University of Botswana
Until Achebe's essay, critics generally seemed to collude, perhaps unwittingly, in preventing African voices from emerging in their reading of Heart of Darkness . Some critics do not see Heart of Darkness as a novel about Africa at all. To them Africa is merely the incidental setting in which Conrad depicts the Western ego as it disintegrates from isolation and loneliness. From the perspective of such critics Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is simply an embodiment of the weak idealism that is incapable of sustaining the ideals of European imperialism in the face of "the horror of tropical forests and loneliness among savages" (Russell 87). The image of Africa presented in the novella thus evokes, not a real place, but a phantasmagoria of an unexplored territory that serves as an apt metaphor of the unexplored innermost regions of the European soul. Others have argued that the novel specifically attacks Belgian atrocities in the Congo, or that it is a moral tract written in the context of the on-going debates on imperialism's so-called civilizing mission. The novel is praised for exposing imperialism as a mere pretexts for the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration (Zins 115). Such views, of course, reflect non-European evaluations of the novel, which explains why there is such scant regard for the African characters in the novel. Africans are seen merely as objects of this debate and not subjects.
Even when the presence of the Africans is conceded, misreading of the novel nevertheless denies them any real voice or agency. It is hard to imagine, for example, in what sense Heart of Darkness could be seen as "a symbolic picture of inborn antagonisms of two races, the white and the black" (The Bookman , qtd in Haugh 239). This is an incomprehensible judgement considering that nowhere in the book do blacks pose an obvious threat to whites. All the threats that the Africans pose to Europeans in the novella are products of the white man's imagination, invented to justify his own aggression. The image of Africa that is figured in such a reading of the novel buttresses the fiction that violence against natives in the colonies is justified defense of civilized values. Equally difficult to see as rising from an accurate reading of the novel is Edward Garnett's view that Heart of Darkness is about the white "man's system seen from the black man's comprehension"(qtd in Haugh 239). Marlow, nowhere even pretends to speak for Africans and of course the Africans themselves do not speak in the novel. It is no clear, therefore, how the black man's comprehension is articulated in the novel.
Heart of Darkness , therefore, enacts a trial in which the white man qua Kurtz is the criminal, the prosecutor, and the judge. Indeed what constitutes Kurtz's triumph in Marlow's eyes is precisely his having retained the ability to carry out these three roles simultaneously. "He had judged. The horror! He was a remarkable man."(69). Africans are not called in even as witnesses, let alone as judges. The image of Africa Conrad deploys to provide a backdrop to the drama of Kurtz's moral dissolution and ultimate redemption is not Conrad's own invention, of course. As Achebe points out, "it was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination" (Achebe 261). Its function, he argues, seems to be to allay the West's anxieties about its own civilization by providing it with a foil against which its own superior virtues can be made manifest. Thus Achebe: "Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Grey - a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate (Achebe 261). As I have hinted above and as I shall try to show in due course, there is also an apocalyptic function in Conrad's image of Africa). Needless to say, it is an image of Africa that could not bear much resemblance to what the Africans themselves think, since they could hardly be expected to have participated in the construction of an image of themselves that dehumanized and depersonalized them.
African critics too were to some extent implicated in sustaining the code of silence that seems to have protected Heart of Darkness from charges of racism for over three quarters of a century until Achebe finally drew attention to the King's absent clothes. In general, they accepted too readily European assurances that Heart of Darkness was, in the words of one critic, "exceptional in its condemnation of colonialism and in its humane attitude towards the African victims of imperialism." (Zins 145). They were prepared to accept Conrad in much the same way as they accepted other white liberal philanthropists, like Albert Schweitzer, about whom the Sierra Leonean, Davidson Nicol, wrote in 1964:
Even as radical a writer as he is Ngugi is prepared to overlook the racism in Heart of Darkness for the sake of the anti-imperialist sentiment with which the novel disturbs the conscience of the Western world. The novel's moral indignation, Ngugi explains, rises to the level of a severe critique of the colonialism and even of the racism that underlay all its historical variations from ancient times to the present. And for the sake of this moral indignation Ngugi is prepared to put up with Heart of Darkness despite his own admission that "the narrative itself was rooted in the assumption of the inherent savagery of Africa and the Africans that even the best minds and hearts of Europe were in danger of being contaminated." (Ngugi 13).
Achebe's strictures against the racist conduct of narrative in Heart of Darkness , first published in a 1974 lecture at the University of Massachusetts, went against the grain of entrenched critical positions on Conrad even among Africans and people one would have expected to be sympathetic to it. Conrad, Achebe pointedly declared, was a thoroughgoing racist, and this detracted from his novella's literary merit. The question, he argues, "is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it can not" (Achebe 257). It is therefore little surprising that Achebe's remarks drew some of his severest detractors from critics one would have expected to have African sympathies. Henryk Zins, a pole who taught for many years in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Botswana, defends Conrad against Achebe thus:
Zins further accuses Achebe of committing the sin of anachronism by demanding from Conrad our contemporary knowledge and experience (Zins, 122). Zins is himself guilty of a selective reading of both Conrad and Achebe, because he does not refute any of the specific charges that Achebe levels against Conrad. To argue that Conrad's racist imagery should be overlooked because Conrad merely used attitudes and images which were conventional in his day and does not reflect his own antipathy towards Africans is not to refute the charge of recycling racist stereotypes that Achebe lays against Conrad.
Similarly Charles Sarvan and Wilson Harris patronizingly assume that Achebe failed to grasp Conrad's real intention in Heart of Darkness . Sarvan, the less severe of the two detractors, thinks that Achebe is rather rash in identifying Conrad with Marlow, his narrator. Particularly pernicious is Harris Wilson's conclusion that precisely because he is an African, Achebe may have had difficulties appreciating the sophistication of Conrad's vision, which requires that Kurtz be seen as a symbolic expression of the danger of idealism being used to cover up and legitimate tyranny. The point that Achebe makes in his lecture and which his detractors do not seem to appreciate sufficiently, of course, is that Conrad does make all these humanitarian and liberal claims. His point is that in doing so Conrad relies on stereotypes that dehumanize and insult Africans. The problem then becomes how to endorse the liberal ideals in his work without reinforcing at the same time the prejudices that its stereotypes recycle. It is my contention in this paper that the two cannot be separated and that to endorse the book on grounds of its humanitarian pretensions is at the same time to recycle stereotypes that reinforce racist reinventions of Africa.
The young journalists on their first tour of duty to Africa, be it in Somalia, Liberia, South Africa or the Democratic Republic of Congo still look at Africa, not only as the Dark Continent, but continue the practice of seeing Africans as Conrad's Marlow sees them - " they howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces and are not quite human" (37). It would not be surprising at all if at his or her first assignment to Africa each intrepid reporter and diplomats to various parts of Africa were given a copy of Heart of Darkness as part of their orientation for the tasks ahead of them. Although the novella is still widely read as a critique of imperialist barbarism evident even in-today's expansion of finance capital in search of global markets, it is on account of its image of Africa that it stakes its claim to more or less permanent tenure in the Western literary canon. It seems as if the more the West changes the more its view of Africa remains the same. It is largely Conrad's image of Africa that we encounter forming the backdrop to news dispatches, television footage, films and even in new novels about Africa. It is an image of a continent peopled by archetypal figures: howling savages, faithful servants, sinister half-breeds, white hunters and gallant colonial officials or their modern counterparts such as aid-workers, animal documentary film makers etc.
To argue, as I have done above, that Heart of Darkness peddles an image of Africa that is dominant in European thinking about Africa is not, of course, to suggest that his is the only image of Africa operative in Europe. It is not either to suggest that all Europeans necessarily share this view of the continent. On the contrary, it seems to be a view of the continent that some contemporary Europeans, consciously at any rate (for what happens at the subconscious level may be another matter altogether), perceive as "a fantasy of a continent and a people that never were and could never be" (Hammond and Jablow 14), from which they are anxious to dissociate themselves. However as Hammond and Jablow have pointed out, Conrad like Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan) and Sir Rider Haggard (author of King Solomon's Mines ) is part of a literary tradition which is still very powerful to-day and continues to recycle the same fantasy about Africa.
Reference has been made above to the fact that there are some readers, among Africans, that are prepared to tolerate Conrad's racist imagery as a small price to pay for the moral blows he strikes on behalf of anti-imperialism and humanitarianism. A variation on this argument is one that takes this racist imagery simply as rhetorical devices, a mere manner or style of writing about Africa. The view adopted in this paper is that through persistent reiteration these rhetorical devices have become the substance of thinking and talking about Africa and that they severely compromise the merit of the works in which they are used.
It is a tradition, one might add, in which although the number of bad writers, like Edgar Rice Burrouhgs, exceeds the number of so-called good writers, like Conrad, one can well understand an African like Achebe rejecting such a distinction because the better writers only handle the dehumanizing and depersonalizing images with greater skill and subtlety. All conform to the same tradition.
The question of what function a negative image of Africa performs in the European imagination has been answered in a variety of ways. Hammond and Jablow, talking about British imaginations of Africa specifically, put it to ethnocentrism:
They define ethnocentrism as a way of thinking in which all perception is made through the lenses of ones own system of values and beliefs. Since an ethnocentric point of view admits only ones own way of thinking as valid, cultures that differ from ones own are perceived as negations of that single set of values. It produces myths of aliens that often seem to be antagonistic, even if hostility was not intended.
While it seems reasonable to posit ethnocentrism as the instinct behind the human habit of negatively stereotyping groups other than one's own, the explanation seems too general to account for the specific ways in which Africa is stereotyped in Conrad and in the tradition that he represents. In other words, it is necessary to understand why ethnocentrism stereotypes different groups of people, not uniformly, but differently. What we need to account for is why certain attributes and not others are projected onto one group of aliens and not another.
Chinua Achebe, in a view I have alluded to earlier on in the paper, thinks that Europe needs a negative image of Africa to set up as foil against which its own civilized virtues can be made manifest. From his perspective Europe is the African's burden because Europe off-loads all its imperfections on Africa. Ngugi thinks that an image of a primitive and savage Africa is vital to European self-imagination as a place of inevitable physical and moral corruption that must be avoided by all means. In short, for Ngugi, the image of Africa in Conrad serves the function of frightening Europeans into pretending that Africa does not exist except as a dangerous no go area. To accept its reality or even to think about it is to bring upon oneself all manner of physical and moral contamination. Ngugi and Achebe surely suggest that the projection of negative qualities on Africa that we see exemplified in Heart of Darkness is not random, but reflect a deep-seated need among Europeans. To Achebe and Ngugi it is an image of Africa the West clings to tenaciously, for the simple reason that to-day, as in Conrad's day, the Western world today still needs a place to set up as its antithesis - to be both proof of its own advancement and a warning against the dangers of excursions into cultures beyond ones own. Even if Africa did not exist it would have to be invented. The fragile idealism, such as that embodied by Kurtz's Intended, is desperate for just such an image of Africa to serve both as a foil against which the virtues upon which it is based will glow brightly, and as a bogey to prevent any one putting these virtues to the test by going to places where they may be challenged.
Conrad's image of Africa has a further function in the Western imagination in addition to the two that Achebe and Ngugi suggest. It is usual in Conrad criticism to encounter tributes to his philanthropy (justice and human rights for the victims of colonial subjugation and commercial exploitation). When Marlow sees the pathetically suffering Africans at the trading station on the Congo, he is outraged. It is therefore possible to argue that Conrad's image of Africa is intended to appeal to humanitarian idealism in Europe which sets up an image of Africa as an object of its civilizing mission. However, it is important to note also that what is uppermost in Marlow's mind when he encounters the misery of the Africans along the Congo is not what he can do to help them, but how their suffering, like the pointless tasks, the broken pieces of equipment and other parodies of progress that he sees are products of inefficiency. Marlow's concern, really is not with the humanitarian aspect of African suffering, but the fact that it is evidence of the inefficiency as one of the qualities that detracts from the whitemen's fitness to carry out the civilizing mission. The Africans are simply neglected bits of equipment like the scrap iron and other items originally imported for the great work on progress in Africa. If Heart of Darkness is a moral tract on colonialism, what is certain is that Conrad does not urge his countrymen to abandon it. Rather he urges them towards higher standards of moral virtue, namely efficiency and restraint, which alone make them fit emissaries of the light. In other words Africa serves as a setting upon which to demonstrate an apocalyptic warning against the danger Europe faces of losing its empires if its agents do not uphold the virtues upon which empire building depends. Humanitarianism and justice for the Africans are not among those virtues.
J. Hillis Miller reads Heart of Darkness and its image of Africa in almost the same apocalyptic terms suggested above (Miller, 209-221) Heart of Darkness is perhaps explicitly apocalyptic, he suggests, in announcing the imminent end of Western civilization or of Western imperialism, and the possibility of the reversal of idealism into savagery. In order to appreciate J. Hillis Millers point we have to remember that then colonialism and imperialism were not instantly objectionable phenomena that they are to-day. They were then seen as the taking of the benefits of progress to backward parts of the world. The enterprise itself was seen as noble, what endangered Western civilization were the "unsound methods" with which it was carried out. It is these methods which threatened a break up of Western civilization, anxieties about which are evident in T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (1925) W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" (1919) and which the outbreak of WW1 seemed to validate. My divergence with Miller consists in the fact that he sees Heart of Darkness as suggesting that Africa is both a symbol of, and the source of the darkness that threatens to engulf Europe. He subscribes to the idea that Heart of darkness expresses the fear that European civilization is vulnerable to corruption if it admits the validity of the validity of the values of other cultures. My own view is that read from a postcolonial perspective it is also possible to see a subliminal reversal of these terms so that Europe itself is the muddy "heart of darkness", of which Kurtz is only a splutter that lands in Africa. Like E. M. Forster's A Passage to India , Conrad's Heart of Darkness thus comes to expresses an unacknowledged early stirring among Europeans of the suspicion that the civilization that they were ramming down other people's throats, and in the interest of which they were razing other people's civilizations, may have been fundamentally flawed.
Two moments in Heart of Darkness can be re-read from a postcolonial perspective to show how they point to the hollowness or the fundamental flaws in Western civilization upon which Conrad's apocalyptic anxieties about it are based. The first moment occurs towards the end of Marlow's mission in Africa, when having found Kurtz and having thwarted his subsequent attempt to escape to rejoin his African lover; Marlow becomes the sole witness to his dying moment. Marlow hears Kurtz cry out twice in "a cry that was no more than a breath":
Kurtz is an enigma. We are at first liable to judge him in terms of the extent to which he seemed to have used violence, deceit and other despicable methods, instead of legitimate trade to acquire the ivory that makes him the outstanding agent he is. In this he betrayed the ideals of the civilizing mission with which he set out from Europe. However, Marlow convinces us that in this, Kurtz is no different from the other white men, who only lacked the courage to do the same. So the flaw in Western civilization is not greed per se. The flaw seems to be the lack of "restraint", not in the face of loot, but in the face of the seduction of cultures other than one's own.
It is not necessary, therefore, to go into speculations about what exactly Kurtz had done that made him the degraded monster that he is made out to be in the novel. Suffice it to stress that Marlow's chronicle of charges against Kurtz is based in hearsay and malicious gossip of envious competitors. Marlow, a green horn, is in no position to assess these charges critically. His depiction of Kurtz and the revulsion he feels at what he concludes are evidence of Kurtz's depravity are no more than a knee-jerk reaction, which ethnocentric people exhibit when one of their member embraces an alien culture or even dares to respect it. The vilification of Mr. Fielding in A Passage to India is a case in point too. To a postcolonial reader it seems possible to argue that even though Conrad through Marlow does not permit himself the thought, Kurtz's fall from grace may well suggest that ethnocentrism is the fatal flaw against which Europe must guard.
The second apocalyptic moment in Heart of Darkness is in the novella's final scene. A year after his return to Europe Marlow finally summons the strength and courage to visit Kurtz's Intended She seems to be the only reason why Marlow did not die with Kurtz. Kurtz had entrusted him with some letters to deliver to her, "for the furthering of my ideas"(69) he had said. From the way Kurtz had talked about her, Marlow found cause to believe that she would restore the "belief in mankind," which had withered in him under Kurtz's "magnificent eloquence"(66). He finds the woman still mourning after a year and "she seemed as though she would remember and mourn forever"(73). Although touched by this fidelity to her departed lover, Marlow is troubled by a tinge of sham and sentimentality in it.
She certainly comes across as a latter day Viola in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night who:
The intended, we are told, "carried her sorrowful head as if she was proud of that sorrow" (75).
Although she believes that she alone knew how mourn Kurtz "as he deserves" (75) Marlow has seen through her weak and sentimental idealism and come to the conclusion that hers was, in fact, a travesty of the kind of remembrance Kurtz deserved. Marlow arrives at this conclusion almost as soon as he sees the Intended in her drawing room. Overhung with an ossifying pall of a well-preserved grief, her lofty drawing room is uncannily reminiscent of Mrs Havisham's "pretty large dressing room"(Dickens 85), which was encrusted with the fossilized sadness of a broken romance long in the past. The affinity between Dicken's scene and Conrad's are so striking that it would not be at all surprising if Conrad had intended to fill Marlow with the same dread and revulsion towards the Intended that Pip feels towards Mrs Havisham. To match Dickens's "waxwork and skeleton that seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me" (Dickens 87) that Havisham appears to be to Pip, Marlow describes the Intended thus:
The pall of death that seems to emanate from both women is due to the fact that everything in their respective rooms had stopped, like the watch in Mrs Havisham's dressing room, in the interest of remaining faithful to the memory of a pain or grief which alone seemed to give their lives meaning. It is no surprise at all that like Pip who lies in order to preserve Mrs Havisham's sentimental image of herself as a "woman who has never seen the sun since you were born" (Dickens 88), Marlow lies to Kurtz's Intended in order to preserve her sentimental idealism, and tells her that her name was the last word he spoke just before he died. The Intended had only been at it for a year, but she is surely a latter day Mrs Havisham determined to "remember and mourn for ever"(73).
The lie that Marlow utters in lieu of the justice that he had set out to do Kurtz in the encounter with his Intended is Marlow's own version of the view that he alone knew how to mourn Kurtz as he deserves" (75). It would appear Marlow had expected, or at any rate hoped, to find in the Intended one other human being who, like himself, could peer into the impenetrable darkness, into the horror that was Kurtz, and understand that "The Horror!" he repeats with his dying breath made him triumphant against the degradation to which he had succumbed. Instead he finds in her an embodiment of a weak idealism that could not withstand any view of Kurtz that even slightly deviated from its own. If Heart of Darkness is an apocalyptic novel, it is surely, at least in part, because it warns against the naïve, sentimental devotion to a weak idealism, embodied in the Intended's fossilized image of an uncorrupted Kurtz. Such naive idealism, Conrad seems to warn, is responsible for lack of the restraint, the greed and the inefficiently which compromise Europe's fitness to lead a civilizing mission, as is the stupid complacence of the rest of the inhabitants of the "sepulchral city."
Like Pip in Great Expectations , who finds the pall of death exuded by Mrs Havisham's frozen world sickening, Marlow is revolted by the similar effect that Kurtz's Intended has on him.
And when in the course of the interview Marlow explains that with each word she spoke, the world was growing darker, Conrad leaves us in no doubt that the "Heart of Darkness" is not really in Africa; that it does not consist so much of the evil practices of the white colonizers in Africa, but of the stupid and naïve idealism which flourishes in Europe, blissfully unaware of its responsibility for what happens in Africa in its name. In this sense the darkness is in Europe and its heart is the Intended. Note how her forehead, which is the centre of the deepening darkness of her room, is smooth and white, the colour of Kurtz's skull, and also the colour of ivory which sparks the expanding gloom of an inverted civilizing mission.
The apocalyptic epiphanies that Conrad discloses in the two encounters that Marlow has first with the dying Kurtz and later with his Intended depend on precisely the image of Africa that Conrad recycles in Heart of Darkness . In the first case, Kurtz's "hollowness" or lack of restraint would have been impossible to enact convincingly without the myth of a mysterious land, among whose simple inhabitants Kurtz is taken for a God, and is therefore free to exercise restraint and choose to be a mere mortal or opt to throw restraint to the wind and choose to be a god. The horror is that he chooses the latter. In the second case, the lustre of the Intendend's idealism, which seems to impress Marlow so immensely when he first arrives at her home that it seems to survive the pall of death hanging over the "sepulchard city" depends on the existence of African depravity at its antithesis. African primitivity becomes an indispensable foil to this idealism, which needs Africa, both, as an object of its civilizing mission as well as a testing ground for its resilience.
Frances Coppola's 1986 film Apocalypse Now recycles the same apocalyptic anxieties and the same images of Africa for 1980's Western audiences. I do not believe there are many African or Vietnamese viewers who would speak as glowingly of the film as do J. Hillis Miller, E.N. Dorral or Mike Wilmington to name but three among the Western critics who think highly of the film. Like Conrad's Heart of Darkness upon which it is based, Apocalypse Now recycles comforting images Africa which suggest that despite their exploitation and victimisation Africans/Vietnamese are too simple-minded and backward to pose any real threat of a fight back. against Europeans who kill them as indiscriminately as do Conrad's Pilgrims. The helmsman in Coppola's film is an African American, but the film makes him the same sort of "reclaimed specimen" that Conrad's helmsman was in the Congo all those decades ago. The sight of natives shrieking in terror and melting into the jungle because of the blast of a steamboat's whistle is rather hard to take in 1986. Similarly, the shower of arrows raining on Captain Willard's steamboat, unlikely even in Conrad' time, is plainly ridiculous, for 1986, especially after the napalm, the helicopter raids and the bazookas of the opening parts of the film. Of course as in Conrad's novel the natives do not speak in Apocalypse Now . No more than the river and the jungle, they are merely part of the perennially mute, chaotic, brooding immensity that the West, for the sake of its own sanity, must not disturb. The fiction of the African's silence in Coppolla's film is the equivalent of the lie that Pip tells Mrs Havisham, and with which Marlow lays Kurtz's ghost to rest before his Intended.
In Conrad's and Coppola's apocalyptic vision of western civilization, the metropole understands itself as determining the periphery in the emanating glow of its civilizing mission. From this point of view of this apocalyptic vision "the Heart of Darkness" does not consist of the backwardness, barbarism and ignorance themselves which the West gives itself the noble mission to banish from the face of the continent, but as I have pointed out earlier on this paper, of the stupid complacency and weak idealism in Europe which lead to the betrayal of the mission.
The vision is dependent upon a peculiar form of blindness to what Africa really is; and a deafness to what Africa is saying. Conrad and Coppola are blind to the ways in which Africa and the Africans continually interrogate their definition and implementation of the enterprise of progress. As pointed out above, in both works the natives hardly speak. The image of Africa that Europe has worked with during the past hundred years or so is amazingly insulated from what is actually happening in Africa and what the Africans themselves think. It is preserved, much like Mrs Havisham's and The Intended's sentimental griefs, by lies.
It is possible that the need to preserve that image is at the heart of the fact that some Western readers find Chinua Achebe's attack on the novel as racist both shocking and hard to take. When Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness , he did not foresee an African readership. Although he may have written from the best liberal and humanitarian intentions, he was unaware that the stereotypes and conventional attitudes about Africa that he took for granted would one day, be confronted by a readership that would not instantly recognize itself in them. It would probably have shocked Conrad to hear that these images that he took for granted as a natural way of talking about Africa may be "the Heart of Darkness." They are the source of the unexamined idealism upon which the civilizing mission was based and the seeds from which its betrayal among its agents in Africa inevitably grew. Achebe was simply pointing Heart of Darkness towards a long overdue dialogue with people it projects as Europe's "others."
However, a postcolonial interrogation of Heart of Darkness need not be restricted to pointing out the racist stereotypes and assumptions, which underpin its image of Africa. One could also try to recuperate the narratives that Conrad suppresses. I shall conclude this paper by considering the implications of two such narratives. The first is that of Marlow's helmsman.
The helmsman, it will be recalled when still alive arouses only contempt in Marlow. He, like the Captain's insolent "boy" and the boilermaker, is all that Europe has to show for its civilizing work in Africa. "He steered with no end of swagger while you were by", Marlow tells us, "but if he lost sight of you he became instantly prey of an abject funk and would let that cripple of a steam-boat get the upper hand of him in a minute" (.45). When he dies from an arrow shot from some bushes on the riverbank, Marlow blames it on the "poor fools" lack of restraint.
However, throughout Marlow struggles to suppress rumbling intimations of kinship to the blackman. At one point he suggests that Kurtz may not have been worth the life of the helmsman which was the cost of finding him. What is striking, of course, is that Marlow suppresses his human feelings of grief and loss at the helmsman's death. Instead he talks of his anxieties about whether or not he would find Kurtz still alive. It is as if he were determined not to see the dead man. He suppresses an imminent eruption of kindred feelings for the black man under a crust of apparently digressive and unrelated talk about Kurtz. But the strategy fails and he admits:
It is only after the unspoken communication of "the look" from the dead man that Marlow tears his mind away from fears about Kurtz mortality and recognizes the grief that he has so far suppressed at the helmsman's death. He conducts a funeral or rather mourns for the helmsman like he does later for Kurtz because he was the only one who knew how to mourn them both the ways they deserved. The Pilgrims, in a show of sentimental and sham respect for the dead, are shocked that Marlow seems to peremptorily tip him over board.
Earlier on in the episode the helmsman's gaze is described as an inquiring glance :
To Marlow, the helmsman's lack of restraint is simply a marker of the depravity to which Kurtz hand descended. This is why even the expression of his face at the moment of death is almost identical to that on Kurtz's face when he in turn dies.
In Marlow's mind, as well as in the story as a whole, the questioning gaze, the interrogating gaze that the colonial subject casts fades swiftly into "vacant glassiness" (47). In Coppola's film, the helmsman, a ventriloquist's dummy, who articulates the hate that white men imagine blacks must feel for them, tries with his dying breath to kill Captain Willard, but dies before he can be a real danger to a triumphant imperial narrator.
If the helmsman is in some ways Kurtz's counterpart as I suggest above, Kurtz's African lover is Marlow's mirror image. She is his doppelganger. Like Marlow she struggles for the possession of Kurtz. Like Marlow she most certainly has peered into the impenetrable darkness that was Kurtz and understood it. When Marlow talks of Kurtz's Intended being out of it, he really means that the struggle to reclaim Kurtz's soul from his African lover was not for the Intended but for himself.
Throughout the scenes that depict Marlow's capture of Kurtz from his African hosts the African woman is described as a silent gorgeous figure - "a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman" (60). The emphasis is always on her silence and her gaze, which seem to pose questions that neither Marlow nor any of his fellow whites are prepared to acknowledge, let alone try to answer.
When she comes to the steamer in which, to her, her lover is held captive and faces them, Marlow can only allow himself half formed thoughts of the possibility that this may be after all a lover who wants to know why and where her lover is being taken, obviously against his and her own wishes.
What intrudes to overwhelm everything in Marlow's mind is the imaginary danger that she poses. However, as we have seen already, throughout the novel, no African poses any real danger to white people. So the aura of evil and threat that shrouds Kurtz's African Intended is imaginary, invoked in order to enhance the impression of the intrepidity of Marlow's mission.
Examining Heart of Darkness from the point of view of its suppressed narratives such as those of the helmsman and Kurtz's African mistress enables us to see how the novel contributes to the ethnocentrism that pretends that other cultures have nothing to contribute to human development and with which it is not worthwhile engaging in dialogue. From the point of view of such ethnocentrism, civilization means the spread of ones own values to the rest of the world that does not interrogate them. Kurtz's redemptive self-judgment in "The horror! The horror!" suggests that colonizing Europe's motives and actions are not subject to interrogation and judgement from the point of view of the colonized subjects but only from its own. The Captain's overfed boy's announcement "Mistah Kurtz - he dead!"(69) is not so much a judgement passed on Kurtz's adventures in Africa, but a specimen of the spoilt and deformed natives that humanitarianism and kindness towards Africans spawns. In any case, one wishes the boy had kept a diary.
Recuperating the voices of the Africans in Heart of Darkness in the way I suggest in this paper, it means that we can which judge Kurtz from another point of view besides the official Eurocentric one provided by Marlow. We can judge him from the point of view of the people that were his hosts. We certainly do not have to share the horror that his fellow whites feel at his having turned his back on their "civilization." We are also wont to be just a little wary of accepting notions of Kurtz's wickedness based on the accounts of people who were more outraged at the fact that he saw through their pretending, greedy motives than by what he did to or for the natives.
Towards the end of his life, virtual prisoner in Marlow's ship, Kurtz tells Marlow defiantly:
Marlow explains that Kurtz was merely expressing his lusts for which he found gratification among the Africans. However, since what Kurtz actually does for which he is being demonized is never really shown, we must leave open the possibility that Kurtz's crime was no more than "going native." Going native, of course, should be understood here in the sense of abandoning the original ethnocentric ideal of exterminating the Africans as the brutes. It means having arrived at the recognition that the brutes that needed extermination were the white imperialists themselves whose "little peddling notions" see progress as ramming their own cultures down the throats of other people - without talking to them to hear what they think of being "civilized." Kurtz may well need re-interpretation not as the weak idealist who disintegrates in the jungle, but as Europe's vilification of the true idealism that transgresses ethnocentric boundaries and dares to accept the validity of the value systems of other cultures. He challenges imperialism's subjugating of the rest of the world under its own subordinating gaze (Pratt 34). I have earlier referred in passing to Kurtz's African lover as his "African Intended." The point I mean to suggest is that if the Intended is understood, not only as Kurtz's fiancee, but also as his intentions in Africa, then it is possible that Kurtz has reinterpreted his civilizing mission. He no longer sees it as the ramming of Western values down the throats of other people. It is for this attitude that Kurtz is demonized. Marlow's account presents an apocalyptic vision of Europe being corrupted by Africa, which is valid, only because he has ignored the voice s of the Africans whom he meets Africa. Recuperating their voices the way suggested in this paper opens to a reading that renders Heart of Darkness the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe at a crucial moment in the development of both continents.
 All references to Heart of Darkness are from Robert Kimbrough, (Ed.) Heart of Darkness. A Norton Critical Edition. London : WW Norton and Company, 1971.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Ed. Angus Calder. Hammondsworth: Pengiun, 1987.
Haugh, Robert. "'Heart of Darkness' : Problems for the Critics" Joseph Conrad: Discovery in Design. Oklahoma Press. 1957, pp.35-40. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources Criticism.  3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1988, pp.239-242
Hammond, Dorothy and Jablow, Alta. The Myth of Africa. New York: The Library of Social Science, 1977.
Kimbrough, R. Heart of Darkness: An Authoritative Text, Background and Sources Kimbrough/London: W. W. Norton and Co., 1988.
Miller Hillis J. "'Heart of Darkness' Revisited" Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad: A Case Study on Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Ross Murfin. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, pp.209-255
Ngugi Wa Thingó. Writers in Politic: A Re-engagement with Issues in Literature and Society Revised and enlarged ed. Nairobi, Oxford and Portsmouth: James Currey, East African Educational Publishers and Heinemann, 1981.
Nicol, Davidson. Africa - A Subjective View. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1964.
Pratt, M. L. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Russell, Bertrand. Portraits from Memory. New York: n.p., 1963
Zins, Henryk. Joseph Conrad and Africa. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1982.
Dr Peter Mwikisa has written a doctoral thesis on Samuel Beckett's latter prose-fiction for the University of Sussex, U.K. and is now senior Lecturer at the University of Botswana. He teaches and researches on Modern African Literature in English and Twentieth Century English Literature. His latest publications include an essay on Bessie Head's debt to Shakespeare's The Tempest in a special issue of Marang, a journal of the Department of English at the University of Botswana in honour of the writer. A chapter "Research: A Cartographic Model," considering some of the issues in the constrcuction of knowledge from an African perspective in the context of globalizing academia, is included in a forthcoming book on social research in africa by Hodder and Stouhgton.
|Paper presented at the African Studies Association of Australasia & the Pacific 22nd Annual & International Conference (Perth, 1999)|
New African Perspectives: Africa, Australasia, & the Wider World at the end of the twentieth century