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?