Answers from Anya Tretyakova about two Victorian novels.
Empire and Race
H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are two Victorian novels, which despite differing greatly in subject matter and genre, nevertheless share many common tropes that bear further examination. The Time Machine, a work of Science Fiction, one of the earliest of its kind, sees the protagonist on a journey through time; seemingly travelling into the future, yet encountering a planet and inhabiting ‘civilisation’ which instead appears to be regressing into prehistory with the passage of time. Heart of Darkness, a symbolic, frame narrative is harder to place in terms of genre, but can be read as a transitional text between Victorian and Modernist styles; here, the protagonist is also on a journey, which even though it is only through physical space, has all the hallmarks of pseudo-time travel. In Heart of Darkness, the protagonist, Charles Marlow journeys into Africa, travelling along the River Congo. He often describes the Africa he sees during these travels as prehistoric and alien – echoing a journey back in time. The time traveller’s journey in The Time Machine is similarly described as a voyage into prehistory, full of encounters with a peoples now seemingly alien and removed from ourselves. Both journeys are literal and metaphorical descents into darkness, the darkness of an unknown land and the darkness of the human condition, respectively. Rather than an exploration of the darkness of any particular race or nation, Conrad’s novel and indeed Wells’ too, consider the darkness in all of humanity. These texts are misanthropic, not racist. They echo the fear of not only whether humanity is progressing, but where it may be ‘progressing’ to, regardless of ethnicity. The earth and civilisation itself, in both works, is painted in a doomed light; fading into an inescapable extinguishment.
In 1974, celebrated and respected writer Chinua Achebe delivered a public lecture at the University of Massachusetts that shocked, offended, amazed and surprised the literary world. Achebe boldly asserted that one of the Western canon’s most revered and studied texts, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, was nothing more than a cleverly written work of racism (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments”). The words Achebe spoke that day continue to spark endless debate and controversy and if it was Achebe’s intention to encourage such heated discourse, at least in this regard, he has succeeded. The problem with analysing such an assertion, from a Western point of view, is that it inevitably loses the credibility of objectivity, by virtue of its source; but of course, the same can be said about Achebe’s lecture.
In Achebe’s 1987 preface to the now [in]famous lecture (published in essay form), he makes a comparison between Conrad and James Baldwin, calling them “two very different writers separated by almost every barrier we cherish…greatest of all perhaps, race (one white and the other black)” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments ix). It seems a peculiar assumption to make, that for his audience, race is a most cherished barrier. Unsurprisingly, he then declares that whilst “Conrad casually wrote words that continue to give morale to the barricades of racism, Baldwin spent his talents subverting them” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” ix). Baldwin’s talents and contributions aside, this allegation against Conrad bears further scrutiny, if for no other reason than its potential to dismiss a long-held literary text of incredible import.
Achebe’s main founding proposition is that Heart of Darkness, more so than any other literary work exemplifies the West’s necessity to present Africa in its own negative image, as “the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilisation” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 2) noting that even the opening of the story, set on the River Thames, when compared to Marlow’s re-telling of his experiences along the River Congo, is an obvious contrast of good versus bad, that the Thames is a ‘good’ river, whilst the Congo is a ‘bad’ one; that the Thames had “conquered its darkness…and is now in daylight and at peace” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 3). This assertion is incredibly problematic when considering the concluding lines of Conrad’s novel, namely that the Thames, this “tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (Conrad, Penguin Ed. 96). Conrad’s finale brings the narrative full circle, both rivers melding into one hideous Ouroboros, demonstrating if anything, that the ‘darkness’ of which Marlow speaks, is a metaphor for the shared inescapable darkness of humanity, rather than a darkness specific to race or nation. Wells’ The Time Machine takes a similarly cyclical approach; the time traveller moves forward in time, only to observe humanity’s devolution into primitiveness, thereafter he travels ‘forward’ further still and sees a planet whose description would comfortably apply to the primordial soup from whence humanity first came (Wells).
Achebe goes on to quote Marlow’s observation of the African natives, as what really captivates the West: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours…Ugly” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 4). Undoubtedly, this passage can easily be read as racist against the African people in the story, but consider what it actually says – humanity is ugly and problematic – the real disturbance comes not from Marlow’s observation that there is a similarity between himself and the natives, but rather what that similarity consists of: that inescapable darkness. Achebe also claims that Conrad wilfully denies speech to the African natives Marlow encounters, that is until Marlow speaks to some of the native crew on his steamboat, who express a desire to eat the attackers on theboat, should Marlow capture any (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 6). Achebe cites this communication between Marlow and the natives as a premeditated “assault”, serving “Conrad’s purpose of letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts” (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 6). However, Marlow handles this mention of cannibalism rather delicately in the proceeding passage, considering the admission would have been horrifying, but for the obvious state of near starvation these native crew members must have been in, having had a good portion of the hippo-meat they had brought with them thrown overboard by the ‘pilgrims’ (Conrad, Penguin Ed. 49-50).
Marlow goes on to describe, in expression bordering on admiration, “I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity. Restraint!…these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind of scruple. Restraint!” (Conrad, Penguin Ed. 51). Rather than being painted as mindless savages as Achebe describes Conrad attempting to accomplish, the aforementioned passage shows a physical and psychological strength hitherto unmatched by any of the white crewmembers; indeed this interpretation is further solidified when considering Marlow’s steadfast belief no human emotion he had observed in his experience of (presumably) his European counterparts could stand up to starvation, yet the African crewmembers display a decidedly un-barbaric, entirely humanistic show of restraint (Conrad, Penguin Ed.). The Time Machine also explores the notion of cannibalism, although the protagonist abhors the idea almost instantly upon reflection (Wells); of course, in The Time Machine, the cannibal Morlocks do not seem to represent a particular race, but rather a branch of humanity and thus it does not seem to qualify under Achebe’s notions of a ‘racist text’.
Achebe openly stated in his lecture that “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist” and that this was a “simple truth” that had gone unnoticed because white racism against Africa is a normalised way of thinking; he attacks any notion that Conrad may have simply used Africa as a “setting and backdrop” for the particulars of the story as this in itself was “preposterous” and “perverse” – as had been suggested to him by a Scottish student (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 8). The obvious difficulty with accepting such an assertion is that it expects too much of Conrad, indeed too much of any author, to relinquish his or her right to choose where and what story they tell. Achebe himself draws upon the similarities between Marlow and Conrad, implying the former’s experiences are based on the latter’s own, referring to them as “Marlow/Conrad”, one and the same (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 7). Surely, this is an author’s prerogative. Just as Achebe based so many of his works on his experiences in Africa, as an African, so Conrad’s narrative, based on his experiences in Africa, as a naturalised Briton, cannot be so egregious; especially if accused on the grounds of subjectivity and ignorance. Furthermore, Achebe fails to make any concessions, dismissing Marlow’s horror at the dying Africans in the “grove of death” as merely “bleeding-heart sentiments”, “toss[ed] out” in order to fulfill an English requirement “of decency to be deeply shocked by atrocities” in the Congo under Belgian rule (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 7). It is challenging to view such unbridled, one-sided criticism of any text without serious reservations as to its rationality, particularly one that holds such a place of literary importance as Heart of Darkness.
Perhaps Chinua Achebe was correct in his assertion that “Conrad had a problem with niggers” and perhaps Heart of Darkness was nothing more than a piece of racist propaganda (Achebe, “Hopes and Impediments” 9) but one cannot possibly know this without assuming the author’s mind. On examination of the text, Heart of Darkness marginalises and criticises Africans and Europeans alike, arguably, the latter more so; but most importantly, it criticises humanity. It is a journey into the darkness of the human soul, a journey that ends in tragedy for some (like Kurtz) and a lingering calamity for others (like Marlow): a gnawing distrust of all humanity. The Time Machine ends on a similarly ambivalent note, the fate of the protagonist is left unwritten, with nothing but the hopeless curiosity of a single character to wonder at the outcome. Both stories move, through time and space on what should be a rewarding and knowledgeable journey, only to end in misfortune and leave a sense of foreboding for the captive audience. Whether or not either novel qualifies as a ‘racist text’ is not immediately apparent; but to borrow the notions and standards of this assessment from Chinua Achebe, this author would have to respectfully disagree on both counts, one being perhaps a little more apparent than the other. If we are to accept Achebe’s claim that an author’s utilisation of country, race or people, outside of one’s own native boundaries, is to be resented and quickly dismissed for possible lack of understanding or tact; it seems literature, indeed any work of art, would suffer in the extreme. If Achebe’s position is to be accepted without question and be allowed to affect the literary world’s ability to accept error or misrepresentation within a text concerning any study of humanity, then, to paraphrase Achebe, there but for the grace of God go I.
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