Conrad and Prejudice
- Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays 1967-87 by Chinua Achebe
Heinemann, 130 pp, £10.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 435 91000 0
‘Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.’ This quotation is taken from ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, a lecture delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe as long ago as 1974 and now collected in Hopes and Impediments.
In City Without Walls, W.H. Auden included this squib:
Even Hate should be precise:
very few White Folks
have fucked their mothers.
A valid point, except that, in a sense, Auden’s plea for precision is vitiated by his easily explained misapprehension that ‘mother-fucker’ is an epithet exclusively applied to whites by blacks. Auden’s experience here – that of a slightly decrepit, nervous WASP on the lower East side – is eloquent in its way and perhaps explains his decision to return to Oxford and Christ Church: but it did not inform him (obviously) that blacks might use the word of each other. The general point, nevertheless, remains good. Only a theoretician with a propensity to automatism would cite it as an example of ‘unexamined discourse’ – a holier-than-thou formula usually invoked by moral pedants attentive not to the intended meaning but to their own narrow (if important) agendas. Let us count it a bonus that Auden’s particular encapsulation has the additional benefit of warning against the identification of one’s own point of view with objectivity. And, thence, with authority.
When Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice was published at the end of last year, it attracted more than its fair share of dim-witted commentary, but perhaps the most stupid moment occurred in an otherwise well-meaning review by Dannie Abse in the Listener (1 December 1988). Dr Abse, usually the most modest of men, was, in this instance, adamantine in his Jewishness, and could be seen enjoying the access of authority which had accrued to him by virtue of his race and his presence, as a witness, when Emanuel Litvinoff charged Eliot with anti-semitism and was rewarded by hearing the ‘contrite’ Eliot describe Litvinoff’s awful denunciatory poem as ‘a good poem’. One might trust Dr Abse’s assessment of Eliot’s inner turmoil at this moment, were it not that elsewhere he shows himself capable of the most brusque judgment: ‘Leonard Woolf once remarked that T.S. Eliot was “only slightly anti-semitic”. I am reminded of that wise physician, Sir Adolph Abrahams, who, on his ward-rounds at Westminster, forbade medical students to utter the word “slightly”. “Either a woman is pregnant or not pregnant,” he would say. “She cannot be slightly pregnant, boy.” ’
I have two objections to this argument. First, Sir Adolph is surely wrong about pregnancy. ‘Slightly pregnant’ tells us immediately that the pregnancy is not advanced. As far as I know, the terms ‘early’ and ‘late’ are commonly used of pregnancy by gynaecologists, and I cannot see that ‘slightly’ is such an objectionable alternative to ‘early’. Secondly, Dr Abse’s analogy is false. There are clear differences of degree in anti-semitism.
Reviewing Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot (LRB, Vol. 6, No 20), Professor Ricks began: ‘Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal.’ I turn, deliberately, from this last sentence to George Steiner – who, on a television programme last November, discussed the case of Eliot and that of Ezra Pound with Professor Ricks, Annie Cohen-Solal and Clive James. Professor Steiner began by discomfiting Ricks: there were, he remarked humorously, two attacks in the TLS which Professor Ricks, fresh from his transatlantic flight, would not have had time to come to terms with. A wan smile from Professor Ricks. And Steiner concluded, in a general attack on ‘feline caution’, that, while he could forgive Pound’s ‘crackerbarrel’ prejudice, others who had been more guarded deserved to ‘sizzle in hell’. The application to Eliot was unmistakable – as unmistakable as the adjective ‘crackerbarrel’ applied three times to Pound.
At the heart of the argument, Steiner completely flummoxed Professor Ricks by referring to a footnote in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The context of Professor Steiner’s remarks was the culpability of silence after the Holocaust – a context in which Steiner’s sense of outrage harnessed Eliot to Heidegger: ‘We are now after Auschwitz, and I, reading Christopher’s book with immense profit, I was deeply disappointed that the great question – a text which does not appear in it (correct me if I’ve overlooked it) – it’s when all the photographs, the whole world is looking at the photographs of Auschwitz and Belsen in ’47, ’48, the man addresses himself centrally to what is culture, what is society, not only, like Heidegger, the only comparison I know, after ’45, the most terrible silence, a silence which I find intolerable, but a footnote for which we don’t have time, page 70 in the standard edition of Notes To, which kind of waffles about Jews and Christians perhaps having lived too close to each other so that the borderline got kind of messy and problematic. 1948 and there, I must say, I don’t know what to think.’
Ricks didn’t know what to think either. Hardly surprisingly, given the syntax of Professor Steiner’s insinuation, delivered in a tone pitched somewhere between utter conviction and feline regret. Ricks confined his reply to the more coherent argument that we cannot expect everyone to be a saint. Hardly surprisingly, too, because the footnote to which Steiner so confidently, if incoherently, appealed is, in point of fact, two footnotes. The footnote to which Steiner draws our attention here appears in the first edition of Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: ‘Since the diaspora, and the scattering of Jews amongst peoples holding the Christian Faith, it may have been unfortunate, both for these peoples and for the Jews themselves, that the culture contact between them has had to be within neutral zones of culture in which religion could be ignored: and the effect may have been to strengthen the illusion that there can be culture without religion.’
Of this footnote, several months before the television programme, while reviewing in the LRB (Vol. 10, No 9) Visions and Blueprints: Avant-Garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early 20th-Century Europe, Professor Steiner remarked with more clarity and more hostility: ‘ “Old Ez” spouted venomous, crackerbarrel Jew-baiting and lunatic Fascist economics while continuing to help individual Jews wherever he could. Nothing in Pound’s black silliness equals the footnote in the Notes Towards a [sic] Definition of Culture in which Eliot, after Auschwitz, suggests, with feline caution, that the Jews did have some historical responsibility for the fate just visited upon them.’ For all their similarities, the two Steiner glosses have unaccountably different emphases. In print, Steiner maintains that the burden of Eliot’s footnote is partial Jewish responsibility for the Holocaust. On television, Steiner’s drift is that Eliot was culpably silent about the Holocaust – a recycled view more cogently expressed in 1971, when Steiner only considered Eliot’s footnote ‘oddly condescending’ though he found Eliot’s general silence ‘acutely disturbing’. The analysis he delivered in In Bluebeard’s Castle (1971) was temperate enough and therefore ignored.
Let us start with the accusation of silence. However much Steiner may want to prescribe an agenda for Eliot – in order to proscribe him – Eliot is not obliged to confine himself to Professor Steiner’s preoccupations, however important they unquestionably are. It isn’t difficult either to project on the footnote the ghost of Steiner’s other accusation – the allocation of blame to the Jews, carried out with ‘feline caution’. Yet it depends on the idea not only that Eliot was malignant but also a complete fool: no one would say such a thing in 1948, even with ‘feline caution’. Steiner should ‘know what to think’. Only a fool – or a bigot – wouldn’t.
It is an even less likely interpretation of the footnote when you realise – as George Steiner quite evidently does not, referring as he does to the ‘standard’ edition – that Eliot rewrote this very footnote to clarify his meaning and rule out the possibility of a misinterpretation like that of Professor Steiner. This change was not secretive. It is openly advertised by Eliot in his preface to the paperback edition in 1962. The revised footnote makes Steiner’s original dubious interpretation untenable:
It seems to me highly desirable that there should be close culture-contact between devout and practising Christians and devout and practising Jews. Much culture-contact in the past has been within those neutral zones of culture in which religion can be ignored, and between Jews and Gentiles both more or less emancipated from their religious traditions. The effect may have been to strengthen the illusion that there can be culture without religion. In this context I recommend to my readers two books by Professor Will Herberg published in New York: Judaism and Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy) and Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Doubleday).
No one can say of this that Eliot is suggesting the Jews were historically responsible for their own fate. In the light of this clarification, it is possible to say that the original wording was inept – as Eliot’s emendation implicitly acknowledges – but it scarcely justifies the sentence pronounced on television with so much relish by Professor Steiner. If inept phraseology is to be punished by sizzling in hell, Professor Steiner should reconsider the transcript of his television remarks.
How does one explain Steiner’s ignorance of this revised footnote? For one so engaged, he might have been expected to check. He didn’t, I suggest, because the first footnote, while it appalled him, also gratified his (perfectly understandable) sense of unappeased grievance and his desire to identify a culprit. The same instinct – to punish – is at work in Chinua Achebe’s essay on Conrad. Both men, Steiner and Achebe, are so vividly conscious of the pain they feel that they cannot conceive it has not been inflicted by the perpetrator they have in mind.
Achebe is not without his own careless prejudice, however. He argues, for instance, that even when allowance has been made for contemporary attitudes, there is in Conrad ‘a residue of antipathy to black people which his peculiar psychology alone can explain’. A ‘residue’ is importantly different in degree from the ‘thoroughgoing’ racism imputed by Achebe when he cites Conrad’s account of his first encounter with a black man: ‘A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.’ His source for this quotation is Jonah Raskin’s The Mythology of Imperialism. Clearly, he has no idea that it comes from the preface to Victory or he would know that there is no indication that this is Conrad’s first and, by implication, traumatic encounter with a black. It could be his fiftieth encounter – since Conrad is not addressing himself to the colour of skin but to the idea of brute rage, as manifested not only by the ‘buck nigger’ but also by a Nicaraguan, on both of whom the figure of Pedro is based. One of Achebe’s complaints about Heart of Darkness is that the blacks are ‘deprived of human expression’ and ‘in place of speech’ make ‘ “a violent babble of uncouth sounds” ’. But it is not only blacks who are so singled out by Conrad: Pedro and his brother Antonio sit by the camp-fire ‘grunting a word or two to each other now and then, hardly human speech at all’. Nicaraguans have at least as much ground of complaint as Nigerians.
Let us look at the full quotation from the preface to Victory.
My contact with the faithful Pedro was much shorter and my observation of him was less complete but incomparably more anxious. It ended in a sudden inspiration to get out of his way. It was in a hovel of sticks and mats by the side of a path. As I went in there only to ask for a bottle of lemonade I have not to this day the slightest idea what in my appearance or actions could have roused his terrible ire. It became manifest to me less than two minutes after I had set eyes on him for the first time, and though immensely surprised of course I didn’t stop to think it out. I took the nearest short cut – through the wall.
So much for the first prototype of the awesome Pedro. The quotation continues: ‘This bestial apparition and a certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti only a couple of months afterwards have fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal, to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards. Of Pedro never. The impression was less vivid. I got away from him too quickly.’ The phrases I have italicised complicate Achebe’s simple analysis of Conrad’s ‘residue of antipathy to black people’ – even if only by extending Conrad’s prejudice to certain Occidentals, in this case Spanish Americans.
In fact, the quotation proves nothing of the kind. Conrad wishes to illustrate violence, and it is plainly a matter of indifference to him which race is responsible – his fictional character is based on two individuals, not two representative racial types. Achebe, though, is keen to contrast the ‘enormous buck nigger’ with Conrad’s portrayal of an Englishman. Accordingly, he quotes from A Personal Record the passage in which Conrad remembers seeing his ‘unforgettable Englishman’. Achebe selects from Conrad’s description and writes off the whole episode as ‘irrational love’ to balance the ‘irrational hate’ for the ‘buck nigger’. Actually, it is an exalted portrait, touched with comedy. But Conrad is aware that his ‘unforgettable Englishman’ is not a typical figure – certainly not the representative figure Achebe implies he is. The compliment to the English race is withheld from the majority of Englishmen. ‘One does not meet such an Englishman twice in a lifetime,’ Conrad ruefully concludes.
On the one hand, we have Achebe’s assertion that Heart of Darkness is ‘a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults’. On the other hand, we have Conrad’s clear testimony to the evils of colonialism inside and outside the story itself. In ‘Geography and Some Explorers’ Conrad unambiguously states that ‘the discovery of Africa was the occasion of the greatest outburst of reckless cruelty and greed known to history.’ In the same essay he describes his feelings of disgust on arrival: he experienced ‘great melancholy’ as he absorbed ‘the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration. What an end to the idealised realities of a boy’s daydreams.’ Inside the story, Marlow, Conrad’s moral mouthpiece, is equally unambiguous: ‘It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’ This quotation fails to find its way into Mr Achebe’s essay: since it sits awkwardly with Conrad the ‘thoroughgoing racist’ and completely undermines Achebe’s conclusion that ‘Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.’
Not that Achebe doesn’t comment witheringly on Marlow’s ‘advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition’, when Marlow is shocked by the grove of death. Marlow’s inconvenient indignation is brushed aside as ‘bleeding-heart sentiments’ which avoid what is, for Achebe, the central issue – ‘the ultimate question of equality between white people and black people’. In other words, Achebe doesn’t want charity and pity, he wants respect and equality. Reasonably enough, if he wants them for himself. It is less reasonable, however, to demand unconditional blanket approval for all the activities of the black inhabitants of the Congo in the middle of the 19th century. For instance, Achebe is offended by the presence of cannibals in Conrad’s story. But cannibals existed. Conrad did not invent them. Norman Sherry quotes W. Holman Bentley’s Pioneering in the Congo on the joyfully cannibalistic Bangalas, one of whom said, when asked if he ate human flesh: ‘Ah! I wish I could eat everybody on earth.’ The choice facing Achebe is straightforward at this juncture: either he exonerates cannibalism and discounts criticism of it as Eurocentric, or he has to accept the uncomfortable fact of its existence when Conrad journeyed up the Congo. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad commends the inborn moral restraint of the hungry cannibals. But Achebe is unable to appreciate this, since he profoundly resents Conrad’s racially ambiguous gift of English speech to a cannibal – who can then condemn himself, as a cannibal, out of his own mouth.
The nub of Achebe’s anger is understandable but irrational. The blacks in Heart of Darkness are shown by Conrad to be primitive and savage. For Achebe, this is a racial libel, even when Conrad specifically approves of the savagery:
Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along the coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.
From this, Achebe divines only a bigoted desire to confine the black man to an inferior position, masked by ‘romantic’ enthusiasm. The evidence, both for and against, is bound to be problematic. Henry Morton Stanley’s The Congo and the Founding of Its Free State (1885) isn’t quite the ugly Imperialist tract one might expect it to be: ‘In the management of a bargain I should back the Congoese native against Jew or Christian, Parsee or Banyan, in all the round world. Unthinking men may say cleverness at barter, and shrewdness in trade, consort not with their unsophisticated condition and degraded customs. Unsophisticated is the very last term I should ever apply to an African child or man in connection with the knowledge of how to trade.’ Yet while he blazons this commercial sophistication, he also notes that in ‘the basin of the Congo there is a vast field lying untouched by the European merchant and about three-fourths unexplored by the geographical explorer. For the most part it is peopled by ferocious savages, devoted to abominable cannibalism and wanton murder of inoffensive people, but along the great river towards Livingstone Falls there dwell numerous amiable tribes who would gladly embrace the arrival of the European merchant.’ So if Stanley identifies cannibalism, he also identifies other ‘amiable’ tribes. In less optimistic moods, however, he gives a gloomier, more backward picture, when the professional adventurer takes over from the professional propagandist for trading opportunities: ‘If they have a bad dream, some unfortunate is accused, and burnt for witchcraft, or hung for being an accessory to it. A chief dies from illness, and from two to fifty people are butchered over his grave. When the chief of Moye – the next village above our station – died, 45 people were slaughtered, and only a short time before Ibaka strangled a lovely young girl because her lover had sickened and died.’
I cut Stanley’s catalogue short, but that last item is a reminder of suttee – another barbarity which still has not completely disappeared and which, for a long period, was repressed in India by just that Eurocentric certainty that Achebe deplores. Though in another essay, ‘Named for Victoria, Queen of England’, he concedes that alien Christianity had the merit of outlawing for converts the widespread practice of exposing newborn twins, he does so grudgingly and, in the Conrad essay, is so beleaguered that, foolishly and unnecessarily, he will concede nothing at all to Conrad.
Naturally, Achebe’s picture differs fundamentally from that of Conrad and Stanley. His inhabitants of the Congo are not savages – Conrad’s testimony is dismissed as ‘jaundiced’, as ‘traveller’s tales’. These people are ur-Cubists, actually in advance of European modern art. According to Achebe, ‘European art had run completely out of strength’ and was only saved by an ‘infusion of new life’ from African art. This is a partial, simplified account of Cubism. It ignores, for instance, the preparatory example of Cézanne, analytic Cubism’s subsequent spatial discoveries, and the argument that only a strong art is capable of ingesting new influences without itself being swallowed. It is easy enough to accept that the Fang people are ‘masters of the sculptured form’. But Achebe’s corollary does not necessarily follow – that, therefore, these ‘savages living just north of Conrad’s River Congo’ could not have been savages after all. The history of art and the history of savagery in Europe show clearly enough that sophistication in the first hardly impinged on the sophistication of the latter – from thumbscrews, choke-pears, pressings and rackings to brandings, beheadings, hangings, drawings and quarterings.
Conrad’s argument in Heart of Darkness is that the savagery in all men is never quite tamed, can never be safely discounted. Everyone, European nations included, has emerged from savagery, and is capable of reverting at any time. Achebe is insulted because he thinks that Conrad is saying that only blacks are savage – but Conrad’s condemnation is more inclusive than that. No one is spared. You cannot ‘answer’ Conrad, as Achebe seems to think, by listing European imperfections.
Isn’t there, all the same, something racist in Conrad’s use of the adjective ‘black’ and the noun ‘nigger’? Achebe thinks so: ‘Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting as when he gives us this brief description: “A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms” – as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so unrelenting is Conrad’s obsession.’ Achebe may have a point here. It is quite possible that, whatever his conscious anti-colonial position, Conrad was disturbed unconsciously by negritude. But does this mean that ‘Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist’? As for the word ‘nigger’, Achebe comments: ‘His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.’ Again, this isn’t the simple matter one might believe it to be. On the one hand, Norman Sherry in his Life of Graham Greene can remark parenthetically that ‘in 1935 it was common to call blacks “niggers”,’ thus excusing Greene’s use of the word in his story ‘The Basement Room’. There again, it is noticeable that Stanley never uses it once in the two volumes of The Congo, preferring more elaborate epithets, like ‘ebonhued servitors’.
Nomenclature is a notably fraught area of subjectivity. Updike’s invented Jewish novelist Bech finds himself in trouble at a high-class girls’ college in Virginia where he is guest speaker. At dinner, a black student asks him if he isn’t ‘somewhat racist’ for calling one of his characters ‘a negress’ – a word which, for her, has ‘distinctly racist overtones’. Bech argues that he uses the word without prejudice: ‘ “Negro” designates a scientific racial grouping, like Caucasian or Mongolian.’ The black woman responds to this: ‘How do you feel then about “Jewess”?’ Updike beautifully identifies the chasm which opens between logic and reflex subjectivity: ‘Bech lied; the word made him wince. “Just as I do about ‘duchess’.” ’ The black woman concludes by rejecting the love of the white man and asking instead for his respect. Which is Achebe’s position, too.
I respect him sufficiently to tell him something he knows already as a novelist but which, as a spokeman, he chooses to ignore. All minorities will treat representations of themselves as typical, whereas art deals with actualities, and not necessarily with truth and justice. But Achebe, in these essays, places art at the service of propaganda and social engineering: ‘for the moment it is in the nature of things that we may need to counter racism with what Jean-Paul Sartre has called an anti-racist racism, to announce not just that we are as good as the next man but that we are much better.’ This is a disastrous statement for an artist to make, but no worse than this mixture of threat and abject repudiation of authorial independence, which occurs in ‘Colonialist Criticism’: ‘There are clear signs that critics and readers from those areas of the world where continuing incidents and recent memories of racism, colonialism and other forms of victimization exist will more and more demand to know from their writers just on whose ideological side they are playing. And we writers had better be prepared to reckon with this questioning.’ What a chilling last sentence, prophesying the purely political evaluation of literature and the fatal restriction of subject-matter. One cannot serve art and write with big brother in mind. One cannot even serve art and write with, so to speak, one’s mother in mind. ‘Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’ is a serviceable formula.
Vol. 11 No. 14 · 27 July 1989
In a purported review of selected essays by Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June), Mr Craig Raine expatiates at some length and with manifold insinuations, sneers and convolutions on an unscripted, entirely ‘spoken’ exchange between Christopher Ricks and myself on the question of T.S. Eliot’s feelings about Jews and Judaism. As I stated in the verbal exchange (the admonition to ‘reconsider a transcript’ is almost ludicrous in its self-importance), I remain deeply perplexed by certain passages in the poetry and prose of a great master of sensibility, language and cultural argument. Such perplexity, which Professor Ricks fully shared in his courteous, erudite contributions to the discussion – it involved two other participants – seems alien to Craig Raine. His the apodictic arrogance and certainties.
Notes Towards a Definition of Culture continues to strike me as an often frigid, innerly confused text. To approach the theme of any such redefinition within the immediate wake of the Holocaust without addressing that event, without seeking to elucidate its possible roots within European civilisation and Christendom, without examining the very notion of culture in the light (in the absolute dark) of the new barbarism, remains either frivolous or worse. For Eliot to do so when his earlier sympathies with certain aspects of European reactionary sensibility were fully known, and, by 1948, deeply embarrassing, remains a challenging, saddening puzzle. The footnote in the original version which I referred to only makes matters much uglier. That Eliot himself felt this (or that it was pointed out to him) is made manifest by precisely the amendment to the 1962 paperback. Unlike Craig Raine, almost any common reader will, I suspect, find that amendment officious and chilling. But the issue is not, of course, the footnote or Craig Raine’s little games with it. It is the central silence in Eliot on culture, on European civility, on the future of poetry and thought, in respect of the Auschwitz world. That silence utterly perplexes me and the comparison with Heidegger’s – another man of eminent genius but of the most conservative and ‘masked’ political tenor – is perfectly admissible.
Craig Raine may be wholly ignorant of the connotations of ‘crackerbarrel’ with reference to Pound. Pound’s Jew-baiting, and the lunatic economics to which it is intimately related, are a characteristic part of a certain American, Mid-Western ‘crackerbarrel populism’ and rhetoric (mainly of the Twenties and Thirties). As I have tried to show elsewhere – and not in ad hoc television exchanges – Pound’s anti-semitism produces lousy verse which looks and sounds as if it had been stuck on the body of his serious poetry. Witness its essential absence from the great ‘Usura’ Canto. In Eliot, the Jew-despising passages come in the very midst of great poetry and are thoroughly integrated with it. The difference is immense, and Professor Ricks’s tortured book addresses this difference with unfailing scruple. One may add to this the biographical fact that even in the years of his all too overt Fascism in Italy, Pound – this again is ‘crackerbarrel’ in a very American-Populist vein – sought to be of assistance to individual Jews. If there is some Last Judgment, the confused, the self-contradictory and the sloppily humane will fare better than the cautionary, icy masters of silence and propriety. This, at least, is my naive belief.
Eliot’s distaste for Jews and Judaism is undisguised in his poetry and in such seminal statements as the 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (not reissued, of course). Eliot’s covering of his tracks when anti-semitism had, via the Holocaust, become inhumanly debasing does invite the adjective ‘feline’ (he was, after all, a virtuoso in regard to cats). For Eliot, the Jew remained an anarchic, opaquely troubling agent of incoherence in what should be the Europe of Virgil, of Dante and of the great Anglo-Catholic poets and thinkers. I have stated time and again that such a view is perfectly legitimate and in need of serious debate. The notorious passages in Eliot’s poetry, the silence in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture, the truly dismaying attempts by Eliot to suppress his After Strange Gods and to tinker with the footnote which I cited to Professor Ricks, are no contribution to any such discussion. In his last Venice years, Pound often handed visitors a small card inscribed with the message (I quote roughly and from memory): ‘Forgive me if I do not speak; I have made too deep a botch of things.’ The humane dignity of that gesture, its contrast with Eliot’s choices, is worth pondering.
Puzzlement seems to be my vice. Why Craig Raine’s gratuitous polemic some seven months after an ephemeral television round table (he most carefully avoids mentioning Clive James’s robust astonishments)? As Faber poetry editor, Mr Raine may feel that he wears T.S. Eliot’s mantle. Or might it be that Craig Raine flatteringly exaggerates what he takes to have been my part in the rejection by the Old Vic of his version of Racine’s Andromaque? As it happens, I feel and admire the strengths of Raine’s poetry. It is poets – and this bears directly on the Eliot issue – who should most unflinchingly ‘declare their interests’, who should be most alert to the articulation of inhumanity within human speech. It is the poet in whom officious cultivations of political advantage or journalistic repute are least comely. Pound knew that, and knew it magnificently, when he wrote ‘Pull down thy vanity, pull down.’ A text Mr Raine and I might, perhaps, feel in agreement on. At least I hope so.
Craig Raine is correct to point out that the footnote in Eliot’s Notes Towards a Definition of Culture (1948) which George Steiner referred to in last year’s televised debate with Christopher Ricks does not imply ‘that the Jews were historically responsible for their own fate.’ However, in the debate itself Steiner merely questioned Eliot’s silence after 1945 – and this, his main point, is incontestable. In fact, the footnote in Notes (both versions) can be seen as little more than a circumspect reworking by Eliot of his previous and relatively uncircumspect remark in After Strange Gods (1934), in which, delineating the preconditions for a live cultural ‘tradition’, he comments: ‘The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.’ Clearly, after 1945 Eliot was concerned to make the issue of religious belief (rather than racial background) his sole emphasis.
In general, the recent debate on the issue of Eliot and anti-semitism was extremely unsatisfactory – as exemplified both in Steiner’s careless and superficial critical comments (as on the ‘crackerbarrel’ nature of Pound’s anti-semitism) and in Ricks’s Eliot and Prejudice, a book which fails to adopt any coherent historical or cultural perspective on its subject-matter. Much more – or, more accurately, something – needs to be said on the nature of Eliot’s intellectual allegiance to the work of Charles Maurras, leader of the virulently anti-semitic Action Française, before this issue can be discussed coherently. Ricks relegates this central topic to the derisory status of a footnote, commenting: ‘Eliot admired much in Maurras, and repudiated some things: for Oswald Mosley he showed his contempt.’ What he doesn’t do is offer a word of explanation as to who Maurras was; nor indicate a rationale for Eliot’s admiration; nor mention Maurras’s role within the Vichy regime; nor indicate that Eliot did not repudiate Maurras’s anti-semitism. This strikes me as extraordinary in a book of nearly three hundred pages devoted to the topic of ‘Eliot and Prejudice’.
I know I am not alone in being disconcerted by the hagiography that accompanied Eliot’s centenary – to which Craig Raine notably contributed. But if the only alternative to hagiography is intellectual shadow-boxing or textual origami then it appears likely that literary canonisation requires almost Orwellian processes of historical omission and evasion.
Towards the end of his sharply-focused review of Chinua Achebe’s book of essays Hopes and Impediments, Craig Raine remarks that ‘all minorities will treat representations of themselves as typical, whereas art deals with actualities, and not necessarily with truth and justice.’ I don’t think he means to suggest that blacks are a minority, but it is odd to imply that what is actual may be untrue. I take it that Craig Raine means that a writer’s choice may feel eccentric and therefore risk distortion of larger, or more general, truths. This would be consistent with his criticism of Achebe’s account of Conrad’s presentation of blacks as ‘deprived of human expression’. He is surely right to say that the preface to Victory won’t bear out Achebe’s claim. What he doesn’t do, however, is to consider the strength of the claim as it affects Heart of Darkness, which is, after all, the story on which Achebe concentrates, and as a result of which he accuses Conrad of being a thoroughgoing racist. If you put together the description of the ‘actual’ blacks of this tale it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that they amount to a ‘typical’ or ‘representative’ statement.
Achebe also draws attention to Kurtz’s black mistress, who, so Achebe says, wins Conrad’s ‘special brand of approval’ (Marlow describes her as ‘savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent’), and who is to be contrasted with the ‘refined, European woman who will step forth to end the story’. The full contrast between the two women, Achebe argues, ‘is implied in the author’s bestowal of human expression to the one and the withholding of it from the other’. I think Achebe may have missed an important ironic effect here, although it will not help Craig Raine’s cause. Kurtz’s Intended may be able to speak, but she isn’t to be trusted with the truth of what has happened to her fiancé. Women, typically, cannot bear very much reality.
The moment of Marlow’s refusal to tell the Intended the truth is carefully prepared for. When he goes to see the aunt who has helped gain him the position that will send him to the Congo, he is made uncomfortable by her innocent belief that the company will wean ‘those ignorant millions from their horrid ways’. Marlow reflects:
It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
The tone of that may seem almost bafflingly impenetrable, as though Marlow isn’t sure how serious he wants to be or wants his listeners to understand him as being. Yet he returns to this reflection when, anticipating his meeting with the Intended, he tells his listeners that ‘she is out of it – completely. They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.’ From this follows his lie to her: ‘The last word he spoke was – your name.’
If, as Craig Raine asserts, Marlow is Conrad’s ‘moral mouthpiece’, it may be said that their view of women is typical in more senses than one, and that would be consonant with their view of blacks.
Vol. 11 No. 15 · 17 August 1989
In the last issue, Erik Svarny quoted a sentence from Christopher Ricks’s Eliot and Prejudice. That sentence should have read: ‘Eliot admired much in Maurras, and repudiated some things: for Oswald Mosley he showed his contempt.’
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 11 No. 16 · 31 August 1989
Christopher Ricks and George Sterner might spare themselves some agony if they revised downwards their overall estimate of Eliot’s writings. Ricks’s tortuous argument in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice puts polyitlla in the crack running up the wall instead of investigating the human and artistic foundations: ‘the matter of anti-semitism has a particular importance because it cannot be isolated from the larger issues of categorising and prejudice in Eliot’s poetry, issues which are as responsible for his greatness as for his rare lapses from greatness’ (my italics). Steiner (Letters, 27 July) ‘remains perplexed by certain passages in the poetry and prose of a great master of sensibility, language and cultural argument’. Whatever their other disagreements, Ricks and Steiner share a stake in Eliot’s ‘greatness’ – a category dear to the male academic.
Richness or largeness – applied to the work, not the man – might be an improvement, except that I find Eliot’s sensibility (and language) more limited than his hagiographers maintain: a late instance of that Fin-de-Siécle shuttle between neurosis and would-be spirituality. For example, anxieties about contamination link Eliot’s anti-semitism with his own misogyny. The portrait of Fresca, albeit excised from The Waste Land, was hardly drawn by a ‘great master of sensibility’. A master, maybe.
But Eliot has to be ‘great’ because of the high investment in Modernism as a unitary cultural phenomenon and as a multi-national critical industry. This often relegates questions of value in individual arts and parts. Protecting his own investment, Ricks calls Gore Vidal ‘a suave hit man’ for an accurate remark about Eliot’s ‘curious neurotic commentaries’. As Ricks points out, Vidal was less accurate when he read as dispraise Eliot’s salute to Henry James: ‘a mind so fine that no idea could violate it’. Nevertheless, in preferring James to Eliot (‘Eliot ended a mere Christian; James ended an artist’), Vidal was surely prejudiced, not against Christianity, as Ricks has it, but in favour of art.
Eliot’s dilution of his artistic impulse with ‘cultural argument’ has given him an advantage over less theoretical poets. Karl Shapiro put the matter definitively in the ‘The Death of Literary Judgment’:
Eliot is untouchable; he is Modern Literature incarnate and an institution unto himself. One is permitted to disagree with him on a point here or a doctrine there, but no more. The enemy at Eliot’s gate – practically everybody – searches his citadel for an opening and cannot find one. Eliot has long since anticipated every move, he and his men can prevent ingress or exit. Eliot resembles one of those mighty castles in Bavaria, which are remarkably visible, famed for their unsightliness, and too expensive to tear down.
Queen’s University of Belfast
Erik Svarny (Letters, 27 July) criticises Christopher Ricks’s T.S. Eliot and Prejudice for its failure to ‘indicate that Eliot did not repudiate Maurras’s anti-semitism’. Ricks in fact quotes, though unfortunately only in part, from Eliot’s piece in the Christian News-Letter of 3 September 1941 in which the anti-semitic policies reported as being introduced in Vichy France are strongly denounced. Ricks’s discussion is concerned with Eliot’s attempt to discriminate between extreme right-wing anti-semitism before the war and that being carried out under Vichy: but he misses the point of Eliot’s emphasis, which is that the former was indeed a ‘symptom of the disorder of French society and politics for the last hundred and fifty years’ (my italics), even if less objectionable than the phenomenon now under consideration, which is adopted as ‘a principle of reconstruction’. It is a pity Ricks’s argument prevented him from giving the full text of Eliot’s letter as far as it concerns Jewish civil disabilities, for it makes abundantly clear that he repudiated anti-semitism and in doing so by logical requirement repudiated the anti-semitism of Charles Maurras. The piece is conveniently reprinted by David Edwards in his 1982 edition of The Idea of a Christian Society, from which I quote the following extract:
What gives us the gravest anxiety, is the statement [in the Times article cited] that ‘Jews have been given a special status, based on the laws of Nuremburg, which makes their condition little better than that of bondsmen.’ Anti-semitism there has always been, among the parties of the extreme right: but it was a very different thing, as a symptom of the disorder of French society and politics for the last hundred and fifty years, from what it is when it takes place as a principle of reconstruction … we can only hope that there has been, or that there will be, some organised protest against such injustice, by the French ecclesiastical hierarchy: unless we are also optimistic enough to hope that these measures are only taken under the strongest pressure from Germany, and that no French government, once that government was master in its own house, would enforce such measures or keep them on its statutes.
Professor George Steiner, in the same issue of LRB, calls Eliot an ‘icy master of silence and propriety’, but the letter I have quoted, though it shows a propriety of which Steiner’s own epistolary effusions are rarely culpable, is very far from silent on the injustice of meting out such treatment to the Jews of France and Eliot as a Christian gives his witness in condemning it. I am not trying to add another hagiographic tribute to Eliot of the kind Mr Svarny deplores: I am simply concerned that the known and public utterances of the man should be attended to with the propriety, icy or otherwise, that they merit.
Balliol College, Oxford
Vol. 11 No. 17 · 14 September 1989
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.
Vol. 11 No. 19 · 12 October 1989
Craig Raine’s misconceived, if not mischievous attempt to undermine Chinua Achebe’s attack on Conrad (LRB, 22 June) has elicited some welcome criticism from your readers; but none, alas, from Achebe himself. So perhaps it’s worth reporting what he said when given the opportunity. This was during a break in filming an Open University programme recently. Achebe had not read the LRB piece, nor did he then have time: but after I gave him an account of Raine’s objections to his view of Conrad as a ‘thoroughgoing racist’, he was silent for a moment and then, with a wry smile, remarked: ‘I could give up “thoroughgoing”.’
The Open University, Milton Keynes
I am still waiting for someone to point out that the flurry over Eliot and prejudice currently taking place in your pages was occasioned by a review of a book of essays by the Nigerian author Chinhua Achebe. The review itself was devoted almost exclusively to one essay out of many, which I found disappointing; your readers, evidently more comfortable with Eliot than Achebe, have buried the latter in their haste to praise or dismiss the former. One cannot help but speculate on the ironical possibility that this has something to do with Achebe’s bad taste in being born an African. Eliot and prejudice, indeed!
New London, Connecticut
At least we spelt Achebe’s name right. His views did, in fact, come under discussion at various points in the correspondence. We wonder what good Mr Oldham thinks he is doing by charging (particular) people with racial prejudice on such insubstantial grounds.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 11 No. 22 · 23 November 1989
I’m a bit surprised that my old sparring-partner, Craig Raine, should be defending Joseph Conrad against Chinua Achebe (LRB, 22 June). Take Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where there’s a sinister anarchist called Ossipon who is described like this: ‘ … Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the FP leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the soles of his boots turned up to the glow in the grate. A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones.’ Ossipon, I take it, is of mixed race – African, Irish, Chinese. Conrad expresses Ossipon’s negative – his evil – characteristics visually in terms of certain racial stereotypes. Sun-style racism, isn’t it?
University of Nottingham
Vol. 11 No. 23 · 7 December 1989
When he equates Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent and the Sun newspaper (Letters, 23 November), it is hard to avoid the thought that the person with the tabloid mentality is Tom Paulin. I think I hear between the lines of his letter the familiar, raucous cry of ‘Gotcha!’ But I shall elude him. Let me quote again the passage he finds so self-evidently a racist libel on the Irish, Africans and the Chinese: ‘Comrade Ossipon, ex-medical student, the principal writer of the FP leaflets, stretched out his robust legs, keeping the soles of his boots turned up to the glow of the grate. A bush of crinkly yellow hair topped his red, freckled face, with a flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type. His almond-shaped eyes leered languidly over the high cheek-bones.’ Paulin’s analysis is briefly plausible. Yet one can’t help wondering what, in this alleged triple libel, the Irish are doing here. Are those freckles a slur impossible to overlook? Or has Paulin misread Ossipon as O’Ssipon? Actually, if one clears one’s mind, of prejudice, it is obvious that Ossipon isn’t of ‘mixed race’, as Paulin maintains. Conrad is describing – quite recognisably – a Slav or Tartar face, as Ossipon’s name suggests. Clearly, Tom Paulin is so innocent of racial prejudice, of racial stereotyping, that he couldn’t tell an Italian from an Eskimo. I think we should commend him.
On the other hand, he might have noticed that one of the things the racist Conrad holds against Ossipon is Ossipon’s belief in Lombroso’s theory – that degeneracy can be deduced from facial characteristics. He might have noticed, too, that, for Conrad, the flattened nose and prominent mouth can be physically attractive features. Ossipon is a successful womaniser. ‘And Comrade Ossipon raised his bowed head, beloved of various humble women of these isles, Apollo-like in the sunniness of its bush of hair.’ There is irony here, of course – directed at the discrepancy between Ossipon’s attractive exterior and the repulsive personality within. This ‘Apollo’ lives off women. Conrad’s distaste, however, is reserved for Ossipon’s character, not his physical appearance, about which only Tom Paulin now seems uneasy.
Vol. 12 No. 1 · 11 January 1990
Craig Raine is wrong to suggest (Letters, 7 December 1989) that it is only Tom Paulin who feels unease over the connection between the moral character and physical appearance of Ossipon in The Secret Agent. Had Conrad’s readers found attractive the description of a ‘flattened nose and prominent mouth cast in the rough mould of the Negro type’ and leering, ‘almond-shaped eyes’, then I’m a Martian. Raine ignores the pervasiveness of the images which both fed and grew from 19th-century pseudo-scientific racism. The point of the matter is that attention to physical difference (categorised to ‘type’) reflects alleged moral difference, thereby elevating both the appearance and the character of the white observer. Even Livingstone was aware of this process. Writing, in the Last Journals, of blacks, he declares: ‘Nothing but the most pitiable puerility would lead any manly heart to make their inferiority a theme for self-exultation; however, that is often done, as if with the vague idea that we can, by magnifying their deficiencies, demonstrate our immaculate perfections.’ That Livingstone takes for granted their inferiority and elsewhere practices what he here condemns is testimony to the hold which such cultural imperialism had on his society. But at least he had some awareness of how it operated. Incidentally, it’s very revealing too that much Victorian writing on travel in Africa is riddled with explicit derogatory references to the Irish. I wonder why; they’re not all portrayed as attractive to women.
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
Have we finished with Conrad and racialism yet? ‘The disdainful pout of Comrade Ossipon’s thick lips accentuated the negro type of his face.’ Conrad accepts the racial stereotypes of the ‘scientists’ of his time, but in some ways he certainly attempts to undermine them too. Heart of Darkness shows that ‘civilised’ whites are as prone to savagery and superstition as the ‘uncivilised natives’ of Africa. But it’s no longer easy to read the tale as the bearer of such a message. Savagery and superstition (and cannibalism) – ‘darkness’ – are simply taken as given where Africans are concerned. It’s hardly surprising that people, especially from Africa, find this assumption offensive, to say nothing of the otherwise stereotyped presentation of Africans as passive child-like creatures or magnificent animals. Maybe it’s still possible for readers like Craig Raine to regard these matters as peripheral (LRB, 22 June 1989), and to believe they shouldn’t stand in the way of our appreciation of a great writer. But Raine ought to see that others are not being perverse or fanatical if they cannot enter the kind of contract with Conrad that sympathetic reading demands.