Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

There were two questions that struck me particularly hard during today’s seminar:

  1. Should be be reading Heart of Darkness in Arts One at all, given its criticisms?
  2. Why are we blaming Conrad, who wrote in 1899, for not being more mindful of the social wrongs?
  3. The n-word is used in a surprisingly numerous amount of texts – did seeing the n-word strike you in any way?

After thinking more about it, I came up with these responses:

  1. I think that the fear in getting people to read any piece of work that could potentially be controversial is that we might be influenced negatively by what we take in, or that the reading is taught so that it is praised rather than objectively addressed. But I don’t think that there is harm in reading controversial things so long as there is a conscious effort to try and see the bigger picture and how it fits into the context of our education. This may be confusing, so I’ll give an example: Mein Kampf was Hitler’s manifesto in which he outlines his political ideologies and impending plans for Germany’s future. While I don’t agree with or support the Nazi regime whatsoever, I believe that people will inevitably read it regardless of the controversy behind it to further their understanding of world history and politics in and around that time period. I think that there is a value in submerging yourself in worlds unlike our own through literature and art because it gives us perspective, and it also helps us strengthen our own personal values. However, I think that anybody that reads Mein Kampf in the twenty-first century and DOESN’T feel a loathing hatred towards near-totalitarianism is using the text in a retrogressive way and needs to be dunked into a tank of ice water.
  2. At first I, too, blamed Conrad for his  attitudes towards the social wrongs presented in the novella. I wondered why someone of such literary regard had the capability to become well known with his mindset. But then I realized that perhaps it is wrong to apply the social context of today to the early twentieth-century. Conrad wrote about things he felt were necessary to talk about, and in truth, he was not born in the twentieth-century anyway. His personal ideologies would have been influenced by his society during his time, and I do think that his intentions weren’t malicious in writing this story. I now believe that it’s isn’t totally fair to blame Conrad; however, that doesn’t mean we let the various messages of the story slip away.
  3. I feel that the n-word belongs to black people as they changed it from an insult to using the word as a form of liberation – taking the word and using it to demolish the slander used to fuel that word. I was shocked and rather offended whenever I see the n-word being used by people who are not black. I also hadn’t realized that it was used in so many texts – some of which I read in high school and completely didn’t pay attention to the fact that the n-word was used! It especially surprised me to hear that John Lennon wrote a song called “Woman is the N****r of the World”, which I think is extremely racist. Personally, it just further proves to me why our feminist attempts must be intersectional and conscious of the multiple sub-categories that women fall under, not just white, working class, able women. I digress. Back on track – however, as discussed in my last point, Conrad was exposed to that ideology and probably saw it as “just a word to describe dark skinned people”.

One comment

  1. Very good points here; I agree with all of them, personally. I don’t know how the n-word was used in Conrad’s day, or how he is using it in the text, but you may be right in your last line, above. He certainly doesn’t portray Marlow as being that sympathetic to or understanding of the Africans he meets. He kind of is, but some of his comments about their plight seem like only half-hearted acceptance of their humanity. I want to talk about this in seminar on Friday; it’s a disturbing aspect of the text for me. In some ways Marlow is really critical of the Europeans and what they’re doing, but then he doesn’t treat or speak about the Africans as if they are fully human. Maybe we can’t blame Conrad in this in all fairness, given his time and place, but we can certainly criticize it as something one shouldn’t do. Which is, I think, what you mean in #2, above. I disagree with Achebe in that I don’t think we should strike Conrad completely from university reading lists; rather, it can provide a good lesson in how racism can be both overt and more subtle. Even when Marlow is not directly saying racist things, he does make comments that do denigrate and dehumanize the Africans. It’s important to see how that happens. And just reading a text does not mean that one is necessarily going to absorb the views within it that should be criticized, especially when one is in a group of people who are critically reading and discussing (where those things can come out)–which is pretty much always the case in Arts One seminars! And if ever I or anyone else fails to bring out aspects of a text that should be criticized, please do speak up!

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