The Existence of Savages and Stereotypes

After reading both Heart of Darkness and Achebe’s article, I feel that I can sympathy with the anguish that Achebe is experiencing. However, I feel that he might have misread the intentions of Conrad, as seen from Achebe’s naming of Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist”. As described in Achebe’s anecdote, he is obviously not pleased with the ‘under-recognition’ of African history and culture in America. But my main point is, how did that lead him to scrutinize and focus on deciphering Conrad’s short novel, one that was written 100 years ago?

Personally, I feel that it lies with Conrad’s strikingly vivid description of Africans or in Conrad’s words – “savages”. His almost larger than life portrayal of the Africans would reel readers (especially during Conrad’s time) in and convince them of the ‘reality’ of the description. I suppose this would probably be the stereotype that readers of Conrad’s time have in their mind. In other words, the stereotypes would be the very truth for the Western civilization, more than a hundred years ago. And I think it is this stereotype that Conrad is trying to play on, perhaps, somewhat out of control. It does illuminate the complicity of the English people – who are feeding on this stereotype and would therefore colour the imagination of those who sail to Africa in their ‘quests’, and this is illustrated by the ending quote of the novel: “The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed … into the heart of an immense darkness”.

Nonetheless, it still seems straightforward to Achebe that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans in such a negative light led to a continual impression that Africa is backward and remains outside the realm of knowledge even till his time. If not, why Heart of Darkness?

Darkness and Truth

After reading An Image of Africa, it seemed to me that in Achebe’s claim of “the fact that white racisim against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked,” I feel that he has pointed out that it is all too easy to fall into the binaristic trap of imperialism, the Whites vs. the Africans. It is true that through imperialism, the Whites strongly enforced the stereotypes of races through literature and images. Indeed, stereotypes of Africans and even the blacks have been entrenched within societies which have resulted in countless discriminations and conflicts. In Achebe’s words, they are the group in mankind who “has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past an continues to do so in many ways and many places today.” Yet, one can argue that Achebe’s criticism of Conrad is unfair. There can be no clear lines drawn for imperialism did not only happen with colonialism but it also took place with civil wars in which the natives fought among themselves. It is ironic that just as Achebe accuses Conrad of hiding the truth through his writings, Achebe is also engaging in a form of manipulation in his writing.   

I felt that Achebe’s critique is hence a good example of modernism’s notion of the ambiguous truth. There can be no doubts that racism is a pervasive issue in the novella but contrary to what Achebe says of Conrad’s “obvious racism” which has not been addressed, I feel that racism was left as “the truth” which the readers have to shape for themselves. To me, I feel that the juxtaposition of the barbaric sounds the natives make and the words, language which the Whites communicate with have broken down the binaristic barrier of imperialism. Through this juxtaposition, it leads one to question the truth which Kurtz has seen and what Marlow allows himself to see.  The darkness which pervades the novella to me then, is “the formless truth.”

The Voiceless Savage.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I was most struck by his allusion to the concept of a “voice”, a kind of tool for empowerment. To Conrad, the ability to speak and more importantly, to be understood is affirmation of one’s place and power. This is why Marlow describes his impression of Kurtz as being primarily one of “voice… of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression” (107). Kurtz is most powerful to Marlow as far as he is able (and certainly at this point in the novel merely imagined) to communicate. By contrast, Conrad reduces the native to a series of grunts, and in his article “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe makes this point most strongly: “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa.” (341) 

If the means to communicate is of such importance in according status to characters in Conrad’s novel, then by extension the inability to communicate (as portrayed in the “savages”) is ultimately demeaning to their position in relation to the Western “adventurers”. Conrad then does not merely participate in effectively silencing the native voice since only speakers of English receive any measure of merit in the plot, he is an active promulgator of such a message. The native is thus a victim of the silencing of his own voice since he is unable to communicate in a way that Conrad believes is necessary for any measure of status to be accorded to him. He will always be inferior to the Western narrator because he is excluded from being heard.