As regular readers of this blog will probably know (though irregular or brand new – hello! – will not), a few months ago, I threw in the towel on my picaresque London hospitality life, bought a car that a middle-aged, Scouse, used car dealer whose sister I was working with told me should be reliable, and headed out of England with my little dog. Promising myself that I would live cheap, and possessing hundreds of books, one of my resolutions to myself was to give up bookbuying and focus on reading the many, many unread books I owned or – almost preferable – reread a few texts that I hadn’t encountered since I was an undergraduate (or younger). Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness got whacked in the box, due to it being a “classic” that I read during my BA course but I didn’t remember very well, in spite of its continued literary importance. Last week, I read some non-fiction by Chinua Achebe, which multiple times made reference to Conrad’s novella as a racist text that has had serious long term repercussions on European attitudes towards Africa. So, I thought to myself, NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT.
First of all, this commentary cannot continue without stating, unequivocally, that yes, Heart of Darkness is racist. I’m going to presume you know what it’s about and who Marlow is. This is not a post about modernist formal experimentation.
Heart of Darkness is racist to the point where it reads far more as science-fiction or fantasy than it does as explicit racism as encountered today. Wait: that sentence comes BANG through the filter of my white mind. The othering within Conrad’s novel is so transparent and dehumanising that it genuinely felt – as a white man – like he was describing demonic fictions. Does this narrative technique work in reverse and mean that there is an inherent racism stretching back through most if not all depictions of the “non-human” yet sentient? Probably, yeah.
I know that European folk creatures regularly contain gruff anti-Semitism (ie Dracula and other vampires), but is the Catholic idea of hell the same thing as Marlow’s descriptions of the Belgian Congo? A terrifying, unpleasant, dangerous and oh-so-hot hinterland filled with beings that are like human but not, some of them with horns and limbs of sizes that are inhuman, with unknown magic and no recognisable God, trapped due to their ignorance of ‘”sin” in amoral – and thus to Marlow – immoral lives.
Without Christ, Marlow ponders, why wouldn’t a person be a cannibal? The narrator moves between fear and hatred and contempt and patronising affection towards the “natives”, who he also often refers to with a different “n” word (and I don’t mean the Spanish for “black”). I studied this book just under a decade ago, and all I remember being spoken about was Conrad’s – tbf – complex and impressive narrative structure, I don’t remember it being introduced with any caveats about its content. But Heart of Darkness is SO racist that to a modern (I must emphasise) white reader it doesn’t remind me of racism, because it is SO racist it’s alarming to be reminded that, just a hundred years ago, this attitude was acceptable. Heart of Darkness is a darkly dehumanising text that describes Africans not only as “ignorant savages”, but as the physical embodiments of a corrupt, malevolent, African “spirituality”. African characters here have neither names nor personalities: they are sinister and unknowing, like not even fucking horses are in novels about cowboys.
Oh, I racistly thought as I began reading Heart of Darkness, “The way Conrad describes these people is so dehumanising I won’t read it as racist if I just pretend he’s like describing a Hieronymous Bosch or something.’ But Conrad isn’t describing actual false creatures: he is depicting people as not-people, he is depicting the Congo and Africa as a whole as basically fucking Jumanji, but more sinister and less fun.
Heart of Darkness is a book that is SO racist, it’s disgusting to realise that not only did people think like this a hundred years ago, but this book is sold without the warning wrapper of Tintin in the Congo and old Warner Bros cartoons, and was on fucking university syllabuses less than a decade ago where the focus was its structure, not structural and its like totally off the scale racism.
I remembered Heart of Darkness being difficult to read, which shows how much my reading has developed since then, as this time it was a fucking breeze. I read the whole thing while walking around bustling Barcelona, which isn’t something I’d be able to do if the book had required much concentration.
The plot is racist, the writing is racist, and maybe the structure and the language is original and valuable literarily, but a novel that unequivocally has the moral “Africa is evil and no good will come of it, even the riches we may take from within it are cursed” needs to be flagged up as offensive. As a white man, I have the luxury of not “being offended” by it, but many people the world over are right to be deeply upset by this book’s inclusion in “the canon”.
Heart of Darkness uses modes of narrative to tell a story that is SO racist, it can’t really be engaged with blind, unless you don’t think racism is a hefty and continued problem. Did I find the novella exciting? Did I find it emotive? Yes, but I felt guilty doing that, especially when I realised that I had done so by choosing to read it as fantasy. However (especially when it was newly published) for many people, this depiction of Africa was fact, not fantasy, and that is why Heart of Darkness was and remains dangerous. People in Africa are the same as people everywhere: everyone is an individual, everyone is different. In Heart of Darkness, no African is an individual, no Africans are people.
To discuss this book without mentioning its politics is wrong. If you disagree – and are not white – please tell me why in the comments.
And I’m not “virtue signalling”: recognising something is bad isn’t saying that I’m good, fuck off. It made me want to rewatch Apocalypse Now, which obviously means I wasn’t *that* bothered. I’m – of course – part of the problem, but Heart of Darkness is a bigger part of the problem because it’s considered a “good book”. The reason why its racism needs to be confronted is the book’s veneer of cultural respectability.
I bet a lot of people I know wouldn’t be able to get through it any more. And that isn’t because they’re “snowflakes”, it’s because they have no time to waste on backwards-looking texts.
Maybe stick with The Secret Agent…
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