Term Paper: Heart Darkness the Postcolonial Landscape

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[. . .] " (Conrad, p. 25)

In this description of the African people and their behavior, Conrad may perhaps have intended to imply the first faint glimmering awareness in the inherently ethnocentric but sensitive and comprehending European that non-white natives where in fact human. However, with the distance of more than a century since its writing, the very characterization here makes no apology for its disparaging tone. The use of words such as 'howled, 'horrid,' and 'ugly' suggests a baseness and animal-like tendency that almost excuses the European misimpression of inhumanness.

Here, we face one of the complicating factors in any assessment of Conrad's text, which is in understanding the time and place within which it was conceived. A post-colonial critique composed on the tail end of a sustained period of colonialism at once offers a remarkable insight into a time of momentous change and a first-hand perspective on the immediate fallout of this sustained period. But it also lacks the benefit of more than a century of observation and reflection on the consequences of European colonialism. As these realities have unfolded, so too has the discourse of Conrad's critique expanded and varied. As the text by Bloom (2008) points out, the novella was composed during "an era of intense interpersonal rivalry for colonial possessions. There was widespread interest in the political, moral and psychological challenged afforded to Europeans by African colonization. This tale dealt with atavism and decadence, at a time when these topics had been given currency." (p. 20)

Bloom indicates that at the time of Conrad's work, a greater intellectual dialogue had begun to open on the implications of European actions in contexts such as Africa. The context of the Belgian Congo would be perfectly emblematic of the effects of colonization, with the very name of the territory implying a European whitewashing of a long ingrained African identity. Bloom notes that a discussion had begun to emerge amongst academics as to the ethical and practical violations committed by the Europeans in their various colonies and, conversely, in defense of the 'civilizing' of savage native populations.

It is clear in one sense that Conrad's purpose of composing the text in question would be to cast a light on the consequences of European exploitation. And by the same token, Conrad cannot alter his own Western perspective and orientation. The value in Heart of Darkness is the fact that the author does not attempt to conceal this duality. Bloom explains the following of both Conrad's work and the postcolonial landscape within which it was composed

"Ideological contradiction gained rhetorical compression. Previously, Baudelaire had declared that nature provided 'forests of symbols, and, in an era where symbolism in prose and verse commanded fresh interest, Conrad was able to voice his paradoxes not only through explicit statement but also through ambiguous images and many-faceted symbols. The narrative of 'Heart of Darkness' offers, for example, the following paradox: 'Civilization can be barbaric. It is both a hypocritical veneer and a valuable achievement to be vigilantly guarded." (p. 21)

There is perhaps no internal contradiction which better underscores the debate surrounding interpretations of Conrad's seminal work. Indeed, Conrad could not help but marvel at least in part at the implications of 'progress' even as he observed with relative objectivity that this progress had come at a terrible cost to the lives of those exploited for its gains. What makes this such a problematic equanimity, however, is that it betrays the authors own inadvertent prejudices. His characterization of the sheer 'darkness' of the African continent -- with cosmetic racial implications aside -- conveys an image of African culture as having been stagnant, without history and steeped in the dark ages. In this way, Contrad almost appears to blame the African people themselves for the dire conditions characterizing the postcolonial landscape.

Dark Africa:

"In Conrad, the 'impenetrable darkness' has a metaphysical if 'inscrutable,' cause, and therefore, meaning. Conradian darkness, in part, prompts a ruminative Marlow to entertain a 'suspicion' of remote kinship with the Africans he cannot perceive, but, like other forms of colonial account keeping, it also relegates Africa and Africans to the metaphorically 'dark' eras and spaces of European thought. An often-quoted example from Marlow's narrative equates impenetrability not only with prehistory and emptiness but also with silence: 'Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.' (66)" (Achebe, p. 83)

Achebe argues that Conrad has, throughout his text and in a repetitive manner, reiterated the idea that Africa existed suspended from evolution, that its natives were themselves mere artifacts from the beginning of time. To Achebe, Conrad has conflated the African preservation of its tribal culture with isolation from progress. Such conflations are at the root of the European concept of colonization, wherein progress is forcibly introduced as a superior replacement for a long-ingrained culture. That is, by conveying a sense of support for the Western concept of progress, Conrad inherently accepts the myth of the African savage who must be rescued from his own unwillingness to grow. African history which stretches back for millennia is verily erased by a generation of European occupation, an advancement of civilization which the Conrad text may inadvertently endorse even as it reflects upon the horror of the postcolonial landscape. (Achebe 1977, p. 254)

Indeed, this is an allegation that gained its greatest ground with the writing of Nigerian scholar Chinua Achebe, whose 1958 work Things Fall Apart would greatly expand the nuance in the discussion on Conrad's seminal text. Thereafter, in 1975, Achebe would publish the landmark essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness,'" intensifying his claims regarding Conrad's slanted perspective. Specifically, Achebe (1977) challenged Conrad's portrayal, often perceived theretofore as sympathetic to the exploited natives. Instead, Achebe argues that the Polish-born author was inherently fascinated with European colonialism in a way that does not allow his work to reject it outright. Worse yet, there is the appearance at multiple points throughout Conrad's text of characterizations that reinforce the negative imagery of the savage, backward and even animalistic African. (p. 251)

Achebe argues in his later essay that the characterization of African postcolonial landscape as a white man's adventure to a place and time cast back in the history of civilization is inherently ethnocentric. Achebe (1977) argues that "Heart of Darkness projects 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 beastiality." (Achebe, p. 251) Certainly, this is most compellingly achieved in the personage of Kurtz, whose imperialist rearing combines with the savagery of the world around him to produce nothing less than a monster. That the portrayal of said monster is horror mixed with no small degree of admiration, one can't help but note the racial implication that even in these savage jungles, the white man is more advantageously equipped to achieve power. Lowered, as it were, to the tribalist behaviors of his host nation, Kurtz embodies the triumph of the animalistic over the human. In a sense, Kurtz exceeds the natives in their own way of life by employing the structural tenets of colonialism, not the least of which is the concept of European racial superiority.

Achebe argues that the contrast between European and African racial identity is employed from the outset of Conrad's story. Further, Achebe indicates that the contrast is used to cast Africa, the African way of life and the African people as collectively bearing an 'otherness,' a strangeness and an unfavorable or undeveloped culture as compared to that of the Europeans and, perhaps, even compared to the postcolonial landscape of Africa itself. To that point, Achebe indicates the following:

"The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully "at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks." But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension.' Is Conrad saying then that these two rivers are very different, one good, the other bad? Yes, but that is not the real point. It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry. For the Thames too 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.' It conquered its darkness, of course, and is now in daylight and at peace. But if it were to visit its primordial relative, the Congo, it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence… [END OF PREVIEW]

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