Written just before the onset of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness captures the agenda of white imperialism of the West over colonised and subjugated people of the African continent. The story is about: ‘Europeans performing acts of imperial mastery and will in (or about) Africa’. By this time business interests predominated over adventurous and exploratory interests in empire building. The imperialist world that Conrad narrates is sealed within its own circularity; it does not allow for any alternative views.
Said identifies two ‘visions’ or arguments in Conrad’s novella which continue into the latter half of the 20th century. The first is the continuation of imperialist dominance over formerly colonised people, ‘morally and intellectually’. Conrad, although he could not envisage an alternative to imperialism, foresaw and hinted at its demise, because of his awareness that everything is contingent. Said refers to more recent postmodernist thinkers who undermine any and all enduring scripts including imperialism. Even so, the old imperialists continue to rule the former colonies by proxy, since they are able to foist authoritarian regimes in those countries subservient to their former masters.
The second ‘vision’ is the subtle manner by which Conrad draws attention to ‘what he is presenting (as) not quite as it should be or appears to be.’ He cannot deny the power of “the darkness” which ‘has (an) autonomy of its own’, likened to ‘a non-European world resisting imperialism …’ In conclusion, Said lists several writers who represent a ‘movement, literature and theory of resistance and response to empire..’, contradicting European presumptions of ‘the natives’ incapacity to take part on equal terms in scientific discourse about them.’
Early in his career as literary scholar, critic and historian, Edward Said had written extensively about Joseph Conrad, the celebrated English novelist of Polish extraction. Here, in a later work, Said uses his knowledge of Conrad’s works, specifically the novella, Heart of Darkness, to support his polemic against Western imperialism. The clarity and validity of his arguments to support his position are examined in this essay. His literary style is also brought under scrutiny.
Said says that the ‘imperial attitude’ is well captured in this novella ‘written between 1898 and 1899’. Marlow’s travels by steamboat in the heart of Africa represent one early facet of imperialism, as an ‘adventurous and individualistic enterprise’. As imperialism spread, business took over, and the looting, greed, murderous violence, and insanity, the result of unbridled power that followed, is embodied by Kurtz. By the 1990s when Said was writing this piece, he could identify two ‘visions’ or discourses. The first was the continuing hegemony of Westerners over their former colonies as markets, and persistent ideological imperialism. The other ‘vision’ is that imperialism and its aftermath ‘would have its moment’, but will ‘have to pass’ although Conrad had no clear idea of what would replace it.
Said then elaborates on the first ‘vision’ at length, revealing how Conrad’s narrative method was able to hint at – ‘imperialism, far from swallowing up its own history, was taking place and was circumscribed by a larger history …’ Unfortunately, Said’s style becomes opaque. He uses obscure words like exilic and non-words like ‘provisionality’. His sentences are convoluted and long, with value-laden adjectives like the ‘assertive sovereign inclusiveness’, and ‘a miscellaneous bunch of querulous intellectuals and wishy-washy skeptics’. It is not easy to understand his rhetoric.
Said begins a paragraph with the dramatic sentence ‘Enter terrorism and barbarism’, but there is no development of the theme except similar statements linking ‘liberation movements, terrorism and the KGB.’ A number of points are raised which do not appear to have a direct bearing on the theme of the two ‘visions’. For instance, instead of bringing in Rushdie, he could have used the indigenous black experience of contemporaries like Martin Luther King and the novelist James Baldwin, to better effect.
There are factual inaccuracies too. He talks of ‘political passions’ leading to ‘mass slaughter.., if not to literal mass slaughter then certainly to rhetorical slaughter.’ Historians have estimated that in Leopold’s so-called ‘Congo Free State’…’ 8-10 million Negros perished from violence, forced labour and starvation’. Anthropologists then viewed the ‘Negro as a primitive evolutionary link between the Caucasian and the higher apes, treating him as a mere commodity to be put at the disposal of the white man’ (Jayasinghe, 2008, p.15)
Another criticism that can be aimed at Said is that he pays scant regard to the novella as a work of art, instead converting it to his own purposes as a historical tract. He could have paid some attention to the 1979 Coppola film ‘Apocalypse Now’ depicting a similar theme about the Vietnam War. Even though separated by over seven decades, the film almost replicates the novella in terms of plot, characters, theme and symbolism. Even Kurtz of the novella is replicated as Kurtz in the film. Said appears woefully unaware that American imperialism representing the Western, Judeo-Christian ethos had unarguably met its nemesis in post-colonial Vietnam.
To conclude, in his eagerness to portray Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a political statement depicting imperialism, Said’s essay fails on both counts of verisimilitude, and clarity of expression. Like most past political tracts it ceases to impress the reader of today.
Jayasinghe, Migel (2008) A Miscellany, Outskirts Press Inc., Denver, CO, USA.