The Object of Imposed Desire: Postcolonial Characterizations in Ireland and India

The Object of Imposed Desire: Postcolonial Characterizations in Ireland and India

The Object of Imposed Desire: Postcolonial Characterizations in Ireland and India

ACIS-South Conference, February 18-19 2011, Savannah, GA

In 1907, while struggling to publish Dubliners, Joyce read Rudyard Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills and declared: "after all, there must be some merit in my writing . . . If I knew Ireland as well as R.K. seems to know India I fancy I could write something good." Kipling’s depiction of India in its geopolitical context, and his astute deployment of folklore and vernacular of both the subjugated people and the imperial soldiers, most of them Irish, relate to Joyce’s strategies in Dubliners, where Dublin under the Crown is depicted in his "style of scrupulous meanness."

Both writers were from the periphery of the Empire and ambitious about recognition from the metropolis. They admired the quotidian, and music hall culture, and harnessed casual linguistic inventiveness in their work -- but in different ways. Kipling glorified (but did not sentimentalize) the Cockney soldier, and propagandized for Joseph Chamberlain’s imperial policies and was scathing of the Irish Home Rule. Hence, Joyce’s assessment that Kipling, though he had one of "the greatest natural talents… he did not fulfil that promise" owing to "semi-fanatic ideas…about patriotism."

Joyce in his work acutely mapped out the proliferation of dialects and languages in order to subvert the dominant British cultural imperialism. As early as 1926 Edmund Wilson recognized Kipling as the stylistic precursor of the "Cyclops" episode of Ulysses. Joyce’s recurrent use of "The Absent-Minded Beggar" (in an Irish pro-Boer context) and "Mandalay" in the finale of "Oxen of the Sun" (U 14.1496) as well as in Finnegans Wake (FW 577.24), indicate an abiding interest in Kipling's aesthetics and politics.

Kipling was represented in Joyce's Trieste library, and in conversation Joyce praised Kipling's abilities, his use of fantasy, and "that vein of crude practicability which runs through him, like that of the suburban subaltern."But he turned up his nose at the "jingling jingoism of his which must be very offensive to foreigners."

I do not wish to defend Kipling against those who claim him an apologist for England's imperial desires, but I would like to look closely at what many deem to be his greatest literary creation, the character of Kimball O'Hara.In Kim, as Kipling draws him, I believe is fodder for Joyce's creation of Molly Bloom.Of course, Joyce is going to smooth out what he considers to be the rough spots in Kipling, but these hybrid, half-caste, pro-imperial objects of desire have much in common.

Kipling first introduces Kim as English, which gives him his right to sit upon the cannon in front of the Lahore museum.Immediately following is the first real contradiction in Kim, within 100 words of the opening of the book: "he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white--a poor white of the very poorest." Kipling then traces the child's ancestry, and reveals another point of contention: "his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment."So Kim is not English, but Irish, unless Kipling conflates the two nationalities, as only a real imperialist would do. And Kim does not, as Kipling suggests, consort on equal terms with the small boys of the bazaar; his quick wit and cunning give him a primacy of place and a magisterial presence among them which is only fitting his great nickname, "Little Friend of all the World." He refuses to dress in European clothing, preferring instead Hindu or Muslim garb, the better to blend in and participate in the intrigues he so loves, the intrigues which, unbeknownst to him, have begun honing his skills so that he may eventually become a player in the Great Game.

Kim's innate skills as a spy, eventually enhanced by both schooling and private tutelage, make him ultimately an object of imperial desire.His genetic Irishness, his preferential Indianness, and his destined Englishness coalesce into a young boy, first desired by agents of the great colonial marines, the missionaries or clergy. Both Reverend Arthur Bennett and Father Victor are attached to the Mavericks, the very regiment of Kimball O'Hara senior, and when they come upon Kim, they conspire to have him brought up as an English boy, in an English school.How this is arranged is not through their own work of charity, but rather through the agency of the Teshoo Lama, the mendicant Tibetan holy man to whom Kim is attached.The Lama funds Kim's schooling, because he recognizes the boy's birthright, but in doing so he subverts Kim's own wishes. These three religious men, therefore, impose on Kim something which only later does he desire, when he is shown how it will enable him to conduct his intrigues as a player in the Great Game.But at the moment Kim is sent away, it is against his will, and an exercise of both religious and imperial domination. But make no mistake, Kim is a boy who needs to be taught to be white. His racial ambiguity is perhaps reflective of the ambiguous state of the Irish in India. Are the Irish imperial tools or imperial dupes?The answer depends on where you ask the question, Delhi or Dublin.

Within the Great Game itself, the imperial players all desire Kim as well.Mahbub Ali, HurreeBabu, both intelligence assets, Lurgan Sahib, the master spy who teaches Kim rudimentary fieldcraft, and even Colonel Creighton, the area handler, all desire Kim for his abilities and his willingness to please.He has an ease within the craft, is a natural for the game, and shows great potential to be whomever he needs to be at any given time.

Why else do they want him?He is unquestioning in his understanding of the rightness of British imperialism. If it was just a matter of engaging in intrigue, he could just as easily have worked for the Russians, thereby thwarting British imperial ambitions. But he has had it drummed into his head since he was little, that the cause of Brittania is just, and that he is both a participant in and a beneficiary of that cause. . Kim is, then, the metonymic presence of India itself.He stands in for the subcontinent, pliable, willing, a bit headstrong, but valuable if it can be tamed. So Kim is both Ireland and India, a hybrid collection of desirable traits, all willing to please his masters.

It is perhaps this malleability, this willingness to be persuaded, to actually consider sublimating his own wishes, his own relationships, that makes him the ideal candidate for a position in the great game. For the sacrifice that the Empire asks of Kim is heavy.Just as the Lama has achieved his quest, has gained his river shriven his sins and freed his soul, just as Kim is finally able to have his private epiphany, and answer his nagging question, "Who is Kim?" he must abandon the Lama, and turn to take his rightful place in the Great Game.The Empire has invested in Kim, now it requires a return on that investment.We can argue, rightly, that the Empire has done little, that the Lama is in fact the one who can expect some ROI, but this isnot his concern.He has freed Kim's soul at the moment of Kim's death, and all that precedes it is and will be illusion.

It is in this willing movement, and, to be honest, in the delicious ambiguity of the ending of the novel, that Kim becomes the perfect colonial mimic. He is pukka sahib, as he desires to be, but he is caught in his Irishness, for, as Bhabha has it, mimicry is the result of "a flawed colonial mimesis in which to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English." Kim can be Anglicized, has in fact already been Anglicized, but he is not English.He is an aider and abettor of Empire, an Irishman in India, with all the ambiguity that attaches to that position.

Molly Bloom owes quite a bit to Kimball O'Hara. This Orientalized, fetishized, object of desire is just the half-breed that Kim is, is just as great a supporter of Empiric demands, and just as malleable and willing to please as our Friend of all the World.She is many things to many men, a collection of contradictions upon which they write their desires, expecting fulfillment. We wonder if she is a Sephardic Jew, and we can revel in the Joycean irony that the self-identified Jew, Bloom, would not be considered one, while the woman who considers herself an Irish Catholic is actually a Jew. Like Kim, Molly is the daughter of an Irish military man. Like Kim, she is not born in Ireland, but in Gibraltar. Like Kim, her mother is an absent shadowy figure who did not raise her child and about whom not much is known. Like Kim, she supports the imperial endeavor, much to the consternation of her colleagues and even her husband. And like Kim, she embraces her position, herself desirous of being desired, of being othered.She thinks of enticing and seducing Dedalus, if he were to move in, and chooses to exoticize herself, thinking, "Idhave to get a nice pair of red slippers like those the Turks with the fez used to sell." (U 18.1494-95).

Kershner notes, "the entirety of the Ottoman Empire, including Moorish Spain, came to be seen as eastern. This, of course, validates Molly's claim to be considered the Oriental prize of Dublin, at least by her husband: "That's where Molly can knock spots off them. It's the blood of the south. Moorish" (U 13.968-69). At its furthest expansion, Colette Le Yaouanc points out, the term Oriental was thought to include the continents of Africa and Australia and even the culture of American blacks; in this broadest perspective, the Oriental and the Exotic became virtually synonymous."

When we first see Molly, associated with the Photo Bits Nymph in her Bath, Bloom remarks that the Nymph looks like Molly, only slimmer. In Nausicaa, Bloom recalls his dream of Molly from the previous night, where she has become the Other, the object of desire: " Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish.Wore the breeches. Suppose she does? Would I like her in pyjamas? Damned hard to answer."In Circe we see Bloom's exoticizing of Molly again, for here she is fully fleshed:

Beside her mirage of datepalms a handsome woman in Turkish costume stands before him. Opulent curves fill out her scarlet trousers and jacket, slashed with gold. A wide yellow cummerbund girdles her. A white yashmak, violet in the night, covers her face, leaving free only her large dark eyes and raven hair. . . . A coin gleams on her forehead. On her feet are jewelledtoerings. Her ankles are linked by a slender fetterchain. Beside her a camel, hooded with a turreting turban, waits. A silk ladder of innumerable rungs climbs to his bobbing howdah. He ambles near with disgruntled hindquarters. Fiercely she slaps his haunch, her goldcurbwristbanglesangriling, scolding him in Moorish.

As an object of desire, Bloom both creates and avoids his wife.As Kershner has it, he "Orientalizes Molly in order to invest her with more exotic appeal," and yet they have refrained from sex for a decade.Boylan has no such bifurcated feelings.He wants her, he takes her, and, as we find in Penelope, Molly wishes to be taken. But neither Boylannor Bloom fully possess her, because, like Gretta in "The Dead," Molly has given herself long ago, to an agent of Empire, just as her mother did. Her Lieutenant, Stanley Gardner, will forever possess a part of her that she will give to no one else. And Joyce, once again reveling in the squalor of the body, foregrounds Molly's keepsake of him to remind us of how far people go to possess and be possessed.

Tracey TeetsSchwarze has a great overview of Molly's imperial alliance.She says, "Molly appears to exhibit no resistance at all to the empire; indeed, she gloats over Mrs. Rubio’s aversion to the presence of a British garrison on Spanish soil (“she never could get over the Atlantic fleet coming in half the ships of the world and the Union Jack flying . . . because 4 drunken English sailors took all the rock from them” [U 18.754–6]) and is extraordinarily proud of her father’s service in the British army.

To fully appreciate Molly’s alliance, however, we must reconsider it outside the conventional binarism of colonial relations. What Molly does resist is the masculinized culture of Irish nationalism that tolerates women only so long as they do not disrupt its role as arbiter of discourse: “little chits of missies” like Kathleen Kearney, therefore, are welcome, but women like Mrs. Kearney (the demanding mother of Dubliners) and Molly Bloom, who refuse to “get with the program” are not. Intriguingly, Molly’s antinationalist stance seems to be the most consistent position of any she initiates: she and Bloom once had a “standup row over politics” (though Molly is angry at herself afterward for crying and “giving in” [U 18.175–77]); she has intentionally affronted nationalist sensibilities by signaling her support for British forces (in the Boer War, 1899–1902) during her last concert at St. Teresa’s Hall, where Molly sang Kipling’s “The Absentminded Beggar” and sported “a brooch for Lord Roberts” that no doubt stood out among the Gaelic devices worn by other women (U 18.377–78). Immediately after noting that Bloom has pointed out Griffiths to her as a leader of Sinn Fein, Molly complains, “I hate the mention of their politics after the war” (U 18.387–88); although she blames the war for her personal loss (Lieutenant Stanley Gardner died in South Africa of enteric fever), the remark is also a political one, directed specifically toward the nationalists, who supported the Boers in their struggle and who would have gloated—perhaps in Molly’s hearing—over any British losses. Like Stephen Dedalus, Molly Bloom objects to the authority of nationalist factions that presume to dictate the constitution of Irishness: she observes that, although her politics are evidently incorrect, she considers herself to look and to be as Irish as anyone else—“I had the map of it all” (U 18.378).

The final creation of Molly as an Oriental figure, the othered object of desire, is not Bloom's or Boylan's, or Dedalus', or Corny Kelleher's or any of the men who have appreciated her from afar or from uncomfortably close.Rather, it is Joyce himself who takes the general harem girl and particularizes here into one special woman.In her great concluding monologue, with its neverendinggyres and endless postponement of conclusion, Molly becomes Scheherezade, the harem girl who offers herself and yet remains chaste, who tells stories to save her life and the life of her sister, inviting attachment and desire while continuously remaining just beyond reach, postponing fulfillment, termination, conclusion, until she gets what she wants. If the Orientalist monolith could have but one woman, it would be Scheherezade, for she sums up in herself all the imposed desire, all the apparent contradictions, and all the intelligence, beauty, mystery, and allure that the men in her life seek from the Orient.

In Molly, then, I posit, Joyce has given us a female Kim, a person bound by fate of birth and the ambivalence of character to be written upon as a blank slate by men who do not see that the important parts are already filled in. Both characters are desired for their abilities, for their ambiguities, for their hybrid natures, because they are believed to be malleable. But there are cores in both which will not be bent. Both embrace this position of being desired, both are willing to be co opted as promulgators of Empire, and both are willing to suffer for their choices. So Joyce ends Ulysses with the same ambiguity found at the end of Kim: will Molly and Bloom reverse the downward spiral of their marriage?We don't know what will happen tomorrow.Will Kim return with the Lama to Tibet, and leave the Great Game, at least for a time?We don't know what will happen tomorrow.What we do know is that these choices are possible only because, no matter what Kim and Molly choose, they will still be seen as objects, orientalized, objectified, desired, and chosen, again and again.

“If I knew Ireland as well as R[udyard] K[ipling] seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.”

– James Joyce, 1907.

check out Ellmann, p. 233, for J on K

James Joyce considered Tolstoy, Kipling and D'Annunzio to be the "three writers of the nineteenth century who had the greatest natural talents", but that "he did not fulfill that promise". He also noted that the three writers all "had semi-fanatic ideas about religion, or about patriotism." Diary of David Fleischman, 21 July 1938, quoted in James Joyce by Richard Ellmann, p. 661, Oxford University Press (1983) ISBN 0-19-281465-6

More Joyce on Kipling: