Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Racism in Heart of darkness

Is Heart of darkness an irredemably racist novella? And, if so, does that mean it cannot be considered a work of art? Chinua Achebe believes so. I believe Chinua Achebe to be wrong. Heart of darkness is a masterpiece which is as profound as anything you are likely to read because it never settles, never leaves the reader with easy solutions. It confronts. Certainly, it gives us a view of the heart of darkness, but this is not the genius of the story. Its genius resides in its approaches towards that heart of darkness, because, like life, these approaches are everywhere obscured by ambivalence. It is this ambivalence which is, to me, the true horror: realisation, after all, is always worse than actualisation: it is the knowledge that wounds first and worst; the knife merely confirms it in steel and blood. We are all capable of darkness, Conrad is telling us. We are all capable of wielding the steel.

Achebe quotes Conrad's use of words such as 'inscrutable,' 'incomprehensible' and 'unspeakable' and refers to F.R. Leavis's consideration of Conrad's 'adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.' This, Achebe suggests, is part of a 'bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery.' This, I would argue, is almost sophistry, implying a layer of emotion which simply isn't there. Moreover, he then goes on to say that Conrad does this because it guarantees 'not to put him in conflict with the pyschological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance.' This is unacceptably mischievous: Achebe has no right to ascribe such judgements to the hundreds of thousands of readers of this novel over the five or six generations since its publication. Racism resides in lazy judgements.

While accepting that Conrad has a stylistic tic which leads to the overuse of words like 'inscrutable' and 'unspeakable,', I do not accept that this suggests an inherent racism. These words are not meant pejoratively: rather, they echo, again, the ambivalence which is at the core of this work. Conrad is not a lazy author and does not reward lazy readers: there are no easy answers in the understanding of civilization and barbarism. It is not black and white, either literally or metaphorically. Good and bad do not reside on opposite poles. That is the point of this novella.

Achebe quotes at length the following passage:

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 knowledge.

Oddly, however, having quoted at such length, Achebe barely discusses any meaning from this passage: it is clearly self-evident in his eyes - racist to the core. Not so. Yes, indeed, the comparison with a 'dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat' is unpleasant, but is that passage, in its entirety (and, since Achebe quotes it in its entirety, let's discuss it thus) entirely negative about the fireman? No, it is not. He was 'an improved specimen.' On a scale of negativity, that might be described as merely patronising. He is a 'really fine chap.' That must be construed as being on the positive scale. There follow some descriptive passages and we are informed that he is 'hard at work' and 'full of improving knowledge.'

It is these latter descriptions which interest me. In Victorian through to Edwardian times, civilisation was measured by education and learning. Indeed, it may even be traced back to Rousseau, albeit in a qualified way in his case: 'education is wasted on the educated,' seems to be Rousseau's thinking at times. But nonetheless it is this element of progress, of change, of making a difference that is important. Achebe may argue that this, too, is patronising and racist: the 'white man' teaching the 'savage,' but, if you are arguing from the point of view of the text and not preconception, then this is not valid. Consider the white characters in this story: consider how much they learn, or how much Conrad suggests they are progressing or changing or acting in some way to improve their lives? Kurtz, dying an ignominious death? The fools shooting at shadows in the jungle? The harlequin with his completely useless, but copiously annotated manual of seafaring? Kurtz's grieving belle back in England, fooling herself about her lover and his intentions? Which character is specifically described as 'learning'? The fireman.

Achebe then goes on to describe in disparaging detail Conrad's depiction of Kurtz's Amazonian lover. She is, according to Achebe, 'in her place,' and she is a 'savage counterpart to the refined, European woman with whom the story will end.' Achebe suggests that Conrad bestows 'human expression' on the white woman and not on the black. This is wilful misreading of the text. Consider this description of the Amazon:
She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witchmen, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

Does that not conjure a magnificent depiction of a proud, deeply impressive woman? Compare it to the pathetic self-deception with which the white woman receives Marlow's lie about her name being his last word:
"I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. 'I knew it -- I was sure!' . . . She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.
Which woman is described more nobly, the black or the white? There is no contest.

This description of Kurtz's white lover is the moment of utter genius in Heart of Darkness. We know, of course, Kurtz's last words: 'The horror, the horror.' But Marlow chooses to lie to the grieving woman because to do otherwise: 'would have been too dark... To dark altogether.'

Achebe, in his determination to pull at Conrad's racist shirt-tails, becomes oblivious to the majestic way that Conrad toys with his theme, the way he refuses to allow anything simple or trite to interfere. Achebe reads the descriptions of the two women in quite the wrong way; but, much worse than that, he completely misses the underlying message that Conrad is conveying. Ambivalent to the end, Conrad allows us no easy conclusion. Marlow lies, leaves the grieving woman to her self-deception. In so doing, what is Marlow's point, and what is the result? Does this provide him with some form of redemption, or does it lower him – again – to the level of duplicity of that dark, dark soul, Kurtz?

These are the questions we should be debating with this novel.


Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking. After reading over Achebe's essay the only part I agreed with was the "bombardment of emotive words" but really I feel it should be 'bombardment of descriptive words' but either way it still had the same dulling effect on on the novella. I agree wholeheartedly with your opinion on Heart Of Darkness. Keep up the good work.

Tom Conoboy said...

Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to write. Yes, 'bombardment of descriptive words' might be better.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for this i have already read Heart of Darkness and thought the views and claims of Achebe were extremely ignorant and blinded also.

Tom Conoboy said...

I don't think Achebe's views are ignorant at all. He clearly feels very strongly, and he argues a case based on his particular viewpoint. My feeling is that he allows this one issue to take too much emphasis, and his interpretation of the novel becomes unbalanced. He misses much of the depth of the novel by focusing on it in such a shallow way. But that is far from ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I don't really understand why Achebe would want to rid this book from commonly read books, for example, from schools. Even if he felt it was racist, wouldn't we know better, today? Shouldn't this book give us a realisation of how they were being treated poorly? We don't want to hide it from our history, right?

Tom Conoboy said...

Achebe is not complaining about how poorly black people were treated in those days. His complaint is deeper than that. He is saying that the way black people in particular and Africa in general are treated in Heart of Darkness is racist. That is to say, it is not the events that are depicted that offend him, but the manner and tone adopted in the book.

Certainly, no-one would argue that we forget the history of slavery or poor treatment of black people and pretend it never happened. Achebe is definitely not saying that. What he is saying is that Conrad, in this novel, perpetuates myths about black people through his use of terms like the 'dark continent' etc. I don't agree with him, but I don't think he is doing what you suggest he is doing.

Anonymous said...


Tom Conoboy said...

Well, you may be for Achebe. That's fair enough. However, you might present an argument to support your case.