Note-taking for second half of Week 9

Today’s class discussion focused mainly on ideas about the enforcement of colonialism, in various ways and means:

1. We discussed the threat posed by children of mixed parentage to the ‘rule of colonial difference’,

2. the ways the colonial state manipulated laws to justify its actions, and

3. the position and portrayal of the reluctant coloniser.

The first part of the discussion looked at Stoler’s article, where we considered the treatment of metis children as illustrated by the Sieur Icard case. Here, we discussed the ways in which ‘whiteness’ becomes problematised by the existence of the metisse, which blurs the lines between ‘white’ and ‘native’. At the same time, we also considered how colonial law and lawmakers were still able to exert their power by enforcing arbitrary definitions of ‘whiteness’ (in both a demonstration and assertion of their superiority). For example, not only did the colonial court have the ‘last say’ in the legal treatment of the metisse, it also tried to control the situation by enforcing laws that ‘decided’ on the status of metis children as white or native.

We then moved on to think about the links between the Stoler article and Burmese Days. Here, we discussed how Flory could be seen as a metis figure himself, because of his birthmark, which makes him half ‘dark’. We then considered various ways of reading Orwell’s portrayal of the two Eurasian characters in the novel, and how this reflected his attitudes towards them. Firstly, his portrayal of them as lowly clerks, and his likening of them to dogs possibly reflected his low regard of them. (“The two Eurasians had sidled up to Flory and cornered him like a pair of dogs asking for a game.” Chapter 10)) At the same time, some of us felt that his portrayal of them was rather sympathetic, and read this in two ways. (“Elizabeth had, in fact, decided to snub the Eurasians. She did not know why Flory was allowing them to hold him in conversation. As she turned away to stroll back to the tennis court, she made a practice stroke in the air with her racquet, to remind Flory that the game was overdue. He saw it and followed her, rather reluctantly, for he did not like snubbing the wretched Francis, bore though he was.” (Chapter 10)). Firstly, this could be Orwell’s deliberate denunciation of the imperialist actions that resulted in the existence of these metis children, and another angle from which to criticise colonialism. Secondly, that Orwell himself did not know how to portray these figures, as they were too ‘sensitive’ an issue. Considering this led to a discussion on where we hear Orwell’s voice in the text, and whether or not Flory can be seen as Orwell’s mouthpiece. While we considered that Flory, as the reluctant colonialist, could be Orwell (as the narrator in Shooting an Elephant could have been), this brought up the question of why, if Flory represents Orwell, he dies in the novel. This led to a consideration of Orwell’s guilt in having taken part in the colonial enterprise, and Burmese Days as his way of coping with that guilt. Looking at Flory as a reluctant colonialist, we compared him with Fielding, and also discussed why Orwell creates all these unsympathetic characters in the text, which led to questions about whether Elizabeth could be the real protagonist in the text, and how all this affected conveying Orwell’s message to the reader.We then considered that perhaps Flory is not Orwell’s mouthpiece, and that Orwell’s voice is not heard in the text, but rather, Orwell chose to show a ‘reality’ of the colonial situation, leaving it up to the reader to read what meaning we chose into the text.

Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

As mentioned above, this week’s discussion continued the consideration of the figure of the reluctant coloniser that was also present in Passage to India and Shooting and Elephant. Furthermore, we also used the idea of rule of colonial difference brought up in the Chatterjee article to consider the place and portrayal of the metisse in Stoler’s article. We also considered how Orwell is quite different in style from previous writers in the module, as rather than giving a clear message the way Forster did in Passage to India, he leaves it rather open to the reader to make meaning of the text. Furthermore, unlike Conrad, women are not silenced in this text, (consider the fact that some of us consider Elizabeth the ‘real’ protagonist). Orwell presents a fairly different picture of colonialism compared to Forster and Conrad, for the focus of the novel is clearly the reluctant coloniser and the problems that come with that position.

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.

Rainbows and butterflies

There was an article I read in National Geographic on Alfred Russell Wallace published in December 2008. It’s still available online at the National Geographic website. The article describes, amongst other things, how his letter to Darwin sparked Darwin into publishing On The Origin Of Species, a little of his personality, and his methods as a naturalist for commercial and scientific purposes. Just like Stein (or possibly the current of similarity flows the other way round), Wallace collected butterflies and other species of insects. Wallace also had to sell his collections to museums in England to fund his trips around South-east Asia.

Now that I’ve used up a hundred words rambling about Wallace in order to mask my inability to contribute a meaningful post, I would like to say that in reading Wallace’s records about the Dyaks and the region, it is obvious to us that there is that sense of wonder and excitement that exudes from his writing. Yes, Wallace does exoticise us regular folks in the East and we could read some form of colonialism implicit in his writing, but in his defence, is it not natural for people when they come across something that astounds and awes them to embellish accounts and/or come up with speculations? Conrad may have been influenced by Wallace’s descriptions of the region when writing Lord Jim, but excitement and exuberance are replaced with a nagging sense of foreboding in Conrad’s texts.

Darwin never consulted Wallace when he announced their discovery to the Linnean Society, and read his papers along with Wallace’s. Wallace was pleased and flattered, but still preferred enduring the wet weathers, fevers and hardships in the region rather than returning to receive academic praise. How cool is that?

Lord Jim, Lord of Mystery

While reading Lord Jim, I realized how Marlow always remarks how he “cannot say he [has] ever seen [Jim] distinctly” (Conrad 169) and is “fated never to see him clearly” (Conrad 185). Jim is described as an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234) who “passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart” (Conrad 318). I thus found myself asking why the need for all this mystery and obscurity around the figure of Jim.

Perhaps, by making Jim out to be this enigmatic, ultimately unfathomable figure, it also elevates his status as “Lord”, a higher being we are never fully able to comprehend or know. The mystery surrounding Jim, and the inability to place/know him, is in direct contrast to the natives, who are easily identified/ labelled.

This is easily seen in Alfred Russel Wallace’s article, in the way in which he describes with such ease the “general character of the Dyaks” (Wallace 67) and comes to simple, stereotypical conclusions such as the “natives of tropical climates [having] few wants, and when these are supplied, are disinclined to work for superfluities without some strong incitement.” (Wallace 73). Here, Wallace’s power is in “knowing” the natives (regardless of its inaccuracy), the power to (in)scribe characteristics onto them, the power to write.

Knowledge is power, and conversely, the lack of knowledge renders one disadvantaged in the power balance. By positing the colonist as mysterious and unfathomable, in this case Lord Jim, it elevates his status as superior race, god-like and all-knowing, reinforcing the justification of colonization of the natives, who are in contrast, ignorant and easily “known”.

Stein’s butterflies and the dream

How the romanticized myth of imperialism fuels the ambitions and dreams of despotic or hopeful men may be read as one indictment of the novel. The symbolism of Stein’s butterflies foretells men’s desire to grasp hold of every minute microcosm that constitutes the universe – to label, to showcase, to proclaim something as one’s own; as if the dream is the singular obsession which gives meaning to a person’s life. The ambition /quest to possess on colonist terms is subtly hinted at when Conrad suggests that ‘Stein never failed to annex on his own account every butterfly or beetle he could lay his hands on’.

Conrad attacks the romanticized idea of the dream as a distant ideal which can never be attained, as Stein laments ‘And do you know how many opportunities I let escape; how many dreams I had lost that had come in my way?’ By the end, it is telling how Stein is himself world-wearied, and “says often that he is ‘preparing to leave all this… ‘while he waves his hand sadly at his butterflies”.

The chief overreacher in the novel, Lord Jim, is also self-conscious of the one failure that haunts him like a dodging shadow to his life, in spite of his successful venture in Patusan. He is constantly aware that his existence is uncared for and unwanted by the larger world that has casted him away, in Marlowe’s words, as ‘not good enough’.    Jim’s romantic quest to be worshipped as a hero and as a successful adventurer inevitably rings hollow in his failure to acknowledge the reality of human errors and imperfections.

Reading colonialists and their texts

What I found most interesting about the Wallace reading was not so much Wallace’s portrayals of the natives, but the way in which he presented his “observation[s]”. His writing in the chapter affects a sort of scientific, ‘factual’tone , with his cross-comparisons of Britain and Sarawak, and the way he sets forth clear causalities for many of the Dyaks’ attributes. To me, this pointed to a clear agenda within the text, despite the fact that Wallace says his are more casual, personal observations. The fact that he frequently drew straight comparisons between Britain and Sarawak intrigued me, because it seemed almost forced—not just defining the self as ‘not-Other’, but, more, defining the Other as definitively not-Self. Perhaps this was a manifestation of subconscious (or unconscious) ‘white guilt’? I doubt Wallace was overly plagued by a sense of white guilt, as his interest was more of a ‘biological’ nature, but still, I think the impulse to constantly remind the reader how unlike Britain Sarawak was does point to a neglected recognition of the moral grey-ness of colonialism.

On the other hand, I suppose we could also see Wallace’s constant references back and forth to be nothing more insidious as a reflection of the extent to which we approach new things (people, texts, etc) with preconceived notions. Which led me to think about how we read Conrad and other colonial writings—the stance of a ‘postcolonial’ reader has always troubled me, because of the (seemingly) inherent bias we have against the colonialists. Achebe’s article on Heart of Darkness is one good example of this. Yet, in that way, aren’t we reading the colonialists in the same, framed and restricted way that they ‘read’ the natives they encountered? I’m not sure how else we can read these texts—it seems hard to come up with a convincing reading sympathetic to the colonialists, and I’m not positing that we should (or I’m not sure whether I am or not). It’s kind of a scary thought, to me at least, that as much as we like to vilify the colonialists for their greedy condescending, we as readers seem to be reading from a position not much different from that of the colonialists ‘back in the day’.

exoticism… can we ever escape it?

To add on to Russell’s observations about Conrad’s portrayal of natives, I do feel that it is difficult to escape this whole exoticization of the Orient and its people. One way of identifying oneself is in opposition to the other. So Conrad and Wallace define the native figure using the white, european male as the standard. thus the dyaks are described as shorter than europeans, their behavior favourable because they treat the europeans well etc. So in that sense, Wallace and Conrad are using their own ways of western knowledge to conceive the Other and construct the Other for us. And it is through these observations of their physical characteristics that meaning is later ascribe and judgement passed on their moral character and mental capacity. And it is through this process that myths such as that of the lazy native, the sensual native woman etc. come about and actually stick and these labels are hard to shrug off.

I mean, even in movies today, this exoticism of the native figure from long ago comes into play eg. Pirates of the Caribbean and its portrayal of Singapore as this dangerous, pirate-filled, opium-consuming place and how Sao feng is a brutal, cunning Chinese pirate (affirming Wallace’s observation that Chinese are untrustworthy) as well as in popular fiction like Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club where Chinese-ness is defined by eating dumpling, single eyelids, playing mahjong and well, myths of Chang-e (how apt since mid autumn festival is right around the corner). In many ways, popular media is perpetuating this notion of the exotic East and the scary thing is that these movies and books later become the top grossing film or best seller at the bookstore. So we as consumers are complicit in this system. How often are we attracted to book covers featuring a sensual woman with a flower in her hair eg. Tash Aw’s Harmony Silk Factory? Well i for one stop to take a second look. So can we ever break free from this constraints of exoticism that is commodifying our asian culture and objectifying its people? I sure hope we do.

Conrad in Singapore?

I was in the vicinity of Fullerton Hotel last weekend, trying to find my way amidst the flurry of road blocks and road closures when I chanced upon a Joseph Conrad plaque just outside Fullerton Hotel! Yes, imagine my surprise! Why in the world do we have a plaque of Conrad here in Singapore?

Apparently, the plaque was erected as one of national heritage board’s (NHB) heritage trails, and begins with the following words: “Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski, a Pole by birth, British Master Mariner and a great English writer who made Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world.” To read the rest of it, please go here: http://heritagetrails.sg/content/516/Joseph_Conrad_Plaque.html

It got me thinking—even if Conrad did make “Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia better known to the world”—what kind of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known to the world? Looking at how Lord Jim draws on and repeats ideological constructions of Southeast Asian natives, to say that a less than flattering impression of Singapore and Southeast Asia was made known would surely be an understatement. Here we have a description of immigrants from Celebes: “the men of that race are intelligent, enterprising, revengeful, but with a more frank courage than the other Malays, and restless under oppression” (Conrad 196). Compare this with Wallace’s desire “to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral characters they are undoubtedly superior” (Wallace 68). Keeping in mind that Conrad’s information on Southeast Asia was drawn from many sources, including Wallace, Brooke and McNair, surely Conrad is perpetuating the inherent ethnocentrism present in these sources? The ideological effects of enabling such racial generalisations are extreme! I wonder if NHB considered this before erecting the Conrad plaque in recognition of his putting Singapore and Southeast Asia on the world map.

Conrad for Soft Imperialism?

“I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.”

While reading Alfred’s Russel Wallace’s “Borneo –The Dyaks”, there were moments when i couldn’t help sniggering to myself. While his writing was most earnest, I guess for modern readers like us…it’s just difficult not to notice how distant and ironic reality can be, from an individual’s perspective. While I do not disagree that Sir James Brooke had acquired much merit with the laws and changes imposed under his reign over Sarawak, for instance, the protection he rendered to the natives and the abolishment of slavery, I believe that Wallace’s faith in this white ‘Rajah’ as a heroic and noble figure reaffirms the British ideal of masculinity and how this evidently translates into the desired character of how the ‘Colonizer’ should be.

Having aided the Sultan in the Bidayuh Uprising, Sir James Brooke later coveted the power by threatening the Sultan himself with military force. During his reign, his pockets grew fat and both the natives and English back home reverenced him. It is undeniable that he took possession over a land that was never his to begin with, imposed his own laws and customs and reaped tremendous wealth and fame in the process, just as other colonizers did. Except that he deviated from the normal exploitative and inhumane models. Therefore, if Conrad’s Lord Jim was devised from James Brooke, then it seems likely that Conrad is indeed, racist and believes that the natives belong to a race that needs to be regulated and salvaged by the white man’s laws and customs. This then, validates SOFT IMPERIALISM?

Oh Humanity!

“This is the difference between H.G. Wells and me. Wells does not love humanity but thinks he can improve it; I love humanity but I know it is unimprovable” -Joseph Conrad to William Lyon Phelps, 1923

This sentiment is evident in all of Conrad’s works so far, first in Heart of Darkness and now in Lord Jim. Both narratives have a protagonist who is a member of the colonizing class, and both protagonists are incredibly flawed human beings who have committed “inhuman” crimes. The fact that these narratives were largely accepted to be based on real events shows us how far away the gap between “inhuman” and “human” are, and how the “human” can easily slip into the ranks of “inhuman”. Here lies a major issue that modernists were preoccupied with- the issue of humanity. What is humanity? Is there a universal recipe for humanity? What differentiates humans from each other and everybody else?

On another note, I have a huge problem with both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim– they are both so intrinsically biased towards the colonializer that when I read them I do not know whether Conrad is trying to comment on colonialism or is he just trying to tell a story. It disturbs me that Conrad places colonizers in colonialized settings, then has him commit heinous crimes and expect us to feel sympathy for him. Most of all, I hate the monstrous silence that is attributed to the subaltern.

In my opinion, Conrad was right. What was considered humanity then was indeed unimprovable because of the “humans” inability to look beyond themselves and the idea that humanity is universal. Only until people began subscribing to the idea that humanity could be told from an individuals personal perspective, regardless of race, language or religion, could humans then move beyond themselves and not strive to improve, but to understand.

Thank God for revolution and progress.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

Like A Passage to India, Lord Jim can be read through The Trial as a quest for knowing the Truth. A trial embodies an investigation into a case, not just for the “fundamental why, but the superficial how, of [the] affair” (45).

Jim is fully aware of the trial’s objective, trying “to tell honestly the truth of this experience” (23), and to “go on talking for truth’s sake” (26). He knows the trial seeks facts, but more importantly, he realizes that facts cannot explain everything, that these “questions did not matter though they had a purpose” (45). The sailors are precisely looking for something beyond facts, “the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions” (45), which Jim understands he is unable to ever provide a satisfactory explanation for regardless of his truthfulness.

When Jim recounts “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer” (27), it reflects the realization of the inadequacy of language to accurately express emotional truth. This is similar to how Brierly’s only response is not via copious explanations which would ultimately fail him, but by committing suicide and bringing the secrets with him into the sea. In A Passage to India, Aziz’s trial may have revealed the truth of his innocence, but it can never articulate the truth behind the caves and echo that caused such a profound psychological and emotional impact on Adela, resulting in her accusation of him.

The Trial thus symbolizes how humans seek to find meaning on two levels: the first as that of tangible facts. But facts do not satisfy and humans still seek meaning on a deeper level, i.e. the Truth, the emotions beyond the facts, or the real meaning of the caves and echo. The Trial represents how ultimately, it is difficult to reach this Truth and reflects instead the failure of language in attempting to articulate the Truth.

Oral tradition of Storytelling

I think the way that Jim is portrayed in the novel is very much like that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, where both characters occupy a central vacuum upon which stories of them are told, inter-woven and re-appropriated constantly. They do not really exist in and of themselves; rather, they exist through the stories that are formed around and about them, quite like the heroes of traditional oral storytelling in non-European cultures. And I would like to suggest that the oral tradition of storytelling in both Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness not only cements the mystique of perceivably more-“primitive” cultures, but it also provides an alternative method of attaining some kind of understanding of a human being.

To me, I believe that the oral tradition is one that places emphasis on a communal understanding of the world – a world-view that is shared by and participated in by all its listeners because everyone is an author in some way or another. Hence, this is how cultures create heroes that are important to every household, because their legend becomes a part of the community narrative; and in the passing down of such stories from person to person, the hero’s characteristics/actions get aggrandized and cemented as heroic eternally. What this does is to immortalize the hero in the given culture and make his heroic qualities forever desirable to the community.

Yet on another level, I want to suggest that this is also Conrad’s way of returning to a more coherent narrative of a world that is highly chaotic and unpredictable, where human nature is not kind and when human failure is abound, especially in certain moments of weaknesses (like Jim did when he jumped ship). I want to suggest that oral storytelling may not be the more accurate depiction of an event, but its combination of various versions can help us build up a more coherent understanding of the highly arbitrary and failure-ridden world.

THANK GOD FOR THE MID SEM BREAK

Having read Heart Of Darkness before Lord Jim certainly made the latter more digestible, even though it seems highly unlikely that one man can go on talking for so long and have the undivided attention of the people around him. I’ve never had that privilege. What I do find believable in both works by Conrad is how the search for truth in its various forms (moral, ethical, reality, self-discovery for example) can never be separated from the circumstances that surround that quest. It’s as if Conrad is suggesting that truth can never be found in antiseptic, sterile, laboratory-style environments with people in white coats performing thought experiments ad nauseum, and instead a person needs to delve into the seedy, sordid, brutal and horrifying as a test for himself and to the beliefs that he adheres to. So the colonized landscape forms the perfect backdrop for this quest; Marlow and Jim, with their ideals and beliefs, set off in the respective stories for a little-known alien land and culture, to see how far their truths will take them. The modernists likewise with their art works, dreams and philosophies venture into an age they thought man had control over, but tough luck:

It’s a proverbial jungle out there.

Marlow and morality

While the text itself is titled Lord Jim and that it chronicles Jim’s fall and “rise” in the Patna and Patusan episodes, what is most interesting is Marlow’s struggle at representing Jim. Conrad in choosing to introduce Marlow as a the narrator in Chapter 5 instead of having the omniscient narrator throughout introduces a human dimension in looking at Jim and in effect introduces the notion of the difficulty in representing someone through narration. Even though he was “one of us”, in Marlow’s words, he seems to grapple in telling the story of Jim. This is perhaps due to the fact that he finds himself moralizing Jim and his actions and thus unable to present Jim as he is, but instead a moral Jim.

Marlow’s moralizing ways probably arises from the fact that he finds himself trying to find excuses for Jim’s moral fallibility in the Patna episode and thereby he seems all the more eager to recount the romance that is the Patusan episode. It almost seems that in telling the story, Marlow is projecting his own anxieties on Jim, which I feel is reflected in his opening in Chapter 5 where he addresses the fact that “each of us has a familiar devil as well.” (26) Even though Marlow with his own set of moral ideals seems morally infallible, unlike Kurtz or Jim, he acknowledges that he too might eventually fall in a moment of weakness and therefore he found it necessary for him to “straighten” Jim out. Moreover, even though the Patusan episode seems rather disparate from the Patna episode in that there is totally different feel to the narration, that the Patusan episode was described almost as a romance, this disparateness was necessary for Marlow to quiet his moral anxieties.

Marlow the Ancient Mariner

I would like to depart from the tendency in looking through Marlow to Conrad rather than at Marlow as an object of interest in his own right.  Reading Marlow’s behavior as inwardly motivated (as a character in the book rather than a mouthpiece offering little more than narrative distance for Conrad), would lend a pyschological dimension to his narrative machinations.

A note-worthy observation regarding Marlow would be his obsessive need for narration and categorization.  He has an obsession for “the idea of Kurtz” in Heart of Darkness, just as Jim’s story haunts him in Lord Jim.  This obsession acts as a lubricant in the narrative motion of the texts in question and also highlights the subjective nature of narration and truth-telling (little ‘t’) in modern texts.

In Lord Jim, Marlow becomes a “receptacle of confessions,” fascinated (to the point of obsession) with Jim’s story as seen by his collecting of various narrative sources.  Marlow becomes a kind of Ancient Mariner figure, whose role is to compulsively record and repeat what, by extension, haunts him.  He sees this obsession as a curse (“diabolical”) for which he admits “is a weakness of (his)”.  This motif runs through the text with Marlow’s compulsion to narrate (or rather, form narrative threads) is likened to debauchery and addiction (drink, women) repeatedly.

If we are to see Marlow as a cursed Ancient Mariner-type figure, then we could see the act of narration (the framing of the little ‘t’) being one born out of an unknown compulsion.  Just as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner told his tale as a for redemption (out of guilt), Marlow’s “diabolical” compulsion may be one spawned from the basic human desire for the capital ‘T’ Truth, while the narrative itself is framed through the subjective (hence unreliable) view-point of Marlow, and as such can only take the form of the little ‘t’.  Perhaps what is diabolical is not so much the compulsion to narrate, but the inadequacy of the human frame of reference to fulfil the desire for the Truth in its limited form of representation.

Marlow’s Medium, Conrad’s Message

The use of dubious and mixed narrative perspectives in Lord Jim, as I see it, does more than having epitomized the high aesthetics of modernism. I would argue, indeed, that this very maxim intricately anticipates the foundation of today’s ‘post-modern’ media industry, that which has the distinguishing characteristic whereby “The medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964: 7).

 

I shall begin with a condensed explanation of McLuhan’s thesis. He was then critiquing how modernity has customized our response to the ‘content’ of any medium (including literature) as our focal-point de facto to the extent of becoming ‘blind’ towards the character of that medium. Literally speaking, therefore, a twentieth-century writer (such as Conrad himself) has to deliberately engage ‘potent’ techniques such as temporal fragmentation and narrative ambiguity in order to procure the reader’s contemplation on the meaning behind the text. This, in a nutshell, is the very message per se.

 

With this, one can consequentially ask: what does Conrad want us to see from the narrations of Marlow and the other unnamed, third-person narrator in Lord Jim? It is quite obvious that any plausible answer to this would not be found in the text. To me, this endearing enigma serves to provoke a retrospective reflection on the literatures that preceded itself, with a concurrent view about the treatment of contemporary issues – be they imperialistic or otherwise.

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.

Modernist Elements in Lord Jim

What struck me in my reading of Lord Jim were the modernist elements of the novel, especially the relationship between the novel’s formlessness and the elusiveness of Truth. The novel’s formlessness emerges through narrative fragments and slippages; not only are we presented with various narrators, stories, letters and manuscripts, we are also made aware that time and space within the novel is fragmented as we are not presented with a linear, contained narrative but one that jumps back and forth in time and space. Indeed, what we have is a ‘disjointed narrative’ (88), and although one can argue that Marlow serves as the main narrator who frames majority of the narrative, he is at best piecing together different accounts of Jim from various sources, in an attempt to represent him as truthfully as possible. In Marlow’s words, ‘[Jim] existed for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you’ (172). However, because of the fragmentary nature of Marlow’s framing and his appropriation of Jim’s voice, we ultimately we never know Jim; we only know about him.

The novel’s formlessness thus accentuates the elusiveness of Truth, epitomised by the figure of Jim. As much as Marlow tries to pin him down and represent him, he escapes Marlow. In Marlow’s words – ‘I wanted to know – and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess’ (62). Jim remains ‘incomprehensible, wavering, and misty’ […] as the novel underscores his ‘capricious, [in]consolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can grasp’ (138, emphasis mine). In fact, Marlow’s description of Jim – ‘he would appear to my staring eyes distinct of form and pregnant with vague appeal like a symbolic figure in a picture’ (103, emphasis mine) – is brilliantly illustrated by Phil Hale on the cover page of the 2007 Penguin Classics Edition of Lord Jim (view image attached). Indeed through the novel’s formlessness and the novel’s search for truth, Conrad is suggesting that we, like Marlow, who searches for Jim’s ‘imperishable reality’, can only ‘approach nearer to absolute Truth, which, like Beauty itself, floats elusive, obscure, half submerged, in the silent still waters of mystery’ (166).

Lord Jim

Lord Jim

In Lord Jim, the authority of Marlow as the narrator of Jim’s story is constantly being undermined or destabilized. Rather than really controlling the judgments that readers should cast on Jim, Marlow makes it clear that even his own intimate, first-hand contact with Jim, fails to allow him to come closer to the truth of what the man really is. As he declares, “I wanted to know –and to this day I don’t know, I can only guess.” Just as Heart of Darkness, in which the framed narrative underlies how the limitations of observations and Marlow’s own omission of details may deter readers from obtaining the true account, Lord Jim also reveals such complications, and to a much larger degree. Truth is rendered so elusive that judgments become very difficult at time. Marlow is so often in doubt of his own judgments, “I don’t pretend I understood him. The views he let me have of himself were like those glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog –bits of vivid and vanishing detail…upon the whole he was misleading.”
Marlow’s encounters with other characters sometimes provide a platform for readers to assess the different viewpoints and how they may contribute to painting a ‘big picture’ for clearer understanding of Jim’s character. However, this can contribute to the moral ambiguity as well. For instance, how is Jim to be judged for his actions for the incident of Patna? The French Lieutenant earnestly admits, “Man is born a coward…” Therefore, rather than enforcing a universal standard or reading, it seems that Conrad prefers to let readers be confronted by the shortcomings of human ideals, actions and inerpretations and judge for themselves.

Failure of the Quests in the Sea Novel ‘Lord Jim’

Novels about sailors and novels set in the sea are often adventure tales. Challenges are posed to the protagonist and in overcoming them, the protagonist displays his virtues and becomes a hero. Jessica had presented the notion of The Quest in Fielding’s A Passage, but I think this theme/ motif becomes more apparent in Lord Jim than in the previous two novels we have studied. In many ways, Lord Jim departs from the traditional ‘sea novel’ and does this by complicating our idea of the quest, as well as the chronology and the narrative structure of the text. I feel that this particular ‘sea novel’ is more about the failure/ impossibility of the quest than it is about heroism/ redemption (as shown in the second part of the novel when Jim suffers a bullet in his heart and gets called ‘Tuan Jim’ by the natives).

For one, most sea adventurers like Odysseus and Robinson Crusoe return home after completing their quest and proving themselves. However, Jim keeps moving East. His tale has less fixity, and more of a nomadic quality to it. The novel begins in media res, and the first adventure of the text (the accident of Patna) gets ‘chopped up’ and ends rather abruptly in chapter 4. The nature of the adventure/challenge is itself called into question. The collision of Patna with ‘something floating awash’ (rendered ambiguous) is hardly noticeable. It generated ‘less than a sound, hardly more than a vibration’, which lends the whole event a slightly comical light.  It is only much later that we know that the passengers did not die at sea- a deliberate withholding of truth/ information on Conrad’s part that only serves to undermine the adventure even further.

The subtitle of Lord Jim is ‘A Romance’. We can definitely start another thread about how we can consider the tale ‘Romantic’. But in some ways, it is ironic that Jim only redeems himself and fulfills his romantic, heroic destiny on land. However, I would like to suggest that there is another challenge going on in the text and that is the reader’s quest to find out the identity of Jim, of who Jim really is. The need to reconcile the division/ fragmentation of the protagonist is already hinted at from the start when we read about Jim’s other name. This last, particular epistemological challenge can never be fully met by the readers for the novel ends with a question that is unanswerable: ‘Who knows?’ On that note, the Romantic figure of the dark, brooding over-reacher (someone who attempts to exceeds his own limits) is somewhat present in Marlow and the reader. The connection between Jim, Marlow and the reader is also an interesting aspect that we could look into.

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.

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.

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?