By Mustapha B Marrouchi
Instead of panicking, the Congolese only amped up the party. Stranded on a remote stretch of river, they danced as if it were their last night on earth.
Bryan Mealer, “The River is the Road,” 2007: 71.
What strikes one, reading Mealer’s otherwise fine essay, is the enduring belief he and other travel writers espouse in the ability of monumental representation of Africa and Africans as “savages” to create a fantasy of sorts that somehow Europeans and/or Americans are civilized and the rest of us are barbarians. Enduring, because whereas Mailer was writing about what he calls “Searching for Peace in the Congo,”1 Joseph Conrad and other “enlightened” Western visitors to the dark continent had recorded their sentiments a long time ago, in fact, in the case of Conrad, more than a century earlier. Like Conrad, the new crop of writers was slapped up with a whirlwind speed (“that such splendid examples of writing could be the result of a few months’ work seems absolutely incredible,” raves Mealer) that might have suggested to a less awestruck observer that these projects had been something less than fully thought through. But in1899 as in 2007, few visitors to Africa were interested in Africa tout court.
Still, the question remains: Why do the horror, bleakness, and backward-looking despair seem to appeal to a Western audience pleased with itself, comforted by the feeling that the future is safe, that it has nothing to learn from Africa except the price it charges for toys and luxuries that it no longer chooses or knows how to make? A gifted analyst might attribute such an appeal to something like “heart of darkness syndrome,” which seems to have infected many people. Even so, the gigantism and inflation of the current impasse derives from a kind of ideological surplus, an unhealthy swelling which, on the one hand, is the effect of history avoided and transgressed and, on the other, of the failure to understand how the imperialist legacy lives on. Domination of the rim of the world simply did not end with decolonization or independence. It persists with extraordinary tenacity, and with much profit it animates all those global institutions like the World Bank, WTO, Western Union, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, designed for co-option and assimilation.2
way in the world cares little for trying to engage the Colonial Other
in a constructive way. Much more emphasis is placed on the symbolic
dimension of the drive for gain that produced colonial subjugation
in the first place. For slowly horrorism is becoming a free-floating
idea and is associated, not, for example, with the invasion and occupation
of Iraq, nor with the inferno that is Guantánamo, nor with
the atrocious record of the US army in Afghanistan, nor with the brutal
annexation of Palestine by the Israeli army, but with the reproduction
of the horror that Heart of Darkness has spurned in the last decade
or so. For if you think about it for a moment, the representation
of dread in the novella does, by way of a massive and wilful mise
en abîme of the carnage, discounts the intensity of the violence
(of the colonial letter) so that it is able to convey the measure
of global fantasy that lies in the multiple ways with which the dark
continent is painted. A case in point:
After several more hours of wandering, the Pygmies spot a more accessible stingless sweat-bee hive, climb the tree, and soon revel in honey that tastes watery, smoky. I sample it, but to me it’s an off-putting soup of bark, twigs, grubs, and dead and dying bees. I leave it to the Pygmies (Canby, 2002: 50).3
In this sense, perhaps more significant than the savagery of the natives is the lasting impact of the eight European tourists killed in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in 1998, who would, according to the travel writer Jan Morris, have been well aware of the dangers of their journey into the “darkest heart of Africa.”4 It may be inevitable that a massacre in central Africa would compel observers to revisit imagery drawn from Heart of Darkness, but why do they do it is another matter altogether. More noteworthy, perhaps, is that a century after Conrad wrote it, the novella has become an all-purpose, a pastiche of sorts, a resource for the social critic and/or writer.
Even Margaret Atwood, a poet and Booker-winning novelist, negotiated with darkness. In 2001, she delivered a series of lectures at King’s College (Cambridge) about writing and how she sought the experiences of life that shaped her imagination as well as her growth as a writer. Juggling well-worn subjects, Atwood spoke of writing as an entry into the sphere of darkness. “Novelists say that beginning a novel is going into the dark; poets travel the dark roads” (2002: 14).5 Or, to put it another way, writing is a descent into the heart of darkness, to the underworld realm of the dead, who have in their keeping what all living writers need: a way of telling. For Atwood, there is a moral gap between the writer’s unified self and what he or she uses as a refuge and a source of strength the contradiction between his self-for-others: writers are carnivores. One may be kind to dogs and cats, a generous cook, but with that splinter of ice in one’s heart, one ruthlessly exploits one’s nearest and dearest. Maybe, Atwood hinted, artists’ eyes are cold because they have to be so clear.
At the other end of the spectrum, Chris Hewett, commenting on a rugby game that pitted Neath against Leicester in the Heineken Cup Tournament at the Gnoll, asserted the effect of a Welsh victory over an English foe would be felt way beyond the Principality limits: “If the game has a beating heart, it beats at The Gnoll. Some would call it a heart of darkness, for Neath teams of yesteryear . . . embraced the ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy with a degree of relish that bordered on the criminal” (2004: 1). In the end, the Welsh team defeated Leicester and the semi-periphery rose with exemplary grace to the Janus task of challenging the English.
Writing in the TLS, Melanie Phillips finds that the case of Fred and Rosemary West represents a “journey into Britain’s heart of darkness” (Quoted in Ashley, 2006: 3). And Alex Garland, in his novel, The Beach, even had fun at the expense of his anti-hero Richard, the only traveller who had not packed his Conrad and whose ignorance in conversation with a drugged-up lunatic threatens to lower the tone. “He stared with a slightly baffled, innocent expression, then chuckled. ‘The horror,’ he said. ‘What?’ ‘The horror.’ What horror?’” (1998: 34). Well, what horror indeed? The Swedish essayist Sven Lindqvist, in Exterminate all the Brutes, sets about answering that very question.
Written in the form of a travel diary charting his bus journey across the Sahara, Lindqvist wrestles with his emerging obsession with Conrad and the social and intellectual climate that inspired him to write about the Belgian Congo. The result is a voyage of discovery akin to that experienced by Conrad’s narrator Marlow, in the course of his own fictional voyage up the Congo river in search of the maverick trader Kurtz. The most disgusting aspect of the wretched Millennium advert–the one voiced by Jeremy Irons–is its blind insistence on an idea of human progress, on its fundamentally benign nature. “Imagine what we can do tomorrow” (Lindqvist, 1997: 67). That is why this book is so important, why we, colonials and ex-colonials, our rulers, and their stooges should read it, like puppies having their noses forced into their own filth. Those quotation marks around the title are essential because they are the words of Kurtz who scrawls over his report to The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs–a “beautiful piece of writing,” as Marlow puts it. “It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: “Exterminate all the brutes!” (Ibid., 78). Lindqvist’s thesis is both clear and simply expressed. “We want genocide to have begun and ended with Nazism. That is what is most comforting” (Ibid., 80). But, of course, it began much earlier, with the colonial expansion of the European powers.
recall the multiple aspects of linguistic colonialism. As early as
1492, Columbus expressed the thought that the Indians ought to make
good servants, “for I see that they repeat very quickly whatever
was said to them.” Then “I decided to carry six of them
at my departure to [His] . . . Highness, that they may learn to speak”
(Greenblatt, 1992: 122). This leads Stephen Greenblatt to conclude
that the primal crime in the New World was committed in the interest
of language–in this case Spanish, but it could have been English
or French. We are all meant to know this and even on occasion pay
lip-service in the form of mumbled apologies; but in many cases, as
Exterminate All the Brutes! reminds us, there is no one to receive
an apology. A case in point is the Guanches, Berber-speaking inhabitants
of the Canary Isles, with an estimated population of 80,000. In 1478,
Ferdinand and Isabella sent an expedition with guns and horses to
Grand Canary. Sixteen years later, the Guanches had effectively been
annihilated (Luis, 1987: chap. in particular). The Tasmanians are
also beyond help, although you can see the skeleton of the last Tasmanian
woman, who died in 1876, in the Tasmanian Museum in Hobart.
There is, I believe, a philosophic-political core to this structure of consciousness (mentalité) in Lindqvist’s retelling of the bloody details of colonial expansion in Africa. And it does not make for light reading. Toward the end of the nineteenth century firearms technology had developed far enough for any army using modern rifles to be unstoppable–especially if they used the dum-dum bullet, prohibited for use between “civilized nations” but sanctioned for big-game hunting and colonial wars. It was, quite simply, carnage, and Lindqvist quotes Winston Churchill, recalling the battle of Omdurman, where 9,000 Dervish warriors were killed, many more wounded, with the loss of a handful–if that–of British lancers. “The rifles grew hot–so hot they had to be exchanged for those of the reserve companies. The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets. . . . The empty cartridge cases, tinkling to the ground, soon formed small but growing heaps around each man” (1997: 56). At the same time as this and other reports of savagery in Africa reached home, so Eduard von Hartmann, in The Philosophy of the Unconscious advocated the swift and total extermination of savage races as the act of the “true philanthropist” (2007: 56). Conrad must have read the book, and made a fundamental discovery about human nature which we think–having seen the carnage in Iraq, not to mention Chechnia, Afghanistan, Palestine–we understand, but we do not. (Kurtz’s sympathies, you might remember, “were in the right place” too).
Just as disturbing as the horrors visited on Africans in the quest for colonial profit, Lindqvist finds, are the grotesque myths that passed for science and anthropology at the turn of the century and which apologized for the brutality in Africa by arguing that “inferior” races were already condemned to extinction. Drawing directly on published accounts of the era, and weaving in biographical details on Conrad, Lindqvist shows how there was a remarkable congruence between the language employed by the colonial apologists and the language Conrad appropriated for the insane ramblings of Kurtz. Lindqvist maintains that the colonial racism of the Victorians was a precursor to the Nazi quest for Lebensraum and the extermination of the Jews, who, in turn, would annex Palestine and victimize another innocent people, who have been subjected to a brutal occupation for more than half a century. His essay is written starkly and emphatically. His assertion that the roots of Nazi genocide lie in European colonialism may not be popular with some, but it rings true, and it contains a message for torture, as Bushism imagines what it can do tomorrow.
is indeed horrible, as far as it goes, but Lindqvist has little to
say on the significance of Conrad’s tale itself. Conrad himself
came late to the criticism of colonialism, and as Edward Said argues
in Culture and Imperialism, the metaphors Conrad brings to his subject
are ambiguous, to say the least. As a narrator, Marlow is certainly
scornful of the veneer of respectability in which the colonial profiteers
sought to disguise their work. On the other hand, he does not give
us the sense that there is any alternative: the horrors are made to
look inevitable. Conrad, according to Said, presents Marlow as an
“inquiring Western mind trying to make sense of an apocalyptic
revelation” (1993: 278). The narrative structure of the novella,
he argues, confirms both Kurtz and Marlow as endowed with superior,
Western understanding. So while Conrad is under no illusions about
the horrors of imperialism, his attempts to make sense of those horrors
within a “historicist vision” simply overrides the history
of “others” and mimics the nature of the imperialist project
itself. Said surely makes a terrible mistake when he states that Heart
of Darkness was “an organic part of the scramble for Africa,”
which has functioned ever since to reassure the West that it had the
right to rule Africa.
On this view, one is tempted to ask Said the following question: Whether thousands of Western readers may not have become disturbed, not to say nauseated, and even disgusted by colonialism after reading the novella? Said replies otherwise:
Conrad's tragic limitation is that even though he could see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that imperialism had to end so that the “natives” could lead lives free from European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the imperialism that enslaved them (Ibid., 280).
I have read this passage over and over, each time with increasing disbelief. For had I been colonized, I would not wish Conrad to grant me my freedom, I would want to fight for it myself. For this reason alone, there has to be a category that mediates between subject and object, namely, self-knowledge. In the act of knowing myself, I become subject and object simultaneously. This peculiar sort of knowledge also dismantles the dichotomy between thought and action, or fact and value–for to know myself is to alter myself in that very act, and to grasp the truth of my condition is to know what I would need in order to be free of domination. Perhaps Said meant something fragmentary--a tiny gesture, an implication, a few words that would suggest the liberated future, but I still find the idea a little strange as an improvement of Heart of Darkness.
In this respect, Said comes across as banal, positivist, and conventionally right-minded because far from being blessed with a superior Western understanding, Kurtz is–at least by the time the reader catches up with him–a broken man. And the horrors which have shaken him to his foundations appear to have a similar effect on Marlow. As his journey progresses, Marlow’s “inquiring Western mind” becomes incoherent, his descriptive faculties lost in a frenzy of meaningless babble about “unspeakable rites,” “inconceivable mysteries,” and “impenetrable darkness” (1998: 56, 71, 82). All this helps to convey dramatic tension, but it also begins to cloud his judgment and confuse the reader. Rather like Alex Garland’s protagonist in The Beach, we are entitled to ask: What rites, which mysteries, what kind of darkness? If Conrad is pessimistic about the consequences of imperial expansion, it is a pessimism borne, not of any “historicist vision,” but of a lack of vision itself. When all the specificity of its colonial context is emptied of any meaning and rendered incomprehensible, what remains is a moral wilderness in which even the observer, Marlow, becomes blinded by horror and forced into a series of grotesque, mystical generalizations about the savage secrets of the human soul. Given the ambiguities of his parable, it is remarkable how contemporary observers are drawn to invoke the spirit of his work. Served up as an ironic squawk or to invoke an unfathomable moral vacuum, the Conradian refrain has become tired and vulgar. Kurtz himself had a robust approach to the suppression of loathsome cultural habits: “Exterminate all the brutes!” Never mind the dark recesses of contemporary history, often without political reward.
However, brutality and cruelty are never exercised in a void. Heart of Darkness is not a tragedy enacted by white men before a largely mute audience of Africans. It is a tragedy inflicted by white men on that audience, which remains mute only because Marlow–and ultimately Conrad, of course–does not grant it a voice. In a passage which closely echoes a memory from Conrad’s childhood, Marlow describes his early passion for maps, and especially for the cartographical “blank spaces” on the map of Africa which marked unexplored terrain. Ironically, according to Marlow, once the white patches are filled in “with rivers and lakes and names,” they become places of darkness (Ibid., 81). Chinua Achebe has reminded Western readers that these “blank spaces” were blank only from the European perspective. “Africa,” Achebe says, “is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray–a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate.”6 True, but even Achebe indulges in similar sentimentality, namely, that Conrad was so obsessed with the savagery of the Africans that he somehow failed to notice that Africans just north of the Congo were creating great works of art–making masks and other artifacts that only a few years later would astound such painters as Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso, and Matisse. “The point of all this,” Achebe goes on to add, “is to suggest that Conrad's picture of the people of the Congo seems grossly inadequate. The question is whether a novella which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art” (Ibid., 158). For Achebe, Heart of Darkness has no room in the canon.
Said, on the other hand, would never suggest dropping Conrad from the curriculum. For he thinks Conrad could not have existed without the Western colonial system, without outcasts and riffraffs like Kurtz or the Dane Fresleven–the captain whom Marlow replaces and who “had been killed in a scuffle [over two black hens] with the natives,” Jim, Almayer, and Lingard, whose standards and sense of failure derived from an Empire they accepted almost as a fact of nature.
At this stage, it is worth pausing over the thought that the novella, written at the end of the nineteenth century, resonates unhappily throughout the twenty-first century. Perhaps we should remind ourselves at this stage of the abattoir that is Congo–a country ravaged from a century of colonial depredation, followed by coups, assassinations, and two invasions by outside armies; a country where mangled bodies litter the streets of every town and city and rot in the equatorial sun, waiting to be torn apart by wild dogs; a country where militias butcher the dead on the battle floor and feast on hearts and livers, both as ceremony and as a tactic of cold intimidation. Congo is slowly emerging from a five-year war that has killed 4 million people. Its daily blood forces us to raise this question: How are we to account for a nation able to wipe out in a few years millions of its people, when its so-called government lacks the means to protect its citizens from being slaughtered en masse by machetes–when that government, whether by acts of omission or commission, dooms that space recognized by the world as sovereign? I do not know an instance in our contemporary history where humanity has been so degraded, so nullified, so treated with local contempt as in Congo. The moral outrage that drives this state of affairs is best captured by Frantz Fanon, who writes in The Wretched of the Earth. “The last battle of the colonized against the colonizer will often be the fight of the colonized against each other.”7 In other words, Fanon is articulating the pitfalls of decolonization. Century-long heartfelt human responses to being degraded and despised, hated and hunted, oppressed and exploited, marginalised and dehumanized at the hands of the powerful xenophobic European and now American imperial powers have resulted in pitting the natives against each other as is the case in Sudan today (Johnson, 2003: 45-6). In the process, development, like independence itself, recedes. Africa today is the ultimate colony: all that we see in it is make-believe, famine, civil war, disease, corruption, genocide, and ruin.
A little over a hundred years ago, at the time Heart of Darkness was published, at the Berlin Conference, the colonial powers that ruled Africa met to divvy up their interests into states, lumping various peoples and tribes together in some places, or slicing them apart in others like some demented tailor who paid no attention to the fabric, colour or pattern of the coat he was stitching together. One of the biggest disappointments of the Organization of African Unity when it came into being more than twenty five years ago was that it failed to address this issue. Instead, one of its cardinal principles became non-interference and the sacrosanctity of the boundaries inherited from the colonial situation. That was a foreboding failure of political will. And now we see in Africa what the absence of self-redefinition has wrought. If we fail to understand that all this stems from the colonial nation-state map imposed from above, there will be little chance to correct the situation over the long term. As Soyinka put it: “Africans must accuse Africa's failed leadership for the trail of skeletons along desiccated highways . . . the lassitude and hopelessness of emaciated survivors crowded into refugee camps . . . the mounds of corpses. Africa had been betrayed from within” (1994: 56). Much of this condition is blamed on what Naipaul terms “half-made men,” who have been concerned with maintaining their power and authority in the artificial ponds created by their colonial masters, so eager to preserve their status as king toads that they have never really addressed the problems facing the people trapped there. Our shock today equals Marlow's at the time. His amazement and ours before the sheer strangeness of the ravaged human forms anticipates the open wounds of a continent in crisis: Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Algeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Congo, Ivory Coast (the list goes on) where the native bourgeoisie hijacked the revolution.
After all, if some crimes are irredeemable, a frank acknowledgment of them might lead to a partial remission of sin. Conrad never enumerates Kurtz’s sins. There is no need to. He expects us to see their magnitude reflected in the voice of Marlow, who is Conrad’s distinctive creation. In the meantime, the mystery he opened remains open, and whether you approach it with piety, fear, caution, or indifference is a private matter between you and your imagination. So, in the end, no matter how we, readers, read Conrad, Africa still comes across as the impossibly Other, romantically destitute and silent; the “black hole,” the unsayable. It is ironic that the “Negroes,” (just like the “Arabs” in Camus’s L’Étranger, or the “Berbers” in Wharton’s In Morocco), Marlow meets on his way up the Congo River never speak nor are they named. They are instead spoken about, described, and represented for us. They have no social background, although it is precisely history and social background we are dealing with. They are gazed at even as the narrative proceeds. They look up at Marlow silently, they may even touch him, or simply run away from him. After all, he, not they, is the intruder. The “black hole” of Africa also figures as an open silent mouth. It refers to the unsayable that lay at the heart of the colonial encounter, the breakdown in the observer's language when he attempts to describe a different culture, the mouth open but the words unable to take any form or shape.
The felicitous upshot is that the unsayable is represented by “The horror! The horror!” which reminds us of “ou-boum,” the meaningless echo in the Marabar Caves in Ian Forster's A Passage to India. The complexity lies in Africa’s, just as India’s, being reduced to hushed, dissyllabic sounds.8 In history and the popular imagination, another two syllables, “black hole,” have come to express the idea that Africa is still beyond perception and even language. Silence is a strange attribute to ascribe to the noisiest and the most teeming with life, sounds, and noises of all continents. Africa is the crucible of human evolution, the home of the first man to walk on the surface of the planet, and yet in Heart of Darkness and its tributaries, it is reduced to a laboratory spawning soulless metaphors. Actually, as you search deeper into the soul, you realize that the metaphorical laboratory has bred another invented Africa, notably, a site of wild life, conservation, and safaris; yet another idea representing the dark continent as the rim of the world where one may descend into the savage, the pure, the wild, the demonic, the hollow.
Conrad wanted to subvert that order, we are not sure. What is certain,
however, is that he wrote a novella that still disturbs even the most
well-intentioned reader more than one hundred years later. In the
process, he, unlike Gide or Camus, at least demythologised the imperial
subject constructed in earlier writing. The very complexity of his
work provides at least a quasi-alternative, more critical means of
evaluating the experience of domination. This anxiety, this meeting
of two opposed worlds, the dominant world of Europe and the impoverished
world of the colony, was spotted by Conrad, who with his remote Polish
background, his wish as a traveller to render exactly what he saw,
was able at a time of high imperialism to go far beyond the imperialistic,
shallow way of writing about Africa and native peoples. To him the
world he travelled in was new; and he made sure he looked hard at
it. That he was not concerned to score points off Africa is clear.
But Heart of Darkness goes with a correct distancing of himself from
the dark continent and its peoples. And for him that perhaps was the
charm and disgust of the encounter with the Other: the heightened
sense of Self that Africa gave him. After all, Africa calls to people
for different reasons. Everyone who goes and stays there has his or
her own Africa. Conrad had his. We have ours–an Africa still
drenched in violence, corruption, disease, and misrepresentation;
an Africa that still looks at itself with increasing dislike and dissatisfaction;
an Africa that still looks at itself through Western eyes. The result
is austere, authoritative fiction of loss and abandonment, a tragic
and melancholy narrative; its poignant insights shimmering, just as
they should do, a little space beyond the powers of summary and analysis
that pervade other competing narratives about Africa.
1. Bryan Mealer, “The River is a Road,” Haprper’s Magazine (October 2007): 59-74.
2. For more on the subject of disaster capitalism, see Bret Benjamin, Invested Interests: Capital, Culture, and the World Bank (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), Noami Klein, “The New Economy of Catastrophe,” Harper’s Magazine (October 2007): 47-59.
3. Peter Canby, “The Forest Primeval: A Month in Congo’s Wildest Jungle,” Harper’s Magazine (January 2002): 23.
4. Graham Huggan and Patrick Holland, Tourists and Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000): 45-7. Ken Wiwa on the other hand offers a radically different view of the same event. “The darkness we see in Africa lives deep within our hearts.” For more on the subject, see
5. Margaret Atwood, “Negotiating with the Dead,” The Guardian June 6, 2000: 4-5.
6. For the attack on Conrad, see Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” in Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, background and Sources, Criticism, Ed. Robert Kimborough (London: Norton, 1988): 156-7. The interview Caryl Phillips conducts with Achebe is quite telling insofar as it sheds some light on the question of racism and xenophobia in Conrad. See his “Out of Africa,” The Guardian 22 February 2003: 2-3.
7. This is most memorably discussed in Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2004): 45.
8. On the subject culture, see the excellent pages of Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1993): 122.