Published in 1899, the novella Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is to this date described as an absolutely critical text in expanding the scholarly discourse on colonialism and its inherently related forces of racism, exploitation and ethnocentrism. By its intent, one finds a text that delivers an unflinching portrayal of the clearly abusive, unethical and racially-justified atrocities fueled by both the greed of imperialism and the sense of ethnic superiority shared by European opportunities in the postcolonial landscape of the African continent. The discussion hereafter will deal with these themes as they permeate the text by Joseph Conrad. But the discussion must also consider the reality that the text by Conrad is itself produced by a European writing just as the era of colonial expansion was drawing to a close. Though the author would write the text based on his firsthand observations stationed in the Belgian Congo, the ethnocentrism contained in the author himself cannot be overlooked. The essay here considers that even as the text was produced to yield an objective critique of colonialism, it would not yet be far enough removed from this subject to avoid some of its underlying causes. Therefore, the racism and ethnocentrism that the author seeks to describe are both also ever-present in the author's own words, ideas and portrayals regarding the postcolonial landscape of Africa. The discussion here attempts to reconcile the paradox between the author's intention and his own perspective.
The relationship between Europe and the various cultures that it has subjugated across centuries of occupation remains very much defined even today by the forces of colonialism. As a matter of course, the powers and monarchies of Europe dispatched their armies to the far corners of the undeveloped world, conquering native populations, exporting their commodities for material wealth and forever altering the landscapes of these occupied territories. In doing so, the Europeans imposed their cultural values, practices and interests on native populations with devastating effects for the survival of indigenous cultural structures and values. The era that would follow into the 20th century would bring a decline in colonial occupation but not in its impact. Indeed, what would remain behind and would continue to impact conditions even to present day would be a set of developing cultures in search of stability, leadership and any remnants of their own lost cultural identity. This postcolonial landscape would be especially appealing to European privateers and opportunists. The text by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, would be conceived right on the threshold of this post-colonial era. As such, it is a striking demonstration both of the way that that colonialism impacted the culture and condition in the developing sphere and, perhaps unintentionally, of the way that the Western intelligentsia of which Conrad was a part perceived those who were colonized. (Achebe 1977, p. 252)
The central focus in the discussion hereafter is the divide between the intention of the author and the perspective that is found throughout the text. Namely, Conrad may well be the direct inspiration for Marlow, whose horror at the mistreatment of the natives does not necessarily eclipse the racialist tendencies that are couched within. This means that through Marlow's eyes, Conrad portrays an accidental ethnocentrism that does not undermine his critique of colonialism but certainly calls into question his qualifications for truly understanding the experience of exploitation as felt by the Africans themselves. As the discussion on opportunism in the post-colonial landscape proceeds here, the paradox between the goal of the text and the orientation of the author will come into a greater focus.
Statement of Problem:
The primary problem around which much discussion has revolved is that concerning the post-colonial landscape presented in Joseph Conrad's text. Since its publication in 1899, Conrad's text has generated an important conversation on the way that European colonialism has impacted the developing sphere. The story of Charles Marlow's search for Mr. Kurtz against the deeply dysfunctional postcolonial landscape of the Belgian Congo would be received as an honest and objective portrayal of the after effects of colonialism with all its attendant racial hierarchy and exploitation. And yet, the text's source is a European himself, Polish-born and largely educated in Russia (Nassab, p. 3) Therefore, Conrad's text is not itself insulated from the very ethnocentrism about which the author writes. As a rather objective text on the impact of colonialism, one might argue that Conrad unabashedly describes the postcolonial landscape for those subjected to it and those guilty of its implementation without necessarily rendering a moral opinion. As the discussion here will show, and as the problem persists even into present-day academic debate, a post-colonial dialogue reveals that this amorality may give over to a passive sort of racism. This is especially problematic because the text by Conrad has become a widely embraced subject matter for scholastic and academic discourse, presenting a danger that such discourse is ultimately distorted by an implicitly racially-biased source material. (Achebe 1977, p. 251) This is the problem which has prompted the discussion engaged hereafter.
Representation of Colonialism:
In one sense, Heart of Darkness has been easy to categorize as a work of social-critique. The text brings light to the harsh mistreatment of African natives and the almost nihilistic opportunism of adventure or fortune-seeking Europeans. Even is the text conveys some of the themes of romanticism by conveying the European love for adventure, this adventure is itself characterized as conquest rather than personal enlightenment. A telling instance is one in which Marlow encounters a company man who seems to have no function other than to collect treasures and artifacts from the Third World. The author's description of the artwork on his walls comes to suggest a great deal about the way that European conquerors viewed their hosts. The natives were fascinating creatures whose customs were to be observed and marveled at as if a window to a point in distant history. Conrad, through Marlow, tells that "native mats covered the clay walls; a collection of spears, assagais, shields, knives, was hung up in trophies." (Conrad, p. 21)
The financially motivated and enterprising Europeans who came to inhabit the post-colonial landscape of Africa and who possessed a sense of unyielding superiority and entitlement over the natives, yet gathered up the artifacts of their culture as souvenirs from their conquest. And as the text by Miller (1985) points out, there is a certain recognition that persists throughout the text that it is the African culture which has some degree of permanency, whereas the European occupation is only a temporary phenomenon. As Miller points out, "the 'haze' is there all around on a dark night, but, like the meaning of one of Marlow's tales, it is invisible, inaudible, intangible in itself, like the darkness, or like that 'something great and invincible' Marlow is aware of in the African wilderness, something 'like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing way of this fantastic invasion.'" (Miller, p. 36)
Certainly here, and at countless other points in the text, we gain a clear sense of the sympathy that Marlow feels for the natives. Marlow is the conscience of the text. As he encounters others who extol Kurtz for his power and resourcefulness, he proceeds with a growing sense of doubt over the methods and madness of the object of his search. Through Marlow, Conrad explores his own guilt and disgust over the treatment of the African people. He recognizes their humanity, but as the discussion hereafter will show, he does so almost in spite of himself.
Perhaps the most telling moment of a text -- which involves a great deal of soul-searching by its primary protagonist -- is that in which Marlow begins to realize the shared humanness of the African and European people. However, this revelation is not met with an increased sense of empathy and identification. To the contrary, the words that Conrad selects suggest that Marlow is instead disturbed to see humanity in so unbridled an incarnation. He is stricken with fear that there is a common strand connecting the civilized and mannered Europeans with the wild and unclothed Africans. Marlow observes the following:
"we are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were -- No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it -- this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity -- like yours -- the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise,…