Monday, March 25, 2013

Goodbye to Chinua Achebe

The man died last week. He wrote one good novel and a bunch of others not so good. That's not meant to be dismissive. Very few novelists manage so well. Ernest Hemingway wrote a really good novel (The Sun Also Rises) and a bunch of not-so-good novels. Likewise Kingsley Amis. And Achebe's good novel is very good indeed. No it's not as good as The Sun Also Rises and it isn't even in the same solar system as Heart of Darkness but it's a good book.

He also wrote criticism. As with his novels, his criticism will not be remembered except for one singular exception. That exception is An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That essay had the effect of legitimating postcolonial criticism.

At first glance you might think that a critical movement called "postcolonial" would be primarily the work of people from former European colonies seeking to redress the wrongs done unto their countries and cultures by oppressive colonizers. Certainly, that is the image the movement wants you to get of it. And there certainly are writers from these colonies (of whom Achebe is an example) who have contributed to postcolonial literature. For the most part, however, postcolonialism is a white liberal guilt movement.

Also for the most part, postcolonian literature is a hash of warmed over stupid ideas from the New Left. It insists that the west still exerts indirect colonial power over the colonies in the form of capitalism and globalization. If you ever wondered how the spoiled kids who camp in the city park and beat drums as a form of protest learned to hate Starbucks, the answer is because they were taught this crap at university.

And whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire Achebe's chutzpah. In attacking Conrad, Achebe picked an unlikely target.  Conrad was a role model for the postcolonial thinkers. And little wonder, he was a white guy who had attacked white people for oppressing black people in African colonies. That is to say, he had done what postcolonial critics were also trying to do. Going after him was nervy.

First, a couple of acknowledgments. There is racism in Heart of Darkness and in other writing of Conrad. That should neither surprise us nor alarm us. Their pretty much has to be. Racism was a factor of the European culture of that era. You breathed it in everywhere you went.

The second acknowledgment is that the core of Achebe's criticism of Conrad, that he treated Africa as a backdrop for the moral and spiritual adventures of white characters who went there, is absolutely true. It is a simple fact of Conrad's (and many other writer's) work.

It's worth noting that a similar criticism has been made of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. (That's why people read me, because I draw such profound connections between great literature and pop culture.) The issue reportedly, I haven't actually seen it, features shots of mostly white models in exotic locations with locals providing interesting background.

And that is what Achebe (correctly) accused Joseph Conrad of doing with Heart of Darkness. The novel is the story of the company men, and Marlowe and Kurtz and the weird engineer type who worships Kurtz. Africa and the Africans in the story serve mainly as an exotic backdrop against which the character of the white men will stand out.

Well, gee, how horrible of Conrad to do that and to care so little about the identity and the self realization of these Africans. Before you get all incensed about this ask yourself a simple question. How is that different from your last vacation? Thousands of college kids study post colonial theory every year and then they go to Cancun for spring break so that Mexico, Mexican culture and actually Mexicans can serve as an exotic background against which they can have adventure and sex.

I know, I know, you're not like that. When you go on a trip, you really go to a place and you're in touch with the local culture and the people. Of course you do. Liar! (The rude question is this: How different is reading a couple of novels by writers such as Achebe now and then different from what fabulously wealthy celebrities do when they mix a couple of charity balls into their round of extravagant living?)

It's easy to see why Achebe felt the way he did. His land and his culture were not taken seriously by the people who came there from Europe and that showed in the books they later wrote about the place. They still aren't taken seriously by most of the eight million people who bought his novel. Hey, you're denying me my identity. There can't be any worse crime than that. Well, except maybe for just about any crime you can think of.

We don't just do this when we go to third world countries. Visit New York City or Paris and you will do the same thing. Those two cities, however, have rich histories and strong economies and vibrant local cultures. They don't care about you using them as an exotic backdrop. Hell, they don't even notice you. Nigeria, not so much. I know, how condescending of me to say that. But what I say of Nigeria was just as true of New York City in Edith Wharton's day. There was a local culture that New Yorkers took very seriously but they couldn't get Londoners, Parisians or Berliners to see it that way.

This, not incidentally, is a point that Conrad is well aware of.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  
He's talking about the Thames when he makes that point.

But that doesn't make it fair! That's the real point, you insist. The fact that once upon a time the ancient Britons were oppressed the way that third world cultures are now dominated through capitalism and globalization doesn't make it right. Uh huh.   And then I reply by asking how those college courses you took on postcolonial criticism and those Putumayo sampler disks of third world music that you own are supposed to fix this. And then you say something like, "Maybe I'm not doing much to fix the problem but at least I care." And I say, "Now we're getting somewhere because you've admitted that this is really about you."

Here is the final point: you'll never convince anyone of anything if you don't believe it yourself. Al Gore preaches against the "evil forces" that cause climate change and then goes home to his giant mansion. You've got a copy of Things Fall Apart on your self and a pile of third world music and you've visited Mayan ruins while doing ecotourism. But you don't really believe any of this bullshit. Al Gore is a whore but he's an expensive one. You're a fifty dollar trick.

And Chinua Achebe is dead.

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