Sunday, April 26, 2009

Aimless Reading: The C's, Part 31.2 (Joseph Conrad)

Heart of Darkness
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Conrad, Joseph
Heart of Darkness

I am pretty sure this is my high school copy of this book. Or it could be my brother's high school copy, pilfered on a trip home to visit my parents when I was in college. Either way, it is not in very good shape. I feel as if know the story well, despite the fact that my memory of the book itself is pretty sketchy.

Last year, when I introduced Chinua Achebe in Buffalo, I mentioned that he had caused a stir in the seventies when he said in a lecture that Conrad was a "bloody racist." After I mentioned the controversy in my introduction, Achebe came out on stage (in a wheelchair) and very good-naturedly mentioned that this one comment, out of everything else he has ever said about literature, has followed him throughout his life and that he felt compelled to address it each time.

He said meant this simply as a statement of fact, not as a condemnation of the writing or of the importance of the work. His main point was that Conrad's racism was so "thoroughgoing" that one cannot discuss his work without discussing the fact of his racism, both as a manifestation of the culture of his time and as a peculiar attribute of the writer himself.

He then mentioned that as one proof of this, no African character in the book ever said more than six consecutive words. His reading of Conrad and other Eurpoean writers writing about Africa led him to determine that Africa needed writing by, for and about Africans -- Things Fall Apart was the result.

You can read the 1975 lecture here:

Here's the famous death of Kurtz from the novel:

"His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines. But I had not much time to give him, because I was helping the engine-driver to take to pieces the leaky cylinders, to straighten a bent connecting-rod, and in other such matters. I lived in an infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet-drills -- things I abominate, because I don't get on with them. I tended the little forge we fortunately had aboard; I toiled wearily in a wretched scrap-heap -- unless I had the shakes too bad to stand.

"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.

"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'"

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