My Literary Bildungsroman

When I read Portrait for the first time in another class (I was year 2 then), I remember that the thing which stuck with me most was the idea of Stephen being stuck in an impasse because in as much as he wanted to “fly by those nets” (220) cast upon him by his national inheritance, there is a simultaneous inability to break through those nets because it was always the acceptance of the Irish themselves of their subjugated positions that make this “flying” literally impossible.

Now, when I’m reading it again, I realize I understand the nuances of this impasse a lot better. Having learnt what modernist art attempts to do by challenging traditional modes of representation (is any form of realist representation real in the first place?) and what post-colonial politics are involved with every writing process ( especially when the writer/artist figure has been previously colonised), I realize that Stephen’s impasse involves many more layers of subjugation than those of his literal circumstances. Because it’s not the just the double binds that Stephen finds himself in: being an artist, no one understands his art and he is thereby an exile; but by following the crowd, he is essentially contributing to Ireland’s continual subjugation because “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (220), it is also the inability to find a language outside of which that he has inherited. This is because English is a language that is not of his own heritage but is also ironically the only one through which he knows how to express himself, hence this mode of artistic representation will forever be self-ironizing no matter how he tries to fly by those nets.

Yet, I think having understood much of what modernist texts try to do with art and representation, the saving grace of Portrait is the idea that perhaps the art is in using the inherited foreign language that is English to convey the subjugated psyches of the Irish. This is very much like what Chinua Achebe talked about in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, where the redemption that an African writer can do for his art is to appropriate the use of English for his art because English is part of his history/heritage and to accept that is to move a step forward in better self-representation. So the importance isn’t in denying the self of the use of English but to appropriate it with one own’s cultural contexts such that English becomes merely the mode of Art through which one’s cultural disposition can be expressed. And in Portrait, the constant self-ironizing, I believe is therefore the way Stephen understands and represents the Irish condition that is in and of itself very ironic in the first place.

canonicity and other thoughts

I really enjoyed reading the Chinua Achebe’s article this week as he really articulated his beliefs with so much conviction that I find myself being persuaded to adopt his view. Admittedly, Achebe seems rather passionate to the point of being offensive, calling Conrad out for being a flat-out racist (343) as well as one who is xenophobic (347), viewing Africa through jaundiced eyes. But I do think he got our attention and made us realize and acknowledge the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that psychoanalysts and critics fail to comment on this. Instead, Conrad’s texts are still widely distributed and widely read around the world. This definitely raised a flag in my head about canon making and how canonicity is built around male, Eurocentric texts. This erases the voices of many subalterns: women, racial and ethnic minorities, queer studies etc and deny them a place in literary history. I think in many ways, this Eurocentric canonization of texts reinforces the idea that British literature is the standard and ‘new’ literatures like those from Africa are ‘lesser’ works. Like the Gikandi reading, it calls attention to this pressing need to review historical scholarship and readjust our definitions of what “the greatest novel” should be. I think it is heartening to know that postcolonial studies is coming to the fore and giving a voice to the subalterns, telling about the colonization experience from a colonized perspective, something that is lacking in Heart of Darkness.

I think Achebe is perfectly reasonable in wanting the West to “rid its mind of old prejudices and begin to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications” (348). He wants Africa not to be seen as a political, economic entity, not as beasts, not as an antithesis to England but as people. He wants them to have a Prospero moment, to acknowledge, “That thing of darkness I consider mine” and to accept that their “humanity is…like yours…Ugly.” Achebe I think is trying to show how we are not all that dissimilar and as fellow human beings, they have a right to be treated with respect. That isn’t too much to ask.