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The Dialectic Of Race And The Burden Of Authorial Intrusion: A Critical Review Of Achebe’s An Image Of Africa: Racism In Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness

By Akwu Sunday Victor
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A dialectical study of an object is appraising it from its two distinct purviews. Race has two sides, the denigration of one by the other and the struggle to assert the racial status quo by the opposing side. Thus, in Western thought, the white race is the superior race whilst the black is the subaltern race. This thought gave birth to intercontinental slavery, slave trade and above all, colonialism. Therefore, we see the race relation as that of the superior versus the inferior, the advanced versus the uncouth, and the subaltern versus the higher. This thought permeates the logic and socio-cultural and political intercourse between the West and Africa.

The denigration of Africa and Africans predated the publication of Conrad’s magnus opus, Heart of Darkness. The novel only validated the Western purview of Africa and tries to take the discourse from mere cultural outlook to an intellectual and imaginative height. Therefore, the novel itself is seen as Conrad’s thesis on the nature of African race, the notion of Africa and Africans in Western imagination and thought. By setting his work in the mythical world and depicting Africans the way the Victorian world viewed it, he has given credence and authenticity to the existing sociocultural perception of life.

On the other hand, Achebe who was educated and introduced to Western literature responded to Conrad’s text in his criticism titled, An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the criticism, he first and foremost eulogizes the narrative style of Conrad and places him among the canon of European modernist writers. His writing exudes with high romantic flavor and readers are often carried away, “hypnotized” by the writer’s lyricism and romanticism, thus unable to see the outright racist posture of the novelist. Achebe’s position is thus seen as antithesis to Conrad’s thesis.

It was on the power of such critical reading of canonical Western texts that postcolonialism as a literary theory was born. Postcolonialism aims at unsettling the status quo, the balance of power, pulling power off the hands of the white supremacists and bestowing same on Africans. Thus it may not be obsolete to say that it has stints of anti-racist racism. Nevertheless, Achebe carefully captures the racial prejudice buried in the tapestry of the narrative by citing copious instantiations. The paper begins with where the novel began, from River Thames where the river itself is described as an aspect of Western environmental advancement. The river is placed side by side with river Congo which is portrayed as jejune, primordial and reminiscence of the dark void which characterized the beginning of time. The Africa described in the novel is sick, diseased, ravaged and by demons and saturated and eclipsed by darkness, emptiness, and misery. It is painted as the underworld where nothing good can ever thrive. Africans on the other hand are denied the gift of language, humanity, sentiment and sensibility and reduced to denizens, vermin and dregs of wasted civilization. Africans were called “savages,” “niggers,” and other denigrating names.

Achebe observes that, the entry of Kurtz into Africa symbolizes the dissension of a protégée of Western civilization into the underworld and is thus consumed by his intercourse with the forbidden. We see Marlowe going into the heart of darkness on a rescue mission but Kurtz had to die because he has eaten the forbidden fruit. Then, juxtaposition is made between Kurtz's African woman and his European wife. While the African is uncouth, savage and humanoid the other is portrayed as human, civilized and having complete faculties that distinguished man from beasts.

Achebe further observes that Conrad tries to evade axes from cultural critics by using Marlowe as the narrator and the dominant figure in the text. The world was seen from the perspectives of Marlowe, he is the owner of the narrative, it isn’t Conrad’s but Marlowe’s and since in the tradition of the structuralists and poststructuralist, the author is dead, it therefore means that, the novel is ecriture and as ecriture, it is a writing and as such, Conrad does not exist. We read the text as a piece of writing and interpret it based on the evidences from the text without juxtaposing it with external realities. Thus, Roland Barthe’s “The Death of the Author” could be seen as a cover for Conrad to hide. However, we must debunk such positions and readings of the text by asserting that, “No writer writes in a vacuum,” and there can be no writing without the writer. Likewise in the law of causality, there must be a cause before an effect. Above all, there can never be “made” without a maker. So a writer is an integral aspect of the creative process and “writing” itself. Therefore, discussing a text, from the purview we have established, the writer can be seen as creating a world, making and giving his characters life so as to achieve certain cultural, social, philosophical or political functions or set goals. This thus brings us to the question of authorial intrusion.

Who is the author of Heart of Darkness? Indubitably, Joseph Conrad and not Marlowe. Marlowe is a tool in the cultural arsenal of the author and thus, he proselytizes the worldview of the author. Because, the truth must be told, Congo is in Africa, but where is Marlowe? If the story was set in Poland, or England of the days of Beowulf, no African postcolonialist would raise an eyebrow but setting the fictive story in Africa, describing Africans in a degrading and denigrating fashion and above all, distorting the landscape of Africa in such a manner that is appaling, nauseating and convulsing, it therefore means that, Achebe is right when he sees the whole story as Conrad’s portrayal of Africa and Africans and not the story of Marlowe. Achebe goes for the jugulars of the author and not the character’s because to a large extent, the characters were created by a creator to serve certain cultural purposes: To authenticate the vague notion that Africans are non-humans and Africa a pathetic wasteland inhabited by demons and dogs spilled from the heart of darkness.

This review thus synthesizes the two contradictory positions, that of Conrad explicitly projected in his Heart of darkness with the thesis that Africans are savages, subhumans, humanoids, barbaric and uncouth; and Africa is portrayed as dirty, diseased and a wasteland that breeds to the surface, from the heart of darkness dregs of beings that haven’t attained the status of “human beings.” This view of culture and history can be termed “Eurocentricism.”

Achebe on the other hand counters the racial thesis by his antithetical novels, Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and his critique of Conrad, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” In this works, he tries to counter the racial theses by projecting Africa and Africans from the eyes of an Africa. His society was well structured and in fact, it wasn’t from the white man that Africa heard what culture is. This view can be called “Afrocentricism.” Above all, Achebe helped in the inauguration of postcolonial discourse at higher intellectual realm with his staunch criticism of Western hegemony over the dialectic of race.

Conrad is a racist in his attitude towards the subaltern race he described in his novel. Whatever be the response of the Victorian world is not our concern. If by interfacing with Africa Kurtz was demonized, Conrad is also demonized for his projection of Africa in such derogatory manner. Whatever argument pro-Conrad thinkers put up in defense of his text as not being racist have no ground to stand agianst the overwhelming evidences gleaned from the text which supported the arguments of Achebe and his postcolonial acolytes.

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