“Yes, I’m a bigot but, for the left.”
— Woody Allen, Annie Hall.
“I love the rule that corrects emotion”
— Georges Braque
In his much celebrated but seldom critiqued hit piece on Joseph Conrad, novelist and polemicist, Chinua Achebe managed the neat trick of performing a rhetorical reverse that exceeded the g force tolerance of honesty, intellectual rigor and, got away with it.
The success of his literary and intellectual malfeasance is down to politics and has nothing to do with talent. Had a right wing, morally gelatinous goon said the same thing they’d have been metaphorically locked in a stockade on the commons and pelted with the cyber equivalent of rotten vegetables. Had a fascist said the same thing most people would have yawned and muttered some version of: well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.
Achebe however is a Black leftist novelist from Africa, so when he says things that are clearly not true, historically vague, dripping with dangerous rhetorical toxins and just plain silly, he gets a pass. The pass is because other people, less intelligent actually believe he’s correct and people who are smart enough to know he’s wrong, are also smart enough to know the tenure track has clearly enforced lanes, and the consequences of drifting let alone stepping on the brakes are profound and tend to result in disciplinary hearings and loss of invitations to parties, where jobs and drinks are served.
We are referring to Achebe’s essay, An Image of Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ published in The Massachusetts Review in 1977.
We have excavated the non-contextualized reading Achebe offers of Conrad previously (with specific emphasis on the bankrupt idea that the Europeans maintained an exclusive pathological need to see Africa as corrupting of their virtue – when in truth the Europeans had the same view, depending on class, and religion, about Ireland, Manchester, London’s East End, Paris, Catholics, Jews, the poor, prostitutes, the Italians, the Spanish, the Russians, etc., etc., etc.) and our focus here is on another shining example of Achebe both scoring on his own goal, and doing it while wearing the uniform of the people he insists are trying to muffle if not strangle him and who, he insists, were criminally negligent in their vison of Africa as the corrupting other to Europe’s sense of its own purity.
Here’s the statement in question (emphasis added):
“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.”
As with a lot of what Achebe says, it’s not that he’s wrong per se (though he certainly is not right) but, that he leaves out the rest of the story which renders what he’s correct about being problematic at best and so without context that at worst a moral HAZMAT suit should be issued with each copy of his essay.
It is true that African art played a significant role in the development of European art in the 20th century. It’s true that African masks were a key spark for many artists including but not limited to the round up the usual suspects hit parade of Picasso and Braque and others.
But what Achebe leaves out is that as is the well established impact of Asian art, (particularly Japanese prints) also made a major impact on European art, but more importantly is how neither African nor Asian art were instrumental in the development of another major European school: Abstraction.
Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg (along with Wassily Kandinsky* and Paul Klee) ran as fast and as far from figurative art as was possible. Mondrian having moved to Paris in 1911 was knocked over by Cubism but instead of following in the footsteps of Picasso, Braque, or others, he took the idea of lines and ran away from the representation of the object or of “reality” and instead produced increasingly antithetical images in opposition to the world qua the world and were instead, precisely delineated blocks of color designed to represent a purity of form.
In other words, blue, red, yellow, white and black or gray lines in blocks. One might say there is something decidedly North European and Protestant about his vision: a clean functionality that stands in for the faith in a god who operates with the precision of a surgeon and the morality of a stock broker working on the Bourse in Amsterdam (but who secretly plays jazz at a seedy nightclub every Thursday evening).
Mondrian’s vision represents any number of things but what it does not do is make use of African art. It is, as part of the vortex of the 19th century and then the early 20th a response to multiple streams one of which is the echo of African art bouncing off the massive linear accelerator of Picasso’s imagination with bank shots off of George Braque and Fernand Leger. But in Mondrian and van Doesburg one see the absence of anything that can be said to directly or metaphorically be mimetic.
Achebe’s point, as such, is that the European’s had a pathological need to see Africa as that which through its (so the European imperialists claimed) savagery and lack of culture, stood in dangerous contrast to the purity of European civilization. European art was all but dead he declares until the rape of Africa infused it with new vitality. This is by now a standard trope. It captures European art, (eliminates the entirety of the anti-imperialist left from the narrative) holds it hostage, strikes its vitality from the inventory, and offers a formula: The art is great and it’s corrupt because it’s the product of a crime. This is also Achebe’s method with Conrad. It is the calling card of the huate leftist (pseudo) intellectual. It allows the prosecutor to be both your friend and your executioner. You’re alright, says the man with the axe, but let’s be honest, you’re guilty of rape, genocide and being either an overt bigot or (per Achebe’s Conrad) unconsciously guilty of all of the above.
That last piece of the left puzzle is perhaps the more lethal. It robs the subject of autonomy and if one accepts the premise than no matter what response is given, the accuser can and does, move the goal post claiming that they understand the code from which truth qua truth is revealed while you, poor benighted White person, are unaware and can only be led to the light (by which you will be judged and found guilty) by the accuser.
In other words, it’s Animal Farm as a how to manual, instead of as a warning.
It is not enough to state that Achebe is wrong but more importantly honesty requires stating that he is not only wrong as Mondrian and Doesburg, Klee and Kandinsky make clear, but that he is wrong in exactly the manner he ascribes to the bigots of Murder Incorporated who perpetrated imperialism.
Achebe denies the voices, in all their multiplicity, and contradictions, that ran riot across Europe in the era of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and from which came a storm that rages into our time.
Mondrian helped launch a revolution in art that has impacted everything from architecture to political discourse. Abstraction, echoing the revolutions in science, especially physics, with its systems of relativity, and quanta, impacted every facet of contemporary culture. By no means always successful let alone accepted, the fact remains Abstraction in art, academia, and its connections to Postmodernity are so profound that in our time, neo reactionary and not-so-crypto fascists on YouTube and in the public sphere rail against it – accusing it of being the Patient Zero of all our current ills and tragedies.
Granted their understanding of it is a mile wide and an inch deep but it helps to remember that a not so stupid intellectual from Vienna said of James Joyce, after the publication of Ulysses, that the difference between a lunatic and Joyce was that they both fell off a cliff into a storm tossed ocean with the lunatic jumping and Joyce slipping and falling.
That the comment was idiotic, anti-intellectual and all but reactionary and bordering on, ironically, when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun, would be amusing were it not ultimately so sinister.
Achebe is thus, in fairly good company if still running with a dubious reputation. This of course is one of the central defects in the left. Granted it is a central defect everywhere as the left holds no monopoly on cherry picking the intelligence to prove the other guys have weapons of mass destruction, and one is justified in sending in the marines – either literally or rhetorically. But under the heading of, is the Pope Catholic, one hopes for better from the left, let alone from its all-stars. Instead one gets a kind of industrial scale, I know you are but what am I, pretzel logic, that is constantly combusting because of its self righteous ACME Kit Hypocrisy. In other words, everyone is equal it’s just that some are more equal than others and have tenure at a major university and a steady stream of opportunities to get published, deliver lectures, receive awards and live a fairly comfortable existence – as members of the system they condemn.
Brother hypocrite, said noted asshole and genius, Baudelaire (at the dark heart of the 19th century) I salute you. Of course fueled by that much opium and anxiety, a moral certainty would be hard to come by but there is more honesty in Baudelaire’s bile than in Achebe’s accusations.
European art was not anywhere close to being dead at the dawn of the 20th century. The idea that a protean genius like Picasso would have been stuck without seeing African art is the sort of notion that puts one in mind of Hanna Arendt’s comment, made in a slightly different context, that believing it would require a near criminal lack of imagination. If not African art than a trash heap and the seat and handlebar of a discarded bicycle, and if not that than a conversation with his pal, Duchamp and a urinal, and if not that than a hundred or a thousand other things.
In the case of Mondrian, Achebe has constructed a straight jacket and muzzle with which he seeks to stifle the voice of Europe. He denies its authenticities, its contradictions, its creativity, its autonomy and above all, its humanity. He does it in the service of a righteous cause poisoned by blind and blinding rage, that reduces the truth to handy slogans which in turn transform the cause into a hammer and every issue into a nail.
Mondrian went in search of god. He found it in linear splashes of color and uniformity of lines which reflected both a linear conception of reality and paradoxically the idea that the linear led directly to the sublime which took all forms and was, thus, non-linear.
God, he found, was in the details and in god, he found the details transcended easy explanations.
This in turn brings us to a nuance about Picasso and George Braque that Achebe either is unaware of or knows about but decided, why let the facts get in the way of a an otherwise useful rant.
For Achebe European Art generally and Picasso specifically are dead without imperialism, and since imperialism is a crime against humanity, European Art (and the artists, the critics, the people lined up at museums and three deep at galleries) is not just guilty, guilty, guilty but it must be treated as a kind of lab rat and it’s Achebe in the white coat.
Among the details he ignores (or succeeds in not mentioning) is that the Fang mask connects the art scene to figuration but that was not the alpha and omega of the revolution. Here’s Guillaume Apollinaire writing seven years after the appearance of the mask (emphasis added):
“Paris in 1912! What could be more wonderful for a painter? A believer in signs might say this was surely the mark of a predestined career. The year1912 is perhaps the most glorious in the history of painting in France. This was the apogee of Cubism, and cubism is identified with Paris, is Paris itself, the real Paris, Paris without artifice…But Cubism developed in Paris itself, in Montmartre, first between the Rue d’Orsel and the Rue Ravignan, then between the Boulevard de Clichy and Impasse Guelma. When Braque and Picasso spent the summer at Ceret and at Sorgues, they always brought along their mandolins, fruit dishes, absinthe glasses, female models, and above all, their palettes, stressing the typical gray of the walls of Paris. Yes 1912 is the most Parisian moment in painting…”
There is a lot going in that paragraph. We begin however where it concludes. Braque and Picasso arrived at the (almost) end of the Post Impressionist moment and in deconstructing Post Impressionism had to contend with Impressionism – not only with technique and the individual giants of the form (keeping in mind a young Picasso sketched Renoir then crippled with arthritis so severe he had to have his brushes tapped in-between his bent fingers) but with how Impressionism had gone from rejection and scandal (Manet’s Olympia was already in her fifties by 1912) to dominance and near kitsch. When Apollinaire says Braque and Picasso were using gray to represent the authentic Paris he meant (among other crucial points) that they were rejecting Impressionism’s palate – it’s vision of the world and thus of the truth. Thus their gray was a social critique and political statement as well as part of an aesthetic reconfiguration of several centuries’ worth of art.
In place of the static past was to be a realism that in conjunction with what appeared to be a rejection of reality through the “little cubes” that they declared Impressionism dead.
Like the reasoning or not it is what they were thinking. Thus, if one is honest and not blinded by an agenda, one confronts the fact that in addition to the Fang mask, European artists had other issues with which they were wrestling. Cubism was not only the distortion of the face infused with the angularity of an Africa mask but was also the gray of industrial Europe and it was through the ubiquitous mandolins and other paraphernalia a quotation of the traditional Still Life – which as a form, a trope of Europe, that reached back to the 17th and 16th centuries.
Achebe has, of course, elided all of this. His Europe begins and ends with the conquest of Africa – a fact which among a cornucopia of other elided truths – includes that the 19th century European conquest and colonization of Africa was only one in the series of conquests going back and forth across the Mediterranean. Moors in Spain becomes Italians in Ethiopia, and Venetians in Constantinople becomes Byzantium in the imagination of an Irish mystic genius, and that echoes Barbary Pirates holding Cervantes hostage and that echoes Augustine being from a Roman colony in North Africa, and getting the temp gig to conjure some social media to sell the then latest edition of the New Religion – which of course would rise from Africa and merge with Europe – which had acquired it in a fire sale in the Middle East – and be used to conquer the world.
Apollinaire continues (Emphasis again added):
“One has to mount the towers of Notre Dame to understand 1912. The Paris which extends below is an immense gray monochrome – Braque and Picassos of 1912 by the yard. The Ile Saint-Louis is a Cubist picture, the Latin quarter is three or four overlapping Cubist pictures…and the rectilinear grill of the Hotel Dieu hospital just below, at the foot of the Cathedral, is a post-Cubist painting by Mondrian – one done in 1914, if the sun is shining; in 1919 if the sky is dark.”
And so, there it is: the vector that places Mondrian in context explodes the warped, utterly disingenuous contextualization of Achebe who in reducing European Art, and Europe and Humanity, to a singular Historical blink of an eye, is guilty of the very methodology he attributes to those he claims are ignoring what he says is the dark heart of Conrad.
The fact is, Mondrian answered the echo of Cubism, which itself was in response to Impressionism and Post impressionism, fused African Art with the already well established tropes of centuries in European Art and, went running as fast as he could in the opposite direction – towards Abstraction.
“I love the rule that corrects emotion” – said Braques meaning Cubism as a correction of the Fauvists who had branched out from the diffusion of color in Impressionism. Braque meant something an American a decade later would mean when they said ‘hardboiled’ – the cool linear Bach-infused elegance of a stripped down line by Hemingway and Hammett (both writing just eight years after Apollinaire’s declaration of 1912). Cubism then with its monochromatic gestures was as much a political statement as only, purely, an aesthetic one.
Apollinaire continues (emphasis again added):
“Let us not forget at the same time the memory of the Fauves was still strong, that Expressionism had made its appearance, and that the Post-Impressionists had not said their last word. And this does not take into account the throng of unclassifiable tendencies and ephemeral celebrities. From all this topsy-Turvy of research, overlapping movements, Negro influences, revolutions and counter-revolutions, enthusiasm for color and flights from it into austere gray, Mondrian retained but one thing: order, the need for order which could be sensed behind this effervescence.”
Apollinaire, using the normative patois of his era means, clearly, not just the Fang mask but the entirety of the blowback of Imperialism. An educated minor aristocrat, a radical, subversive, Modernist, he was hip to the jive of his time and was part of the Avant Garde. What Achebe in his banal broad-brush assault on honesty leaves out, is not just all of the above but that Apollinaire was writing underground for an audience in the dozens precisely because he was, like so many other Europeans, locked out by the establishment; prevented from reaching a wide audience to tell them that the official narratives were just that – official and bogus. That he was also writing for a wider more mainstream audience (in the Mercure among other platforms) speaks to the tensions of the era – with one foot in each camp Apollinaire was like so many others, commentating at his own funeral.
Thus, layer upon layer is pealed back revealing Achebe to be a hack. European Art was not dead, it was in rude and robust health churning out rebellion and genius. It was part of a centuries long back and forth with Africa and itself.
Achebe condemns Conrad and singles out a passage in Heart of Darkness where Marlow describes a local who is a cannibal. Sadly for Achebe, he ignores that Europe was a cannibal as well – Braques, Picasso, Apollinaire (half a Pole, and like Conrad, in Exile though still European in Europe), and Mondrian and all the others – eating themselves and the world.**
How, asked a White male European, victim of the imperial boots, shall we know the dancer from the dance?
Among many answers, here is one from Mondrian:
“Everything is expressed through relationship. Colour can exist only through other colours, dimension through other dimensions, position through other positions that oppose them. That is why I regard relationship as the principal thing.”
*An interesting and not unimportant detail is that Kandinsky was the uncle of Alexander Kojeve who, is a kind of historical-cultural Ground Zero or straw that stirs the drink – connecting a group that ranges from Harold Bloom to J.P. Sartre; Francis Fukayama to Soviet spies, Reaganite imperialism (sic!) and the Surrealism of The Story of the Eye.
**It is no small rebuke and rejoinder to Achebe that Apollinaire was a Dreyfusard, thus again contextualizing Conrad’s era – the Jews of Europe, who were European, were victims of European imperialism and yet, like the Irish and the Poles still both European and colonized – a nuanced paradoxical condition Achebe’s hammer and the world is a nail vision ignores.
Dreyfus in turn is one of several hundred focal points that expand Achebe’s polemic to such a contextualizing degree that it leaves him if not on the ash heap , then in the que leading to it.
“Europe” per Achebe is all bigotry and colonization. In that fiction Dreyfus does not exist, thus European anti-Semitism does not exist, therefore anti-imperialist movements, overlapping with other internal movements across the continent do not exist.
This in turn rebounds back into the art of the 19th and early 20th century. For Achebe, Ubu Roi and Rites of Spring never occurred. Baudelaire was never put on trial. James Joyce did not run from Ireland and Ireland – White and European – was never colonized. Since Ireland, per Achebe, was not a colony of Europe and still European, the Irish rebellion in the arts did not occur, and so on and if it did occur then like Conrad, it’s brilliant if toxic.
Addendum: We will return to this point later but for now, regarding Achebe’s bassakwards view that reduces European art to the event horizon of African masks, there is this:
Another fact that renders Achebe as a hack and a fraud one also has the Fauvists who presented their work in 1905 – that is at the same time as the Fang mask made its appearance and thus one finds that Matisse and Derain were alive and well as was European art.