Africans in Joseph Conrad's Books: What Do They Really Say?
Do Conrad's African characters speak? And if so, what do they say? Culture.pl presents an academic paper by Joanna Kurowska on the utterances found in Conrad's African novels and addresses their overall significance to his representation of Africa and Africans.
Counter-Images of Europe in the Utterances of Selected Characters in Conrad's African Fiction
Joanna Kurowska, University of Chicago
In 1977 Chinua Achebe accused Joseph Conrad of not conferring, in his Heart of Darkness, the facility of language on the 'rudimentary souls of Africa'. In place of speech the Africans in the novel make 'a violent babble of uncouth sounds' (Achebe 115).1 They speak intelligibly only twice. One of the instances is when Marlow approaches Kurtz's inner station. As the natives from the shore attack the ship, Marlow initiates a conversation with the black headman of his crew. For 'good fellowship's sake', he says: 'Aha!' The headman replies: 'Catch 'im. Give 'im to us'. Marlow asks: 'To you, eh? What would you do with them?' The headman answers: 'Eat 'im!' (HD 103).
According to Achebe, the fact that, exceptionally, in this conversation the headman uses English constitutes one of Conrad's greatest racist assaults (115). Allegedly, Conrad makes the African speak English only to enable the Western reader to glimpse the barbarism – or, as Achebe (paradoxically) puts it, 'the unspeakable cravings of [the African] hearts' (ibid.). Peter Firchow has convincingly argued that, while defending a noble cause, Achebe ignores the broader context of Conrad's narrative. For example, he disregards Conrad's use of contrast. As a result, he overlooks many important details, for instance the reverse symmetry between the sick men crawling on all fours in the grove of death, and Kurtz crawling on all fours 'out of his own choice' (cf. Firchow 39).
Indeed, the English utterances of the natives in Heart of Darkness seem to grow in significance when one considers them in the light of Conrad's employment of contrast. Before exploring that significance, it may be worthwhile to juxtapose the utterances of Conrad's African characters to those appearing in other contemporary adventure novels. For example, in King Solomon's Mines, Haggard describes an encounter between the Englishman Quatermain and the Zulu Umbopa. Quatermain initiates a conversation by asking the Zulu patronisingly.
'Well, ... what is your name?' A moment later he addresses Umbopa: 'Why do you ask whither we go? What is it to thee?' The Zulu replies: 'It is this, O white men, that if indeed you travel so far I would travel with you'. (265)
Haggard does not inform the reader in what tongue the conversation takes place but nowhere in the narrative does he suggest that his English characters speak any African language.2 Compared to the headman's 'snaps' in broken English, Umbopa's utterances strike the reader as grammatically and stylistically elaborate.
Considering that both men use a language foreign to them, the headman's short, fractured sentences are more realistic than Umbopa's high-flown, rounded utterances. The outcomes of the two conversations are also strikingly different. The laconic communication of the headman makes Marlow reflect that the men of his crew are starving. For his part, Quatermain reminds the Zulu of his racial inferiority: 'You forget yourself a little.... That is not the way to speak' (265).
In Heart of Darkness Conrad employs precisely that contrast between the flowery language of the Europeans and the brief, awkward, fractured, and yet extremely precise and unambiguous utterances of his Africans. As if exemplifying Conrad's own oxymorons included in the description of the 'immense forests ... [that] lay in the eloquent silence of mute greatness' ('An Outpost of Progress' 94), the semantic force and precision of the utterances of the characters in Heart of Darkness grow counter-proportionally to the volume and grandiosity of the language those characters use. The headman with whom Marlow speaks uses eight words altogether to convey both the message that he and his men are hungry and a solution to the problem. His utterance also suggests that his white 'employers' have mistreated him and his men, which undermines Marlow's initial declaration of 'good fellowship'.
The second instance of the use of English by the Africans occurs when the manager's boy 'puts his insolent black head in the doorway' and says 'in a tone of scathing contempt': 'Mistah Kurtz – he dead' (150). Despite the brevity and incompleteness of that sentence (it lacks the predicate), it conveys its message with superb precision. The nonverbal aspects of the boy's utterance – his insolence and contempt – contrast with Kurtz's seeming politeness and compassion, which in fact disguise his arrogance and contempt.
Again, the most important aspect of the contrast between the utterances of the Africans and those of the whites is their employment of language. The narrative's insistence on presenting the lavishness and grandiosity of Kurtz's language is remarkable. Marlow's main aim in pursuing Kurtz is talking with him. Kurtz's 'gift of expression' (113; 147) is playfully described as both 'bewildering' and 'illuminating', 'the most exalted' and 'the most contemptible' (113-4). As Bonney has observed, while describing Kurtz's use of language, Marlow 'must invalidate the very act of defining in order to demonstrate through his own linguistic activity the supposed qualities of Kurtz's speech' (138). That speech is rendered paradoxically as either a 'pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of impenetrable darkness' (113-14). Its very illumination turns it into darkness.
Considering that 'all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz' (117), the narrative locates the 'heart of darkness' within Kurtz's mind as well as at the core of European discourse that he articulates. In Lord's words, Heart of Darkness 'documents the transformation of civilised ideals into words that stand alone, divorced from a meaningful relation with their referent' (61). Kurtz's wordy, elaborate, moving, elegant, pretty – and meaningless3 – utterances are the exact opposite of those of the Africans. To Kurtz, language 'serves ... as a vehicle, metaphor, and paradigm of the pretences and deceptions of colonial expansion' (Lord 67); whereas the headman and the servant boy restore the straightforwardness of language in communicating needs and identifying facts.
Characteristically, looking back, Marlow remembers Kurtz's and the other Europeans' utterances (including the utterances of Kurtz's Intended) as 'one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense' (115). This stays in contrast with Marlow's lasting memory of – characteristically – nonverbal message conveyed to him by his dying helmsman: 'the intimate profundity of [his] look ... remains to this day in my memory – like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment' (119).
As Peters observes, let loose in Africa Kurtz 'finds nothing underlying [his] ideals and nothing to enforce them, and hence they have no power over his life' (56). Considering the manifest discrepancy between 'words and their referent' in the Europeans' use of language, Lord asks: Does this mean that the ideals and values of European civilisation, which those words pronounce, are merely nominal? Or are they substantial? (cf. 61). Conrad's employment of contrast in juxtaposing Kurtz's use of language with that of the Africans suggests a restoration of at least one value: sincerity of expression.
Apparently, the Africans retain a value that the Europeans – including Marlow, Conrad, and Conrad critics – recognise as their own. For example, Andrea White argues that 'it was possible for someone in Conrad's unique position to see ... the disparity between the [imperial] discourse and the actuality of grabbing 'for the sake of what could be got' (184). To be able to notice a disparity one must have a notion of a norm, in this case the norm of concurrence between sign (language) and referent (reality).4 Consequently, Heart of Darkness reveals the moral bankruptcy of European civilisation of which language is merely a mask, and therefore it is also bankrupt. On the other hand, as Lord argues, the novella reflects Conrad's struggle to save meaning.5
But is this norm of sincerity or straightforwardness a genuine value of African culture? Or does Conrad simply use the Africans to deal with his distinctively 'European' frustrations? Do we learn anything about the Congolese from Conrad's African pieces – or is Africa in both Heart of Darkness and 'An Outpost of Progress' merely the 'props for the break-up of a petty European mind', as Chinua Achebe has put it? (cf. 117). These questions evoke the fundamental problem of the possibility of knowing a different culture.
A number of scholars took Conrad at his word regarding the 'essential [and allegedly irreconcilable] difference of the races' (CL2 402). For example, Krajka argues that in Heart of Darkness 'real interracial communication does not take place, as the culture of the black people is not explored in any depth' (245). Naipaul claims that 'Karain' shows men as 'prisoners of their cultures' (191). John Griffith has stressed Conrad's pessimism regarding the possibility of 'cross-ethnic encounters'.
On the other hand, there are thinkers who observe that knowing a different culture is a necessary precondition for knowing one's own culture. For example, Bakhtin maintains that 'it is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly' and that a 'meaning only reveals its depths once it has ... come into contact with another, foreign meaning' (7). Mary Louise Pratt helps to solve this paradox by proposing the idea of the 'contact zone'. She argues that even in the (frequent) case of cultures clashing in the conditions of a dominated-domineering relationship, the results of the clash are necessarily – even if unintentionally – reflected in both cultures; for example, in the ethnographic texts of the conquerors as well as in the autoethnographic texts of the conquered.6
Pratt has demonstrated that a colonialist describing alleged 'barbarism' of the reluctant colonised, in his descriptions unwillingly includes his fears and thus his acknowledgement of the value of the others' systems of significance. On their side, the dominated may use the language of the domineering to 'construct a parodic, oppositional representation of the conqueror's own speech' (35). In the non-fictional world, Chinua Achebe, Franz Fanon, and Adam Mickiewicz seem to be distinct examples of this.7 With regard to Heart of Darkness, both Conrad and his creations, Marlow and Kurtz, have found themselves in a 'contact zone'.
If the question of language did not bother Haggard, who sacrificed probability in order to present his image of Africa in the allegedly inter-racial dialogues of his characters, for Conrad the language barrier was a fundamental issue. With the exception of Makola in 'An Outpost of Progress', none of Conrad's Africans speak any European language sufficiently to give a substantial account of their culture.
With the exception of Kurtz, none of his Europeans speak any African language sufficiently to learn about the local culture. Conrad's recognition of language barrier is multidirectional. If Marlow suspects that 'there [is] a meaning' in the 'passionate uproar' of the Africans, this situation becomes reversed in An Outcast of the Islands, where in a local tavern Chinamen grow tired at the 'buzzing monotony of the unintelligible stream of words poured out by the white men' (6).8
Conrad's frequent theme of unintelligible human voices reflects his authentic experience of a person not understanding the language of his environment. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that there is a world of difference between 'knowing' a language and the actual encounter with native speakers using it. Conrad must have experienced that in England, in Indonesia, in Africa, and as a child in Russia.
If, as many critics have argued, Conrad was preoccupied with seeing, hearing seems to have concerned him as well. For example, in Almayer's Folly, he describes a scene in which Babalatchi and Mrs. Almayer listen from a distance to the 'confused but loud utterance coming in bursts of unequal strength, with unexpected pauses and noisy repetitions that made some words and sentences fall clear and distinct on their ears out of the meaningless jumble of excited shoutings' (136).9
In The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' Conrad describes 'the feverish and shrill babble of Eastern language' struggling 'against the masterful tones of tipsy seamen' (4). When the Narcissus enters London, an 'immense and lamentable murmur-the murmur of millions of lips praying, cursing, sighing, jeering-the undying murmur of folly, regret, and hope exhaled by the crowds of the anxious earth' comes from the city (163-4).
Knowing and speech
Heart of Darkness is a case study of the situation of being forced to perform the exasperating task of guessing meaning in the flow of a foreign language. Marlow repeatedly stresses two aspects of such a situation: the lack of comprehension of, and the implied meaning in what he hears. He is immersed in two kinds of semantic systems: visual and aural, often working simultaneously. Both words ('symbols') and images ('icons') constitute important aspects of communication.10
For example, as Jakobson suggests, every building is both a kind of a shelter and a kind of a message; clothes, besides having a strictly utilitarian purpose, display various semantic characteristics (cf. 61). Hence, 'utterance' may include nonverbal aspects of communication, such as movement, apparel, make-up, etc. In his contact zone, Marlow registers symbols in what he hears as well as icons and also symbols in what he sees, for example:
Along the river, three men, plastered with bright red earth from head to foot, strutted to and fro restlessly. ... They faced the river, stamped their feet, nodded their horned heads, swayed their scarlet bodies; they shook towards the fierce river-demon a bunch of black feathers ... ; they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language. (145-6)
Impeded by his imperial preconceptions regarding Africa and its inhabitants, exposed to various systems of significance in the 'contact zone', Marlow tries to understand his surroundings through his use of imaginative comprehension. For example, describing the scene in which a 'loud cry of infinite desolation' is being heard from the thicket, he observes: 'to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly, and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise' (102). Marlow first interprets the utterance as 'mournful'; then, looking for clues, he carefully observes his surroundings.
The whites ... had ... a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression ... Several exchanged short, grunting phrases, which seemed to settle the matter to their satisfaction. (103)
As this excerpt shows, Conrad not only 'conferred the facility of speech' on his black characters, but also excluded his Europeans from comprehension of that speech. The contrast between the behaviour of the Africans and that of the Europeans is magnified also by ridiculing the preconceptions of the latter. Without curiosity and imaginative comprehension, the Europeans are unable to learn anything; they are only 'painfully shocked'.
Imaginative comprehension is a precondition to the Wordsworthian 'imaginative sympathy', which Marlow occasionally displays. He looks at his native crew as 'you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses' (105). Upon hearing the sound of African drums, he describes it as possibly having as 'profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country' (71). This concession not only disclaims the alleged 'barbarism' of African culture, but – leaving room for its otherness – acknowledges its depth and significance as equal to that of European culture. This excerpt also confirms Hampson's observation that Conrad 'carefully situated the action [of his novels] in the material world' (101).11
For example, with regard to African drums, Davidson observes: 'A good African drummer can literally make his drum speak in words and sentences by varying the strength and placement of his tapping to reproduce the sounds of African speech' (149). During special occasions or religious rites, 'dancers and drummers engage in a ritual dialogue, and both 'talk' continuously to the audience' (150). Marlow's imaginative comprehension allows him to perceive that the sounds of the African drums are also meaningful 'utterances' – even though he does not understand them.
Conrad's glimpses at African or Malay culture often bring the reader's attention back to Europe. A good example of this is Gobila in 'An Outpost of Progress'. Similarly to his treatment of the blacks in Heart of Darkness, Conrad contrasts him to the white colonists and reverses stereotypes typically associated with inter-racial encounters between 'civilised' and 'savage'.
Gobila speaks a language that the Europeans do not understand. He regards the whites to be 'indistinguishably alike' (95). The Europeans' behaviour amuses him: 'Carlier slapped him on the back, and recklessly struck off matches', while Kayerts 'was always ready to let him have a sniff at the amonia bottle' (96). Although Gobila does not utter any sentences directly, Conrad's use of free indirect discourse enables the reader to know some of Gobila's reactions: 'in short, the whites behaved just like that other white creature that had hidden itself in a hole in the ground' (ibid.).
In Gobila's conduct towards Kayerts and Carlier, many Europeans can recognise characteristics of their own standard of civilised behaviour. Gobila treats the whites with friendliness and natural curiosity. He offers them hospitality, which is a condition of their survival: 'The women of Gobila's village [brought] every morning to the station, fowls, and sweet potatoes, and palm wine, and sometimes a goat' (96). For their part, Kayerts and Carlier regard Gobila with contempt and betray him by selling his people to slave dealers. Gobila refuses to follow the advice of his worriers to take revenge through 'burning and killing'. He resolves that the whites 'should be left alone' and simply terminates any further contact with them (cf. 107). If Kayerts and Carlier represent 'civilisation', Gobila both represents and enacts civility – a virtue long valued by the Europeans.
Ultimately, Conrad's exposure to various 'contact zones', his fidelity to the material, the world that he had experienced, and his remarkable imaginative comprehension, enabled him to understand and tell the so-called civilised men of Europe that they could and still can learn from non-Europeans how to be civil.
- Achebe, Chinua. 'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness'. Joseph Conrad. Ed. Andrew Michael Roberts. London: Longman, 1998. 109-123.
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
- Berthoud, Jacques. 'Introduction' to Almayer's Folly. Oxford: OUP, 1992.
- Bonney, William W. 'Joseph Conrad and the Betrayal of Language'. Nineteenth Century Fiction. Vol. 34. No. 2. (September 1979): 127-153.
- Davidson, Basil. African Kingdoms: Great Ages of Man. New York: Tome-Life Books, 1966.
- Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
- Firchow, Peter E. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
- Griffith, John W. Joseph Conrad and the Anthropological Dilemma: 'Bewildered Traveller'.Oxford English Monographs. Oxford: OUP, 1995. Haggard, H. Rider. Three Adventure Novels: She. King Solomon's Mines. Allan Quatermain. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951.
- Hampson, Robert. Cross-Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad's Malay Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
- Jakobson, Roman. W poszukiwaniu istoty języka. Wybór pism. Ed. Maria Renata Mayenowa. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1989. Vol. 1.
- Krajka, Wiesław. 'Making Magic or Cross-Cultural Encounter: The Case of Conrad's 'Karain: A Memory'. Conrad, James, and Other Relations. Ed. Keith Carabine et al. Lublin: UMCS, 1998. 245-59.
- Lord, Ursula. Solitude Versus Solidarity in the Novels of Joseph Conrad: Political and Epistemological Implications of Narrative Innovation. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998.
- Naipaul, V. S. 'Conrad's Darkness'. Joseph Conrad: Third World Perspectives. Ed. Robert D. Hammer. Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1990. 189-200.
- Peters, John. Conrad and Impressionism. Cambridge: CUP, 2001.
- Pratt, Mary Louise. 'Arts of the Contact Zone'. Profession 91. New York: MLA, 1991. 33-40.
- Watt, Ian. 'Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the Critics'. Essays on Conrad. Cambridge: CUP, 2000. 85-96.
- White, Andrea. Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject. Cambridge: CUP, 1993.
- 1 This phrase comes from 'An Outpost of Progress': 'They made an uncouth babbling noise when they spoke...' (92).
- 2 On another occasion Haggard mentions a Zulu (other than Umbopa) 'who had the merit of speaking English perfectly' (264).
- 3 Written in 'burning, noble words', Kurtz's report offers 'no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases' (118).
- 4 This putting aside various linguistic quandaries that that relationship engenders.
- 5 The critic argues that meaning lies in Conrad's actual struggle for it: '[Marlow's] willingness to tell a tale that undermines the values according to which he lives as well as the language in which he must speak suggests that the meaning lies in the effort' (124).
- 6 Pratt defines ethnographic text as a text 'in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others)'; and autoethnographic text as one 'in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them'. Thus, autoethnographic texts are 'representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with' the ethnographic texts (35).
- 7 Though not strictly 'ethnographic', Fanon's study The Wretched of the Earth, Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, and Mickiewicz's drama Forefathers' Eve articulate their authors' reactions to the conquerors' representations of their respective national or ethnic communities. To some extent, each work exposes and mocks the language and rhetoric of the conquerors. Fanon tackles the problem of representation at the theoretical level: 'Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it' (210).
- 8 A leading speaker amongst those white men is the cocky and insincere Willems, who 'must talk' and 'expounds his theory of success over the little tables' (6).
- 9 The scene takes place during the visit of the Dutch officers at Almayer's place.
- 10 According to Jakobson, the 'icons' prevail among the purely spatial visual signs; while 'symbols' prevail among the purely temporal aural signs (65: 'Przewaga znaków ikonicznych wśród czysto przestrzennych znaków wizualnych i przewaga symboli wśród czysto czasowych znaków słuchowych').
- 11 Cf. also Berthoud's remark that Conrad's 'attempt to integrate his fiction into the real world is astonishingly comprehensive, encompassing landscape, weather, plant and animal life, demography, material resources, commerce, politics, religion, architecture, dress, etc'. (xi).