Empire and Ambivalence

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's perturbing review of Maya Jasanoff's travelogue of going up the Congo River as she's accompanied by Joseph Conrad's novel, 'Heart of Darkness."

Joseph Conrad.

In August 2017, Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff wrote a travelogue about going up the Congo River with Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, as an overly literal reference point. The article was riddled with racist stereotypes that are often part and parcel of travel writing, particularly when it comes to the Global South. Jasanoff exclaimed her horror at people eating smoked monkeys, likened a boat’s crew member’s signals to the vessel’s captain to Black Power salutes and opined that Congo had probably been better off one hundred years ago. One hundred years ago, the beastly regime of Belgium’s King Leopold was in the throes of looting the region and committing large-scale atrocities.

Jasanoff’s article was widely panned on social media and also in mainstream news outlets, for obvious reasons. Imagine my shock, then, to see that none other than Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the fiercest living critic of colonialism, had published a flattering review of Jasanoff’s book, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World in The New York Times. My instinctive response was that Ngugi must not have read Jasanoff’s article from back in August, or else he would surely have recoiled from the review assignment. I assumed he was impressed by her archival work and careful reconsideration of Conrad’s relationship to empire. But, alas, as I combed through the prologue of Jasanoff’s book, all the same problems were front and center: She complained about difficulties getting a visa (try getting a Schengen or American visa as a person with an African or a South Asian passport?); she complained about the political upheaval in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (how the country, also briefly Zaire, is now known); and she reiterated that she wanted to go to Congo because it was still very much the heart of darkness.

It seems that Ngugi saw in the assignment to review Jasanoff’s book an opportunity to revisit Chinua Achebe’s controversial 1977 critique of Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s piece draws attention to the book’s many representational problems which lead to the dehumanization of Africans, from Conrad’s view of Congo’s supposedly “pre-historic” landscapes to his depiction of African people without language and African women as no more than primitive sex symbols – all of this punctuated with a delighted and frequent use of the n-word. The article has been heavily criticized for being overly political, and Achebe was taken to task for his lack of politeness and an openly angry tone. He went on to change his characterization of Conrad as a “bloody racist” to a “thoroughgoing racist.” Twenty years later, in a revived protest against Achebe’s article, The New Yorker’s David Denby’s cheap, mansplaining article “Jungle Fever” revisited it and Edward Said’s criticism of Conrad, proving that liberals reflexively rush to the defense of beloved DWEM (Dead White European Male) figures when they are proven racist or sexist. Now again, twenty years later, that The New York Times would happily publish Jasanoff’s vile travel essay is further evidence of this.

Since we are officially in the age of Trump, in which racism and sexism are openly defended – even celebrated – the tendency towards recuperating figures that progressive thinkers have painstakingly worked to pull down from their pedestals is unfortunately very much in the air. Just recently, a journal article making a case for colonialism went viral. Liberal democrats have somehow become nostalgic for former US President, George W. Bush. Identity politics and, by extension, issues of representation, have come to be seen as trite. The question being asked is: So much is going wrong right now, must we really waste our energies on identity and representation? There is a desire to return to a more innocent time when it was okay to be just a little racist, just a little sexist. This particular desire has now been (mis)articulated through the lens of urgency.

Precisely because of such a political climate, Ngugi’s defense of both Jasanoff’s openly stereotypical views of Congo and Conrad’s ambivalent stance towards empire have come as a blow. It took me by so much surprise that I went back to Jasanoff’s August article on Congo and re-read it carefully, wondering whether I had been mistaken in my initial reading; so staunch is my faith in Ngugi’s thinking. But I do believe he is wrong in this case.

Ngugi’s interest in someone like Conrad is not surprising, but his endorsement of Jasanoff in particular is what is perturbing. On top of it, the timing is mysterious. Ngugi would have had plenty of opportunities during Achebe’s lifetime to have a back and forth about the good and bad in Conrad, the way novelist Caryl Philips did back in 2003. Such a conversation would have been rich and exciting, one that would have furthered our understanding on subjects as diverse as aesthetics, narrative, empire, race and history. Ngugi’s defense has deflated Achebe’s powerful critique. In his article, Achebe is portrayed as having missed the nuance and complexity in Conrad, an argument that has been made before, and now comes from the pen of none other than the most prolific figure in anticolonial literature and theory. This is disappointing at a time when the push for decolonizing the literature curriculum seems to have gotten a bit of steam. Future conversations will be impossible without pitting one legendary postcolonial African against another.

Achebe’s essay comes with its own set of ideological and stylistic issues, and this is certainly an open arena for debate. Scholars schooled in the Western canon, but who are ideologically and methodologically anti-imperialist, often struggle with Conrad’s beautiful writing yet horribly racist views. Conrad was honest about the colonial brutalities he witnessed, but his admiration for empire is hardly hidden. Several European writers suffer such ambivalence. George Orwell’s Burmese Days, or his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” are examples: the reality of imperialism is dirty, possibly immoral, but the work must be done and empire must be defended. E. M Forster’s Passage to India and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim can also be mined for such ambiguities and complexities. But isn’t it time to stop feeling ambivalent about empire? Why are we again and again attracted to this ambivalence when the proof of empire’s destructive and dehumanizing power is all around us? I wish Ngugi who remains for me a symbol of moral and political clarity had not thrown his hat in this ring.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.