Vince Pissaro Defends The Heart of Darkness... and Literature

From: Harper's Magazine, Jan 1997, p64(3).

What we despise about literature, and what exhausts us about moderm literature in particular, is its irony, its acknowledgment that in most cases the beautiful process of creation is tinged with something slightly immoral, something exploitative of intimacies and experience, rude, vain, self-justifying, disloyal, brutal, unrestrained. Edward Said's work-in Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and elsewhere -- demonstrates how the canonical art of the West in modem times has been both an expression of and an appeal to the language, assumptions, and favored mythologies of the high merchant classes. We can accept this while still retaining a conviction that artists, being artists, want to take a blade to the language, the manners and codes and pet conventions of their class, and slice them up and thrust the bloody remains in our faces. Modem art insists on making something significant and even beautiful out of ugliness, dissonance, fever, hatred, anger, failure, and pain. Readers, viewers, and audiences, following intuitions of their own, often allow this, but marketeers and critics usually do not.

The tragic impulse in literature is what such impresarios of art wish to demolish most of all, especially complicated or ambiguous tragedy. If one must portray tragedy, it should be simple and psychologically direct, something akin to Death of a Salesman or Steinbeck's The Red Pony. The cultural apparatchiks are particularly weary with literature's resistance to ideas, its tendency to play with them, to put itself above them, to poke holes in them. The best literature does this in the most infuriatingly complicated ways, making itself difficult to pin down and analyze, which explains why in our time it is the best writers who have to be made into criminals.(2)

Then again, even minor writers with big names are not exempt.. Norman Rush recently implied in The New York Times Book Review that John le Carre's name should be added to the list of those with suspect attitudes toward Jews because le Carre's The Tailor of Panama includes an uncomfortably Judas-like portrayal of the character Harry Pendel, who is of Jewish descent. Interestingly, le Carre chose to fight back, denouncing Rush from the stage of the 92nd Street Y and taking him on in the Letters section of the Book Review.

In all, the past year has produced evidence aplenty that literature is now merely a subcategory within a larger historical, moral debate. Besides Julius's book, a new edition of Heart of Darkness, edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, was recently issued, with Conrad's short narrative nestled, as it were, among other texts about the situation in the Congo during the "Civilization of Central Africa" campaign at the turn of the century. This book, with good scholarly intentions, wedges together Conrad's work of informed imagination with historical documents quite ancillary to its main point, a full complement of details regarding the conditions Conrad had observed (or ignored) during his time in the Congo Basin in 1890. In a relatively evenhanded way, it connects Conrad palpably to the European colonization of the continent that he barely, in Heart of Darkness, refers to by name, and it hardens the connection between Conrad and colonial racism made most famous by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in a lecture delivered twenty years ago, revised and reprinted in 1987, and made an integral component of the influential Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness. It is difficult now to recall that until twenty years ago the issue of colonialism was a relatively minor aspect in serious criticism of Conrad and Heart of Darkness.

Edward Said discusses the racial and colonial undertones of Heart of Darkness at length in his Culture and Imperialism. Said is considerably more careful than a hit man like Julius, and he actually admires artistic creation, for all its frequent and quite necessary blemishes, never wishing a novel or poem or opera away, or requiring it to be something other than what it is. But he takes Conrad's vague references to the superiority of the British to the Belgian forms of African colonialism a little too far, I think, without giving enough weight to the paradoxically frequent occasions when Conrad's narrator, Marlow, includes essentially every conquering nation past and present in his ironic dismissals. "The conquest of the earth," he remarks dryly near the beginning of the book, "which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

The "problem" of Conrad is the aforementioned problem of irony; this is much of the "problem" of Eliot as well. What particularly disturbs us about writers like Eliot and Conrad is that they employ such dangerous forms of irony with utter self-confidence and abandon. Readers are made uncomfortable by the insinuating suggestions of ugly, painful, destructive redemptions -- something Eliot summed up in his "Journey of the Magi," with the lines, All this was along time ago, I remember,/And I would do it again, but set down/this set down/This: were we led all that way for/Birth or Death? ... this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death." The ugly and painful redemption of Heart of Darkness is contained in Conrad's assertion that the criminally abusive Kurtz is "a remarkable man," one whose language, despite his immorality, has an overpowering effectiveness and force, even in its confusion and incoherence. Achebe recognizes and attacks the centrality of the issue of Kurtz's moral and psychological condition with his famous remark: "Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?"

Yet it is exactly within the economy of modern literature to reduce an entire continent to a metaphor in the development of a single consciousness. This "arrogance" is exactly the arrogance of the writer, the writer's prerogative, and I suspect that in the long run Achebe has hit upon the core of our hostility to writers of Conrad's stature and authority.

Obviously, the brush of racism is wide enough to paint over the accomplishments of most artists and intellectuals at work before 1950, who are guilty of having lived in less enlightened times; we can go back to Aristotle and his famous defense of slavery and work our way forward to Norman Mailer's condescending essay "The White Negro." This magazine less than a year ago published an essay by Jane Smiley (author of the "comic" novel Moo and a social-work version of King Lear called A Thousand Acres) in which she unfavorably compared Mark Twain with (I still cringe to write the words) Harriet Beecher Stowe, a deranged and hyper-Protestant nineteenth-century Martha Stewart who wrote an unreadably didactic novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin. Smiley declared Twain a racist on the grounds that Huck, although he likes Jim, doesn't overtly declare Jim his own equal and bow down before him in shame, begging for mercy. Uncle Tom's Cabin, says Smiley, is a superior novel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because of the former's more ennobling vision of African Americans. Smiley's essay demonstrates vividly the necessity of ignoring the literary quality of a work in order to show it to be morally wanting. -- End --