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.

Language, and the Growth of the Artist

 “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” can be seen as a sort of Kunstlerroman, the growth of an artist. It, in a way, describes the growth of the artist from a boy to an artist.  However, by “becoming” an artist, Stephen Dedalus abandons the religion and culture that is “native” to Ireland. On the other hand, to remain “Irish” (eg. Catholic) would be to reject the growing into an artist.

I think that language reflects the growth of the artist. The English used in writing the novel gets increasingly more complex as the novel progresses and as Stephen gradually “grows” into an artist, perhaps reflecting his growing ability to express himself. However, English is the language of the colonizer. By using it in the novel, there seems to be assimilation or a submission of his “Irish” identity to that of the colonizer. This is especially so, because as his English gets more complex, arguably, we can also say that he becomes more comfortable with the language of the colonizer, and more assimilated into the discourse of the colonizer.  

However, maybe we can see this in a different way. As Jackson has mentioned, the Irish view of the British is quite paradoxical as many Irish viewed the “Empire was [as] both an agent of liberation and oppression” (123). In that sense then, even while Stephen allows the language of the colonizer to oppress him, maybe, by using the language of the colonizer, he also liberates himself from the stifling confines of the “Irish” identity. I don’t think the novel offers Stephen’s dream of flying past the nets as a good or conclusive solution. However, perhaps we might be able to see this novel as a breaking of the binary between Colonizer and Native. Perhaps the novel is suggesting assimilation is not necessarily a bad thing, though it is also not necessarily ideal. After all, it is by speaking the language of the colonizer that he can redeem Ireland, and “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276).

Redeeming the colonial wife

Originally, when I first read Burmese Days, I found Elizabeth quite an appalling character. The way Orwell portrays her as flitting from man to man in search of a husband, regardless of how she feels towards the person in question romantically, seems to illustrate a very negative image of a materialistic woman who uses men to advance her own standing. After reading Stoler’s article on “Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power” however, I find myself wanting to redeem Elizabeth.


As Stoler points out, European women were “to be almost as closely policed as colonized men” (60), and they were confined to colonial spaces as “custodians of family welfare and respectability and dedicated and willing subordinates to and supporters of men” (61). This can be seen in Elizabeth’s story. As a professional woman, a teacher in Paris, she is subjected to poverty and sexual harassment from her employer. As a single woman entering the colonies, she is immediately subjected to pressures to get married. For example, her uncle and aunt, in their first letter to her, immediately pointed out the many unmarried men present in the colonies who would appreciate her company. Furthermore, as a single woman in the colonies she is subjected to sexual harassment by her uncle, and her only way of escaping that is to marry someone else. In short, reflecting Stoler’s argument, Elizabeth is driven towards marriage (being a wife and mother) by the social pressures on her (her aunt and uncle’s pressuring of her to find a husband), and the impossibility of a single woman gaining any wealth or respect on her own (as the multiple attacks on her modesty and her poverty in Paris illustrates). Thus, in that sense, we might be able to claim that Elizabeth turns out to be the materialistic person that she is because the confinement of women to the colonial spaces of motherhood and marriage drives her to it.

Women and Colonialism

In this post, I would like to discuss the portrayal of women in Burmese Days. Admittedly, I am only about half way through the novel, so my discussion will be limited to what I know of the novel up to that point. Up till now, there have been four prominent women in the novel: Mrs Lackersteen, Ma Hla May, Ma Kin and Elizabeth. Significantly, according to their racial category, the women fall into two broad categories: white women who wish to elevate themselves to a superior position, and natives who want to elevate themselves by riding on the white man’s prestige.


For example, Mrs Lackersteen laments the lack of “authority over the natives nowadays… In some ways they are getting almost as bad as the lower classes at home” (29) while Elizabeth imagines “barefooted white-turbaned boys reverently salaaming” (96) her in India. Both European women seem to strive to reaffirm the artificial neat boundaries between races that Ann Stoler points out is part of the colonial ideology.


The text seems to disapprove of Elizabeth’s strict fixing of the racial lines by pointing out how much of her desire to distinguish the Europeans from the natives stems from an innate desire to live like a rich person, to be superior to somebody. However, even as the text comments on the neat and unfair categories, it also reaffirms them with the portrayal of the hypersexual women like Ma Hla May who only wishes to use her sexuality to gain wealth from her white lover.  


For example, Ma Hla May complains that Flory never gives her any “presents of gold bangles, ad silk longyis” (53) anymore and discusses how a lack of this display of the wealth he gives her would make her “ashamed before the other women” (53). Ma Kin, while seemingly moralistic and reprimands her husband for his evil deeds, stops viewing her husband’s plans with disapproval as when he tells her how his evil plans could get them into the European Club, he had “planted a grain of ambition in ma Kin’s gentle heart” (144). Thus, even the gentle and moral Ma Kin is susceptible to greed, thus reaffirming the colonial stereotype of native women.    


That the women from both races affirm and stick to their culture’s ideologies and ideas, I think, further reinforces the idea of women as the bearers of a culture’s ideology, just as Marlow’s aunt in Heart of Darkness was.

Race and the Law in “Shooting an Elephant”

In his article, Partha Chatterjee looked at a certain opinion in Britain that felt that the colonized people, the Indians specifically, were immoral, irrational, ignorant and unfit for taking leadership in a government that is based on rationality. This idea was then used to justify not putting the natives in positions of power. 


In “Shooting an Elephant”, I think George Orwell upsets this justification. At the end of the story, the narrator points out that colonial power is enforced through bureaucratic and legal systems. The narrator was “legally” right to have shot the elephant because the law said it was the right thing to do. The owner could do nothing (presumably, he could not take legal action against the narrator) because the law does not value his rights as he “was only an Indian”. In other words, the story seems to highlight that the reason the colonial powers put the natives at a position of inferior power is so they can do as they like in the colonized land without fear of protest from the indigenous people. The narrator’s reason for shooting the elephant, “to avoid looking a fool”, highlights the insecurities and selfishness behind the acts of the colonial powers, where the narrator commits an act of violence simply to maintain his position as a “white man” who “mustn’t be frightened in front of “natives””.


Furthermore, I think that the story contradicts the essentialization of race by showing how people grow to fit racial stereotypes. For example, the narrator muses on how the moment a white man becomes a tyrant, he has to spend the rest of his life living up to that expectation of him, and thus grows to fit that stereotype of him. The natives too, seem to degenerate to crude behaviour towards the Europeans, such as in the Buddhist priests who seemed to have nothing “to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans” because they have been ill-treated by the colonial powers. The narrator shows this when he gives a very explicit illustration of the brutal ill-treatment the natives get, such as the “wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups” or the “scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos”. As the natives are treated like animals, so they act like animals towards the Europeans. Hence, I feel that “Shooting an Elephant” destabilizes the essentializing of race and the justification of the exclusion of natives from spaces of power as raised in Chatterjee’s article.

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”.

Morality of the Native

In Lord Jim, I found a lot of interpretations on the morality of Jim’s abandonment of the Patna by the other characters. Jim, for example, finds his cowardice unacceptable and thus insists on standing trial for it. The French Lieutenant, on the other hand, holds the view that everyone is a coward, that “there is somewhere a point when you let go everything” (150). However, I couldn’t help wondering about morality with regards to the native. For example, was Doramin’s revengeful killing of Jim seen as equally morally ambiguous? Or was it seen as a morally acceptable or morally unacceptable? I personally felt that the issue of morality didn’t even seem to come into question, which is curious given that this whole book seems to deal with the issue of moral ambiguity and I wonder if this is a show of Conrad’s “racism”.


            For example, Doramin’s people are described by Marlow as were “intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than any other Malays” (232). Doesn’t Doramin’s revenge killing of Jim support this over-generalizing and somewhat racist statement about his people, that they are revengeful? By not even bothering to deal with the issue of morality of the native, is the book suggesting that the issue of the native’s morality isn’t even an issue because what Doramin did is simply in the “nature” of his type of people? Or, is the issue not called into question simply because the whole book is about Jim and Jim’s journey. In which case, isn’t the text simply marginalizing the native in favour of concentration on Jim?

Self and Other in Heart of Darkness

According to Chinua Achebe, there has been a “desire … in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations … remote and vaguely familiar”. This can be seen largely in Heart of Darkness, where the natives are seen as “Black shapes” or “black shadows”, whose ways are incomprehensible to Marlow. The natives are posited as wild and exotic, such as in the glimpse Marlow has of “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping…”. It is quite unlike the city Marlow goes to meet his employers, which is like a “whited sepulchre”, a phrase that suggests silence and solemnity.


However, while Achebe argues that the comparison with the tranquil river Thames and wild river Congo illustrates this desire, I felt that the “common ancestry” does not reveal the anxiety on Conrad’s part about the “lurking hint of kinship”, but rather situated the British in the position of the Africans, as they too had once been seen as savages” living in a land of “Sandbanks, marshes, forests… precious little to eat fit for a civilised man”. Indeed, Kurtz’s “exalted and incredible degradation” seems to be the emergence of a darkness within himself. As Marlow noted, Kurtz’s soul had “looked within itself, and… it had gone mad”. The “heart of darkness” is as much Congo as the darkness within Kurtz’s heart. However, at the same time, it was “Being in the wilderness” that brought out the darkness within him. In that sense then, Africa is still posited as this wild, primitive place that allows the “savage” within, usually bond in by the trappings of civilization, to come free.

Note-taking for the Second Part of Class (Week 4)

Why does Fanon’s discussion use binaries?

 Fanon discusses colonization in terms of binaries should be read within the context of Hegelian dialectics. According to Hegel, there is a thesis and an anti-thesis which are in opposition. Eventually, the thesis and anti-thesis will combine to form the synthesis, a process called sublation. This synthesis is supposed to be a form of progress.

 At the same time, such binaries really did exist in colonized lands. For example, the colonizer and the colonized are distinguished as “citizens” and “subjects” respectively. In that sense, the colonized do not have the same rights as the colonizer, as being “subjects”, the Social Contract does not apply to them. The arms of the government, the police, the army and the Law thus were obliged, by the Social Contract, to protect the colonizers (citizens), but not the colonized (subjects). The police, army and the Law thus quite literally compartmentalize the colonized lands by dividing it into two, the land of the colonizer and the land of the colonized. 

 Why does Fanon call for violence?

 Fanon’s call for violence stems from two general ideas.

 Firstly, there is the idea that the colonizer inflicts incredible violence on the native, but that act of violence is covered up. The idea of the Social Contract in terms of the “civilizing mission” is all well and good, but whether it was applied needs to be questioned. Instead of teaching the “barbaric natives” civilization (rationality, for example), the colonizers seemed instead to have taught them violence and to teach them to internalize an image of themselves as “inferior” and “barbaric”. For example, in A Passage to India, the natives often try to change their habits and manners to satisfy the colonizer’s values of what is proper, which illustrates that they have internalized the colonizer’s idea of what is “good” and what is “bad”. This is an act of violence because the colonized have internalized an image of themselves set by people (the colonizers) who do not have their best interests at heart. At the same time, actual violence is acted out upon the colonized. Aziz, for example, was arrested for a crime he did not commit. Significantly, the moment Aziz is arrested, his voice is no longer heard (quite literally) within the text. That could be an example of the colonizer’s violence against the colonized being covered up.

 Secondly, Marx’s ideas of a “class struggle”, strongly influenced by Hegelian dialectics, suggest that change can only be made through violence. This could explain Fanon’s dissatisfaction with the new class of “colonized intellectuals”. Essentially, the colonized intellectuals have internalized the values of the colonizer, and will try to resolve issues between the colonizer and the colonized peacefully. Thus whatever “new” system they form will merely be a replication of the colonizer’s system. There will thus be no change and no progress.

Truth sets the native free, or does it?

I will look at a quote from Fanon’s article: “Truth is what protects the “natives” and undoes the foreigners” (14). This problematizes modernism as a form of decolonialization because it rejects naming absolute Truth, perhaps not so much because there isn’t any but because they feel humans lack the means of communicating it. For example, the caves always echo back “boun”, no matter what you say, which I think, illustrates the inadequacies of language.   


So, if “Truth” is what sets the native free, by refusing to bring the “Truth” to light, does Forster continue to keep the colonized “penned in”? For example, by refusing to reveal the truth about Adela’s attack, Forster makes Adela’s naming of Aziz as her attacker an ambivalent gesture. If she named Aziz as her attacker because she was assaulted by an Indian, and in the darkness had mistaken the Indian for Aziz, it reinforces the colonial mentality of the “absolute evil” of the colonized. If Adela had not been attacked, her naming of an Indian as an attacker could then be read as the colonial impulse to label the natives as “absolute evil”, as she had projected a shapeless, terrifying situation into the form of an Indian. However, I think that it is arguable that instead of penning in the native, the refusal to reveal the Truth might give readers the room to form their opinions on what happened, and thus force them to review their reasons for choosing to take a particular perspective.

Modernism and Anti-colonialism


What struck me in the novel is how modernism in theory (multiple perspectives and lack of an objective “Truth) seems quite compatible with anti-colonial sentiments. For example, even at the end of the novel, it is still unclear exactly what happened to Adela in the caves. As the episode was seen from Aziz’s point of view, the reader only knows that Aziz did not do it which only illustrates the “truth” as what it is “not” as opposed to what it “is”.


The lack of clarity on exactly what happened makes every opinion invalid, because they are simply speculation. In fact, I think what becomes important through this episode is not what really happened to Adela but how the multiple perspectives illustrate the underlying distrust the Indians and British have for each other. However, in order to continue to present a voice for the “Other”, there must be an “Other” to begin with. Through claims like “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour… in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend” (263), Forster clearly defines Indians as inherently different to the British. Moreover, he seems to focus on the “primitive” nature of India, like in his description of the “incredible antiquity of these hills” (115), how “India is really far older” (115), which defines it as “Other” to relatively modern Britian. Even though this is not necessarily a negative portrayal, nonetheless, his text still positions India as primitive and exotic, incomprehensible even to sympathetic British characters like Fielding.

Modernism and Perception

Both Auerbach and Gikandi” raise the idea of perception, how modernist artists wished to use their works to provide a different (or many differing) perspective on issues (including art) by using unconventional forms and themes. There seems to be a focus on the “Other”, what is “Other” to the standards and values of conventional art and fiction. Thus, it could be understood why modernist writers might turn to the portrayal of “Other” races (i.e. non-white races) as a way of showing a different perspective on issues like colonialism.

However, there is the possibility of the “Other” being reduced to a tool, of being silenced by the artists even as he is represented in their works. As in Heart of Darkness, the “Other” is viewed through the eyes of the narrator or other characters (eg. Marlow), but never given a chance to speak for himself. Thus, it might be possible to argue that to modernist texts, it is not important to show what the “Other” is but how the “Other” is perceived by other characters. The focus is then not on changing the representation of the “Other”, but on changing the perception of perceiving. On that note, given the focus on multiple perspectives in the modernist texts, what then is the role of the author or artist? Does the author’s shaping of the text so it provides multiple perspectives undermine the modernist impulse towards multiple perspectives because it reinforces the perspective of the author, that there should be multiple perspectives?