Writing in anger, writing in doubt: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

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”


8 pensamientos en “Writing in anger, writing in doubt: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

  1. Me costó bastante leer esto, pero algo entendí (la “polémica” digamos), aunque no me quedó del todo claro aprendi quien es Achebe y quien fue Conrad…algo es algo.

  2. Bien, ahora te quedaría leer Heart of Darkness, el relato en cuestión, para sacar tus propias conclusiones. La aventura de un hombre que viaja río arriba en busca de… ¿qué? Esa es precisamente la pregunta que todos se empeñan tanto en contestar correctamente. Casi cualquier contestación es válida, dada la intencionada ambigüedad de la obra, excepto decir Kurtz. Pero cuidado: lo que digas revelará quién eres.

  3. POr Eru, pedirle a un europeo del siglo XIX un pensamiento no racista sería como pedirle cálculo integral a un chimpancé. Es simplemente imposible que Joseph Conrad tuviera suficientes fuentes de conocimiento y de pensamiento para desarrollar ideas diferentes a las expresadas en sus obras. Y decir que no pudo haber escrito una obra maestra – con lo que concuerdo con motivos racionales – es como negarle a Leonardo DaVinci mérito por sus obras por no haber sabido de aviónica contemporánea.

    La conciencia del ser humano es evolutiva. Hoy, una obra usando respecto a los africanos las palabras que usaban Conrad, y Rice Burroughs, Y Rider Haggard, y Tolkien, sería completamente imperdonable. Pero en esa época era completamente inevitable.

    Por eso detesto a los fanáticos.

  4. Sólo en parte estoy de acuerdo contigo, pues, aunque a cualquier intelectual se le concede estar condicionado por la mentalidad de su época, no es menos cierto que también se espera de él que sea crítico tanto con ella como con sí mismo.
    El juego de Conrad con el lenguaje, su deliberada ambiguedad y sus muchos estratos de significado, orientados a demostrar que una verdad última sobre el significado de la vida y la naturaleza del hombre son inalcanzables -excepto acaso en el momento de la propia muerte, privilegio de conocimiento que le está reservado únicamente a Kurtz-, hacen que una interpretación simplista de la obra de Conrad sea tremendamente deseable pero, sin embargo, abocada al error. Conrad-Marlow pudiera ser racista o no. El racismo es tan solo un recurso literario empleado para ilustrar el hecho mucho más trascendental de si existe la moral o no. El hecho mismo de que Conrad haya puesto en duda semejante asunto significa, a mi modo de ver, que estaba perfectamente capacitado para saber hasta que punto él era un hijo de su tiempo.
    Hay que añadir, por otra parte, que la propia biografía de Conrad, viajero desarraigado que un día escogió establecerse en Inglaterra por considerarlo un país de libertad pero que no pudo dejar de ver lo que allí se cocía -como en toda Europa, de hecho-, realizó su propio viaje personal del idealismo a una desilusión que ya había intuido cuando escribió esta obra.
    El problema es que, como la margarita Conrad-Heart of Darkness parece que pudiera deshojarse infinitamente, puede ser empleada como bandera de posturas perfectamente contrarias sin que se pueda decir que uno sea infiel a su contenido. Contiene todo: tanto el racismo como la conciencia del horror.
    Achebe se resiente de que el racismo haya sido empleado como recurso literario, y no puede ser de otra forma. Después de todo él es un gran conocedor de sus devastadores efectos, ha sido una víctima más. Cuando uno ha sido víctima, indigna que el arma del delito pueda llamarse arte. Es más, opino que él sabe bien que Conrad no era racista en el sentido que hoy entendemos, pero también sabe que puede considerársele como tal, dependiendo de a qué nivel se profundice en su obra. Conrad dejó la puerta abierta a esa posibilidad y Achebe sólo ha demostrado cuánto puede llegar a caber por ella. Está claro que a Achebe le desagrada la ambigüedad, pero opino que se debe a lo peligrosa que ésta puede llegar a ser.
    Mi propia postura está lejos del idealismo, por lo tanto no tengo problema en aceptar que mis valores puedan ser dudosos. Pero cuando uno se entrega a una causa idealista, como Achebe se entrega a dar voz a su pueblo, ese un lujo que uno no se puede permitir.
    Además, la polémica que Achebe ha generado me parece saludable, ya que una de sus consecuencias es la afirmación de que la obra de arte como tal, más allá de prejuicios morales, debe ser juzgada sobre todo con parámetros estéticos, idea con la que estoy plenamente de acuerdo. Según esos parámetros Heart of Darkness es y será siempre una obra maestra.

  5. Bueno, me fui de vacaciones (recien vuelvo) y en una libreria vi el libro, lo lei , me gustó, asi que en otra librería me conseguí uno con 3 cuentos, Flak, Mañana y Amy foster, los 3 MUY buenos, me gustaron.
    PD: el corazón de las tinieblas lo lei, pero estoy seguro que no entendí un montón de simbolismos 😦

  6. La obra es compleja, sí, pero pero no creo que sea siempre necesario comprenderlo todo -en especial las referencias-, para sentir lo que la obra quiere comunicar. Lo fundamental es la herida que abre, el dolor y el desconcierto que produce, la transformación como individuos a que nos somete. Pues ahí está el principio de toda pregunta. Y toda pregunta que uno se formula es, a su vez, el principio de la comprensión del universo.
    Me alegro mucho de que hayas leído el libro y de que te haya gustado y conducido a otras obras de Conrad. La verdad, no conozco esos tres relatos que mencionas pero ya los estoy buscando por ahí. Gracias por la pista. Los leeré.


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