I’m going to hop on the fictionality bandwagon here too. I found the autobiography to be strangely surreal and impressionistic in the way everything is portrayed such that, like Russell, Peiyi and Yuying, I found the believability of this self-claimed autobiography quite questionable. However, to me what really highlighted the artifice of this autobiography is not just the references to the fictional characters or the theatrical elements mentioned in the text that my classmates have already brought up. Instead, I believe that this questioning of the text’s reliability can also be examined via its aesthetics.
The impressionistic way in which the landscapes are drawn up in Growing – the descriptions elephant pass and the “thick jungle thin[ning] into scrub jungle and then into stretches of sand broken by patches of scrub” and the “gaunt disheveled palmyra palms […] sticking up like immense crows” – sounds a lot, to me, like rather vague and brush-stroke-blending way of glossing over the landscape. While the writing of an autobiography banks a lot on memory and remembrance, I couldn’t help but notice how the writing is really veiled by a layer of rose-tinted of nostalgia, and that the descriptions are reflecting psychological landscapes and the overall impression of the place rather than placing emphasis on any type of accurate representation. And this is why I want to suggest that his writing is actually very impressionistic; because the attention he pays to detail in the landscape isn’t really a matter of trying to convey accurate and realistic portrayals of landscape-mapping but rather, his descriptions perform an attempt in trying to achieve an overall effect of what it looks like the perceiver’s mind’s eye. And it is the impressionistic element of his writing that, to me, undercuts a lot of the reliability of what he is saying in the text. I’m not suggesting that he is deliberately lying or changing facts but I think the impressionistic aesthetic really highlights just how re-constructed his stories and recounts are and we really ought not to take everything he says to the last word, because there is a sense that these stories are told as he remembers them in the overall memory he has of Ceylon, more so than what exactly transpired in that land.
Language in the text is highly self-aware and melodramatic, as we see Woolf open the Chapter with the motif of theater and theatrics with regards to his entrance as an imperial figure in Ceylon. The references to the dream-like, theatrical staging in the entrance and presence of the European coloniser-figure suggests the theatrical nature of the colonial enterprise. As Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, the whole European presence in Colonised land is dream-like, surreal and almost staged: “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream…[with the] commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment…which is of the very essence of dreams”. Similarly, Woolf notes the similarity between plays and dreams and the surrealness of the colonial adventure, as “a mixture of intense reality and unreality”. Woolf claims to have spent his years in Ceylon watching himself “playing a part in an exciting play on a brightly coloured stage or dreaming a wonderfully vivid and exciting dream”.
A useful lens we can use in reading the theatrics of Colonialism is Edward Said’s identification of the theatrical nature of Orientalism. The discourse of Orientalism, according to Said, ‘theatricalizes’ the East in the sense that it reduces and defines it, rendering it observable as though the East were a stage upon which the stock characters of the East make their exits and entrances for the entertainment and consumption of the Western audience. This notion of theatricality designates a particularly Western way of thinking imposed on most of the colonized world. Taking Said’s use of the term one step further, we can postulate that theatricalization and colonialism are related phenomena and that theatricalization is, as Said suggests, closely connected with containment and circumscription, the essential prerequisites for power and control.
What I found interesting in noticing the motif of theater and spectacle throughout the text was the idea that the whole enterprise of Colonial exploration can be seen as a spectacle. The genre of travel-writing reflects the theatricality in action through the theatricality of narration. This can be seen as a form of a reverse-staging, in that the Colonial mission itself becomes a theatrical artifice, elaborate and pretentious. What is seen as exotic and theatrical in the colonized subject/landscape is no longer the primary concern; rather, the ‘reluctant colonist’ figure allows the reader to access the ambivalence that is inherent in the late-Colonial modern text.