One of those classics you hear mentioned so often until one day you finally decide to have a look, that’s Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1990 , Dover Thrift Editions) for me. First, I had procrastinated on this one because of my classics-aversity, but when the book arrived and I noticed it’s a mere 72 pages, I thought it’s actually quite doable. I am ambivalent about it now, mostly because I didn’t find the story interesting (old white man telling a story about an old white man tellinga story about yet another old white man dying in the “heart of darkness” – which of course had to be central Africa), but was intrigued by the poetic use of language.
After reading Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa“, this impression didn’t much change, or certainly not for the better. Achebe critiques his style, pointing out that it is repetitive and overusing adjectives to create a mystical atmosphere (something I actually liked), but more importantly shows that “Conrad was a bloddy racist” (p. 788). He continues to outline how “Africa” became a mere setting for the story, it’s people being depersonalized and dehumanized, negated almost any voice or action within the story. That this is not merely to be understood as Conrad being “a child of his time” was once pointed out to me by a student in one of my seminars: there always also have been other, different children of the time.
How did I come across the book?
Again, and again, and again, one of Michael Taussig’s works. I think it was Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man. Taussig has an incredible capacity to make me want to read into classics, which already worked with Walter Benjamin – and so much so that I discovered his usefulness for my own research. With Conrad, I am sceptical the experience is becoming something else than a footnote in the long history of novels with racist (under)tones.
When and where did I read it?
Even though a mere 72 pages, it still took me two weeks to get through with it. I had it with my for a conference trip to Milan, where I ended up reading way less than I thought. On the bus, I frequently fell asleep while reading. After the conference, I was busy organizing a workshop and finished a few days post-workshop, enjoing the sun at lake Constance.
I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. (p. 63)