Magazine article Modern Age

Political Correctness and the Attack on Great Literature

Magazine article Modern Age

Political Correctness and the Attack on Great Literature

Article excerpt

One of the abominations of our day, and there are many, is the beast of political correctness that has been turned loose on the world. Born of genuine humanitarian impulses, it now threatens to devour much of what is greatest in our literature and forever separate the children of our culture from what is essential to their humanity.

Rather than fight the beast in its full fury--for it has grown large and powerful indeed--I shall snipe at it from the bushes and hope to wound it seriously, leaving the coup-de-grace for another time and, perhaps, another writer. Thus I shall focus on Chinua Achebe's libel against Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, as set forth in an article entitled "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" which first appeared in 1977.' Though weak and inconclusive, if not somewhat hysterical, Achebe's essay is widely anthologized and generally embraced by the initiated as Holy Writ. Hence it is important and a worthy place to target the beast of political correctness even after so many years have passed since the essay first appeared.

I have examined Achebe's charges in detail elsewhere, so 1 will not repeat my arguments here. (2) I shall merely summarize Achebe's main point, show how he has blundered, and, using this as a case in point, move on to argue against the trend to sift brilliant literature through the narrow, constricting sieve of political correctness.

Achebe does not know how to read a novel, to state the obvious. Of greater import is the consideration that he has a great deal of company in his determination to bring to the novel ideological preconceptions and a not-so-hidden political agenda. In contrast, Eliseo Vivas and other so-called "New Critics" have been displaced by structuralist, deconstructionist, feminist, black feminist, Marxist, Freudian, and New Historicist critics, all of whom seem, like Achebe, to have reached predetermined conclusions before they sit down to read a novel. The maxim of New Criticism was to open one's mind, to listen carefully to what the novelist has to say, and such a thing Achebe, among many others, seems constitutionally unable to do; like the tone-deaf listening to a symphony, they cannot hear the notes that are being played. Vivas revealed in his own writings on the subject a respect for what the author said that amounted to reverence: no one held the novelist in higher esteem or listened more closely to every subtle change of key or pitch. Such an approach seems imperative for a full appreciation of a great work of art, and a great piece of literature is, above all else, a work of art.

In order to grasp what Joseph Conrad has to say, we must read the novella carefully and be certain at the outset (as Achebe is not) that we separate Conrad the man from Conrad the novelist. Vivas has shown in meticulous detail that this distinction must be made because the "shadowy forms" in the mind of the person who decides to write a novel are altered by the creative process and, as Conrad would have it, "the apparitions change into living flesh, the shimmering mists take shape." (3) The author and the person who decided to write the novel in the first place (the "poet" and the "man" as Vivas calls them, respectively) are not to be confused with one another: the "man" who writes the novel may have a notion of what he wants the novel to be, but the "poet" takes over and the end product, in the case of works of art, comes as a surprise. Having separated the two, we must then be careful not to confuse Conrad the novelist, in this case, with his narrator, Charlie Marlow.

Achebe makes none of these distinctions, and this is where he makes his first mistake. He begins his attack against Conrad (the man, not the novelist, and not Marlow) by calling him a "bloody racist." He then goes on to say that

  the question is whether a novel which celebrates the dehumanization
  of Africans, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can
  be called a great work of art. … 
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