- Eastern Figures
Douglas Kerr’s Rich and impressive study of evocations of the East in British imperial writing stretches from Thomas Babington Macaulay on Indian education in the 1830s to James Fenton in Indochina in the 1970s, although the touchstones of the study remain the central figures of turn-of-the-century imperial fiction, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson. Part of Kerr’s point is that the East was a deliberately vague, improbably varied and contradictory site, an emanation, as much as anything else, of administered colonial discourse. Nevertheless, as one might expect from Professor Kerr’s location in Hong Kong, this study continually pulls the reader towards Asia and the Pacific, moving us beyond Egypt and India into the jungle of writings about Malaya, Samoa, and beyond. The facility of moving between nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources and the lucidity of his expository close readings of often difficult texts suggest a lifetime of study and reflection.
Kerr’s organising principle across nine chapters is an attempt to draw up a taxonomy of figures of Easternness. These are defined as “recurrent tropes of representation” that are reinforced across official administrative discourse, private diaries, popular attitudes and literary fictions. Integral to this interest in tropes and figures is a concern with their “modality,” a term that Kerr borrows from narratology and which attempts to convey how these figures convey implicit judgments of Western superiority but also unease. The theoretical framework is thus indebted both to Edward Said and the older tropological approach to historical discourse advocated by Hayden White. However, Kerr avoids the sometimes tortured prose of postcolonial theory, remaining admirably lucid throughout. And in a neat concluding twist that qualifies Said’s insistence that Orientalism is an exercise in power exerted through knowledge, Kerr suggests that one of the key figures of the East is its “unknownness,” its inscrutability, a strategic limit to how far any administrator or intelligence operative might actually “know,” or [End Page 476] want to know, the East. This is a subtle move of qualification that indicates the kind of refinements the study hopes to bring.
These, in short order, are the Eastern figures Kerr teases out. “Hinterland,” the term for the unknown territory beyond ribbons of coastline colonial settlement, entered the English language from the German around 1890, just about the time German colonial policy was transforming European attitudes to African colonization. Kerr traces the uncanny vanishings of hinterlands in Kipling and Forster. Second, “converts” are ambiguous Eastern figures—the aim of Christian and liberal apologiae for empire, but also the mocked mimic men that are shadowed by the danger of sliding back or “reversion” in conservative accounts of the imperial mission. In a long and sinuous chapter, Kerr outlines how liberal and conservative ideologies of empire often intertwined in complex ways around the mobile and uncanny trope of conversion and reversion. Third, the Eastern crowd, that vast, de-individualised, fundamentally inhuman mass, is a figure that allows the Western modality of the lone, individual, contained and bordered self to emerge in colonial discourse. Fourth, the wilderness, particularly the tropical jungles of the Malay archipelago, figure the East as a chaos of abundant overproduction, overripeness, rottenness and confusion. Kerr’s illustrative choices here begin to extend beyond the usual array of imperial literary figures—he focuses in the main on Leonard Woolf’s experiences as a colonial administrator of a vast jungle terrain in Sri Lanka between 1904 and 1911, and on the life of another novelist-administrator, Hugh Clifford, who had been a superintendent of the hinterland of Ulu Pahang in Straits Settlements within the Malay states in the 1890s. Woolf’s official diaries (written for the eyes of the central colonial administration) are juxtaposed with his later autobiography and his novel, The Village in the Jungle (1911), a fiction that uniquely for the time tried to convey the experience of colonial modernisation from the viewpoint of the native.
The next chapter examines the figure of “contact,” particularly sexual contact between the Western colonialist and the...