The Intellectual Exile

Stephen’s decision to exile himself from Ireland “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (276) got me thinking of Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, where he devotes a chapter entitled “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals” to discuss the predicament of the intellectual exile. In it, Said differentiates between the physical condition of exile—rooted in an ‘assumption that being exiled is to be totally cut off, isolated, hopelessly separated from [one’s] place of origin’ (48)—and the metaphysical condition of exile; characterised by ‘restlessness, movement, constantly being unsettled, and unsettling others’ (53). In this sense, it is interesting to think of Stephen as an exile even in Ireland in a metaphysical sense, through his status as an individual at odds with his society, and therefore an outsider and exile so far as privileges, power and honours are concerned. In this light, perhaps Stephen’s physical exile at the end of the novel underscores that instead from escaping from Ireland, he escapes with it.

Said also furthers his discussion on the intellectual exile by inscribing Theodor Adorno’s comment in Minimia Moralisa that ‘for a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live’ (58). In this light, it is noteworthy that the novel ends with Stephen’s journal entries, indicative of an execution of his artistic talent to supplant a void within him. Keeping in mind the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature, I believe the novel somewhat traces Joyce’s own progressions as an intellectual exile, and perhaps for Joyce too, writing becomes a place for him to live.


Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

Divided Families, Divided Selves, Divided Ireland

Personally, I feel that Jackson’s comment that “British imperial rule in nineteenth-century Ireland generated a political culture where families might be divided through their Irish or imperial allegiance” (136) resonates with Portrait’s depiction of the predicament Stephen and his family find themselves in. As already mentioned in Caroline’s post, the Christmas family dinner scene highlights how national politics drives Stephen’s family apart. In fact even as a young child, Stephen’s world-view is demarcated along political lines, being taught that the “brush with the maroon velvet back was for Michael Davitt and the brush with the green velvet back was for Parnell” (3-4). In addition to tracing the division of individuals and families via national politics, Portrait also highlights how Ireland herself is divided by similar impulses, evident in the interaction between Stephen’s musings and the geographical landscape of Ireland: “The grey block of Trinity on his left […] pulled his mind downward; and while he was striving […] to free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience he came upon the droll statue of the national poet of Ireland” (194). Geographically, such a juxtaposition between the Protestant and Anglo-Irish orientated Trinity College and the national poet Thomas Moore, who represents a cultural heritage of contemporary Gaelic Catholicism, underscores how divided the physical landscape of Ireland is. This is something I could only understand when I had the opportunity to visit Dublin while on exchange last year. The city is indeed peppered with many monuments and statues that celebrate movements or individuals of different national factions. While paradoxical, I think it does encapsulate the predicament Ireland finds herself in, and reading Portrait allowed me to better appreciate the historical origins of this predicament and how such a predicament is inherited by the Irish, such as Stephen and his family.

The Autobiographical Genre

What struck me while reading selections from Leonard Woolf’s Growing this week was the autobiographical genre that the work classifies itself under. Why claim that a work is autobiographical? Does it make the work more believable? Interestingly, many fictional references appear in this autobiographical work, such as Woolf’s mention that in moving to Ceylon, ‘one feels as if one were acting in a play or living in a dream, and plays and dreams have that curious mixture of admitted unreality and the most intense and vivid reality’(21). This juxtaposition of autobiography with fiction continues with Woolf describing his life as a ‘theatrical unreality’, performing on ‘the stage [that] was imperialism’ (24-25). Woolf even describes the people he meets as a ‘Jane Austen character’ or a ‘character in a Kipling story’ (42, 46). All these deal with the relationship between fiction and reality, summed up in a nutshell by Woolf himself: ‘I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of a Kipling story’(46). How do we reconcile the autobiographical genre of Woolf’s work with the fictional aspects of it, keeping in mind that the Conrad works we read earlier in the module were also highly autobiographical, but that Conrad classified them as fiction? Is there some form of narrative ethics being negotiated here?

The Reluctant Imperialist?

What struck me in my reading of short story was the reluctance of the narrator in carrying out his role as the white imperialist. He waffles between being “theoretically […] for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” and being a stoic white imperialist, one that the natives will never laugh at. In fact, the narrator even pokes fun at what he calls the “real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act”, revealing the artificiality and hypocrisy of imperialism. However, the issue I have is that ultimately, the narrator is still shown to carry out his duties as an imperialist. For all his comments about the pretence of imperialism, he still aligns himself with white imperialism, one that is entrenched in capitalism—the dilemma of whether to capture the elephant alive, so that it would be worth “at least a hundred pounds”, or to just kill it and get five pounds for its tusks—and self-justified by Christian principles—the reference to the “crucified” Indian. Furthermore, the narrator invokes the law and the military—institutions that function to maintain imperial rule—in justifying his actions. The fact that the coolie was killed placed him “legally in the right” to kill the elephant while the possession of the rifle clearly indicated his military might. Hence, for all his reluctance, the narrator still performs the role of the white imperialist, and if we consider how this notion of performance and the theatrical is played out via references to being the “lead actor”, “an absurd puppet”, etc, then perhaps we wonder: Is the reluctance of the narrator ultimately also a performance?

Conrad in Singapore?

I was in the vicinity of Fullerton Hotel last weekend, trying to find my way amidst the flurry of road blocks and road closures when I chanced upon a Joseph Conrad plaque just outside Fullerton Hotel! Yes, imagine my surprise! Why in the world do we have a plaque of Conrad here in Singapore?

Apparently, the plaque was erected as one of national heritage board’s (NHB) heritage trails, and begins with the following words: “Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski, a Pole by birth, British Master Mariner and a great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world.” To read the rest of it, please go here:

It got me thinking—even if Conrad did make “Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world”—what kind of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known to the world? Looking at how Lord Jim draws on and repeats ideological constructions of Southeast Asian natives, to say that a less than flattering impression of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known would surely be an understatement. Here we have a description of immigrants from Celebes: “the men of that race are intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than the other Malays, and restless under oppression” (Conrad 196). Compare this with Wallace’s desire “to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral characters they are undoubtedly superior” (Wallace 68). Keeping in mind that Conrad’s information on Southeast Asia was drawn from many sources, including Wallace, Brooke and McNair, surely Conrad is perpetuating the inherent ethnocentrism present in these sources? The ideological effects of enabling such racial generalisations are extreme! I wonder if NHB considered this before erecting the Conrad plaque in recognition of his putting Singapore and Southeast Asia on the world map.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Note-taking for Heart of Darkness (Part 2)

Conrad as anti-imperialist

Growing up during a time where Poland was faced with the trials of national self-determination, and with a father who was a red revolutionary, anti-imperial sentiments pervaded Conrad’s personal and family background. Such a background perhaps contributed to anti-imperialist developments in Conrad’s worldview, which translated to his many novels. In fact, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was hailed as the quintessential anti-imperial text in British literary canon of his time.

However some of us felt that Conrad was not critical of imperialism but of the inefficiency of imperialism, citing that in Heart of Darkness, the economic exploitation of the Africans for ivory was frowned upon (‘the work was going on, the work’) but not the civilising mission of imperialism. This was redressed by looking at how Conrad compares the civilising mission to a primitive form of idolatry (‘something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to’), clearly intending to mock the notion of the civilising mission. Other anti-imperial sentiments were discussed, such as injustice towards the Africans (‘they were not enemies, they were not criminals’) and the irrelevance of imperialism (‘it looked startling round his black neck this bit of white thread from beyond the seas’).

Conrad as racist

While recognising Conrad’s anti-imperialism in Heart of Darkness, Achebe takes him to task for his racist representation of Africans as dehumanised and disembodied, by identifying them through body parts and perpetuating a binaristic mode of thought that promotes racism. Achebe further mocks the values of British literary canon for holding the text up as high art, when such a text propagates racism. Thus, by acknowledging that Conrad condemned the evils of imperialism, and yet asserting that he was ‘strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth’, Achebe draws a clear distinction between anti-imperialism and anti-racism, asserting that they are not two sides of the same coin. Conrad was both an anti-imperialist and a racist.

Conrad as modernist

Conrad’s work can be seen as one that highlights the uncertainty of narrative perspective, presenting us with an unreliable narrator as well as the breaking down and switching of perspectives, at times even creating a film-like quality in his narrative. However, some of us also highlighted that ultimately we are given a unitary perspective, for the entirety of the novel is after all a narration. In this light, Conrad’s work would not seem to be modernist. Ultimately, Conrad’s work embody both modernist and non-modernist aspects; it is all a matter of perspective.

Conrad as symbolist

Conrad’s work can be seen as gearing towards breaking conventions of how we see the world, of realism. Ian Watts terms Conrad’s technique as one of delayed decoding, one where he provides sensory experience first, while meaning and information is only revealed later or maybe not even at all. In this manner, delayed decoding not only anticipates our pre-conceived notions but also suspends them. Seen in this light, Conrad can be viewed as a symbolist or an impressionist.

The African Landscape

Achebe’s essay provided me with a lot of food for thought, especially regarding Conrad’s use of ‘Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as [a] human factor’ (Achebe 343). Achebe claims that Conrad’s use of Africa as a space which consumes the African contributes to and perpetuates an ideological construction of Africa which neglects the African. This claim rings true especially when we examine passages that conflate the African person with the African landscape – ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth […] they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation […] as in some picture of a massacre or pestilence’ (Conrad 63-64). No distinction is made between the African and Africa and everything is reduced to a pictorial representation, depicting ‘Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity’ (Achebe 344).

The symbolism of the African landscape consuming the African is further emphasized when Marlow compares the African helmsman to ‘a grain of sand in a black Sahara’, and when Marlow throws his body into the river, where the ‘current snatched him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and [Marlow] saw the body roll over twice before [he] lost sight of it for ever’ (Conrad 112-113). Again the African landscape aggressively engulfs the African, suggesting that Africa and the African are one and the same, when in fact they clearly are not.

What is the effect of this on readers? As Africa consumes the Africa; we readers consume the novel. The danger thus is that we readers become indoctrinated by the ideological dehumanization of Africa and the African in the novel, and go on to perpetuate this in our thoughts and actions, creating a vicious cycle that will be impossible to stop.

Political Liberalism in A Passage to India

At the end of last week’s seminar, one of the questions posed was about the ways in which the discourse of political liberalism is played out in A Passage to India.

Amongst other events, the arrest and eventual trial of Aziz is one instance where we encounter the discourse of political liberalism. After the arrest of Aziz, we notice Mr. Turton, the Collector, bemoaning the fact that ‘there seemed nothing for it but the old weary business of compromise and moderation’ and longing for ‘the good old days when an Englishman could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked afterwards’ (172). Contextually, this points to the increase in demand for rights of the citizen-subject and suggests that political liberalism serves as a fundamental challenge to political power being concentrated in the hands of the nobility. This also explains why Mr. Turton felt that Ronny’s decision to refuse Aziz bail was ‘[un]wise of poor young Heaslop’ for ‘the Government of India itself [was watching] – and behind it [was] that caucus of cranks and cravens, the British Parliament’ (172).

Ultimately however, the discourse of political liberalism remains a muted one. The repeated naming of Mr. Turton as ‘The Collector’ reinforces his role as a servant of the British Parliament, pinning his identity in relation to his national duty, and acknowledging his powerful status. In contrast, Aziz, as a citizen-subject, is acutely aware of his disempowered status, knowing from the moment of his arrest ‘that an English-woman’s word would always outweigh his own’ (221). This indeed proves to be the case – it is only when Adela admits that Aziz did not follow her into the cave is Aziz declared to be innocent and set free.

Crisis of Knowledge in A Passage to India

Personally, I was struck by the enigmatic quality of A Passage to India, which seems to resonate with the crisis of knowledge characteristic of modernist works. Throughout the novel, we are presented with events that we struggle to comprehend, as well as occurrences that underscore characters’ inability to grasp knowledge. For instance, we read of the failure of naming the “green bird”—calling it “bee-eater” and “parrot” though it is neither of the two (78)—and of identifying the animal that crashed into the car—with characters speculating that it was either a goat, buffalo or hyena (81-82). In fact, it is suggested that “nothing in India is identifiable”, perhaps highlighting a crisis of knowledge that plagues both the characters and the readers of the novel.

This failure to identify emerges again through attempts at describing sound. Firstly, Mrs. Moore describes the sound of the train moving as “pomper, pomper, pomper” (126), yet this train was “half asleep, going nowhere in particular” (127). Secondly, Mrs. Moore describes the echo in the Marabar Caves as “entirely devoid of distinction […] ‘boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull” (137). Again, we notice the preoccupation with naming, with expressing with certainty and through language. The novel however critiques this, insisting that it is impossible for “the mind [to] take hold of such a country” (127).

Where does this crisis of knowledge leave us then? If we were to look at the relationship between Modernism and Empire, perhaps we could say that the desire to name and to know relates to power relations; it is those who can name and know that have the power. Modernism’s crisis of knowledge thus serves as a critique of Empire, suggesting that we need to re-examine our understanding of Empire, and calling for a re-awakening of what we know or think we know about Empire.

Of Missionaries and Imperial Ideology


Some thoughts about the role of missionaries brought up in the Levine reading and how it echoes certain tenets of the Gikandi reading:

The complex role of missionaries – being critical of imperial practices and policies though not of imperial philosophy – seems to be characterised by push and pull forces, with the interaction of both forces ultimately reinforcing and maintaining imperial ideology. For all their anti-slavery protests and public outcry about colonial exploitation, the reality of their work point otherwise. One can look at their work as a sort of religious imperialism and even linguistic imperialism – giving converts Christian names, improving literacy. Their provision of health care and education can be seen as social imperialism, their building of mission schools spatial imperialism. Interestingly enough, the work of the missionaries don’t reflect the distance between colonists and colonials as mentioned by Levine (pg 110), but rather an association between the two groups. Once again, push and pull factors are at play here.

The fact of the matter is that their missionary work cannot be disassociated from imperial ideology. The promotion of imperial ideology by missionaries is subtle, invisible, and disguised as harmless, moral duty, echoing Gikandi’s mention of the unconscious influence of Africa being acknowledged yet denied visibility in Picasso’s works, all under the guise of primitivism. For Levine and Gikandi, the rendering invisible, the masking (pun not intended) to disguise, serve as push and pull factors that distance and associate, and yet ultimately sustain and buttress imperial ideology.

Russell 🙂