In search for meaning: Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe

 In search for meaning: Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe

I am tempted to paraphrase Count Leo Tolstoy and yet I purpose to discuss him some other day, on account of time and space confines.  The Russian writer, you will recall, says at the start of the tragic eponymous story of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are happy in the same fashion. But each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In like manner, all bad writers are bad in the same way. But every great writer is great after his own fashion. Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, all of whom have been in literary focus in recent times, were great writers, each after his own fashion and reasons.

I discovered Conrad in my ‘A’ Level literature class, in a gone age. Our focus was on the search to understand what sits at the heart of the human soul. We were grappling with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Golding was himself preoccupied with the bestiality that seems to rule the human soul. He was overwhelmed with man’s inhumanity to man.

In a surrealistic moment in which one of his more saintly characters falls into a trance in Lord of the Flies, he tells us that things don’t work because of the darkness of man’s heart. Man seems to be fundamentally prone to evil. On this account, he is totally incapable of good. In the quest to appreciate this focus more expansively, Joseph Conrad came in the picture, alongside other soul-searching writers. Having spent time in Africa and in the high seas in the late 1800s, Conrad had witnessed enough human wretchedness. He concluded that something irredeemably wicked rules the soft centre of the human soul. He explored this theme in The Heart of Darkness and in Lord Jim. He seems to rest his case where he sees Africa as the headquarters of this Gaderene darkness. It is a darkness that often leaves Conrad’s characters in desolation. Like Lord of the Flies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such other works as The Nigger of the Narcissus and The Outcast of the Islands are emblematic of the human soul in retrogression. Eventually, we are each a battleground. The forces of good and evil are locked in warfare in this tragic theatre. The wicked will invariably win, for such is human nature. Evil must triumph over good. The human being is incurably in the grip of the Neanderthal instincts that urge him to harm fellow man.

Conrad has been hailed as a master stylist. In the Reader’s Companion to World Literature, the editors said of him, “His greatest skill lies in his capacity to evoke an atmosphere, whether of a typhoon at sea or of the sultry mystery of the jungle. And this he does by a treatment as careful as that of the realists.”

In an interview with Lewis Nkosi of South Africa in 1962, Chinua Achebe was asked whom he admired most among writers. He replied, in the interview published in African Writers Talking, “I don’t really think there is any one (not anyone) I can say I admire all that much. I used to like Hemingway; and I used to like Conrad, I used to like Conrad particularly; and I like [Graham] Green.”

That Achebe liked Green is not in doubt at all. In No Longer at Ease he makes Obi Okonkwo, the principal character, to say of Green’s The Heart of the Matter, “[It] is the only sensible novel any European has written about Africa and one of the best novels I have read.” The theme of black on white is recurrent in Achebe’s reflections. He said on numerous occasions that he went into writing because of what Europeans had written about Africa. “I was quite certain that I was going into writing, and one thing that set me thinking was Joyce Carey’s novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much and its clear to me that this was a most superficial picture,” he told Nkosi in 1962.

But perhaps it was perhaps Conrad, more than any other writer who miffed Achebe most. Conrad has been hailed as a humanist who was opposed to the excesses of European greed and inhumanity in Africa. European exegetes state that he has been misunderstood and misrepresented. That the darkness he talks about pertains to the white man’s inhumanity to the black man. He is like the benevolent European journalist in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, who discloses to the world the atrocious plunder of the Congo by European self-seekers. Nonetheless, his outrageously racist thrust is unmistakable.  A respected white man who has lived in Africa for a while “goes native.” A European party finds him worse than the natives. His alienation from the western world has driven him to insanity that only Africa could throw someone into. An African tribe has adopted him and made him a chief. He wallows in blood, human sacrifice and horrific rites. He is a cannibal, like his hosts. Heart of Darkness may indeed be partly about Europe’s dark heart’s excesses in Africa. But it certainly is [also], and more profoundly so, about the perceived darkness of Africa; a darkness that can render a good white man into a blood drinking savage. Such is Mr. Kurtz.

Conrad is the great writer who tells stories within stories in slim volumes such as Heart of Darkness. A master of description and casting of canvases. He even defends the black man against Europeans. Yet, it does not escape the discerning mind that his love for Africa is dangerous, like that of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Blixen loves her cook the same way she loves her dog. When you have understood, you will find that he fights for the African the way animal rights activists fight for dogs’ rights. Is this possibly why Achebe says, “I used to like Conrad? Why “used to”?

In the end, Achebe thinks we should all tell our own story. Nobody can do it for us. But what is our story? In the quest to give meaning to the African condition, Achebe sees dispossession as the genie that we must address. Even the telling of our story by somebody else is in the docket of dispossession – perhaps of the worst order – that you cannot even speak for yourself? Where is your voice? If Achebe is a great writer, would it suffice that he finds and gives us a voice? It is no doubt nightmarish if you should find that you have your own story to tell, but your voice is stuck in the chest. Anyone who enables you to find your voice is great – even by just that alone. Yet Achebe has done more than find our voice. He tells our story with the richness of the African idiom. He is the great artist who reminds us in Things Fall Apart, “ … the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Yet in Home and Exile he says, “In the war between dispossession and its nemesis civilization itself regresses into barbarism; words become weapons again rather than tools; ploughshares are beaten back into spears. Fear and suspicion take over from openness and straight conversation.”

Such is the troubled relationship that has informed the intercourse between Africa and Europe. In this day and age when Africa seems to be consciously running away from the lands of the setting sun to the lands of the rising sun, the questions of quality of partnership between Africa and the outside world may need to come back into literary debates and scholarly debates generally. Eventually it is a search for meaning. What meaning do we construct from these relationships? Achebe was fond of reminding us of British colonial governor who once said in Rhodesia that the only partnership possible between Europe and Africa was partnership of the horse and its rider. The African would be the horse and the European the rider.

But what has the relationship between Africa and Europe been in the pages of world history? Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s White on Black: Images of Blacks in Western Popular Culture is certainly one of the most comprehensive efforts to explore the changing fortunes of this relationship. The earliest representations of Africa from about 2500 BC trace us back to ancient Egypt. They paint a portrait of integration and intermarriage between Africa and Europe. Black beauty is celebrated. Black is positively valued as the colour of Egyptian culture and of fertility. After 2200 BC, Blacks decline from a mysterious loved people, to a liked warrior people. They were then at war with the Nubian kingdoms in the south – Kush and Meroe. Subsequently, the identity of both Egypt and Blacks is distorted. They no longer seem to belong together – Egypt and blackness. When Egypt conquers Kush, Blacks are depicted as defeated enemies. There is reversal again to a positive image when Kush conquers Egypt (800 – 300 BC). Blacks become pharaohs. But elsewhere in Libya, at this time, the great historian Herodotus sees blacks as wild beasts.

The story of the conquest of the African civilization of Carthage and its integration into Europe is a tale for another day. The Christian era, however, reintroduces black as the colour of sin and darkness. Origen of Alexandria introduced the allegory of spiritual light against Egyptian darkness. Finally, there is the interesting story of Europe under Islamic siege in the late Medieval Age and the search for the liberating legendary Prester John, who was believed to live somewhere in Ethiopia, and Europe’s tenderness towards Africa.

The search for meaning in this complex web of race relationships where matrices of value take on metaphors of light, darkness, whiteness and   people’s skins and souls is not about to go away. Writers who attempt to find meaning in this labyrinth are great each in his or her own way and in their own space. Tolstoy, whom we paraphrase at the start of this piece, discovers a completely different kind of meaning of life and greatness from the thoughts of Jean Jacques Rousseau and in his own brand of Christianity, which he even tries to impose upon those around him. Time and space allowing, we will possibly address this – someday.

Barrack Muluka

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