in defense of Conrad, the racist and mysoginist? i know, i was surprised too.

after reading and discussing Conrad and HoD for the second time in my academic career, I have resolved that at least at this point in time I am a fan. I do not see Conrad or HoD as fundamentally racist although I think that there are certainly racist elements. I would however attribute such elements as literary devices or historical to the time rather than evidence of any inherent racism on Conrad’s part. this was a somewhat startling revelation for me as I studied HoD and Things Fall Apart last year and I felt very much the opposite. my teacher, who I admired greatly, HATED Conrad and I think that may have contributed to how I read him – it is very easy to hate Conrad. so to be perfectly honest, when I chose my essay topic discussing the racism of Conrad, I hadn’t as of yet formed any conclusion. I initially sought to prove the lack of racism in HoD simply to be the devil’s advocate, as proof of his racism is a much easier argument. however, I ended up convincing myself that, even if there are racially insensitive undertones in HoD the overarching theme and message of it, of the ambiguity of evil and race supersedes them. at what point do we do we allow a work of literature to simply be literature? I could be equally disgusted by Conrad’s treatment of women in the text, i think that there is just as much evidence to support his being a misogynist, as he actually explicitly comments on the role of women, but his opinions on Africans are always a bit more vague. the point is, though, that whether he is a racist or a misogynist, I dismiss these concepts out of deference to the greater message of the text.

i hate it when critics attempt to hold moral absolutism over writers as though they are supposed to be correct on every social and political issue of the day in which we are reading it. so Conrad was guilty of racism and misogyny just like everybody else was at the time. so what? he still wrote one of the greatest literary introspections of the human soul, in which he ultimately concludes that morality is not related to race or gender or stature or anything else. that is something worth celebrating in him.

here’s a quote from the photo blog post, Humans of New York, that says it much better:

“I can’t stand moral absolutism. You know, there’s always that guy who wants to point out that Martin Luther King cheated on his wife— as if he obviously couldn’t have been a great person if he did something like that. Or someone will bring out an inspirational quote, and get you to agree, and then inform you that Hitler said it. As if a good thought couldn’t come from Hitler. Moral absolutism keeps us from learning from the past. It’s easy to say: ‘Hitler was a demon. Nazis were all bad seeds.’ That’s simple. It’s much harder to say: ‘Is that humanity? Is that me?’”

my essay in part deals with the idea that it is not racism that is so offensive to us itself, but that it is offensive to our idea of ourselves as a morally superior society. and as modern readers we are prepared to pounce on any word that may threaten our carefully built perception.

to further illustrate this, here is a section from my essay that I decided to cut out due to length and relevance but I still like:

There is always a price for progress. For the rapid pace and convenience of communication we have sacrificed the charm and value of human intimacy. For the quantity and access of information that we have at our fingertips we have surrendered the sanctity of the truth. And for the price of a socially conscious, politically correct and egalitarian society one must constantly speak with caution, because every word uttered is judged, analyzed and condemned if found offensive to any of our cherished principles. Constant critics, we examine each connotation, allusion and innuendo with a fine-toothed comb, ever on the lookout for something that could be deemed morally dubious, culturally insensitive, or as a modern reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness may suggest, downright racist. Soon, with banners flying, the very values that we originally sought to promote are neglected in our race for moral supremacy.

As this is my last blog post I would like to conclude by first apologizing for the lateness of it. I can only attribute my delay to my excitement upon the writing of the blog post and the length of time that it requires for me to sort our all of my thoughts inspired by lectures and seminars into something coherent. it is a testament to how interesting the course is :).

2 thoughts on “in defense of Conrad, the racist and mysoginist? i know, i was surprised too.

  1. I am happy to hear that through writing an essay, you managed to convince yourself of something that you didn’t think beforehand. Not because I think everyone must come to the conclusion you did about Conrad (though it’s the conclusion I have too), but because I think it’s really interesting to realize how powerful writing can be. Foucault said in some interviews and texts that the reason he studied and wrote was to think differently than he had before–for why else take the time? I find this happening to me quite often too.

    And I agree with your arguments in this blog post; it’s too easy to condemn someone and their work as a whole for some of their problematic views or actions. It’s harder and more interesting to look into what they’re saying and whether it has merit or not despite the mistakes they make around it. I do still see some of Achebe’s point in criticizing how Africans are portrayed in Conrad’s novel and elsewhere, though. If you get enough works that treat a certain group of people just as background to European events and struggles, only as important insofar as they help to make a point about Europeans, then this can give a message over time if that’s mostly what’s out there. People like Achebe and others, though, have done a lot to make sure there are more balanced narratives portraying other people and cultures as important in their own right.

    I do understand that sometimes it takes time to pull one’s thoughts together, especially when we’re dealing with complex texts and issues in a short amount of time (one week per text!). I’m amazed at the great discussions we’re able to have in class nevertheless. If I were just working off the cuff without having prepared for hours in advance of class, I’d be pretty lost as to what to say. I have to pull my thoughts together ahead of time! Your last sentence made me smile… 🙂

  2. And to chime in here… I think (as I suggested in the lecture) that Conrad is indeed fundamentally racist. At the same time, I think that Heart of Darkness is a great book–and indeed I infinitely prefer it to Things Fall Apart. But then, as I also said, I don’t think that Achebe really escapes the orbit of Conrad. His account of the I(g)bo culture is equally problematic.

    If you’re going to criticize Conrad (and I have no problem with that), it’s probably more to the point to argue that he is above all solipsistic. He has extraordinary insight into the anxieties and violence underlying European colonialism. And yet he can’t really see beyond that. But then many non-European writers have much the same problem.

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