To say that ‘Conrad was a bloody racist’, might perhaps been a little indulgent on Achebe’s part. In his essay “An Image of Africa”, Achebe presents a political reading of Heart of Darkness by identifying Conrad with Marlowe, a plausible argument that in the end does proves to be rather unconvincing.
There is certainly generalizing and simplifying with regards to the African people in Heart of Darkness that is a hallmark of racism. The native people in Conrad’s novel are, according to Achebe, distinguished not by any cultural achievements, but by their status as emanations of the jungle, described in zoological terms. It is true that the Europeans do not come off well, either, but theirs is the more dramatic and significant failure of the superior race. Even so, I found Achebe’s accusation of racism on Conrad’s part in Heart of Darkness weak and unconvincing. I believe the novel reflects the common racism of the day, but that does not make it a racist but rather more of an observations on race. The treatment that Conrad has his narrator give to the natives enhances the effect of the novel in allowing readers to view the Africans through the eyes of the colonizing forces, and not a politically correct third person narrator. It is therefore unfair that one aspect of a writer’s rich output should be considered sufficient to hang the label of a racist on him.
I thought it was interesting that one of the first things that Achebe mentioned about Heart of Darkness is the projection of images of Africa as “the other world” and “the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.” In comparison to images of India in Forster’s Passage, Africa is painted in a much less flattering light.
Between my earlier post on the first few pages of Passage and Conrad’s illustration of Africa in Heart of Darkness, Achebe points out that Conrad very vividly paints a picture of a mysterious, “savage” land, in stark contrast to the wholly uninteresting, unremarkable Chandrapore to which we are introduced in the beginning pages of A Passage to India.
Perhaps Conrad’s–pardon the pun–strict black and white view is due to his being, as Achebe says, a “thoroughgoing racist.” Conrad’s voice, his nearly chant-like repetition of particularly colored words and phrases (Achebe makes a funny jab at his use of the word “nigger”) shows the reader a hardened, unrelenting view of Africa as the aforementioned antithesis to civilization.
I am unsure whether to agree with Achebe on Conrad not completely being held accountable for perpetuating his views on Africa due to his merely being a representative example of the Western ways of thinking at the time. However, I don’t know enough about Conrad himself to adequately assess whether he could be held more accountable for how he conveys Africa or not.
According to Chinua Achebe, there has been a “desire … in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations … remote and vaguely familiar”. This can be seen largely in Heart of Darkness, where the natives are seen as “Black shapes” or “black shadows”, whose ways are incomprehensible to Marlow. The natives are posited as wild and exotic, such as in the glimpse Marlow has of “a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping…”. It is quite unlike the city Marlow goes to meet his employers, which is like a “whited sepulchre”, a phrase that suggests silence and solemnity.
However, while Achebe argues that the comparison with the tranquil river Thames and wild river Congo illustrates this desire, I felt that the “common ancestry” does not reveal the anxiety on Conrad’s part about the “lurking hint of kinship”, but rather situated the British in the position of the Africans, as they too had once been seen as savages” living in a land of “Sandbanks, marshes, forests… precious little to eat fit for a civilised man”. Indeed, Kurtz’s “exalted and incredible degradation” seems to be the emergence of a darkness within himself. As Marlow noted, Kurtz’s soul had “looked within itself, and… it had gone mad”. The “heart of darkness” is as much Congo as the darkness within Kurtz’s heart. However, at the same time, it was “Being in the wilderness” that brought out the darkness within him. In that sense then, Africa is still posited as this wild, primitive place that allows the “savage” within, usually bond in by the trappings of civilization, to come free.
Achebe contends that it ‘is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa (341). He then goes on to say that what Conrad does with HoD is in fact what goes on in many other areas, and even today: ‘In all this business a lot of violence is inevitably done not only to the image of despised peoples but even to words, the very tools of possible redress’ (349).
It strikes me as being a little ironic that violence is done using language, on language, but more importantly (as Achebe would no doubt agree) it’s about how pervasive and enduring racism in language is, ‘more akin to a reflex action’ (348). This for me directly relates to the issue of political-(in)correctness.
While it is true that Achebe is not merely arguing for great works of art or the Christian Science Monitor to be politically-correct, the suggestion that the right words need to be used when talking about those who have historically been oppressed or marginalised. But what happens when political-correctness itself becomes un-PC, because it inevitably emphasises the need to not be un-PC? The need to single certain groups of people out for special treatment when talking about them becomes the new ‘reflex action’, then politically-correct language is the new language of the bigot.
This is perhaps why american comedies constantly mock PC-ness — is it because they see that the only way to deal with the intractable problems of talking of/about the Other is by not being too serious about it, and being willing to laugh at ourselves and our prejudices? [I am saying this keeping in mind that some of my friends find Achebe a little too serious, in this essay.]