Today in my “Post-colonial” literature paper we had a whole-class debate on “Is Joseph Conrad, in the words of Chinua Achebe, a ‘bloody racist’?”
It was quite a helpful format, because he divided the class into two, told us to find three main points as a collective and then break into essentially six groups to refine and state the main points. It meant there was focus for discussion, and the necessity of being able to state a conclusion.
But it was while discussing this that I had a kind of realisation. I don’t like the word “racist”. For one thing, I have almost no idea what it means. Chinua Achebe’s view is clearly stated when he dissects Conrad, and from what I can tell, you’re either with the oppressed masses or against them. Pardon the expression, but he seems to have a pretty black and white perspective on it. Conrad wrote in opposition to the tyranny and excesses of the colonial masters, but because he didn’t go the next step and demand their freedom he is condemned forever in quite strong terms as not worthy of study or remembrance. Well, I disagree: at the very least, he’s to be valued as a cultural artefact.
Part of the difficulty I have with approaching literature from the point of view of evaluating the qualities of the author’s character is that.. well.. literature is a construction built within a kind of purely intellectual framework. However much we might like to read into a work some correspondance with reality, it must be always kept in mind that the work is an artistic creation first. This isn’t a hard line: some of the journalism I’ve seen in National Geographic magazine has been as dream like and disconnected as any purely fictional narrative, and some ultimately fictitous narratives can easily compell you to believe that reality could be no other way. Frederick Forsyth, for example, specializes in presenting such a meticulously detailed world that despite yourself you are convinced it’s all true by the novel’s end. That conviction doesn’t make it so.
At best, you can look at the type of fiction and say “this kind of fiction interests the author who wrote it”. Just as it obviously interests you, because you’re reading it. Ultimately then, my take is that the author isn’t a figure you should try to interrogate based on his fiction. Their part in producing meaning is done, and it is in the hands of the reader to determine what value the work has. The reader must construct the framework with which they interpret the novel and gain insight or pleasure as best they can. To that extent, I do not begrudge Achebe his reading, antithetical to my own. In fact, through the prose he produced I can go with him.
But, I can’t go there on my own. His concept of “racism” is clearly well developed, and has been evolving over a long period of time. Just like that other great black intellectual Chris Rock: “I love black people, but I hate niggers.” Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been too long steeped in the Scifi subculture, but I thought he expressed one of the key methodologies of Scifi: change something’s exterior, and see if you still care about the consequences. Transform, as Circe did, the dying workers Marlow encounters in the shady grove into pigs, and there is still a moving scene: the pathos comes from their suffering, their colour or even their species matters not one bit.
At its heart this kind of approach is to isolate what’s really important or at stake, and to describe it in those terms. Thus they have AI or Robots instead of people in their inquest into the rights of the individual. The apotheosis of this idea was arguably Data in Star Trek Enterprise: is he a machine, or a person? What are the essential qualities which he has or lacks that makes him in some spiritual sense, human?
Conversely, just as 1960s SciFi used this foil to slice away the inhereted baggage of race, it allows the exposure of any story element as it’s naked plot function. This is the baggage that Achebe is unable to leave behind as he lambasts Conrad’s depiction of the almost mindless and certainly misanthropic natives who live on the banks of the Congo. For Achebe, they are supremely and unalterably fully realized human beings. Conrad’s story is essentially one of a man who abandons the trappings and modes of civilization to embrace power absolutely, and finds himself consequently absolutely corrupted.
Using the tool of translation, and considering instead a man surrounded by and embracing the modes of computers, do we feel that antipathy to an alien psychology so vividly evoked by Conrad? We do; but in recognizing the essential difference between us and the computers, we are not thinking as unrepentant technophobes. We are thinking as human beings lamenting the loss of the essential quality which binds rather than divides. Is it racist for Conrad to ascribe savagery to the savages?
Conrad, writing in the modern world, would need to reach further afield than Africa for the part of his savages. There are no untamed wilds left, and I wonder whether he would, as HG Wells did, turn to an entirely fictitious future? Would Conrad now be forced to send his protagonist into the far future, into a world of Morlocks and Eloi? Must we follow Achebe and perfectly humanize these fictitious creatures with a full spectrum of human experience, and at last sympathize rather with the Morlocks than Eloi because of the burdens that history has forced them to assume? Alas, for simple reasons of clarity and brevity, we must necessarily relegate some portion of each story, each character, to the waste-bin of unwritten dreams, mere ghosts in the literary machine.
Of course, we cannot arbitarily and absolutely divide a work from the chosen setting, but perhaps we can start to see that there is an implicit -ism hiding behind any recognition of difference, especially where that difference is demonstrably in the direction of inferiority. I notice that the winner of most foot-races are black, and hence judge the white man outmatched: am I racist? Or am I, like Chris Rock, merely acknowledging that any entity should be judged on its apparent merits?
The ugly truth about me is that while I can take the step whose omission damned Conrad, namely to say that Colonial powers should never have existed as such, I cannot free myself from the stigma of recognizing the inferiority of savagery over civilization. Nor can I wholly free myself from some primal urge to dance in the moonlight, free from the shackles of reason and dignity. Conrad’s frenzied black masses seem to me little different from the drugged raving masses at dance parties, and I think that was ultimately his point: the heart is the vital life giving organ in every creature, and man’s is a Heart of Darkness, be he savage or civil.