Opposing the Celebration of Western Civilization,
Review of Joseph Conrad’s, Heart of Darkness
By Geanier Moore
Introduction Looking back at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, past the cacophony of praise it has received from Western literati, journalism and even sociology (“among the half dozen greatest short novels in the English language;” a common appropriation of the “revelatory” purport of the novel, quoted in Achebe, 2014), this reviewer sees a piece of “art work” which in no way transcends the Euro-centric imperialist mindset to which it owes its birth.
While the novel, and indeed reviews of it, goes back and forth between mysticism and a-historicity, and between form-driving-content and content-driving-form, this review utilizes principles of the method and theory of historical materialism for the purpose of: (1) Situating the content (the driving element) of the book in the era in which it was written — the era of European colonialism and imperialism; and (2) from this standpoint, establishing its character, its meaning and purpose as one of apology for this feature (colonialism and imperialism) of Western civilization (Levebvre, p20). It is in this connection, and based upon this method and theory that the thesis of this essay emerges: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has no historical, moral or philosophical value, beyond its effort to apologize for and make excuses for European inhumanity in this period of human history. To the extent that the self-congratulatory nature of European inhumanity during this historical era is exposed, to that degree does it make a contribution by negative example only — by uncovering the role of liberal racism in the white supremacist project.
Human Nature and Historical Eras A starting point of analysis of (reviews of) Heart of Darkness is that Conrad is examining human nature. A basic principal of the method and theory of historical materialism has it that human nature is not static or here in one form for all time, but is conditioned by the environment at a given historical period (Levebvre, p17). The white supremacist perspective presented in reviews of Conrad have it that he is exposing a vicious nature which all humans possess. It just happens that the story takes place in a scene in which it is European colonialists who perpetrate vicious inhumanity to indigenous Africans. The rest, the alleged “cannibalism” of the indigenous people of the Congo is manifest fantasy. The use, by Conrad, of terms such as “savagery” and “barbarism” to refer to the indigenous Africans is also a-historicity, as the large majority of sociology, anthropology and historical science of all social systems today — market economies, socialist and Indigenous studies — each reveal that the historical periods now understood to be those of savagery and barbarism were periods in pre-class society, indigenous society which did not have as defining characteristics torture, cruelty, genocide, and generalized war by which Western civilization is characterized (Hughes, 2003, 29–45; Leakey, 1977, 208–237) . Indeed, these features were attributed to these pre-Western-civilization-societies in retrospect by political representatives, literary apologists and “scholars” of the West to project the crimes against humanity of European imperialism onto earlier stages of society (Engels, 1972, pp217–237).
Indeed, as Hochschild quotes Primo Levi’s experiences of Auschwitz, “Monsters exist… But they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are . . . the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions” (Quoted in King Leopold’s Ghost…,1999). The term “functionaries” in this context can be used (and is being used by Hochschild) to describe both Conrad, on one hand, and the white supremacist reviewers, on the other, including both those who appropriate Heart of Darkness as some kind of redeemer of Western morals, and those who see it as a form of exposure of European imperialism. As far as the latter goes, there is no question that the book represents a cover-up and an apology much more than a genuine exposure (Hochschild, 1999).
The Era of European Colonialism and Imperialism Speaking as a person living and breathing specifically in this era, Conrad’s protagonist is quoted as observing, “They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” Again, this is an observation about human nature in general, and a nature which any “cannibal” can have. From this perspective it abstracts from the era rather than identifying the behavior with this period in European history. These are conquerors in the abstract.
As Hawkins observed along the lines of the method used in this essay, “In Heart of Darkness Conrad explicitly selected two criteria — efficiency and the ‘idea’ of the civilizing mission — to judge imperialism. Although he himself did not ultimately espouse these values (which social Darwinists used to justify European expansion), he chose them because they were popular and well-suited to condemning the peculiar exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold I” (1979).
In this same direction Hawkins quotes Conrad to his publisher to the effect that: “The title I am thinking of is The Heart of Darkness … The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa is a justifiable idea” (286). In a formulation directly the birth child of “The White Man’s Burden,” Conrad’s critique is not of the evil colonialist and imperialist system, but of the kind of colonialism and imperialism he feels King Leopold II perpetrates which is “inefficient” and “selfish.” After all, for apologists of imperialism like Conrad, “good” exploitation is that which “uplifts” its subjects while simultaneously enslaving them, butchering them, and stealing all their natural resources.
Indeed, Conrad quotes his protagonist, Marlow, to the effect that, “And between whites I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done that for that really fine chap.”
The fireman was an example of a “savage” who was an “improved specimen” and now “a fine chap” who was as inspiring as the sight of a dog walking on his hind legs; all of this due to the intervention of the colonialist system.
Chinua Achebe This reviewer launched into this review with a false assumption that it would be difficult to find a reviewer who would expose this book at its heart. I was incorrect. Chinua Achebe’s analysis (1975, 2014) is, ipso facto, down the middle for the analysis that I developed independently. Once having run across his superb exposure of the racist nature of the book, I felt validated.
In a speech delivered at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975, and then in a review of the book published in 2014, Achebe strikes at the heart of the purport of the book in a complete denunciation of its alleged artistic value. Again, it is common to Western literature review to separate form and content. “His prose is so well done.” In a book with a content as ugly as this one — a content which justifies the oppression of the people of Africa by European slavers and butchers — there can be no alleged beauty of form. This reviewer does not understand how form and content can be separated in this way. There is nothing beautiful about oppression, no matter what allegedly pretty words are used to describe it.
In a review entitled “Racism and the Heart of Darkness” of Achebe’s 1975 speech, C.P. Sarvan, a professor at the University of Zambia came to the same conclusions that this reviewer did regarding Achebe’s astute exposure. Salvan writes that in Conrad “Africa is ‘the other world,’ ‘the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality’” (Quoted in Yurtoğlu, 2018). Salvan goes on to point out that, “Any sympathy expressed for the sufferings of the black African under colonialism, argued Achebe is a sympathy born of a kind of liberalism which whilst acknowledging distant kinship, repudiates equality” (2018). Salvan ascribes to Achebe the following observation about art which this reviewer holds dear: “Great art can only be on the side of man’s deliverance and not his enslavement; for the brotherhood and unity of all mankind and not for the doctrines of Hitler’s master races or Conrad’s ‘rudimentary souls’.” In his speech Achebe concluded his exposure of Heart of Darkness by calling it “a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question. It seems to me totally inconceivable that great art or even good art could possibly reside in such unwholesome surroundings” (Quoted in Yurtoğlu).
In his 2014 review of Heart of Darkness, Achebe continues in the same direction, affirming that Conrad “… chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths.” Referring to those Africans who Marlow admires because they have learned skills from the European slavers/colonialist masters, he calls them “Fine fellows — cannibals — in their place.” Achebe continues, “Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”
In Chinua Achebe, C. P. Salvan, Nadir Yurtoğlu (International Journal of History), Adam Hochschild (King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa), and this reviewer, the scales weighing in for imperialist apologies are being overturned in favor of the people of the world.
Conclusion Viewed from the perspective of the historical materialist principle of identifying the era in human history, it is unacceptable to leave European colonialism in the abstract by claiming it is human nature. Again, relying on historical materialist method, this analyst begins by seeing humanity as a whole, and by judging individual “protagonists” and individual countries on the basis of the systems they are devoted to, and the historical legacy of these systems (Levebvre).
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is appropriated by Western literary history as a jewel in its cannon. Indeed, in the history of Western literature and literary criticism Heart of Darkness at once plays the role of liberal critique of imperialism, while at the same time apologizing for and lending obeisance to the “great civilizing role” played by European genocidal campaigns perpetrated against Africans. Further, the effect of this otherwise propagandist portrayal of indigenous Africans falls squarely in the Euro-centric compendium of white supremacist ideology.
To separate form from content and claim that this is “great writing” is to collude in the whitewashing of European colonialism. To the extent that the history of this evil system continues to affect us today, and its effects are everywhere to be experienced by People of Color, it is not the time to give blessings to liberal racism. In these times of world crisis, People of Color cannot allow such whitewashing; but it also imperils White people to live in such a world of fantasy. Any review of “worldly” literature today must be guided by today’s most pressing tasks. To sit by and allow such a work of white supremacist day dreaming to go unchallenged is to leave to others the pressing task of making things right.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Postcolonial Criticism, Dec. 2014, pp. 112–125., doi:10.4324/9781315843452–4.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1996. 17–95.
Engels, Fredrick. (1972). Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. International Publishers, 1972, 217–237.
Hawkins, Hunt. “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 1979: 286–299.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin. 1999.
Hughes, Lotte. (2003). No-Nonsense Guide to Indigenous Peoples. New International Publications.
Leakey, Richard. (1977). Origins: What new Discoveries Reveal about the Emergence of our Species and its Possible Future. New York: E.P. Dutton
Levebvre, Henri. The Sociology of Marx. Random House. 1999. 16–20.
Yurtoğlu, Nadir. “Http://www.Historystudies.net/dergi//birinci-Dunya-Savasinda-Bir-Asayis-Sorunu-Sebinkarahisar-Ermeni-isyani20181092a4a8f.Pdf.” History Studies, International Journal of History, vol. 10, no. 7, 2018, pp. 241–264., doi:10.9737/hist.2018.658.