In an essay titled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Chinua Achebe calls out Conrad for racism and spends time showing examples of racism, stereotyping, otherness and infantilzation of Africans in the novella. Whilst such a reading and reaction have their merits, they have the danger of also obscuring and downplaying Conrad’s strong critique and condemnation of colonialism and the then popular rationalisation of the invasion and despoiling of Africa by appeals to the theory of the white man’s burden. So, heart of darkness whilst it may have traces of racism is a good primer and introduction to any serious critique of colonialism. A fair appraisal would thus require putting its observed defects side by side with its shattering critique and dismantling of the false claims that were used to rationalise colonialism.
Heart of Darkness thus deserves a second trial by jury with a little bit more of emotional distance from the setting and characters than Chinua Achebe. I think that the great novelist Achebe overreacted in his response to Conrad. Such an overreaction is understandable in an African smarting from the sting of insults to Africa by white scholars such as the Regius professor of history Trevor Roper who had argued that Africa had no history before the coming of the white beyond the gyrations of tribes in the wilds of the dark continent.
So I understand why CA reacted the way he did . I have read and re-read the paper where CA calls Conrad out and some of the claims against Conrad there are justified.
But CA should also have recognized that Conrad, talking through Marlow, was very savage and scathing in his demolition of the justifications of the colonial enterprise. Nearly every white man in that novella is presented as grossly ignorant, lacking in depth and driven by greed. Conrad is particularly critical of the methods of the white colonizer and even the pilgrims going up the river with Marlow come across as a bunch of poorly camouflaged mercenaries in search of loot and plunder. Kurtz is the archetype of evil, of cruelty and unspeakable savagery. Indeed the heart of Darkness refers to the heart of Kurtz and not to the Congo. It describes the depravity in the heart of Kurtz. It refers to that twisted heart ruined by its obsession with ivory, an obsession that pushes Kurtz to carry out ivory raids and to put the heads of all who opposed him on stakes!
Conrad indicts colonialism and lays bare its false justifications. Yes, I agree that some of Conrad’s explanations for the origins of Kurtz’s lunacy, such as the one that the jungle had invaded Kurtz’s mind in retaliation for his invasion of its space, is deficient. Such an explanation belongs to an era of premature speculative animism masquerading as science but we must be careful not to mistake such dabbling into pseudoscience as an apologia for racism. I see Heart of Darkness as one of the earliest examples of anti-colonial literature.
Was Achebe fair to Ezeulu? Could he not have gone into his creative and artistic forge and found another denouement, just as powerful and intense and gripping which would have allowed the chief priest of Ulu to walk away from the enveloping unravelling of culture and tradition, from this creeping and almost irreversible dissolution and destruction of authority and institutions in Igbo land with his head high instead of knocking him down and covering him in the mud of disgrace associated with dementia? In the end, it would appear that Achebe surrenders his protagonist, a man of wit and intellect, a clear thinker, a pragmatist, pater familias, and chief of Ulu to his enemies and there are quite a few…. Winterbottom, Clarke, Nwaka etc! Is this a good price to pay for a tragic ending and did Ezeulu truly deserve this treatment? My whole being screams No! Is the death of Obika fair? No! Was it necessary? What happens to his new bride? Was this tragic end sufficiently justified? Was the reader sufficiently prepared for it?
The Webster dictionary defines tragedy thus – Tragedy is a serious play or drama typically dealing with the problems of a central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending brought on, as in ancient drama, by fate and a tragic flaw in this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressures.” Tragedy however is typically associated with a flaw in the main character, some hubris, described as hamartia which leads this character to making wrong choices and faulty decisions. Okonkwo in TFA had that hamartia, his intense fear of being seen to be afraid, Jim in Conrad’s Lord Jim also suffered from a fundamental hubris which brought his ruin in the end, the principal characters in Adichie’s purple hibiscus were also flawed and one could go on and on. But where was the flaw in Ezeulu’s character? True, Achebe had hinted at the possibility of some flaw in the opening chapter, precisely in the paragraph that starts “Whenever Ezeulu considered the immensity of his power over the year and the crops and, therefore o er the people, he wondered if it was real” How good was power if it could never be used? In physics, there is this distinction between potential and kinetic energy. Potential energy exists only in the realm of possibilities and probability. Real energy is kinetics. Was this temptation to test to what extent he could impose his awesome power of choosing the season of harvesting that Ezeulu yields to in the end of the tale that ruins him? I do not find this ending, the way Achebe attempts to sketch it out to be very convincing but perhaps, this is because I am a unsophisticated reader. But even allowing for this aesthetic immaturity on my part, why was it necessary to bring in the sudden death of Obika in this final denouement of this gripping tale and allowing it so a powerful role in the ensuing destruction of Ezeulu and by implication of the god Ulu? Is this this sudden fall of Ezeulu justified? Should Ulu have suffered this irreversible demise? Has Ulu being godly? Does Ulu deserve our pity? For a god that looks on when its chief priest is being destroyed should not complain if its followers abandon its shrine for the altars of a new religion.
Arrow of God contains a central crisis from which other crisis and tensions in the novel arise. This crisis is the arrival of the white man with his guns and his religion. If one were carrying out a causality analysis of the crisis in this novel, one would then be right to call this crisis the underlying cause of the tragedy that enfolds the novel. But when the causality analysis is carried one step further, one then comes upon the immediate cause of the tragedy. This immediate cause is the botched invitation by Captain Winterbottom to Ezeulu sent through Mr. Clarke. The invitation was for Ezeulu to become the traditional ruler of Umuaro. This botched invitation is central to the rest of the tragedy that engulfs Umuaro, that is when one makes allowances for the flaws in some of the characters in the novel such as Nwaka – (Ezeidemili), Ezeulu and Obika. This immediate cause has its origins in the knowledge gaps and faulty assumptions that informed the choices and decisions made by the principal actors in the unfolding tragedy. Tools and concepts from sociology can help us understand these gaps and assumptions. The first of these concepts from sociology is that of stereotyping. Colonial administration was rife with a number of assumptions about the colonized. The colonized is simplified, presented as childlike and a creature lacking in depth but drawn to flamboyance and the easy life. This tendency to simplify the colonized has been noted to be almost universal in its manifestation and described by Said as orientalism. It is this type of mindset by the agents of colonial administration which makes both Clarke and Wiñterbottom to assume that Ezeulu would be excited to learn that he had been nominated as the Eze, the chief of Umuaro. Their assumption proved to be wrong. Stung by Ezeulu’s refusal to accept their offer, the colonial administration decide to detain Ezeulu thereby making it impossible for him to carry out certain priestly functions around which the farming calender of the community depends. His inability to do these contributes to the gradually enlarging crisis. Another concept from sociology which has some explanatory power in this crisis is that of otherness.
Otherness is important for any deep understanding of discrimination in relations between groups of people in which one group, usually the dominant, attempts to simplify and stigmatise the other as being unworthy, deficient and lacking in certain core capacities, affects, sensibilities and competencies. Otherness finds expression in such phrases as “those people”, “those natives” and in the marked use of N words to refer to people of the discriminated races. Hand in hand with this discrimination was an orchestration of negative stereotypes of the group deemed inferior. A close examination of the middle sections of Arrow of God reveals that it is littered with words and phrases that betray such damaging and unhelpful stereotyping, otherness and discrimination. They poison relationships, prevent proper communication between protagonists each caught within the prison of the prism of their narrow world views. In the end, failures of communication ultimately lead to a crisis whose end point is the emotional destruction of the chief priest of Ulu and the further penetration of the Christian faith in Igbo land.