“Honit soit qui mal y pense.”
“If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is 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. ”
“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.”
Two of the quotes above are from Chinua Achebe , who dropped a bomb on Joseph Conrad back in 1977, and the shrapnel has been flying around ever since.
Written in the context of the post 1945 collapse of the major European and Japanese Empires and their replacement by the American and Soviet empires, Achebe’s critique was contextualized by the otherwise legitimate pent up centuries of outrage at imperialism; it’s crimes, it’s hypocrisies and it’s systemic self justifying narratives.
Direct attacks were launched in both physical terms (assorted violent liberation movements, as well as assorted terrorist campaigns) and in more cerebral pursuits. One may here formulate a list of their choosing from Fanon to Sartre, Ginsberg to Darwish, to Ritsos, to Amichai, etc, etc..
As a result the details get pushed around, bent out of shape, twisted into new forms of half-truths, and self-serving mythologies and narratives that, ironically end up replacing the previous set of self-serving mythologies and twisted narratives all of which like a hall of mirrors in an old style fun-house, distort the truth.
To criticize Achebe is to almost instantly be accused of either accidental bigotry or wearing a metaphoric white hood or being a Brownshirt supporting the idea that colonization, as such, is not intrinsically evil and when practiced by the right people (like the British or the Americans) the good outweighs the bad. That contemporary sophists like Niall Ferguson are openly cheerleading for a revisionist retrograde celebration of a Kipling-esque regurgitation of the White Man’s Burden, muddies the field. It enhances Achebe’s point, not because he’s right but because Ferguson is so blatantly wrong, being against him is like a politician saying they support rainbows and puppies. If the fruit were hanging any lower it would be mistaken for a root vegetable.
But one reaches a point where a certain defense of the facts is not only justified, it is a requirement simply because, if for no other reason, one is reminded of the adage: first they came for the socialists, and I said nothing, and so on until the wolf is at your door demanding that you agree, everyone is equal it’s just that some are more equal than others.
As we have addressed elsewhere the fundamental problem with the meta narratives of the anti-imperialists is that there is no way to unstick oneself from the historical glue. By which we mean, while, to cite one example, any reasonable person would be appalled by the industrial scale abuse of the Catholic church towards children, and how that crime was and remains part of a legacy that includes but is not limited to, support for fascism, alliances with gangsters, bigotry, genocide and (in comparison) the minor crimes of money laundering and the theft of precious works of art, the fact remains, it was the Vatican mafia that paid for Michelangelo’s Gitanes and espresso; that paid for James Joyce to receive a first rate Jesuitical education and if not for those acts of the devil, we would be all the poorer.
As Graham Greene put it (Orson Wells claims he said but we don’t believe him) you have 500 years of peace and prosperity in Switzerland and you get chocolate and cuckoo clocks. 500 years of war and chaos in Italy and you get the Renaissance.
It’s a coldly cynical formulation but so are E=Mc2 and “Call me Ishmael” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true or at least honest.
The fact then is that both things can be true at the same time – imperialism was a catastrophe and out of it, like the rest of the freak show we charitably call “Civilization” miracles of ingenuity were wrought. After all Caravaggio may have been a pimp and a rapist and by all accounts an absolute first rate asshole but, there’s a lot of reasons his works hang in the Louvre and one of them is because he was a genius – who worked for thugs.
In our time one might consider the genius from nowhere – or as it is officially called; Freehold, New Jersey.
A self described manic depressive riddled with anxiety and existential angst, the bard of Freehold has, to state the obvious, told the tale of America and, is a product of the post industrial waste land; the magnificent catastrophe of how the Irish, running from the English who were trying to eat them, and the Italians (running from themselves) crashed upon the shores of North America and set to the business of working the rails, becoming gangsters and politicians (and we apologize for being redundant) poets, prophets, conmen, and the mighty average.
In other words, if you want Born to Run then you have to take what made it and what made it, aside from a singular genius, are the facts of a wider context that includes the destruction of the industrial base, the exploitation of tens of millions of people and the imperial hand of a few thousand inbred, gout-suffering English aristocrats who saw Ireland and decided to use it for target practice. Not to mention the extravagant freak show of Italy where sometimes you get Mussolini and sometimes you get Fellini.
It’s not a pretty picture though pretty pictures come from it. As Ray Chandler put it in a slightly different context, it is not funny that a man should be killed for so little but it is funny that we should call his death the coin of civilization.
And so back to Achebe.
Consider his idea that the Europeans have had some pressing need to see Africa as “other” as a place of mystery where they, otherwise pure White Europeans, go at their peril and encounter the exotic and the seductive and the dangerous “savages.”
There certainly is a lot to support the argument as European history is full of examples of people talking just like that and books, and films and advertising and the entire panoply of the imperial kulturkampf are readily accessible and make Achebe’s case.
But then the issue is not that he’s wrong, per se but rather, upon a closer excavation one finds that there are other things true as well.
While the Europeans did certainly view Africa and most of the rest of the world as he says they did, it is also true that many of them did not but more importantly than what Achebe puts in is what he leaves out. We mean, that while it’s true that many Europeans did view the non-European world as a vast heart of darkness where their purity went to be corrupted, it is also true that in the late 19th century, when Conrad was writing Heart of Darkness, many people around him in London would have been the first to say that Manchester was exotic, and where one’s impurity went to be corrupted. They said that about the East End of London as well,* and about Paris and Spain and Italy where people like Henry James, stepping out of their precisely ordered closet, saw Italy as a place of seductions and corruptions where purity went to be both educated and to be sacrificed to Eros and many cups of tea all as part of one’s education.
The Spanish Pox, syphilis, was of course an amoral disease but not to the French who called it the Spanish Pox and not to the Spanish who called it the French Pox except when they called it the Italian Pox and so on with each member of the tribe finding someone else to blame.
While all of that was going on of course, and the English were telling tales of the “exotic” East, they were also telling tales of the exotic wilds of Ireland, full of lurid details that were at once condemning and celebratory. As a result, a “wild” Irish lass was both object and fetish. As were the courtesans of Paris.
Olympia, by Manet, both outraged and titillated, as did the vast fields of underground erotica in which aristocrats were driven to various stages of lunacy by dark skin, or ivory white skin, or poverty, or being flogged. No one will ever grow broke betting on the number and types of adventures to which the English imagination is prone. After all, ironically, it was the Ottoman Turk, Khalil-Bey who commissioned a European to paint The Origin of the World, for his private collection of erotica – thus putting yet another dent into the “Orientalism” school which crosses over with Achebe and the rest of the sclerotic fact challenged (pseudo) intellectual left.
But we digress.
And then there are the Germans. Not withstanding Brecht’s quip that, Germany, who hears your song, laughs, who hears you approach, reaches for their knife, one is left to consider where in the mayhem that was 19th century European imperialism one places Sacher-Masoch and Venus in Furs? Or for that matter what does one do with the good doctor of Vienna relative to European anxiety about itself? Wolfman? Ratman? Anna O? More Bolivian marching powder please! Yes Herr Doktor!
Achebe of course was talking about a specific crime and a specific imagination and of course, again, he’s not wrong, exactly but he is, when one steps away from being too close to the canvass, revealed to be not exactly correct either.
Did many Europeans view Africa as he describes? Yes. Did they also view the people down the street from them the same way? Yes, they did and the fact is they treated them with the same contempt they treated everyone else. A scan of English law in the 19th century reveals that any number of locals were up in arms (sometimes quite literally) about how the same heavy hand of imperialism used abroad was being used domestically to oppress people who were White. Consider in that context that Conrad has the skipper of the Nellie say of Marlow, that the worst one could say about him was, that he was not representative of his class. Given classic British understatement that translates as Conrad, imitating an English class snob, insulting Marlow because, “he’s gone native” and, worse, let down the home team.
To this of course the argument would be it is a form of what-aboutery to cloud the issue of European imperialism and crimes committed in Africa, by bringing up the treatment of the Irish, or the European Jews, or the European poor.
And that would be a valid argument except, it’s Achebe who brought it up when he said the Europeans have a habit of turning Africans into “others” in support of dehumanizing narratives that combine fetish and demonization in the same controlling strangulating systems.
Quite right, which means that one must address it and the moment one does one finds that Achebe is quite simply wrong because the Europeans did not do that to the Africans, they did to the Africans the same way they did it to everyone else including themselves. Thus context rears its irritating head.
And in spite of that, what remains is that as a piece of the puzzle, as an essential inescapable fact, if not for English imperialism, if not for it’s crimes against the conscience, there would not be the world as we know it – no rebellious Irish geniuses cursing England and god, and no “Steinbeck in leather” as John Landau said of the Boss. No Beckett, no Wilde, no Shaw, no Yeats, nor the Cranberries, or U2 or the Pogues, or Flan O’Brien and no paradoxical American sinner-saints martyred on the altar of the liberal imagination finding their Cavalry on the floor of a kitchen in a hotel, in Los Angeles.
This History qua History is not, as a certain Polish exile, victimized by European imperialism, said, a pretty picture and when you look at it closely you find that really it’s just a case of one gang taking from another because they (the “others”) have different color skin and differently shaped noses.
Thus, it’s certainly true that the Europeans were savages in Africa and created a self-justifying myth about it, but it’s also true that they did that about everyone and so it is in fact wrong or at best, half true, to say they did it to the Africans or felt a deep pathological impulse to do it to the Africans, because if that were true then one would have to define English treatment of the Irish as a kind of large scale prank like a massive seltzer bottle to the face.
E=mc2 not E=m and we may or may not mention the rest. As a result when Achebe says Africa was antithetical to the idea of Europe he’s correctly giving us one half of the formulae. The rest of it says Europe saw Europe as antithetical to the idea of itself and one could spend a little time with Stephan Zweig or the assorted hysterics of Vienna to see how the contradictions of fetish and fear played out in Europe’s fevered imagination. Or one could sip some opium laced booze and listen to Baudelaire, or get cozy with Ibsen as he unpacks bourgeois hypocrisy. As always feel free to make your own list.
Africa was full of savages but then so was Russia but in the meantime let’s reread Dover Beach and masturbate while looking at Lautrec’s whores; lovely colors and here’s your copy of Man With a Maid, and Venus in Furs. Somebody spank me!
“Quite simply it is 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.”
Indeed but Egon Schile felt no need to go abroad and besides, every few months his pal Klimt had a new pregnant mistress, so if a young reprobate artist felt the urge to find something full of paradox, that was at once exciting and was exciting precisely because he was viewing it through a distorting lens that was both dominating of the “other” and himself, he could just go to the nearest red light district. There he could find drugs, sex, danger, inspiration and an entire cornucopia of cheep romances and high art that all viewed the whores and the pimps and the tubercular penitents as “other” – as exotic, dangerous, inspirational victims and victimizers so that what is revealed is not that the Europeans had a particular animus towards the Africans but that they were, per their SOP, about the business of soaking themselves in gasoline and running around throwing lighted matches at each other.
Here then let us consider a specific consequence of Achebe’s faulty formulation. He writes:
“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 bestiality. 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.” ”
This is not just wrong, it is wrong in the same way attaching a cow’s udder to a dog’s tail is wrong.
Quite obviously what Conrad meant, via the nameless narrator who frames the frame used by “Marlow” to tell the tale that contains the tale of Kurtz, is that as the Thames was once viewed by an Imperial Roman as a mystery of dread and seduction, so too do the English then view the Congo.
Per Achebe, Conrad seemingly wants to have it both ways, with the Thames being once a savage curtain but later a noble river of History, the Congo is just so much darkness.
This of course is standing Conrad on his head and accusing him of speaking with his shoes. Clearly his point is that the English have misunderstood History; their own and everyone else’s and as the Thames once was to the Romans, so shall the Congo be (eventually and inevitably, to the English). To ram home the point he has the skipper remark to the reader that he and the rest of the mates (the Accountant and the Lawyer, etc) were destined to hear another of Marlow’s vague tales – that they would not fully grasp. Because of course they (all of us) are victims of the maw of Fate. By amputating Europe from England, and England from itself, and Conrad from all of that, Achebe like a skilled prosecutor, makes his case and as they say about Grand Juries and famous authors: they can convince you to find a ham sandwich guilty. Of being a ham sandwich.
Achebe, ham sandwich ready for the gallows, continues:
“Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point.”
First, Conrad is not saying that at all. He is in fact saying exactly the opposite – that what goes around comes around and while the English may see themselves as good, the fact is, wait 1900 years and a group of friends will be sitting on a small boat on the Congo waxing nostalgic about the English the same way the English wax nostalgic about the Romans.
And how do we know that’s what Conrad meant? Aside from his letters, and the comments of people who knew him, and the rest of his oeuvre, there is the small matter of how the damn story ends. Marlow does not return to England a better man, or even a man with fond if troubling memories of his journey into the mysterious.
What happens instead is that he tells the Window Kurtz a blatant morally compromising lie that echoes the lie(s) of imperialism and we are told that though the lie is colossal, though it is foul, the heavens don’t give a damn because all of that sturm and drang are a trifle in the scheme of things and then, where a lesser artist would have stopped, Conrad being a genius and master craftsman, and master observer of the contradictory truths of reality, delivers the final stab: the skipper, snapped out of the reverie of Marlow’s dream-tale, snaps the reader out as well and says, they have missed the tide and thus trapped, he observes the river reaching out to the Earth itself; to the outermost reaches of the world and disappearing into a vast heart of Darkness – not an African darkness, not a Congo darkness, not a European darkness at the expense of Africa but an all consuming darkness that will swallow everyone and everything.
Thus when Achebe says, it’s not really the point any reasonable person would say first – well then why bring it up and secondly stop making it the point while pretending you’re not out to hang a ham sandwich, and by the way the sandwich is not guilty, but you are for delivering a steaming pile of pettifogging nonsense that if left unattended will become toxic in the manner of any other type of thorough-going bigotry.
As a result when, in the next paragraph Achebe accuses Conrad of stylistic bad faith, one might be excused for laughing at the blatant irony but after the laughter subsides and one suppresses the urge to rely only on ridicule, what remains is a dangerous slander. So long as Achebe leaves out the facts he can find Conrad guilty of anything.
His Conrad, minus the facts of the Thames being synonymous with the Congo (or Twain’s Mississippi for that matter or Homer’s Mediterranean) and that in the end the vision he offers is of an entire world damned by Fate, is found guilty of seeing the Congo specifically, and Africa generally as mysterious; possessing a strange vast quiet but also full of a strange frenzy both of which act on the one to compel and repel otherwise pure Europeans, and is used by Europeans to capture the Africans as both lazy and prone to dangerous frenzies.
Of course, putting aside that the average European saw the East End of London that way, or that Joyce was a scant generation later to see Dublin that way, (or Hardy who saw things the same way, or perhaps while engaging in his favorite pastime of climbing trees, while naked, D.H. Lawrence might have been thinking about the clash of purity and darkness in and with all those White people) one might very well consider the facts of the atmosphere in a equatorial jungle. A bit steamy? A tad warm? A bit languid, you say? A bit difficult to navigate?
Here one might consider another genius prey to the stylistic demands of contemporary readings who imagined the past of another forbidding arena:
“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Oh dear, what is an otherwise intelligent, anti-imperialist to do? The mouth breathing, knuckle dragging reactionaries of the Right will start screaming about people taking down statues of long dead Confederate losers but, amid the rhetorical napalm as likely to set them on fire as it is to torch their targets, an irritating truth remains.
Only fools and people whose motto is, when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun, are the types who would say, the destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America means that Fitzgerald’s Existential Romanticism, with it’s echoes of Conrad (who Fitzgerald had of course read) is in truth a bigot making excuses for imperial slaughter and when one reads Gatsby one must be mindful of his participation in and cheerleading for a crime against humanity.
And putting aside Fitzgerald’s unpleasant comments in his letters to his daughter, about racial purity, and that not even his biographers and keepers of the flame have written a word about his wife’s father being a judge, in Alabama in the era of Jim Crow, one returns to the same dilemma with Conrad.
It’s not as if Fitzgerald was saying the Buchanan’s were decent people or even remotely nice. It’s not as if he was saying Gatsby wasn’t a thug. He was saying everyone is fucked and the lost capacity for wonder is an ill wind that blows everywhere.
About twenty five years later another, less talented, far less elegant writer grabbed hold of those final paragraphs and used them to end the story of Sal Paradise watching his dream ride back into the mysterious, seductive, languid if frenzied West.
It’s a recurring theme not only for wandering, romantically tormented American authors but is in fact patented for world wide distribution.
No one gets out alive and no one who enters is prevented from reading the fine print on their ticket which says: You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Versus Achebe who by this point has stomped the ham sandwich into the ground and adds:
“The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity.”
Putting aside the legitimate question of just how eagle-eyed Leavis was (versus his impulse for critical self-immolation and the trench warfare of academic feuds), Achebe raises a fascinating point, though sadly it’s not the one he intended and he’s done it accidentally – a bit like Wily E. Coyote blowing himself to pieces.
Is there a writer anywhere at any time who hasn’t engaged in inducing a hypnotic stupor in their readers, or in themselves? The willing suspension of disbelief comes to mind as does Neruda saying, I want to do to you what spring does to the cherry trees, or Melville beating everyone into submission with yet more details about how to kill and cook a whale, or one might consider Barthelme’s, At the Tolstoy Museum, where things just keep happening, or one might try wading through the singing Elves of Lothlorien, or frankly the old Testament, or, feel free to make your own list because while claiming to have found the crust guilty of being shoe leather, Achebe has accidently found art and artifice guilty of being art and artifice. Old father, old artificer, said another fellow who troweled words with a majestic, if heavy stupor inducing hand, reminiscent of lotus eaters everywhere, stand me now and ever in good stead
One may find some of those mentioned guilty of purveying word porn but even if one grants the premise, the fact remains that finding them guilty of trying to conjure a dream is like finding that water is wet and being angry about it. Achebe would of course say the issue is not the effort at enchantment, but that enchantment in the service of a lie is bad faith. All well and good but more’s the pity then that it’s Achebe who is breaking his vows and not Conrad.
Of course Conrad was weaving a spell. That’s what fiction is. It’s very definition tells you you’re being lied to but that the details of the lie are so paradoxically honest that one is seduced into believing them. Or as another jazz improv genius, famous for laying on the words with a kind of writerly howitzer said – the facts and the truth seldom have much to do with each other. Of course after that much whiskey the truth is a moving target but the facts, the stubborn facts remain: Conrad can’t be found guilty of being a writer and if he found Africa mysterious it’s not a crime especially when one remember that he found London mysterious, and the English, and boats, and the ocean, and the law, and Poland, and women, and dogs, and being a writer.
But for Achebe, Conrad was guilty and, instead of the TRUTH, gave us: “…the role of purveyor of comforting myths. ”
What exactly is comforting, about the whole of the world drifting into an immense heart of darkness, escapes us but Achebe seems certain that despite the end of the story being a death sentence for humanity, Conrad meant to include a footnote that said: Offer of Existential Angst Void where excused by skin color. In other words, per Achebe, Heart of Darkness is coded to mean Whites Only, which would be funny were it not so sinister.
Here we quote Achebe at length and include his quote from Conrad also presented at some length:
“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us — who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign — and no memories.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.
Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours …. Ugly.””
“…their humanity — like your – Ugly.” ”
For Achebe the point Conrad is making is that African’s are ugly.
For everyone else who is reading English, the operative words are – “like yours” because of course unless the passage is amputated from the rest of the book, it echoes the opening where we are told “This too has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Meaning of course, again, what goes around comes around and if you were going down the Congo at the end of the 19th century and you saw a man who seemed a kind of jackass, it wouldn’t matter in the end because he was you and you will be him and you will go on trading places until the end of the world which is just a few pages further along.
And where Conrad’s accusers next point to how Marlow says the then current English were noble unlike the gangster Romans and claim that’s proof of Conrad’s perfidy, they neglect to mention (or succeed in avoiding) that Conrad’s point is that Marlow may not have his head up his ass but, he’s got an unpleasant tell-tale scent about him, as if he’s inching ever closer to the wrong end of things.
And consider the toxic if absurd reductio ad absurdum of saying that one passage defines the book’s enduring appeal. Not that it speaks to the terminus at the center of the 19th century where one looks around the kiosks and observes, The Scream, or Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, or Rimbaud, or Baudelaire, or Anna K always being on time for that damn train, and the prevailing sense that the sinews of reality were on fire but, per Achebe, a single paragraph in Conrad’s work. And of course that in turn amputates Heart of Darkness from the rest of Conrad’s efforts thus the appeal of Heart of Darkness is not connected to Lord Jim, or Nostromo or The Secret Agent and as result of that dissection Achebe can say well what was Pearl Harbor doing in the middle of the Pacific anyway!?!
But Achebe is hardly done:
“And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. 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.
As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad things being in their place is of the utmost importance.
“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. ” ”
This appears to damn Conrad and the Ham if not the very idea of a sandwich because there in black and white (sic!) are Conrad’s own words – “in their place.”
Except of course he is also then guilty of having said previously that if you look closely you’ll see the whole business of imperialism is just one gang beating up another, and that it’s mostly built on one gang disliking the way the other gang looks.
Which in turn means that as a reasonable reader, who takes in the entirety of the text and does not cherry pick the intelligence in order to prove Conrad is building weapons of mass destruction, that Marlow’s comments, as a stand in for Conrad, are not just ironic but disturbingly ironic. Marlow will not be understood, we are told by the men he is closest to, but even Marlow will be misunderstood by himself; man, humanity, half inside the truth and half outside stumbles along the river of History and flails where, as another dreaded dead White European male said, where ignorant armies clash by night.
That of course again contextualizes Conrad who of course had read Arnold, and knew Dover Beach and knew that the butcher’s bill was due.
Of course Achebe has no room for context because context means an examination of the facts. Consider here how again bolting his accusations to thin air Achebe makes his case:
“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:
She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning …. She took both my hands in hers and murmured, “I had heard you were coming.”… She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.
The difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subtle ways to need elaboration. But perhaps the most significant difference is the one implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other. 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. There are two occasions in the book, however, when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages. The first occurs when cannibalism gets the better of them:
“Catch ‘im,” he snapped with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth — “catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.” “To you, eh?” I asked; “what would you do with them? “Eat ‘im!” he said curtly. . . .
The other occasion was the famous announcement:”Mistah Kurtz — he dead.”
First, exactly what is offensive about the description? The answer would be, per Achebe, that the African woman is described as wild and because she is wild, she is magnificent where the European woman being refined, or civilized, is neither wild nor magnificent.
Except of course in order for that to be evidence of perfidy let alone bigotry, it requires one to believe that fidelity to a criminal (Kurtz) and to (the crime of) imperialism, and a capacity for suffering meant to Conrad a state of virtue. And in order for that to be true one would have to jettison the fact that at the end of the book Marlow lies to the widow Kurtz, who falls back into a dead fantasy which of course leads to the death of everyone at the outermost reaches of the Earth. And that of course is central to the intellectual malfeasance of Achebe in the service of the otherwise righteous cause of anti-imperialism: Marlow lies to the widow Kurtz within the context of the greater lie of imperialism one folded inside the other so that the great fabrication contains the personal corruptions and visa versa. If Conrad were a bigot Marlow would emerge unscathed and virtue intact return to London. But like an Arthurian knight who is just good enough to see the Grail, he is too weak to touch it and instead falls short.
Again Achebe is not just being disingenuous but crucially he is engaged in the very myth making he accuses the apologists of the imperial crusades of perpetrating. The fact is Marlow lies to the widow, and he knows he has sinned but worse he knows that divine justice doesn’t give a damn because it’s going to step on the whole of creation with a cosmic iron boot. Thus, if you remove or eliminate context and the actual text, Conrad sounds like a cross between his friend H. Rider Hagar, and some opium soaked imperial thug like Ernst Rom who may have been a model for Kurtz and who was notorious for, among other things, displaying in his front yard in the Congo, heads of locals he had severed in order to assure everyone, he was not to be fucked with.
But if you don’t cheat and take the text as a whole you’re face to face with two inescapable facts. First, that Conrad was a genius and secondly, that Achebe is a hack and thus a fraud.
Which brings us to one of his and his supporters version of what they claim is a smoking gun that proves Conrad was a bigot.
“Mistah Kurtz, he dead.”
As with “The horror, the horror” it is one of the great lines in the book and one of the most resonant in all of literature.
For Achebe and the denuded foot soldiers following in his wake it means something else entirely.
The cabin boy who says Kurtz, he dead, is held up as an example of Conrad limiting the speech and the humanity of the Africans. Unable to speak fluent English they are, per Achebe, grotesque caricatures and thus prima facia evidence of the racist Victorian views of Conrad and Europe.
Except of course again for the stubborn facts, Achebe would have a valid point.
Namely, a child, an indentured servant nearly a slave, living in a colonial gulag, where the educated indigenous population had been killed or silenced, where education was forbidden, where servitude was enforced through torture, and execution and slave labor was to result in the death of nearly 10,000,000 people and where ritualized amputations of limbs for both minor or any infraction and for shows of force were common, exactly what should the boy have said? His lordship, Mister Kurtz has shuffled off this mortal coil and we shall not see his like again, sir.
Mind you this tripe, these somersaults in illogic and hackery are from a Nobel winner and a tenured professor at a prestigious university. Were a right wing goon to write something similar and substitute say, Obama or Dickens for Conrad, the left, or its pale imitation, would be in a frenzy over the lies half truths and ugly distortions.
But then, Achebe launches the dismount and sticks the landing with this whopper – turning away from Conrad to briefly open the door to context, albeit for a context crippled by a selective presentation of facts, we get:
“Gaugin had gone to Tahiti, the most extravagant individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable; it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Derain was ‘speechless’ and ‘stunned’ when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze. . . The revolution of twentieth century art was under way!
The mask in question was made by other savages living just north of Conrad’s River Congo. They have a name too: the Fang people, and are without a doubt among the world’s greatest masters of the sculptured form. The event Frank Willett is referring to marks the beginning of cubism and the infusion of new life into European art, which had run completely out of strength.”
First, Achebe seems to be forgetting, or succeeding in not mentioning, that Rimbaud had run out of Dodge before Gaugin, that Jack London had at roughly the same time as well, and Flaubert as had any number of other vagabonds, adventurers, and great and not so great artists. And what to do with the idea that Achebe has this nonsense about Gaugin being true when we know about Flaubert and Delacroix in North Africa and the Middle East?
And before someone somewhere shouts about how they all returned, unlike Gaugin, and that per Edward Said they were all purveyors of European romantic tyranny, it might help to remember that Flaubert (like Baudelaire) was put on trial for obscenity by the same system that was crushing the Africans in the service of the empire, and that Delacroix didn’t event the whore houses or the whores of Morocco. Or its indigenous slave trade. And as to Derain being speechless – Derain was to have the same response when he first saw Paris, and Lautrec’s paintings, and Picasso’s sketchbook. In other words, being nearly speechless was, for a serious penitent, par for the course.
And then there is the fact that Achebe, angry about what he claims is Conrad’s limiting of “Africa” into grunts and noise and fools, has neglected to mention that prior to the Fang mask episode, Derain was a Fauvist – along with such minor figures as Matisse, and Cézanne. In other words the art scene in Europe was as wide and varied and dynamic as one would expect.
But Achebe serves up an even bigger hairball than all of that: “…European art, which had completely run out of strength.”
Achebe’s point being that the imperial rape of Africa infused the otherwise dead engine of European art with new life.
Except for one problem. If European art was dead, how do we explain that everyone of the artists and the art dealer Achebe mentions, are all fucking Europeans?!?
European art was not dead, or even in a coma. Vincent van Gogh may have died broke and in all but obscurity but Picasso and the gang knew who he was and thought the world of him as they did of the artists who came before that, and whose work they quote (repeatedly and at length) in their own, so that when one reads the narratives of Braque and Picasso’s Cubism, one see them quoting, all the way back to the still life paintings of the 17th and 16th centuries thus, while there is no doubt that African art played a crucial role in the next stage of European art the fact, the irrefutable fact is, that so did Flemish art and Renaissance art and French art and European science, and music, technology and politics – and all of it was compressed and shot out of the cannon that was the great paradoxical, and problematic collision machine of the genius of European creativity.
Modigliani, the Jew, the Romantic, the bastard, the genius, looked at ancient Greek statuary and said hell yes give me more of that, and knew that those faces could be found in Africa where Africans traders, and pirates had seen Greek statuary and incorporated it into their work, as the Greeks incorporated the styles of the massive shopping mall of the Mediterranean into their own.
And a word here specifically about Picasso. He was as they, say blown away by African masks and incorporated them into his work. Sadly for Achebe, Picasso also made use of the Iberian faces he saw when he and Fernand went on vacation in Spain after Picasso sold Les Demoiselles to the New York MOMA’s Alfred Barr (via Andre Breton who set up the meeting) and, crucially, those faces, a mixture of indigenous DNA, and Romans, and Moors, look “Spanish” and look “Moorish” and look “European” and “African” and one is reminded of two facts: After looking at his portrait of her, Gertrude Stein said to Picasso: It doesn’t look like me. To which Picasso said: Don’t worry, it will.
And, the “African” face Picasso and the gang used, was also the blowback from when the tribes of Africa had invaded, conquered and colonized Spain.
Saint Augustine, posing for a while as a moral relativist says in City of God: Concern yourself not with whether your actions are good or evil, for both are of the mind of god.
Which is fascinating for any number of reasons but for our purposes what matters more here and now, is to recall that Augustine was from Africa, and his words were used to conquer the world.
Achebe’s essay can be read here:
A note on Manet’s Olympia.
Following the scandal from his previous work, Manet’s whore provoked still more angst. Different and competing narratives were hurled at the work including that it was obscene, that it was anti-patriarchal, misogynist, pornographic, racist, erotic, subversive, radical, and dangerous as well as a series of combinations of the preceding and others – as always, feel free to make your own list.
Two issues concern us here in regards to Achebe and Conrad.
First that Manet and the reaction to the painting clearly constitute a focal point of the extent to which Achebe’s assertion that the Europeans have a pathological need to portray Africa as x to Europe’s y, is at best conditional and at worst dangerously false.
The painting demonstrates every one of the issues Achebe has as being specific to Europe’s narrative about “Africa.”
All of the issues he attributes to Conrad’s “Africa” are in play with Manet’s Olympia which in turn becomes, Manet’s Europe.
The idea of the gaze, of who is observing, an issue in European visual art since Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Velasquez’ Las Meninas, is central to Manet’s work. Gaze in this case is also a kind of speech and thus, Manet is throwing an artistic Molotov cocktail at the system – the state, the empire, the roles of men and women, of the family, of the patriarchy, of the fraught relationship between bourgeoise and proletariat; between White and Black.
Secondly, Manet is contextualized by a continent-wide reaction to the culture of his time. Thus, clearly, we have in this painting a privileged White bourgeois attacking the White power structure of Europe in a way that eroticizes color and gender, the gaze, the idea of “art” and commentary; fetish and repulsion fuse and are part of a massive anarchist reaction inside the continent against the continent.
This turns Achebe’s idea of “Africa” as uniquely situated in Europe’s imagination as limp. In order for “Africa” to hold the position Achebe claims, requires that the entire revolt in Europe against Europe ranging from both left and right political movements to the entire artistic explosion, be elided.
The fact – the inescapable fact – remains that the Europeans were as at odds with themselves as they were with Africa and the rest of the world.
*A word about prostitution in England and Europe in the 19th century.
The number of prostitutes in London in the later 19th century, are estimated between 50,000 and 1000,000.
The amount of literature (low art and high) produced is staggering ranging from cheap “porn” as we would call it today to more “refined efforts.”
What goes missing in Achebe’s smear of Conrad is not just the context of Conrad’s writing and life but, ironically that Achebe is engaging in the same elision of “voices” he accuses Conrad of silencing.
The millions of impoverished, the prostitutes, and the system that enforced narratives upon them that sexualized them, transformed them into fetishes and objects of fear, wonder, mystery and whatever else the ruling classes needed, demonstrate that where Achebe says the Europeans had a compulsion about Africa, he is correct – it’s the same compulsion that contextualizes everything from Jack the Ripper to Conan Doyle, to Dickens’ Fagin.