Heart of Lightness


Morgan Meis in The Smart Set (image from Wikimedia Commons):

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 Darknesswas 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.