On NYT’s Misguided Nostalgia for Conrad

The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.

I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle.

These are the opening paragraphs of Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff‘s piece on the Congo River in the Times. In the piece Prof. Josanoff seeks to uncover what has changed (or not) since Conrad was in the Congo a century ago. She has a forthcoming book titled The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

The piece reads like a satirical rejoinder to Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa.

Why did Jasanoff decide to embark on this mission? In the third paragraph we find out:

The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was “a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,” where “man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.” This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come.

I would like to think that Prof. Jasanoff consulted more than a guidebook to find out more about the Congo before her trip. But I digress.

The whole thing is worth reading. After which you should write the New York Times editors to let them know what you think.

The point here is not necessarily to call out Prof. Jasanoff, but to highlight what seems to be an insatiable demand at the Times for orientalist pieces on Africa and Africans.

And while on the subject of Conrad and the Congo, a fitting antidote is by none other than Chinua Achebe. In his review of Heart of Darkness, Achebe laments the use of Africa and Africans as background against which Europeans act out their neuroses:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

Read the whole review here.

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