I’ve been thinking about an essay Gregory Jusdanis recently posted at Arcade, Looking at Africa, Looking at Ourselves. He frames it with Chinua Achebe’s well-known essay on the text, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Thus:
Achebe revealed new landscapes. He showed that Conrad, though critical of colonialism, relied on formulaic portrayals of Africa that ended up dehumanizing the continent. He used Africa as a symbol of darkness devoid of real people working, living, and dying, while he employed Africa as a backdrop for the exploration of European metaphysical problems. As he argues, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘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.” Achebe calls Conrad a racist and concludes his essay by referring to the novel “as an offensive and deplorable book,” so despicable that he can’t understand why it is celebrated in the West as a masterpiece in the English language.
Jusdanis begins his reply:
As much as I learned from this essay, I was troubled by the easy association Achebe makes between the narrator in the novel and the author of the novel. Although Achebe acknowledges the double narration in the text and subtle ironies at play, he shows insufficient sensitivity to the ambivalence and contradictions at work in literature. The virtue of literary language is that it cannot be frozen in its signification. Novels – Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Passage to India, have a way of deconstructing what they are representing and cannot be easily reduced to racist tracts.
Well, yeah, but...
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all but a ballet between Huck and Jim and Jim has a major speaking role. The same with A Passage to India; Aziz and his friends and associates have major speaking roles. If we and to the extent that we frame these books as encounters with the Other, it’s an Other that speaks. Does the Other speak in Heart of Darkness? The only line spoken by an African that I remember is “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.” There may be others, but there aren’t many. Marlow certainly had to talk with Africans, his crew, and so did Kurtz, but those conversations aren’t reported in the book.
In a sense, Heart of Darkness has two Others: The African and The Woman. The text ends with a conversation between Marlow and The Woman, that is, Kurtz’s Intended. His relationship with The African is defined by his relationship to his helmsman, who died at the book’s structural center. Marlow doesn’t report any conversation with the man, but he does assert that his life was worth more than Kurtz’s.
And that is, arguably, the metaphysical problem at the heart of this book, or at least one aspect of it.
As for “the possibility of engaging with the Other,” which is Jusdanis’s major concern in the essay, as long at the Other is conceived of as The OTHER, engagement is impossible. By definition. That’s what Othering does, draws an uncrossable line between author and subject.
Jusdanis tells us:
During my month’s stay in Ilorin, I posted blogs ( I , II ) about my experiences and wrote long private reports to family and friends. Was I using Africa as a backdrop in my engagement with the people I met, institutions I encountered, and ideas introduced to? Does not all comparison begin with the self as the base? Can one write about another society without at the same time reflecting on the self? Is not all travel writing as much about the self as the place visited?
It seems to me that there’s travel and there’s writing. They aren’t the same. How does Jusdanis engage with the people he meets in his travels? He can engage them – which I think he does – or treat them as accessories in his search for travel experiences. Whether or not his engagement shows up in his writing depends as much on his skill as a writer as it does on the quality of his interactions.
Writing’s a tricky business. The writer can Other everyone, in which case the cultural identity of the people one writes about is a secondary matter. They may be from one’s own culture or from a very different culture. If they’re Othered, then there’s no engagement. What’s at issue is whether or not one Other’s some, but not all one’s subjects. If so, which ones, and why?