Looking at Africa, Looking at Ourselves
September 8, 2014

I remember the sense of vertigo when, as a graduate student, I approached Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” For the text presented me with a new way of seeing Africa and literature. It was as if, like a traveler in front of a marvelous but intimidating vista, I was no longer sure of my footing.

Achebe’s essay seemed to arise from a tradition separate from the French poststructuralist criticism I was being introduced to. Here was a literary author who, without the daunting discourse of theory, forced me to rethink my understanding of the world. Having loved Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a student and having been dazzled by Francis Ford Coppola’s reworking of the film as “Apocalypse Now, I had to take to pause.

Until my encounter with Achebe’s essay, I, like many readers, interpreted Heart of Darkness from the perspective of the European protagonists, never having thought about the Africans in the novel or how Africans themselves might react to it. Achebe’s essay, originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachusetts in 1975, made me confront my own blindness.

Achebe revealed new landscapes. He showed that Conrad, though critical of colonialism, relied on formulaic portrayals of Africa that ended up dehumanizing the continent. He used Africa as a symbol of darkness devoid of real people working, living, and dying, while he employed Africa as a backdrop for the exploration of European metaphysical problems. As he argues, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Achebe calls Conrad a racist and concludes his essay by referring to the novel “as an offensive and deplorable book,” so despicable that he can’t understand why it is celebrated in the West as a masterpiece in the English language.

As much as I learned from this essay, I was troubled by the easy association Achebe makes between the narrator in the novel and the author of the novel. Although Achebe acknowledges the double narration in the text and subtle ironies at play, he shows insufficient sensitivity to the ambivalence and contradictions at work in literature. The virtue of literary language is that it cannot be frozen in its signification. Novels – Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Passage to India, have a way of deconstructing what they are representing and cannot be easily reduced to racist tracts.

My initial misgivings were reinforced when I returned to the essay in May of this year as guest of the Department of Language and Literary Studies at Kwara State University, Ilorin, Nigeria. During my second encounter with Achebe’s essay I was able to identify more clearly something else that troubled me as a student – the potential this essay has to cordon off rather than promote literary communication. Achebe rightly points out that Conrad uses Africa as a “setting for the disintegration of the mind of Kurtz,” eliminating Africa as an actual place where people lead their lives, dehumanizing in this way an entire continent. But Achebe’s incisive criticism also puts into question the possibility of engaging with the Other, something that I was trying to do at the time.

During my month’s stay in Ilorin, I posted blogs ( I , II ) about my experiences and wrote long private reports to family and friends. Was I using Africa as a backdrop in my engagement with the people I met, institutions I encountered, and ideas introduced to? Does not all comparison begin with the self as the base? Can one write about another society without at the same time reflecting on the self? Is not all travel writing as much about the self as the place visited? It seems to me that when we write about a particular location we engage in a dialogue of self and other, turning that place into a reflection on the self and the other. I don’t know whether this can be avoided and whether this avoidance is even desirable. For true empathic understanding comes out of this dialectic.

Travelers, Achebe says, even those not blinkered by xenophobia, can be “astonishingly blind.” This is true in that we are all influenced by the societies we live in. It’s impossible otherwise. No one can escape historical circumstance.

In a brilliant reading of Things Fall Apart the eminent critic and comparatist Francis Abiola Irele shows that Achebe provides an image of Africa as a “living entity and in its historical circumstance,” one unprecedented in literature. Nevertheless Irele identities a disjunction between the tribal society of Umuofia Achebe portrays and the detached narration of the novel. Achebe’s western education and Christian upbringing determine a narrative point of view marked by aesthetic distance, in contrast, say, to the active engagement of a traditional storyteller. Achebe’s challenge is to use the novel as form and the English language to describe a society for non-Igbo readers. The same can be said of all writers who portray their own societies to an audience unfamiliar with them.

The narrator of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek uses a cool, remote discourse to depict the peasants of a Cretan village as ruled by chthonic passions, ritual murder, laments, and, vendettas. This discourse makes the peasants understandable to American students but to Greeks they seem ethnographic portrayals. Turkish critics tell me that Orhan Pamuk employs the techniques of postmodernism to represent political Islam as aesthetically comprehensible to western publics.

So the question I would like to pose is whether one can represent the Other to an outside audience while avoiding the charge of exoticism? I confronted this issue myself in the reception of my Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture. Inventing National Literature. After its publication in 1991 there appeared an angry article in the Athenian mass-circulation daily, To Vima, which accused me of offering a superficial and untrue picture of Greece for the benefit of western readers.

Does this mean we should not attempt to portray the Other or enter in a conversation with those beyond our doorstep because someone may find this portrayal strange and “false”? Achebe was pressed on this by Caryl Phillips who asked if he meant that “outsiders should not write about other cultures.” No, Achebe insisted. “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometime see what the owner of the house has ignored.” But he added, “they must come with respect and not be concerned with the color of skin or the shape of the nose.”

Fair enough. We should be mindful of the egregious misrepresentations of the past, which converted other societies into symbols with extraordinary explanatory power. But we should not let these past attempts to portray the Other stop us from entering someone else’s home and initiating a dialogue with its owner. Obviously we will know less of the place than its inhabitants. But how else can we understand each other and appreciate perspectives different from our own other than by risking a conversation?

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