Performing the Identity

The fact that Leonard Woolf chooses to entitle his autobiography “Growing” amuses me for I do not really see signs of progression in this week’s reading but rather using a different form to articulate “old idea.” The authencity of his experiences is questionable but his autobiography also revisits the ambiguity of the representations which we have seen in the texts that we have talked about in class. One cannot help but notice that even though Woolf does not come close to the sorry figure of Flory, he does experience and portray the reluctance of having to live up to his reputation of being the imperial white man. With this in mind, while he is an enforcer of the imperialist system, I cannot help but wonder if he is a victim entrapped within the structure even with his complicity in it. This is similar to the discussions we have had of Elizabeth and Ma Hla May in which they are complicit in their entrapment. The question then to be asked is if we are also complicit in reproducing this system of entrapment when we choose to locate and revisit this continually in our readings of the texts?

Shannon Forbes wrote an article on equating performance with identity and in this piece of writing, she mentioned that an identity is re- constituted within a social structure with repeated performance of a particular role and responsibility. The repeated performance which constitutes an identity then gives rise to a social cohesion. To me, this social cohesion is bounded with the social contract in which each of us has to act out the responsibilities that are given to us. Identity then becomes a responsibility and this can be seen in Woolf who says that he has to maintain a facade among his own group for he has learned that to be different is to be condemned. Much has been said about the white man and his performance as the superior imperialist. In reading Woolf’s autobiography, I find myself thinking that the natives are also “guilty” of maintaining the binaries between the colonised and colonisers. Once they are emboldened by the knowledge that they are capable of reproducing the white man’s structure of power, colonialism is enacted by the natives on the natives. Colonialism then becomes a form of identity which materialises in different structures.

The world reacted with horror to the white man’s colonialism but initially thought that Japan’s participation in World War Two was an act of Asian bravery to the onslaught of the Europeans. Perhaps then, striped of all the focus on the white man’s superiority and natives’ inferiority, the matter boils to a fact that we live in a dog- eat- dog world. In Woolf’s words: “it is questionable whether in the end either will have the strength to eat the other.”

To Convince Oneself: The Unconscious Discourse of the Lie in Woolf’s “Growing”

I found reading Woolf’s “Growing” both an exercise in amusement and one of irony. I was certainly entertained by his anecdotes, and found it refreshingly straightforward, much like Orwell’s account of life in Burma. At the same time I was amused / entertained, I was also (perhaps as product of this course) skeptical of his account, particularly what I considered his romanticisation of the native figure.

Surprisingly, he denies that he is “sentimentaliz[ing] or romanticiz[ing] them”, yet goes on to discuss how they are “nearer than we are to primitive man… [it] is not their primitiveness that really appeals to me. It is partly their earthiness, their strange mixture of tortuousness and directness, of cunning and stupidity, of cruelty and kindness…” I do not believe it is possible for Woolf, in his capacity as an outsider, to be able to objectively observe the native people without imagining them in an idealised frame of reference.

This is not really the issue. Said would vehemently disagree but in any case I think it’s natural that in the absence of more complete knowledge of anything, much less something as foreign and as contrary to the familiar as the “native figure”, one naturally employs one’s own frame of reference to understand something else.

What I take issue with is the defensiveness with which Woolf insists even in using a European frame of reference (alluding to a Hardy novel at that!), that he is not romanticising the native. It is as if the very idea that one should be romanticising the native figure is wrong and therefore as long as one says one is not, one isn’t. It is an unconscious lie he engages in, unconscious because of the very reflexivity with which he says “I’m not doing this” then proceeds to do it anyway. And in some ways it is an interesting indication of the meeting of the reality of the East with the discourse of the West. The two are incompatible to the European mind, one cannot admit to orientalising even if it is the most natural way of expressing what one sees and understands of a foreign world. What an artificial declaration this proves to be, since what Woolf really is doing, is romanticising the noble savage.