Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

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.



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.

Doubly removed from natives

In both ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘Lord Jim’, Conrad employs the framed narrative to describe the colonists’ experience in the colony. The character, Marlow reappears in ‘Lord Jim’ and this time he describes Lord Jim, much like how he describes Kurtz in ‘Heart of Darkness.

Many studies are concerned with Conrad’s use of framed narrative and how it creates a sense of distance between the author and Marlow; between the reader and Marlow and also Kurtz. The reader’s perspective of Marlow is always limited by the narrator. And his perspective of Kurtz is further limited by Marlow’s narration.

What is often not emphasized is that the reader’s perspective on the natives is always limited by the narrator’s, Marlow’s and possibly even Kurtz’s perspective. In Conrad’s novel, the emphasis is often on the white man’s experience (perspective) of the native and never on the natives themselves. Achebe’s reading of Conrad seems to fit in here (that Conrad is a thorough racist). While we can never be sure if Conrad’s description of natives are part of his modernist tendencies, but what is quite clear is that Conrad does not seem very interested in the natives. In his evaluation, the experience of the white man is put above the experience of the natives. To me, this is a subtle yet powerful form of racism.


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.

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.

Note-taking for Heart Of Darkness (Part I lecture five)

As discussed, the central problems posited by the group’s presentation may be broached upon through several questions: Why truth? How is modernism’s representation of truth relevant to our understanding of Empire and colonial imperialism and why is it important? How may language and in that sense, modernist techniques, obscure and bring us further and further away from Truth? Also, is there really an all-encompassing Truth reflecting reality – the essential reductive quality of Kurtz’s famous epiphanic vision, or are there simply many various versions of truth co-existing in a plethora?

Firstly, the examination of “Truth” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  is important because it helps us determine the extent to which the text may be deemed as critical to the workings and exploitations of colonialism if we accept Marlow’s judgments at surface value. Yet the deeper underpinnings of the text may be read by its “failure of representation and communication” – whether thematically, structurally or in terms of narration – and how the modernist concept of “Truth” evades and eludes us. The inability of Marlow to approach such moments of truth and admit to it, highlights the undercurrents of the novel, where far from merely criticizing the greed and ills of imperialism, actually unveils the way in which the text is complicit in and subconsciously reinforcing the ideological powers of Empire.

One prominent example raised by the group is the way in which the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise not only differ in their altruistic ideas and actual practice, but also the insidious exclusivity of colonial imperialism, which seeks to demarcate between the white colonists who have the access to “truth”, against the ignorance of the wider public who are left to propagate the myth of Empire and harbor romantic delusions about civilizing the barbaric outside world. There is also a gendered aspect to this reading in the spatial and ideological demarcation within the text.

The issue remains that language cannot fully encapsulate the horrors of what Conrad is trying to convey, for while it is the modernist impulse to uncover the Truth, it paradoxically reveals how we can never actually get to it. Every reading and secondary interpretation have a way of defining the little truths about the text, but every determining statement for language necessarily eliminates other possibilities and as such, Truth remains mysteriously elusive, much like the dense fog which literally and metaphorically obscures Marlow’s vision in the novel. One question remains unanswered, that if modernism veers away from the Truth and contends itself with the plethora of perspectives, is it finally unable to adequately address the wrongdoings and guilt of colonialism? Finally, the point is raised that while the novel may be read as a critique against imperialism and Empire, there is also a competing narrative to the story in the personification of Africa (effeminate, wildly sexual but also untameable), which does not fully spell out the secrets the land promises within the engulfing darkness of the novel.

“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.

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 Eternal Flame

As I was reading Heart of Darkness I noticed that the motif of the flame, light and darkness appeared several times. To Marlow, “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (48). The figure of the harlequin seems conspicuously out of place in the dark narrative of Heart of Darkness. Marlow talks about envying his possession of “this modest and clear flame” (119), the harlequin’s single-minded devotion to Kurtz and to what he knew as right or wrong.

I would like to put forward the notion that this glow represents our attempt to explain, interpret and share all that we know. When you light a candle, the flame can only illuminate a small portion of darkness.  It is the glow of the flame that casts light on the things around us. The flame is the medium through which the Truth is represented and conveyed to the masses. In the case of Heart of Darkness, this would be Marlow’s storytelling. In the center of the flame, there exists a black dot that we cannot access without getting scathed by the flame itself. This black dot represents the Truth, which is eternally inaccessible and unknown to us. Therefore the quest for Truth in Heart of Darkness can be represented by the motif of the candle and the flame- the eternal flame.

‘Positions’ of reading

Reading the Achebe reading, I couldn’t help but feel that he was taking a lot of Conrad’s racism too personally. Then, in the course of reading up for my presentation, I came across a reading by Nina Pelikan Straus, “The Exclusion of the Intended from Secret Sharing in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness””. Straus talks about how women have been excluded both in and out of the text—how the women in the text are silenced and ‘protected’ from the ‘truth’.

One of the most interesting question Straus asks is whether the female reader can really ‘rely’ on her reading of the text, or if she would be stuck at questioning her responses to it as being coloured by the ‘trauma’ of male suppression in and out of the text.

For me, what was significant about reading these two readings in relation to each other was the fact that Straus seems much more self-aware about a reader’s ‘baggage’ in reading any text. Although I’m personally more pro-colonised, and less pro-feminist, I really felt that the Straus article gave me more insight into the text, and my position as a reader, than the Achebe reading. Although it seems like a self-evident point that every reader comes with his/her own baggage, what the Straus reading highlighted to me was that this shouldn’t just a fact to be taken for granted, but one to be questioned and considered as well. What kind of position am I as a reader taking, and how was that position shaped? Should I try to read from another position, or is it pointless to try, because even that is in itself shaped by other, more dominant trends?

From Euro-centric to Afro-centric

While reading An Image of Africa, I was persuaded to take Achebe’s stand against Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as I felt that his anger was reasonably justified against Conrad’s supposed racism.

Achebe’s problem with the novella arises from the way in which language was appropriated by Conrad in his depiction of Africa and Africans and the insidious quality of Conrad’s narrative in reinforcing hierarchies of power that is based on racial lines. The article reminded me of the Gikandi article where Picasso denied the African artist any intellectual capacity by viewing him as an object for his art. Racism on Picasso’s part is not overt, but insidious as it dehumanises the African and this likewise seen in Conrad’s inferior depiction of the Africans.

Achebe opposes the use of binary oppositions in the depiction of Africa and Europe in the novella: “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation” (Achebe, 338). However, I feel that the comparison of the Thames and the Congo is not reflective of Conrad’s worry about the “lurking hint of kinship” (Achebe, 338) or the desire to view Africa in opposition to the English. Instead, Marlow’s fixation on rivers as water routes for the civilisation project provides a parallel between the arrival of the Romans on the Thames and the civilisation of the British, with the British moving to Africa with the same mission. This conflation of the two worlds highlights the recognition of the self in the ‘other’ as an attempt to reappropriate the ‘other’.

The postcolonial reading of Heart of Darkness is an attempt to rethink fiction and critique colonial ideologies yet Achebe was perhaps too extreme in his critique of the text. While he was justified in his anger towards racism in Conrad’s novella due to the dehumanisation of Africans, he is similarly using “emotive words” (Achebe, 338) to persuade readers to join him in discrediting the inclusion of Heart of Darkness in the literary canon.

Self and Other in Heart of Darkness

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.

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).

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?

canonicity and other thoughts

I really enjoyed reading the Chinua Achebe’s article this week as he really articulated his beliefs with so much conviction that I find myself being persuaded to adopt his view. Admittedly, Achebe seems rather passionate to the point of being offensive, calling Conrad out for being a flat-out racist (343) as well as one who is xenophobic (347), viewing Africa through jaundiced eyes. But I do think he got our attention and made us realize and acknowledge the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that psychoanalysts and critics fail to comment on this. Instead, Conrad’s texts are still widely distributed and widely read around the world. This definitely raised a flag in my head about canon making and how canonicity is built around male, Eurocentric texts. This erases the voices of many subalterns: women, racial and ethnic minorities, queer studies etc and deny them a place in literary history. I think in many ways, this Eurocentric canonization of texts reinforces the idea that British literature is the standard and ‘new’ literatures like those from Africa are ‘lesser’ works. Like the Gikandi reading, it calls attention to this pressing need to review historical scholarship and readjust our definitions of what “the greatest novel” should be. I think it is heartening to know that postcolonial studies is coming to the fore and giving a voice to the subalterns, telling about the colonization experience from a colonized perspective, something that is lacking in Heart of Darkness.

I think Achebe is perfectly reasonable in wanting the West to “rid its mind of old prejudices and begin to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications” (348). He wants Africa not to be seen as a political, economic entity, not as beasts, not as an antithesis to England but as people. He wants them to have a Prospero moment, to acknowledge, “That thing of darkness I consider mine” and to accept that their “humanity is…like yours…Ugly.” Achebe I think is trying to show how we are not all that dissimilar and as fellow human beings, they have a right to be treated with respect. That isn’t too much to ask.