My Literary Bildungsroman

When I read Portrait for the first time in another class (I was year 2 then), I remember that the thing which stuck with me most was the idea of Stephen being stuck in an impasse because in as much as he wanted to “fly by those nets” (220) cast upon him by his national inheritance, there is a simultaneous inability to break through those nets because it was always the acceptance of the Irish themselves of their subjugated positions that make this “flying” literally impossible.

Now, when I’m reading it again, I realize I understand the nuances of this impasse a lot better. Having learnt what modernist art attempts to do by challenging traditional modes of representation (is any form of realist representation real in the first place?) and what post-colonial politics are involved with every writing process ( especially when the writer/artist figure has been previously colonised), I realize that Stephen’s impasse involves many more layers of subjugation than those of his literal circumstances. Because it’s not the just the double binds that Stephen finds himself in: being an artist, no one understands his art and he is thereby an exile; but by following the crowd, he is essentially contributing to Ireland’s continual subjugation because “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow” (220), it is also the inability to find a language outside of which that he has inherited. This is because English is a language that is not of his own heritage but is also ironically the only one through which he knows how to express himself, hence this mode of artistic representation will forever be self-ironizing no matter how he tries to fly by those nets.

Yet, I think having understood much of what modernist texts try to do with art and representation, the saving grace of Portrait is the idea that perhaps the art is in using the inherited foreign language that is English to convey the subjugated psyches of the Irish. This is very much like what Chinua Achebe talked about in his essay, “The African Writer and the English Language”, where the redemption that an African writer can do for his art is to appropriate the use of English for his art because English is part of his history/heritage and to accept that is to move a step forward in better self-representation. So the importance isn’t in denying the self of the use of English but to appropriate it with one own’s cultural contexts such that English becomes merely the mode of Art through which one’s cultural disposition can be expressed. And in Portrait, the constant self-ironizing, I believe is therefore the way Stephen understands and represents the Irish condition that is in and of itself very ironic in the first place.

Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

White women as conveniently flattened

The Ann Stoler reading this week asks us to consider why the deep-seated racial anxiety on the white man’s part always has to be expressed through sexuality. While the reading suggests many different possible explanations for this like the “sexual structures [..] as antithesis of the idealized self” and “sex as the ritualistic re-enactment of the daily pattern of social dominance” (46), I felt that the reason very simply is that via a sexual discourse, the game of power becomes a very easy one to play. By conquering something – landscape, a native land, woman, treasure coves or otherwise, the white man necessarily has control over what he perceives as the weaker ‘Other’. Sexuality here therefore becomes a very useful metaphor for such a power discourse because sexual triumph is about conquest and demarcation of territory as well.

However, the complication arises as Stoler points out exactly how the white women are “rarely the object of European male desire” (44). This is because if the sexual conquest of the woman is so important in buttressing the masculinity of the white men, then why are the white women excluded from this similar violent conquest of womenfolk? It struck me that the reason is really rather simple. In a foreign land, where Europeans are few and far between, it is more important to put race before sex – in that, it is more important to subjugate the racial ‘other’ before the sexual ‘other’, simply because maintaining white supremacy is of utmost importance. By sexualizing the native women and neutering the white women, I want to suggest that white men can therefore maintain a layer of homogeneity in the way white society is portrayed. Simply put, white women are not seen as a sexual ‘other’ because women must not be perceived as sexual preys to the white men, in the natives’ eyes so as to maintain the purity of the ‘white’ class.

Yet, incidentally, I want to suggest that the subjugation of white women here is thus even more insidious. Applying the logic we have acquired from Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’ a couple of weeks ago, we can see here that white women are the most utterly discriminated in the way they are neutered, desexualized, flattened and forced into the backdrop of “white” superiority, so as to prop up white masculine supremacy. Hence, while the native women are the victims of the white men’s sexual conquests, the white women are the victims of the white men’s negligence.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.

 

Examples

The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.

 

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

The Dyaks and Sir James Brooke

While the Wallace travel narrative does read like what a travel narrative is supposed to be, it is imbued with a moralistic tone. He seems to describe the Dyaks through European lenses and measuring their morality (if any) by European standards. While he does try to subvert common descriptions of the Dyaks at that time, by measuring them through European lenses, his description of the Dyaks and their morality is counterproductive.

Moreover, while he bestows morality on the Dyaks, a quality that makes them human, he does not relinquish the notion that they are still savages. This is obvious in the section where he says that “these people have passed beyond that first stage of savage life in which the struggle for existence absorbs the whole faculties, and in which every thought and idea is connected with war or hunting, or the provision for their immediate necessities. These amusements indicate a capability for civilization.” (Wallace, 68) Thus, despite the fact that the Dyaks are morally superior to the Malays in Borneo, compared to the civilized Europeans, they are still savages and bestowing morality on them is only a matter of principle.

Further, the way in which Wallace describes the Dyaks almost seems like he is overcompensating for something. He repeats how “truthful” and “honest” they are numerous  times throughout his text. But it becomes clear throughout the end of the Borneo section why he seems to be overcompensating. By describing how morally superior the Dyaks are, despite being savages, Wallace is simply trying to emphasize how Sir James Brooke managed to “civilize” these savages. This reminds me of Achebe’s discussion of Heart of Darkness and how some considered the natives, and to a larger extent Africa, to be merely a backdrop to the unfolding of the degeneration European mind. Here, the presence of the natives seem to serve a similar purpose, to glorify the civilizing power of Sir Brooke. It seems as though the only reason Wallace ascribes all these moralistic qualities to the Dyaks simply to exalt the power of the European mind to “civilize” the savage.

Even though it is problematic to constantly compare the natives by European standards, it would have been quite difficult at that time to describe the natives without referring to Europeans as a sort of a benchmark. I think that perhaps it would be acceptable to compare the natives with the Europeans, however, it is not necessary to see Europeans as the superior counterpart (in terms of morality, physical features etc) simply by virtue of their race. It is also important to discard notions of binaries between the natives and Europeans but instead acknowledge that perhaps there isn’t much difference between these two races.

Doubly removed from natives

In both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Lord Jim’, Conrad employs the framed narrative to describe the colonists’ experience in the colony. The character, Marlow reappears in ‘Lord Jim’ and this time he describes Lord Jim, much like how he describes Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness.

Many studies are concerned with Conrad’s use of framed narrative and how it creates a sense of distance between the author and Marlow; between the reader and Marlow and also Kurtz. The reader’s perspective of Marlow is always limited by the narrator. And his perspective of Kurtz is further limited by Marlow’s narration.

What is often not emphasized is that the reader’s perspective on the natives is always limited by the narrator’s, Marlow’s and possibly even Kurtz’s perspective. In Conrad’s novel, the emphasis is often on the white man’s experience (perspective) of the native and never on the natives themselves. Achebe’s reading of Conrad seems to fit in here (that Conrad is a thorough racist). While we can never be sure if Conrad’s description of natives are part of his modernist tendencies, but what is quite clear is that Conrad does not seem very interested in the natives. In his evaluation, the experience of the white man is put above the experience of the natives. To me, this is a subtle yet powerful form of racism.

Lord Jim: “Millions of pink toads”

It struck me how one may similarly apply the centrality of Achebe’s arguments in “An Image of Africa” onto the reading of Lord Jim – the way in which Conrad’s metaphysical mulling about the strengths and failings of the human soul may be perceived as Eurocentric, as well as several racist elements that may be sieved from the novel.

Fragments of Jim’s character are pieced together in a non-linear fashion like an incomplete puzzle through Conrad’s dense modernist art of multiple narrators, but there is a sense that the real story is never really told – where is the narrative of the eight hundred pilgrims who were cast away and obliterated to the margins as such? Is it only heard through Marlow from the French captain? Jim as the focal character provides the basis for an insight into European-conceived notions of gentility or what is the sailor code – morality, honesty, honor, etc and his –along with the others’- defilement serves to rupture the constructedness/moral conceptions of such ideals to render a complex depiction of human nature. Yet Marlow’s sympathy with Jim raises the issue of complicity as he tries to defend the latter countless times. This excessive preoccupation and obsession with the need to side Jim as “one of us” renders the other narrative of the “masses”, being the eight hundred pilgrims, obsolete.

Secondly, deep racist sentiments may similarly be sieved from various incidents in the text. Jim in his moment of blind panic on board the Patna hit out at the man asking for water, the racial hierarchy which spatially segregates the pilgrims on the deck with the other white sailors, and the mad engineer’s oblique references to the pilgrims as “Millions of pink toads” are but a few examples. Similarly, Chester’s plan to make Jim the “supreme boss over the coolies” despite his earlier moral condemnation of Jim’s character being “no good” again reflects the unchallenged and assumed sentiments of European superiority over their inferior Others.

Note-taking for Heart of Darkness (Part 2)

Conrad as anti-imperialist

Growing up during a time where Poland was faced with the trials of national self-determination, and with a father who was a red revolutionary, anti-imperial sentiments pervaded Conrad’s personal and family background. Such a background perhaps contributed to anti-imperialist developments in Conrad’s worldview, which translated to his many novels. In fact, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was hailed as the quintessential anti-imperial text in British literary canon of his time.

However some of us felt that Conrad was not critical of imperialism but of the inefficiency of imperialism, citing that in Heart of Darkness, the economic exploitation of the Africans for ivory was frowned upon (‘the work was going on, the work’) but not the civilising mission of imperialism. This was redressed by looking at how Conrad compares the civilising mission to a primitive form of idolatry (‘something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to’), clearly intending to mock the notion of the civilising mission. Other anti-imperial sentiments were discussed, such as injustice towards the Africans (‘they were not enemies, they were not criminals’) and the irrelevance of imperialism (‘it looked startling round his black neck this bit of white thread from beyond the seas’).

Conrad as racist

While recognising Conrad’s anti-imperialism in Heart of Darkness, Achebe takes him to task for his racist representation of Africans as dehumanised and disembodied, by identifying them through body parts and perpetuating a binaristic mode of thought that promotes racism. Achebe further mocks the values of British literary canon for holding the text up as high art, when such a text propagates racism. Thus, by acknowledging that Conrad condemned the evils of imperialism, and yet asserting that he was ‘strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth’, Achebe draws a clear distinction between anti-imperialism and anti-racism, asserting that they are not two sides of the same coin. Conrad was both an anti-imperialist and a racist.

Conrad as modernist

Conrad’s work can be seen as one that highlights the uncertainty of narrative perspective, presenting us with an unreliable narrator as well as the breaking down and switching of perspectives, at times even creating a film-like quality in his narrative. However, some of us also highlighted that ultimately we are given a unitary perspective, for the entirety of the novel is after all a narration. In this light, Conrad’s work would not seem to be modernist. Ultimately, Conrad’s work embody both modernist and non-modernist aspects; it is all a matter of perspective.

Conrad as symbolist

Conrad’s work can be seen as gearing towards breaking conventions of how we see the world, of realism. Ian Watts terms Conrad’s technique as one of delayed decoding, one where he provides sensory experience first, while meaning and information is only revealed later or maybe not even at all. In this manner, delayed decoding not only anticipates our pre-conceived notions but also suspends them. Seen in this light, Conrad can be viewed as a symbolist or an impressionist.

Achebe’s standard of great art

“The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in this world. And the question is whether a novel that celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. ” (Achebe 344)

In “An Image of Africa”, Achebe reacts very strongly against what he perceives as Conrad’s racism. However, his chief concern is not with a single person’s xenophobia but an entire civilization’s xenophobia. The question of what should be considered “a great work of art” is not merely a question of aesthetics but a question of politics. In fact, Achebe does not doubt Conrad’s artistic talent – he commends Conrad for writing one of the most memorable passages in English literature. Yet, he insists that by categorizing Conrad’s work as a great work of art is to be complicit in his racism. By categorizing “The Heart of Darkness” as a landmark piece in English literature is to stand by the Conrad’s racist outlooks. And to Achebe, it is proof of an entire civilization’s racism.

For Achebe, an artwork is not merely measured by its aesthetics but also by the type of values it promotes, subtly or otherwise. Achebe’s standard of great art highlights one of the central problems of modernism. Modernism wishes to celebrate art for art’s sake. Yet, very often art cannot be divorced from its own political/social implications.

Perhaps, the modernist’s aspirations can only be fulfilled when his art is kept within the safety of Europe. Once the work is exposed to the colonized world, the modernist will be forced to examine the political/social/economic implications of his work. He must then answer the questions of Achebe and the likes on what can truly be considered “great art”.

On representation, and art for art’s sake or just a pure heart of darkness?

Achebe contends that “the real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. 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.” (344)

What Achebe says (in italics) compels me to recall Fanon’s assertion that “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” (2)

No doubt, that the West creates the image of Africa in opposition to itself is problematic and highly disturbing. Achebe is thus strongly against classifying Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, which would only perpetuate vulgar prejudices and insults towards Africa and Africans.

However, I think we should also be considering another question: Which is the lesser of two evils? Representation albeit in a negative, misguided light, or total non-representation, completely writing Africa and Africans out of history?

With representation comes the question of motive: what is Conrad’s motive for portraying Africans in such a light? To perpetuate the dehumanization of Africans (as opposed to the utmost civilization of the West), or simply adding his creative flair to existing stereotypes? On the other hand, non-representation seems to be even more problematic in that Africans aren’t even significant enough to be represented. There is probably no easy answer, as both misrepresentation and non-representation still signify a kind of violence committed towards Africa.

Achebe’s angst towards the vulgar portrayal of Africans is thus understandable. But should we still consider Heart Of Darkness as a great work of art? Well, in the modernist line of thought, as art for art’s sake, then perhaps Conrad’s novel does seem to achieve it with its enthralling and well-written narrative. But if we choose to think like Achebe, then “no easy optimism [is] possible” (Achebe 348) and we’ll only see the heart of darkness in people.

Racist Achebe?

It occurs to me – as much as I concede Chinua Achebe’s argument on Heart of Darkness as epitomizing the “dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination” – that Achebe has unfortunately made himself a racist in this very essay. This is because Achebe, albeit his usual aplomb, has made the mistake of criticizing Conrad as a “thorough-going racist” instead of the book’s narrator. To put it more specifically: how convincing is someone who, on the one hand, condemns an author for “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words” while using equally emotional language in that same debate? (For instance, he is convinced of “Conrad’s purpose [as] letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts”; emphasis mine). To redress the atrocities of literary colonization through literature is without any doubt much more than showing the colonizers their barbaric reflection. This opinion of mine may be insubstantial, but it certainly isn’t beside the point.

 

I must reiterate that I find Achebe’s essay both cogent and insightful, especially in his reading of Marlow’s anxiety as “the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness” instead of having simple contempt for traveling to the “heart of darkness”. However, isn’t Achebe’s conflation of the racist Marlow as the direct mouthpiece for Conrad doing the same injustice Marlow does to Africans, on the basis of judging the latter’s acts of non-modernity as “primordial barbarity”?

 

To me, Heart of Darkness is indeed a racist text; yet, both authors that are discussed here are, although to a different extent, racist.

The African Landscape

Achebe’s essay provided me with a lot of food for thought, especially regarding Conrad’s use of ‘Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as [a] human factor’ (Achebe 343). Achebe claims that Conrad’s use of Africa as a space which consumes the African contributes to and perpetuates an ideological construction of Africa which neglects the African. This claim rings true especially when we examine passages that conflate the African person with the African landscape – ‘Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth […] they were nothing earthly now, – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation […] as in some picture of a massacre or pestilence’ (Conrad 63-64). No distinction is made between the African and Africa and everything is reduced to a pictorial representation, depicting ‘Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity’ (Achebe 344).

The symbolism of the African landscape consuming the African is further emphasized when Marlow compares the African helmsman to ‘a grain of sand in a black Sahara’, and when Marlow throws his body into the river, where the ‘current snatched him as though he had been a wisp of grass, and [Marlow] saw the body roll over twice before [he] lost sight of it for ever’ (Conrad 112-113). Again the African landscape aggressively engulfs the African, suggesting that Africa and the African are one and the same, when in fact they clearly are not.

What is the effect of this on readers? As Africa consumes the Africa; we readers consume the novel. The danger thus is that we readers become indoctrinated by the ideological dehumanization of Africa and the African in the novel, and go on to perpetuate this in our thoughts and actions, creating a vicious cycle that will be impossible to stop.

Maintaining colonial superiority

I really enjoyed reading Achebe’s article because when I was reading Heart of Darkness, I found Conrad’s racism so unnerving. But of course, in his defense, he was writing at a time where such racism was considered normal by Western standards, in fact encouraged.

I found Achebe’s discussion on how the representation of the native Africans, the other, as an antithesis to the civilized Westerners especially interesting. The whole notion of projecting Western anxieties onto a foreign other seems rather blatant in Heart of Darkness especially as Achebe’s article points out, in the contrast between the Amazon woman, who is simply described as “savage and superb” (Achebe, 785) and not given a voice,  and the European woman who had the “mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering” (Achebe, 786). It is significant that Conrad chose those exact words to describe the European woman because it represents civility which the African, according to Conrad, seems to lack.

However, the desire to paint the Africans as barbaric stems from the Western anxiety of maintaining superiority. The fact that if Africans were to be “trained”, they would be able to behave perfectly as civilized Europeans simply show that when it comes down to it, there is not really much difference between the “savages” and the Westerners. This troubles the Westerners as they are no longer able to maintain this notion of superiority and in effect the rationale for colonialism, “the civilizing mission”. As such, Conrad is complicit in maintaining the colonial enterprise by perpetuating the barbaric native image.

The instance whereby Conrad perpetuates this barbaric native image is especially apparent in Conrad’s reducing African speech simply to “indistinguishable grunts” and when he does provide speech to the natives, it is only to prove their own barbaric nature. Thus, by taking away the native’s ability for speech, Conrad is not only taking away the civilizing quality of the Africans but also what makes them human. As such, Conrad is guilty in perpetuating the stereotype of the barbaric African but going a step even further by refusing them even their humanity.

The portrayal of women in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Conrad’s modernist attitudes towards the New Imperialism may be discerned as containing both pro- and anti-colonial effects, with Achebe scathingly (albeit one-sidedly) attacking the way in which Heart of Darkness is really only concern about the moral degeneration of the West – with Africa acting as the muse and the entropic portrayal of human nature – and thus fundamentally euro-centric.   

The phallocentric way in which Conrad attempts to probe his female Other unhinges his deeply misogynistic attitudes in the novel, which is in spite of Conrad’s perceived liberal humanism. On one level, the masculinized sphere of colonialism has no room to include the white woman, as following Victorian tradition, still clearly demarcates the public and private boundaries in which the different sexes are permitted to present themselves in. In the two sparse and brief appearances of the white woman, as represented by Marlowe’s aunt and Kurtz’s wife, they are logically entrapped within the domestic sphere. Spatial demarcations aside, the exclusive spheres of femininity, portrayed condescendingly as an idealized and fairy world, keep them out of ideological and direct participation in imperial discourse. This may be seen in Marlowe’s dismissive saying, “Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she should be out of it. We must help them stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours get worse”.

Conrad’s highly eroticized and exoticized account of the African woman is a genuine reflection of the way in which the powers of imperialism allow the colonial white man to project  his sexual desires onto the doubly ‘Othered’ African woman. It is as if with the African woman (who is also aligned with the dominant tropes of silence and blackness) is stripped of those civilized and cultural codes of femininity which mark the white woman and may thus be objectified solely as the quintessential sexual object from which the collective group of empowered men (Kurtz, Marlowe, pilgrims, etc) may gawk at.

Ridiculing Western Civilisation

Even though Achebe claims that Conrad is a “thoroughgoing racist” and that Heart of Darkness happily ignores the deep-seated racism that the text exercises against the Africans, I feel less inclined to take such a harsh stance towards Conrad’s position as a colonist. Yes, I agree to a large extent that he objectifies, silences and mis/un-represents the Natives yet, I feel that because he is also equally scathing of the Europeans situated in the Congo that perhaps his position is more ambivalent. I understand the contention Achebe has with Conrad isn’t that Conrad is valorizing of the Europeans – but that Conrad has effectively dehumanized and ignored the Africans in his meditation of the downfall of the European male.

However, I prefer to read the Africans as representative of an older, fiercer “humanity” that is “wild and passionate” (Conrad91) and in a way akin to the Europeans. This humanity, although described by a disgusted Marlow as “ugly”, manages to – on many silent occasions even, to prove how ridiculous the institutions of Western civilization like money (“So unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them” [59]) really are when taken out of the pretentious western contexts. In times like this, even though the Africans are still silenced, the fact that even their silence can reflect the stupidity of Western ideals, to me, is enough to mediate my stance towards Conrad’s racism and take Achebe’s reading with a little bit more salt.

 That being said, I realise too that Achebe is writing in a period where the teething pains of decolonisation are starting to appear, and I can see why he would, in his position, be so adamant about writing against a whole tradition of Conradian scholarship that has effectively contributed to the continual “reduc[tion] of Africa to the role of props.” (Achebe 344)

The African subject in the Victorian Consciousness

Post-colonial criticism recognises the text as “a vehicle of imperial authority “(Achebe 10). Heart of Darkness would therefore be seen as one in this canon, relying on ‘myth and metaphor’, which serves in propagating the Colonial enterprise–the creation of a hierarchy of being, where the colonizer reigns supreme.   The myths in the case of Heart of Darkness is the popular Victorian notion of the subhuman nature of the African as the savage “antithesis of Europe, and therefore of civilization” (2).

The novella is wrought with animal imagery, the comparison of Africans to Apes being the most striking: “Six black men advanced in a file… Black rags were wound round their loins, and the short ends behind waggled to and fro like tails” (Conrad 22).  Throughout Heart of Darkness, the Darwinian frame of reference is crucial, as it is in almost all cultural and academic artifacts of the time.  To justify imperialism it was necessary to create an inferior or the Colonial Other. Thus the Africans filled this place for Marlow, whom being the Colonizer, is in the privileged position of defining the Other.

The difference between the Indian Colonial subject and the African Colonial subject seems clear this week.  The Indian subject in the Victorian consciousness is attributed the servile and unthreatening de-masculinized role of subordinate, while the African subject is pushed even further down the social hierarchy past the Oriental eunuch figure to that of a humanoid beast .  The horror in Heart of Darkness comes from the intolerable moments of realization (however temporary and fleeting), when the African subject is recognized as legitimately human.  If the Asian subject is a socio-political eunuch then the African is a tool for enterprise.  This line of thinking of course, reduces the colonial impulse to its commercial roots alone.  As such, it is only natural that the image of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ overshadows the self-proclaimed ethical justification for Colonialism (White man’s burden).

Achebe’s Heart of Anger and the Ethics of Re-Appropriation

When I read Achebe’s essay, I was struck by his strong desire to make us (Westerners, colonizers, outsiders) view Africa as something other than commodity, colony and “the other” foreign land/culture. As a fan of Things Fall Apart,  I am interested in what fellow colonial/postcolonial writers have to say about each others’ works, but I felt that Achebe was much too exaggerated and emotional in his response to Conrad, especially considering the neccessity of colonial discourse as the only way in which to deal with colonialism.

Yes, I did have some uncomfortable encounters in read Heart – most disturbing was Marlow’s description of the Inferno that he witnessed, and a little after that:

     one of these creatures rose to his hands and knees, and west off on all-fours towards the river to drink. He lapped        out of his hand, then sat up in the sunlight, crossing his shins in front of him, and after a time let his woolly head fall on his breastbone. (64)

The depiction of the Africans as mere animals is probably exactly what Achebe is so incensed about- the “savage” pitted against the “refined” (341), making the latter look that much more civilised in the wake of so much “frenzy” (341).

YET, the way in which Achebe glosses over the narrative voice in Conrad’s Heart is unfair. The narrator is narrating a story narrated to HIM by Marlow, and while Achebe views this as “set[ting] up layers of insulation”, I feel this gives Conrad’s image of Africa a kind of fluidity; we are still aware that multiple “eyes” and voices are behind Heart, and compelling as Conrad’s narrative is, we are still aware that interpretation is not always stable, or straightforward.

Additionally, Achebe’s point about the “other world” (338) effect of making the River Thames calm and placid in stark contrast to its “antithesis” the River Congo, while compelling, I feel is not the only interpretation of Conrad’s intention. When I was reading Heart, I felt the whole point of establishing this “kinship” between the two rivers was for Conrad to convey to us that darkness is not only present in Africa, but in the British colonizers as well; for what is the figure of Kurtz but one that gets consumed by the darkness- not of Africa, but of his own mind- as well? The darkness in Heart therefore does not come from Africa, but rather, from the British that have brought this darkness to Africa.  

Lastly, if we were to take a look at Fanon again; he mentions that it is essential for the colonizers and the colonized to enter the discourse of colonialism in order to deal with its history. The “kinship” that Conrad establishes between the colonizers and the colonized is thus a recognition of the neccessity to enter the colonial discourse (which does involve creating an “other”) in order to communicate as a colonial writer.

Of course, Achebe’s essay does bring up some interesting points about the ethics of re-appropriation. If Conrad’s Congo is merely a metaphysical space to depict the emotional depravity of “one petty European mind” (344), then Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon comes to mind. Does re-appropriation depend/matter strictly to the artist? If not, then what kinds of implications does re-appropriating African culture onto Western concerns (in these two cases, with vice and depravity) have? What does re-appropriation do to the original “appropriated” culture/material?

Sigh*! Heart of Darkness

I find Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness as a novella that not only exoticizes, but dehumanizes the Africans as subjects, very enlightening and convincing. The eurocentric position which tends to silence the natives and portray them as savages in need of white men’s salvation is afterall, a familiar strand embedded within many european novels of the period. In the eyes of the West, Africa existed for a long time as a ‘dark continent’ that was mysterious and untameable and perhaps even Conrad himself as an ‘outsider’ seemed unable to dispose of the white man’s lens when it came to understanding and portraying the Africans, whose social and cultural identity proved to be so antithetic and illogical to the former.

While Conrad seems to have denied them an authentic and personal voice, at least he does not mask the hypocritical nature of the colonial enterprise. If the image and interests of the Africans have not exactly been exalted or served in the novella, at least the author’s position is not a waffling one. Imperialism is acutely denounced and exposed for its greed, exploitation and unruly hold over the colonized natives. It is portrayed and understood to be barbaric and inhumane, overthrowing all the moral ideals that supposedly uphold the enterprise and forces a re-evaluation of the white men’s superiority and values. Kurtz’s death may be viewed as a punishment. He dies bode down by the knowledge of his own corrupt nature and shredded conscience despite being regarded throughout the years as one of the most successful by his fellow countrymen.

Achebe vs. Conrad

Achebe’s essay left a great impression on me because it was such a charged reading (against the grain) of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I do agree with many of the points she made but there were some that I was not so sure about. Firstly, Achebe highlights how the Amazon woman (Kurtz’s African mistress) only serves as a tool, a ‘savage conterpoint to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story’ (341). I’d concur that the Amazon woman is exoticized and aestheticized to some extent. Conrad aligns her with the ‘colossal’ and ‘fecund’ body of the wilderness (therefore, like the land, she is a colonized figure) and spends a large amount of narrative time describing parts (but not the whole) of her. Yet, she is heavily adorned with the spoils of colonialism: ‘she must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her’. This puts her in a slightly more ambiguous position, especially when compared to Kurtz’s fiance.

The African mistress has no voice (or given none in the novel), and I’d like to think that this means she cannot be read/ interpreted as easily as the other characters. Conrad suggests she is powerful and threatening, for she seems able to  control the elements of nature when she opened her bare arms. On the other hand, Kurtz’s fiance is fragile- Truth must be kept away from her. She is lied to, fed with notions of romance that is far from what the novel is really about. To be honest, in my rereadings HOD, I’ve always felt that Conrad paints the European fiance in an almost laughable light. Is Conrad sexist as well?

Maybe the one problem I have with Achebe is that he doesn’t complement his reading of HOD with the lens of Modernism. Especially with regards to the issue of language (its inadequacies, the inaccessible native language) in the novel. More food for thought?