Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A hallmark of thoroughgoing racism

“the image of Africa as the other world: the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization; a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality” --Chinua Achebe

Nigerian novelist, Albert Chinualumogu Achebe, popularly known as Chinua Achebe is extolled for his works which show sheer despise against the uncelebratory social and psychological disorientation of the western world regarding the African society. The African mainland, its inhabitants, their customs and traditions, face endangering impositions by the Western cults: a great subject matter for Achebe’s novels. With emergent Africa at its moments of crisis being the chief concern of Achebe, he stepped forward with the aim of baiting out the subconscious presumption of prejudices held by the Western civilisation against the ‘black’ natives of Africa. Chinua’s ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is an assertion on Joseph Conrad’s ‘thoroughgoing racism’ in his novel “Heart of Darkness” which dehumanises Africans and renders Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”

In the second Chancellor’s Lecture given by Chinua Achebe at the University of Massachusetts, in February 1975, he, with a rigid and non-diversified overview, elucidated Conrad’s disparagement of the African civilisation and his erroneous depicting of Africa as the antithesis of Europe or the western civilization. There have been conflicting viewpoints from various literary critics and psychoanalysts regarding the authenticity of the accusation on Conrad’s racist stance. British professor Cedric Watts expressed angst at his perceived implication on Achebe’s criticism, that only black people may accurately analyse and assess the novella. On an incongruous stand against Watt’s perception, the Zimbabwean professor Dr. Rino Zhuwarara concurred with Achebe and advised writers to be “sensitised to how people of other nations perceive Africa”. Conceding to Achebe’s standpoint, novelist Caryl Phillips said, “Achebe is right; to the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the ‘dark’ continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe.”

Achebe alluded to the nitty-gritties of Conrad’s racist approach which is projected in the book Heart of Darkness. A brilliant work of art where Conrad vaunted his intelligence, Heart of Darkness has a layer of racist prejudices ornamented cleverly and decisively in those flowery, artistically elite words and phrases. His adjectival insistence on certain words like ‘black’, ‘savage’, ‘dark’, ‘ugly’, is something that must be brought to focus. One must indulge in the part where Conrad described the steamer going down the Congo. About the surroundings, he uses adjectives like ‘prehistoric earth’. And what does Conrad have to say about the denizens of Africa? He saw “a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping.” Conrad goes on, “The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.” The way Conrad portrayed the scenario, the banks of Congo, the inhabitants; he could not go beyond the horizon of ‘dark’, ‘black’ and ‘frenzy’. He could not perceive them as likewise human beings but ‘clapping and stamping’ prehistoric men whose sight appalls them “as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”

Well, Conrad describes them as ‘not inhuman’ and if someone calls this out as an example as to saying that he did not dehumanize Africans, then clearly it must be in the conscious of a sane, rational man that there lies a stark contrast between ‘human’ and ‘not inhuman’ just like there is between white and black (I am talking about colours, not humans). What bothers Conrad more is the question of their not being inhuman because evidently what they did, as Conrad elucidates, is ‘howl’, ‘leap and spin and make horrid faces’.

What intrigues us the most and evinces Conrad’s racism, is when he says, “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”. Achebe talks about the extraordinary missionary who sacrificed his ingenious careers of music and theology in Europe and led a life dedicated to the service of Africans, Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer quoted, “ The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother.” While there is a contemporary European who encapsulated ‘brotherhood’, Conrad could go as far as ‘remote kinship’. This epitomises the ambivalence.

Out of the generalised mass, Conrad describes an exception: ‘an improved specimen”. This ‘savage’ is a fireman whose sight is as “edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches”. Conrad did not much admire the fact that he was ‘out of place’; that he was not ‘howling, or clapping or stamping.’ Conrad described an African woman, “ She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent…..She stood looking at us without a tie and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.” She is the savage counterpart to the refined, European woman who Conrad expounds as, “ She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning…..She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” The bestowal of human expression in one and withholding it from the other, elaborates the difference in the novelist’s attitude towards the portrayal of an European and an African . Conrad’s relentless obsession with the adjective ‘black’ seems evident of his fixated antisemitism, “A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving legs, waving long black arms….”

Conrad’s failure in conferring language on the ‘rudimentary souls’ of Africa, ratifies when we see instead of an accented speech, they made, “ a violent babble of uncouth sounds” or “exchanged short grunting phrases.” The preposterous and perverse arrogance in reducing Africa to a land inhabited by ‘not inhuman’ prehistoric savages, goes unnoticed.

Achebe’s arguments gained gravitas when he averred Conrad’s own account of his first encounter with a black man:

“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.”

If Conrad would have used the word ‘nigger’ in this 21st century, given his inordinate love for it, he would have been charged on legal grounds as the n-word is considered highly offensive and illegal.

There has been mainline defences for Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: the book is a work of art, it has two layers of narrators and Marlow, one of the fictitious narrators, instead of Conrad, is culpable, and thirdly, it is considered as hastily pandering to the erroneous zeitgeist of the time. The question is, do these defences have validated weightage? Should art be for art’s sake or should it be for man’s sake? Is Conrad faulted prejudice justified because he danced the dance of his time?

I think, art, though has its boundless periphery, has a greater purpose on mankind. Artists have the unparalleled ingenious ability to yield art. Its readers and spectators are the common mass. They learn and evolve by fostering in themselves the essence of the art these peerless artists give birth to. It is a lost opportunity for Conrad to efface the already prevalent psychological malaise of antisemitism of the western minds through his art which goes on living even after his death. But he let his contemporary racist time influence his sensibilities. His swaying away with the zeitgeist of time cannot be justified because what makes a man, a ‘great man’ or an artist, a ‘great artist’ is, thinking ahead of his time. Irrational hate, though disguised in a brilliant artwork of untrammelled intelligence, is endangering. The course of the book does not let me fail to understand that Marlow enjoyed Conrad’s confidence and Conrad is culpable for his work anyway, no matter how many layers of narrators are induced.

On a closer analysis of the novella, it can be derived that Conrad maintains his consistency in impressing upon nearly everyone, whether European or African, considerable negations. He uses unfavourable terms for Europe too, like he described the horizon of Gravesend as gloomy and sepulchral. He calls Mr. Kurtz a ‘scoundrel’. Many other instances are accessible in the book which resolves Conrad’s overall splenetic personality. But what counters the argument that he is not a racist and is rancorous irrespectively, is the context in which he implies his bitterness. He did not degrade a European on the ground of his superficiality, his birth, his colour. Maybe they were literally ‘foolish’. Or maybe Conrad possessed a critical mind for everything. But his criticism inclines to antisemitism because the emotion which persists when he calls Mr. Kurtz, ‘a scoundrel’ and the black fireman, ‘a savage’, is quite disparate.

Talking about racism against black people? Well, the human race has lived through ages and the sheer act of racism has lived through as well. Achebe’s essay is an indignant punch on the face of the old dominant image of Africa in most Western minds and has shot an arrow on the bigger picture of racism which has inclined to normalcy which is understandable, given the ignorance of psychoanalysts to acknowledge Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist. Little has changed since hundred years of untold plight and agonies thrusted on the black people due to racism: a big stain on the flag of humanity. Well, its 21st century and racism, still, hunts down thousands of George Floyd and Eric Garner.

An amateur writer who is in a constant dilemma between accepting reality and drowning in her surrealistic reveries.