Another “bloody racist” for us

Welcome to the ranks of the deplorables, Joseph Conrad.

Conrad had grown up hearing his father refer to local peasants as “monkeys.” Throughout his life, he maintained what Jasanoff describes as “an enduring distaste for organized labor and radical politics,” and he regarded popular political movements as nothing but manifestations of the herd. Although he regarded class “a hateful thing,” he was deeply sensitive to it. When working in the Congo, he referred to his Belgian boss as “une espece de boutiquer africaine”—an African shop boy.

Jasanoff goes further. She suggests that Conrad, in purveying such stereotypes (of women, too: they are “savage and superb,” “wild and gorgeous”) “subverted prejudices as much as … reinforced them.” But there is little evidence to support such a hopeful exoneration. In fact, whatever Jasanoff tells us about Conrad’s contemporary readers suggests the opposite. Take the case of Charles Buls, the mayor of Brussels. Buls read Conrad before travelling to the Congo in the 1890s, and he found his own racist views corroborated and reinforced. Conrad showed him how civilisation might collapse when white men came in contact with “pure savagery, primitive nature, barbarism.” Even the critic and editor Edward Garnett, a far more sophisticated reader and a man whose critical intelligence Conrad admired, read Heart of Darkness as a story of what happens when a European “goes native,” when Western values become contaminated by local non-Western conditions—which is to say, he read it as Conrad wrote it. To Garnett, the work revealed “the deterioration of the white man’s morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics.”

Conrad also refused to get on board with the social justice crusade against King Leopold.

SOME OF CONRAD’S CONTEMPORARIES—the ancestors of today’s protesters and activists—did read his fiction as a call to action. By the turn of the century, as Conrad published Heart of Darkness, the shocking depredations of Leopold’s rule—the appropriation of huge swathes of territory as private land, the pillage of tens of thousands of tons of ivory, the routine use of forced labour in frenzied rubber cultivation—were coming into European view. In his first days in Africa, Conrad had met Roger Casement, who would become a leading voice in the campaign against Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo. After Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Casement got him to read exposés of Belgium’s administration of the Congo by the journalist Edmund Dene Morel, in hopes of recruiting Conrad into the Congo Reform Association, the campaign against Belgian misrule. Conrad privately expressed his dismay to Casement, but he never joined the movement. “It is not in me … I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” He claimed that what Casement and Morel were telling him did not tally with what he had seen, and Conrad would later dismiss Casement as emotional and unreliable.

Needless to say, the author finds Conrad sorely wanting.

VS Naipaul, another fatalist master of fiction, has portrayed Conrad as the upholder of a “universal civilization,” one able “to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of the world’s thought.” But Conrad, even as he traced the limits of the universal claims of his own civilisation, stayed within its bounds. In the last decade and a half of Conrad’s life, as politics stirred Asians, Africans and black Americans, setting them thinking about how to reclaim civilisation for themselves and inspiring them to embark on collective movements of political change and revival, the ageing writer grumbled and wagged his finger against such hopes. Is it a coincidence that in these final years of his life, at a time of revolutionary ferment in both politics and the cultural imagination, his own work became conventional and conservative?

5 Responses

  1. In killing elephants for ivory, the White Devils probably improved Africa as human habitat. The Africans did not have the weapons to control these huge beasts, which trampled and ate their crops with impunity.

    I think Conrad posed a very good question, and was right to suspect that particular civilizations were vulnerable to particular diseases. Primitivism, for instance, is a key element in Western civilization, but also one that can get out of control. When the civilization is in balance, primitivism corrects over refinement, when it gets out of balance, primitivism degenerates into brutality. Western man seems especially prone to feeling nostalgie de la boue, and may be wise to avoid circumstances that feed this longing for degradation.

    “Going native” was, after all, a thing. That’s why there was a name for it. I’ve never seen an equivalent term in a non-Western tradition. Blacks talk about “acting white,” of course, but seem to mean by this something very different than “going native.” When Kurtz goes native, he unlocks something that has been in his heart all along. I don’t think that’s what is being suggested in the phrase “acting white.”

    Your recurrent point in this series of posts is good. It will not be long before progressives have repudiated every notable figure from the past. I’d guess that no one born before 1970 could pass one of their close inspections.

  2. That’s interesting. Do Westerners have a greater longing for barbarism than other peoples?

  3. Voluntary hunting, fishing and camping seem to be overwhelmingly White things. Landscape painting is, likewise, almost exclusively Western. The east Asians are the only exception and their landscape tradition is very different. This isn’t barbarism–it’s primitivism. Primitivism comes up with ways that reconnect with the primitive lifeworld, but do not destroy civilization. In fact primitivism acts as a sort of safety-valve in civilization. It spiritualizes the primitive by making it into an idea or an aesthetic–in other words it renders the primitive fit for consumption by a civilized man.

    Barbarism is just bloodlust (and the other lust as well). Barbarism is joy in destruction, and everyone has the capacity for joy in destruction. Freud called this eros and thantos, and in this Freud was right. Is there a man alive who has not fantasized about utter barbarism.

    I’m willing to follow Freud and say that culture is in large degree a mechanism to sublimate barbarism, to spiritualize this hankering to rape and murder. Western culture has done this in various ways, one of these ways being Christian stoicism. But sublimation and spiritualized hankerings seem like pretty small beer when when is confronted with real barbarism.

    It’s really hard to keep your mind on poetry when the natives are rutting just outside the walls of your tent.

  4. “Going native” was, after all, a thing.

    Steve Sailer had an interesting article articlelast year in which he briefly discussed this phenomenon with respect to American Indians. He cites Benjamin Franklin, who observed that Indians who were raised by whites would frequently give up modern ways and return to their tribal ways, while the contrast was not true: whites who were raised by Indians often pined for tribal life after being reintegrated into modern white society.

    My instinctual interpretation of this is that already by the 18th century, western civilization was hopelessly atomized, bereft of community through which man’s life is given meaning.

    On the other hand, it could simply be one of the downsides of civilization as such. If so though, we should expect members of other great civilizations also to ‘go native’ occasionally. JMSmith indicates this isn’t the case.

    Or again, it could be something intrinsic to whites qua whites, e.g., a racial thing and not having anything to do with civilization.

    Voluntary hunting, fishing and camping seem to be overwhelmingly White things. Landscape painting is, likewise, almost exclusively Western. … It spiritualizes the primitive by making it into an idea or an aesthetic–in other words it renders the primitive fit for consumption by a civilized man.

    Do you think this is more a nature or nurture thing? It seems to me that this sort of thing became huge beginning with Romanticism in the late 18th and 19th centuries. If it had not been for this intellectual development, would whites be any different from anyone else in this regard?

    On the other hand, hunting as recreation seems definitely to antedate the advent of Romanticism, at least among royalty and nobility. Did the aristocracies of other civilizations hunt for recreation?

  5. Aristocratic hunting began as training for war, and later became a mark of status. There might have been something atavistic in aristocratic hunting, but I don’t think they did it to get in touch with their rustic roots.

    I may be reading too much in the light of Romanticism, but Romanticism is itself evidence of something. I don’t think it is ever a question of nature or nurture. It’s a question of nurtured nature. If there’s no nature to nurture, nurture can’t do a thing. Romanticism exercised a muscle, it didn’t implant the muscle.

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