And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. On we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, the heavy beat of the stern-wheel echoing in hollow claps. Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty building. It made you feel very small, very lost.
We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness. It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river and remain, as if hovering in the air high over our heads, till the first break of day. Whether it meant war, peace, or prayer we could not tell. The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness; the wood-cutters slept, their fires burned low; the snapping of a twig would make you start. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that seemed like an unknown planet.
How does the choice of language in this text create an impression that going up the river was a strange and threatening experience? Identify two other words or phrases from paragraph 1 which also suggest this. What does this suggest about the trees? Explain how the whole of paragraph 3 creates this impression.
Was there any idea at all connected with it. It looked startling round his black neck this bit of white thread from beyond the seas. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing in an intolerable and appalling manner. His brother phantom rested its forehead as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. Despite the last sentence, which links the grove of death to ancient and medieval catastrophes, there is a sense here, as many readers have said, of something unprecedented in horror, something new on earth—what later became known as genocide.
Western man had done this.
We had created an Inferno on earth. But if some crimes are irredeemable, a frank acknowledgment of the crime might lead to a partial remission of sin.
Conrad had written such an acknowledgment. Alex was not happy with the way Shapiro and the other students were talking about Kurtz and the moral self-judgment of the West.
He thought it was glib. Kurtz was a criminal, an isolated figure. He was not representative of the West or of anything else. No culture condones what he did. From my corner of the room, I took a hard look at him.
He was as tight as a drum, dry, a little supercilious. Kurtz had nothing to do with him —that was his unmistakable attitude. He denied the connection that the other students acknowledged. He was cut off in some way, withholding himself.
Yet I knew this student. Why was he so dense?
The other students were not claiming personal responsibility for imperialism or luxuriating in guilt. Henry, leaning back in his chair—against the wall, behind Alex, who sat at the table—insisted on an existential reading. Alex hotly disagreed. They were talking past each other, offering different angles of approach, but there was an edge to their voices which suggested an animus that went beyond mere disagreement. There was an awkward pause, and some of the students stirred uneasily. I had never seen these two quarrel in the past, and what they said presented no grounds for anger, but when each repeated his position, anger filled the room.
Shapiro tried to calm things down, and the other students looked at one another in wonder and alarm. In a tangent, Henry brought up the way Conrad, reflecting European assumptions of his time, portrayed the Africans as wild and primitive. A greater urgency overcame him—not the racial but the existential issue, his own pressing need for identification not just as an African-American but as an embattled man. Marlow judges Kurtz; Conrad judges Kurtz.
But back in Brussels he is mourned as an apostle of enlightenment. I looked a little closer. I knew him, all right. A pale, narrow face, a bony nose surmounted by glasses, a paucity of flesh, a general air of asexual arrogance. He was very bright and very young. He was incomparably more self-assured and articulate, but I recognized him all too well. And I was startled. The middle-aged reader, uneasy with earlier versions of himself, little expects his simulacrum to rise up as a walking ghost.
For a while, teacher and students explicated the text in a neutral way. Though Shapiro restored order, something had broken, and the class, which had begun so well, with everyone joining in and expounding, had come unriveted. The following is one of the passages Chinua Achebe deplores as racist:. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.
But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of and clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.
We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign—and no memories.
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.
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, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend. Having arrived fresh from Europe, Marlow, surrounded by jungle, commands a small steamer travelling up the big river en route to an unknown destiny—death, perhaps. He is a character in an adventure story, baffled by strangeness.
Achebe might well have preferred that Marlow engage the Africans in conversation or, at least, observe them closely and come to the realization that they, too, are a people, that they, too, are souls, have a destiny, spiritual struggles, triumphs and disasters of selfhood. Achebe wants another story, another hero, another consciousness. As it happens, Marlow, regarding the African tribesmen as savage and incomprehensible, nevertheless feels a kinship with them.
He recognizes no moral difference between himself and them. It is the Europeans who have been demoralized. Though Achebe is a novelist, not a scholar, variants of his critique have appeared in many academic settings and in response to many classic works. Such publications as Lingua Franca are often filled with ads from university presses for books about literature and race, literature and gender, literature and empire.
Whatever these scholars are doing in the classroom, they are seeking to make their reputations outside the classroom with politicized views of literature. As much as Conrad himself, Edward W. Said is a self-created and ambiguous figure. A Palestinian Christian from a Protestant family , he was brought up in Jerusalem and Cairo, but has built a formidable career in America, where he has assumed the position of the exiled literary man in extremis—an Arab critic of the West who lives and works in the West, a reader who is at home in Western literature but makes an active case for non-Western literature.
Over the years, he has gained many disciples and followers, some of whom he has recently chastised for carrying his moral and political critiques of Western literature to the point of caricature. Most imaginative writers of the nineteenth century, Said maintains, failed to connect their work, their own spiritual practice, to the squalid operations of colonialism. Such writers as Austen, Carlyle, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, and Flaubert were heroes of culture who either harbored racist views of the subject people then dominated by the English and the French or merely acquiesced in the material advantages of empire.
They took empire for granted as a space in which their characters might roam and prosper; they colluded in evil. But how important, I wonder, is the source of the money to either of these novels? Magwitch would still be a disreputable convict whom Pip would have to reject as a scoundrel or accept as his true spiritual father. Were these novels, as literature, seriously affected by the alleged imperial nexus? Or is Said making lawyer like points, not out of necessity but merely because they can be made?
For if Jane Austen is heavily involved in the creation of imperialism, then every music-hall show, tearoom menu, and floral arrangement is also involved. Indifferent to French exploitation of North African native workers. And where did the cork that lined the walls of his bedroom come from?
Henry James? Failed to inquire into the late-nineteenth-century industrial capitalism and overseas expansion that made possible the leisure, the civilized discourse, and the spiritual anguish of so many of his characters.