Wednesday, October 17, 2012

We Are Marlow: Joseph Conrad's Modern Relevance

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part One
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

We can wrap up the entire scope of current scholarly controversy surrounding Joseph Conrad’s most-read book with a single quote, about one-fifth of the way through. Describing a landscape seemingly fecund but devoid of a population, Conrad’s vicarious narrator, Marlow, notes:

Well if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon.
Conrad concisely summarizes that he can easily understand why the African landscape through which Marlow travels has been rendered bleak in the face of European colonial powers. The locals are not lazy, shiftless, or any other label slapped on them; they just want no part in somebody else’s imperial ambitions. On that level he seems downright sympathetic to the natives, a rarity in the waning days of empire.

But notice the word he uses to describe the natives. Perhaps no other word in English so completely summarizes the history of racial violence, reflexive dehumanization of strangers, and the use of labels to keep The Other under the thumb of power. It seems that Conrad (or Marlow at any rate) knows the problem, and just doesn’t care.

This split in the narrator’s psyche drives not just the deeply conflicted critical response, but the downright psychotic nature of the narrative itself. Marlow is a part of the very system he so vocally deplores, and not only cannot reconcile the gulf, he seemingly will not. He admits the white colonists, painted as devolved creatures one and all, have demeaned the Africans; then, in the next breath, he characterizes the Africans as amoral mud-dwelling beasts.

If your high school Brit Lit class resembled mine at all, you heard the threadbare myth that we study British classics because they somehow transcend time and place, speaking to all people everywhere equally. Nobody makes such claims about American or French literature. And many colleges don’t even offer courses in the literature of Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Do these other cultures lack some quality which permeates Britain?

Of course not. We consider a work “classic” not because it speaks to everybody, but because it speaks to us. And Heart of Darkness, the story of a man who cannot reconcile his high ideals with his base desires, speaks to us because the very same conditions that inspired Conrad in 1899, if you change a few proper nouns, still exist for us in 2012.

At the time Conrad wrote, European powers wanted colonies because they conferred wealth and influence. Central Africa made a tempting target for colonists as a source of highly valued ivory. Today, the conquest of land has fallen on political disfavor, and the ivory trade has been curtailed. But American and European corporations feud and, according to the UN, arm militias in the very area Marlow traversed, fighting for immeasurable mineral wealth.

If you own a cell phone, computer, HD television, late-model car, clothing, or refrigerator, you own a product produced, at least in part, on the back of exploited peoples. The Western world’s cheap consumer goods are made possible because brown foreigners are kept in poverty, willing to do difficult and dangerous work at appalling wages. Yet I have not sworn off consumer electronics or started making my own clothing. If you’re reading this, neither have you.

We, like Marlow, know our actions have created a gulf between privileged and disadvantaged nations. As youth protested last year in Zuccotti Park, most wore clothing and slept in tents they could afford only because they were manufactured by poor foreigners. We want fair treatment for ourselves that we know, if we’re honest, we aren’t willing to extend to others.

Many critics, Chinua Achebe foremost among them, have tried to expel Conrad from Western Literature’s canon for his racism. And Conrad, like most of his generation, was certainly racist. But trying to bury that attitude because it offends our enlightened modern sensibilities loses sight of Conrad’s true message.

Thus, Heart of Darkness is not a novella of a foreign man visiting a foreign nation a century ago. It’s our story, here, now. We cannot paper over the jagged seam between Marlow’s sympathy and his racism, because we are Marlow. We believe truths which we know, if enacted, would harm our own bottom lines. Each of us, individually, stands ready to sail upriver to our own Heart of Darkness.

On a related topic:
Racism Versus Joseph Conrad's Mythology Gap

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