Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Whimia, the White man in Africa

A while back I posted about the Magical Black Man of American pop culture, and the one and only Boonvillian asked if this was at all related to the star of films featuring a white protagonist in Africa, White Man In Africa. At the time I had nothing to say about the White Man In Africa (henceforth the mythical creature-sounding Whimia). I have since realized that the Whimia Africanus is a closely related cousin of one of my own favorite characters, the Whimia Asiaticus.
The Whimia in all its forms is intrinsically linked to colonialism. I got my own first major exposure to the Asiatic Whimia through the works of Clockwork Orange author Anthony Burgess. In high school his series The Long Day Wanes fascinated me. His characters, British, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Indonesian, never seemed like stereotypes. When ever he matter-of factly broad-brushed a whole group of people — Chinese widows generally turn to lesbianism, for example — It always felt like these details were just something you'd have to be there to know. Like if I said "Koreans spit on the street," the natural American tendency is to reject all such blanket statements and say "well surely not all Koreans spit on the street", which immediately makes a value judgment about the observation and is much more judgmental than simply bowing to superior firsthand knowledge. But reading Burgess, this type of observation is made with such authority as to make them seem natural, and that somehow circumvents the reader's impulse to judge.
Naturally Burgess is the exception to the rule, in that he is a brilliant writer. Most writers are decidedly not brilliant. So why the Whimia?
For one thing, it's hard to write characters from a culture you don't know well convincingly. That's why throughout the interactions with the West and the rest the West's story has been told decidedly better than the rest. Natives tend to fall into the same general patterns; noble or savage, conniving or sniveling, selfless savior or soulless head-shrinker, but always simple. For most writers they have a choice between the following two options.
  1. The sweat on village chief Madinke's rippling chest glinted in the light of the setting sun. He looked upon all that the white man, John Prester, had brought to his people; running water; mosquito nets; the good book that his son was learning to decipher with the blue eyed spirit from across the big waters; and of course cricket. Although he couldn't make out just what was going on, he sensed that it was something good. The big man sighed a sigh of relief, as if to say "It's all in good hands now."
  2. Although Madinke knew that the presence of the Englishman had placed him in the bad graces of the Kubwiya tribe across the river, and that the Kundate tribe had itself a black robed missionary and seemed to be allying themselves with the Spanish, he felt confident that in the societal upheavals he could see going on all around him it was in his best interest to allow John Prester to teach his son, and yet still he worried that he had aligned himself with the wrong side. There were those among the young upstarts in the village who buckled under the presence of the white man, and others who suggested that Madinke follow the lead of the Kundate and cast off the Englishman for the black robed missionary. Nonetheless Madinke thought himself unable to turn back on his decision to allow Prester in. He felt in himself that powers both under his nose and far afield and all well beyond his control were at work.
The first one was fun and easy to write, and when I finished I said to myself 'Ooh, I wonder what happened to Prester. The second one took a long time to write and a lot more brain power, and when I finished I said to myself 'Boy, I need to do some research about the tribal politics of the region in question before I continue.' What I'm saying is what I usually say, which is that this may be caused by human laziness.
It's hard to write about fully fleshed out people. I take it there are two main groups of writers, those who write about events and places and those who write about emotions. The ones that write about events generally only like to focus on one or two real characters and let the places and events form the rest of the story. Thus you wind up with a story about a guy somewhat like the writer in a place that the writer may or may not know well, surrounded by colorful human props. The ones who write about emotions generally don't care too much where their story takes place, don't want the backdrop to get in the way of the feelings, or want to have a cast of characters that the audience will be able to relate to. This usually means a bunch of upper middle class Americans.
What kind of people are these Whimias? They come in a few main types. There's the man gone native, like Kurtz in Apocalypse now, mad on the power of colonialism. That's not the only way to go native though. Bob Hoskins in The Sleeping Dictionary went sexually native, which is another big trope that stems from colonialism. 'If you succumb to the supple temptations of a native girl you'll wind up fathering a sexy halfbreed daughter who walks around in banana leaves' is usually the lesson of these movies. You can also forget about your own culture, which was apparently a constant worry for the British Empire characters in Burgess' books, who were constantly forgetting English and finding themselves siding with the natives.
Another common type of Whimia is the do-gooder. The do-gooder is usually a war correspondent, aid worker, or some such. This is usually the best way to shoehorn a white woman(i.e. Angelina Jolie) into a movie about Asia or Africa. The do-gooders usually care deeply about the natives swarming around them, but have no deep relationships with them at all because they have a paternalistic protective attitude towards them. The main natives in these movies are usually translators or baggage handlers for these humanitarians.
The last major type of Whimia that you see is the outcast of the West. This is Michael Douglas' character in The Ghost and the Darkness, who left America after the Civil War to devote the rest of his life to bloody carnage. This also applies to Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. They went out in search of something that their modern world had left behind.
We could probably sum up the Whimia as either headed into the wild to bring the light of modernity or fleeing some endemic problem with their own native land. When they get there they either go mad or not. Also all white women who go to non-white countries are either aid workers or married to British civil servants. If they're aid workers they have passionate love affairs with noble white guys, and if their wives of British civil servants they suffer the indignity of watching their husbands have the hottest sex of their lives with girls in banana-leaf skirts.

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