Viewing the Other: What the
Cultural Imagination Sees
-- Kathie Zemke Worrell
When the colonizing nations of the old world began
to capture and settle new lands, they saw the indigenous peoples through the eyes of their
own cultures. In comparison, the colonized generally were seen as underdeveloped and
backward. This perception led the colonizers to stereotype these Others as primitive,
savage, unintelligible and, in some cases, barely human. At the same time, the colonizers
came to see themselves as vastly superior. Edward Said declares that this altered sense of
reality became an integral part of the empires culture, so much so that it became
"a structure of attitude and reference" in written texts (qtd. in Duncan 298).
Although it is sometimes blatant, Said contends that it can primarily be seen though the
"style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social
circumstances" of the work. (21).
David Spurr states that, although this "rhetoric of empire" was once
interpreted merely as the expression of traditional Western ideals, it is now recognized
as the means by which authors "served in the historical process of colonization"
(1). Said labeled this type of rhetoric "Orientalism" when he first exposed it
as "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the
Orient" (3). Spurr states that this colonial discourse was used in virtually all
forms of writing including "imaginative literature, journalism, travel writing,
ethnographic description, historiography, political speeches, administrative documents and
statutes of law" (5). This discourse illuminated and perpetuated the idea of the
unfamiliar, unusual, and ultimately inferior Other. It served to give legitimacy to the
process of colonization and enhance the perceived superior/inferior relationship between
"us" and "them."
The idea of "us" and "them" has become so pervasive that, today, it
can be seen not only in terms of Western and Oriental (colonizer and colonized), but also
between any cultures and peoples who are considered different by any standard. The
rhetoric of empire has become so embedded in thought and language that it is now used to
describe any Other, showing the prejudicial views of the author and his/her
culture. It is not limited to ethnicity but includes gender, religion, family, age, and
other categories used to separate people into common groups. As Said contends, no one can
escape dealing with the division of East/West nor with similar divisions such as
North/South, haves/have nots, imperialist/anti-imperialist, and white/colored (327). This
idea of "neo-colonialism" is supported by Michael Kowalewski, who states that
"the vestiges of imperialism continue to linger [in 1990]: less in the narrow sense
of militant jingoism or explicit advocacy for annexing new territory than in a more
ingrained and nebulous confidence about being culturally and racially superior" (11).
In this paper I will analyze the portrayal of the Other in Sea and Sardinia by
D.H. Lawrence and Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris in an effort to investigate the
extent to which colonial rhetoric continues to be embedded in twentieth century texts.
These books and authors were chosen with their distinct differences in mind. Lawrence was
an early Twentieth Century male British writer living in Italy and traveling for one week
to the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean. Morris is a late Twentieth Century female
American writer visiting Central America for an extended amount of time. I specifically
choose travel literature in keeping with the idea that it is expected to be more objective
than the fiction of the novel. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux states
that "that difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between
recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows" (379). Yet, a
travel writer shares what he/she perceives through his/her cultures eyes, and
readers must carefully weigh the words in order to determine what the eye really
sees and what the cultures imagination produces. Various tropes of colonial
discourse identified by David Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire will be used to
examine the texts, as will various elements of discourse described by Edward Said in Orientalism.
Sea and Sardinia, published in 1921, recounts Lawrences one week trip to that
island. He chooses Sardinia as his destination because it "has no history, no date,
no race, no offering" and because it lies "outside the circuit of
civilization" (3). Obviously both Lawrence and his readers know that Sardinia has a
past and a civilization of contributing members of society, but in labeling Sardinia as he
does, Lawrence shows his destination to be as an empty sheet of paper that he will be able
to write upon. Spur defines negation as the rhetoric which serves to erase what one sees
in order to clear "a space for the expansion of the colonial imagination and for the
pursuit of desire" (92-3). Lawrence negates Sardinias reality so that he can
become a conqueror and construct the land as he would like it to be. Lawrences
expectations of Sardinia are that of beauty and a sense of primitive perfection in which
he expects to find a place of spiritual connection. When the ship he and his wife are
traveling on comes into the port of Cagliari, Lawrence surveys the town, aestheticizes it
into a work of art, and writes:
It is strange and rather wonderful . . .The city piles up lofty and almost miniature,
and makes me think of Jerusalem . . . remote as if back in history, like a town in a
monkish, illuminated missal. One wonders how it ever got there . . . It is . . . rather
jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture. .
. . It has that curious look, as if it could be seen, but not entered. It is like some
vision, some memory, something that has passed away. Impossible that one can actually walk
in that city: set foot there and eat and laugh there. (52)
Spurr would define this as aestheticization, which "functions as a form of
colonization itself, regulating [a locale] to the status of an object to be appreciated
for its beauty, pathos, and passion" (57). Lawrence objectifies the city, seeing it not
as it is, but as if it were something he admires and desires. He resists the displayed
reality and prefers fantasizing it into the primitive perfection that he seeks.
American Mary Morris has similar expectations as she begins her travels in Mexico. She
expects to find a perfect place, one in which "the land and the people and the time
in which they lived were somehow connectedwhere life would begin to make sense . . .
again" (4). As she begins her story in Nothing to Declare (1988), she tells
readers that when you come to Mexico "you enter a different world." She
describes a "lawless land" whose landscape could be used for a classic Western.
The desert terrain gives it a dramatic solitude and scenic beauty, where life is primitive
and "everything slows down" (3).
Lawrence and Morris both seek a kind of spiritual reawakening in the land of the Other.
This motivation for their journeys is consistent with what Said has observedthat the
Orient is a place of pilgrimage where the subject expects to find "restorative
reconstruction" through the "natural supernaturalism" that he/she believes
exists there (168). As a result of these similar quests, both authors idealize their
location, seeing in them a way to recapture some elemental good in civilization. Sardinia
and Mexico represent imaginary wish fulfillment for Lawrence and Morris respectively. The
authors portray their locales as places far different from their native lands and as
symbols of possible transformation for their cold, technologically advanced, disconnected
societies. The primitive beauty and spiritual connectedness that each seeks is the reverse
of British and American life as Lawrence and Morris know it, and represents the dream that
is in the heart of all who experience their own countries as cold and disconnected. Both
authors also use what Spurr refers to as insubstantialization to some extent as they view
their respective locales as mere backdrops for these personal, inner journeys. This serves
to place the Other in a position of less importance, as the author is more concerned
withrelating his/her personal quest than seeing and appreciating the Other.
Lawrence and Morris each find initial disillusionment as a result of their
expectations. Morris relates, "What I saw as we drove into San Miguel bore little
relation to what Id thought Id find." She saw a dusty town, blind
beggars, naked children, and starving dogs. In panic she declares, "I only saw . . .
a place that seemed so distant from anything I thought I could ever call home." She
adds, "I was missing the fine points. Expectation does that to you. I missed the
bougainvillea, the colonial buildings, the cobblestone streets" (5). In this
revelation she serves to debase Mexico, and subsequently affirm colonialism by indicating
that all the good things in the city were those that conquerors had brought to it. Spurr
suggests that debasement and affirmation go hand in hand in colonial discourse; the
debasement of the Other shows the negative end of the spectrum, while colonial affirmation
shows the extreme positive point. Spurr indicates that "colonial discourse requires
the constant reproduction of these images in various forms . . . both as a justification
for . . . intervention and as the necessary iteration of a fundamental difference between
colonizer and colonized" (78).
Lawrence begins his stay on Sardinia seeing only its charm. The unselfconscious
peasants, the abundance of food at the meat and poultry and bread market, the colorful
costumes, and the landscape that appears much like Cornwall and seems to be liberty
itself, all serve to create what Lawrence calls "the strange magic of Sardinia"
(71). Yet it is not long before the sought-after primitive character begins to wear thin.
Lawrence encounters people in filthy clothes, dirty lodgings with insufficient food, and a
street which was used as the public lavatory. The primitive wonder turns sour, and the
enraged Lawrence declares, "I cursed the degenerate aborigines, the dirty-breasted
host who dared to keep such an inn, the sordid villagers who had the baseness to
squat their beastly human nastiness in this upland valley. All my praise of the long
stocking-cap [peasant]you remember? vanished from my mouth. I cursed them all
. . ." (99-100). This response is consistent with Saids statement that
"the Orient is overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, its stability, its
longevity, its primitivity . . . Yet almost without exception such overesteem was followed
by a counterresponse: the Orient suddenly appeared lamentably underhumanized, . . .
backward, barbaric, and so forth" (150). The land which Lawrence saw as a magical
place that would give him a spiritual connection has now been lowered to an inferior,
barbaric location. Lawrence has now classified the Other far down on the ladder of human
societies. Spurr indicates that this hierarchical scale puts various cultures at different
levels by measuring social and scientific progress. This classification system is employed
by the colonizer in the processes of debasement and affirmation.
In contrast, Mary Morris states the undesirable aspects of Mexico without appearing to
classify the Mexicans. In an essay entitled "Women and Journeys: Inner and
Outer," Morris relates that "what began as an experience, an adventure, turned
into a love affair with a culture, a language, a people. . . " (28). This love for
Mexico and its people is reflected in Nothing to Declare as she weaves the various
realities of Mexico together using resistance. Spurr identifies resistance as a positive
way in which Western writers construct the non-Western world. It is in this strategy that
an author attempts to avoid the more negative ways to portray a location by concentrating
on objectivity. Early in the book Morris shows herself getting acquainted with Lupe, her
Mexican neighbor. This woman has never known her parents and knows no family or personal
history beyond the one she has invented. Instead of using this as an example of negation,
Morris puts herself on equal footing with Lupe by making up stories about her own past.
Morris states, "Like Lupe I exist here in the present," thus putting emphasis on
the current reality instead of a nonexistent past (42).
To help readers gain a better understanding of Mexico, Morris tells about the history
of the great Indian civilizations that lived there before the conquistadors
invasion, and about many of their achievements. Morris further exposes the various ways in
which Mexico has been colonized in the past and the effects that has had on the country.
She relates the history of Cortes and his eventual destruction of the Aztec capital, over
which was built the present day Mexico City. She reminds her readers that, although they
may see a Mexico influenced by others, "the language, the culture, the artwork, the
sense of time, the spiritual beliefs, the connections to earth and sky, remain beneath the
structure of Western values and Christianity" (107).
Morris shows how Americans have negatively effected Mexico as her new friend,
The history of my people has been a history of conquest. . . . You see all these
tourists, all these visitors running around. Gringos mainly. No matter how hard we try,
Mexico can never be Mexico. We had a revolution and got rid of the Spanish. Now we have
the United States. No matter how hard we try, it will never be enough. We will never catch
up. The U.S. is always there, making us feel we are not good enough. (112)
Readers believe what he says because Morris has given evidence of American expatriates
exploiting Mexico, using the same standard to judge her own Western country as she has
used to judge Mexico.
During World War I, Lawrence was treated as the "Other" by his own country;
he was seen as an inferior outsider, to be feared and hated. Because he refused to take up
the patriotic war stance of Britain and because he was married to a German, he and his
wife were seen as potential spies and were poorly treated by official Britains, and
eventually the British public. This mistreatment continued for many years during which he
was hounded by the military and the police, lost family friends, was forced to move away
from his Cornwall home, and was subjected to three military physical examinations although
he was clearly unfit for military service. Lawrence wrote about this ordeal in "The
Nightmare" chapter of his novel Kangaroo. It is here that Lawrence recalls
himself longing for a better place, "back into the blood-sacrificial, pre-world . . .
away from his own white world, his own white, conscious day. . . . Back into semi-dark,
the half-conscious . . . where consciousness pulsed as a passional vibration, not as
mind-knowledge" (243). Although preceding his visit to Australia by more than a year,
his trip to Sardinia was an attempt to find such a place of healing and inner renewal.
England was his home, but he had grown to hate it over the course of the war. When he
is categorized as an Englishman on his trip to Sardinia, he realizes that the people there
are stereotyping him as a typical British subject, a position in which he definitely does
not wish to be seen. This classification of himself irritates Lawrence, and he states,
"I might as well be a place on a map, or a piece of goods with a trade-mark. So
little perception of the actual me! so much going by labels!" (169). Yet, he has been
playing the same label game, with the islanders as "it," and has not seen the
harm. Later, after boarding the ship back to Italy, Lawrence is confronted by another
Italian who believes that England is holding Italy and Germany down so that it can keep
itself up. During this conversation, he realizes that the Other hates the English, seeing
them as objects of envy and malice. It is interesting that a man who has been treated as
an outsider by his own country and who sees himself being stereotyped and hated by
foreigners in their country, cannot recognize his own colonial rhetoric about the
Other. In the end, even though the English mistreated him and he grew to hate them, he has
internalized the English colonial rhetoric, thus remaining an Englishman at heart.
I would like to believe that Lawrence was using colonial rhetoric to point to the
unintelligible Englishman of his time period. Im not sure whether that is the case,
or whether the established rhetoric of Empire is so ingrained in his thought process that
he cannot escape it. I do think that Morris intentionally tries to overcome the rhetoric
of Empire and report her experiences objectively, but she cannot escape the power of the
indoctrinated imperial word either. In the end both Lawrence and Morris can be seen to use
the ultimate tropes of authors: surveillance and appropriating. They go virtually wherever
they please and see everything with the eye of the colonizing, appropriating author as
they use the various landscapes, interiors, and bodies to create products for their
personal and professional gain.
The end of colonialism did not see the end of colonial rhetoric. Indeed, through the
years, the rhetoric of empire inspired a strong sense of Otherness which has spread to a
universal level. The two travel books discussed in this paper show the pervasiveness of
this attitude. Sea and Sardinia, published in 1921, was written by a young
Englishman sensitive to Imperial power, a man who had been treated as an Other in his own
country during World War I and later in Italy as demonstrated in this paper. Nothing to
Declare, first published in its entirety in 1988, was written by a young American
woman who admittedly loved Mexico and its people and was sensitive to its history of abuse
by colonizers. Yet, each author still used the various negative tropes identified by Spurr
and succumbed to the elements of colonial discourse described by Said. These texts
demonstrate the degree to which the rhetoric of empire is embedded in our language and the
power it has held over time, creating a perceived reality that diminishes those who are
not exactly like ourselves. To become free of this influence, it is important for both
writers and readers to be able to recognize the stereotypes and biases our cultures have
set up for Others and to consciously attempt to live beyond them.
At our current time in history, when the cities and towns of the world are becoming
composites of global diversity, and the global community is coming closer together via
computer networks, it is imperative that we discontinue our attempts to limit the
independence and validity of the Others whom we see as different from ourselves. The first
step to eliminating neo-colonialism is to be able to recognize it and acknowledge it. Only
then can true resistance be enacted. Some people say that our world needs to become color
blind. Perhaps what we really need to become is Other blind.
Kathie Zemke Worrell
Western Illinois University
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