

Included in this are the indigenous people of Sarawak; contrary to Wallace’s attempted hierarchy of the people of the area, Sarawak appears to embrace all aspects of its heritage equally, including the colonial rulers.

At least from my own observations, Wallace’s optimism seems to have come true to a certain extent: European influence may have been a beneficial force on the people of Sarawak. They certainly seem to hold the same opinion of Sir James Brooke as Wallace.

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.

Comparing Images of India and Africa

I thought it was interesting that one of the first things that Achebe mentioned about Heart of Darkness is the projection of images of Africa as “the other world” and “the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.” In comparison to images of India in Forster’s Passage, Africa is painted in a much less flattering light.

Between my earlier post on the first few pages of Passage and Conrad’s illustration of Africa in Heart of Darkness, Achebe points out that Conrad very vividly paints a picture of a mysterious, “savage” land, in stark contrast to the wholly uninteresting, unremarkable Chandrapore to which we are introduced in the beginning pages of A Passage to India.

Perhaps Conrad’s–pardon the pun–strict black and white view is due to his being, as Achebe says, a “thoroughgoing racist.” Conrad’s voice, his nearly chant-like repetition of particularly colored words and phrases (Achebe makes a funny jab at his use of the word “nigger”) shows the reader a hardened, unrelenting view of Africa as the aforementioned antithesis to civilization.

I am unsure whether to agree with Achebe on Conrad not completely being held accountable for perpetuating his views on Africa due to his merely being a representative example of the Western ways of thinking at the time. However, I don’t know enough about Conrad himself to adequately assess whether he could be held more accountable for how he conveys Africa or not.

In Opposite Corners: Colonist vs Colonized in Fanon and Forster

In the beginning of Fanon’s chapter “On Violence,” he states that:

…[t]he colonist is right when he says he “knows” them. It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject. The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.

The entire idea of “fabricating” the colonized subject made me think of Said’s Orientalism, and the tendency of the colonist to make the colonized appear simultaneously exotic and uncivilized. Said argues that the colonist projects their “dark” side onto the colonized–attributing cruelty, stupidity, laziness, lack of hygeine etc to the “hysterical masses”–while exemplifying themselves as the polar opposite of the colonized. As Fanon puts it, “to illustrate the totalitarian nature of colonial exploitation, the colonist turns the colonized into a kind of quintessence of evil.”

Nonetheless, Fanon appears to be writing from this Eurocentric standpoint, positing the colonial world as a “compartmentalized” and ordered world and the decolonization process as a process of violence caused by years of envy and anger on part of the colonized people. His description of the “native” sector as disreputable, famished, and prostate suggests that his sympathies lie with the colonists.

In addition to using Said’s binaristic language to describe the colonist and colonized, Fanon makes an interesting decision in acknowledging the colonist as the foreigner, but still labeling the colonized, “the others,” emphasizing that the indigenous population is marginalized, and therefore inferior to to the colonists.

With regards to Forster’s Passage, Fanon’s illustration of the relationship between the colonist and the colonized, specifically the “colonized intellectual,” and his definitions of the “foreign” and “native” sectors facilitate insight into the interactions between and the opinions held by the “foreign” and “native” characters in the text.

Revisiting Chandrapore: Second Impressions and Sympathy

Since the first lecture, I’ve been churning that introductory excerpt from A Passage to India over in my mind. I thought it curious that the reader is introduced in such an apathetic, even disinterested manner, to a place that should be (given the period) and usually is made extremely exotic.

I’m starting to think that perhaps it is a technique Forster uses to gain the reader’s sympathy for the land, the physical space and its contents (terrain and local people). In predisposing the reader to sympathizing with the people–Aziz–even in the introduction to Aziz as a character, one reacts as he does to the foreign British.

Perhaps it is romantic of me, but the way in which Forster sets up Chandrapore and characterizes Aziz seems to use a sort of reverse psychology, endearing the entirely un-interesting Chandrapore to the reader as if from the eyes of a local who sees flaws and treasures in the same glance, equally and indifferently. Aziz on the other hand, pulls a similar trick by presenting himself as a well-natured, good-hearted man when he visits his friend; highlights the previous impression of Chandrapore by admiring the beauty of his favorite mosque; but gives a strange second impression when he flares up at Mrs. Moore. His redemption occurs when the reader realizes that he does it out of love for his faith and place of worship  and he is readily willing to admit error and make peace with Mrs. Moore.

The interactions with the British in Chandrapore are made more real and the tensions between Aziz and Adela are emphasized by the sympathy and empathy the reader has for Aziz and Chandrapore over the foreigners.

British Fragments: the Empire and the Modernist Perception

Levine’s illustration of the British empire and Modernism’s stress on perception (more specifically, fragmentation, that particular technique of representation) have me thinking about the cause-and-effect relationship between history and the literary movement’s trademarks.

After reading Levine’s chapter on “Ruling an Empire,” I’m starting to draw a few parallels between the strict stratification of the British empire (rather, specifically in relation to the colonies) and the general emphasis on the observer and the question of representation versus perception in modernist literature. Towards the end of the chapter, Levine makes comment on the worries over British subjects in colonies ‘going local’ and the colonial subjects being “counted, described, given classifications” (114). With this sort of rigidly structured, categorical mindset it is only logical that with decolonization would come a crisis of thought. Stemming from the shattering of the strict order that existed previously, this crisis led to emphasis on the act of observation over the thing that is observed, almost as an attempt to regain order through new forms and new ways of percieving.

As discussed in first lecture, Modernism highlights form, drawing attention to function and perception, and the importance of perception in finding a “truth.” In the aftermath of the Great War, the depressed economies, the devastation to the land and the effect of the war on the people presumably prompted the search for beauty and truth so pervasive in Modernist texts.