On Teaching Heart of Darkness

Over at the Chronicle, Lennard Davis asks: Should one keep on teaching Heart of Darkness, despite its obvious racism? Davis first read the book in high school, where it was interpreted as “a kind of existential journey.” In Edward Said’s class at Columbia, Davis came to see the book as “a stinging indictment of the callous and genocidal treatment of the Africans.” Under a feminist teacher, Davis’s eyes were opened to the “male world that kept women in the dark” about inhuman practices in the colonies. Later, with Chinua Achebe’s famous denouncement, he saw the novella as “hopelessly Eurocentric.” But his black students’ reluctance to read the work leads Davis to wonder:

But my latest learning experience has taught me that this text, which has been mined for so much meaning and inspiration, perhaps needs to be discarded. I can’t underline that point, because the lesson isn’t on the page but in the brain and heart.

As a culture, we have granted certain books immortality and permit them to teach us new lessons across the ages. We’ve given that privilege to the works of Homer, Shakespeare, Shelley (Mary), Defoe, Swift, Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, and more recently Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Silko, and others. But we can rescind that immortality and consign certain books to the back shelves of our consciousness.

This argument keeps cropping up every once in a while: that Heart of Darkness is obsolete because its views on race are retrograde. In my opinion, reading the text with a historical eye is a very useful exercise in how imperialism needs ethnocentrism in order to succeed. Conrad rejected the former, but not the latter–a stance that one can see today as well. I think that the book is as relevant today as it was in 1899. Our culture has a different focus now (the Middle East instead of the Congo) and uses different language (“sand-nigger” instead of “nigger”), but the mission civilisatrice is still there, and there are plenty of Marlowes and Kurtzes around. This is a book, I, for one, would continue to teach.

Thanks to Maud Newton for the link.