No Exit in ‘Burmese Days’

While Stoler’s article was an interesting read, I’ll like to put it aside for this post and comment on something I found rather striking in Orwell’s Burmese Days. In my opinion, Flory’s suicide at the end echoes Konstantin’s one in Chekhov’s play The Seagull. I don’t know if Orwell had Chekhov in mind when writing this novel but the similarities are there: unrequited love/ ‘love’, the banality of existence etc. More importantly, however, I found that like the characters in Chekhov’s plays, the characters in Burmese Days were incapable of  change. Except for Flory (and maybe Ma Kin), nobody else seems to be conscious or critical of the colonial condition. There are no Joyceian epiphanies either. This becomes especially apparent in the last chapter, which works something like those ‘what-happens-to-every-character-after-this’ thing before the credits rolls. We know that everyone continues with the same moral and behavioral pattern. The protagonist’s death becomes just a statistic, a non-event. Somethings, and nothing, happened.

For me, that was perhaps the most shocking aspect of the book- not the violent hunts, not the evil machinations of U Po Kyin, nor the rampant corruption within the system. I wonder if that is why Orwell plants the notion of Buddhist reincarnation within the novel. According to Buddhism, the worst of the hell realms is the one of endless suffering and if I’m not wrong, reincarnation is endless as well (unless one reaches nirvana). For Orwell, the colony is a a kind of breeding ground that only accentuates this sort of utter helplessness and ennui of the modern condition. I think that Orwell was actually already writing about a kind of (colonial) dystopia in Burmese Days because in 1984, Winston and Julia gets converted by Big Brother in the end and nothing has changed for Oceania.

General thoughts on ‘Shooting an Elephant’

Somehow, ‘Shooting an Elephant’ reminds me of Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole’. Other than the fact that both texts circle around the notion of power, another reason could be the use of a first-person narrative written in a sparse yet personal (almost confessional) tone. While the first-person narrative allows us to delve deep into the psychology of the narrator/ protagonist, it could also obscure and be unreliable. It’s interesting, but also rather hilarious, that Orwell presents us with a neurotic narrator. Granted, the ‘natives’ might have hated him but we (as readers) will never know if they had, indeed, treated the dangerous event as ‘their bit of fun’ or if they were actually frightened. Silencing the subjugated is often seen as disempowering but here, the unnamed narrator endows their silence with a menacing quality. He keeps reminding us that he was being watched: ‘they were watching me as much as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick’. But one easily forgets that he watches them (watching him) as well!

The short story quite obviously points out that power relations in a colony are tenuous and meanings arbitrary, with the colonizer having to act out his role and his difference. Ultimately, no matter how guilty he is for being apart of this imperial project, the narrator reinscribes himself back into the system. I’m not quite sure, however, what the elephant symbolizes. We could easily read it as a symbol of the colonized natives (white elephants were prized by ancient burmese monarchies) but could we also see it as a manifestation of colonial anxiety? Just some thoughts!

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Week 6)- Part 2

Topic of class

The question that dominated the second part of the class was whether we could consider Lord Jim, with its self-proclaimed subtitle, to be a romantic text. ‘Romance’ refers largely to the late 18th century movement, Romanticism, with its notions on idyllic/ gothic nature (a reaction against civilization), and the prizing of journeys over destinations. It can also refer to the novel in its early, vernacular form (romances of the medieval ages).

Some argue that certain aspects of form and themes in the text are romantic. For example, Jim can be seen as the typical romantic hero/figure who sets off on a quest when young, grows in the process, yet also fails spectacularly. He is the quintessential over-reacher, and arguably, so is Marlow and the reader, for they are attempting to reach some sort of ungraspable truth of Jim and understanding of the events in the novel.

However, keeping in mind Conrad’s Polish heritage and family background, it appears more likely that Conrad is writing in reaction to Romanticism. He is making use of certain conventions in order to critique and undermine the movement. Conrad shows how Jim’s futile imagination leads to cowardice and how the romantic dream, with its ideals of morality and honor, fails in modern life and in the context of imperialism.


‘He saw himself saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line; or as a lonely castaway, barefooted and half naked, walking on uncovered reefs in search of shellfish to stave off starvation. He confronted savages on tropical shores, quelled mutinies…’ (Chapter 1)

This choice example highlights the way in which Conrad critiques the romantic imagination and its brand of heroism. Jim’s daydream prevents him from taking action (genuine work seems to be a concern of Conrad; it saves Marlow’s sanity in Heart) and he is too late (so says the captain of the ship) to save anybody. Yet, the ‘pain of conscious defeat’ didn’t deter him and he swore to ‘affront greater perils’ the next time. We all know what happened to that in chapter three.

Connections with other topics from other weeks

We have seen how Forster uses the idea of the quest only to debunk it in A Passage to India. Similarly, Conrad has shown in Heart of Darkness that his work is a mixture of (what we now perceive as) modernist and non-modernist elements, as well as being both (possibly) racist and anti-imperialist. It is therefore not surprising that in Lord Jim, he both relies on and departs from the romantic tradition. The modernist movement does not come out of a vacuum but breaks new literary ground by reacting to something before it.

Failure of the Quests in the Sea Novel ‘Lord Jim’

Novels about sailors and novels set in the sea are often adventure tales. Challenges are posed to the protagonist and in overcoming them, the protagonist displays his virtues and becomes a hero. Jessica had presented the notion of The Quest in Fielding’s A Passage, but I think this theme/ motif becomes more apparent in Lord Jim than in the previous two novels we have studied. In many ways, Lord Jim departs from the traditional ‘sea novel’ and does this by complicating our idea of the quest, as well as the chronology and the narrative structure of the text. I feel that this particular ‘sea novel’ is more about the failure/ impossibility of the quest than it is about heroism/ redemption (as shown in the second part of the novel when Jim suffers a bullet in his heart and gets called ‘Tuan Jim’ by the natives).

For one, most sea adventurers like Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe return home after completing their quest and proving themselves. However, Jim keeps moving East. His tale has less fixity, and more of a nomadic quality to it. The novel begins in media res, and the first adventure of the text (the accident of Patna) gets ‘chopped up’ and ends rather abruptly in chapter 4. The nature of the adventure/challenge is itself called into question. The collision of Patna with ‘something floating awash’ (rendered ambiguous) is hardly noticeable. It generated ‘less than a sound, hardly more than a vibration’, which lends the whole event a slightly comical light.  It is only much later that we know that the passengers did not die at sea- a deliberate withholding of truth/ information on Conrad’s part that only serves to undermine the adventure even further.

The subtitle of Lord Jim is ‘A Romance’. We can definitely start another thread about how we can consider the tale ‘Romantic’. But in some ways, it is ironic that Jim only redeems himself and fulfills his romantic, heroic destiny on land. However, I would like to suggest that there is another challenge going on in the text and that is the reader’s quest to find out the identity of Jim, of who Jim really is. The need to reconcile the division/ fragmentation of the protagonist is already hinted at from the start when we read about Jim’s other name. This last, particular epistemological challenge can never be fully met by the readers for the novel ends with a question that is unanswerable: ‘Who knows?’ On that note, the Romantic figure of the dark, brooding over-reacher (someone who attempts to exceeds his own limits) is somewhat present in Marlow and the reader. The connection between Jim, Marlow and the reader is also an interesting aspect that we could look into.

Achebe vs. Conrad

Achebe’s essay left a great impression on me because it was such a charged reading (against the grain) of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I do agree with many of the points she made but there were some that I was not so sure about. Firstly, Achebe highlights how the Amazon woman (Kurtz’s African mistress) only serves as a tool, a ‘savage conterpoint to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story’ (341). I’d concur that the Amazon woman is exoticized and aestheticized to some extent. Conrad aligns her with the ‘colossal’ and ‘fecund’ body of the wilderness (therefore, like the land, she is a colonized figure) and spends a large amount of narrative time describing parts (but not the whole) of her. Yet, she is heavily adorned with the spoils of colonialism: ‘she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her’. This puts her in a slightly more ambiguous position, especially when compared to Kurtz’s fiance.

The African mistress has no voice (or given none in the novel), and I’d like to think that this means she cannot be read/ interpreted as easily as the other characters. Conrad suggests she is powerful and threatening, for she seems able to  control the elements of nature when she opened her bare arms. On the other hand, Kurtz’s fiance is fragile- Truth must be kept away from her. She is lied to, fed with notions of romance that is far from what the novel is really about. To be honest, in my rereadings HOD, I’ve always felt that Conrad paints the European fiance in an almost laughable light. Is Conrad sexist as well?

Maybe the one problem I have with Achebe is that he doesn’t complement his reading of HOD with the lens of Modernism. Especially with regards to the issue of language (its inadequacies, the inaccessible native language) in the novel. More food for thought?

On Violence in Passage to India

I’d admit that it was more than a little frustrating to read Fanon because of his rather extreme, over-generalized statements on the colonialists and the colonized. Was the colonized world really divided in two? Wouldn’t Fielding/ Mrs. Moore be an exception to that case? Is the ending really unambiguous, suggesting that reconciliation and equality between the colonialists and the colonized is (at least temporarily) impossible?

What intrigued me, however, was his idea of decolonization- a term I hardly come across. Fanon mentions repeatedly that the colonized have imbibed the violent disposition of the colonized and will continue to perpetuate their ways. The colonized is much more concerned about taking the place of the colonized than competing with them. My take is that decolonization, for Fanon, is not entirely possible. And here I am reminded of a moment in the book when Aziz and Huzoor talk about the flies on the ceiling (pg. 262):

‘Look at those flies on the ceiling. Why have you not drowned them?’

‘Huzoor, they return’

‘Like all evil things.’

Hassan then related how the kitchen-boy killed one snake by cutting it into two and creating two snakes in its place instead. Imagine if you tried cutting the two snakes up again. A never-ending infernal cycle! In my own opinion, however, the ending of the novel isn’t as straightforward as it seems even though the ‘hundred voices’ oppose the friendship between Fielding and Aziz. It’s interesting to note that the last mention of Fielding names him as ‘the other’ and that his question of ‘Why can’t we be friends now?’ is (I argue) really left open-ended because we don’t get to read about Aziz’s response. Before that, Aziz’s interaction with Fielding is both intimate and hostile with him riding against Fielding furiously and then ‘half kissing him’.

General thoughts on A Passage to India

Here are some of my initial thoughts on the novel. Unlike many of the literary work I’ve read concerning Imperialism, A Passage to India pays attention to the interior life of both the whites and the natives, which I found to be very refreshing. I don’t know if the Indians are misrepresented here, but they are definitely not under- represented. While Forster is obviously critical of the British, he does create, in readers, rather mixed reactions towards all the characters. Characters comment/ reflect on other characters and the different perspectives we get of the various characters at different moments serve only as a rough gauge, and not a complete synthesis, of who they really are.

At times, Forster’s writing style reminds me of Woolf’s. For example, on page 70 (penguin classics edition), Ronny’s thoughts on ‘the spoilt westernized’ blends seamlessly into Aziz’s thoughts on his own conduct and then we get an almost disorienting perspective from Fielding who, as we read on and then realize, is seeing them from across the garden like ‘a scene from a play’. Even reading the chapter on the Bridge Party, I got a sense of things being multifarious yet ‘shapeless’. I was overwhelmed by how quick the narrative moved from one person to the next, and how abruptly these thoughts and sensations ended.

Perhaps this murky, dream-like quality of the novel ties in well with the motif of the mysterious Marabar caves. Many of the characters’ desires and anxieties are half-articulated. Forster uses the notion of ‘namelessness’ or ‘formlessness’ throughout the novel: we have the nameless bird, the unidentified hyena/ghost, Fielding’s religious song which had the illusion of a Western melody and which ceased casually halfway through a bar.

The ‘Hauntology’ of Modernism

Hi guys,

I found the Simon Gikandi’s essay ‘Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference’ most interesting so I thought that I’d just do a posting on that article. I’ve not touched modernism for a pretty long time so Gikandi’s essay worked as a pretty good ‘flashback’ for me. What I really took away from this essay was the notion of the kind of conflicts present in modernist aesthetics (kind of mentioned in class, right?).

First, Picasso’s work exemplified how ‘high (western) art’ co-opted/ incorporated ‘low (tribal/ native) art’. As Gikandi argues, if I’m correct, Picasso did not merely use the idea of the primitive in a conceptual way, he also used it in a formal way.  Therefore, Africa contributed to the making of that very movement. Another tension thrown into the mix is the fact that modernists had to ‘set out to defy and deconstruct’ the very institutions of Western culture so that it could be enshrined within it. I’ve been thinking about what makes a module like this different from other modules dealing with the empire, like ’19th Century’ and ‘Asia and Victorians’. My guess is that such tensions and conflicts weren’t exactly present in the Victorian period and the modernist’s aim/ goal was to break free from the influence of those precursors (here we are reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Anxiety of Influence- Gikandi alludes to that but playfully refers to the ‘influence’ as African/ Others in page 458 ). Yet the modernist had to inevitably deal with (and operate within) a particular line of tradition; he could not entirely extricate himself from that web.

Picasso’s method of dealing with these ‘ghosts’, as Gikandi’s use of the term ‘hauntology’ suggests they are, was to ‘invent his own version of the unmodern’, which thereby helped him to secure his status as a ‘modernist’. Rather messy, don’t you think. It’ll be very exciting to actually analyze Picasso’s work in-depth and specifically, to see for ourselves how he dealt with primitive art and African influence. Gikandi’s essay doesn’t cover very much on that, but it goes beyond talking about how the Other is misrepresented or under represented in modernist work. Instead, it tells us more about what their work says about the modernist’s psyche.