Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad, artists of their time

It's been too many years since I read Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Conrad's Heart of Darkness—I think I'll try to read them back-to-back soon. For now, I'm relying on old memories and recent readings about Achebe's denunciation of Conrad.

Achebe is interviewed in The case against Conrad. He says Conrad "is obsessed with the physicality of the negro" and misses the fact that Conrad was obsessed with physicality in general. Achebe conflates Conrad with Marlow and makes an odd assumption: Why does he think Marlow has a "pure" soul? Heart of Darkness is about imperialists whose souls are not pure at all—Kurtz looks within himself and famously sees "the horror!" the horror!"

In the interview, Achebe says something that's mostly true and very revealing:
This identification with the other is what a great writer brings to the art of story-making. We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometimes see what the owner of the house has ignored. But they must visit with respect and not be concerned with the colour of skin, or the shape of nose, or the condition of the technology in the house."
When the point of view character is supposed to be a typical man of his time and place, a white visitor to Africa who exploits it without wanting to understand it, would it be realistic for Marlow to write "with respect" of Africans, ignoring their physical traits and technology? The story's power would be lost if the viewpoint character was an academic who calmly observed what happened and placed everything in perspective.

I might agree with Achebe if he was talking about essayists. But a storyteller's job isn't to be respectful—it's to be honest in a way that the essayist may try to explain, but can never duplicate. The essayist seeks answers. The storyteller seeks questions that linger when the essayist's work is done.

PS. This post was supposed to be about how Conrad and Achebe can't be divorced from the time when they worked, and Achebe's criticism of Conrad says more about people of Achebe's time than it says about Conrad. Art is always about its time, and criticism is always about its time, so in great criticism, you find interesting ideas in conflict, but in most criticism, you find the platitudes of the present being applied to the art of the past.

Maybe I'll return to this subject, but I suspect I'm done with it now.


Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe

Rights of Passage


  1. I've never quite been able to grasp what Achebe's point is with respect to Conrad's book. He doesn't seem to say that it's a bad book and in fact he seems sometimes to think it's a good book. He does say that Conrad is a racist. Well, of course, Conrad was a racist. Probably not as racist as Marlow, but sure. So what? The interviewer seems, ultimately, so come up against the same problem.

    Achebe seems, basically, to come down to "this book upsets me" which of course it does. It upsets me, too, albeit for different reasons. It is an upsetting book.

    1. I think Achebe never got over Conrad using "nigger" when Achebe was young and the civil rights struggle could almost be defined as a fight between people who said "nigger" and people who didn't.

      And you're right about his point. Does he want it banned? Forgotten? If he only wants people to acknowledge that Conrad's view as an outsider isn't the same as an insider's might be, I would agree with him.

      But I would then ask whether Achebe is any more an insider when it comes to writing about Africans who have had little contact with Europeans. It would be like me writing about Gauls; research and artistic insight matter, not genes.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, in your comment as well as your post. My impression, and it's only that, is that Achebe wishes Heart of Darkness, and probably Conrad in general, were not respected, whether it/he is read or not.

    I also agree with amolitor when he says that "it is an upsetting book"--and that is why I respect it. So small and so powerful. The horror!