In 1975 Chinua Achebe delivered a public lecture at the University of Massachusetts entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” where he condemned Conrad’s novella as a Western literary masterpiece on the grounds of its supposed racism.
The objections Achebe made to support his accusation, and therefore to demonstrate Conrad COULD NOT have written a great work of art, ranged from his too frequent and demeaning use of the term “nigger”, to “reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind”, namely Kurtz’s, including in between the way Conrad described the Africans as a dehumanised bunch of “limbs or rolling eyes” and practically denied them the use of language. Moreover, any human link to the natives was considered disgusting, as when Marlow described the look of the dying helmsman as of “an intimate profundity… like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment”. Achebe interpreted it as “The black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, ‘the thought of their humanity – like yours…. Ugly’.” In Achebe’s own words, “Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist”, which is the softer, printed version of what he really called him in his speech at the conference: “bloody”.
Since then an open debate has issued that has divided the critics not only on the point of Conrad’s racist or non-racist attitude but, what is more, on the priority of a work’s aesthetic properties or of its social value when counting it among works of high literature. This latter implication is, in my opinion, the most serious one as it affects in depth the very canon by which art is to be measured in all times.
As Padmini Mongia puts it in her essay “The Rescue: Conrad, Achebe, and the Critics”, “The text –Conrad’s- has a life much larger than the story it apparently tells, and this larger life forces us to pause and consider the kind of weight a ‘classic’ carries, the making of canons, and the role of the critic and the teacher in the production and the perpetuation of canons and of their sacrosanct status. All these aspects of Heart of Darkness’s iconic status cannot be ignored for a full understanding of why the discussions of race and racism in the novel have been so charged and virulent.”
Achebe’s essay was included in the Norton Critical edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in 1988, becoming thus as canonized as Conrad’s own work.
In 2003 Caryl Phillips published in The Guardian an article called “Out of Africa” on his interview to Achebe where he points out that he had “always believed that Conrad’s only programme is doubt; in this case, doubt about the supremacy of European humanity, and the ability of this supposed humanity to maintain its imagined status beyond the high streets of Europe”. However, after speaking with Achebe, who indicates that “you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems”, he comes to the conclusion that “were I an African I suspect I would feel the same way”, in spite of which he acknowledges that “Achebe’s response is understandably personal”.
Whether understandably or not, I believe the key word to be this: personal.
Hugh Mercer Curtler has made a point of this as well: “In an extreme case, a novel that depicts graphic violence, sexism, racism, pornography, or incorporates sensationalistic effects for their own sake will fail as a work of art. Indeed, it is not art at all, it is mere document. Novels that do not merely depict but actually foster or promote hatred or violence between or among peoples –regardless of how well they are written- cannot be viewed as great because they are propaganda, not art. This is precisely Achebe’s argument against Heart of Darkness, of course. But, if I am correct, this is not what is happening in Conrad’s novel. Achebe’s problem is his own and cannot be laid at the feet of Joseph Conrad.”
The question is: what is Achebe’s problem? And why has he chosen Heart of Darkness to provoque the scholary world in such a way?
In my opinion Achebe’s fully justified desire is to be the voice of those who so far had only been found to be jumping and screaming in the bush. This was indeed necessary. Accordingly, Achebe is considered by many to be the father of modern African literature. Moreover, he is so out of first hand knowledge of the African reality. One has only to read a few biographical data to comprehend this. On the other hand, his choice of Conrad’s work for his analysis and attack was not casual. As belonging to the canon of high literature, this work was sure to be insulated against a polemical reading. Reactions would undoubtedly arise, a battle ensue. This could be nothing but both enlightening and enrichening for the literary world, although the price has been high: it is thought that his criticism of Conrad lies at the heart of not having received the Nobel Prize.
Achebe has spoken –and written- in anger for the oblivion in which the African world exists. A rightful anger. But the fact is that, as Cedric Watts indicated, “Conrad is offering an entirely plausible rendering of the responses of a British traveller of c.1890 to the strange and bewildering experiences offered by the Congo. The passage is patently justified on realistic grounds.” And adding here Dan Shapiro’s comment, “His –Marlow’s- horror extends beyond mere racial differences to a more universal sense that all morality is lost.” Considering this, would it not be possible to envisage Achebe as using Conrad’s novel as the props for the drama of the African world?
However, the canonization of Achebe’s point of view has simplified the question into a binary matter: racism or no racism, white or black, imperialism or liberalism, and so on. The falling into bipolar views has been analysed in depth by Shapiro, coming to the disturbing conclusion that such views are flawed and, thus, ineffective, as they lead us back to the language employed by the very racism that we were trying to avert.
Much more lies underhand. In fact, the reader is, due to the narrative structure of the novel –and its Russian doll narrators-, drawn into it, infected by its lack of standard moral truths, and placed, or, better said, trapped inside the horror as Marlow himself, incapable of rationally judging it. Horror outlives Conrad’s novel. Horror is –has it ever been otherwise?- an unavoidable part of our own lives. This, and no other, is the main theme of the novel. Because the way Marlow once looked upon what darkness had to tell is the same way we look upon the ultimate truths of life: with the desire to unveil, the fear to discover, the realising that horror lies inside ourselves, the painful acknowledging that we will never overcome doubt. A literary work that confronts us with this fact by means of such an innovative stylistic method as is drawing from ambiguity –an ambiguity that has given rise to such a hot argument-, is it not a masterpiece?
This leads me again to the question mentioned before, the including of Heart of Darkness among the group of high literature. Following Achebe’s train of criticism, we should not, due to its moral inconsistency. But I have already demonstrated this inconsistency is not only the book’s or Marlow’s or even Conrad’s inconsistency but that of all of us, whether we are ready to admit it or not. The problem is, in Curtler’s words, “Achebe’s claim, if allowed, has serious consequences for both aesthetics and literary criticism. Achebe would have us criticize art using moral precepts… the issue of whether or not Conrad’s novel can be considered ‘great’ is not a moral question: it is a question of aesthetics.” I completely agree with this and consider it the most problematic outcome of the polemic.
Far back in 1898 Conrad expressed his doubts concerning man. I wonder if he knew man would suffer so much from such a revelation.
Chinua Achebe: “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”
Cedric Watts: “A Bloody Racist: About Achebe’s View of Conrad”
Hugh Mercier Curtler: “Achebe on Conrad: Racism and Greatness in Heart of Darkness”
Padmini Mongia: “The Rescue: Conrad, Achebe, and the Critics”
Caryl Phillips, February 22, 2003, The Guardian: “Out of Africa”
Dan Shapiro: “Unconscious infection: The Exchange of Horror between Marlow and his Audience in Heart of darkness”