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Cultural identity in Our Trusty and Well-Beloved

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This essay wishes to argue how Clifford’s Our Trusty and Well-Beloved still carries a vital relevance to contemporary readers in Singapore today, through the problematization of a fixed cultural identity. This is brought out by Clifford’s dramatization of the tension between the self and the other within the European protagonist (Sir Philip Hanbury Erskine). He is drawn in to the Asiatic other and yet, sees that he cannot escape his European self (and more so, his duties). Thus, it is this “amphibious” (Clifford 65) push-pull dynamic in Philips cultural identity that makes Clifford’s text relevant to us (contemporary readers) as we face the same problematization of a fixed identity in the age of globalization.

In order to demonstrate the argument, the essay shall first discuss how the tension between the self and other is formed through the material markers and metaphors that they are contrasted against, which then problematizes the idea of a single fixed identity.

Firstly, Philip’s European self is characterized by colonial conventions with an emphasis on one’s name and designation. This is already depicted in the opening paragraph of the text, where Clifford immediately introduces the protagonist as: Sir Philip Hanbury Erskine, G.C.B., G.C.M.G. – whose other titles, in the liberal type of the Royal commission … filled up many lines of print. (62)

Here, Clifford forces the readers to form their first impression of Philip based on his social position in the colonial hierarchy. By doing so, Clifford thus highlights the colonial superficiality of the European identity, as he draws attention to the importance of how Philip is to be perceived by others based on the titles and authority to his name. In another instance, Philip refers his position as Governor to that of a “throne” (Clifford 62). Clifford underscores the aspect of the superficiality where power is embodied in the material imagery of a royal seat, and the position as governor is so treasured that it is seen to be equivalent to that of being a king.

Moreover, the fact that this desire to climb the colonial hierarchy was Philip’s “only” (Clifford 63) ambition, suggests how Philip’s self-assurance of his European identity is heavily based on his success in the colonial convention to climb up the social hierarchy. Hence, this emphasis on one’s social position once again highlights the superficiality that is associated with the European self for it is implied that the material defines the success of his European identity.

However, in contrast to the European self, Philip’s Asiatic other is romanticized with freedom from the “harassing trivialities that [are] of nothing worth” (Clifford 63). This is seen when the protagonist returns to his “own people” (Clifford 64) in the native quarters, and is gradually stripped off the formalities of his title – from being “Sir Philip Hanbury Erskine” (Clifford 62) to a more intimate title as a “brother” (Clifford 66). This technique of naming indicates Philip “[leaving] the outer shell”(Clifford 65) of his colonial conventions, and hence, reflects the freedom that Philip can experience in the Asiatic other. Therefore it can be seen how the European and Asiatic self are separately characterized in the text and more importantly, why Philip finds himself constantly drawn into the native Asiatic life, which in effect, creates the tension between the two identities.

The lure of the Asiatic other is further heightened by Clifford’s diction. Whilst the European self is associated with a harsh distastefulness in the way the moored shipping lights (as representations of the European presence) were “points of garish, crudely-red fire” (Clifford 62), the Asiatic other is perceived with rich vibrancy. This is most apparent in Clifford’s choice of words as he personifies the Asiatic bazaar as a “warm, voluptuous humanity” (Clifford 63), with its “penetrating” quality (Clifford 65). Here, the adjectives used bring about a sensual and sultry pleasure that is embodied by the Asiatic other and hence, enhances the attractiveness of the Asiatic other, to the point where it is arousing.

Therefore, it can be seen how the push and pull dynamic within Philip occurs as the Asiatic other is romanticized as a place filled with vibrancy, and is free from the European superficialities. Whilst Philip is tied down by the “cruelty of convention” (Clifford 64), he is pursued by “old memories – memories that mocked his present eminence [European self] – [and] tore at the heart of him” (Clifford 62). This in turn stresses the strong pull that the Asiatic other whilst Philip is bounded to his colonial duties. As a result, the tension between the two identities (European self and Asiatic other) thus problematizes the idea of a fixed identity within the character as his love for the Asiatic past prevents him from being able to solely situation in his European self.

Moreover the death of Raja Sulong and Bedah is a poignant reflection of the complication between Philip’s two selves. On one hand, Raja Sulong functions as a mirror to Philip’s European self through his position and authority in the native quarters. On the other, Behah serves to represent the Asiatic other for she is also highly romanticized by how she acts upon her emotions to protect the “heart of [her] heart [Philip]” (Clifford 69). The death of the figures of both the European self and Asiatic other signifies how both the selves are intertwined to form Philip’s identity. Philip is neither solely European nor purely Asian, and both sides have equal importance in contributing to his character – it is “a life for a life” (Clifford 70). Therefore, it can be seen how the Philip’s fixed identity is problematized is reflected in this scene through the intertwining of the two selves.

In summary of the discussion so far, it can be seen that there is a push and pull tension between the two identities as the protagonist finds himself unable to avoid his two selves and be defined by a single identity. Interestingly, this inability to possess a single fixed identity argues for the relevance of the short story to contemporary readers in Singapore, especially in the present time of globalization. In a “global village” (Sengupta 3140) that contemporary readers live in today, fixed cultural identities are increasingly diluted with the intensification of influences and interactions with other cultures (especially the west). In a cosmopolitan city like Singapore, where there is a consistent inflow of foreign residents from different cultures, there is often a danger and tension in the erosion of a fixed Singaporean identity.

We (contemporary readers in Singapore) begin to draw from this melding pot of cultures in constructing our identity and eventually find ourselves like Philip, “stepping from one [culture] to the other at will and with an appalling suddenness” (Clifford 65). Therefore it can be seen how contemporary readers in Singapore can still relate to the text as the erosion of a single fixed identity (and its tension) is an issue that is current to this present age of globalization. In conclusion, it can be seen how the tension between the European self and Asiatic other arises within Philip and hence, problematizes the idea of a single fixed identity. However, it is this complication that allows us to relate to the short story and thus, renders the text relevant to contemporary readers in Singapore today.

Works Cited

Clifford, Hugh. “Our Trusty and Well-Beloved.” Writing Singapore: An Historical Anthology of Singapore Literature. Eds. Angelia Poon, Philip Holden and Shirley Geok-lin Lim . Singapore: NUS Press Singapore and National Arts Council of Singapore , 2009. 62-70. Print.

Sengupta, Chandan. “Conceptualising Globalisation: Issues and Implications.” Economic and Political Weekly (2001): 3137-143. JSTOR. Web. 14 Sept. 2014

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