Tag Archives: exploitation

Thoughts on “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, waiting to be read. A friend of mine, Dave, gave it to me before he moved. Every time I would see it nestled among the other books, I would think “Oh, I should read that,” but then got sucked into another book. But finally, I got around to it.

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel, published in 1934, more than ten years before Animal Farm or 1984. It is a tale of British imperialism and expresses some of Orwell’s ideas which would become dominant in his later more popular works.

The central location in the story is an English Club in Burma, which has been instructed to start allowing native people in. The result is tension that seethes with racism.

“… Anyway, the point’s this. He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this Club. Dear Dr. Veraswami, for instance. Dr. Very-slimy, I call him. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge-table. Christ, to think of it! We’ve got to hang together and put our foot down on this at once…”

(pp. 23 – 24)

This attitude of racial superiority is offensive on so many levels, but was the dominant paradigm at the time. This feeling of racial superiority is manifest in the concept of the “white man’s burden,” the belief that it is the job of the white man to civilize blacks and indigenous people. But as Orwell points out, this is nothing but a lie intended to justify the exploitation of people, cultures, and resources.

“Seditious?” Flory said. “I’m not seditious. I don’t want the Burmans to drive us out of this country. God forbid! I’m here to make money, like everyone else. All I object to is the slimy white man’s burden humbug. The pukka sahib pose. It’s so boring. Even those bloody fools at the Club might be better company if we weren’t all of us living a lie the whole time.”

“But, my dear friend, what lie are you living?”

“Why, of course, the lie that we’re here to uplift our poor black brothers instead of rob them. I suppose it’s a natural lie enough. But it corrupts us, it corrupts us in ways you can’t imagine. There’s an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us and drives us to justify ourselves night and day. It’s at the bottom of half our beastliness to the natives. We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”

(p. 39)

Orwell asserts that we have lots of freedoms, but these “freedoms” are only meant to be distractions, and that true freedom, and the freedom that matters, is denied.

It is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a word in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard to even imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself.

(p. 69)

Orwell also addresses the relationship between money, power, and fame. People who are truly obsessed with money see it as a way to attain power and fame. This results in a vicious cycle of corruption where individuals will do anything and destroy anyone to get what they want.

“Money! Who is talking about money? Some day, woman, you will realise that there are other things in the world besides money. Fame, for example. Greatness. Do you realise that the Governor of Burma will very probably pin an Order on my breast for my loyal action in this affair? Would not even you be proud of such an honour as that?”

(p. 140)

The rest of the book reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Plots are set in motion, tragic events unfold, and the book ends on a sad and unsettling note. But what is most unsettling is how little our cultures have changed. These prejudices, the disregard for others, and the striving for personal gain at the expense of others is still rampant. Orwell must be squirming in his grave.

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“Measure for Measure” by William Shakespeare – #MeToo

I had not read this play since college, and it bothered me back then. But reading it now, in light of the whole #MeToo movement, it was even more infuriating.

This play is a “comedy,” not because it is funny, but because it ends with marriage (as opposed to a tragedy, which ends in death). It is definitely considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, along with Merchant of Venice. It is a play that explores questions of justice, law, punishment, and mercy. But what is most problematic for me is the depiction of how women are sexually exploited by men in positions of power and authority.

Basically, what happens in the play is that the Duke of Vienna places all authority to enforce laws upon his Deputy, Angelo. Angelo is strict and supposedly steadfast, and the Duke claims he wants to test Angelo’s resolve. Angelo begins enforcing a long-ignored law sentencing people to death for having sex out of wedlock. His first example is Claudio, who has a virgin sister named Isabella. Isabella goes before Angelo to plead for her brother’s life, and Angelo basically tells her he will only spare her brother if she agrees to have sex with him.

And now I give my sensual race the rein:
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes,
That banish what they sue for; redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will;
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
To lingering sufferance. Answer me to-morrow,
Or, by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

(Act II, scene iv)

I won’t spoil the details of how everything plays itself out, but suffice to say that Isabella manages to save her brother and her virginity, with the aid of the disguised Duke. But that sets us up for what, in my opinion, is the most offensive part of this play—the very end.

Long story short, the Duke pardons people, measures out justice that seems to be tempered with mercy, and thereby reinstates order out of the chaos. But it is the Duke’s “pardoning” of Claudio that is the major issue.

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too: but fitter time for that.

(Act V, scene i)

Basically, the Duke is doing the same thing Angelo was doing, pardoning Claudio on the condition that Isabella giver herself to him. And while, yes, the implication here is that the Duke intends to marry her, it’s still not OK. He is still using his authority to get what he wants, taking advantage of a young woman, and even worse, not applying the scales of justice evenly to himself as to others (namely Angelo).

I don’t claim to know Shakespeare’s intent when he wrote this play. Maybe he was making a critique against the patriarchal hierarchy, or maybe he was claiming it is OK to take advantage of a woman as long as you are “responsible” and marry her. But the fact is, in the 21st century, this attitude towards women is offensive, to say the least.

In spite of the gender issues in this play, it is still worth reading for the exploration of law, justice, punishment, and mercy. As always, feel free to share your thoughts on the play. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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Devi Witchblade

DeviWitchblade

I was recently in the local comic store picking up my cache of comics, and the owner told me he had added this one to my folder, knowing I followed the Witchblade saga. He told me that it was a one-off “crossover” issue that they published after the conclusion of the series. I looked at it and considered whether or not to buy it. I decided that since it is just a single issue story, I would buy it and give it a read.

Now I have to say that I immediately wanted to hate this. I felt annoyed that they had published the finale of Witchblade and then not long after released this. And then there was the cover. It looked like something from an adolescent lesbian fantasy. I was sure I would hate this comic.

After reading it, I can say that, overall, I did not like it; but I did not hate it nearly as much as I thought I would. My biggest complaint about this is the sexually objectified depictions of the women. There is one panel in particular where Sara looks like an inflatable love doll. It borders on the offensive. I guess some people like that, but for me it does nothing.

There are some redeeming qualities to this tale, though. The Indian city of Sitapur (which a quick Google search has confirmed is an actual city in India) is depicted as a blending of ancient and modern, symbolic of the merging of the mystical with the worldly. The goddess Devi is also presented in a similar manner, as a unification of the divine with the physical. This I found interesting and wished that it was more the focus instead of near-naked women in provocative poses. Also, there is some humor thrown in which I found entertaining and which offered some comic relief (yes, pun intended).

So, if you really loved Witchblade, then you might want to pick up a copy, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. Personally, I hope they don’t release any more “crossover” issues. Lay the story to rest with some dignity.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 15

CirceAndSwine

This episode corresponds with the section in Homer’s Odyssey concerning Odysseus’ encounter with Circe. According to Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and sorcery and is renowned for her knowledge of potions and herbs.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is described as living in a mansion that stands in the middle of a clearing in a dense wood. Around the house prowled strangely docile lions and wolves, the drugged victims of her magic; they were not dangerous, and fawned on all newcomers. Circe worked at a huge loom. She invited Odysseus’ crew to a feast of familiar food, a pottage of cheese and meal, sweetened with honey and laced with wine, but also laced with one of her magical potions, and drunk from an enchanted cup. Thus so she turned them all into swine with a wand after they gorged themselves on it. Only Eurylochus, suspecting treachery from the outset, escaped to warn Odysseus and the others who had stayed behind at the ships. Odysseus set out to rescue his men, but was intercepted by the messenger god, Hermes, who had been sent by Athena. Hermes told Odysseus to use the holy herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s potion and, having resisted it, to draw his sword and act as if he were to attack Circe. From there, Circe would ask him to bed, but Hermes advised caution, for even there the goddess would be treacherous. She would take his manhood unless he had her swear by the names of the gods that she would not.

(Wikipedia)

In Joyce’s novel, this episode takes place in the red light district, most of which is in a brothel. The entire episode, which is the longest in the book at around 180 pages, is written in the form of a play script. The majority of the “action” that takes place is in the form of hallucinations and mental visions induced by intoxication. This draws on the symbolism of Circe as a sexual temptress and one who can ensnare men using drugs and potions. I see the use of the play form as symbolic of the action playing out on the stage of the individuals’ minds and psyches.

In Homer’s epic, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine. Likewise, Joyce uses pig metaphors throughout the episode to reinforce the image of the men who are soliciting the prostitutes being nothing but swine.

Most of Bloom’s hallucinations are tied to feelings of guilt regarding his sexuality. At one point he imagines himself on trial where all his dark secrets are exposed. It is like he is being accused and confronted by his conscience which is no longer comfortable with the things he has done and imagined.

THE CRIER

(Loudly.) Whereas Leopold Bloom of no fixed abode is a well-known dynamitard, forger, bigamist, bawd and cuckold and a public nuisance to the citizens of Dublin and whereas at this commission of assizes the most honorable…

(p. 470)

In one of the hallucinations, Bloom has a cross-dressing fantasy. He imagines himself being forced to assume a female role and become a prostitute. This ties in with Hermes’ warning to Odysseus that Circe would take his manhood.

BELLO

(Points to his whores.) As they are now, so will you be, wigged, singed, perfumesprayed, ricepowdered, with smoothshaven armpits. Tape measurements will be taken next your skin. You will be laced with cruel force into vicelike corsets of soft dove coutille, with whalebone busk, to the diamond trimmed pelvis, the absolute outside edge, while your figure, plumper than when at large, will be restrained in nettight frocks, pretty two ounce petticoats and fringes and things stamped, of course, with my houseflag, creations of lovely lingerie for Alice and nice scent for Alice. Alice will feel the pullpull. Martha and Mary will be a little chilly at first in such delicate thighcasing but the frilly flimsiness of lace round your bare knees will remind you…

(pp. 535 – 536)

In another of Bloom’s hallucinations, he encounters the Goddess in the form of The Nymph. She accuses him of exploiting her, using her sacred image in advertising as a means to sell things. I found this to be a powerful critique on how women continue to be exploited by the media.

THE NYMPH

Mortal! You found me in evil company, highkickers, coster picnic makers, pugilists, popular generals, immoral panto boys in flesh tights and nifty shimmy dancers, La Aurora and Karini, musical act, the hit of the century. I was hidden in cheap pink paper that smelt of rock oil. I was surrounded by the stale smut of clubmen, stories to the callow youth, ads for transparencies, truedup dice and bustpads, proprietary articles and why wear a truss with testimonial from ruptured gentleman. Useful hints to the married.

BLOOM

(Lifts a turtle head towards her lap.) We have met before. On another star.

THE NYMPH

(Sadly.) Rubber goods. Neverrip. Brand as supplied to the aristocracy. Corsets for men. I cure fits or money refunded. Unsolicited testimonials for Professor Waldmann’s wonderful chest exuber. My bust developed four inches in three weeks, reports Mrs Gus Rublin with photo.

BLOOM

You mean Photo Bits?

THE NYMPH

I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame.

(pp. 545 – 546)

This is such a long episode and there is so much that can be analyzed and explored, way too much for a single blog post. As such, I will look at one last quote that struck me as interesting. Stephen (who was with Bloom in the brothel) gets into an argument with a soldier. He criticizes the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. It is a display of anti-nationalism. Considering that Joyce wrote this at a time when nationalism was on the rise in Europe, I found it a poignant critique on the socio-political climate of the time.

STEPHEN

(Nervous, friendly, pulls himself up.) I understand your point of view, though I have no king myself for the moment. This is the age of patent medicine. A discussion is difficult down here. But this is the point. You die for your country, suppose. (He places his arm on Private Carr’s sleeve.) Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I don’t want to die. Damn death. Long live life!

(p. 591)

My next post on Ulysses will cover Episode 16 which ends on page 665 in my copy with the phrase “… and looked after their lowbacked car.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

Episode 13

Episode 14


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section15.rhtml

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circe

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

ChimneySweeper_2

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This poem corresponds with “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence. I have to say that although this one is shorter than its corresponding poem, it is much more powerful and visceral in my opinion.

While I find the exploitation of children to be sickening, it is almost beyond comprehension that parents could exploit their children. And what this poem does is it points out the way that people justify their abuse and cruelty. Because the child seems happy, they are able to convince themselves that they are not really doing the child harm. But as we all know, true psychological damage happens below the surface.

The image of “the clothes of death” is really disturbing. I picture blackened rags, covered with soot and dirt, seeping sickness and disease into the pores of the young child. This contrasts starkly with the white snow, but the irony here is that winter is also symbolic of death. I get the sense that the child will die soon and that this will be his last winter.

The last two lines of the poem show yet another level of justification, that of the church. In Blake’s time, church doctrine would have asserted that a child is the property of the parent, and hence the parents could do with the child as they wish. I keep thinking about how, throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify social injustice. It continues today. All one needs to do is listen to the arguments against marriage reform.

This is a pretty bleak poem and it’s hard to find any hope in it. The only hope I can find is in the fact that enlightened people like Blake recognize social injustice and have the courage to point it out. It inspires me to point out injustice when I see it around me.

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