Friday, June 24, 2011
Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS and Selections from The Congo Diary. Introduction by Caryl Phillips. New York: The Modern Library, 1999.
Acquired at the BookShop, West Portal, San Francisco. New.
This little 90-page masterpiece has an incredibly ubiquitous presence in imperial historiography. It must have popped up dozens of times in my graduate school readings before I finally decided, okay, I've gotta read it already. So here we are, Conrad. Lay your weird narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative on me.
I liked this edition because it includes commentary, in various capacities, by the likes of E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe and others. Achebe most memorably accused Conrad of being a "bloody racist," in so many words. (In those exact words, actually. Of course the rest of his criticism is far less colloquial.)
[A comic posted in our history department lounge: "Heart of Darkness in one sentence: 'Africa makes white people go crazy.'"]
Besides for this book's numerous reincarnations in the form of Vietnam and Iraq war movies, I think what makes it so interesting is the continued debate around its nature, its appropriateness for both its historical moment and our own. The way perceptions, worldviews, historical understandings rub up against each other- one paradigm does not simply become obsolete and get replaced by a new one. Conrad was criticizing imperialism, it's true, and he was cynical about not only the enterprise but the true nature of all men, which under the veneer of civilization was essentially the same. But he was also, as Achebe points out, a racist, a product and a perpetuator of the imperial worldview that dominated turn-of-the-century Britain. Today, we largely abhor imperialism and the atrocities in Africa (at least, what we know of them... so much has been lost, or ignored). But "civilization" ideology, which produces the non-Western savage as its Other, is alive and well. The threads of thought that existed in Conrad's time are not entirely obsolete, and so it can be read in earnest, uncritically, even praised as progressive.
"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 pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..." (7-8)