glitch

Hmm. I’ve been using the new WordPress editor, and it seems to have overwritten my previous post with drafts of the new post I’m working on. Bad news.

I won’t try to recreate the whole post, but I will say that it touched on the “political correctness” critique I wrote about last week, via this Chinua Achebe essay about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Briefly, Achebe notes the dehumanization of black Africans as a persistent trope in the novella and argues that it serves certain mythological purposes — chiefly, justifying the violent colonization of Africa — even though Conrad was appalled by Belgian brutality in the Congo and would have placed himself on the liberal end of the political spectrum as to Africa. Achebe then anticipates a possible objection to his argument — namely, that the stereotypes Conrad invokes may be offensive or insulting, but people shouldn’t object to offensive or insulting art:

There are two probable grounds on which what I have said so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a 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. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.

My point was simply that this is just another variant of the whole “political correctness” debate (albeit predating that terminology by more than a decade). As I said in the prior post, the point is not that something — a stereotype, a myth, an attitude, a behavior — is rude or offensive. The point is that it is tied to, and psychologically enables, violence and oppression.

Apologies to Brother Eric, whose thoughtful comment died in the fire. Now let me see if I can create more posts without eating the old ones.

UPDATE: Text of the old post recovered from my newsreader (and pasted below)! Comments, not so much.


Following on the previous post about speech and violence: shortly after posting, I happened to come across an essay by Chinua Achebe where he makes much the same point.

Achebe analyzes Heart of Darkness and concludes that Joseph Conrad dehumanizes black Africans and turns their bodies into a fetish of mystery and atavistic awe. And this, for Achebe, is racism — and dangerous — even if Conrad is on the “liberal” end of thought in his day:

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 . . . .

The most interesting and revealing passages in Heart of Darkness are, however, about people. I must crave the indulgence of my reader to quote almost a whole page from about the middle of the stop/when representatives of Europe in a steamer going down the Congo encounter the denizens of Africa.

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.”

Having shown us Africa in the mass, Conrad then zeros in, half a page later, on a specific example, giving us one of his rare descriptions of an African who is not just limbs or rolling eyes:

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.

I don’t know yet whether I agree with Achebe’s assessment of Conrad or not: it’s possible that Conrad is simply presenting the impressions of his narrator Marlow, who as a character is stocked with all the prejudices and exotic fantasies about Africans and their mysteries that an unthoughtful man of his time would have had. (Mark Twain certainly gave Huck Finn his share of nasty beliefs, but we don’t usually attribute them to Twain.) In any event, Achebe addresses that argument, and I leave it to the reader to decide whether he is convincing or not.

But what I think is interesting is that Achebe, writing in 1977, was already aware of and had thought through the answer to the “Who cares if people are offended?” conversation-ender still used against people who are considered overly “politically correct.” Here he is a little later in the essay:

There are two probable grounds on which what I have aid so far may be contested. The first is that it is no concern of fiction to please people about whom it is written. I will go along with that. But I am not talking about pleasing people. I am talking about a 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. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question . . . .

Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.

The whole thing is worth a read.


UPDATE 2: Found Eric’s comment after all, in my inbox:

I have to admit that the more interesting question to me is one that Achebe neglects altogether. Anticipating two criticisms of his piece, he writes:

Whatever Conrad’s problems were, you might say he is now safely dead. Quite true. Unfortunately his heart of darkness plagues us still. Which is why an offensive and deplorable book can be described by a serious scholar as “among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language.” And why it is today the most commonly prescribed novel in twentieth-century literature courses in English Departments of American universities.

But there is a third objection, I think: that “offensive and deplorable” and “among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language” are not mutually exclusive, and that while we ought to thank Achebe for perspicuous and legitimate critiques of “Heart Of Darkness” and ought to keep them in mind when we read Conrad, to exclude Conrad from the canon is to foster an unfortunate ignorance of the how and what of the English (and Western) literary corpus. You don’t have to like Conrad, and you can be damn critical of his portrayal of Africans and Africa and thereby add another layer of sophistication to our common culture; but to say it isn’t a great short novel is to ignore its power and influence and the way it transformed English literature from what preceded it and affected what followed.

In another related conversation I mentioned D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as an example of “problem art,” and a similar discussion arises here: it’s indisputable that Nation is an ugly, racist film–ugly, demeaning and counterhistorical in horrifying ways; but it’s also indisputable that Griffith, in Nation invented much of the visual vocabulary of cinema, and that you don’t really understand movies, or how movies are made, or how movies are structured, or the history of movies, unless you’ve subjected yourself to Birth of a Nation. At best, if you avoid the film, you might have some grasp of how Griffith’s storytelling techniques were copied and improved upon by subsequent filmmakers, but you don’t really even have a proper understanding of what they were doing.

Now, of course, you may not care about film to that extent. That’s not a criticism of anyone who just likes to go to a movie or pop open Netflix in a browser and be entertained for two hours. You can enjoy film on a very casual level without seeing Griffith, just as you can enjoy reading on a casual level without picking up even a single page of Joseph Conrad. But if you do decide to go to another level, you won’t get there without going through Griffith.

There’s a fair point to be made that delving into film is optional, while high schools and colleges make at least some exposure to English literature a prerequisite. I have to admit I’m not sure I’m ready to live in a world where literature becomes an elective. Perhaps, then, students need to endure Conrad (if that’s what it is–confession: I adore Conrad’s prose), just as they might have to endure math or science. I realize, naturally, that math is unlikely to be incriminated in social injustice; perhaps, though, being educated in the liberal arts tradition means being educated in things that are unpleasant and (I regret having to use the word, but I mean it in a deeply moral sense) offensive. Quite probably, 19th Century authors like Conrad and Twain who are vital to English and American literature but whose work has problematic expressions and sensibilities need to be taught better, with a recognition that their more problematic works shouldn’t be apologized for but should also be contextualized.

Or, maybe, the liberal arts curriculum has seen its day, and the literary canon should be an elective and familiarity with it not presumed to be the definition of “educated”. I’m not happy with that, but then a relic wouldn’t be, would he?

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