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Thread: Heart of Darkness - Racist?

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    Heart of Darkness - Racist?

    So I'm re-reading Heart of Darkness right now, keeping in mind allegations from peers that the story's description of native Africans is racist. What I find most striking, and also perhaps very controversial, is how Conrad describes the natives as "prehistoric" - that is the very word he uses. This is a stronger and more poignant description than "uncivilized" or "primitive" - while it implies the other notions, it is also distinctly romantic. For no race or people is prehistoric, but Conrad is abstracting the natives into something more strange and frightening than the popular conception of them at the time as brutes. They are not just different; they are completely alien: walking ghosts from the irretrievable origins of humanity. One can see how this concept is romantic in its abstraction and frightening in its vision. At the same time, it is completely wrong; Africans had not been unaffected by the ages as Conrad asserts - they have their own culture, their own inheritance. It is wrong but it is romantic, and it adds a fantastic feel to the story. It is also not Conrad's conception, but Marlow's.

    Do you think this conception of the natives as "prehistoric", incorrect but poignant, is at all offensive or racist? It adds to the story, and the story would not be the same without it. It would not have that fantastic feel. If you do find it to be offensive and racist, would you ascribe it to Marlow or Conrad? It seems to me that, in order to assert the book racist, it would have to be Conrad's prejudice as well as Marlow's.

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    I've never understood how anyone could not consider Heart of Darkness racist, it is clearly racist.

    You should read Chinua Achebe's lecture on the subject, he makes a very good case. The fact of the matter is that Conrad uses Africa, and its people, as tools and symbols to explore European issues. In the process he dehumanizes the African characters, reducing them to mere animals and savages.

    The real question should be whether we think the artistic value of Heart of Darkness outweighs its faults. From it's position as an influential 20th century novel, I think it's an important work of fiction. We just shouldn't allow it's place as an influential work to blind us from its flaws. Spencer's Faerie Queene is blatantly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, countless plays and novels are obviously sexist, and The Heart of Darkness is clearly racist. That doesn't mean we shouldn't read those works, they are a product of their time after all, but just keep in mind what the work is saying.

    As to whether it is Marlow or Conrad who is the racist, Achebe pulls up a rather condemning description of the first black person Conrad had ever met: "A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards." Conrad's own writing outside of his fiction doesn't do much to exonerate him of the charge of racism.

    Edit:

    Achebe's original lecture on Conrad from 1975
    http://kirbyk.net/hod/image.of.africa.html

    An interview with Achebe I find gives another angle on his views near the end.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003...s.chinuaachebe
    Last edited by OrphanPip; 07-24-2010 at 04:47 AM.

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    Registered User Silvia's Avatar
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    So I'm re-reading Heart of Darkness right now, keeping in mind allegations from peers that the story's description of native Africans is racist
    It's fun, because when I read it I was told that it was an anti-racist novel because of its criticism of colonialism. And then Kurt's decision of "siding" with the natives, rejecting the Trading Company, the ambiguity of his "Exterminate all the brutes!" are all elements that point to that conclusion. However, I see why Conrad's description of native Africans might be considered racist.
    I read Heart of Darkness alongside with Kerouac's On the Road, and I remember I was struck by the closeness of the two authors' conceptions of the black man, so much so that I had to tell my teacher about it.
    On the one hand, coloured people are described in a very physical way: the black man is a body (I'd say that in Conrad the natives are a mass of black bodies). On the other hand, they are schamans, like the "wild-eyed, magnificent woman" that Marlow sees towards the end or Kerouac's black saxophonist. These are mistifications, idealizations of the "black soul" that reveal how little both authors knew about coloured people (which is comprehensible for Conrad's time but quite strange when it comes to Kerouac). They are never characterised as complex, individual human beings, so, in a sense, they are "aliens", as you pointed out. To me, this dehumanisation of the natives is, if not racist, undoubtedly prejudiced, which was inevitable for Conrad.
    It is true that the story is filtered thorugh Marlow's eyes. It is usually wrong to identify the dramatic narrator with the real or implicit author. However, in this case, I think that Conrad's point of view coincides with Marlow's, partly because the novel is based on Conrad's autobiographical experience, partly because -it seems to me- the description of the natives, although it is Marlow's description, is rarely explicitly commented or pondered over by the narrator, which allows it to be Conrad's description as well.
    I've just read Orphan Pip answer, and I rather agree with him.
    The real question should be whether we think the artistic value of Heart of Darkness outweighs its faults. From it's position as an influential 20th century novel, I think it's an important work of fiction. We just shouldn't allow it's place as an influential work to blind us from its flaws. Spencer's Faerie Queene is blatantly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, countless plays and novels are obviously sexist, and The Heart of Darkness is clearly racist. That doesn't mean we shouldn't read those works, they are a product of their time after all, but just keep in mind what the work is saying.
    This is interesting. The fact that a novel has been exalted as a classic by the Western canon makes us (Europeans and Northamericans) partial towards it. We tend to ascribe its flaws to the historical context of the author so as to keep considering it a great piece of work, while we are not as readily incline to "forget" a novel which shares the same flaws but is not considered a classic.

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    As has been said above me, the question is not weather it's racist or not, but does it matter if it's racist ?

    For our standards its racist
    In the time it was written it wasn't, that was the general sentiments of the people, conrad was no more racist towards Africans than any other englishmen of the turn of the century.

    I have read the novel and found it a great read, he uses the "savages" as a symbol, from a literary standpoint when reads one looks at them for what the author wanted them to represent.

    Nonetheless, in art there are no morals, only beauty.

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alexander III View Post

    Nonetheless, in art there are no morals, only beauty.
    This is nice, in an abstract sense. However, art influences people, and art can have actual negative consequences. If we had some hypothetical novel, which was wonderfully written, but contains a highly repugnant message, I'm not sure it can still be considered quality art. If Hitler had been a better writer than he was, would you condone reading Mein Kampf?

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    OrphanPip, thank you for that interview. I read it and found Chinua Achebe's views to be distasteful. Here is what I find most unpleasant:

    I am an African. What interests me is what I learn in Conrad about myself. To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever, but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don't like it.
    Achebe approaches the novel with the aim to learn more about himself and his culture. And in this sense the novel fails and appalls him. But I find it ridiculous for anyone to make this demand of a novel. The author is not obliged to teach the reader more about the reader's self. I feel that he author is obliged to teach something, but that this something is often a universal of life, an exotic culture, relations between people - more generally, the author's own wisdom and experience. And perhaps the author need not teach, but only relate. When we drink the experience of other men we become wiser. Achebe can think whatever he wants of Conrad's impressions of Africa, but they need not conform to a twenty-first century view. Novels are not to be held up to the gold standard of twenty-first century attitudes - these attitudes are formed from history that the novel had no part in.

    Achebe should have approached the novel with the aim of learning about others - about Europeans, not Africans; about racist, uninformed, and overwhelmed European colonists; and if he kept this in mind, he would have learned something about others. By setting such unreasonable expectations from the novel, especially from a novel that does not even advertise itself as meeting those expectations, he goes into the novel with the intent of picking a fight with it. It seems almost selfish. It seems like he assumes this attitude not to learn about himself, or others, but to start a fight that could further his career, because after all he has "politically correct" America on his side, he is fighting an opponent far beneath his weight class. It also seems to be the least intellectually challenging project of all - to seek to learn about yourself from an author who has barely any exposure to your race. It really just seems like he wants to pick a fight, charged by some past-conscious vendetta.
    Last edited by ktm5124; 07-24-2010 at 05:47 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    An interview with Achebe I find gives another angle on his views near the end.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003...s.chinuaachebe
    Interesting link! even more interesting when you consider that the interviewer is Caryl Phillips - a black writer who has focused most of his books on the slave trade and on his own difficulties at being accepted as an Englishman in England, the country where he has lived since he was little more than a newborn. Phillips has lived racism but disagrees with Achebe's view of Conrad as a "a thoroughgoing racist".
    At the beginning of Marlow's tale the voyage on the Congo river is compared to the travel along the Thames of a roman consul at the time when England was the heart of darkness, for me this is the central theme of the book: the frailty and affectedness of (the western idea of) civilization.
    I don't see racism, I see an allegory, is it racist to choose Africa or whatever region of this and other possible or imaginary worlds to embody this allegory?

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    I don't think the distinction is lost on Achebe. You suggest that we should suspend judgment of what the novel says about Africans, simply because they are a symbol being used to explore European issues. That's the kind of argument that Achebe has so often railed against. I think it's fine to say that the Africans in the novels are being used for a specific purpose by Conrad, but that doesn't mean the novel isn't saying something about Africans. In fact, that's almost worse than if the novel were saying explicitly that Africans are brutish animals; instead, it's saying Africans are useful props, like umbrellas or a stage backdrop.

    What seems selfish here is not Achebe pointing out how this novel speaks negatively about Africans, but rather the fact that people seem to think it's OK to completely ignore that this novel says anything bad at all, because really it's all about Europeans. Well I guess that makes it all good, because if it's about Europeans then it doesn't matter at all that it contains black characters described as dogs standing on their hind legs. I may not agree with Achebe that Heart of Darkness is not worth teaching at all, but I'm fully behind him in the belief that the novel is thoroughly racist.

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    I was thinking of picking up this novel.

    How exactly does Conrad use black people as symbols?

    I am interested in this, also due to the fact that i too have used black people as symbols in my work. There is nothing racist about it, since they become symbols, not humans, in the same way that a man who is made of the purest white colour would become a symbol of something.
    And black skin can symbolise a lot of things, from dark thoughts, violence, secrets, underground existence, to absense of thought etc. It is usefull to note that symbolism is a parallel reality; such qualities may be projected onto black people, but obviously in reality they arent symbols but people

  10. #10
    Heart of Darkness if full of ambiguities and contradictions. To say that it's racist, anti-racist, pro-colonialist, and anti-colonialist, is true and wrong at the same time. One truth arises from the novella: human beings aren't worth much. It's a very misanthropic novella that attempts to show that our conception of civilisation is built on a self-delusion that must be carried, by those that discover it, as Marlow does, as a secret burden for the benefit of the others. The novella is racist because Mankind is racist too. And Conrad, probably unwittingly but with valuable artistic insight nevertheless, shows exactly that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    I don't think the distinction is lost on Achebe. You suggest that we should suspend judgment of what the novel says about Africans, simply because they are a symbol being used to explore European issues. That's the kind of argument that Achebe has so often railed against. I think it's fine to say that the Africans in the novels are being used for a specific purpose by Conrad, but that doesn't mean the novel isn't saying something about Africans. In fact, that's almost worse than if the novel were saying explicitly that Africans are brutish animals; instead, it's saying Africans are useful props, like umbrellas or a stage backdrop.

    What seems selfish here is not Achebe pointing out how this novel speaks negatively about Africans, but rather the fact that people seem to think it's OK to completely ignore that this novel says anything bad at all, because really it's all about Europeans. Well I guess that makes it all good, because if it's about Europeans then it doesn't matter at all that it contains black characters described as dogs standing on their hind legs. I may not agree with Achebe that Heart of Darkness is not worth teaching at all, but I'm fully behind him in the belief that the novel is thoroughly racist.
    I am not sure if Conrad actually uses Africans as deliberate symbols. This is a reader's projection onto the novel. It is possible that, when Conrad himself went to Africa, this is the impression Africa made on him. I would imagine that it could be a rather traumatizing experience for the European colonists. Perhaps he is just relating his own impressions of Africa through Marlow. In this case we must admit that Conrad conceives of Africa as "prehistoric", "timeless", its people deprived of any cultural inheritance. They are not a symbol for the prehistoric, they just are that way, in the imagination of the author. If these are his true feelings, is he at fault for expressing them? What I don't like about the militant readers who strike a work for "racism" is that, at the same time, they are proposing that an artist may not express his feelings. If the feelings turn out to be racist, by twenty-first century standards, should we blame the writer for expressing these feelings? I do not think so.

    Instead we should wonder why the author came to feel that way. In Conrad's case - or let's just say Marlow's case, since we know Marlow's story - he is a 19th century European adventurer who came to a foreign continent, about which very little was known, and about which he often wondered in his childhood (recall him imagining the Congo to be a snake). We cannot guess whether he had read any slave narratives, met anyone freed Africans, or witnessed anything to affirm the humanity of dark-skinned people. In other words, he had not the benefits that we have today. When he goes to Africa he finds the natives in chains, and he remarks on their ill health, their starvation. At times he avoids having to see them because there is clearly something unpleasant in the sight of men in chains. He becomes fond of his helmsman, who receives an arrow in the side, and for this we must give him credit. In fact, he describes the helmsman's dying gaze as a "claim upon distant kinship" (I paraphrase) which may move many readers. In this he is more advanced than his contemporaries who would not admit to any kinship with the natives. Seeing how uninformed he is of the natives, it is understandable that he would come to think such things of them. Twenty-first century readers who pass judgment on Conrad and Marlow have the benefits of accurate information, which Conrad and Marlow have not. Are we to blame Conrad for being uninformed, for expressing his impressions of a people unknown to him? If he had withheld his opinions, we would not have this novel. If he could have augured the sensitivities of the twenty-first century and worked his way around them, the text would have been dishonest.

    I do not think we can blame Conrad for his impressions based on the information he had available to him. All of us would probably have though the same way as him at the time. I think it's a case where we simply shouldn't pass judgment.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    This is nice, in an abstract sense. However, art influences people, and art can have actual negative consequences. If we had some hypothetical novel, which was wonderfully written, but contains a highly repugnant message, I'm not sure it can still be considered quality art. If Hitler had been a better writer than he was, would you condone reading Mein Kampf?
    I see your point, but,

    An artist's focus should be the creation of beauty, not a piece of work which should teach morals, Mein Kampf was written not to create beauty but for the world to see and follow the morals Hitler thought were correct. Thus a work created with the focus of beauty, may have some morality attached to it but it is never strong enough to turn people evil, If I become like Dorian Gray after having read Wilde's novel, I assure you the fault is my twisted self not Wilde's.

    Oh and I see nothing wrong with reading Mein Kampf, it gives insight into the life and mind of one of the most critical figures of the 20th century.

    I hope I dont offend when I say this, just stating an opinion

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    Quote Originally Posted by Alexander III View Post
    I see your point, but,

    An artist's focus should be the creation of beauty, not a piece of work which should teach morals, Mein Kampf was written not to create beauty but for the world to see and follow the morals Hitler thought were correct. Thus a work created with the focus of beauty, may have some morality attached to it but it is never strong enough to turn people evil, If I become like Dorian Gray after having read Wilde's novel, I assure you the fault is my twisted self not Wilde's.

    Oh and I see nothing wrong with reading Mein Kampf, it gives insight into the life and mind of one of the most critical figures of the 20th century.

    I hope I dont offend when I say this, just stating an opinion
    I read to learn, not just to be affected. Some books I read just for the sake of their art - Lolita, for example - but others I read to make myself a better person. I think that Heart of Darkness, though, one must read just for the sake of its art. There is not much to learn from it; one can only be affected. In this respect it is like Lolita.

    I think you have excused Conrad much better than I have, and you have made me come to realize, perhaps, why I like reading it.

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ktm5124 View Post
    I do not think we can blame Conrad for his impressions based on the information he had available to him. All of us would probably have though the same way as him at the time. I think it's a case where we simply shouldn't pass judgment.
    I already said in my first post that Conrad is a product of his time. That doesn't exonerate the novel of racism. We don't just close our mind to the racism while reading the novel, we should acknowledge it is present, that it is part of the work, not try apologetically to defend the charges of racism. This obsession with defending Conrad's and The Heart of Darkness' obvious racism is just a product of readers not wanting to be associated with liking and reading something racist.

    As for art for art's sake, I just don't buy it. No matter how often I've read Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey. Art has value beyond having moralizing messages, and art need not have a moralizing, improving message, but that doesn't mean that all art is without message.

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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    I already said in my first post that Conrad is a product of his time. That doesn't exonerate the novel of racism. We don't just close our mind to the racism while reading the novel, we should acknowledge it is present, that it is part of the work, not try apologetically to defend the charges of racism. This obsession with defending Conrad's and The Heart of Darkness' obvious racism is just a product of readers not wanting to be associated with liking and reading something racist.

    As for art for art's sake, I just don't buy it. No matter how often I've read Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey. Art has value beyond having moralizing messages, and art need not have a moralizing, improving message, but that doesn't mean that all art is without message.
    But I think you are viewing racism as a definite thing, as if it could satisfy an objective definition. What is racist to some may not be racist to others. I myself don't perceive - and by that I mean feel and take offense to - the text to be racist. However, when my black friend drives me back from the suburbs to the city, and we are pulled over on suspicion of marijuana, or receive nasty looks from old white ladies - then I take offense. I feel pity for my friend and I hate those who persecute him.

    It's very much a subjective thing, and I don't think one can say that a work is objectively racist. If Conrad were trying to convince the reader that black people are primitive, prehistoric, or barbaric, then I would agree, but he is not actively persuading, he is only relating an impression of the narrator's.

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