Academic journal article Conradiana

An End to Imperialism: Lord Jim and the Postcolonial Conrad

Academic journal article Conradiana

An End to Imperialism: Lord Jim and the Postcolonial Conrad

Article excerpt

In "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness," Chinua Achebe argues that Conrad was a "purveyor of comforting myths" which helped legitimize European imperialism in Africa.' Although he concedes that to some extent, Conrad insulates himself from Marlow and his opinions by filtering Marlow's narrative through an anonymous narrator, he asserts that Conrad was "a thoroughgoing racist" since "he neglects to hint, clearly or adequately, at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the opinions and actions of his characters" (11, 7). Conrad, he concludes, "had a problem with niggers" (13); he does not provide an alternative frame of reference because he could not--he could not imagine an Africa populated by human beings.

Twenty years later, in Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said tells us more about Conrad's prejudices, arguing that Achebe's criticism "does not go far enough" (165). (2) According to him, Conrad "writes as a man in whom a Western view of the non-Western world is so ingrained as to blind him to other histories, other cultures, other aspirations":

All Conrad can see is a world dominated by the Atlantic West... He could not understand that India, Africa, and South America also had lives and cultures with integrities not totally controlled by the gringo imperialists and reformers of the world... (xviii)

He goes on to say that "Conrad does not give us the sense that he could imagine a fully realized alternative to imperialism: the natives he wrote about in Africa, Asia, or America were incapable of independence, and because he seemed to imagine that European tutelage was a given, he could not foresee what would take place when it came to an end" (25).

Since the appearance of Achebe and Said's critiques, it has been increasingly popular to regard Conrad as a racist and imperialist, at least among postcolonial critics. Indeed, as Marianna Torgovnick notes, many such critics consider Conrad to be a "Western demon," arguing that "the only value in reading Conrad is to expose the rotten Western attitudes he articulates." (3) Not surprisingly, given Conrad's canonical status, such views have prompted a variety of strong responses from traditional literary critics. (4) Some, like Patrick Bratlinger, argue that Conrad was a racist but not an imperialist. Others, like Cedric Watts, assert that Conrad was neither racist nor imperialist. Others still insist that Conrad was anti-racist and anti-imperialist. In Kipling and Conrad: The Colonial Fiction, for example, John McClure identifies Conrad's efforts to subvert racist stereotypes of subject peoples as the "often disguised social project of Conrad's serious colonial fiction." (5) He argues, among other things, that in Almayer's Folly, Conrad's treatment of Dain Maroola suggests "that the Malays' traditional precolonial culture was superior in important respects to that of modern Western civilization" (103), and that by "acknowledging the influence of social forces on human character, Conrad implicitly rejects the racist theories of inherent differences and inferiority supported by many imperialists" (107).

Even though McClure rejects Achebe's assertion that Conrad was a racist, his position on whether Conrad's natives are capable of achieving independence is not inconsistent with that of Said, albeit for different reasons. In his discussion of Lord Jim, for example, McClure argues that the Patusanis "have lost their self-reliance," that "they have projected all their powers, all their faith, onto an alien master [Jim]" (129). Although ultimately McClure concludes that Conrad was an anti-imperialist, he finds the ending of Lord Jim to be "deeply pessimistic" since, in his view, Doramin, the Bugis leader, emerges as "the vengeful representative of a shattered tradition" rather than as the leader of a postcolonial nation (130). Unlike Said, however, who attributes this supposed pessimism to Conrad's imperialist prejudices, McClure interprets the ending of Lord Jim as an indictment of imperialism's destructiveness. …

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