Conrad and Prejudice

Craig Raine

  • 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.