Tradition of Orientalism

This last point illustrates a concept which has been central to debate on this topic in recent years. The theories of Edward Said expounded in his book Orientalism posit that Western imperialist nations are responsible for constructing an identity of the colonised which helps to justify colonisation. The theory, here summarised by Peter Barry, suggests that there is “a European cultural tradition of ‘Orientalism’, which is a particular and long-standing way of identifying the East as ‘Other’ and inferior to the West.”

Said argues that a great deal of English literature has contributed to certain binary opposites active in the minds of Westerners whereby colonised nations possess the opposite characteristics of the West. Hence if a British person is stereotypically organised, well mannered and honest then, as a result of the process of ‘othering’, a stereotypical Indian would inevitably be disorganised, badly mannered and dishonest. The term Orientalism refers to the many discourses of the West which, (according to Salman Rushdie), “helped to create an image of the East which provided the justification for the supremacist ideology of imperialism.”

This theory is interesting when considering the previous quote from A Passage to India for Ronny Moore is here making sweeping generalisations about what he sees as the intrinsic Indian character. In the context of the passage, (juxtaposed with his mother’s more composed, seemingly more sensible attitude), Ronny comes across as behaving irrationally. His thoughts are exposed as being unfounded; no more than inherited opinions of many of the other English at the club. So in this way the text is clearly opposing the colonial discourse which would typically support Ronny’s beliefs.

A problem arises when one notices contestable examples, where a novel could be said to be either bolstering or breaking down concepts of the native as ‘other’. The Marabar caves in A Passage to India exemplify this complexity. These can on the one hand be interpreted as a literary device employed by Forster to encourage the reader to become active in questioning their established idea of the Orient.

There is something vitally unknown about the caves which is never revealed to the reader, this could have the effect of defamiliarising the reader’s ideas about India. However the invention of the Marabar caves could also feasibly add to the Orientalist discourses in that the India which is being represented to the reader is mysterious, strange, bewitching and ‘other’. Said is of the opinion that Western writers cannot escape the process of othering: This style, this compact definition, is what the Orient will always come up against.

So if the unit texts add to the construction of the colonised races as ‘other’ and (compared to Western values), inferior, is it possible that they could be anything other than examples of colonial discourse? In the case of Black Mischeif it is conceivable that this is the case. In this book the natives are characterised by their lack of intelligence and cannibalistic tendencies, the following description of “wise” men highlights the extent to which native Africans stereotypes are played up to in the novel: – The wise men of the surrounding villages danced in the mud in front of Basil’s camel, wearing livery of the highest solemnity, leopards’ feet and snake-skins necklets of lions’ teeth, shrivelled bodies of toads and bats, and towering masks of painted leather and wood.

However this satirising is not purely reserved for the natives, all the race groups who appear in the novel are caricatured, none more so than the British and French (the two main colonisers of Africa). From this we can conclude that Black Mischief does not represent colonial discourse, in fact it does not try to negotiate the issue of whether colonialism is justified. Rather the events which transpire in Azania are so spontaneous and haphazard, the characters so absurd and ineffectual that there is no possible benefits to be gained from the colonisation of Azania for either the coloniser or the colonised.

This point is brought home most strongly through the sense of ideological closure in Black Mischief. The last scene in the book involves a new group of British governors in Azania who praise the con-artist Youkoumian: “Useful little fellow Youkoumian. I use him a lot. He’s getting me boots for the levy. Came to me himself with the idea. Said they pick up hook-up worm through going bare foot.”

Youkoumian has played this trick of selling the government boots for the army twice already. The reader gets a sense that the colonisation of Azania, by the British and French, will prove to be unsuccessful, unprofitable and problematic. The fact that the novel ends in this way is important in that it sticks in the mind of the reader and confirms the central ideology behind the novel, evidently that colonialism is a waste of time.

There is a definite sense of ideological closure in A Passage to India too, in a dramatic scene on the last page of the book Aziz and Fielding are prevented from becoming friends as if the earth had ordained it:  Why can’t we be friends now?’ said the other, holding him affectionately. ‘It’s what I want. It’s what you want.’ But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single-file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.

Said considers this a disappointing conclusion: – The effect of this style is that it brings Asia tantalizingly close to the West, but only for a brief moment. We are left at the end with a sense of the pathetic distance still separating “us” from an Orient destined to bear its foreignness as a mark of its permanent estrangement from the West. The forcing apart of East and West in this scene is a big factor in questioning the ideological standpoint of the novel. Is the scene representative of an anti-colonial discourse by suggesting that the British should not be in India? Is it simply supporting the Orientalist view of the world by compounding the division between East and West? Read on an allegorical level it could be argued that the scene had monumental effects on the history of British rule in India; that the scene foreshadowed partition. As the novel’s editor Oliver Stallybrass attests: –

Fairly or unfairly, A Passage to India unquestionably gave, in Paul Scott’s words, ‘vivid dramatic evidence to justify the direction of a swing that had already begun. It helped the swing to gather momentum.’ It helped, that is, what Nirad C. Chaudhuri has called ‘the growth of that mood which enabled the British people to leave India with an almost Pilate-like gesture of washing their hands of a disagreeable affair’. (Wavell and Mountbatten, the last two Viceroys, are both known to have read it.)16

It would be possible to argue then that the novel, though it opposes traditional colonial discourse, gave credence to the building will of the coloniser to leave India. The reality of which resulted in a great Indian tragedy with tremendous loss of life. It seems wrong to categorise A Passage to India as an example of colonial discourse due to this link between the closure in the novel and the ensuing partition.

However the sense of closure in the novel definitely reinforces the sense that the East is other and that there is a recognisable split between “us” and “them” and in this way the novel continues the practice of Orientalism. The following extract from the novel in which Fielding is discussing the British presence in India with a group of natives is worth considering here: …how is England justified in holding India?’ There they were! Politics again. ‘It’s a question I can’t get my mind onto,’ he replied. ‘I’m out here personally because I needed a job. I cannot tell you why England is here or whether she ought to be here. It’s beyond me.’

Fielding concludes that as long as he is ‘delighted’ be in India that is reason enough for him to be there, no more. The fact that politics is something which Fielding has little time for is likely to be reflective of Forster’s own stance since he wrote: the book is not really about politics, though it is the political aspect of it that caught the general public and made it sell. It’s about something wider than politics, about the search of the human race for a lasting home…

So Forster claims that the book is about wider things than politics, there is a sense of this in the book too. The relationship between Aziz and Fielding is at first such that they seem to want to overcome the political question of British occupation, that they are really above it. In attempting to transgress colonial discourse on this level it must be said that the book is successful. The novel’s heroes, (Fielding, Aziz, Mrs. Moore), are all principally unprejudiced and represent a desire to ignore racial divides.

The factor which holds the most sway on this debate is the fact that all these texts were written by British for a predominantly British audience. Therefore they are bound to a degree by the ideologies and discourses which are prevalent in that society. They all add to the sense of the colonised as ‘other’ in one way or another. However a novel is not capable of criticising categorically the position and dominant ideologies of the intended audience.

If this were the case there would be a distinct probability that the audience would not want to read it. All three texts which I have considered during the course of this essay were written at a time when colonial discourse was inherent in society just as the discourses of free enterprise and global capitalism are today and a contemporary Western novel will inevitably be written from this perspective.

This is not to say however that the novels are pure examples of colonial discourse, far from it. As the colonies represented in the texts are so far removed from the colonial ideal, the resounding message in all three is that there are weighty problems with colonialism. To conclude the novels speak for a western audience and to this extent they are examples of colonial discourse, but they also oppose colonialism to the extent that they would certainly have raised serious doubts among the audience about the hegemonic colonial discourses at the time of their writing.