Conrad the Bloody Racist: A cultural criticism of Heart of Darkness
Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede is a poet and MA student of literature at the Hannover University in Germany. He has had poems featured in Voices From The Fringe, Junge Nigerianische Lyrik, The Fate of Vultures (BBC Prize winning poems) and a host of journals, newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Collected Poems: A Writer's Pains & Caribbean Blues. Ede won in 1998 the All Africa Okigbo Prize for Literature. He is a founding member of the German chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors.View all articles by Amatoritsero (Godwin) Ede
- A Postcolonial Critical History of Heart of Darkness
- Reasons for Disagreements
- My Contribution
- A Note on Conrad's Personal History
- A Note on Style and Imagery
A Postcolonial Critical History of HD
Due to the controversy generated by postcolonial discourse, and the resultant wealth of material on Heart of Darkness it is necessary to narrow down the topic as much as possible, nevertheless that same controversy demands an overview in other to represent the plurality of critical voices, within which mould I shall situate my point and finally examine the question of the author's racism or lack of it.
The critical postcolonial approach to Heart of Darkness as a racist text was first pointed out by the Nigerian Writer, Chinua Achebe in a lecture at the university of Massachusetts in 1975. According to Achebe, "...Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as 'the other world', the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation " (2). He began with a passing comment on the average westerner's stereotyping of African culture and the informed ignorance of the supposedly enlightened, making an example of the British professor of History, Hugh Trevor-roper, who insisted that Africa had no history and took a swipe at the careful binary pairings in Heart of Darkness. The setting of the primordial Congo basin against a tranquil Thames river - the former supposedly bad and the latter good, the evoked African atmosphere of myth and mystery - and thus of the ritualistic and evil, against an enlightened Christian Europe, the 'antithetical' choice of diction and sentences, [...] "steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic [...], one about silence and the other about frenzy [...] " (3); he quoted from pages 103 and 105 of the American Library edition of Heart of Darkness to prove his point thus: "It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention" [and] "The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy"
Achebe maintained that the "most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are about people" (3), that is, about characterisation. Although the passage he quoted about Marlow's account of the journey down the Congo river is not explicit on characterisation - which is exactly the point!, I would like to reproduce it in full to examine his implications:
- We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us welcoming us - who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign - and no memories.
- The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces, but what trilled you was the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you - you so remote from the night of first ages - could comprehend (52).
It is easy to see characterisation in none characterisation in this passage; that is the implicit nature of the kind of characterisation that is carried out here. The African characters are present as a kind of absence. They do not think, speak, do not behave like normal human beings but nevertheless have the physical features of the species - and that is "the fascination it (Heart of Darkness) holds over the European mind" (4) that is what troubles Conrad according to Achebe, that is the thrill - this 'ugly' kinship to the human being (there are also passages where Conrad compares them to apes - a popular past-time of imperial Victorian Europe), which is the "horror, the horror" for his early European readers, for whom he confirmed and consolidated the wildest fantasies and myths about Africans. He could be certain of non-contradiction therefore from those readers. And this was why, according to Achebe, the racist nature of the novel was never questioned until he drew attention to it. Further more, if the above passage were to be deconstructed, if we were to 'wayward' the text, it breaks down into subtle binary oppositions and could read something like this: 'we were [modern] wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet [as opposed to our civilised world] [...] As we round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs [as opposed to our sophisticated Victorian architecture]' et cetera (52). There are also those echoes of meaning which negates the humanity of the Africans in the passage. The Africans were the 'first men' - something baser than human, primordial; a sort of extinct human dinosaur, without a cultural space of their own, re-discovered, categorised and put in their place for their own good; a gelatinous mass of monstrous and senseless limbs, contorted bodies and rolling eyes living partly on trees ( in the foliage) and partly in crude lean-tos, which it was fair game to take port-shots at by the colonising imperial power in order to instil a random discipline of hot lead when necessary.
And dragging out the intestines of an earlier stylistic critic of Heart of Darkness by F. R. Leavis to the effect that Conrad was woolly and depended on an "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery" (3), he declared : "When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery, much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity" (3). According to him this deliberate stylistic obfuscation merely aided to satisfy the racial sentiments of the day, and Conrad was only acting as the "purveyor of comforting myths" (3). And in pursuing this myths, the African became faceless, insignificant. Whenever they were given any kind of presence it was only as foils for another European character; i.e. the African woman, who was the savage, inarticulate Other for the Intended. Or if for example they were allowed speech at all it was "a violent babble of uncouth sounds" (6). Conrad could have achieved more verisimilitude for example if he admitted an existence of a form of indigenous linguistic competence among the Africans. Among themselves they also had no means of communication outside of crude grunts. On the matter of speech it is significant that a smattering of English syllables were put into the mouths of one or two savage Congolese. It is in conforming to the hegemonic attitude of the coloniser that he replaced indigenous culture with his own, which he deemed superior. And it is this assumption of a superior humanity which made Achebe finally deem Conrad "a thorough-going racist" (8).
There are those arguments which considers that Conrad is merely ridiculing the 'civilising' mission in Africa, and was concerned with the deterioration of European values in contact with that continent, which is merely a setting for his story, that he is far more less charitable to his European characters (like Kurtz) than to the Africans, towards whom he was sympathetic or that Marlow's opinion, as a fictional character, should not be confused with Conrad's, who was anti-imperialist. Nevertheless it is note-worthy that he took great pains to distance himself from and "set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story" [through the framework] of a "narrator behind the narrator" (7). If Africa is merely a setting then Conrad neutralises Africa as a cultural human factor. That continent becomes a "metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity" (8). For Achebe "the real question is the dehumanisation of Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world" (8). The apparent sympathy in the following passage simply represents that 'bleeding-heart sentiment' reminiscent of "the kind of liberalism espoused by [the] Marlow/Conrad [masquerade] [and which] touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America" (7).
- They were all dying slowly - it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now - nothing but black shadows of diseases and starvation, lying confusedly in greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings fed on unfamiliar food they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest (7).
In his critic of Heart of Darkness Patrick Brantlinger compares Achebe's views with those of several critics, who did not agree that Conrad was racist because he was critical of imperialism. An example was Cedric Watts, who insisted that Conrad instead of being a purveyor of racial myths rather "most deliberately and incisively debunks such myths " (277). Brantlinger then went on to quote from Watts:
- Achebe notes with indignation that Conrad (in the "Author's note to Victory ) speaks of an encounter with a "buck nigger" in Haiti which gave him the impression of mindless violence. Achebe might as well have noted the reference in The Nigger of the "Narcissus" ... to a tormented and flattened face - a face pathetic and brutal : the tragic, the mysterious the repulsive mask of a nigger's soul. ( 278).
The image of the black man drawn here, especially if it refers to personal comments from Conrad is suggestive enough of his racist bias, whether it was conscious or not is another matter. Juxtaposed against Conrad's words in Personal Records, describing his first encounter with an English man at the age of sixteen his personal psychology in such matters is made very clear :
- His calves exposed to the public gaze...dazzled the beholder by the splendour of their marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory... The light of a headlong, exalted satisfaction with the world of men ...illumined his face...and triumphant eyes. In passing he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big, sound, shiny teeth ...His white calves twinkled sturdily (9).
Should it then be surprising that in all his novels dealing with black people he never had any redeeming word for these characters. It is instructive that Conrad's letters also carry casual anti-Semitic tones. Perhaps a short biography of Conrad himself might be necessary here but we shall come to that soon enough. According to Bratlinger Conrad was not so much against imperialism out of any sheer moral convictions against it as out of a quarrel with the "lying propaganda used to cover its bloody tracks" (281). Conrad was more against the high-handed Belgian form of colonialism as practised by King Leopold and Heart of Darkness is a about what he saw in Leopold's Congo of 1890, not a general outcry against imperialism in other parts of the World. It is noteworthy that Marlow approves of British imperialism while condemning that variation practised by Belgium and other European conquerors. According to Bratlinger after such a critical passage as "The conquest of the earth [....] the taking of it away from those [...] with slightly flatter noses than ourselves is not a pretty thing." Marlow retirates " one knows that some real work is done in there" i.e. in the British colonies (278). Or referring also to the differences in British 'efficiency' and Belgian 'sloppiness' Marlow declares : "They were conquerors, and for that what you want is only brute force- nothing to boast of [...] They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got [...] Just robbery with violence, aggravated murder [...], and men going at it blind " (10 ).
As for what Conrad saw during his short six months in Congo, it was so little that he had to depend on the "revelations of atrocities that began to appear in the British press as early as 1888" (279 ). Thus his lurid painting of cannibalism in the Heart of Darkness drew heavily on reports of the war between Arab slave traders and Belgians for the control of the Congo, where both sides played on Muslim superstitious fear (of their Congolese troupes) of not attaining paradise if they died mutilated. Thus cannibalism, or the chopping off hands became on both sides a weapon to extract co-operation from them. The characters of Kurtz and Marlow were based on several accounts of men who reported what they went through or from newspaper clippings. For example Bratlinger ,quoting Ian Watt , remarked that The Times reported of a certain Hodister and his companions that "their heads were stuck on poles and their bodies eaten" (282 ). Thus Conrad never personally encountered cannibalism. He was merely playing up to a gallery of pre-conceived ideas about Africans. And although he does show up Kurtz as being evil, it is an evil that was contacted because kurtz "went native" which, for Bratlinger, is as much as saying that "evil is African in Conrad's story"(285 ). Finally he affirms:
- Conrad's stress on cannibalism, his identification of African customs with violence, lust, and madness, his metaphors of bestiality death, and darkness, his suggestion that travelling in Africa is like travelling backward in time to primeval, infantile but also hellish stages of existence - these features of the story are drawn from the repertoire of Victorian imperialism and racism that painted an entire continent dark.(285)
He finally agreed with Achebe that Conrad was a racist.
Hunt Hawkins in The issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness refers to the Indian critic Frances B. Singh, who maintained that the story "carries suggestions that the evil which the title refers to is to be associated with Africans, their customs, and their rites [and] "as long as he associates the life of depravity with the life of blacks then he can hardly be called anti-colonial ." (163). Hawkins defends Conrad even while admitting that the accusation of racism should not be dismissed out of hand. He agreed that the limitations of Heart of Darkness as a picture of African colonisation can be readily measured against Achebe's Things fall Apart, which is about the British take-over of an Ibo village at the end of the 19th century. Naturally, in that African novel one would expect a much more balanced character development. We should note that Hawkins agreed Conrad had very little experience of Africa as a continent. He spent less than six months in the Congo acco rding to Hawkins and only in the company of white men. If Conrad had such little contact to Africa, where did he get the wealth of information on the practices, habits and behaviour of Africans, which forms the setting of the story? Definitely from the hegemonic myths used by Empire to legitimise its political ideology of subjugation and rule. This worked itself out lexically in the text as a binary pairing and in the reducing of other cultures to myths and anthropology. Although, he maintained , Conrad's attitude was complex it was nevertheless critical of racism and sympathetic to non-European peoples. The word sympathetic itself is condescending. There is the insinuation that 'non-European peoples' should be grateful that they were allowed to breath at all. His arguments is that Heart of Darkness makes negative statements about Africans; for example he refers to them as "niggers", "savages" "pre-historic man", "rudimentary souls" but also "praises" them for their "energy, vitality, natural dignity" (163). But in what context? They are praised for their energy, vitality and natural dignity when they appear as a tool towards Malow's ends in, for example, steering the steamboat or defending it against attack. And the only African (a woman) who is a little "visible" is only the noble savage - an inferior Other for the civilised Intended.
In his objective article Robert Burden gives a detailed reception history of Heart of Darkness. The novella is supposed to have derived from the Author's personal experiences in the Congo, particularly as a witness of Belgian brutality there. As we have seen before Conrad's stay in Africa was rather too brief for him to form any meaningful character judgement of the African. This is why he had to depend on myth and prejudiced opinion in his characterisation in the fear of losing verisimilitude, which he nevertheless does not achieve. The auto-biographical dimension of Heart of Darkness has not been seriously discussed, while its parodying of the European 'scramble for Africa' and its recourse to anthropology in such terms as 'savage' and 'primitive' has necessitated a reading against a transparent historical background, which reading would likely lead to the problematic of imperialism in the early part of the novel and then to the psychological twist in the later sections where power abuse is directly linked to the collapse of civilised values symbolised in the discovery of Kurtz. Burden also argues - quoting several other sources - that the novel should not be seen as necessarily transparent to its historical background but that it should be a many-layered metaphorical continuum. But considering the monumental historical phenomenon of the nineteenth century and since a culture can be readily mapped in its informing historical processes there is no other way of looking at this particular text except against the culture in which it unfolded. A book is ultimately a cultural product.
The proposition that Heart of Darkness is not necessarily racist since Joseph Conrad - through the character of Marlow - is more ironic and criticises imperialism is what R.G Hampson in Conrad and the Idea of Empire, quoting Joyce critics, described as a "reader trap" (9). At the beginning of his 'yarn' Marlow declares - I would like to reproduce it in full for purposes of analysis although it has been hinted at before:
- The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to (9).