"Their Objects Were the Only Way I Could Invoke Them"
Patti takes a shot of some solitary thing (view spoiler)[a possession, a relic, a fragment(hide"Their Objects Were the Only Way I Could Invoke Them"
Patti takes a shot of some solitary thing (view spoiler)[a possession, a relic, a fragment(hide spoiler)] that is personal, intimate, private, obscure, useful, valuable relating to an artist (view spoiler)[a life mask, a bandana, a bed, a chair, a tea cup, a guitar, a typewriter, a mirror, a grave, a cane, a hat, shoes, slippers, eating utensils, paint brushes(hide spoiler)] and leaves us with an image that is precious, emblematic, iconic, reverent, sacred, talismanic (view spoiler)[a thing that captures and embodies love(hide spoiler)].["br"]>["br"]>...more
The only Achebe work I have read is the essay that resulted from the lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of DarkAn Image of Conrad
The only Achebe work I have read is the essay that resulted from the lecture, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'", which I read after reading Conrad's novel for at least the third time:
I had read extracts from the essay and was aware of its general thrust before re-reading the novel. I was looking forward to discovering a new twist on a novel that I had loved as a secondary school student. An awareness of the debate therefore infiltrated my reading and review.
Conrad's Heart of Darkness
The sub-title of the essay implies that Achebe's purpose was to analyse the racism within the novel. To the extent that he did so, his analysis is relatively selective, impressionistic and scattershot. There is little attempt to understand what Conrad was actually saying at a textual level nor to appreciate the depth of the allegory that unfolded over the course of the novella.
However, most importantly, Achebe wasn't content to analyse the subject-matter or prejudice of the novel or its characters. What took over from this exercise was the desire to launch a pseudo-academic character assassination of Conrad personally.
The Shadowy Narrator
Achebe is dismissive of the possibility that Conrad's personal views might be different from his characters:
"It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in 'Heart of Darkness' is not Conrad's but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism.
"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."
Achebe doesn't make any effort to identify or assess the alleged sense of irony or criticism. Instead, he seems to undermine the entire project on the basis of a "shadowy" narratorial device. This seems to reflect a lack of understanding of or sympathy for metafiction.
However, it relies for its power on the inference that the word "shadowy" is pejorative, just as the word "black" is supposed to be pejorative. The language of the essay dwells in the realm of gratuitous insinuation.
Ranting in the Alternative
Where I find the essay most lacking, and what effectively drags it down to the standard of an online rant, is that Achebe can't determine on what basis he wants to attack Conrad. So, he argues in the alternative.
First, he asserts that "Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist....His obvious racism has...not been addressed. And it is high time it was!"
What a clear statement of his polemical intent! Note that it is directed against the author personally, not the book or Marlow, although later Achebe opines that the novella is "an offensive and deplorable work".
If Achebe is not right in this argument, then he has an alternative argument:
"Marlow comes through to us not only as a witness of truth, but one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition which required all Englishmen of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities in Bulgaria or the Congo of King Leopold of the Belgians or wherever."
Remember that it's Marlow's racism that is being imputed to Conrad personally. Yet Achebe goes on to accuse Marlow (and implicitly Conrad) of "[tossing out] bleeding-heart sentiments".
Well, which is Marlow/Conrad? Racist or bleeding-heart liberal? Which is worse? Does it matter, if Achebe's goal was simply to pull Conrad off his pedestal and eviscerate him?
Achebe also criticises Conrad for the level of cultural superiority and condescension in the way whites relate to blacks in the novel. He argues that there is a determination not to accept blacks as equals.
The condescension derives from the Western view of the superiority of its own civilisation and culture.
However, Achebe seems to approach the issue from the perspective of whether, if Africans were integrated into Western society, they would be treated as equals. Clearly, historically, they were not, but that wasn't Conrad's fault.
Africans Want for Nothing, Westerners Promise Only Nothingness
As the novella progresses, there is an increasing sense that the Africans don't need to be civilised or "improved".
They have everything they need. They lack nothing. They would have remained content, if the West had stayed out of their world. Conrad is not judging their culture and finding it wanting.
To some extent, he adopts a form of cultural relativism. Early in the work, he comments that the Romans felt the same way about the English when they sailed up the Thames and conquered England. The sense of cultural superiority is not based in fact, but in myth.
Besides, it's clear at the end of the book that Western sophistication disguises an underlying inauthenticity and hypocrisy. The Africans were closer to themselves and the world than people in the West were. They only turned violent, understandably, when the West sailed up the Congo and brutalised them. Their violence was an act of defiance and self-defence. Western brutality was motivated by greed.
Our Heart of Darkness
Achebe's polemical intent blinds him to the real power of Conrad's work, and therefore the reason it continues to resonate in the West: we are the ones with a heart of darkness.
Ironically, Achebe's criticism has diminished the number of those readers who are prepared to read the novel and form their own opinion about just how prescient Conrad was. Achebe denied that this was his intent, but that was his effect. Now, 40 years after the original lecture, it's Achebe's own reputation that has arguably been damaged by his rant. Hopefully, it has done no long-term damage to the greater causes of anti-racism and anti-colonialism....more
The narrator of the framing story tells us early on who is present on board a yacht sitting immobile in the Thames (a river of commerce aShip of Fools
The narrator of the framing story tells us early on who is present on board a yacht sitting immobile in the Thames (a river of commerce and pleasure!): the Company Director, the Lawyer, the Accountant, Charlie Marlow, and the unnamed narrator himself.
The narrator seems to represent us, the audience. Marlow does the talking. The group could almost be the executive that runs a trading company, although what unites them is the bond of the sea:
"Besides holding our hearts together through long periods of separation, it had the effect of making us tolerant of each other’s yarns - and even convictions."
And so it is that Marlow (twice removed from Conrad, Mr. Kurtz being thrice removed) comes to tell his tale of the time he once turned fresh-water sailor for a bit.
Bent on Conquest
More used to the sea, he had to go upstream to an ivory trading post in the Congo, the Central Station, a (view spoiler)[(just one?) (hide spoiler)] heart of darkness, by sailing up a river that is "fascinating - deadly - like a snake."
Ships sailed to Africa and elsewhere once, bent on conquest:
"Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him - all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.
"There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination - you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate."
For all the romance of empire, it was heartless and brutal:
"They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force - nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind - as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness."
Perhaps they were equally blind to their own darkness?
Conquerors and Colonists
Marlow differentiates between conquerors and colonists. But he also sees his own group as different from past colonists:
"Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency."
The first adventurers and settlers were often brutal:
"Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame...bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire…the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires."
Now, more modern colonists were supposedly building businesses.
Slightly Flatter Noses
It's at this point that Marlow makes his most revealing comment, at least one that establishes a context for the rest of his story:
"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."
This is perhaps one answer to charges that Conrad (or at least Marlow) is somehow racist. He explains empire and colonialism in terms of misappropriation of the property of other races.
No Sentimental Pretence
On the other hand, Marlow suggests that it (or something) might be justifiable in some circumstances:
"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."
So, what is justifiable, and what is it exactly that might justify it?
Is he appealing to some greater authority? Is it God? Religion? Civilisation? Trade and commerce? Capitalism? Improvement?
Savages and Scoundrels
Marlow frequently refers to negroes, niggers, half-castes, savages, cannibals, and scoundrels.
What can be inferred from this? At one time, he even refers to himself as being "savage" with hunger. There's a sense in which the scarcity of food, the desperation of subsistence living makes all people, even white colonists, desperate. They could even be savage with greed.
Still, he assesses the Congolese honestly: "Fine fellows - cannibals - in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them."
Marlow recognises that they are "not inhuman". One was "an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler."
Stately and Superb
They are capable of improvement, even if they have a different sense of time, no concept of change and progress:
"They still belonged to the beginnings of time - had no inherited experience to teach them as it were."
They still did things the same way they had always done. From their point of view, there was no need to change, let alone any need for improvement.
Equally, the word "savage" isn't always pejorative (etymologically, it derives from a word for a wood or forest). Marlow says of Kurtz' mistress:
"She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress."
A savage could be magnificent, stately, noble, superb.
They didn't need to be improved in order to make deliberate progress.
They just happened to live in the untamed wilderness, in the wood, in the forest, in the jungle.
It's time we met Mr. Kurtz himself.
Like everybody else, Kurtz was in the Congo to make as much money as quickly as possible and get out: "I had immense plans." There was no unselfish belief in an idea worth bowing down before.
Only, the Congo changed him:
"...the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core…"
So, apparently, as T.S. Eliot would later acknowledge, Western Man is hollow. Yet, for a while, the darkness of Africa allowed Kurtz to rise above his nothingness:
"He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings— we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him."
He had become a Nietzschean Superman in the wilderness. Yet how was that different from madness?
"His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.
"I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself."
But Which Brutes?
For all the talk of savagery, it is the Europeans who are un-grounded, here and at home.
In his madness, Kurtz writes "Exterminate all the brutes!" and famously declares to Marlow, "The horror! The horror!"
Yet, by this time, it's arguable that he has turned around and is commenting on European Man, ostensibly Civilised Man, and the underlying brutality of his delusions, not the "savages" around him.
Bent on improving others, he has discovered he is the one most in need of improvement. But he might also have realised that it's European brutes who are most in need of extermination.
"This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up - he had judged. ‘The horror!’
"He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth - the strange commingling of desire and hate. And it is not my own extremity I remember best - a vision of greyness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things - even of this pain itself. No! It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot."
Just as Kurtz looked into the universe, he saw himself.
And so, later, inevitably, Marlow learns that "Mistah Kurtz - he dead."
Some Knowledge of Your Self
Now, for Marlow, home again, life is conformist, grey, deluded, pretentious, inauthentic and insincere.
On the Thames, finally, at the conclusion of Marlow's tale, no longer idle, the yacht seems to resume its course "into the heart of an immense darkness".
The heart of darkness is ours. Not Africa's, not the savages'. It isn't the darkness of the wilderness. It's the darkness of the self. Kurtz just happened to confront his in the wilderness, in the midst of the incomprehensible. However, the incomprehensible is just as much inside as outside.
"Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself."
"Mistah Kurtz - he dead"
"Remember us - if at all - not as lost Violent souls, but only As the hollow men The stuffed men"