Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and "Two Visions in Heart of Darkness" by Edward Said

Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (1902)
"Two Visions in Heart of Darkness"  by Edward Said (1993)

Heart of Darkness is one of Joseph Conrad's (1857 to 1924-born Poland  but considered an English writer) most famous works.   It is considered a very high status canon work but of late there has been a tendency to attempt to dismiss it as racist   (Of course we have big questions lurking in the background here-can we like and admire a work of art whose values we do not approve?)    I am really not inclined to post a lot about the style or the story.   The prose is impeccable.   It cries out to be  read slowly.    

The story is set in the Belgian Congo, seen of some of the most horrible abuses of colonialism.    The narrator of the story does make use of degrading racial terms for the people of the areas, describes them in a fashion that show he things less of their cognitive capacities than he does of Europeans, and sees their very darkness as indicative of an evil quality within them.    The narrator in Kenzaburo Oe's short story about an African American pilot taken captive by rural Japanese during WWII does the same sort of thing.    Does this mean Oe is a racist?   

I really thing the best service I can provide readers of this very powerful story is just to advise them to read Edward Said's treatment of that question in his book Culture and Imperialism.     

Here is a link to Said on Heart of Darkness.   For background information on the operative concepts of Edward Said see my post on his big book, Orientalism.

Mel u


Marie Cloutier said...

thanks for this and for the background information- it's very helpful! :-)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I am not sure that "dismiss" is the right word any more. Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness actually seems to have enhanced Conrad's stature. A new and productive (or reductive, but anyway new) idea is now permanently attached to HoD. Conrad is, if anything, assigned even more, often alongside Achebe.

Kinda perverse!

Fred said...

I must disagree here with the received wisdom of the times. Aside from the use of the "N" word, I would appreciate it if someone could point out exactly where Conrad thinks "less of their cognitive capacities than he does of Europeans, and sees their very darkness as indicative of an evil quality within them."

Secondly, I would appreciate having someone point out where Conrad shows that Europeans are superior to Blacks.

I would also appreciate having someone point out where Conrad demonstrates his approval of the way Europeans treat black Africans.

Kelli Nørgaard said...

People often do not realize that although Heart of Darkness is such a "tiny" book, there is SOOO much packed in those few pages! :-)

Fred said...

Please ignore my previous message.
The issue is too complex to be discussed in a comments section.

Mel u said...

Marie-thanks very much for your comment and visit

Amateur Reader-I will have to look for the Achebe essay-I do have one of his short stories and a novel in my read soon list-thanks as always for your very insightful comments

Mel u said...

Fred-I hope in my short post I did not suggest I thought that Heart of Darkness can be seen as any way supportive of European Rule in the Congo as of I for sure do not think that-I did find a lot of imagery of darkness as evil and other and I think this is clearly, in the mind of the narrator, means to apply to the African people of the Congo-

Of course we can be intended to see the narrator as mistaken and sort of embodying "enlightened colonial racism"

As you said, the other issues do not work for a brief blog post discussion

Agree big questions beyond the scope of book blog posting-once a blog posts gets beyond a certain length
you lose readers,

thanks so much as always for your comments and visits

Mel u said...

Kelli Norgaard-very good point-it is a very dense work-thanks so much for your comment and visit

ds said...

Most interesting, Mel. I found Said's essay fascinating, but will have to reread Heart of Darkness to make full sense of it, because, as Kelli says, though small, there is sooo much packed inside that novella.

One thing that stood out was Said's examination of Conrad's own "exilic marginality" which gave him an "ironic distance" from his subject matter. Yes, Conrad was a Polish exile living in England, but he had also been an exile in his own land: the Russians subverted Polish culture in as many ways as possible. Which begs the question (also too big for a blog comment)--do we consider a work of art not only in the context of its time, but in the context of its author's life and experience??

Heavy stuff for a Sunday morning...
Thank you.

Fred said...

If the darkness refers to evil,and therefore to the black Africans, do you find it strange that Conrad put a white man at the heart of the darkness?

Mel u said...

Fred-it is not that darkness is evil it is that it is thought of in that way by the narrator, a European

Mel u said...

Added note -here is a quote from Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness that supports the idea that at least the narrator (not Conrad but it does not rule it out) does see Africans as cognitively below Europeans-if I can find the full essay on line I will post on it and more from the ideas found in Orientalism by Said

"And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam gauge and the water gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed his teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving "

"specimen", "improved", amazing how he can do simple tasks normal for Europeans, in thrall to European withcraft, should be stomping his feet on the the bank?

What is so powerful about Conrads work is that we are being shown the darkness in the soul of the European colonizers-of course being a colonial employee requires a special sort of person also-as Fred says big subject here-

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Fred - if you want "someone," Chinua Achebe is someone. His 1975 lecture "An Image of Darkness: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" is the starting point of this contretemps.

Whether Achebe is writing about the existing "Heart of Darkness" or an imaginary "Heart of Darkness" that more closely suits his polemical purpose is a matter of interpretation.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Ah, mel is a step ahead of me, as usual.

The problem with using that passage as evidence of anything at all is that Marlow is a world-class ironist. Is he indulging in received ideas, or parodying them?

Mel u said...

Added note-Here is a link, just found it, to Achebe's famous piece on The Heart of Darkness-

I will to read it, perhaps along with a short story by Achebe, and post on it very soon

I did find the descriptions of the "native" woman Kurtz was involved in to be in accord with what Said says about the sexual fixations of white men in the tropics on "exotic" women-

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I can read a book, which may be consider racist

Mel u said...

In response to the great posts left by my readers, I have done a follow up post

Is The Heart of Darkness a Racist Text?