A critical response to Chinua Ahebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”

An Image of Africa was a proposition by the “father of modern African writing” Chinua Achebe, which stated that the Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness was a gross misrepresentation of Africa, going as far as calling Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist”. The novella fictionalized story based on the personal experiences of Conrad when he travelled through the African lands in the 1890s. Achebe notes a state of mind of the west towards the literature of Africa and the work of Conrad on the region, which is a desire or need “to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.” Here onwards the Achebe picks up a critical lens towards the descriptions of Africa, the mindset towards it and the instillment of both into normalization in the western society.

Achebe particularly forms his basis of critique of Conrad with the pointing out of the need of contrast in the western society, admitting his inadequacy in being able to take on the matter socially or scientifically but rather firms himself as “a novelist responding to one famous book of European fiction…which better than any other work…displays that Western desire”. Noting the need for his essay on the ground that the “Conrad scholar” has numbered Heart of Darkness “among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language”. Achebe mentions this desire is various forms in his essay, starting off with the contrast between Thames and Congo river, he calls Conrad out for being abhorred on the fact of “common ancestry” between the Whites and Blacks with reference to the rivers, as the former’s river “conquered its darkness” however the still primitive latter and their river if were to get in contact with the former then “it would run the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness, and falling victim to an avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings”. He calls out, in effect, the western society itself as the reason for the subject matter of Conrad’s pen, that it was the predisposition of his readers towards Africa, which made no resistance certain against his writings as he took the “role of purveyor of comforting myths”. Achebe confronts the possible contentions to his essay, writing that he realized that it could be claimed (against his points) that the story that Conrad was writing was merely fiction and more so the mind of the main character Marlow instead of Conrad and so, perhaps, the author was trying to portray the skewed mindset of the colonizers in African lands. Achebe in turns responds by describing the relationship between Marlow the fictionalized character and its author Conrad as the stance of the former having the “complete confidence” of the latter arguing that “he neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad’s power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary”. Achebe is clear on the fact of having an alternative frame of reference by which the judgement of actions of a character could be done, thence detaching it from the author building the fiction. To further his points Achebe takes the reference of Conrad’s life itself, his perception of the Black people, which was that he “certainly…had a problem with niggers”. Taking Conrad’s description of the encounter with a white man in contrast with his encounter with a black man, Achebe notes how the two descriptions vastly differ in the semantics of it: the contrast of ‘triumphant eyes’ and ‘marble-like condition’ with ‘long black legs’ and ‘waving black arms’ on which Achebe rhetorizes the crudeness of the description, saying that it was such as if one “might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms!” Addressing a few more counters to his essay, including the aspect of fictionalization, moreover the claim of “actuality”. For the former he takes Heart of Darkness as a book of “prejudices” and “insult” in which “a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question” essentially detaching from the literature as a mere showcase notion, but rather subscribing to literature in a more political, fundamental fashion of reality in a story which could very well be sitting in the laps of ideologues. For the latter, the contention from “actuality”, he states, “…as a sensible man I will not accept just any traveler’s tales solely on the grounds that I have not made the journey myself”, citing the words of Conrad’s biographer he adds to his response, “[Conrad was] notoriously inaccurate in the rendering of his own history”. 

Achebe is incredibly firm in his stand against Conrad as writers of the same manner for the reasons mentioned above, however therein lies a certain contradiction of sorts in relation to Achebe’s own fiction writings like Things Fall Apart which is supposedly written “in response to European novels that depicted Africans as savages who needed to be enlightened by the Europeans.” Even though the publishing of Things Fall Apart was prior to his essay response to Conrad, that wouldn’t absolve Achebe from his findings, critique, emotions and stand against the Occident’s matter of the Orient. His essay in many ways stands as a building block for the later coming of Orientalism by Edward Said, or at least reaffirms it. In the novel Achebe’s world of the Igbo community lies parallel in many ways to the target of his own critique. He creates a world where although a proper language is formulated, which acquits it from that criticism, but nonetheless remaining are highly valued superstitions, barbaric treatment of women, custom of untouchables, unrestricted polygamy and else. No doubt cannibalism isn’t portrayed, which Conrad was given burnt for, and the language is well developed and proper, but the rest in one way or the other is reaffirming of the ‘White man’s burden’ with normativity that in no way compatible with the standards Achebe holds himself. In his essay’s original conclusion, by his own words, an effort to have the Western cultures look at the Africans’ as “…just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society.” Although he later on rejects the idea of “offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa” the image he creates in his own novel, from the same sentiment of writing – as a response to the Orientalist writings of the West – is one that is in no way validating of the “strikingly successful…enterprise with life and society” but rather more of a showcase of their own weakness towards to the colonizer’s normativity. 

No doubt lingers about Achebe’s intent with his own writings to act as an affirmation to the ideals of his criticism of the writings such as of Conrad’s, however his own fictionalized world like Things Fall Apart fall short of “creating” that successful enterprise, rather cracks in Igbo’s own system are shown, faults in their own ethics and customs of killing the innocent are put bare naked in front of its readers. Achebe, as a relatively privileged African writer, known to be aware of his tradition makes a confusing attempt to revivify Africa, even though not to gain validation from the West, nonetheless suffers from its own weakness towards their standard. This trait of his essay is, in more ways than one, incompatible with his apparent “response”, in actuality his criticism is the very thing that he makes his own writings a victim of. No standard framework of ethics is put to display, the “burden” for the white man towards the Orient is muddled in his response with the bare “injustice” of the black man in his own community, by Achebe’s own (although unclear) standards. An Image of Africa is an important piece in understanding the relation of the western literary tradition with the Orient (in this case Africa), however the points of his criticism and not fully taken care of by his own writings, no clear and standard framework of interpretation of a “successful enterprise” is made a case for, thence leaving the matter again in the hands of those that are the very ones under his radar of assessment.

References

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Penguin Classics, 2006.

Kenalemang, Lame. Things Fall Apart: An Analysis of Pre and Post-Colonial Igbo Society. Karlstads Univerity. 2013.

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