‘The Darkness Found Him Out’

January 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

“THE DARKNESS FOUND HIM OUT”Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a New LightVituperative, unwavering, and fiercely intent on drawing conclusions, Chinua Achebe asks in reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art” (257). His answer, seething with disdain for a work he essentially considers inhumane: “No, it cannot” (257). Indeed, this “dehumanization” of the African race is a crucial element of Achebe’s criticism; specific references to the language and inherent attitudes driving this idea prompt Achebe to label Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” (257). Yet, as one-dimensional as his argument might be, Achebe’s passionate condemnation also remains intensely difficult to contest not only because he often assails what he should defend, but because he also virtually disqualifies “whites” on racial grounds from judging the text. However, if we use Achebe’s “dehumanization” claim as a starting point and subsequently examine his larger use of textual support, his assumption-based logic ultimately dissolves into contradiction. Moreover, by analyzing Conrad’s narrative technique, his use of African characters, and his stylistic devices, we find that Heart of Darkness actually criticizes racial prejudice rather than upholds it. Indeed, Achebe errs by alleging that Conrad endorses imperialist philosophy namely, the idea that Africa provided the primitive basis from which European culture has evolved. Instead, Heart of Darkness undermines this frame of reference and offers a more subversive truth: the dynamic reality of Africa has been corrupted and concealed by European “civilization.” Achebe believes that Heart of Darkness bases its narrative in ethnocentrism, portraying Africa as empty space devoid of culture and history. He adds a number of corollaries to this primary argument, effectively masking any immediate gaps in logic. First, Achebe claims that the cordon sanitaire between Marlow and Conrad is essentially non-existent. Since the author does not provide us with an “alternative frame of reference” to “judge the actions and opinions of the characters,” the narrative cannot be held “up to irony and criticism” (256). Yet, Achebe’s final comment “It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary” ironically supports the counterargument (256). Conrad does not provide the reader with an alternative frame of reference not because Marlow has his “complete confidence,” but instead because the novel forces the reader to visualize and interpret a more intuitive reality (256). Indeed, the intentionally ironic distance between Conrad and Marlow and the enduring discrepancies between appearance and reality highlight the indeterminacy of Heart of Darkness and elicit reader involvement. Achebe dismisses the possibility of ironic distance between Conrad and Marlow since Conrad sets up artificial “layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his history” and fails to offer a more credible and objective viewpoint (256). And yet, the organization of Heart of Darkness involves a much more subtle subversion of narrative clich. The opening, for instance, involves a clear interruption of Conrad’s perspective:’The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream and lights began to appear along the shore. The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly. Lights of ships moved in the fairway a great stir of lights going up and going down. And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars. ‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ (9)Conrad’s authoritative voice, based in historical description offers nebulous imagery that remains unresolved in the reader’s imagination (“gloom” in sunshine and “lurid’ starlight, for instance, are aesthetically rich but seemingly incomprehensible images.) Marlow’s “sudden” interruption, however, redirects the narrative, placing these descriptions in the new and more compelling context of life experience. Conrad also creates ironic distance between himself and Marlow by employing satiric exaggeration. Achebe Correctly cites this passage as an example of “dehumanizing” the Africans:’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. (38)Yet, he neglects the tremendous irony of Marlow’s narration; Conrad is implicitly undermining white cultural norms with this description of unnaturally harnessed African energy. Achebe, meanwhile, laments that Conrad’s “romanticism” subverts black culture by endorsing European ideals (256). But, both Conrad and Achebe condemn exploitative “dehumanization” and the definitions and forms of this dehumanization are virtually equivalent.Moreover, a distinct discrepancy between appearance and reality crystallizes the cordon sanitaire between Marlow and Conrad. Achebe discounts the possibility of such a separation between Marlow’s and Conrad’s reality instead, Marlow is our “witness of truth” and Conrad “our purveyor of comforting myths” (253, 256). He cites a passage from the opening of the novel as evidence:’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. Yet, 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 in it which you you so remote from the night of first ages could comprehend. (38)Achebe equates Marlow’s observations here with “the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind” (254). Yet, even though Marlow’s description might appear unjustly patronizing in isolation, the larger context of the passage suggests that Marlow’s perspective is simply one of Conrad’s ironic tools. Indeed, Marlow’s description in isolation might appear limited and unjustly patronizing, but his attitude is perfectly understandable in a larger context. Marlow, as a purveyor of imperialist bias, obviously sees African behavior as primordial, grotesque, and virtually meaningless; in order to maintain his noble ideals, he must believe that Europeans have evolved beyond the Africans. But although Achebe might be correct in labeling Marlow a racist (though this racism clearly appears rational in terms of historical realism), he wrongly extends this generalization to include Conrad. Placing the above passage into the context of Conrad’s larger meaning, the reader immediately notices Marlow’s gradual questioning of this perspective. Increasingly noticing the interactions of white men with the natives, Marlow gradually begins to doubt “imperialistic” purpose:’A horn tooted to the right and I saw the black people run. A heavy and dull detonation shook the ground, a puff of smoke came out of the cliff, and that was all. No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of anything, but this objectless blasting was all the work going on. (19)’Marlow might not comment on the obvious absurdities he witness (the vast pit whose purpose he cannot divine, the black man who attempts to use a pail with a hole in its bottom), but Conrad’s irony is remarkably lucid. Because the images, descriptions, and metaphors are so indeterminate, Conrad compels the reader to make extrapolations between appearance and reality. Indeed, this reality allows the reader to see what Marlow himself might not recognize: “What a row the brute makes!” said the indefatigable man with the moustaches appearing near us. ‘Serve him right. Transgression punishment bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way'” (28). By identifying the discrepancy between Marlow’s perception of this assistant’s philosophy and Conrad’s intended meaning, the reader resolves a key indeterminacy of the text. Ultimately, this resolution leads to a clear reconciliation between Conrad’s and Achebe’s larger ideology namely that “civilization” does not correct or eliminate savagery, but instead provokes even more savage brutality.The second corollary Achebe adds to his criticism involves a narrowing of the definition of “dehumanization” to specifically attack Conrad’s narrative form. Though Achebe believes Conrad’s entire work to be racist and inhumane, he particularly denounces the use of “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor” (257). To support his claim of collective African depersonalization, Achebe cites a “nice little vignette as an example of things in their place”:’Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look. (17, 254).’Achebe eschews analysis, implying that this description obviously exemplifies Conrad’s condescending tone. Yet, the passage clearly protests against the dehumanization which Conrad supposedly champions. Indeed, Conrad explicitly identifies the Africans as purveyors of “truth” and “reality” a rare and clearly significant example of determinate language (17). In direct contrast to the Europeans, the natives are symbols of unfettered “vitality”; living without pretense, “they wanted no excuse for being there” (17). Furthermore, Conrad uses the passage’s language to convey the dynamic energy of the African people; the description suddenly gains momentum with the use of semi-colons, trying to capture their “wild” vigor. Interestingly, Marlow’s description seems to coalesce with Conrad’s voice for the first time in the novel; the Africans “intense,” “natural,” and “true” present reality in its purest, most “comfortable” form (17). Achebe’s second example of Conrad’s collective dehumanization of the natives points to the rare instance “when Conrad departs somewhat from his practice and confers speech, even English speech, on the savages” (225). He offers the following exchange as an example: “‘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…”(42). Achebe believes this conferral of speech on the Africans a clear deviation from their characteristic silence; such a departure, he claims, bases itself in “the sensational advantages of securing [the Africans] convictions by clear unambiguous evidence issuing out of their own mouth” (225). Yet, Achebe once again ignores the larger context of this episode. Conrad intends this fiery explosion of speech to be ironic soon after, Marlow realizes the incredible control exercised by these cannibals: “Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can exist where hunger is, and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze” (43). Furthermore, Conrad implicitly compares the restraint of the Africans to Kurtz’ lack of restraint: “I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only show that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him” (57). Indeed, Achebe’s simplistic labeling of the collective African portrayal as “depersonalized” ignores the larger context, irony, and themes of Heart of Darkness. In his depiction of characters, Conrad intends for a clear discrepancy to exist between appearance and reality; European ideals are represented in the “civilized” veneer of appearance while African culture, natural and dynamic, represents true “reality” (17).In addition to criticizing the collective portrayal of Africans, Achebe objects to Conrad’s similarly inhumane portrayals of individual natives. He focuses his attention on the incongruity between Marlow’s description of Kurtz’ African mistress and his later portrait of Kurtz” “Intended.” While the former is “savage and superb, wild and magnificent” and resembles “the wilderness itself,” the “Intended” first appears “in black with a pale head, floating toward” Marlow (60, 72). Achebe argues that the detailed description of the African mistress serves only to illustrate that “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” (225). Yet, Achebe again ignores the vital context of this passage. While the “Intended” is frail and weak, the African mistress is “proud,” “wild,” “gorgeous,” “magnificent” and most importantly, passionately “fierce” (60). Even beyond these physical epithets, the African “savage” dips into the same emotional palette as the European woman. The former, however, communicates her mourning through solitary rites involving nature rather than conversational discourse; in a sense, Conrad implies the inefficacy of language to convey the deepest of human emotions. Yet, his larger purpose does not involve the labeling of one woman as superior. Instead, he underscores their similarity at one point, both women stretch their arms into the air, seeking Kurtz’ manifested soul (60, 75). Isolated and defenseless, each has suffered overwhelming tragic loss. Furthermore, Achebe also ignores Conrad’s selective use of individual Africans as potent symbols. One particularly significant example of this occurs when Marlow first reaches the Outer Station:’The man seemed young almost a boy but you know with them it’s hard to tell.. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck Why? Where did he get it. Was it a badge an ornament a charm a propitiatory act? Was there any idea at all connected with it. (20)’Here, Conrad uses the indeterminate, seemingly ageless African as clear symbolic entity; the white worsted provides a stark contrast to the boy’s dying black body. Indeed, Conrad implies that though the boy’s skin might be black a color the Europeans associate with savagery and evil his soul radiates “white” innocence. Ironic distance appears once again between Marlow and Conrad since the reader must take the former’s questioning observations and link it to the latter’s larger meaning and reality.At one point, Achebe grants that “Conrad… is undoubtedly one of the great stylists of modern fiction and a good story-teller into the bargain” (250). Thus, he draws an important distinction between ethics and stylistic aesthetics, facilitating his final condemnation of the novel as a “false” masterpiece. Yet, this casual endorsement of Conrad’s stylistic powers contradicts Achebe’s most fundamental arguments. Indeed, he mentions Conrad’s admirable aesthetic device a second time: “Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments…Its exploration of the minds of the European characters is often penetrating and full of insight” (258). How can Achebe condemn Conrad as a human being and yet reserve admiration and respect for his art? If Conrad is indeed so intimately involved in the voice of Heart of Darkness, how can a gap suddenly exist between the aesthetic and thematic aspects of his writing? The reality, of course, is that the art cannot stand on its own; Conrad infuses his African characters with just as much conscious understanding as his European figures. Achebe’s argument thus resonates with problematic tension the same language that he finds offensive and racist later impresses him as “penetrating” and “insightful” (258).Moreover, his reasoning also lapses into inextricable contradiction when he labels the following passage an example of liberal-minded irony a type of irony he previously claimed did not exist in Heart of Dearkness:’They were dying slowly it was clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, become inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. (256)’In a clear example of what Achebe should recognize as Conrad’s ironic “insight,” he instead sees patronizing liberalism. This passage, however, is clearly an example of what Achebe should endorse; he casually scoffs at liberal-mindedness, not realizing that the motivations driving these “bleeding-heart sentiments” are the same ones that condemn racial prejudice (256). In artificially disassociating Conrad’s ethics from his art, Achebe makes his gravest of errors he applauds Conrad’s stylistic device and yet completely dismisses the most subtle and significant dimensions of this style. In a sense, Achebe is so intent on drawing one-dimensional conclusions that he hastily declares ideological war on Conrad when they both clearly belong to the same camp. The entire breadth of his argument depends on an extremely problematic transitive chain: Marlow is a racist, Conrad and Marlow speak through the same voice, thus Conrad himself is a “thoroughgoing” racist (257). Although he rationalizes this reasoning with a number of corollaries, the argument clearly collapses in the second of these links. Employing his entire stylistic arsenal, Conrad weaves a consistently indeterminate narrative, obliging the reader to construct rather than absorb reality. In a last desperate effort to contest this possibility, Achebe insists, “Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth” (262). The word “strange,” of course, is fascinating especially since what Achebe claims is impossible. Conrad could not succeed in commenting on imperial perspectives without an implicit criticism of racism; moreover, this implicit criticism eventually becomes explicit he leaves no doubt that the Africans are the true purveyors of “truth” and ‘reality” (17). Achebe might try to divide the artistic and thematic spheres; on one level, he blasts the author and the writing itself as “deplorable” and “offensive,” and yet, on another, praises the artistry that stands on its own (259). Such a separation is not only completely artificial and ingenuous, but also one that dissolves into a contradictory muddle. Instead, one must recognize that the artistic and thematic spheres coalesce to form a work that intentionally remains obscure. The reader, rather than Conrad himself, is the final purveyor of reality. And in this reality, dark indeterminacy must eventually give way to light the profound, rewarding glow of enlightenment. Works CitedAchebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Heart of Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 251-62.Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. 8-76.

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