Thursday, October 7, 2010

Heart of Darkness- Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness (Green Integer)Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read this book I was in high school.  I hated it.  I could not even get through it, let alone understand it.  The second time was in the second half of British Literature class; surprised I found that I really enjoyed it.  That was before I knew what Achebe and others have said (Achebe called Conrad a "bloddy racist), and before I realized there was a lot of truth to that.

Now here I am.  My third time through.  I have been to Ghana.  I am home now.  Where do I put this book?  How do I wrestle with it?

I have been on both sides of the debate, but now I am back to the foggy gray middle ground after my experience in Ghana this summer.  One of my best students approached me when I was rereading Heart of Darkness.  I asked him if he had ever read the book.  "No."  I asked him if he had ever heard of the book.  He again replied, "no."  I continued to explain why it could be a problematic text.  I will never forget his response to me.

"So?  It is just a book.  It is not true."

I have had an interesting experience dealing with attitudes of literature on the ground levels, but the more I look back on me research the more I am convinced that these issues are only alive in the western sphere.

I like the beginning when Marlow talks about his lure to Africa as being the biggest and most blank continent (8).  Yes, I too got caught in that.  My whole life I have wanted to come to that continent, and to me Africa was just a continent, not a plethora of separate distinct countries, climates, and cultures.  I remember the day that I stopped saying, “I am going to Africa” and replaced the term with “Ghana.”  Now that I am back, I have found myself slipping back into “Africa.”  Many people have never heard of Ghana, let alone know it is in Africa.  Ghana is not even in the word bank of my phone.  Still, something about reverting back to Africa bothers me.  Just yesterday I had to explain to someone that Uganda and Ghana are not the same country.  So I guess what I am trying to say is that even though we have lines and dots in our modern maps and satellites, “Africa” is still a big, blank continent to most.  Why is that?

So naturally reading this again I was more conscious of racism, and something else I never picked up on, strange attitudes and portrayal of women.  On page 12 there are some rather belittling statements regarding women as a whole, and racism comments obviously were readily apparent.  However, the more I read, the more I think that Conrad makes everyone look bad—not just the black people.  I think one of his most prominent themes is that we are all the same…all dark.  I do not know.  Just questioning the façade of civilization, and I think by trying to say that he is a lot better off than Henry Morton Stanley’s narratives for instance, or hundreds of other books written before we became sensitive to race issues.  So I think my perspective is wider, but I do not know if I could form an opinion on the controversy and feel right about defending it.

Conrad seems to be much less racist to me in contrast to, say, Henry Morton Stanley, an early European explorer of Africa, because of one particular passage in this section.  When Marlow’s steering native dies he talks about the loss he felt (50), and I think that is an interesting juxtaposition to his behavior when Kurtz dies.  Continuing on with his dinner and all.  One of the things that was the must frustrating to me about Through the Dark Continent was this opposition in the portrayal of death.  A whiteman dies and he gets a pretty sketched picture and a few pages in the book.  Even the dogs got pages when they died, but a native dies and it is understated in half a sentence.

I thought the repetition that they are “simple people” (53) in the words of the Russian was also particularly interesting.  I have heard that said about Africans both in and out of the field.  They are not simple people, but I do agree that they live simply, and in my opinion it serves them much better in life than us and our complex schedules and to-do lists.  The people, especially the ones most distanced from trying to be Western, seemed to be much happier than the Kumasi dwellers.  They much harder than lives more than not too, but I really believe that because they live simply they have their priorities straight.  Family.  God.  Love.  So I would like to revise that statement about simplicity if that is okay.

Another big comparison to my experience is when Marlow returns to England.  Those images, that description of his frustrations and irritation is really accurate to what I feel in my own reentry into my own world.  Brooding about people and their “insignificant and silly dreams,” or vending about the “intruders whose knowledge of life was…an irritation pretence because…they could not possibly know the things” I know (71).  Yeah.  I hear you Conrad/Marlow.  Yet, at the same time, I too have “no particular desire to enlightened them,” though I may or may not have “some difficulty restraining myself from laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance.”  Yeah, that is really harsh, but there is a lot of underlying truth to his words, and it speaks to me.  Anytime anyone approaches me about my hair I find that I do not jump at the first opportunity to tell them where I had it done or what I was doing there.  Why is that?  I love it when a book can do that though.  When it gets it right.  I still cannot believe this book was written in under two months...   

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  1. I think you raise an important question when you ask why Africa "is still a big, blank continent to most." I think many people in the west, myself included, know very little about Africa, and only hear it as a generic example of a place where people suffer. Some possible reasons for people in the west still seeing Africa as a blank continent: 1)Little media coverage-outlets know they'll get higher ratings talking about Lindsay Lohan's latest court appearance. 2)Guilt-perhaps people are ashamed about what the West has done to some African peoples (slavery, colonialism, etc.), and would rather not think about it. I don't know, but I think it's an important question.

  2. Ben,

    Good insights. Either way I hope it changes someday. Thank you for helping me get through this book in Transatlantic Lit History last year. I'm not sure I could have ever appreciated it without your comments to offset that David kid's, etc. I miss that class.

  3. Me too! My internship is great but I miss English courses so much. I can't wait to get back and dig into some new books.

  4. What you said about separating Ghana from the vast, blank Africa is so similar to what I've experienced when telling people I'm going to/in/recently returned from South Africa. Before I left, I'd tell people I'm going to South Africa and they'd ask me, "Which country in south Africa?" Now people are always saying, "I heard you were in Africa!" or asking "How was Africa?" or saying "Did you hear that such-and-such happened last month in Africa? You were there!" And I keep having to say I was in South Africa and only South Africa; I wasn't touring the continent. Also, after actually living in a part of Africa, it hardly feels like that vast, blank, mysterious, romantic 'dark continent' that always so intrigued me. Sure, it's less developed than the U.S., but the people are still people, just like anyone anywhere else. None of these dark savages that Conrad and so many other travel writers describe.