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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Two Vision of Heart of Darkness-Is it deeply racist or a powerful exploration of the roots of racism?

A Follow Up Post 

"An Image of Africa:   Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness"  by Chinua Achebe (1977, Massachusetts Review, 1977, 10 pages)

 Culture and Imperialism -Two Visions in the Heart of Darkness by Edward Said   (1993, 9 pages)

Edward Said versus Chinua Achebe

"Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist."   Chinua Achebe
And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. (from Achebe's essay)

"Heart of Darkness cannot be just been treated as a straightforward recital of Marlow's Adventures, it is a dramatization of  Marlow himself, the former adventurer in colonial regions, telling his story to a group of British listeners in a particular time in a specific space..,.what Conrad does is to show us what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation"-Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism -Two Visions in the Heart of Darkness

This post is kind of a follow up to the really great very insightful comments that were made on my brief post on Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness.    In my post I said, which I now concede was not accurate, that Heart of Darkness is often now simply dismissed as a racist work.   In fact it turns out, as I learned from research stimulated by the comments of Amateur Reader, it is the debate over this issue that has in fact increased the readership for Conrad.   If he were alive today, Conrad would owe his critics a share of his royalties!   This issue has, I think, a larger culture import as seeing Conrad as racist opens the door to an attack on the whole notion of a literary canon if we concede this very high status work is racist to the core.   

I think Edward Said is right and Chinua Achebe is wrong.   (I will assume here that readers of this post-assuming there are any, of course!- are familiar with the racial slurs and terms used in Heart of Darkness.)   I think where Achebe misses the point of the work (I know it sounds very arrogant to say that but if I said it is Said who is wrong it would also sound arrogant) is when he says that Conrad in The Heart of Darkness provides us with no way to step back or outside of the account of Marlow of Africa.   I think Amateur Reader hit it on the head, as usual, when he said "Marlow is a world-class ironist. Is he indulging in received ideas, or parodying them?".

As Said remarks (almost wrote as Said said) this is a narrative for an audience of English business men, people that Marlow needs to please.   I found the further Marlow went into the Congo the more ironical he became.    This is in part because he has no frame of reference to deal with his experience directly so he must distance himself from it with irony.    Marlow wants his story to be exciting and to be what his audience, his bosses, want to hear.   

One of the interesting aspects of Heart of Darkness which I think does show orientalising elements in the book is in the treatment of the Africa woman who was the mistress of Kurtz, per Achebe.   (It is also interesting that Achebe uses a loaded term like "mistress" to describe the woman, why cannot she simply be as a English woman would, be a girl friend or even a wife?)   

In Orientalism (see my post on this book for some background on the concepts) Said says the European saw-and still see-non-European women as sexually exotic, almost like temple prostitutes.   This is how the woman in Heart of Darkness comes across.   Marlow wonders what amazing things she has done to captivate Kurtz.

There are a lot of good points in Achebe essay.   To me one best point is kind of an attack on "liberals" readers of Heart of Darkness who with the best of intentions say Africa is just a backdrop for Marlow to display his attitudes and have his vision of the horror of the darkness.   He says the fact that Conrad could use a whole contitnent and especially the Belgian Congo as  backdrop show his deep seated sense of European superiority.   

I think the failure of insight of Achebe and others who see this book as racist is their inability to step back from the narrator.   I think by the fact that Conrad frames the narrative as he does he is explicitly setting up a "step back" frame for his readers.    

Fred in his very insightful comments said he did not see the justication for this remark I made in my first post

"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."

Achebe's essay has lots of examples of this including suggestions that the narrator sees the speech of the natives as babbling not a full language.   

I know this may seem a harsh remark, but I think part of the reason Heart of Darkness is often called a racist work is the need of teachers to have something to say about the book that a broad range of students can relate to.   

As always I greatly thank those who take the time to comment on my posts.    If you think I am wrong on something, just tell me otherwise I will presist on in my error.

Please feel free to share your thoughts with us 

Mel u


Fred said...

Mel u,

Thanks for bring this issue to light for some discussion. It's been awhile since I last read _Heart of Darkness_, and I think it's time for a reread.

Mel u said...

Thanks Fred, it was you comment that got me to think a bit more about the amazing book

Teacher/Learner said...

I took a course in post-colonial studies several years ago in university and we had this very discussion after reading Achebe's essay, Heart of Darkness, and Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Said's essay was referred to but not on the reading list. It was very difficult to decide if Conrad was being racist or writing about racist people. It's similar to Lolita in a way--Nabakov writing from Humbert Humbert's perspective but is not HH in any way. I personally found HofD highly disturbing and difficult to see as anything other than racist. Achebe's essay and book, on the other hand, are insightful, refreshing, and other alternative perspectives to the history of colonialism being represented in Conrad's story. Interesting debate, whether we agree or not :)

Fred said...

Mel u,

HofD is one of my favorite works by Conrad. Part of its attraction is its complexity and its irony I'm never quite sure where I am with Conrad.

I just finished Conrad's _Victory_ a few weeks ago. I've been thinking about a commentary on it, but so far I haven't figured out where to go with it.

Sometimes I wonder what difference it makes that English is not his native tongue. Does coming to English after Polish, perhaps Russian, and French give him a different perspective on English?

Mel u said...

Teacher/Learner-I learn more from those that disagree with me that those who agree!-I understand how H o D can be seen as racist and I am not 100 percent convinced there may not be some elements of this in the work-it is such a powerful and subtle work it is hard to be sure-thanks so much for your comment and visit

Fred-I have read some posts ans articles on the net about the impact of English not being his native language-maybe this gives him a special relationship to the language-I hope you will post your thoughts on Victoria, a work I have not read