I’ve avoided really writing about Conrad so many times because I find it difficult, and I’ve been avoiding it again for several weeks now. But I’m just going to have to dive into it, since anyone who’s been watching my sidebar or my tweets knows I’m making my way through too many of his works to ignore right now.
And I’m going to have to start, it looks like, with that most ticklish of works, Heart of Darkness. I was inspired to re-read the novella in the exact same way I was inspired to re-read The Good Soldier just days earlier. In the case of the latter, I had read a blog post on the novel complaining of how horrid, conceited, and arrogant Ford was, evidenced by how horrid, conceited, and arrogant Dowell was, by a reader who, to boot, thought Dowell was actually making up all the business about Florence not being a heart patient. Someone is wrong on the internet! In the case of the former, I had been talking in person with someone who had picked Conrad up again after a long separation, and was enjoying it “in spite of his casual racism.” Ah, that! So I decided to do a bit of questing, knowing especially that these two authors must not be confused with their narrators. (Don’t you just hate Nabokov for being an ephebophile? No, don’t tell me—I know people really do.)
I had remembered the novella, based on my first reading, as rather anti-colonialist, and found it even more so this time. I think there are superficial qualities of the novella that can appear racist, in addition to the fact that you could call basically anything pre-Civil Rights movement “racist”: Some Europeans find mystery and destruction in the dark, inscrutable wilds around the Congo River, as the natives, “savages,” look on and whirl their black limbs in dance. Africa is the metaphor for the “heart of darkness” in all of us, and so forth. To choose metaphors of this nature is now widely considered inappropriate, or at best, highly questionable. But overall, Heart of Darkness is not really about Africa.
Achebe roundly rejects this defense of the novella in his essay, based on a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”:
Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.
Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?
Anything can be “merely a setting.” A personal distate for the necessary reduction—and it is a reduction—that must take place for anything to be used as a prop or setting may well be enough to make a reader hate a novel, and the response may be quite appropriate—“this is too important to me for me to countenance it treated as a side issue.” But Achebe can’t decide what Conrad’s book was about, or should have been about, and it’s really just not about Africans. Further, the idea that Africa and its people have been thus reduced “for the break-up of one petty European mind” belies, I believe, a misreading of Kurtz (more on that tomorrow).
Achebe also rejects the notion that he is misreading Conrad entirely by attributing explicitly to Conrad everything that must in fact be attributed to Marlow:
Certainly Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator. The primary narrator is Marlow but his account is given to us through the filter of a second, shadowy person. But if Conrad’s intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary. Marlow seems to me to enjoy Conrad’s complete confidence—a feeling reinforced by the close similarities between their two careers.
I would agree that Marlow does “enjoy Conrad’s…confidence” to a large degree, certainly to a larger degree than, say, Dowell does Ford’s. But there is a difference between the cordon sanitaire and the use of Marlow as the much-needed perceiver for Conrad’s project in literary impressionism. I believe several of Achebe’s other complaints are really against this whole mode of storytelling, as opposed to more traditional methods of realism that don’t rely on a medium like Marlow, howevermuch like Conrad himself he may be. For example:
In the final consideration [Conrad's] method amounts to no more than a steady, ponderous, fake-ritualistic repetition of two antithetical sentences, one about silence and the other about frenzy. We can inspect samples of this on pages 36 and 37 of the present edition: a) it was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention and b) The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. Of course there is a judicious change of adjective from time to time, so that instead of inscrutable, for example, you might have unspeakable, even plain mysterious, etc., etc.
The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic 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. Generally normal readers are well armed to detect and resist such under-hand activity. But Conrad chose his subject well—one which was guaranteed not to put him in conflict with the psychological predisposition of his readers or raise the need for him to contend with their resistance. He chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths.
Basically, Conrad’s whole chosen mode of narration here is characterized as an “under-hand” method useful only for “purvey[ing]…comforting myths.” Whereas of course he and Ford would argue that this is simply the most realistic way to tell a story, that the repetition of these adjectives is not a stylistic flaw but key to the intended progression d’effet. This is “trickery” in the very way that writing a novel is trickery. Similarly, the question of when and how the black characters in the novella are given language versus only grunts depends on Marlow’s perceptions. Conrad engineers all this, but can Marlow be expected to understand what is actually going on among the natives? There is simply no omniscient third-person narrator to make the story “even.”
Then again, readings like Achebe’s show a major weakness in exactly the kind of impressionism that Conrad and Ford were working to develop. As I noted last week, Arthur Mizener explains the issue in “Ford, Dowell, and the Sex Instinct”: “[w]e can know how to take a dramatized narrator only if we share the author’s values. The author cannot tell the reader what these are; each reader must guess; and what each reader usually guesses is that the author has the same values he has.” Certainly Achebe doesn’t assume Conrad shares his same values, and he probably doesn’t. But the method can leave such a reader floating with difficulty through the dramatized narrator’s story. There are so many gaps between what the text actually says and what Marlow is getting across to his listeners, and these can only be filled in by the sympathetic reader.
Here, for example, I think Achebe misunderstands Marlow on some level—whom he calls, insistently, Conrad:
Having shown us Africa in the mass, Conrad then zeros in, half a page later, on a specific example, giving us one of his rare descriptions of an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes:
And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing 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. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity—and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.
As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad things being in their place is of the utmost importance.
Achebe hits on something with this “being in their place” idea, but not, I think, what he actually claims. The problem with this fireman is that he is not in his place because he has been meddled with by idiot colonials, who don’t know what they are doing, who are hopelessly incompetent, who are engaged in an immoral and vastly wasteful project, and who have harmed this man and his innate dignity by turning him into this parody of a European. In turn, the reason it matters that the black cannibals rowing their own canoes under their own power are “in their place” is that their place is theirs by rights, and for them to be out of it means someone has taken them out of it, taken their native human dignity, and made a mockery of it in the service of a ridiculous idea of “improving” them. The irony fairly oozes out of that passage from Marlow and it’s certainly not because the fireman is, shall we say, “uppity.”
One final quote from Achebe for today:
For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God.
Is Heart of Darkness a reassurance for Europe, or a warning? Not the warning Achebe gives here, though, but the warning that the skin of civilization is paper-thin and getting thinner just as it tries to “advance.” This brings me to a good stopping point before tomorrow’s post, which will address Kurtz. Though there is relatively little in Achebe’s essay about Kurtz, I believe he misreads him, and I suspect many contemporary readers do as well—at least, according to me.