Heart of Lightness

The late Chinua Achebe leveled some serious criticisms at Joseph Conrad — but perhaps, the two authors are simply opposites.


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By the time the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died late last month he’d taken on an official title: “Father of Modern African Literature.” Achebe received this title mostly because of his novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. Things Fall Apart is often called the archetype of the African novel. It’s a story of the Igbo peoples of southeastern Nigeria and British colonials who arrived to the area in the late 19th century. The Igbo people were trying to preserve their way of life. The British were trying to replace the Igbo way of life with their own. And that’s how things fall apart.

Being dubbed the Father of Modern African Literature has its consequences. One consequence is that people start listening to what you have to say. So, when Chinua Achebe gave a lecture in which he said that Joseph Conrad was a “bloody racist,” the world took note. Well, the literary world did, anyway. Achebe’s lecture was entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” He delivered the lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1975.

Achebe’s charge against Conrad is a serious one. He considered Conrad’s short novel to be an instance of the Western desire to set up Africa as “a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” Achebe thought that Conrad had two basic metaphors for Africa, which Conrad returns to over and over again. The first is silence. The second is frenzy. Achebe takes two quotes from Heart of Darkness to illustrate the point. The “stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” And, “The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”

After Achebe delivered his lecture, the literary world delivered its hysteria. Articles were published. Books were written. Conferences were organized. Conrad was defended. Conrad was further denounced. Conrad was declared essential. Conrad was declared unreadable. In the end, both sides largely agreed upon two conclusions. Conrad was discovered to have been more or less a racist in his personal views. Heart of Darkness was discovered to be a tremendous piece of writing. Those two facts may sit uncomfortably together. But no one has yet figured out how to resolve them.

In all the hoopla over Conrad’s racism, a strange irony went unnoticed. Conrad wrote a racist book that denounces the values of the civilization that produced racism. Achebe, on the other hand, attacked a racist writer using the values of the civilization that had created racism and which Conrad had denounced. Or we could put the irony another way. No one was more pessimistic about European civilization than Joseph Conrad. The characters of Conrad’s novels are all, in some way or other, extremely uncomfortable with The West. Many of the characters are looking for a way out. Achebe, by contrast, had no desire to attack Western civilization as such. He was simply angry about Western racism and the dismissal of Africa as a place with its own legitimate culture and civilization. Achebe wanted the African story to be recognized, to be accepted as part of the broader civilizational story that Africa and Europe (and everyone else) can share.

The debate about Achebe and Conrad is thus a much deeper thing than the question of one man’s racism. The debate is about the nature of civilization. Achebe himself points to these deeper questions in his essay. Here’s how Achebe expresses the crucial problem:

The eagle-eyed English critic F. R. Leavis drew attention long ago to Conrad’s “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.” That insistence must not be dismissed lightly, as many Conrad critics have tended to do, as a mere stylistic flaw; for it raises serious questions of artistic good faith. When a writer while pretending to record scenes, incidents and their impact is in reality engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery much more has to be at stake than stylistic felicity.

Perhaps you’ll have noticed that Achebe slipped in a rather large claim here. Achebe suggested that Conrad’s “insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery” must either be a stylistic flaw or outright artistic bad faith. What never crossed Achebe’s mind is that the “insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery” is the very nature and purpose of Conrad’s literary endeavor. Both F. R. Leavis and Achebe are correct. Conrad does insist upon an inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery. He insists upon it very much. Conrad wrote book after book persisting in that insistence. The man was literally obsessed with the inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery.

Moreover, Conrad was aware that he was obsessed. Conrad once wrote a short preface to his confusing and barely readable novel Nostromo, A Tale of the Seaboard. In the preface, Conrad describes a feeling that had caused him to write the book. He was reading the autobiography of a sailor when a few sentences from the book made him remember his own life as a wanderer of distant oceans. Conrad, after all, spent 20 years as a sailor for the French and English merchant navies before he ever began to write. Here’s how Conrad describes the memories the sailor’s autobiography evoked: “bits of strange coasts under the stars, shadows of hills in the sunshine, men’s passion in the dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown dim.” These few words are basically a condensed version of every novel and short story Conrad ever wrote. By the standards of most novelists, it is hazy and insubstantial material. What exactly is Conrad trying to say? But then we come back to Achebe’s quote from F. R. Leavis. Conrad isn’t saying anything. He is insisting, insisting upon the inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery at the heart of experience.

The heart of the mystery of existence is the place of the greatest inexpressibility and the most maddening incomprehensibility. It is, for Conrad, where darkness threatens to take over completely. Conrad firmly believed that the more you peel away layers of civilization, the closer you come to the heart of the mystery. At the heart of the mystery is a truth, a truth of who we are, of the inner nature of human existence. But the darkness at the heart of that truth means that the closer you get the less you can see. The deepest truths are necessarily obscure. Conrad felt drawn to that mystery, to that truth, and to that darkness even as he was terrified and repelled. As a writer, he explored the push and pull of this compulsion over and over again.

In writing about inexpressible mysteries, Conrad entertained a fantasy of Africa, not hard to find among Westerners — either then or now — as a place outside of civilization. A primal place. Marlow’s trip down the river in Heart of Darkness is a trip into prehistory. As Marlow and his steamboat full of white people move further down the Congo, they come into contact with the people of Africa.

But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us — who could tell?

Achebe makes a biting and very funny comment about this passage. Achebe wonders whether there isn’t “abundant testimony about Conrad’s savages which we could gather if we were so inclined from other sources and which might lead us to think that these people must have had other occupations besides merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it simply to plague Marlow and his dispirited band.” In fact, that is what Achebe does in Things Fall Apart. Achebe tells the actual living stories of people who exist in Conrad’s book only as “a whirl of black limbs.” It turns out the people of African villages had quite a lot to do other than “merging into the evil forest or materializing out of it.” In that sense, Achebe’s book is a lovely counter-story to Conrad’s book. Every time an incomprehensible black man wanders off into the bush in Conrad, you can pick up his story in Achebe.

But therein lies the fundamental difference between the two writers. Achebe wants to tell comprehensible stories. Moreover, Achebe feels morally and politically compelled to tell a comprehensible story of African life. He does not want Africa to carry the burden of being the dark and incomprehensible continent. The opening sentence of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart reads, “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond.” The fact that Okonkwo was well known means, at the very least, that he is knowable. Achebe is going to make Okonkwo knowable to us. And he does. Okonkwo is a brother to us by the time we’ve finished reading Thing Fall Apart.

But here’s a passage again from Heart of Darkness. Marlow has paused in his narration and seems unable to go on. He says:

…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence, — that which makes its truth, its meaning — its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream — alone.

Marlow is not well known throughout the nine villages, or anywhere else. He is fundamentally incomprehensible, even to himself. At the end of Heart of Darkness Marlow attempts to tell the wife of the man he’d been looking for in the jungle (Kurtz) what happened to her husband. He cannot. The experiences of the woman in London and the man off in a remote part of the Congo are incommensurable. This is the one part of Conrad that Achebe simply got wrong. Conrad does not think that the experiences of London and Congo are incommensurable because one is good and one is bad. Conrad does not think that Africa is the negation of Europe’s “spiritual grace” as Achebe puts it. To the contrary, Conrad thinks you have a better chance at catching a glimpse of the reality of existence on a river in Africa than you do on the river Thames. But the glimpse is only ever a glimpse nonetheless. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad gives a name to this glimpse of the reality of existence. They are probably the most famous words in the book. “The horror!” Kurtz says with his dying breath, “The horror!” It is important that the words are repeated. “The horror” said once is an expression of shock and dismay. “The horror” said twice is a pronouncement, an oracle, simultaneously elusive and definitive. What does it mean? It can’t be put into other words. That’s why Kurtz repeats it. It is a statement that has reached the very bedrock. Marlow’s attempt to communicate any of this to the dead Kurtz’ wife back in London is a complete failure. The wife is convinced that Kurtz was a great man. Marlow knows him to have been pitiful and cruel:

The sound of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds, full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow, I had ever heard — the ripple of the river, the soughing of the trees swayed by the wind, the murmurs of wild crowds, the faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar, the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness.

Kurtz’ wife asks Marlow what were Kurtz’ last words. Marlow knows them to have been “The horror! The horror!” “The last word he pronounced was,” Marlow hesitates, “your name.” Marlow can’t tell Kurtz’ wife the truth, mostly because he doesn’t know how to put that truth into language. And that is how Marlow ends his story, the story that is Heart of Darkness. Conrad writes, “Marlow ceased, and sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha.” Those are four favored words in the Conrad arsenal, “ceased,” “apart,” “indistinct,” and “silent.” Just more words that circle around an “inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery,” and then, finally, fall silent altogether.

It has often been said that Chinua Achebe gave Africa a voice. It is not hard to see the truth of this statement in reading Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s amazing accomplishment in that novel is to use a mostly European art form, the novel, to tell an African story. The story of Okonkwo is told on his terms. Achebe explains in sparse prose what Okonkwo did and how he felt. Rituals, traditions, and stories are described in a straightforward manner in the voice of someone who assumes they will make sense. For this reason, they do make sense. At the heart of Achebe’s novel is the unexpressed belief in the clarity of stories. Okonkwo’s story is terrible in the end, a story of collapse. But the collapse is all the more tragic given what we find out in the novel — that Okonkwo is knowable and that the story of his life is one we can share. The tragic story of Things Fall Apart is thus a story of light, it has a heart of lightness. We can see it.

It is not surprising that a man with a heart of lightness should feel poorly disposed toward a man with a heart of darkness. But it strikes me that the two writers created central characters who share something real. Both Marlow and Okonkwo finish their stories by falling into silence. Experience has been too much for them. In this, Marlow and Okonkwo have something to communicate to one another. But it is something the rest of us can only hear “as a faint ring of incomprehensible words cried from afar.” 15 April 2013