Heart of Darkness
by Theodore Dalrymple (Oct. 2006)
Recently, I had occasion to re-read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a short book, and I have now read it so many times that I seem to know whole paragraphs off by heart (and Conrad’s paragraphs can be long).
By now, it is pretty well established that Conrad did not exaggerate the horrors of Belgian colonialism in his story, especially in its earliest phase when the Congo was but the personal fiefdom of the rapacious and utterly unscrupulous King Leopold (who, incidentally, so wished his capital, Brussels, to resemble Paris, that he knocked down the medieval Flemish heart of the city, that was as beautiful as Bruges, and had the grossly sub-Parisian city that we know today erected in its place).
Conrad describes the loose talk of the early colonialists as having been ‘reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage.’ With contemptuous irony, he calls them ’pilgrims.’ Whatever their mission, it was definitely not civilisatrice.
Heart of Darkness is often taken as being unequivocally anti-colonial or anti-imperialist, perhaps because such an interpretation would redeem its portrayal of Africans as cannibals at worst, and uncomprehending savages at best. Only in this way can Conrad, who is acknowledged by everyone to have been a great writer, be made to appear sufficiently in sympathy with our modern susceptibilities.
Actually, I am not sure that the story is quite as anti-imperialist as we should like to suppose. The narrator, Marlow, describes how he looked at a map of Africa just before being appointed to the command of a river boat on the
Now of course Marlow was a fictional character, and it is an elementary mistake of literary criticism to identify too closely the opinions of a fictional character for those of an author. Yet the biographical parallels between Marlow and Conrad himself are too great to ignore completely. They went to the
So it is specifically Belgian imperialism that Conrad condemns – though, of course, he is making a much wider point than that King Leopold and his acolytes were very bad men. The heart of darkness is the heart that beats within us all, awaiting its chance to express itself. Conrad was a materialist and an atheist but, in a sense, he believed in Original Sin. It was inscribed in our biological nature.
But what was ‘the real work’ of which Marlow spoke, when he saw large areas of red on the map of
As a doctor and psychiatrist, I spent an awful lot of my professional life trying to change individuals in a direction that I thought appropriate and beneficial for them. I am not under any illusions about how far I succeeded. I think I succeeded very little. At the best, I implanted the seeds of change rather than caused change itself. It was often the case that my patients had adopted grossly self-destructive paths in life, that viewed dispassionately and with a minimum of common sense could lead to nothing but misery, despair and chaos. Indeed, my patients often acknowledged this themselves, at least intellectually.
‘Yes, yes,’ they would say, ‘of course you are right.’ And they would promise to change, and to take all the very obvious steps to amend and improve their lives.
When I was young and inexperienced, I believed them. I felt very pleased with myself. It then came as a shock to me that, despite all their protestations of desire to change, they persisted in their folly. My words had not produced their salutary effect after all. I might as well have said nothing at all. When I was young, I thought my pearls had been cast before swine; later, I realised the profound truth contained in La Rochefoucauld’s maxim, that it is easier to give good advice than to take it. When I considered my own life, I saw that this was so; most of the wrong decisions I had made, especially the worst and most important of them, I had made knowingly, in full knowledge of the ill consequences to which they would lead. If I have been saved from disaster, it is by native cunning rather than by superior wisdom.
But if it is so difficult to change a comparative handful of individuals, most of whom have the strongest possible reasons to change, how do you change whole nations, let alone whole cultures?
Of course, it is easy – nothing easier in fact – for the powerful to have an effect upon the weak and the seemingly powerless. The trick is for the powerful to have precisely the effect upon the powerless that they want, and in my view this is never possible. The weak may bend before the powerful, and may change their ways for them, but rarely (actually, I think never) in precisely the way in which the powerful want.
The disparity in power between the colonising nations of Africa and the native Africans was much greater than that between the
This is not to say that the colonialists left nothing behind; the continent they invaded was changed for ever. For example, traditional forms of African political authority were destroyed once and for all, in favour of western-style nationalists, who spoke the language of freedom but dreamed the dream of power. Whether this constituted an advance or a deterioration depends not only on the facts, but on the values that you hold dear. It boils down, in a way, to the question of whether you think corrugated tin roofs are better than grass roofs. No definitive answer can perhaps be given to this thorny question.
What is certain is that the colonialists changed
So where does that leave us? I have always thought it a mistake to suppose that our example is so utterly splendid that everyone will want to copy it on the first contact with us. For one thing, our example, while admirable in some respects, is not admirable in all others. And for a second, people are inclined to prefer their own path to the path we suggest for them, simply because it is theirs. As Dostoyevsky pointed out a long time ago, if there were a government that arranged everything for our own perfect good and nothing but our own perfect good, thinking nothing whatever of its own good, we should still rebel against it merely to express ourselves as human beings. In fact, of course, no such government has ever existed or will ever exist.
In Africa, where I spent a number of years, I saw that the best of intentions did not necessarily produce the best of results (I worked for several years in Tanzania, where billions of Scandinavian, Dutch and World Bank money wrought nothing but economic and social disaster.) This is not, of course, an argument in favour of the worst of intentions. It does not follow from the fact that the best of intentions often produce bad results, that the worst of intentions produce good ones. It is, alas, a truth of human existence that the paths to disaster are many, the paths to success few. Tolstoy had it exactly right when, with regard to personal relations, he said that all happy families are happy in the same way etc. etc.
If what I am saying is true, then foreign policy should be the pursuit of interests and not of virtue, at least among others. Of course, one hopes that ones interests are not incompatible with benefits to others: trade is an example of this. The fact that I derive a benefit from selling you something does not obviate the benefit you receive by buying it. But when I sell you a pair of pyjamas, I do not suppose thereby that I am promoting your marital fidelity. With luck, I am making myself a profit, and you comfortable at night.
Should, then, we be seeking to instil our notions of democracy in the
Democratic elections in
It is one of the common charges in the
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