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  • Preempting Postcolonial Critique:Europeans in the Heart of Darkness
  • Inga Clendinnen (bio)

I confess that I have already participated in this journal's symposium "Imperial Trauma." Having read the contributions of my symposium colleagues, I found that I wanted to contribute again—which is how symposia are meant to work, and rarely do. In accordance with the obliging collegial spirit of Common Knowledge, the editor invited me to do so. I thank him.

The symposium topic encouraged reflection on the traumas of empire: the deformations of thought and action effected by the possession of real or apparent power over alien others. It has proved to be a roman candle issue, seething, hissing, and shooting sparks over an expanding area. In my earlier essay I traced the subtle deformation of principle and judgment in an unusually upright and self-critical Australian anthropologist by examining his tangled relationship with his Aboriginal informants.1 Now I want to focus on an earlier time, and on a different venue (Africa) and a different discipline (literary criticism), to explore the ramifications and reverberations of the most famous fictional statement of that incandescing theme: Joseph Conrad's classic "colonial" novel, Heart of Darkness. [End Page 1]


From its beginnings Heart of Darkness has been variously and passionately interpreted. Its first audience, a little more than a hundred years ago, read it as a compelling dramatization of the differences between two (crudely opposed ) modes of imperialism: high-minded British versus money-grubbing Belgian. Fifty years on, E. M. Forster was ignoring the politics and finding the craftsman wanting: Conrad was "misty in the middle as well as at the edges," his "philosophy" was more muddle than mystery, and "the secret casket of his genius" contained "a vapour rather than a jewel."2 The mighty F. R. Leavis then rapped Forster over the knuckles for being insufficiently severe. Leavis allowed Conrad's "art of the vivid essential record," but his "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery," so crudely manifested in his "minor work" Heart of Darkness, convicted Conrad of vulgarity—of "borrowing the arts of the magazine-writer."3 Critics in the late sixties and early seventies, being more political and also more tolerant of mystery and of the vulgar literary arts, read Heart of Darkness as an attack on Leopold's Congo in particular and the excrescences of imperialist expansion in general.4 And then in 1977, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, with a heroic history of struggle against colonial oppression behind him, changed the conversation decisively when he denounced Conrad's novel as "offensive and totally deplorable" and its author as "a thoroughgoing racist." Nowadays, post the postmodernists, Heart of Darkness seems to exist in a chronic contest zone.

Achebe saw the novel as a gross expression of "the desire—the need—in Western psychology to set up Africa as a foil in Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." Conrad's willful perpetuation of "comforting myths" about primitivism and civilization reduced this Africa to "a metaphysical battleground" for Europeans. The myths that Conrad rehearsed participate in "the dehumanization of Africa and Africans" by parading "prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities. . . . The question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalises a section of the human race, can be called a great work of art." Achebe also believed that the offense was calculated: that the "bombardment of emotive words" Leavis and Forster complained of was neither an innocent matter of overwriting nor the product of muddled thinking, but deliberately designed to induce "a hypnotic stupor" in its readers. Conrad calculated his pernicious ideas [End Page 2] would slip down the more easily under a slick of "bleeding heart sentiments."5 In short: Conrad was not only a racist but a conscious and devious one, concealing his sinister motives and achieving his sinister ends through calculated sentimentality and extravagant language. Thus the old criticisms were given a savage new twist to garrote Conrad's reputation once and for all.

Achebe made his initial assault on Heart...


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