j_spot the Journal of Social and Political

Volume One, No. 2 | June 2000

j_spot online edition ISSN 1481 8 5842


Primitive Spectacle in Black Narcissus


Anh Hua

Ph.D. Candidate
York University

    By exploring the colonial, racialized and gendered gaze in Michael Powell's 1946 British film Black Narcissus, this project will elucidate the functions of the primitive spectacular body, and the colonial representation of colonized peoples as primitives.  It will argue that the masculinist imperial gaze in this film exploits the Himalayan Indians as tourist objects from exotic lands, or as noble savages, through the characters of the British agent Dean and the nuns sent to set up an Anglican school/hospital in a remote mountain village.  Here the masculinist imperial gaze feminizes both the colonies and colonized men, exoticizes and eroticizes colonized women, and mystifies 'other' cultural religious figures and practices.  The article will also provide a feminist analysis of the hysterical construction of white women in masculinist imperial narratives.  It will argue that the sensuality of both the natives and the Himalayas is employed as a backdrop to explore white women's repressed desire.  Although the film attempts to socially critique Euro-American Christianity, the role of female missionaries in India, and repressed white female sexuality, I argue that its depiction of British imperialism is still embedded within a primitivist representation of colonized men and women.  However, to recognize ambivalence within colonial narratives, the paper will conclude with an alternative reading of the film, in which the figuration of the white women can be said to trouble or resist a straight imperialist reading.  It offers a spectatorial resistant, oppositional gaze in which the femme fatale, as a figure of transgression occupying the interstitial third space, can begin to blur the colonial obsession of binary construction.  The femme fatale can become a site to theorize ambivalence within colonial enunciationˇwhat Homi Bhabha calls "the signal points of identification and alienation, scenes of fear and desire, in colonial texts" as "the attribution of ambivalence to relations of power/knowledge" (Bhabha, 1990: 78). 

    Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

    The native-born director Michael Powell and his émigré Hungarian Jewish partner Emeric Pressburger were a fascinating film-making team in Britain, well-known for deliberately subverting mainstream values, inducing controversy, challenging censorship rules and basically camping it up.  Powell and Pressburger were recognized for their extravagant, playful, mysterious, seductive, provocative and unclassifiable works, such as A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and The Red Shoes (1948).  While the national style in British film production was dominated by the documentary movement, from 1938 to the mid-50s Powell and Pressburger produced experimental and expressive films which were an odd mixture of realism, romanticism and fantasy (Combs, 1995).

    Black Narcissus was a story adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Rumer Godden's novel of the same title.  Academy Awards went to Jack Cardiff (Best Colour Cinematography) and Alfred Junge (Best Colour Art Direction and Set Decoration), although the director, the film and the actors did not receive a nomination.  The film was highly praised for its stunning photography and camera tricks such as the use of glass shots and miniatures.  The entire Himalayan location was shot within a studio at Pinewood, and the exterior work was shot at a house and gardens in Horsham, Sussex.  As Ian Christie notes, "Powell's decision to create an India in the English studio...avoids the temptation of exotic 'local colour' for its own sake and enables him to concentrate exclusively on the vivid dramatization of inner conflict" (Christie, 1985: 80). 

    What was also different about the film was Powell's experiment with what he refers to as a 'composed film,' where the potential influence of a music score on a scene is created by writing the music first and then shooting the film to fit (Powell, 1986: 582).  The score was used to 'control' the action.  For example, the climatic sequence from Ruth's rejection by Dean to her return to the convent and her attempt to kill Clodagh were entirely without dialogue; the music carried the action.  As Powell states in his autobiography, "[i]n Black Narcissus, I started out almost as a documentary director and ended up as a producer of opera, even though the excerpt from the opera was only about twelve minutes" (1986: 583).  No doubt Black Narcissus, with its experimental qualities, its stunning colour cinematography and music score, its convincing studio construction of the Himalayas, its break away from the documentary realism of the British national style of the period, and its controversial focus on 'sex-starved nuns' is technically a superb film.  However, my task here is to focus on how Michael Powell uses the primitive spectacular body and landscape to explore British sensibilities and inner conflicts.  My project is to question whether Black Narcissus as a text self-consciously negotiates questions of gender and imperialism. 

    Spectacle, Primitive Spectacle and the Imperial Gaze

    Before the primitive spectacular body can be analyzed, the term 'spectacle' needs to be defined.  "Spectacles," writes Timothy Mitchell, "like the world exhibition and the Orientalist congress set up the world as a picture.  They ordered it up before an audience as an object on display, to be viewed, experienced and investigated" (1988: 6).  According to Frank Manning, spectacle refers to "[a] large-scale, extravagant cultural production that is replete with striking visual imagery and dramatic action and that is watched by a mass audience" (Manning, 1989: 137).  The spectacle, characteristic of traditional and modern (both socialist and capitalist) societies, according to Manning, has surpassed religious ritual, in which contemporary societies enact and communicate their values, concerns, beliefs and self-understandings.  In John MacAloon's view (1984), spectacle becomes a form of entertainment and detachment; for instance, the (uncritical) spectator remains uncommitted.  Yet the spectacle, according to MacAloon, is also a 'recruitment device'; audiences are seduced to accept, believe and celebrate the significance of the phenomenon. 

    What I mean by 'spectacle' when I refer to the term 'primitive spectacle' is the large-scale cultural production of visual dramatic imagery (such as mainstream film, ethnographic film, world exhibition, etc.) watched by a mass audience.  The cultural production represents the primitive body.  The primitive body is rendered as a picture, an exhibition, an object on display.  The medium producing the spectacle (i.e. film, exhibition) acts as a 'recruitment device' (MacAloon, 1984); it seduces the spectators to believe and to celebrate the imbalance of  power between the colonizers and the colonized.  These primitive spectacles valorize and perpetuate colonialism and neo-colonialism.  In fact, the primitive spectacle helps to unify and to stabilize the fragmenting reality of colonialism for the colonizers.  The primitive spectacle becomes a colonial fetishized fantasy built in to secure the colonizers' positionalities and power. These represented fantasies reinforce the colonizers as rational Cartesian adult human beings by rendering the primitive body as irrational, animal-like, and childlike. 

    Moreover, the visual nature of spectacles, as suggested by Manning, "enhances their transcultural portability and hence their touristic potential" (1989: 142).  This idea of spectacles as transculturally portable and full of touristic potential is particularly pertinent to mainstream films which portray the primitive bodies of  'othered' cultures.  The filmic trans-portation of the exoticized primitive bodies from 'other' cultures, 'other' lands, or 'the dark continent', allows the viewers to possess a touristic gaze at the spectacularized primitive bodies.  Thus, primitive spectacle is related to modern mass culture, tourism and the power of the colonial, racialized, and gendered gaze.  In Black Narcissus, for example, the primitive bodies of the Himalayan Indians are represented from 'other exotic lands' to the dark cinematic viewing room to be gazed at as tourist objects.1

    In addition to being viewed as tourist objects, the primitive body is often constructed as having too much sex (genitals), too much waste and not enough capitalist production (anus), too much pleasure and irrationality and not enough reason (brainless).  The primitive spectacular body finds itself stagnant in a prehistoric state as a fossilized being.  As a colonial representation, the primitive spectacle is politically produced to assign colonized peoples to the lower strata of the hierarchy of  "the racial family tree" or "the Family of Man" (McClintock, 1995: 38).  With the primitive spectacle, there is always a distant audience gazing at the spectacle.  Here, the gaze connotes an active subject versus a passive object relationship. 

    If a colonial cultural text such as Black Narcissus constructs the colonizer as subject and the colonized as object, then it makes sense why the imperial gaze is distanced.  "The gaze is active:  the [colonial] subject bearing the gaze is not interested in the object per se, but consumed with his [or her]...own anxieties, which are inevitably intermixed with desire....The [colonial] object is a threat to the [colonial] subject's autonomy and security and thus must be placed, rationalized and, by circuitous route, denied" (Kaplan, 1997:  xviii; emphasis mine).  Such rationalized need to abject the colonial object can only connote a distanced gazing.  Thus looking relations are never innocent and neutral:  "[L]ooking relations are determined by history, tradition, power hierarchies, politics, economics.  Mythic or imaginary ideas about nation, national identity and race all structure how one looks, but these myths are in turn closely linked to class politics and economic relations.  The possibilities for looking are carefully controlled...Looking is power..." (Kaplan, 1997: 4).

    Moreover, not only is there an unequal power relation, a subject-object relation, between the one who gazes (the spectator) and the one who is the object of the gaze (the primitive body), this powerful gaze is also an invisible gaze; it is about the ability to see without being seen.  As Timothy Mitchell notes: "The representation of the Orient, in its attempt to be detached and objective, would seek to eliminate from the picture the presence of the European observer" (1988: 26).  This imperial gaze as an invisible gaze at the primitive bodies is most evident in the film Black Narcissus

    Gender, Imperialism and the Primitive Spectacle in Black Narcissus

    The 1946 British film Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell, is about a group of white Cistercian nuns traveling from their base in Calcutta to a remote part of the Himalayas in order to set up a convent to 'convert' the natives/primitives.  Prior to the nuns' settlement in the Himalayas, the British agent Dean (a gone-native white man) provides the nuns with a description of the place and its people in a letter.  Dean's voice-over describing the primitives is accompanied cinematically with close-up shots of smiling Indians, presented as 'noble savages'.  As Marianna Torgovnick indicates, the primitives exist for colonial Euro-American subjects as a series of dichotomies, "by turns gentle, in tune with nature, paradisal, idea, violent, in need of control, what we should emulate or, alternately, what we should fear; noble savages or cannibals" (1990: 3).  In this film, the emphasis is on the primitives as noble savages, gentle, in tune with nature, and paradisal.  The spectators will find that Dean and the nuns (as well as the camera) reproduce a masculinist colonial gaze at the natives/primitives. 

    The film's first image of the Himalayas (India/Nepal qua 'nation') is a panoramic view of the mountains from the air; thus the film establishes the colonial and cinematic gaze at the primitives and their land from a panoptical point of view (Foucault, 1979).  This panoramic view, as Mitchell deplores, allows one to "grasp the world as though it were a picture or exhibition.  The point of view was not just a place set apart, outside the world or above it.  It was ideally a position from where, like the authorities in the panopticon, one could see and yet not be seen" (Mitchell, 1988: 24).

    Filmic images imagined as the Himalayas, exhibited within Europe and North America, functioned as "symbols for taking possession and could thereby assuage the 'irresistible desire for spaces to conquer'" (Lant, 1997: 77).  Not only does colonial representation of exotic lands help to produce the colonial fantasy of spaces to conquer, uncritical cinematic imageries take the spectators on a touristic voyage to such conquered spaces.  As Ella Shohat writes, "[i]n dominant cinema, the spectator is subliminally invited on an archeological and ethnographic tour of celluloid-preserved cultures.  The voyage provided by the cinematic apparatus implicitly celebrates the chronotopic, magical aptitude of cinema for panoramic spectacle and temporal voyeurism..." (Shohat, 1991: 50). 

    Early in the film, voyeuristic close-up shots of the primitives are provided, particularly the fossilized, decaying and deformed body of the Holy Man endlessly meditating in the mountains; "[p]rimitives are mystics, in tune with nature, part of its harmonies" (Torgovnick, 1990: 8).  Yet the portrayal of the Holy Man as mute, unmoving, unwashed, sickly thin as well as dignified simultaneously mystifies, romanticizes and trivializes native religion and belief systems.  More than that, the Holy Man is put onto display as a typical primitive spectacular body; his decaying fossilized body becomes an exhibition of objectness, a spectacle of the strange, the excessive, and the alien.  The primitive spectacle is about the horror of the unfamiliar, the colonized, the racial Other.  Yet the colonial representation in this film needs to investigate this unfamiliarity of the primitive body, by displaying it as fetishized object of the spectacle, as a colonial fantasy of its Others. 

    The tendency of the colonial cinematic representation to present the primitive body as a mummified body is not surprising.  By mummified body,  I refer to the primitive body as existing in a liminal state between life and death, a decaying and deformed flesh, a ghostly existence.  In fact, silent cinema was rooted in a history of mummification or Egyptomania.  As Antonia Lant argues, "cinema 'contracted' Egyptomania" (1997: 79): 

    While at one level Egypt and the cinema had entirely separate histories, at the turn of the century they could both be understood to offer an irresistible darkened and silent world in which mystery, exoticism, and melodrama combined through the means of a new language of hieroglyphics and cinematography theretofore unknown (Lant, 1997: 92). 

    Although Black Narcissus is a colour and sound film, the notion of Egyptomania or mummification is evident in its portrayal of the Holy Man.  Although the Holy Man is not a mummy per se and the setting is not Egypt but the Himalayas, the Holy Man is depicted as embodying the silent and darkened world of mystery and exoticism found in Egyptian tombs.  He embodies the preservation of life beyond life, a ghostliness.  Just as cinema and ancient Egyptian ruins promise to condense the past in an instant (Lant, 1997: 89), the fossilized body of the Holy Man promises to abbreviate the past and evolutionary time in a second.  His body, as a living fossil, denotes an encapsulated version of human evolutionism. 

    When the nuns arrive in the Himalayas, sister Blanche gives medicine to the people.  Blanche stands on a high chair above the primitives, who crowd around her; social and racial hierarchies are established within physical space.  Like children, the primitives are amazed when Sister Blanche drops some grains into a glass of water, turning it purple.  Both male and female primitive bodies are infantilized; they look up to, admire and depend on the white women colonizers.  Primitivist discourses or tropes say the primitives are like children:  "Primitives are our untamed selves, our id forces -- libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous....Primitives exist at the 'lowest cultural levels'; we occupy the 'highest', in the metaphors of stratification and hierarchy" (Torgovnick, 1990: 8).  But more than that, the primitive "does what we ask it to do.  Voiceless, it lets us speak for it.  It is our ventriloquist's dummy or so we like to think" (Torgovnick, 1990: 9).

    Another example of the primitive spectacular body is the film's construction of the old, witch-like Ayia (May Hallatt).  Ayia acts as a native informant to Mr. Dean (David Farrar).  Aiya is physically grotesque, old, short, decaying, resembling a hag.  Aiya is depicted as subhuman, less than human, animal-like; her/his voice is shrill and high, squawking like some vicious tropical bird.  Aiya is degendered; s/he lacks both feminine and masculine qualities; s/he is neither woman nor man.  Aiya is also desexualized, as most hags are desexualized.  By constructing the primitive body, such as Aiya's body, as degenerate, the film establishes a social and racial hierarchy, placing the primitives at the bottom of the 'Family of Man' and the white colonizers (the nuns as well as Mr. Dean) at the top.  Thus such primitive spectacle reinforces and perpetuates the genealogies of imperialism. 

    Masculinist imperialism is not only implicated in the film's portrayal of the primitive bodies, but also in the film's construction of the Himalayas as a typically exotic Third World place.  As E. Ann Kaplan indicates: 

    [The Himalayas are] ...located as the place of the sensuous, the bodily, the sexual in a classic binary of west [sic] equals reason, Third World equals the body.  The Raj's old harem palace symbolizes his own sensuous, despotic qualities along with a certain feminizing in his bright red clothes, as also of his son, Sabu.  Jean Simmons, the sexy Indian maid, is a stereotype of exotic eastern [sic] female sexuality...The body, pleasure, color -- childlike, infantilized, simply sexual -- this defines the Indian and India for British colonialism.  And justifies colonization (Kaplan, 1997: 83). 
    The masculinist imperial gaze, therefore, feminizes both the colonies (the Himalayas) and racialized male bodies (the Raj and Prince Sabu); it also exoticizes and eroticizes racialized female bodies (Kanchi).  Third World female bodies and feminized topography are ordered up by colonial masculinist discourses and representations as sites of bodily pleasure.  As McClintock deplores: "As European men crossed the dangerous thresholds of their known worlds, they ritualistically feminized borders and boundaries.  Female figures were planted like fetishes at the ambiguous points of contact, at the borders and orifices of the contest zone" (McClintock, 1995: 24).  The title of the film Black Narcissus connotes the male colonial imaginings of the Third World places/spaces and Eastern young female bodies as seductive and alluring as the scent of an exotic, tropical, 'dark' flower.2   The panoramic view of the Himalayas mountains is as seductive as the Indian maid Kanchi's (Jean Simmons') excessively sexualized and accessible female body.  "The Orient," writes Edward Said, "was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" (Said, 1979: 1). 

    Black Narcissus also presents the Himalayas in a split discourse of the Third World as virginal and libidinal, symptomatic of the representation of women.  As Ella Shohat observes: 

    A virgin land is implicitly available for defloration and fecundation.  Implied to lack owners, it therefore becomes the property of its 'discoverers' and cultivators.  The purity of the terminology masks the dispossession of the land and its resources.  A land already fecund, already producing for the indigenous peoples, and thus a 'mother', is metaphorically projected as virgin, untouched nature, and therefore as available and awaiting a master (1991: 54). 
    Thus the film portrays the Himalayas as virginal untouched nature, awaiting for a master to conquer, to provide guidance, and to reap its resources.  Mr. Dean, in a sense, is depicted as an 'explorer,' the first European 'owner' and cultivator of the land and its peoples; the primitives are presented as 'his' natives.  Yet Dean, as a white man gone native, is slightly mocked.  He lacks the organizational and surveiling authority that is required to colonize a people and a land; he is portrayed as too self-indulgent and arrogant.3

    The Himalayas, in this film, are also metaphorized as libidinous, wild femininity.  As Shohat denotes: 

    Whereas virginity underlines the status of availability, thus 'logically' calling for a fecundating penetration, the libidinousness subliminally requires the use of force.  Colonial discourse oscillates between these two master tropes, alternately positing the colonized 'other' as blissfully ignorant, pure and welcoming as well as an uncontrollable savage, wild native whose chaotic, hysteric presence requires the imposition of the law, i.e., the suppression of resistance (Shohat, 1991: 55). 
    The film's depiction of the Himalayas may be what Anne McClintock calls 'porno-tropics' for the European imagination, "a fantastic magic lantern of the mind onto which Europe projected its forbidden sexual desires and fears" (1995: 22).  The Himalayas are a place where the wild, chaotic, particularly female primitives are unable to control their excessive sexual desires and urges.  Therefore, the primitives are perceived as requiring surveillance (supplied by the nuns' disapproving look at Kanchi's longing desire for Prince Sabu) to suppress such eroticized hysteric presence.  Kanchi is seen as an excessively sensual, erotic, exotic, female, primitive spectacle.4  In one scene, Prince Sabu uses the exotic, heavy Black Narcissus scent to woo the Indian maid Kanchi; it is insinuated that the two had (hetero)sexual intercourse.  Black Narcissus as a 'magical' scent allows the blurring of class boundaries amongst the primitives (the sexual union of a maid and a prince), yet it denies miscegenation.  There is no sexual union between white colonizers and 'black' colonized Indians, particularly between white women and 'black' Indian men. 

    Moreover, this Black Narcissus scent becomes a symbol of the sensuality of the Orient, one which affects not only the primitive bodies but also the stable subjectivities of the white nuns.  Here, there may be a self-reflexive treatment of the imperial process by Powell.  The perfume Black Narcissus is revealed as a cheap scent coming from an Army-Navy store in London.  Powell insinuates that the symbolization of the sensual Orient is, in fact, an importation from the Empire a 'cheap' colonial imagining.  This colonial imagining of the magical Black Narcissus or Eastern sensuality has a tremendous impact on awakening the repressed desires of the white women.  Even Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), with her celibacy and her authoritative stance as Sister Superior of the convent, begins to weaken and falter in the Eastern climate.  The palace's harem past, as imaged in the wall paintings, and the primitives' sexual desires seem to affect the nuns' celibacy and subjectivities.  However, the temptations which beset the nuns and their young leader Sister Clodagh stem as much from their own unresolved conflicts and repressed desires as from the ghosts of the windswept palace of Mopu.  Sister Clodagh's physical attraction to Dean stirs haunting memories of her old Irish love, Con, to whom she thought she was engaged, only to discover that he loved another woman.  It is insinuated that Sister Clodagh joined the convent as a result of her disappointment in love, and this experience has led to her asceticism, refusal and repression of the sensual.

    In a sense, Sister Clodagh's body is emblematic of the classical bodyˇtranscendent, monumental, closed, static, self-contained, identified with 'high' or official (in this case, religious) culture, a typical body of the Renaissance, and later, rationalism and individualism of the bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Yet as a static and closed 'classical body' living in the 'porno-tropics' (McClintock, 1995: 22) of the Himalayas, Sister Clodagh is forced to confront her body as a sexual body with needs and desires, a body which has denied and repressed what Bakhtin calls the 'lower bodily stratum' or the 'grotesque body' (Bakhtin, 1984).  For Bakhtin, the grotesque body is a regenerative body in the act of becoming; it is never complete or finished.  Blurring the boundaries between the body and the world, the grotesque body is characterized by orifices and the acts of bodily drama:  gaping mouths devouring, eating, drinking; defecation, urine; death, birth, childhood, and old age.  The grotesque body of the popular humour and folk culture in the Middle Ages signifies the symbolic eradication of authoritative official culture and the affirmation of popular renewal.  Sister Clodagh, in a sense, has repressed not only her own desires but also this carnivalesque grotesque body of the cosmic folk culture. 

    As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White (1986) argue, the grotesque, as theorized by Bakhtin, returns as the repressed of the political unconscious, as abjection which had consolidated the cultural identity of the bourgeoisie.  They note that in Freud's studies on hysteria, the images of various pleasures in European carnival have been displaced and transformed into symptoms of private terror.  The grotesque body of carnival has been gradually repressed by the emergent middle and professional classes from the Renaissance onwards.  Stallybrass and White observe:  "This act of disavowal on the part of the emergent bourgeoisie, with its sentimentalism and its disgust, made carnival into the festival of the Other.  It encoded all that which the proper bourgeois must strive not to be in order to preserve a stable and 'correct' sense of self" (1986: 178).  Carnival was too disgusting for bourgeois life to endure; the bourgeoisie had to deny the carnival, grotesque body in order to emerge as a distinct and 'proper' class. 

    I would argue that Sister Clodagh's bourgeois classical body needs to deny and to abject the carnival grotesque body in order to emerge as a woman/nun of the distinct and proper class.  She needs to disavow the grotesque body and the carnival by repressing them, and in the process, she makes the carnival into a 'festival of the Other'.  In this film, the festival of the Other is the spectacle of the young primitive bodies.5   The primitive bodies of Kanchi and Sabu engage in a festival of bodily pleasure, and it is this festivity of lower bodily pleasure which is refused by Sister Clodagh.  In needing to resist this carnival of sexual pleasure, such images of various pleasures in carnival have to be displaced and transformed into symptoms of terror, a terror of bodies, a terror of sex, a terror of uncontrollable pleasures and memories.  Such bourgeois repression and terror of the lower bodily stratum are then projected onto the primitive bodies.  As Torgovnick suggests, "the primitive is the sign and symbol of desires the West has sought to repressˇdesires for direct correspondences between bodies and things, direct correspondences between experience and language, direct correspondences between individual beings and the collective life force" (Torgovnick, 1997: 8).  Therefore, the only place where the Euro-American bourgeoisie of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can release its repressed desires for the almost 'lost' carnivalesque and grotesque body is through its fantasy of the primitives.  Thus the primitive body is simultaneously sentimentalized and loathed, celebrated and denied, admired and feared.  There is a need to keep the primitive bodies at a distance.  The primitive body is a site of abjection (Kristeva, 1982), the thing that needs to be eliminated, rejected, yet also required to define the colonial bourgeois life and the colonizer body.  The self needs its other, the center needs its margin to define its colonial identity.  As Torgovnick argues: 

    The West has been engaged, almost continuously, in defining itself against a series of 'primitive' Others....It has amounted to a rejection of certain 'irrational' or 'mystical' aspects of the Western self, expressed in the attempt to project them either onto groups marginalized in the West (Gypsies and women, for example) or onto primitives abroad.  Fascination with the primitive thus involves a dialectic between, on the one hand, a loathing and demonizing of certain rejected parts of the Western self and, on the other, the urge to reclaim them (1997: 8). 
    At this point, it is important to note that Black Narcissus was made in 1946, immediately after the Second World War and one year before the independence of India.  The despair and anxiety of World War I and II led many people to question how and why the West had taken the wrong path, and many thinkers in the West began to reconsider the idea of the primitive (Torgovnick, 1997: 10).  Therefore, this film can be read as Michael Powell's ironic social critique of Euro-American Christianity and high official culture, the hysterical repressed desire of white femininity, the role of white female missionaries in India and the notion of colonial autonomous and authoritative subjectivities.  In some ways, Black Narcissus is a self-reflexive negotiation of the British imperial process from a male colonial subject's point of view.  As Ian Christie notes, Black Narcissus can be read as "a spiritual preparation for the British withdrawal from India" (Christie, 1985: 80).  It is an exploration of the Indian impact on European sensibilities and of the larger uncertainties of the post-World War II period.  In foreseeing Britain's decline in imperial power, the film interrogates the roles of missionaries and the colonial task of civilizing the natives.  Moreover, not only is the focus on 'sex-starved nuns' an affront to religion intended to stir controversy, it also challenges the European bourgeois order of repressed white female sexuality.  Powell provides an ironic social critique of the classical bourgeois body, with its ambiguous anxiety and desire for sensuality and fantasy.  The film also reveals that far from having an authoritative and secure positionality, colonial subjects (in this case, the nuns) are more destabilized and insecure in the colonies than has been portrayed by most colonial narratives.  The need to assert a paternalistic authority and control partially arises from feelings of discomfort, insecurity and estrangement in a 'strange' land.  As the male protagonist Dean remarks, there is "something in the air which makes everything exaggerated."  In a sense, that something in the Himalayan air (perhaps Black Narcissus) is employed by Powell to exaggerate the British colonial sensibilities for social reflection in a moment of imperial decline. 

    But how effective and critical is Powell's social critique?  Does Powell question a masculinist perspective?  Does Powell deconstruct the stereotypes of racialized people?  In this film, white colonial women are constructed either as hysterical (Sister Ruth, who is also the alter ego of Sister Clodagh) or repressed and self-contained (Sister Clodagh), while the white colonial male (Dean) is seen as more sensitive to the negative aspects of the colonial mission.  He sees from the start that the nuns' insistence on civilizing the natives is a dubious attempt and failed enterprise.  Dean, as a colonial white man, foresees the failure of British colonization, while white women/nuns lack such foresight or reflection.  In some ways, Powell still refuses to entirely let go of a masculinist view in his critique of British colonialism. 

    However, to charge Powell with being sexist is too simplistic.  Unlike mainstream classical film narratives, which often display and fetishize the female body while the male body is fully clothed (Mulvey, 1975), Black Narcissus at times reverses the conventional male voyeuristic gaze.  While the nuns (except Ruth) are fully clothed, the white male protagonist arrives in town on a donkey wearing shorts; completely bare-chested, he later enters a room of nuns.  In one scene, Sister Clodagh watches Dean from the perspective of a keyhole.  Therefore, Powell was somewhat self-conscious of the male cinematic gaze. 

    As I mentioned in the beginning, it is difficult to categorize Powell's works.  On the one hand, Powell does provide a social critique of British imperialism by questioning the roles of female missionaries in India; yet, he never challenges the male colonial subject.  Although the film, in a playful and campy manner, critiques the repression of desire, fantasy, sensuality and spirituality in British national consciousness (and British national film production), this critique is projected onto white women's bodies and subjectivities.  While white women/nuns struggle to contain or express in hysterics their desire/fantasy/sensuality/memory, the white colonial male is 'at home' with his desire/fantasy in the colony.  While white colonial female subjectivities are being destabilized, the white colonial male subjectivity is not entirely debunked.  One reason for this gender discrepancy may be that the film fails to critically examine the masculinist imperial gaze at the colonies, at both male and female racialized bodies, and at white women's bodies. 

    Moreover, the use of primitive spectacle as a backdrop allows Powell to form his social critique of British nationality.  For example, the primitivist representation of both the Himalayan landscape and colonized Indians as overtly eroticized, are deployed to destabilize the secured subjectivities of the nuns.  As Toni Morrison argues in her book Playing in the Dark (1992), the presence/absence of Africanism allows the American literary tradition to imagine its whiteness and American nationality: "It was this Africanism, deployed as rawness and savagery, that provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity" (1992: 44).  In Black Narcissus, the Eastern landscape and primitive spectacular bodies, like Africanism in white literary imagination, serve as the staging ground for the elaboration and critique of British identity.  Powell's social critique is embedded in a juxtaposition between West and East, the civilized and the primitive.  The presence/absence of the primitive is employed to examine the colonial subject in the colony.  An Euro-American male subject, like Michael Powell, looks to the assigned qualities of the primitives as 'feminine, collective, and ecstatic' to critique the 'masculine, individualistic' qualities of Euro-American civilization (Torgovnick, 1997: 14).  Therefore, the primitive provides an outlet to challenge the values of autonomous selfhood.  As Torgovnick writes: 

    Fascination with the primitive can, then, nurture forbidden desires to question or escape Western norms...it can nourish intense desires to void the idea of the autonomous self and merge or connect with life sources....Such desires are often identified in Western thinking with what Freud called the 'pre-Oedipal' or 'oceanic' stages of human development, by which he meant fetal, infantile, or what he saw as 'regressive' states in which individuals do not perceive the boundaries of the self and the inevitability of subject-object relations....Because he conceived of the oceanic as a form of death wish, Freud was invariably hostile towards oceanic experiences (1997: 15). 
    In Black Narcissus, Freud's pre-Oedipal or oceanic stages of human development are embodied in the adult primitives; thus, primitives are conceived as fetal, infantile, regressive.  Boundaries of self and other, the subject-object relations, are blurred in the primitives.  For colonizer subjects, such as Sister Clodagh, the subject-object relations are rigidly in place (at least, Sister Clodagh struggles to keep the subject-object relation in place in her imperial gaze at the spectacle of the primitive bodies).  But what happens when an Euro-American colonizer subject attempts to blur such subject-object relations?  What happens when s/he attempts to let go of the boundary of the self/ego, and allows the self/ego to merge with the oceanic, the ecstatic, and the experience of collective life forces? 

    Ecstasy, as a spiritual register of harmony and tranquillity, involves "stepping outside the self and experiencing the eternal cosmos," but it also involves a sexual register "which can be positive (a sign of eros or life force) or can be imagined as a state of excess, frenzy, and potential violence" (Torgovnick, 1997: 15).  In Black Narcissus, ecstasy, as a spiritual and sexual register, is embodied by the primitives, simply because primitives are assigned by primitivist discourses as ecstatic, eroticized, mystic beings.  However, ecstasy is also experienced by Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), the femme fatale of this film noir.  Sister Ruth is depicted as mentally 'unstable' even before she arrives in the Himalayas; the nuns were concerned about her 'health.'  Near the end of the film, Sister Ruth breaks her religious oath; she unveils herself, wears a seductive tight-fitting red dress and red lipstick.  In one scene, she disappears into the wilderness (a primitive site/home); the other nuns are unable to find her.  Sister Ruth even attempts to seduce Mr. Dean, who refuses her advances.  In a sense, Sister Ruth has not only 'gone-mad,' she has 'gone-primitive.'  She has broken the religious code and the civilization code, for she has crossed over the boundary between colonizer/colonized, civilized/primitive, self/other, autonomous/oceanic, self-control/lack of control, celibacy/libidinous, nun/whore.  In blurring these various boundaries,  Sister Ruth experiences not so much the spiritual register of ecstasy but the sexual register of ecstasy.  However, rather than achieving a positive sign of eros or life force (as the primitives might achieve), Sister Ruth finds herself in "a state of excess, frenzy, and potential violence."  Her sexuality, femininity, and colour (red) are excessive; she finds herself in a state of mental and sexual frenzy, and such frenzy and unruliness (for a white woman as constructed by masculinist narratives) can only lead to violence and death.  In the climax, Sister Ruth attempts to push Sister Clodagh over the cliff; in their struggle, Sister Ruth loses her balance and falls over.  The femme fatale is killed off from the scene and the script.  Therefore, when a female white colonizer attempts to blur the boundary between subject-object relation, and attempts to merge her self/ego with the oceanic, the ecstatic, and the collective life forces in this film, she is punished and killed off.  The film ends with the nuns leaving the Himalayas, for they were unable to withstand the environment.6  "In this way, white, colonizing women were marginalized within patriarchal contexts when they were perceived primarily in terms of gender inferiority.  However, within colonial contexts, constructions of racial superiority could overcome those of gender inferiority, and thus colonizing women could share in colonial discourses of power and authority" (Blunt and Rose, 1994: 13). 

    Resisting the Colonial Regime of Racialized Representation and Primitive Spectacle

    I would like to end this piece with a few words on resistance.  In fact, the production of the primitive spectacle can be challenged, resisted and transformed by bell hooks' notion of the oppositional gaze.  As I have already argued, the gaze is political; there is power in looking.  Since there is power in looking, when one critiques the masculinist imperial gaze, one needs to also address the Other who is looking back, in order to concede his/her power in looking.  One needs to also analyze the situation when that looking back, that oppositional gaze or resistant gaze, is denied or forbidden.  When bell hooks read in history class that white slave-owners punished enslaved black people for looking back at their 'masters', she wondered how this traumatic relationship to the gaze had informed black spectatorship.  Yet, despite the punishment for looking, the slaves had looked.  As bell hooks writes:  "I knew that the slaves had looked.  That all attempts to repress our/black people's right to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze" (1996: 198).  This deviant gaze states,  "[n]ot only will I stare.  I want my look to change reality" (hooks, 1996: 198).  For marginalized peoples, the critical oppositional gaze gives space for agency, resistance, documentation, awareness, interrogation, and politicizes looking relations. 

    Spaces of agency exist for black people, wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see.  The gaze has been and is a site of resistance for colonized black people globally.  Subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that 'looks' to document, one that is oppositional.  In resistance struggle the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating awareness politicizes looking relationsˇone learns to look a certain way in order to resist (hooks, 1996: 199). 

    Using bell hooks' oppositional gaze, a marginalized spectator (i.e. woman of colour, lesbian, white woman, and so on) can still enjoy the film Black Narcissus, but with a critical and interrogative pleasure.  We, as spectators, can enjoy something and still critique it; there is always a space of rupture for resistance in the spectatorship of  film. 

    For example, a spectator with a resisting oppositional gaze may read the femme fatale Sister Ruth as a figure of transgression, what I call a 'fluid body', who occupies what Homi K. Bhabha calls the 'third space' in between conventional modernist binaries.  As Bhabha argues:  "What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the necessity of thinking beyond initial categories and initiatory subjects and focusing on those interstitial moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of 'differences'" (1994: 269).  Sister Ruth exists in the third space or the in-between space of various binary oppositions:  colonizer/colonized, civilized/primitive, self/Other, self-control/lack of control, reason/madness, autonomous/oceanic, celibacy/libidinous, nun/whore.  In blurring these binaries, she insists on the ambiguity and ambivalence of the imperial process, as well as the impossibility of rigid categories.  Her attempt to merge with the oceanic, the sexual register of ecstasy, and the collective life forces, may be read as a refusal of her role as a white colonizer woman and a missionary.  Her death at the end of the film can be read as a leap into another world, outside the masculinist narrative and the regime of racialized representation.  Embodied in the figure of the femme fatale is a site of resistance.  The femme fatale can be a site of cross-cultural feminism, where white women and coloured women can join hands to build a perhaps utopic yet critical world sliding in and out of the world of masculinist, colonial, racist, and heterosexist narratives and representations, in order to interrogate films such as Black Narcissus


    1. Although the Himalayan location is set entirely in an English studio, the spectator, at the moment of viewing, believes or imagines the landscape as a representation of the 'real' Himalayas.   back to text

    2. 'Narcissus' also connotes love of one's own reflections; therefore the film's title displays some of its imbedded operations of looking.   back to text

    3. Although Dean is slightly mocked as a white British emigrant living in the colony, his character and costume is also a self-reflexive tease of the white nuns.  Thus he is part of the film's deliberate attempt to incite and symbolize white women's desire. back to text

    4. According to Rumer Godden, the author of the novel Black Narcissus, Jean Simmons perfectly fulfilled her description of the young Nepalese girl Kanchi; she was "like a basket of fruit piled high, luscious and ready to eat" (Godden in James Howard, 1996).  Clearly, Godden also has an exoticized and eroticized gaze of Eastern young female bodies.   back to text

    5. In contrast to Bakhtin's description of Carnival which evokes all bodies, young and old, this film's age bias is most evident; the old primitive bodies lack this festival of the Other, for they are rendered as mummified bodies.   back to text

    6. In the final scene, Clodagh asks Dean to look after Ruth's grave, thus disposing the responsibility for white women's repressed sexuality onto the male protagonist's lap.   back to text


    Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. trans. by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
    back to text

    Bhabha, Homi K. "Frontlines/Borderposts," in Angelika Bammer, ed. Displacements: Cultural Identities in Questions. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994. 269-272.   back to text

    _____________. "The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism," in R. Ferguson, M. Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and C. West, eds. Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990. 

    Blunt, Alison and Gillian Rose, eds. Writing Women and Space:  Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies. New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.   back to text

    Christie, Ian. Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. London: Waterstone, 1985.
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    Combs, Richard. "Battle of the River Plate," in Film Comment. Vol. 31, March/April 1995. 20-2+.   back to text

    Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979. 
    back to text

    hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge, 1996.   back to text

    Howard, James. Michael Powell. London: BT Batsford, 1996.   back to note

    Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking For the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 1997.
    back to text

    Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.  back to text

    Lant, Antonia. "The Curse of the Pharaoh, or How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania," in Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar, eds. Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 69- 98. 
    back to text

    MacAloon, John, ed. Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Towards a Theory of Cultural Performance. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984.   back to text

    Manning, Frank. "Spectacle," in Erik Barnouw et al, eds. International Encyclopedia of Communications. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.   back to text

    McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.   back to text

    Mitchell, Timothy. Colonizing Egypt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.   back to text

    Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK:  Harvard University Press, 1992.   back to text

    Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Screen. 16 (3). 6-27.   back to text

    Powell, Michael. A Life in Movies: An Autobiography. London:  Heinemann, 1986.   back to text

    Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.   back to text

    Shohat, Ella. "Imaging Terra Incognita: The Disciplinary Gaze of Empire," in Public Culture. Vol. 3,  No. 2,  Spring 1991.  41-70.   back to text

    Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986. 
    back to text

    Torgovnick, Marianna. Primitive Passions:  Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy. New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.   back to text

    _________________. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. 
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