Take Away Concepts
Though Japan or China were never formally American or European colonies, some of the
paradigms of postcolonial interaction can be used to approach the East-West relations in the
different versions of Butterfly.
Devaluation of colonized cultures
As Loomba notes, colonization devalued a nation’s past, culture, history, progress in
favor of a preference for Eurocentric norms, customs, language, culture. This process
might take various forms, infantilizing and barbarizing the colonized, rendering them
‘unstable’ or dangerous, condemning their religious beliefs etc.
This dynamic is clear enough in Puccini’s opera – Pinkerton might be a cad but the
cultural value system he is rooted in is in fact considered superior to Japanese
superstition, greed, and naiveté. As an audience we empathize with him most when he
is banishing the mysterious, cruel priest from his home. And Butterfly seems most
endearing when she tries to face down Sharpless in her “American Wife” guise. Think of
other such moments in the text which show such inequities. Also, we might think of
Puccini’s opera as a ‘colonizing’ tactic, insofar, he ‘takes over’ an entire land and people
and subjects them to his power of representation.
In the movie, M. Butterfly, too such an interaction is frequent, with all the mocking
references to Chinese culture as ‘old’ and Gallimard’s wife’s comments that Chinese
opera is like cats screeching (the beauty of operatic music, on the other hand, is
supposed to be ‘universal’.)
Consider the various kinds of devaluation of colonized cultures and how it “naturalizes”
the colonizer’s view which becomes the ‘norm’ or the ‘common sense’ way to think/be.
Modes of coping with colonial trauma
The colonizer’s devaluation of native culture and the attempt to erase native customs as
‘backward,’ ‘barbarous,’ or ‘superstitious’ leads to formation of specific subjectivities in
the colonized peoples. They might be hybrid subjects alienated from their own past and
identity or might respond by returning to orthodox modes of behavior with renewed and
obsessed zeal in order to prevent colonial erasure of their culture. This is most obvious
in Puccini’s Butterfly, in which we see both modes of behavior in Cio-Cio-San. Also, can Song – whose personal history suggests that he and his prostitute mother
have experienced the economic and racial dominance of Western males first hand – be
also read within this paradigm?
Consider the symptoms of colonial trauma and the mechanisms of coping with it in the
subjectivities of the various characters in the opera/play/movie
The nexus between capitalism and colonial dominance
Loomba complicates the notion of colonization as simply political conquest by bringing in
the capitalist economic cycles that underlie 19 – 20 century colonization as well as
neo-colonial enterprise. Such “global system of economic and cultural control” are
visible in Butterfly as well. At the beginning of the opera, Pinkerton purchases two
properties in a way – the house and the geisha. It is his economic control, his role as an
important player in Goro’s ‘market’ for geisha brides, that initiate the cycle of cultural
changes and implicit dominance that mimic colonial race relations.
Similarly, in the play, Hwang makes it clear that the power of the dollar enslaves others –
Gallimard notes that Butterfly’s price is ‘sixty-seven cents’. Also note other small
instances of economic dominance as a fundamental attribute of neo-colonial interactions
– in the movie, the comparative poverty of the masses invests Gallimard with special
power and privilege as he strides down the narrow streets or interacts with the rickshaw
puller after getting the dragonfly.
Consider various instances of this imperialist nexus between capital and colonization in
the different MB versions and reflect on their significance.
Loomba, after parsing out the subtleties of the label ‘postcolonial,’ concludes that
postcoloniality can be seen as a “shorthand for conveying a structure of inequity, which
is, in practice, highly variable because it always works alongside other social structures.”
It “refers to a process of disengagement from the whole colonial syndr