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My Big Gay Heart of Darkness – Irreversible (2002) and Cruising (1980)

September 21, 2009

In 1975 the Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe gave a lecture that sent shock-waves through the literary community.  In this lecture, he suggested that the depiction of Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) was more than sufficient to label not only the text but also its author as racist.  While Achebe would later soften his position by suggesting that his interpretation was only one of many and that his reading in no way invalidated all of the laudatory readings cooked up by admirers of the work, the damage was done.  Over thirty years later the spectre of racism still hangs over Heart of Darkness, provoking the feeling that however glorious the novella might be, it may well be a reflection of a by-gone age with values not quite the same as ours but which we are willing to put up with for the sake of what is good in the work.  In fact, introductions to contemporary editions of the work bend over backwards to stress Conrad’s anti-colonialist credentials.

However, Achebe’s “An Image of Africa : Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” actually addresses this issue by discussing Conrad’s layered approach to narration.  Conrad gives the story not one but two narrators; Marlow who recounts his curious experiences in the Congo and a shadowy figure who is telling us about Marlow telling the story.  By insulating himself so carefully, Conrad seems to be insulating himself against the language and the opinions of the story.  It is not Conrad who speaks of ‘buck niggers’ but Marlowe and his chronicler.  However, Achebe’s critique stretches much deeper than merely cataloguing all the uses of racist language and stereotypical depictions of Black people.  In fact, his piece is at its most powerful when it is talking in the abstract about the technique that Conrad uses to project fears onto an entire population.  This is a technique that is still in use today and it is just as problematic as can be seen in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002).

Book Cover

Book Cover

Conrad’s crime, according to Achebe is that he panders to :

“the desire — one might indeed say the need — in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.”

Achebe continues :

“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant beastiality.”

And yet, for all the Otherness of the Africans’ behaviour and the base savagery of their existence, there is something recognisable about them.  We know this because Conrad shows us partly civilised Africans and the story concludes with the image of Kurtz, that most civilised of white men, who has ‘gone native’ and seen the raw truth that lies behind all of the civilisation, morality and comfortable myth that White men claim to be spreading across the globe.

“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were …. No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it — this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity — like yours — the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend.  Herein lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness and the fascination it holds over the Western mind: “What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity — like yours …. Ugly.””

I agree with Achebe that it is telling that Conrad decided to set the story of the spiritual defrocking of a Victoria gentleman in Africa.  Could Kurtz not have been pulled from a cotton mill whispering “the horror, the horror”?  The whole point about Victorian myths of civilisation is that they were obviously myths.  In Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999), a nervous W. S. Gilbert steps out of the theatre, unable to be in the building during the premiere of the Mikado.  All he needs to do is round the corner from the Strand and suddenly he finds himself in a sinister and dangerous world very much at odds with the illusions of Victorian propriety and civilisation.  As Achebe points out, Conrad is pushing at an open door… he is drawing upon commonly held stereotypes and prejudices about Africa to fuel his depiction of a savage and lawless world.

Film Poster

Film Poster

However, where Achebe is wrong is in his apparent belief that Africa is somehow being singled out.  When Heart of Darkness was reinvented as Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola transported the action to South-East Asia and drew upon a popular feeling that the Vietnam war had seen the unravelling of the American conscience.  That Vietnam was a place of madness and death.  John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines (2001) used the same technique to present former Yugoslavia as a theatre of unrivalled savagery and inhumanity.  Europe’s Dark Heart.  He even plays for laughs the idea that a Yugoslavian teenager might drink Coke rather than water.  A double-edged joke that both speaks to the provincialism of Americans and the supposed surrealism of as mundane an object as a bottle of Coke cropping up in Yugoslavia.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Friedkin’s Cruising and Noe’s Irreversible saw these techniques applied to homosexuality and both films draw upon popular perceptions of the gay fetish underworld to fuel their depictions of the unravelling of a straight man’s mind.

Film Poster

Film Poster

Friedkin’s Cruising deals with a straight cop named Steve Burns (Al Pacino) being sent to work undercover as part of a hunt for a homosexual serial killer.  The cop moves out of the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and takes a flat in the meat-packing district of the West Village, a place which, prior to the AIDS epidemic and the gentrification of inner cities, was packed with gay clubs that catered to New York’s gay BDSM community.  As Friedkin follows Pacino through places with names such as “The Cock Pit” and “The Ramrod”, you can almost hear the Conradian jungle drums beating.  Friedkin shows us a world of mass group sex, bacchanalian excess, of male sexuality unfettered and unconstrained by the presence of either a woman or the authorities.

Still from Film

Still from Film

Still from Film

Still from Film

In this setting, we are shown a series of grizzly murders.  We never see the murderer’s face, we only hear his voice and the voice of the murderer at each new killing is provided by the murder victim from the previous one.  It is almost as though there is no individual killer, but rather the murderer is a manifestation of some violent and deeply buried psychosis embedded in the fabric of the culture itself.  Every leather-boy is as much a potential murderer as a potential victim.  In a scene deleted from the final cut, Friedkin showed a wall daubed with the gay rights slogan “We Are Everywhere” just before the first body part is uncovered.  As the cop spends more and more time in this environment, pushing his engagement with the scene further and further away from the sexual norms of a long-term heterosexual pairing, he starts to change.  He meets up with his girlfriend and expresses his desire to stay with her (“I don’t want to lose you”).  He then fucks her roughly, almost brutally.  When his girlfriend asks him what is going on, the cop merely replies that “What I’m doing, is affecting me”.

Still from Film

Still from Film

Still from Film

Still from Film

Film Still

Film Still

What the cop means by this becomes evident in the film’s final scenes as Burns’ gay neighbour turns up dead.  The neighbour had a stormy relationship with his boyfriend and throughout the film we can see the cop getting more and more agitated by this and his apparent attraction to the neighbour.  Given that the cop had apparently tracked down the murderer, who killed the neighbour?  The suggestion is that it might well have been Burns.  The film’s final scene sees his girlfriend trying on his leather cap while he shaves.  Clearly, despite attempting to scrub himself clean of what he saw and what he experienced, the cop cannot escape what he has become.  It has followed him home.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The similarities between Heart of Darkness and Irreversible are even more obvious thanks to the film’s remarkable structure.  It opens with a monologue by the character of the Butcher from Noe’s previous films I Stand Alone (1998) and Carne (1991).  The scene is packed with homo-eroticism as the Butcher sits naked on a bed chatting with another man who has a coat draped over his groin.  The degree of intimacy between the two men is difficult to watch.  We feel as though we are intruding on lovers.  The film then moves to scenes of the films’ protagonists being dragged by the police out of a gay S&M night club called The Rectum.  The characters do not speak but we can hear the off-camera taunts of two local thugs who claimed to be able to track down a rapist. “His asshole must have bled a lot.  Fucker.  Fag”  and “All philosophers are fags.  I hope they get you hard.  In prison there are no condoms.  You’ll get AIDS straight away fag”.  These thuggish homophobes are almost like a classical chorus, anointing the characters with their new status as gay men.

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Irreversible is structured back to front so that the film begins with the characters being called gay before showing us the path that lead them to that hellish moment.  A path stretching back through a gay night club (in which they were nearly raped), being called gay by a cab driver, being abused by drunks in a pub because they were looking for a gay club and searching for a transsexual prostitute.  A path stretching all the way back to the infamously brutal scene in which Monica Bellucci’s androgynously named Alex is raped by a man calling himself the Tapeworm.  A man who, whilst sodomising her, coos in her ear “You have such a tight ass.  A nice fag ass”.  The rape scene is almost like the trading post in Heart of Darkness.  It is the furthermost outpost of heteronormative civilisation.  A man raping a woman but making it clear that his frame of reference (as well as his behaviour) is that of another world.  One hidden beneath and outside the world of the characters with their flirtatious parties and their cute heterosexual intimacy.  Irreversible takes us from the gay hell of the Rectum to moments of pure beauty, couples together laughing and playing, a pregnant woman sitting in a park as children play beside her.  As in Cruising, Irreversible changes its colour schemes.  Cruising moves from cold metallic blue to warmth and sunshine.  Irreversible moves from red darkness to a similar sunny hetero- promised land of sunshine and warmth.

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Film Still

Irreversible fits into the Conradian schema not only because of its clear ‘descent to hell’ narrative but also because Noe’s films are littered with a deeply ambiguous attitude towards all forms of sexuality.  In Carne (1991), his daughter’s first period makes the Butcher believe that she has been raped.  Confusing the natural process of becoming a woman with a more tawdry and violent loss of innocence, he sets off and exacts revenge upon an innocent Arab labourer.  In I Stand Alone, the Butcher is trapped between the S&M fantasies of his lover and his deranged incestuous yearning for his own daughter.  It is easy to see the hierarchy present in Noe’s world-view : Women first, then women who have sex, then women who have kinky sex, then transsexuals and finally gay men : Madonna, Whore, Shemale, Queer.

Madonna/Whore Complex by Hansjurgen Bauer

Madonna/Whore Complex by Hansjurgen Bauer

While I agree that there is something profoundly distasteful about this kind of personalised demonisation of entire cultures, sexualities and races, I actually think that it reflects more profoundly upon the people doing the demonising than it does the demonised.  When Conrad wrote of the savagery of Africa, he was giving a voice to his own fears and prejudices as well as those of the society that surrounded him.  Heart of Darkness speaks of the Victorian image of Africa in the same way as Apocalypse Now speaks of the American vision of Vietnam, Behind Enemy Lines speaks of American fears of ‘Old Europe’ and both Friedkin and Noe’s films speak of a deep-seated fear for their own sexuality.

As Achebe says, much of the emotional force from Heart of Darkness comes from the idea of recognition.  White Europeans are supposed to see the Africans not as inscrutable Others but rather as reflections of their own potential for savagery.  Both Friedkin and Noe’s characters begin the films as straight men before encountering the homosexual demi-monde and being sucked into it, a process that changes them forever.

The key question to ask when trying to work out how one feels about this process of Othering is what purpose is served by these kinds of depictions of Black or Gay people.  Achebe sees the European’s demonisation of the African as being motivated by self-aggrandisement.  If you write about how savage the lives of the Africans are then you are also making the civilised life of the European seem that much more attractive, noble and moral.  Think of Conrad’s depiction of the Thames as a grand old river, beautiful because it is civilised and well-travelled.  The wild has been beaten out of it.  It has been tamed.  Compared to this, the Congo seems a terrible place lined with danger and death.  Both are vast rivers, but one has been tamed and made fit for human travel.  The other needs civilising.

Conversely, we can take the demonisation not as a means of elevation but of deflation.  By showing us the savagery of African lives and making it clear to us how recognisably human they are, Conrad is reminding us that civilisation is a myth, a shell game, a vast act of voluntary self-delusion.  The capacity for savagery is within us all and it is only by ignoring the realities of life that we can convince ourselves otherwise.  Consider for example, Conrad’s depiction of the offices of the great trading company at the beginning of the novella : A dried out, fly-blown tomb where manners and fussy decoration are used not to demonstrate civilisation but as a buttress against the forces of entropy.  It is, in its own way, no less horrific than the trading posts of the Congo.

The ambivalence expressed in Heart of Darkness about civilisation is one reason why Achebe’s critique has not lead to the work being marginalised  and seen as merely a product of its time.  Its style is unfashionable.  Its imagery and language unsettling.  And yet the book remains a vital part of the Western canon.  This same ambiguity envelops the works of Friedkin and Noe : We are repulsed by their use of Gay stereotypes and their equation of homosexuality with brutality and death and yet we hesitate before calling either work bigoted.  We return to them because of their ambiguity.  Perhaps Achebe was right and our refusal to reject these works marks a deep-seated and well-hidden vein of prejudice.  A secret belief that all gay men are piss-drinking deviants or leather-clad rapists.  That Africans are brutally uncivilised and incapable of governing themselves.  Perhaps we enjoy these works for the same reason that white teenagers enjoy gangsta rap : it speaks to their prejudices.  This is possible.  It is a question that all of these works pose of us because of their similarity and because of their power.  That too is a reason for returning to them.

2 Comments
  1. September 22, 2009 7:47 pm

    While I respect Achebe’s interpretation (it’s not “wrong”), I see Conrad’s novel as waaay too complicated to be easily pigeon-holed.

    For instance:
    At the very beginning of the novel, the narration takes pains to describe how primitive and frightening Britain must have seemed to the first Romans who sailed up the Thames to “civilize” (i.e. colonize) their land.

    In other words, “We’re doing to the African peoples what was once done to us – stealing land and life for profit in the name of Progress – history repeats itself”.

    And bear in mind Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he wrote from an outsider’s perspective – why would he feel a particular need to defend or aggrandize an empire which was not truly his own?

    It is remarkable how easily his tale has been re-cast in various locations, and this won’t end soon…

    Surely one could re-make “Heart of Darkness” as, say, a black Egyptian protagonist who descends from civilization to barbarism and madness as he visits a late-night stockbrokers’ party in the Docklands… (I’d watch that!)

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  2. September 29, 2009 7:20 pm

    Valid points A.R. You are entirely right.

    I really am ambivalent about the racism of the text. On the one hand, I think Achebe is right to feel daunted at the talk of cannibals and spear-throwing natives but on the other hand, the book can also be seen as profoundly anti-colonial.

    As you say, a story as rich as Heart of Darkness can be read just too many contradictory ways. It seems almost simplistic to read it and experience any kind of moral revulsion.

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