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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on Colonial Language(s)

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism as Result of Weak Colonisers?

I read Alvin Jackson’s essay with delight and reservation: his central idea that “the Empire was both an agent of liberation […] and the shackles of incarceration” (p123, emphasis own) is certainly taken by me; yet, I oppose to his final argument for that notion rather strongly. Specifically, Jackson states that it is the “failure of the British to define Ireland either in fully metropolitan or colonial terms” (150) which had ultimately caused the “break [in] their hold over the island” (150).

This greatly disturbs me because it suggests that the colonized (here being the Irish) ought to accept their status as a colonial subject had the colonizer (the British) fully abrogated the colony’s political vis-à-vis socio-cultural identity. To me, the very act of an Ascendancy rule is itself a cause for “patriotic feeling” (151) – regardless of “the ambiguities of British rule in Ireland” (151), if any. As many post-colonial writers and critiques have argued, the quest for decolonization starts (or ought to have started) from the very moment of colonization itself.

While the “irony” (135) of a colony participating in Empire may in many ways be seen as inevitable, it is certainly not ironic that the Union – which I perceive as euphemized colonization – would thereby invoke the sentiments of “nationalism and the revolt against imperial rule” (136). Such is indeed the central preoccupation that I discern from the growing consciousness of Stephen in Joyce’s Portrait, of course, along with all the endearing aesthetics of modernist literature.

Autobiographical Fiction?

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account of his experience in Jaffna is both similar and different from the readings we have had thus far. We get the sense of the reluctant colonial administrator – after having been ‘transformed’ from an “unconscious imperialist” to becoming “fully aware of its (British imperialism’s) nature and problems” – reminding us of George Orwell, for instance. Yet, the crucial difference lies in the very genre of Woolf’s writing per se, for, by tradition, we are trained to perceive autobiographies as ‘truthful’ (but no less controversial) accounts.


I wish to suggest a rather sympathetic reading of Woolf’s account. While a critic can easily turn the modernist ethos of “unreality and theatricality” as the very antithesis of what Woolf is in my opinion trying to portray, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. One reason, I suppose, is because the amount of emotionally-charged, judgmental remarks on the Ceylon people is within my tolerable limit, although there is no doubt that he does perceive his surroundings through an exoticized spectacle (“I came to like them and their country, though never as much as I like the lazy, smiling, well-mannered, lovely Kandyans in their lovely mountain villages or the infinite variety of types among the Low Country Sinhalese in their large, flourishing villages or the poverty and starvation stricken villages in the jungle”; all emphases mine).


Over all, Woolf’s arguably “quiet complexity”, to use Claire Messud’s words, might have given me the impression of being an earnest, perhaps, travel writer.

(M)Othering the Colonies

There are, in my opinion, 2 overarching criticisms in Stoler’s compelling essay – artificialness of the ‘realities’ pertaining to race and sex, and injustice of Eurocentric laws used to govern the colonized.


By artificial ‘reality’ I mean the discourses whereby one’s perception of identity is falsely constructed but yet accepted as truths. I stress the distinction between the dissemination of gendered and racist ‘knowledge’ from their internalization as ‘truths’. The latter is most abhorred by me, for I believe that the worst form of colonization is that in which you do not recognize. There are still, honestly, many women who firmly believe that they are to be subservient to men, despite showing attempts to remove the gendered boundary of domesticity. What results, ultimately, is an unchanging complicity which only works towards its proliferation. Indeed, I do not think that one needs to be a feminist and/or racist to agree with this opinion of mine.


The other issue raised by Stoler pertains to the power of the colonials at creating ‘laws’ based on the above-mentioned discourses. This seems most paradoxical to me because the so-called ‘laws’ are but “exclusionary politics” to reinforce its own virility and not about justice and equality whatsoever. This can be easily seen in how “sexual abuse of black women was not classified as rape” while white women required more “protection”. Not only is this double-standard utterly perverse as a thought, the fact that they actually became concretized as codes of life during the nineteenth century is simply appalling.

Am I not a métis as well?

Although I am not born a child of miscegenation, I do think that I share many characteristics of métissage that Ann Stoler has discussed in her essay, with Nguyen van Thinh dit Lucien as a case in point.

I justify this claim by elucidating my state of ‘Englishness’ vis-à-vis the French government’s assessment of Lucien’s Frenchness – examining “cultural identity” and the “display of […] cultural competence”.

Despite not having an Anglicized name per se, I am nevertheless almost always identified through ‘a’ name in English. I use the indefinite article here as a deliberate attempt to parody myself as having a ‘double name’, for my ancestors would surely not have any of this in that language.  That aside, the necessity for me to dress in a western suit so as to be taken seriously in any social setting only serves to illustrate how ‘exterior qualities’ reflect that imposed ‘interior attribute’ of Englishness in me.

And while I am certainly not “ignorant” of my mother tongue as Lucien is to French, I am always encouraged not to speak in Cantonese but English. Indeed, I have become far more competent in the latter to the extent of not being able to construct and communicate complex ideas without code-switching to English.

While Ann Stoler offers a critical conclusion to the trial of this French-Vietnam métis, the sentiments she invokes in me far exceed the ‘transgression’ of (already) Eurocentric boundaries of race and culture. For me, her discussion only accentuates the hypocrisy of the colonial project, wherein the colonized is deemed unfit even as a subject — let alone being regarded as an ‘enlightened’ citizen — whether s/he be the second generation or otherwise.

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.

Racist Achebe?

It occurs to me – as much as I concede Chinua Achebe’s argument on Heart of Darkness as epitomizing the “dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination” – that Achebe has unfortunately made himself a racist in this very essay. This is because Achebe, albeit his usual aplomb, has made the mistake of criticizing Conrad as a “thorough-going racist” instead of the book’s narrator. To put it more specifically: how convincing is someone who, on the one hand, condemns an author for “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words” while using equally emotional language in that same debate? (For instance, he is convinced of “Conrad’s purpose [as] letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts”; emphasis mine). To redress the atrocities of literary colonization through literature is without any doubt much more than showing the colonizers their barbaric reflection. This opinion of mine may be insubstantial, but it certainly isn’t beside the point.


I must reiterate that I find Achebe’s essay both cogent and insightful, especially in his reading of Marlow’s anxiety as “the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness” instead of having simple contempt for traveling to the “heart of darkness”. However, isn’t Achebe’s conflation of the racist Marlow as the direct mouthpiece for Conrad doing the same injustice Marlow does to Africans, on the basis of judging the latter’s acts of non-modernity as “primordial barbarity”?


To me, Heart of Darkness is indeed a racist text; yet, both authors that are discussed here are, although to a different extent, racist.

The Crisis of (Post-Colonial) Identity

Decolonization, as Frantz Fanon suggests, is but replacing the (former) colonists with a new generation of previously-colonized elites. Not only do these new leaders “tend to forget the very purpose of the struggle [to] defeat […] colonialism” (13), they are ironically the ones who perpetuate those atrocities that were suffered by their forefathers. In more concrete terms, this means that those supposedly decolonized nations are still maintaining the “status quo” – with the “symbols of society such as the police force, bulge calls in the barracks, military parades” (16) firmly intact – while “instill[ing] in the exploited a mood of submission and inhibition which considerably eases the task of the agents of law and order” (3-4). Put simply, the one thing that has changed is that violence is now committed on the ‘blacks’ by the ‘blacks’ (paraphrasing Fanon; 15).


This, to me, urgently questions the rather aggrandized ideal of modernity: have we really become more liberal, equal and fraternal (borrowing from the French), or are the past and present rulers merely engaging in a “narcissistic monologue” (11) albeit different ‘nationalities’? I believe we have passed the point where we only want our leaders to ‘look’ like us superficially; we demand that they re-utilize the merits ‘our’ people earned through their colonial history for our people’s sake, instead of solely maintaining the legacy of that economic ‘superstructure’.


But this is as difficult as attaining any ideals are. We can surely see the character Aziz portray an insistence on preserving his culture while succumbing to the control of the Civil Surgeon. My issue is: why is he called “imprudent” for it by his fellow countrymen? Isn’t this very scene showing us the effect of “the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject” (2)?

KYBau / Picasso_Africa_Difference

Simon Gikandi in this essay argues that Picasso, a canonical master of modernist art, has ‘insensitively’ refused – and perhaps even doing so with deliberate contempt – to acknowledge what the former claims as a pivotal constituent of modernity: Africanism. The paradox lies in how Africa’s alleged primitivism has to be the anti-thesis to the cultured white men’s civility (thesis) but can not take credit for its synthesis of modernity. The blacks, in short, are always the ‘uncanny’ Other – a ‘threat’, ‘contaminant’, a disembodied image.

This essay questions my assumed knowledge of ‘modernism’. How much more realistic is a modernist work of art? How convincing would it be to argue that this term might merely be a taken-for-granted ‘re-appropriat[ion]’ of the Other ‘in its own image’?

KYBau / Brown_Stocking

This essay is a close-reading of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, a favorite Modern novel which exemplifies the narration as the ‘stream of consciousness’. Readers are, on the one hand, allowed into the inner mind of the characters; yet, they are simultaneously only given mere impressions of it. Sentences depicting a ‘realm beyond reality’ dominate in the novel, as Erich Auerbach puts it, serving a mirroring function insomuch as to reflect within the reader the uncertainty of perception. In sum, there is a fusion of interior time with the neo-Platonic idea that the true prototype of a given subject is to be found [more truthfully] in the soul of the artist’.

Triviality and temporal disjuncture are also characteristics of this novel. The reader soon realizes ‘the contrast between the ‘exterior’ and ‘interior’ time’, as well as their lack of commonality and importance. Such a framing device serves as a critical commentary on the highly romanticized novels which preceded it in the earlier century.


Philippa Levine’s essay evidences the exploitative nature of the East India Company as well as Britain’s ulterior motives for colonizing the highly profiting lands of India. While this ‘chartered corporation’ had indeed began with a desire to control the monopoly of trade in India during its formative years, the power – both economic and political – it gained eventually crystallized and catalyzed Britain’s ‘imperial interest’ to expand and conquer, making India the largest British empire in Asia.

British governance, therefore, became the central concern with and within this colony. It seems, to me, fashioned as a necessity Indians ought to receive, and received the Indians did. The implant of numerous British laws, acts and policies was arguably met with resistance only when it became an excess. Indeed, the British’s intervention on India’s “politics, economics, religion and culture [was] so fully coalesced’ that the most noted rebellion occurred only in 1857.

Prior to the outbreak of this accumulated dissatisfaction, however, ‘British definitions’ of living were already grounded amongst the Indians. And especially with ‘English-style education’ being exponentially popular then even until today, one after-thought this essay gives me is to ask: how much of modernity is actually blatant ‘westernization’?