50th Anniversary of "Things Fall Apart"


After WW II, many African, Asian, and other countries sought political independence from European colonial rule. The struggle for cultural recognition was an important part of this political process, and the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a profusion of writing from formerly colonial cultures. The most prominent African writer of his generation, Chinua Achebe brought to the English-speaking world novelistic portraits of Nigeria. He has also published influential criticism exposing colonialist biases in English fiction and criticism and arguing for an indigenous African literature. Indicting the view of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness, as a reflection of European racist assumptions of the darkness or inferiority of Africans, Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a touchstone of anti-colonialist, or postcolonial- criticism. Born in Nigeria, he experienced colonialism firsthand. Nigeria was a construction of European colonial powers; its disparate African tribes and territories were placed under British control from 1906 until 1960. His father was an evangelical Protestant churchman, but he was also exposed to traditional Igbo culture. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, which depicts traditional Igbo culture and its clash with European culture, was a success. His fiction and criticism display nationalist contestation of colonialist myths and distortions of Africans and Africa. In his influential essay Colonialist Criticism, shows how colonialist biases permeate even sophisticated critical commentary on fiction representing Africa. This is the theme of An Image of Africa, in which Achebe argues that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, however critical of the European imperialist mission, presents Africans as savage, subhuman, and incapable of speech. Allowing for the novel’s artistry, he condemns this view as offensive and deplorable. He focuses much of his attack not on Conrad but on the critical position of Conrad’s text in the Western canon as a masterpiece, in spite of its racism. Thus its critical reception, up to the present day, unthinkingly perpetuates racist stereotypes. Although focused on the racism of Heart of Darkness, he also questions the canon and the moral and social values of art. It poses a difficult question: how should we respond to classic works that exhibit racist or other condemnable views? Achebe answers dismissing the aestheticist view art for art’s sake or that we should merely appreciate and analyze the aesthetic or linguistic skill of a [[#|work]], he presupposes a social theory of art, holding that art reflects and propagates social views and values. He does not fully justify this position in An Image of Africa, but in The Novelist as Teacher, in which he states literature’s pedagogical mission and its ethical and political responsibilities.
An Image of Africa has set the terms of debate about one of the most read and taught books in the English curriculum. Some scholars maintain that Conrad opposes European imperialism, which was at its height in 1900, and exhibits sympathy for the plight of Africans. Others argue that Heart of Darkness represents not a real Africa but an allegory of an individual psychological descent or of a decontextualized battle between good and evil. Critics following Achebe find texts such as Heart of Darkness flawed in their racism and limited as they depict Africa only through Western eyes. More moderate historicist critics, while agreeing that Heart of Darkness exhibits racist views, they point out that it represents relatively progressive views for its time.
Beyond its impact on Conrad criticism, Achebe’s denunciation of Conrad assumed a larger significance in the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. Traditionalists have attempted to impose moralistic and political standards on classic works of literature (political correctness). They claim that canonical works exhibit high aesthetic value, proven by the test of time, and thus should be esteemed. Other theorists –postcolonial, African American, feminist, queer, and so on- contest a literary canon that carries racist, orientalist, sexist, homophobic, and other negative values. This debate seems inextricable, because both groups argue at cross-purposes; it is doubtful that a traditionalist critic would advocate racism, or that a progressive critic would do without aesthetic appreciation. Their disagreement rests on their differing theories of art: Traditionalists claim priority for formal aesthetic properties. Progressive critics claim priority for art’s social, or in Achebe’s terms, pedagogical, value.
Along with the Kenyan novelist and critic Ngugi wă Thiong’o and others, he has called for representations of imperialism to shift from European perspectives to the perspectives of those colonized. His call, advocating a distinctive indigenous voice to represent its own experience, has been influential to the developing field of postcolonial studies, as well as for African American literature and criticism. His analysis of the West’s imagination of Africa as a negative projection of itself draws on the psychoanalytic model of colonialism proposed by Frantz Fanon, which argues that European depictions of colonies as the Other are symptomatic of the West’s own cultural neuroses. This analysis of the literary and cultural representations of non-Western culture has received its fullest treatment in the work of Edward Said, who labels Western projections onto the Eastern Other Orientalism. In An image of Africa, Achebe simply calls it racism.
An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1975)
There is a desire in Western psychology to set Africa up as a complement to Europe, as a place of negations, at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s state of spiritual grace will be manifest. Heart of Darkness projects an image of Africa as the other world, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization. River Thames (ages of good service done to the race) opposite River Congo which has rendered no service (going up this river was like travelling back to the earliest beginning of the world. Here lies the meaning of Heart of Darkness: What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity- like yours…Ugly. Africa represents our remotest past. Conrad’s description of natives is fragmentary: eyes, legs, bodies, etc. Conrad was a romantic and wanted things in their place. Tragedy begins when things leave their accustomed place, like European leaving its safe strongholds to take a peep into the heart of darkness. Contrast between the native woman who had been Kurtz’s mistress and his European girlfriend. African woman without human expression. Natives portrayed as deprived of language a violent babble of uncouth sounds, instead. It could be argued that it’s Marlow’s attitude and not Conrad’s that is represented but Achebe thinks Conrad approves Marlow with only minor reservations. Marlow is depicted as witness of truth and as one holding those advanced and humane views appropriate to the English liberal tradition. He doesn’t consider natives as his equals or even his brothers; the most he acknowledges is a distant kinship. Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. It has been argued that Conrad is less charitable to the Europeans and that the point in the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa, that Africa is just a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. And that is the perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of the mind of a European mind. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray, a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently, Africa is something to be avoided, just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man’s integrity.

Bibliography:
LEITCH, VINCENT B., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2001.
BALDICK, CHRIS. Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
CASHMORE, ELLIS. Ed. Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. London: Routledge, 1996.