I love Joseph Conrad’s writing. So I’ve always been disturbed to hear that people think Heart of Darkness is racist. I first read it years ago, and I remembered that black people don’t get a very flattering portrayal in the book, but I thought that if you gave Conrad the benefit of the doubt it wasn’t that unflattering either; and anyway, the book was about Europeans; and although anyone would of course at first assume that the heart of darkness was something to be found in Africa, it was really, as I remembered it, in those Europeans – in particular, the European city like a white sepulchre in which the narrative ends.
Then someone whose opinions on most things I trust read it for herself and said its racist reputation was horribly justified.
So I read it again. I didn’t agree with her. She said I should write a blog about it. I resisted, knowing how long it would take me. And who cares any more about psychoanalysing literature, or its characters, or, worst of all, its authors? I’m not a historian, I’m someone who likes reading texts. But here it is.
Heart of Darkness is magnificent. It made me think of some of the music I love from around the time it was published: Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy – Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande premiered in the same year, 1902, that Heart of Darkness was published as a book; Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy was being written over the next few years. It has the same colossal ambition and overwhelming sensuality.
As for the racism, I thought I’d best look at Chinua Achebe’s condemnation of the book.
He begins by talking about “the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest”.
Well, that has often been true, and often not. What about those Europeans who look for the noble savage in Africa, or for the Garden of Eden, or for unfettered emotion and creativity? Misguided and patronising as those images projected onto Africa have been, they have often been inspired by a disgust with Europe, a desire to find something better, a self-loathing, not a conviction that spiritual grace begins on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Indeed, Achebe himself later points out that African sculpture played a big part in the Cubist revolution only a few years after the publication of Heart of Darkness.
Here, though, begins the substance of the case:
Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.”
Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings.
No doubt about it, this is a book about darkness, but Achebe thinks that for Conrad the darkness is all in Africa, while in Europe there is only light. I think he’s wrong about that. Achebe’s comments that the Thames has “conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace”. But there’s no “of course” about it. At this point in the book itself there is, explicitly, no daylight to be seen.
Let’s see where the darkness leads us. The opening pages of the book describe a descent into darkness without leaving British territorial waters. In the book’s second paragraph, despite the “luminous space” of sea and sky out in the Thames estuary, east of London, the anonymous narrator also notes:
A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
A few paragraphs later,
The days was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.
And at last, in its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low, and from glowing white changed to a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men.
And they would mostly have been white Englishmen. So far, London is clearly the heart of darkness, a malign presence with the power to kill the sun, and with it all light and beauty. No hint yet of Africa. And London’s darkness is “brooding” twice in two paragraphs.
Nevertheless, it is the “greatest” town on earth. So let’s not hope that things are better elsewhere. This is what we have, says the narrator.
Now follows a paragraph of praise of British imperialism as, with such editorialising as:
Hunters of gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! […] The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
This is the voice of the narrator. From my reading of other books by Conrad, I suspect it’s not a thousand miles away from the voice of the author himself. I think he probably thought that a principled imperialism was possible and quite a good thing. I think he was dead wrong about that. Even so, the “sacred fire” is a pagan note. He’s drawing a parallel between Christian Englishmen and all the different sorts of people you can imagine having sacred fires: Olympic athletes, ancient and modern – the first modern Olympics were held a few years before Heart of Darkness was published – Roman priestesses of Vesta, folkloric dancing round bonfires at night. Christians, with their harmless, domesticated Advent and Easter and baptism candles that you can light with a match from the newsagent’s, don’t really count. This is the “hint of kinship, of common ancestry” that Achebe mentions. He says that it “worries” Conrad. I think that’s true: the book is an anguished monologue on the kinship between then and now, here and there, us and them, what people then called “civilisation” and what they called “savagery”. But I don’t think its conclusions are anywhere near as straightforward as Achebe suggests.
Where there’s fire, we might expect to find darkness around it. Here it comes again:
The sun set […] And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.
Brooding again. The sacred fire has become a lurid glare. London, the “greatest” town, is now “monstrous”. Cue Marlow:
‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’
Clearly, it still is.
Achebe is not really that bothered, however, about the relative merits of the Thames and the Congo. His main aim is to consider how Conrad, through his character Marlow, makes black Africans seem not fully human. He quotes demeaning characterisations such as
‘a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling […] a black and incomprehensible frenzy. […] They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces […]’
but this is not what angers Achebe so much as the observation that
‘[…] what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours […] Ugly.’
Achebe thinks Conrad cannot bear the “lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry”. I would note that Conrad used “thrilled” – a word that trips me up as a reader – rather than something like “disgusted”, which would fit more smoothly with the sense of the passage. Marlow’s response seems to me to combine disgust with shame and excitement – a disappointing reaction in a human being, but a complex and thought-provoking one in a character in a novel.
But Marlow has other responses to black Africans too, as Achebe points out. Marlow ridicules and patronises “the savage who was fireman” on his steamer for his attempts to understand European technology and European-style employment:
‘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.’
These passages, and others like them, must make uncomfortable reading for anyone but a white supremacist. Perhaps it would have been less shocking in 1902, but the sneering tone, the doubts over these people’s very humanity, would have been as unmistakable then as now. Achebe finds the key to Marlow/Conrad’s attitude to the Africans he encounters in his more positive responses, however. Marlow has an amused respect for the (alleged) cannibals who crew the steamer; he admires the physical prowess of some fishermen he sees at work off the coast on his way to his job on the Congo; and, most tellingly:
Towards the end of the story Conrad lavishes a whole page quite unexpectedly on an African woman who has obviously been some kind of mistress to Mr. Kurtz and now presides (if I may be permitted a little liberty) like a formidable mystery over the inexorable imminence of his departure:
She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent […] She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.
This Amazon is drawn in considerable detail, albeit of a predictable nature, for two reasons. First, she is in her place and so can win Conrad’s special brand of approval and second, she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Achebe’s point about the more complimentary portrayals of Africans is that these Africans are “in their place”, not trying to ape Europeans like the fireman who “ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank”:
“Fine fellows – cannibals – in their place,” he tells us pointedly. Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like Europe leaving its safe stronghold between the policeman and the baker to like a peep into the heart of darkness.
Achebe doesn’t point out, though, that the “the policeman and the baker” is a quotation from the book itself. It comes one of its few passages in which we are reminded that Marlow’s tale is being told to a group of his well-off English friends floating at leisure but in pitch darkness. At this point in Marlow’s story, the steamer has just been attacked with spears from the shore, the African helmsman has been killed and spilled his blood on Marlow’s shoes, which in distraction he has thrown overboard, and it has just occurred to Marlow that Kurtz – the enigmatic man he has made this perilous journey to meet and who has intrigued him ever since he first heard his name – may well be dead:
‘[…] and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush. I couldn’t have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life … Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn’t a man ever – Here, give me some tobacco.’ …
There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame. The match went out.
‘Absurd!’ he cried. ‘This is the worst of trying to tell. … Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal – you hear – normal from year’s end to year’s end. And you say, Absurd! Absurd be – exploded! Absurd! My dear boys, what can you expect from a man who out of sheer nervousness had just flung overboard a pair of new shoes.’
And later, explaining what he has learned of Kurtz’s behaviour upriver:
‘He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land – I mean literally. You can’t understand. How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums – how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude – utter solitude without a policeman – by the way of silence, utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion?’
Indeed, as Achebe says, it does sound as though Marlow thinks that Europeans are better off staying at home. He feels “a startling extravagance of emotion, even such as I had noticed in the howling sorrow of these savages in the bush” – that unwelcome sense of kinship again. But after a puff on his pipe to gather his thoughts he damns European safety and comfort as dull, too safe, too regular, too limited. He longs for the adventure and challenge of a place where physical health and emotional regularity cannot be taken for granted, where feet are “untrammelled” and a person will be brought face to face with themselves, when the props and guides and bonds of morality, public opinion and authority have fallen away. He longs for purity, for authenticity, for integrity, for truth:
‘The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? half-a-crown a tumble –’
‘Try to be civil, Marlow,’ growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake beside myself.
‘I beg you pardon. I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done? You do your tricks very well. And I didn’t do badly either […]’
And he despises his European friends for their acceptance of a “civilisation” which by this point in the book certainly has to be put in quotation marks. His friends can tell what he thinks of them: Marlow gets carried away and they find it “absurd” and not “civil”. There are several references in the book to his reputation as a bit of an oddball. He’s not everyman.
Marlow’s friends are not the only Europeans he thinks poorly of. Back at the beginning of the book, as he is ruminating on how England’s Roman invaders might have felt – “They were men enough to face the darkness”:
‘Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency. But these chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. 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. 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 pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.’
Now, this is a pretty incoherent sequence of ideas. There’s the idea that the Romans “were no colonists” – colonists, Marlow suggests, are not just in it for the money; might is not right for them. That said, “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale” is “very proper for those who tackle a darkness” – here, the darkness of ancient England. But in the next sentence, we seem to be in the contemporary world, and it is Victorian imperialism that is simply the triumph of strength, the abuse of superficially different fellow humans and “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much”. But it can be redeemed by “the idea” – once again, modern Europeans are superior to their robber Roman predecessors. What is that redeeming idea? He doesn’t say, but “something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to” doesn’t sound much like the European Enlightenment. It sounds like idolatry, what those civilised Europeans would have considered barbarism.
That’s what Marlow is struggling with. On one level, it’s about race and culture, empire and exploitation, civilisation and primitiveness. But on another it’s about the impossibility of justifying belief, the impossibility of living without it.
It’s not Marlow’s friends or the Romans that get the worst of his Euroscepticism, though. His loathing of the whites he encounters in Africa is, as far as I can remember, unrelieved. His monotonously sarcastic term for them, “pilgrims”, sums up his view of their pseudo-moralistic justification for their rape of the land. Both individually and collectively they are shown again and again to be stupid, brutal, greedy schemers.
Achebe has little time for this side of the story, however. He dismisses Marlow’s descriptions of the horrific abuse of Africans as “bleeding-heart sentiments”; while acknowledging that “The kind of liberalism espoused here by Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America,” he says it “almost always managed to sidestep the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people”. Conrad, he says, is prepared to acknowledge a “distant kinship” with black Africans, but nothing more.
That is true, of Marlow at least – I’ll come to Achebe’s identification of Conrad with his character later. But I think it has to be set alongside Marlow’s alienation from people of his own colour and culture.
In a passage I quoted earlier, Achebe discusses the African woman, Kurtz’s presumed lover, who “fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story”. Indeed she does. But long before we meet that European woman, we know all about Marlow’s opinion of where she lives. He gets his job captaining the river steamer by going to the headquarters of the “Company”, which are “in a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre”. His odyssey around this quintessentially European city – white, the seat of the Company – is has the heightened tone of a fever or nightmare. A Kafkaesque couple of pages.
At the end of the book, it is to that city he returns to see Kurtz’s “Intended”, “the refined, European woman”. Marlow’s initial description of her is all about light and darkness:
‘She came forward, all in black, with a pale head, floating towards me in the dusk. She was in mourning. It was more than a year since his death, more than a year since the news came; she seemed as though she would remember and mourn for ever. She took both my hands in hers and murmured, “I had heard you were coming.” I noticed she was not very young – I mean not girlish. She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. The room seemed to have grown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which the dark eyes looked out at me.’
Achebe implies that her “refined” behaviour is obviously intended for approval, just as the African woman – “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent […] She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose,” as Marlow describes her – is clearly to be regarded as inferior.
As Achebe says, the portrayal of the African woman is “of a predictable nature”. It is not the first time that Marlow has compared an African with the purely biological, non-human, unthinking landscape, though in describing an African woman this way he hits two clichés with one stone. Nevertheless, he acknowledges that she has “[won] Conrad’s special brand of approval”. She is described as having immense courage and dignity; “Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve.” And her European counterpart? She says of Kurtz:
‘”And you admired him,” she said. “It was impossible to know him and not to admire him. Was it?”
‘”He was a remarkable man,” I said, unsteadily. Then before the appealing fixity of her gaze, that seemed to watch for more words on my lips, I went on, “It was impossible not to – ”
‘”Love him,” she finished eagerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness. “How true! how true! But when you think that no one knew him so well as I! I had all his noble confidence. I knew him best.”
‘”You knew him best,” I repeated. And perhaps she did. But with every word spoken the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love.’
“I am proud to know I understood him better than anyone on earth. […] He drew men towards him by what was best in them. […] What a loss to me – to us! […] To the world. […] His words, at least, have not died.”
(The readers, and Marlow, know that Kurtz’s written work concluded in a scrawled “Exterminate all the brutes!”)
“[…] Men looked up to him, – his goodness shone in every act. His example –”
She is deluded. Whatever Kurtz may have been when she knew him, he became something very different in Africa, and his death was no loss to anyone but poor, confused Marlow. She is unaware of this, unaware that this might be. Her forehead, and the “belief and love” that Marlow thinks he sees there – and by know we know how badly he wants to believe in something – have sucked all the light out of the room. He responds
‘with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her – from which I could not even defend myself.’
Here is the darkness triumphant. Not in Congo, but in a Brussels drawing-room. Meanwhile, Marlow is about to put his foot in it:
‘”You were with him – to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear…”
‘”To the very end,” I said, shakily. “I heard his very last words…” I stopped in a fright.
‘”Repeat them,” she said in a heart-broken tone. “I want – I want – something – something – to – to live with.”
‘I was on the point of crying at her, “Don’t you hear them?” The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. “The horror! The horror!”
‘”His last word – to live with,” she murmured. “Don’t you understand I loved him – loved him – I loved him!”
‘I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.
‘”The last word he pronounced was – your name.”
I have toyed with the idea that if we were to take Marlow literally here, he would be saying that her name is “horror” – that she, in her deluded “civilisation”, is the embodiment of what Kurtz understood in his transgressions. Be that as it may, she is left secure in her self-deception:
‘I could not tell her. It would have been too dark – too dark altogether …’
This is how Europe remains safe. Marlow despised its hypocrisy, luxury and self-deceit and was intrigued, not by Africa, but by Kurtz, a remarkable man who promised redemption but delivered it in the form of satanic courage and an inadmissible version of the truth. Marlow longed to believe in that pessimistic, misanthropic faith, so close to his own, and loathes himself for not being able to go so far. He suspects it is because he lacks courage, though perhaps, to follow his Messiah, it was selfishness and cruelty he needed more of.
Hypocrisy, truth, self-deception, courage, misanthropy, selfishness, cruelty, greed, European, African, civilised, savage. All these moralising terms, whose values can’t be maintained. That’s what Conrad is writing about.
That’s not how Achebe sees the Intended. He suggests that the most significant difference between her and her African counterpart may be that the former speaks while the latter does not:
It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the “rudimentary souls” of Africa. In place of speech they made “a violent babble of uncouth sounds.” They “exchanged short grunting phrases” even among themselves. But most of the time they were too busy with their frenzy.
I think he has a point here. African speech is, as they say, conspicuous by its absence, and the two instances of it that Achebe finds are, as he points out, both to the Africans’ discredit: the leader of the steamer’s native crew acknowledging his cannibalism, and the servant announcing Kurtz’s death, his “insolent black head in the doorway”.
As for the rest, let’s remember, Marlow is a character in a novel; a first-person narrator, sure, but it’s not Conrad’s autobiography. I found American Psycho – also a first-person narrative – so horrific as to be almost unreadable but didn’t think Bret Easton Ellis should be locked up. Achebe considers this objection, but doesn’t buy it:
[…] 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.
Why should Conrad provide “an alternative frame of reference”? Isn’t that what the reader does? I can’t imagine Achebe thinks that readers should passively accept the narrative as the voice of truth, or of the author’s opinion. As Caryl Phillips says of the book, “as a reader I have never had any desire to confuse it with an equal opportunity pamphlet”. We can “judge the actions and opinions of his characters” by ourselves, without the author winking at us.
Achebe also considers other apologies for Conrad:
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? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
Well, I don’t think Heart of Darkness is about the disintegration of one European mind. If it’s about any one thing, it’s about the disintegration of the collective European mind under the conditions of capitalism, loss of faith, empire and colonialism. But what about the main point? Does the novel celebrate dehumanisation and depersonalise a portion of the human race? It certainly does the latter: Africans are seen from a physical, social and cultural distance in the book, those distances are constantly emphasised, and their words are not heard. Dehumanise? I don’t think so: what Heart of Darkness is doing is questioning what humanity means. Sometimes it uses Marlow’s racist disgust at Africans as a starting point for those questions, but his fascination with Kurtz’s exploits develops those same lines of thought. Again, I think that a reader can be expected to recognise a human being in a book and consider her or him as such, and I don’t think Heart of Darkness makes it particularly difficult to do this for its African characters.
One of the earliest descriptions of Africans in the book comes just after Marlow has arrived at the first Company station downriver. We are shown a work gang of African men chained together at the neck, carrying baskets of earth on their heads, driven by an armed African overseer. Then he comes across more workers, the ones broken by work, lying in a grove of trees and waiting to die. Achebe dismisses such observations as “bleeding-heart sentiments”, but these passages, at least, and others describing forced labour, could not be said to be celebrating dehumanisation; rather, they are forcing the reader to contemplate it, to accept that dehumanisation defines the European adventure in Africa. Granted, the novel is mostly about Europe, but Africa is not just a setting, a backdrop. I don’t think any other place would have allowed – as it still does – European greed and egotism and amorality to find such fulsome expression. And part of the story is what Europe’s rape of Africa does to the raped, both the broken wretches waiting to die and the overseer, the boilerman, the servant, who have found a place at the Europeans’ side.
Achebe presents biographical evidence of Conrad’s racism, which I can’t and don’t want to dispute. His contrasting admiration of the English, however ironically expressed, surfaces in his novels as well as his autobiography. I think his racism probably does contaminate his writing about black people: Marlow does seem excessively fond of the n-word, and describes Africans’ skin as black so often that it seems that his ability to perceive colour objectively has been overwhelmed by the concept of human blackness, and the word “black” used to denote it. Which may make my earlier parallel with American Psycho seem inappropriate: no one thinks Bret Easton Ellis is a serial killer, even though his book is famous for containing revolting scenes of torture and mutilation, while Heart of Darkness is not famous for the undeniable content that Achebe is concerned with.
He’s right that for too many readers, and too many of those who have not read it, Heart of Darkness is about Kurtz, about a savage-infested jungle, about “going native”. The evident irony of the title still seems lost on most people, as witnessed by the almost inevitable references to the book in any long piece of journalism on the Congo and, I suspect, its almost total absence from writing about Brussels.
Those are all big problems, though not all of them are Conrad’s fault, and the rest are, regrettably, not surprising for a book of its time. But it’s still a very good book.
I have wondered if I could be so sanguine about it if I was not white. Even though there are no definitive readings of any text, I’m worried that I can only admire this one because I inhabit the same pinnacle of privilege as Conrad and his European characters, the world in which their racism is common currency. So I was interested to read a comment of Caryl Phillips, who is not white: “Were I an African I suspect I would feel the same way as [Achebe].” That’s not a trump card, but perhaps it can remind us that even though we’re all humans, all the same, our histories mean we look on the world from different points of view, and what you see, and what seems big or small, depends on where you’re standing.