Bloody Racists.

I have to admit that when I read the introduction to Wallace’s essay on the Dyaks, I was thoroughly disgusted by the sheer presumptuousness of the man. Wallace systematically and unabashedly relegates the natives to savages in his chapter on Borneo, comparing the Dyaks with Malays and Chinese, and trying to rank them in order of superiority. He enters Borneo and Java with the intention of searching for a potential new commodity that he could exploit, and repeatedly quantifies nature.

I don’t know why I’m so indignant, this is not something we haven’t seen before. Wallace is the quintessential colonist with a typical imperialist mindset.

Wallace has absolutely no idea that he is being derogatory, and here I am reminded of Edward Said and his statement that all western texts are inherently racist. Certainly, to the Victorian civilian in England, Wallace may seem to be providing an impartial account of his experiences in Borneo and Java. I can see that Wallace did not write this text with the intent of belittling the natives,  but I do feel that no matter how hard the colonizers strive to appear objective (as Wallace is so nobly trying to achieve in “The Malay Archipelago”), by the mere virtue of their race and the time period in which these writers lived, the zeitgeist inadvertently trickles down to their writing and reveals their latent imperial mindsets.

In all fairness, I may also be guilty of occidentalism, where we automatically single out the western in the text and vilify them. By pointing my finger at them, there are also three more fingers pointing back at myself. Perhaps, as a former colony, we are particularly sensitive to the portrayal our own, and have become trained to read colonialism into all the texts that we study, be it overtly racist or not.

The Legitimacy of Language

Conrad, as a modern writer, explores the role of language through Lord Jim as he had done in Heart of Darkness.  His focus, like most modern writers, is on the ability of language to evade and alter the truth in the process of its disclosure.  Conrad’s emphasis on the constant quest for meaning, and elusiveness of ultimate truth are inherently modernist concerns, despite the geopolitics of Lord Jim and its reactionary anti-imperialist undertones.  Marlow’s narrative is couched in ambiguity.  The language of facts and the domain of the artistic narrative intersect as their boundaries are permeable by the inherently deceptive nature of both: “There shall be no message, unless such as each of us can interpret for himself from the language of facts, that are so often more enigmatic than the craftiest arrangement of words” (Lord Jim, 256).

For Conrad, the structure of language implicitly validates the social order, which demarcates the limitations of creative thought by playing with the framing and documenting of memory and perception.  Language, when viewed as a means of documentation, is an act intended to be objective but one that cannot help but be subjective, owing to its deeply flawed structure .  The language of facts is something that is completely arbitrary as we see when reading Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a legitimate scientific article based on the theories of (and dedicated to) Charles Darwin.  Truth and accepted reality become the one and the same under this line of thought, which is one of the unfortunate by-products of using language as a means of documenting experience.

In Lord Jim, this is dramatized in Marlow’s growing belief that the idea of social cohesion is an illusion and that communal solidarity is not indomitable–and  is, as all things believed to be stable, vulnerable to the individual.

Women (what women?) in _Lord Jim_.

One of the things that struck me in reading Lord Jim was the absence of women in the text. With the exception of Jewel, there are no significant women mentioned at all. Following the adventure narrative, which has traditionally privileged the male explorer anyway, this is not surprising I suppose. That being said, I’m interested in looking at Jewel. I think she is symbolic of Jim’s potential for acceptance in spite of what he has done, and yet the flipside of that symbolism is that in her importance to him and his to her, his abandonment of her represents his greatest failure. It’s almost as if his earlier abandonments following the jump off the Patna, are forgivable, or if not, at least understandable, but this abandonment is as damnable as his jump.

When he keeps quitting his jobs the moment the Patna incident is mentioned, we understand he is afraid and in some way even though it’s irresponsible, we can find some reason to excuse his fears or weakness. But when he abandons Jewel, it’s as if events have come a full circle and he is repeating events from the ship. The parallels are interesting – the passengers onboard are dependent on him for their lives, for safe passage. Likewise, Jewel now defines herself, and is protected, by Jim. When he abandons her by going before Doramin, he is doing almost the same thing, except possibly even worse given that he, in his “responsibility” for Dain Waris’s death, does this intentionally, knowing the consequences of his action, knowing he is devastating her.

The woman in the text, as represented by Jewel, is most pathetic because she is at his mercy, she could beg him to stay but he won’t. The man is empowered, even if his use of that power is arguably self-centred. It would be interesting to develop the gender argument further, although given the limits now I can’t.

Guilt and the production of discourse

In Lord Jim, the character Jim seems unable to admit that he made a decision to jump at the very last minute and does not take responsibility for his actions despite appearing to confess his crime to the narrator by telling his supposedly true version of the events.  Each time he appears to admit to his mistake, he actually subtly tries to downplay the responsibility which he must take for his actions by qualifying it saying ” I had jumped… It seems,” ‘I knew nothing about it till I looked up”.  And with each reference to his guilt, it shifts subtly further and further away from his fault to the fault of others as he goes on to say he was “driven to do a thing like that” and later starts to blame others for the “abhorrent opportunity”, even going as far as to accuse them saying “It was their doing as plainly as if they had reached up with a boat hook and pulled (him) over.” 

This is may be juxtaposed with his insisting that he is different from the men who have planned to jump ship from the very onset and ” there was nothing in common between him and these men.” Unlike those men who “made up” a story that “was not a lie” but “wasn’t truth all the same,” he tells the truth of events and attempts to confess to the narrator in the hope of some form of absolution.  However we soon see that with each supposed honest admission of jumping, he goes further and further away from the truth, which shows him to be making up stories about himself like the other men.

It is interesting to see that the narrator initially appears to align himself with Jim by repeatedly mentioning that he is “one of us” while telling another person’s story. Much talk is generated by this event and everyone seemed to be unable to stop talking about it. It seems strange that the narrator feels the need to talk to others about this event and try and gather information about the event to piece it together when he isn’t the main character and there is no apparent relationship between him and Jim. Perhaps, I would suggest that the narrator is somewhat like the ancient mariner who feels compelled to tell a story due to guilt and Jim’s story is very much his as well because what happened was significant enough ” to affect mankind’s conception of itself”.

Thus, just like Jim, the narrator is compelled to tell the story in a way which tries to distance himself from the events by a form of sublimation- making it into yet another form of discourse. However, when he tells the story, what he actually reveals, like Jim,  by the way in which he shapes his version of the events is his guilt and complicity in the unspeakable crime.  It is significant that Jim never actually manages to articulate the exact moment of his transgression thus his confession, like the narrator’s exists in the gap between discourse and the truth.

“A Bloody Racist”?

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.

The horror!

Heart of Darkness is like a travelogue gone mad, like the Discovery: Travel and Living channel meeting Chucky. I’m not entirely sure it’s racist, nor if it’s pro-colonial, but one thing I am sure of is that halfway through reading it I forgot about what makes it a part of modernist fiction. I think I’ve actually forgotten what Modernist literature is as well, muddled as I am with thoughts of colonialism from the previous book. Surely colonialism and racism do not make a modernist novel, nor do techniques like stream-of- consciousness. The one thing however I would say for sure that makes the story “modernist” is its depiction of a crisis of morality through a hostile environment where just about anything goes. Such a crisis perhaps trumps all the other three; it doesn’t matter what we know, how we see or who we think we are if all humanity has is a heart of darkness.