Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989

Search by issue:

Conrad and Eliot and Prejudice

Suppose that in England crimes of violence, ranging from domestic murder and rape to organised football hooliganism, are rife. A Martian visitor asks Craig Raine (LRB, 22 June) if he is himself a mugger or rapist, and Mr Raine for reasons best known to himself replies: ‘Yes, I’d like to kill off the whole human race.’ The visitor sends his postcard home and another Martian uses the anecdote to embellish an earnest and colourful history of the various attempts to reform the murderous English. A third writer, a novelist, sets out to evoke a hard-working crew of English sailors with the words ‘Fine fellows – muggers and rapists – in their place.’ His book remains an intergalactic classic long after Earth has been admitted to the Planetary Federation, but some Martians (prompted by the Earthmen) eventually wake up to its anti-English prejudice.

This, I believe, is more or less the case with Heart of Darkness. If Craig Raine believes he can hector Chinua Achebe about Conrad’s reflection of the ‘uncomfortable facts’ of Congolese cannibalism, then Raine should first of all look at his sources. Even if cannibalism in the 19th-century Congo had been as prevalent as murder and rape in contemporary Britain, it would be considered racist by today’s standards to refer habitually to all Congolese, or to all Congolese of a particular tribe, as cannibals – unless, that is, reputable evidence of a general social approval of the practice existed.

‘In Heart of Darkness,’ Raine writes, ‘Conrad commends the inborn moral restraint of the hungry cannibals.’ This is only a praiseworthy attitude on Conrad’s part if they are a. hungry and b. cannibals. Norman Sherry, who is Raine’s source here, disproves Marlow’s notion that the ship’s crew of Bangalas were starving, since cassava, clearly described by Conrad, was their staple diet. But Sherry, followed by Raine, describes the Bangalas as ‘joyfully cannibalistic’, citing as evidence W. Holman Bentley’s Pioneering in the Congo. Looking up Bentley, we find that the ‘facts’ of Congolese cannibalism are more elusive than might have been supposed.

To start with, Bentley’s reader is left unsure whether it was to the author himself or to George Grenfell that a Bangala chief’s son confessed his desire to ‘eat everybody on earth’. The remark is little better than hearsay. Grenfell, quoted by Bentley, recorded that the further he travelled in the Congo, the further cannibalism seemed to recede – until, he thought, he had (almost) caught up with it among the Bangala. Actually, as so often in these accounts, he heard lurid reports but came on the scene just too late actually to witness anything. (The reports, by the way, were from members of a different tribe.) Another explorer, W.H. Stapleton, believed the Bangala were ‘veritable cannibals’, but added that ‘these people have long been the terror of the river. Any blood-curdling story is readily believed of these warlike people.’ Grenfell detected the existence of an – admittedly, minority – anti-cannibalistic sentiment among the Bangala. Bentley, who brings together these accounts, claims that another tribe, the Bopoto, have recently given up cannibalism ‘in its grosser forms’, though the custom was in full swing when the first missionaries arrived. Apart from his conversation with an old man who claimed to have eaten seven of his wives pour encourager les autres, Bentley seems to have had little personal experience of cannibals, though he repeats lurid anecdotes from as far afield as Samoa.

‘Why do we tell these shocking stories?’ he asks. The answer is that the repeated self-sacrifice of Europeans who went out to the Congo one after the other only to die ‘needs some justification’. Justification was amply supplied by the stories of cannibal tribesmen who abandoned their ghastly practices the moment the missionaries came: but if cannibalism was really a socially approved, rather than an aberrant and lawless practice, we must ask how it came to be given up so easily.

I suggest that Achebe’s view of Heart of Darkness reflects not only modern African anger (‘understandable but irrational’, as Raine so patronisingly calls it), but conclusions that could be reached by any reader alive to modern standards of historical and anthropological evidence. If we now call Conrad a racist, we should remember that he saw through many of the impostures of 19th-century imperialism. In any case, the real question is not about the moral judgment of a dead author who was advanced by the standards of his time. It is what happens to a central ‘modern classic’ when we can no longer read it with the complacency which affected even the most politically sensitive of Conrad’s critics until very recently, and which still afflicts Craig Raine.

Patrick Parrinder
Reading, Berkshire

Popular Philosophy

I was interested to read, in your issue of 27 July, Richard Wollheim’s account of ‘popular philosophy’ in Britain during the Fifties (LRB, 27 July). Does he recall, or has he blotted from his memory of broadcast philosophy in this period, the episode of Hancock’s Half Hour in which the hero consoled himself on a solitary Saturday night with Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy? It ended in tears; he did not get beyond page ten. Should we understand this episode as reflecting the normality of staying in on a Saturday night to read philosophy, or, on the contrary, as signalling an increasing tendency to identify this practice with social failure? Should we, indeed, go further, and see this broadcast as precipitating the decline of popular philosophy, inasmuch as it constituted it within a narrative of not-being-a-beautiful-person? These are not entirely silly-season questions. In his review of Bryan Appleyard’s Pleasures of Peace (LRB, 27 July) Frank Kermode suggests that Appleyard ‘might have thought it proper to glance … at the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan’: perhaps it is time someone put in a word for post-war broadcast comedy as a worthy subject of British cultural history.

Anne Summers
Curator, Department of Manuscripts, British Library

Richard Wollheim writes: ‘For a minister it is second nature to think that argument is good in so far as it is directed at the other side. Intellectuals cannot think like this, for they have to recognise that crucial to holding a belief is seeing how it stands up to arguments pitted against it.’ Would that it were so. How does he reconcile his assertion with the barracking by Oxford undergraduates of speakers whose opinions they dislike, or with the actions of the Oxford authorities in so far condoning their behaviour as not to send the offenders down, or suspend them, for clearly being incapable of profiting from any meaningful university life?

J.R. Fredericks
Charlbury, Oxfordshire

Pillow Talk

Ian Gilmour (LRB, 27 July) goes to great lengths to vilify Wilson & Co over Profumo. His hatred of Wilson appears to have warped his judgment. I venture to think that if a Labour government had found itself in such a mess the Conservatives and the media would really have made a meal of it. The implication that only the Sixties Labour Party would have stooped so low is ludicrous. To dismiss security risk as nonsense is to deny the existence of ‘pillow talk’: all security forces would be happy to profit by such a liaison. The way that Ward was subsequently treated shows the depth of Establishment savagery.

Hilda Snowden


The translations which offend Bernard Richards (Letters, 31 August) would be truer to Aretino if rude English were substituted for rude Italian – although it would take more than that to make poetry of them. In the context of the edition, antiquarian prudishness in English translations which are printed alongside the originals is a venial sin.

Peter Campbell
London SW19


Frank Kermode praises Bryan Appleyard’s The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-War Britain (LRB, 27 July), while reporting, without comment, Mr Appleyard’s claim that J.H. Prynne is ‘the most comprehensively gifted of living British poets’. What can Mr Appleyard have meant by this judgment, and what can it have done for his assessment of the literature of l’après deux guerres? I wonder how he would set about explaining why he supposes that J.H. Prynne – a poet little-known outside Cambridge and widely considered, even in Cambridge, to be exceptionally hard to follow – has quite so much of the right stuff. But perhaps it is no longer thought appropriate to inquire about judgments of value made in respect of literary works.

James Smithson
London SW10

Mrs Thatcher’s Universities

Peter Pulzer (LRB, 22 June) pulls his punches. If, as it seems, the Government believes in replacing education with training, then the educated should expose such philistinism through remorseless critical analysis and publish it at every opportunity without fear of the consequences. If they can’t do this, then they deserve to be ‘retrained’.

Joseph Nuttgens
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire


The correspondence about John Meade Falkner (Letters, 16 March) prompts me to note that the 100 volumes of Bishop Hensley Henson’s journals, in the Dean and Chapter Library at Durham, are not listed in the Register. Was an atheist in charge?

Not only do these contain vivid glimpses of Falkner. They provide an unusual perspective on life towards the end of the last century and during the first half of this one. There is surely a need for a re-edited selection: the three volumes published in the Forties, though highly entertaining, do not contain all the colourful anecdotes. The Journal begins at much the same time Trollope stopped, and could be said to continue his spirit.

Charles Welldon

Men Only

In your issue of 22 June you carried a classified advertisement for the Mount Pleasant retreat, inviting applications from ‘creative artists’. I responded to this advertisement, and received a brochure, together with a letter from Mount Pleasant’s Secretary explaining that ‘under the terms of the Trust Deed, we are not able to accept bookings for lady guests to stay here.’ The letter suggested that I might like ‘to pass on the brochure to a friend who may be interested’. Do you really think you ought to be carrying advertising for an organisation that assumes creative people are always male? At least you could head the column ‘men only’.

Jacqueline Castles
London W2

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences