Sunday, August 19, 2007

Nathan Whitlock on the Pragmatic Reason for Reviewing; and Notes on Joseph Conrad's Supposed Racism, Prompted by a Discussion with a Passenger

An excellent post from Nathan Whitlock on why we need reviews.

"It sounds crude, ignorant, intellectually lazy, and ant-art, and it can easily lead to unearned smugness (which should really be the subtitle of this blog), but it's a fact. There's only so many hours in a day, years in a life – we often need reviews for no more than a friendly heads-up or a thumbs-down."

Call me crude, ignorant, intellectually lazy and anti-art (I know you probably do, already), but this just makes too much sense to be denied. Those who would deny it are probably, as usual, mixing up the social and intellectual functions of book reviewing and literary criticism.

Decent trip back, but I've come down with some sort of bug, the only symptom of which so far is a wheezy cough that only gets bad if I laugh. Which for some reason diminished my desire to talk to people, which is 90% of my job description. Still, had a very nice conversation with a retired prof from Trent U. He started the Post-Colonial Studies programme at Trent and we commiserated over our distaste for the theory-pigs who've hijacked so many English and PoCo programmes. I asked him what he thought of Chinua Achebe's charge of racism against Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (possibly my favourite novel of all time). He said he thought it was "nonsense."

If I ever have a son, I want to name him Conrad. A friend of a friend, who's an English PhD candidate, said she thought this a very nice name, the only problem with it being the association with Joseph Conrad. (Funny, since that's why I want the name!) Turns out this person has never read Conrad, much like the nodding frowners who think that Nietzsche was an anti-Semitic proto-Nazi. I can understand and forgive this kind of blind following from most people, but if you're pursuing a doctoral degree, you're supposed to be good at engaging your critical faculties. Anyway, now she's saying that she'll have to read it. But not buy it, maybe take it out of the library. Oy.

A thoughtful and fascinating piece on Achebe vs. Conrad, from Caryl Phillips in the Guardian. The unasked and unanswered question in it seems to me to be: if we are going to hold a 19th/early 20th C. white author accountable for his depiction of Africa and Africans, how have Europeans been depicted in African literature? Have they come off more complex and fully human than Conrad's "flabby pale devils" and ironically labelled "emissaries of light"? Achebe's claim that there's a white-good/black-bad dichotomy in HofD is completely untenable. Just think of Brussels, which Marlow likens to a "whited sepulchre," whitewashed on the outside, but containing death and corruption at its core. And how could Marlow have depicted the Africans he encountered as fully formed human beings when he was never given such an opportunity by his own culture, when the Congo was little more than a storehouse of ivory and he was hired to recover it? Achebe seems to fault Conrad for writing a book that is not true to Achebe's experience as an African. He wants the book to be African. Which is a bit like asking Achebe to write Things Fall Apart in such a way that it satisfies the narrative expectations of colonial Europeans. Is it Conrad who is racist, then, or is it Achebe's reading of Conrad that's racist? (For the record, I don't believe Conrad is completely innocent of charges of racism--any more than most people are, at any rate--but to reductively label his book as thoroughgoingly racist is a abomination of critical thought.) Is Achebe's resentment anything better than racism reified by his membership in the oppressed race and by Conrad's in that of the oppressor?

I think Achebe too glibly--especially considering he's a great writer himself--dismisses the narrative structure of HofD as trickery. After all, Conrad really had no need to make himself look non-racist at the time (1902)--given that his audience would have, almost to a man, already have seen Africa as benighted and primitive--now did he? Achebe's expectations that Conrad should levitate above the tide of his time is unrealistic. Undesirable even. Conrad's greatness is due in no small part to the fact that he swam in and against the currents of his age. And his work transcends that time; just look at how brilliantly it was adapted to the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now. I read HofD first in high school and read it so many times that year that if you quoted me a passage, I could tell you what page it was on in the Norton Critical Edition (in which is included Achebe's essay, which I also read at the time). I've re-read the novel several times since, and have probably read it cover to cover ten times, if not more. I still have my battered Norton, but it's very hard to read for all the underlining and marginalia. It's quite simply one of the most brilliant, frank and fearless novels ever written.

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