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).
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In order to grasp the devastating beauty of Derek Raymond’s He Died with His Eyes Open (1984), it is first necessary to grasp the devastating beauty of another text; Conrad’s altogether more famous Heart of Darkness (1899). Conrad’s book ends with one of the most memorable soliloquies in British literature :
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision — he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
‘The horror! The horror!’”
As one of the most commented upon texts in academic literary criticism, this passage has been found to contain endless meanings but one particular meaning has clawed its way up out of the Darwinian jungle of ideas with greater panache and ferocity than the others. The most common interpretation of that final line is that Kurtz has somehow seen the savage, devouring emptiness that lurks at the heart of existence. A heart of darkness that can only truly be grasped by the mad or the inspired who can free themselves of the comforting fictions that animate our day-to-day lives. For Queen. For Country. For Myself. For Love. All fictions. One reason for the popularity of this interpretation is that it echoes the themes of meaninglessness that pervade existentialism, that most popular of Post-War philosophical postures.
Noir crime fiction is seen by some as a form of populist agitprop for existentialism. While Camus and Sartre took over the left bank, it was the Noir writers who were on sale in every news-agent. It is only natural to read Raymond’s book as a continuation of this de facto intellectual alliance, but I would argue that Raymond’s take on existentialism is almost diametrically opposed to that of Sartre, Camus, Kafka or Marcel.
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