Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

Just bought a copy of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" this morning and read its 110 pages voraciously in the course of the day. This is amazing because I have not read a novel (as opposed to a biography) from cover to cover for several years. Once I had been an avid reader of books in both Polish and English, but lately I have given this up.
The book relates to the darkness of the civilised world when it encounters a differently structured simpler society. Conrad was writing partly from his own experience as a river boat captain in the Congo as he had seen the rotten impact of wealth and power on the bahaviour of white colonialist administrators and traders.
He compares this partly to the rapacious behaviour of Roman conquerors seeking to civilize a savage Britain 2000 years ago and being in turn corrupted by the savagery and relative weakness of the people they conquered and exploited.
At the time Conrad serialized this novel in Blackwood's Magazine in 1897 the imperialist myth of the European civilzations taking up "the white man's burden" in Africa and Asia, was being widely challenged. Conrad with his Polish background (his real name was Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski) was aware of the riveting brutality of Russian and German rule in his beloved country and could see the behaviour of otherwise "civilized" fellow Europeans with a detached, and even a jaundiced, view.
His English narrator Marlow describes the prepostrous behaviour of French colonialists even before he had reached the mouth of "a snake shaped river" which we intantly recognise as the Congo, under the personal dominion of its brutal Belgian King. (Curiously the names Congo, Belgium, Brussels and even Africa do not appear once in the book and neither does the name of a single character, except for the narrator and the magical mystical hero "Mr Kurtz").
Kurtz is the ultimate, and almost mythologized, depiction of the reverse influence of the so-called "Dark Continent" on its erstwhile civilizers. But it is power stemming from superior European technology, not the Africans themselves, who corrupt the colonialists. Kurtz travels to the Congo as a visionary idealistic young painter and musician, desperate to earn a proper fortune in order to return to his "Intended" fiancee as a rich and respected husband. He becomes a highly successful up river ivory trader admired by his superiors and by others, both for his ideals and for his exraordinary success on behalf of his company. Marlow is fascinated by this reputed mixture of idealism and commercial success and is determined to travel up river to meet him and talk to him. However slowly the truth about Kurtz is revealed. His positive messianic vision and personal charisma are diverted into a fever pitch of plunder and massacre as he sets more African tribes againt each other and simply plunders their ivory from his remote trading station and sends it down river. His fence is decorated with the heads of his victims. Everything in his mind become his - he refers to "my" station, "my" people, "my" river. He sees himself as god-like master seeking to protect himself from the lies of civilization.

When Marlow eventually reached his destination, with the local administrator and other company officials in tow, with new instructions to bring Kurtz back to Europe, shut down his station and, conveniently, confiscate his ivory, the man is dying. Marlow befriends this monster and watched him die on the boat, with his last words being "the horror, the horror."

Later when Marlow pays a visit to his "Intended" in Europe she reminisces about the young idealistic and talented Kurtz she remembers. Desperate not to blow asunder her illusions he tells her that his last dying word was her name.
Curiously Conrad makes Africans largely passive and almost zombie-like victims of these colonial masters of their universe. He even refers to them quite artlessly sometimes as "niggers". In another of his books he actually picks the title "Nigger of the Narcissus" about a very positive and intrepid black crew member on a European boat.
That is a derogatory term now, but not necessarily in 1897, because most black people were held in contempt by Europeans, even by those who criticised the corruption of empire building and felt a patronising sympathy for the plight of the Africans.
Conrad probably knew little about ancient sub-Saharan civilisations, such as Mali, Ghana, Ashante and Zimbabwe, and this is partly because the Africans themselves were so divided tribally amongst themselves that they too seem to have cut themslves off from these traditions. Their civilizations had not the means to resist European guns, steam-power and greed. Even for liberals such as Conrad, where competence, literacy and technical know-how were measured by European standards, most Africans seemed imcompetent and possibly even cannibalistic. He even maintains that Africans have no sense of time, because they have no history and no time clocks. Everything for them is, apparently, "now". That is because they had no concept of "European" time when they had been torn away and from their own villages and treated with great brutality as virtual slaves.
It is easy now to be patronising about Conrad's supposed racism. But even the most benign figures in British and French colonialism were racist by modern standards. They talk of exploitation, revere the brave "noble savage" - a good imperialist myth as it only increased the glory of the victors who had conquered them. They wanted to "help" the Africans, to "civilize" the Africans, to offer them Christianity. But at this stage they still objectified them and did not see them as potential masters of their own fate; not unless they were as elevated as the Emperor of Ethiopia, for instance, because he defeated the Italian colonialists. But then curiously, the English saw Italians as little better than Africans as well, as they plundered their artistic heritage.
Strange perhaps now that Poles at the turn of the century could not see the Africans a little more differently. The Poles too were victims of conquest and had no independent country of their own while the Polish language was persecuted under Russian and German rule. Polish writers sympathised with the plight of the black African in creating characters such as the cheerful Kali in Sienkiewicz's "In Desert and Wilderness" or the bouncy Miou-Miou in Korczak's delightful "King Matty the First", but these sympathetic figures now appear grotesquely patronising, just like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom. Yet in their time Beecher Stowe and Conrad wrote what appeared to be dangerous revolutionary books and they challenged the perceived wisdom of their age with courage and integrity. Their books were both decried in their time as "immoral". The fact that the original American constitution still recognised the existence of slavery in the Southern states, that fact that the vibrancy of Western democracy in the XIXth century was still based on enfranchising men of property and denied women the vote, did not in any way disqualify these achievements of Western civilization.
It is patronising of us now to criticise the patronising ennoblement of Africans by Polish writers at the turn of the last century.
After all, when Coppola, borrowed the theme of this book for his daring condemnation of the American presence in Vietnam - "Apocalypse Now", it can be argued that he too treated the Vietnamese victims as sympathetic but artless and passive, whose savage traditions help to corrupt Colonel Kurtz. I would think the modern Vietnamese student would consider that film as highly patronising towards his own people.

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