2. An Image of Africa: Achebe’s criticism of Conrad
3. Critical reactions to Achebe’s lecture
3.1 Irony, voice and authorship
3.2 The historical defence
3.3 Conrad’s anti-European purpose
4. Applying Achebe’s frame of criticism
4.1 Treatment of the natives
4.2 Treatment of women
4.3 The ambiguity of imperialism
5. Comparing Conrad and Haggard
Few words are needed to describe the impact that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness had on the literary and cultural scene of the 20th century. The 1899 novel is in many ways the most important narrative of Africa by an outsider. Its style provides a bridge between the late Victorian period and Modernism. At the latest since Francis Ford Coppola turned it into an award-winning motion picture with Apocalypse Now, it has firmly established itself in popular culture.
The picture looks different for the imperial romances of Francis Rider Haggard. It is telling that Padmini Mongia chooses King Solomon’s Mines as the literary antithesis of the canonical Heart of Darkness (160). Despite a recent surge in academic popularity - and also inspiring a popular movie character with Indiana Jones-, Haggard is still mainly looked down as a crude imperialist storyteller and promoter of chauvinist expansionist ideals. With some notable exceptions, few critics came to Haggard’s defence. By contrast, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has often been called the anti-imperialist novel par excellence. Chinua Achebe’s claim that Conrad was a “bloody racist” was widely repudiated.
In my opinion, the debate has taken an unfortunate turn because it does not do Haggard justice. In this essay, I want to achieve two things. First, I want to give evidence that Achebe was indeed quite right in his attack on Heart of Darkness. To this end, I will look at the main theoretical vindications of Conrad before applying Achebe’s frame of criticism to the text in detail. This is followed by a comparison with Haggard’s novels King Solomon’s Mines.
My goal is to show that in comparison to Heart of Darkness, which indeed projects Africa as a negative foil for Europe, Haggard manages to give Africa and its inhabitants, despite his literary shortcomings, a graceful quality not found in Conrad’s work. While both authors depict Africa as ‘the other world’ in the way their ambitions and prejudices create an image with little historical accuracy, Haggard’s embellished social utopia fails to display the deep-seated anxiety towards Africa Achebe finds in Conrad.
In my essay I will purposefully disregard a possible approach to this issue, namely gathering biographical evidence from Conrad’s public statements and his private correspondence. While this makes for interesting conclusions, considering that Conrad was sympathetic to the Congo Reform Association of his friend Roger Casement (Brantlinger, 365), it does not shed any further light upon the text itself and the racist beliefs it may or may not propagate. It is no use knowing Conrad condemned the “ruthless, systematic cruelty towards the blacks” (Watts, 199) in the administration of the Congo when he portrays the very people in a demeaning fashion which has long influenced Western views of Africa as a hopeless, problem-stricken place.
2. An Image of Africa: Achebe’s criticism of Conrad
Achebe voiced his criticism as a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts in February 1975. In a public lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, published for the general public in 1978, he denounced Conrad as a “bloody racist”1 (788). The importance of Achebe’s polemic for the teaching of Heart of Darkness cannot be overstated.
According to Inga Clendinnen’s account of the criticism on the novel (1), early commentators focused on its peculiar language and style, most famously F. R. Leavis’ criticism of Conrad’s ‘adjectival insistence’. In the aftermath of the last colonial uprisings in the 1960s and 70s, the novel was mostly regarded as an attack on imperialist expansion, until Achebe’s intervention disrupted the conversation on Heart of Darkness. As Padmini Mongia explains, “Achebe's argument seems to have offered the most commonly used structure for approaching race in the novel” (159). Since its inclusion in the Norton Critical Edition in 1988, Achebe and Conrad are often taught alongside each other. Today, “post the postmodernists”, Heart of Darkness “seems to exist in a chronic contest zone” (Clendinnen, 1), despite a number of attempts by apologetics of Conrad to shut down the issue. Johnson cites a 1992 special issue of Conradiana on the novel called “Teach the Conflicts” which does not contain a single article on questions of race. Hunt Hawkins in the concluding remarks even states that “unhappily the matter is still open to debate” (Johnson, 127, footnote 2).
What was Achebe‘s main contention? He accused Conrad of stripping Africans of their humanity by projecting the image of Africa as “the other world”, an “antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” (783). In its most iconic phrase, the essay claims that Conrad expresses a Western need to set “Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (783). Heart of Darkness uses Africa merely as a “setting and backdrop”, a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril” (788). Its characteristic language, the “bombardment of emotive words” (784), is supposed to induce a “hypnotic stupor” in the reader to convey the racist subtext. For Achebe, this reflects psychological rather than artistic motives, as he detects in Conrad “a reside of antipathy to black people” (789) who are denied speech, personality, and ultimately humanity. As a consequence, he calls into question the popularity of an offensive and totally deplorable book [which] parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today (790).
In an interview with Caryl Phillips in 2007, 30 years after the original lecture, Achebe concedes that the novel still exercises “a hold on him” (59), and that he to date denies Heart of Darkness any artistic merit: “What is his point in that book? Art is not intended to put people down. If so, then art would ultimately discredit itself” (59). In the interview, Achebe addresses some vindications of Conrad, none of which convince him. Despite the numerous attempts to refute his lecture, he still stands by his original criticism.
But why focus on Conrad in the first place? Some could argue that Achebe should direct his ire at other, more openly racist works. There certainly are numerous examples among Conrad’s contemporaries. However, none of them exerted the same influence on the Western perception of Africa. As Inga Clendinnen argues, “Heart of Darkness has infiltrated the Western consciousness deeply with the metaphor of an Africa primeval, unchanging, and chronically savage” (3). It established an image of Africa which to date is characterised by “a shorthand linkage of Africa with foreign aid, AIDS, and anarchy” (4).
3. Critical reactions to Achebe’s lecture
Few contributions to the postcolonial discourse have sparked as vocal a response as Achebe’s attack on Conrad. Having such a distinguished African writer condemn in blunt terms a tremendously popular novel proved an irresistible temptation for literary academia. This is best shown by an episode recently recounted by Achebe in an interview. After giving his lecture on Conrad at Harvard, a professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts showed little restraint:
How dare you? How dare you upset everything we have taught, everything we teach? ‘Heart of Darkness’ is the most widely taught text in the university in this country. So how dare you say it’s different?
While most other critics phrase their reaction in more diplomatic terms, Achebe’s essay is often dismissed as simplistic and misguided by a majority of commentators. Before going into Achebe’s points of criticism in more detail in the next section, let us first look at the three main arguments brought forward in defense of Conrad: That Achebe misinterprets Conrad’s methodology of narration, that Conrad simply conveyed views of his time; and that Conrad is in fact on Achebe’s side in criticizing racial prejudice (Phillips, 61).
3.1 Irony, voice and authorship
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad employs various narrative devices - such as multiple narrators, irony and contradiction - in order to disguise his authorial voice. Therefore, the relationship between Marlow and Conrad is not as straightforward, the critics say, as Achebe purports it to be.
By having an anonymous primary narrator pass on Marlow’s tale, Conrad includes an additional filter between himself and the narration. For a full seven paragraphs, the narrator can set the scene by “exalting the British naval empire” and displaying “naïve imperial enthusiasm” (Clendinnen, 7) before Marlow sharply enters the picture: “And this also…” (33). This technique leads Cedric Watts, among others, to differentiate between Marlow and the author because when Marlow enters [the paragraph] it is as though, as in life, an author had been interrupted by a character whose experience and intelligence exceed the author’s” (198).
A second technique Conrad employs is irony. Cedric Watts counts many “measured, specific, shrewdly ironic passages” (202) which Achebe “ignores […] as the tale unfolds” (204). Sarvan goes even further by finding a “mocking humour which denotes ‘distance’ between creator and character” (7), for instance when Marlow is described as a “meditating Buddha” (Heart of Darkness, 105).
A third misleading narrative means is contradiction, or as Patrick Brantlinger calls it, “impressionism” (364). The reliability of Marlow’s narration is called into question from the very beginning. The primary narrator warns the reader that [t]he yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine (33).
Here, Conrad says that the meaning of the story is blurry to say the least. As Marlow says, “It was [...] not very clear either. No, not very clear” (35). Brantlinger calls this a “dislocation of meaning” and a “disorientation of values” (373) which makes it difficult to assess the veracity of the narration. As Sarvan astutely observes, Marlow prevaricates his “pathological aversion” to telling lies repeatedly in the tale (7).
Achebe himself addressed this objection by saying that “Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story” (787). However, Achebe dismisses this as a futile attempt to mask his blatant racism because Conrad “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” (787). Marlow, Achebe is sure, “enjoys Conrad’s complete confidence”. Even when Marlow shows compassion by narrating “bleeding-heart sentiments”, he merely “espouses” liberal views appropriate at the time. According to Caryl Phillips, “Achebe is not fooled by this narrative gamesmanship or the claims of those who would argue that the complex polyphony of the storytelling is Conrad’s way of trying to deliberately distance himself from the views of his characters” (61).
So what are we to make of this? While Achebe assumes full identification between narrator and novelist, other critics differentiate between the pragmatic engineer Marlow and the metaphysical poet Conrad (Clendinnen, 5). James Johnson names a number of scholars who attempt to diffuse the issue of racism by maintaining this fundamental distinction (123). However, Johnson rightly criticizes this argument and its ability “to turn an evidently racist text in one stroke into a text that is concerned with racism”. To begin with, Johnson says, it does not follow that Marlow’s unreliability necessarily extends to include his racially charged utterances (123). Also, he continues, Conrad’s entire interrogative project depends on the “evolutionary racial structure” advanced by Marlow (124). Johnson is correct in not allowing the author to hide behind layers of insulation, as sophisticated as they may be. As Inga Clendinnen puts it, “however elusive authors may choose to be – and Conrad was famously elusive – they are perforce present in the strategies and the movement of their writing” (3). “Marlow”, she goes on, “does not speak for Conrad. Conrad speaks for Conrad through the astonishing choices he makes while having Marlow tell his tale” (17). Ultimately, when it comes to racism, what counts is the impression Heart of Darkness makes on the reader, the ’stupor’ it induces, and not the narrative tricks employed to achieve it. The number of filters and caveats a racist message needs to pass before reaching the audience makes no difference because what counts is the effect of putting down an entire people. Again, Achebe is the best judge: “What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction, I don't like it” (Phillips, 65).
1 In a later edition revised to “thoroughgoing racist”.