Monday, December 4, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“HEART OF DARKNESS” by Joseph Conrad (first published in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine, 1899; slightly revised when republished in book form in Youth – A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, 1902)
            The tale of my relationship with Joseph Conrad’s works is now wearisome to your eyes, as I have already alluded to it three times on this blog (see posts on Under Western Eyes, The Secret Agent and Victory). I will therefore not repeat it.
But I will say that when I first read the novella Heart of Darkness as an Honours student, nearly 45 years ago, the storm over Joseph Conrad’s supposed racism had not yet broken. Of course as students we discussed what the novella had to say about Europe and Africa and imperialism and colonialism, but we never called the work “racist”. We understood that the author, writing over seventy years before our time, sometimes used racial epithets that would no longer be acceptable. We understood that he of course depicted things from a European point of view. But as to the matter the work being “racist” – this never occurred to us.
Then, in the mid-1970s, the distinguished Nigerian author Chinua Achebe delivered a lecture (the first of many, in fact) decrying Heart of Darkness as “racist” and even calling Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. This was not, said Achebe, only because the novella denigrated Africans – though Achebe did object to the number of times the word “nigger” was used. Rather, it was because it privileged a European viewpoint and reduced Africans to (largely) mute characters in the background. Yes, said Achebe, Conrad did see colonialism and imperialism as destructive forces, but he saw them as morally destroying Europeans. What is the story, after all, but a journey to meet a white man who has (probably) gone insane and been corrupted by his imperialist role? But surely, said Achebe, this was a small thing compared with what imperialists were doing to those Africans whom Conrad did not allow to speak for themselves. 
It is now impossible for Heart of Darkness to be discussed without its “racism” being mentioned, even by those critics who defend it from the charge.
So, 45 years after first reading it, I sat down to read Heart of Darkness again last month, although this time with the specific purpose of testing how “racist” it was.
Let me therefore set aside some of those things that often arise in discusssions of this work.
I’m not discussing Conrad’s framing device and the narrative voice he chooses – sure, it’s told by Charlie Marlow whom we could see as the archtypal “unreliable narrator” if we so pleased. But as we are told that, when he tells his story, Marlow sits “in the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes” and “in the pose of a meditating Buddha” (i.e. he is meant to be seen as a teaching sage); and as his story reflects much of what Conrad experienced in the Congo in 1890; I see little point in interpreting Marlow’s viewpoint as being all that different from the author’s own viewpoint.
Nor will I set about commenting on Conrad’s lushly descriptive, allusive, evocative prose (which hostile critics see as evasive and indulging in “blur words”). By being non-specific about so much, Conrad creates an air of mystery and bafflement – this, I think, is intended to impress upon (European) readers the alienness and otherness of Africa. We are entering the “heart of darkness”. But, before I am reminded of something so obvious, I am aware that the novel’s symbolism makes the heart of darkness the (universal) human heart and the terms “dark” and “darkness” (repeated and repeated throughout the work) are applied as much to Europe and Europeans as to Africa and Africans.
Finally, I am not going to unload upon you one of my verbose plot summaries. You already know the story’s simple outline. The experienced sailor Marlow takes a position with a (presumably Belgian) company which trades in ivory and other African riches. He undertakes to captain a steamer up an African river (presumably in the Congo) to make contact with the legendary trader Kurtz, who has been incommunicado for too long. Marlow travels from a Company Station (i.e. trading post) to a Central Station to (Kurtz’s) Inner Station, allowing some critics to see this as replicating a journey to the underworld, or Hell. En route he meets and interacts with a number of (European) characters. For all Marlow’s commentary – and the very occasional interruptions of those who are supposedly listening to him - this is essentially the linear story of a journey. What I think is often overlooked is the extent to which it is a story of disillusion. Marlow expects to find adventure and the prestige of  “exploration” in his journey. Instead he finds himself working for a sordid and exploitative company. Marlow expects to captain efficiently the river steamer. Instead, somebody else has managed to wreck it in the river shallows, and it takes months for Marlow to salvage it and get it river-worthy once again. Then there is the disppointment – or at least bafflement – of finally meeting the fabled Kurtz. What I believe is the novel’s anti-climax is prepared by the voice of the young Russian who, in the novel’s third section, tells Marlow much about Kurtz before Marlow meets Kurtz.
But setting aside style, narrative voice and plot, let me draw up the balance sheet of racism.
To pick up Achebe’s point, I counted the word “nigger” being used ten times in the text, usually in a context that does not imply contempt but simply casual (European) colloquialism of the day. I noted that in the novella’s second section, it would be very easy to take great offence at the episode when Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, and is being attacked with arrows and spears from the shore. Marlow notes that some of his African crew are cannibals, one of whom suggests that they should deal with the attackers by eating them. This is the only time an African character speaks in the novella, except when the “manager’s boy” reports “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” (the line later appropriated by T.S.Eliot). Africans are usually displayed as exotica – the stately and gaudily-dressed woman at Kurtz’s station – or as savages – the dancing and whooping and shouting primitives on the river-bank – or as a source of menace – the dark or unseen eyes peering through the foliage at the passing steamer. Then there is the matter of Kurtz being worshipped by Africans as a god on “a high seat among the devils of the land” and of his presiding “at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which … were offered up to… Mr Kurtz himself.” What are these “unspeakable rites”? This is one of those moments where Conrad goes allusive and vague – but he seems to be referring to either cannibalism or human sacrifice (or both). The fact that Kurtz participates in this could suggest that his madness or degeneracy comes from his having “gone native”. This concept is reinforced then Marlow later observes Kurtz crawling on all fours and observes that “the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness” and the pounding of drums and a fire’s flames awakened in Kurtz “forgotten and brutal instincts” which “beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations”. In other words he, a European, has reverted to being a barbarous African.
Given all this, it is easy to see Achebe’s point.
Yet there is the fact that Conrad is merciless in dealing with his European characters even if, unlike the African ones, they get to speak. And (amazingly for a book written in 1899), Heart of Darkness is a novel that attacks the concept of empire-building. Very early in the story, Marlow says “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking of it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much.” Marlow is very sceptical of the European idea that imperialism was a “civilising mission”. When his aunt talks about the company Marlow is going to serve “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways”, Marlow “ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.” In other words, the “civilising mission” was the fig-leaf imperialism wore to cover its real purpose of grabbing resources and wealth. On his sea voyage to Africa, Marlow contrasts Africans paddling a canoe with a French warship. The “black fellows” had “bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there.” By contrast, the French warship is shooting desultorily into a shore settlement of Africans. “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.” The clear implication is that the Africans belong there, but the Europeans don’t (and their mission is probably futile anyway). Encountering thereafter Africans in a chain-gang (effectively having been enslaved by Europeans), Marlow speaks of his realization that he is becoming acquainted with “a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly” (i.e. the European mission in Africa). There is the encounter with a suicidal Swede. There is the fastidious clerk in his neat, pressed clothes. Both are completely incongruous in Africa. A group of Europeans who call themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition are “reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage” with “no more moral purpose… than there is in burglars breaking into a safe”.
In his real condemnations of European imperialism, there are some moments that are very ambiguous. In one sequence, Marlow refers to one of his African crewmen as an “improved specimen” who had been trained to tend a boiler by Europeans, but who as like “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap”. The clear meaning here is that it would have been better for Europeans to leave this man alone and let him lead his African life – but Achebe pounces on this description and (perhaps correctly) sees it as showing a dismissive and condescending view of Africans, as well as underestimating Africans’ understanding of new technology.
Yet Conrad frequently equates European and African. When Marlow describes an area that has been depopulated when Africans fled before European invaders, he reflects “Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon”. And on the very next page Marlow remarks on the sound of drums in the night, “a sound weird, appealing, suggestive and wild – and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.”
This brings us to one of the overarching images in the novel – the reminder, at both beginning and end, that England (and by extension all of Europe) was once one of the “dark places in the world” too. The River Thames, where Marlow tells his story, is like the River Congo. Marlow spends some pages reflecting on the Roman conquerors who once had to deal with “savages” in what is now England.  The clear implication is that Africans now are going through the same experience of imperialism that Europeans once went through, and the “heart of darkness” is the universal human condition and not a geographical place in Africa. There is a cycle in history of depraved violence, conquest and empire-making to which all human races are prone. Perhaps it is his realisation of this universal human condition that leads Kurtz to his final cry “The horror! The horror!” He himself has never been morally or intellectually superior to the Africans who worshipped him. To “Exterminate all the brutes” (as he earlier advocated) would be to exterminate himself.
In its universalism, this idea is profoundly anti-racist. Conrad’s novella undermines the moral rationale upon which, when he was writing, European imperialism was still based. He rubs this point in with the coda to the novel, in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s fiancee back in Europe, in effect telling her that Kurtz died a noble death. He gives her an illusion to cherish… like the illusions of racial superiority that provide a rationale for imperialism. It is only by such illusions that Europeans can think imperialism is a just and righteous thing.
And yet, after having argued all this, I cannot entirely negate Achebe’s argument. For Achebe would say that, even by seeing Africans as only now going through what Europeans went through thousands of years ago, Conrad is still promoting a myth of cultural superiority and therefore seeing Africans as more primitive. And there are all those demeaning depictions of Africans in the novel to deal with.
I cannot easily resolve this argument. As a work of literature, I still believe Heart of Darkness is profound, saying much about how we can be deluded, and how fragile our hold on a moral life is. I would fear that any student who was taught that Conrad is merely a “racist” would therefore be discouraged from reading his works, and would miss out on one of the most seminal of early-modernist writers. My thought here is very similar to a view John Newton expressed in Hard Frost (published in 2017), his survey of New Zealand nationalist writers in the 1930s: It is entirely too easy to reduce nationalist writing to those attitudes and assumptions that we no longer find sympathetic, and then to sheet home those values to individual authors as if this somehow exempted us from reading these writers thoughtfully.” (pp.25-26). I do not believe we are exempted from reading Heart of Darkness thoughtfully. I believe Heart of Darkness is much, much more than an exercise in xenophobia. But like all great works of literature, it requires close reading and should stimulate vigorous discussion.

Cinematic footnote: Heart of Darkness has never been filmed successfully, and the reason is obvious. So much depends on the voice of the narrator and his vocabulary. And the novella is essentially a series of encounters, leading to Marlow’s meeting with Kurtz, rather than a plot in the conventional sense. It is well-known that, hoping to make a splash when he first came to Hollywood, the 25-year-old Orson Welles planned to film Heart of Darkness and a screenplay was developed – but the project was abandoned and Welles went on to make his splash with Citizen Kane instead. It is also well-known that John Milius’ screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) took Heart of Darkness as one of its chief models. Its story, set in the Vietnam War, has Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) travelling up a river to meet – and assassinate - Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Other than the odd allusion, though, it is not Conrad. Nicholas Roeg, in 1993, made a TV movie out of Heart of Darkness, with Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovitch as Kurtz, but it has been little seen and was generally panned by critics.

Rather odd footnote: There have been many other novels that have echoed Heart of Darkness’s despairing view of Western interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, but the most recent novel to do so must be Paul Theroux’s The Lower River (first published in 2012) wherein an American in his 60s, having cut ties with family and friends, decides to travel back to Malawi, where he was happy as a young Peace Corps teacher in the 1960s (as was Paul Theroux). He fondly remembers the optimism of the remote village in which he worked, the sense of real progress in the school that he helped run, and the confident 1960s hope that Africa was developing peacefully into modern – and hopefully democratic - states. Instead, after forty years, he finds corrupt bribe-driven government, a derelict school, a population reverting to the most authoritarian tribalism, villages of abandoned and feral chidren whose parents have died of AIDS, a collapse of infrastructure and a people more dependent on handouts from Westerners than they were in the days of imperial and colonial rule. I will not go into the details of Theroux’s plot (which is a hair-raising one to say the least). But, while no subscriber to Arcadian dreams of blissful primitivism, one of Theroux’s implicit themes is that it might have been better if Westerners had never intervened in sub-Saharan Africa in the first place. Perhaps that is part of what Conrad is saying in Heart of Darkness, too.


  1. I don't myself think it possible to read 'Heart of Darkness' without bringing in the question of the ways in which the narrator differs from the author. On the simplest level, Marlow is a reasonably patriotic Briton (his character is fleshed out in various of the other Conradian novels he narrates: Lord Jim, Chance, Youth, etc.) Conrad is a Pole, with a cosmopolitan cynicism quite alien to contemporary Brits. For him imperialism means, first and foremost, the subjugation of Poland by Russia -- both his parents died in Siberian exile, after all. I've always seen Achebe's argument as simplistic in the extreme, as the notion of irony seems quite unknown to him. If a character in a story makes a racist statement, its author must be a racist - QED. Its also worth remembering that one of the few things we do know about Conrad's stay in Africa is his encounters there with Roger Casement, whose report on the appalling devastation of the Congo by the Belgian King Leopold shocked the entire world. To think that Conrad's view of the nature of colonialism is basically one of approval (as Achebe implies) is therefore fatally naive. One could as easily argue that Conrad is in favour of the 'material interests' dominating Costaguana in his masterpiece Nostromo. I think you make a strong argument against the specifics of Achebe's argument above, but whatever Conrad's personal attitudes may have been (and it's hard to know at this distance in time) there seems little doubt that the overall tenor of 'Heart of Darkness' is both anti-colonial and anti-racist. The point is made very clearly by that comparison between the darkness over the Thames and that surrounding the distant Congo at the end of the story. The bad things there have their origins here, he seems to be implying.

  2. Thanks Jack. I assure you that I have read all the novels which "Marlow" narrates (even the wonky "Chance") and I am fully aware of Conrad's Polishness etc. (See post on "Under Western Eyes") BUT you will note that it is only in his non-fiction that he speaks as his Polish self. "Marlow" is a convenient mask for him, and I see little difference between author and narrator. Apart from having read most of his work, I take my biographical views on Conrad from John Staple's "The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad" and works discussing his attitudes towards race and evolution.