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4.0 out of 5 stars Here He Goes Again on Conrad!, December 29, 2009
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This review is from: The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays (Hardcover)
Over my lengthy teaching career, I taught Chinua Achebe's novels THINGS FALL APART (1959) and NO LONGER AT EASE (1960) more often than I taught any other works of imaginative literature of comparable length. Consequently, when I read that Achebe had published a new short collection of essays, I hastened to order a copy of THE EDUCATION OF A BRITISH-PROTECTED CHILD: ESSAYS. As you might expect, I found some of the essays more interesting than others.

But I am writing this customer review to protest against Achebe's continuing charge against Conrad over alleged racist views in Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. Achebe himself gives no evidence in the essays in this new collection - or anywhere else that I know of -- of having considered any counterarguments to his well-publicized arguments. So I propose to set forth here counterarguments for prospective readers of Achebe's new collection of essays to consider.

With respect to the passages in Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS that Achebe has selected to object to, I agree with him that the views expressed in the selected passages in the text can be characterized as racist. But I can think of less harsh terms to use to register the same criticism about the limited range of humanity expressed in certain statements.

But in the frame narrative in Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, the views that Achebe has selected as expressing racist views are imputed in the text to Marlow. But Achebe imputes them to Conrad! But the views in question are not necessarily Conrad's!

Moreover, nowhere in the text is Marlow presented as an apotheosis of all that is good in human nature, as Beatrice is presented in Dante's PARADISO. Furthermore, nowhere does Conrad tell us to take everything Marlow says at face value. Thus if there are no explicit hints about exactly how we are to be circumspect about what Marlow says, there are no explicit injunctions to regard him as an entirely reliable narrator either. In short, we are free to question Marlow's judgment, as Achebe does.

But what about the title? The title of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS does not lead me to expect that I will be reading about an imaginary paradise, as the title of Dante's PARADISO leads me to expect. On the contrary, the title of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS leads me to expect that I will be reading about the heart of darkness, but the title does not tell me exactly wherein I may find the heart of darkness in the novella.

If Achebe understands that Marlow is expressing racist views, isn't Achebe thereby examining the heart of darkness in Marlow? In short, can't Achebe understand Marlow's racist views to be one form of darkness, although perhaps not the only form of darkness to be found in Conrad's novella?

Moreover, when Achebe himself spells out the problem that he finds in the text by saying that Marlow does not recognize that the Africans are people, aren't we coming pretty close to the heart of darkness? In plain English, Marlow distances himself from and de-humanizes the Africans.

As Achebe notes, when we read novels, we tend to identify with the dominant cultural conditioning that is expressed in the novel. In plain English, we tend to say "we" and "us" to the dominant cultural conditioning expressed in the novel. As a result, when we first read Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS, we may tend to say "we" and "us" to the limited views expressed by Marlow. But we are free to reflect on and question his views, as Achebe does. This process of reflection involves critical reading - in plain English, not being taken in uncritically by the novel.

After I have removed Conrad the author as the target of Achebe's criticism about racist views and have substituted Marlow as the appropriate target for Achebe's criticism about racist views, I can thank Achebe for deepening my critical understanding of Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS.

Next, I want to discuss an analogy based on Achebe's THINGS FALL APART. In this novel the author uses the narrative device known as the omniscient narrator. This is a far more straightforward narrative device than the tricky narrative device of the frame narrative that the author of HEART OF DARKNESS uses. At times, the omniscient narrator in THINGS FALL APART comments in no uncertain terms about something portrayed in the novel, most notably at the very end of the novel.

The main character is Okonkwo. He is presented sympathetically but not uncritically. He is a strong man whose father was weak and unsuccessful. Okonkwo worked hard and overcame adversity to become a successful farmer. As a young man, he became a champion wrestler. Subsequently, he was an outstanding warrior, and he was recognized and rewarded for his warrior services to his village by being given certain public responsibilities within the village. Nevertheless, he is at times a rash man. In the course of the novel we learn enough about Okonkwo that we can classify him as a round character, not a flat character.

Compared to all the things that we learn about Okonkwo in the course of the novel, we learn relatively little about Agamemnon and Achilles in the Homeric epic the ILIAD. So compared to Okonkwo, Agamemnon and even Achilles are flat characters, not round characters. However, in the opening episode, we learn that both Agamemnon and Achilles are rash men, just as we learn that Okonkwo is at times a rash man.

But we should pause and note certain things that we do not learn a lot about in the novel. Even though we learn that Okonkwo is a successful warrior, we are not given detailed battle scenes, as we are in the three big battle scenes of the successful warrior Beowulf in the medieval heroic epic BEOWULF. (When the British slaughter the people in a neighboring village, that event also takes place off-stage and is merely reported to us in the novel.)

But Beowulf is not portrayed as a rash man, as are Agamemnon and Achilles in the opening episode of the ILIAD and as is Okonkwo.

Conversely, apart from battle scenes, we learn a lot more about Okonkwo than we do learn about Beowulf. Compared to Okonkwo, Beowulf is not a round character but a flat character, just as Agamemnon and Achilles are flat characters.

However, despite his flaws and limitations, Okonkwo is arguably a great man in his cultural context, as Beowulf is in his, and as Achilles and Hector are in their cultural contexts in the Homeric epic the ILIAD. But to understand Okonkwo's greatness, we will probably have to consider him carefully as a warrior and compare him to Beowulf -- and to Achilles and Hector. The cultural conditions in Africa that gave rise to the warrior Okonkwo are roughly comparable to the cultural conditions in antiquity that gave rise to the warriors Achilles and Hector, and in medieval culture to Beowulf.

Moreover, symbolically, Okonkwo symbolizes all of us who find ourselves mid-life in emerging cultural conditions that are significantly different from the cultural conditioning in which we grew up.

But what can we say about the two episodes in the novel concerning wife-beating, where the omniscient narrator does not comment in no uncertain terms about wife-beating? Should we charge the author with endorsing wife-beating because the omniscient narrators fails to criticize the practice in no uncertain terms?

As each episode stands, it appears that the practice of wife-beating is accepted by the Ibo people, but with the understanding that there is a limit beyond which it is not acceptable to go.

From those two episodes, should we charge that the author condones limited wife-beating? After all, the author uses the narrative device of the omniscient narrator, and the omniscient narrator does not criticize the practice of wife-beating in no uncertain terms. In this way, limited wife-beating appears to be an accepted practice not only among the Ibo people but also for the omniscient narrator. But can we go beyond pointing out these obvious points and charge the author with condoning limited wife-beating because the author does not portray any explicit criticism of this practice in the text of the novel, just criticism of carrying the wife-beating too far?

For the sake of discussion, I will assume that the author would want to object to having me make such a charge against him.

But if he were to object to the charge of condoning wife-beating against him because the omniscient narrators does not criticize the practice in no uncertain terms, then he should join me in objecting to his charge against the author Joseph Conrad.

We do not need to have the omniscient narrator tell us what exactly we should think about wife-beating, just as we do not need to have explicit hints about how we are to think about Marlow's racist views.

And what should we say about the cultural conditions in Nigeria that gave rise to the author Chinua Achebe and conspired to enable him to write the novels THINGS FALL APART and NO LONGER AT EASE - two sensitive creative achievements? If Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS grated against Achebe's sensibility so strongly that he was moved to write those two novels, then I say glory be to God for Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS -- and glory be to God for Achebe's novels.

As Achebe intimates in places in this collection of essays, the supposed darkness of Africa (the so-called dark continent) and Africans involved projections of the European and Western psyche. But if we are going to give credit where credit is due, then Conrad deserves a certain share of credit for plumbing the depths of that projection.

If you ask me, Achebe understood and understands what Conrad's novella is all about - it is about the heart of darkness that Achebe chooses to sum up as racist, although that is not all that it is about or all of the heart of darkness portrayed in the novella. In effect, Conrad was Achebe's muse. Thus it is sad that Achebe cannot be more respectful of Conrad's achievement as a European in plumbing the depths of the European and Western heart of darkness.

But the European and Western heart of darkness may be more than just racist - it may also be sexist, as may the heart of darkness in other cultures (just as the heart of darkness in other cultures may be racist - or ethnocentric).
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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 12, 2013 1:03:16 AM PST
Sandy Beach says:
Without having read Heart of Darkness myself it is difficult to follow along. Perhaps this author should publish his own annotated version of Conrad's book with these arguments included.
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