Conrad and Kincaid: Narratives of Dehumanization and Resistance

Essay by Carson Lamont

Art by Luiza Ortiz

This essay concerns the representation of the colonized in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the response of the colonized in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. To what extent does Kincaid in her contemporary vision repel the antiquated settler colonial gaze of Conrad? We are to believe that Conrad has written a great classic of history and a testimony to the genocidal brutality of Leopold’s Congo Free State, yet what emerges in the text, in Marlow’s attitudes and prejudices, is an unforgivably racist contraption which dehumanizes and flays Black bodies under a grim white supremacy conjoined to extractive economies of exploitation. Thus, the real motion of Heart of Darkness is towards a vague and unwieldy humanitarianism, one which repeatedly fails to find its footing because of that “monstrous” darkness—that epistemic failure to account for the land and its people. The result is that Conrad reincorporates racist tropes even when he is trying to underscore sympathy with the horrific and brutalized condition of colonialism’s “helpers” (981). Where Conrad fantasizes, Kincaid disembowels fantasy. Conrad’s preoccupation with Kurtz as a symbolic great man whom “all Europe contributed to the making of” (1098) or a great man who falters and commits evil deeds but nonetheless is assuredly great for his conviction in carrying them out (and in any case, there is that monstrous, undifferentiated Africa which forced his actions, compelled him to madness by its “darkness”), stands in stark relief to Kincaid, an Afro-Caribbean woman who candidly deconstructs the white colonizer as interchangeably naïve, flaccid, diseased, pathetically self-absorbed, and “human rubbish” (111). 

Kincaid’s standpoint opposes Conrad’s, and her nostalgia regards a subversion of the colonist’s vision of an Africa in prehistoric stasis, and that deeply racist imaginary of “monkeys in trees” (53). Kincaid writes: “even if I really came from people who were living like monkeys in trees, it was better to be that than what happened to me, what I became after I met you” (53). It is crucial to interpret Kincaid’s assertion with the awareness of Conrad’s racist visions of primitiveness and dehumanization as an antecedent—those natives who are “clapping [their] hands and stamping [their] feet on the bank” (Conrad 1052). Why would it be better to be that than to be Kincaid, the English-speaking scholar and writer, or the employed helmsman of a Congo steamboat during the fin-de-siecle? It is important to hear Kincaid’s “I” for who that represents: a simultaneously personal and plural pronoun, one which is inclusive of all colonized African peoples subjected to “the business of empire . . . [and] the empire of business” (Said 23). This “I” regards not only the physical and mental trauma, the staggering death toll, and totalizing, systemic abjection of human life that characterized the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and involved those intermediate European colonies in the Caribbean—along with the genocide of indigenous Carib groups—but encompasses also the epistemological, linguistic, generational destruction of entire cultures of people whose precarity and displacement persists in the aftermath of colonial systems of coercion. When Kincaid says, “it would be better than what I became” she is confounding Conrad’s social Darwinian mythology of an “improved specimen” (1051). Clinging to the rationalized superiority of the European man, Conrad provokes us to disgust, whether our standpoint includes a contemporary experience of being racialized in society or not. The automatic response to antique tropes of this character comes more easily than the critical response, however. Although Scott’s essay “Fantasy Echo” concerns the discourse surrounding feminism and its history, her definition of fantasy is relevant to Conrad’s own dreamlike narrative:

Fantasy is more or less synonymous with imagination, and it is taken to be subject to rational, intentional control; one directs one’s imagination purposively to achieve a coherent aim, that of writing oneself or one’s group into history, writing the history of individuals or groups . . . fantasy is the setting for desire . . . In the fantasized setting the fulfillment of desire and the consequences of this fulfillment are enacted. (49)

Scott’s fantasy and its intertwined echo resound in the way genre inflicts disjunction on Conrad’s aims to criticize the colonial situation. Conrad’s linguistic, cultural, or temporal inability to theorize a post- or anti-colonial Congo in open solidarity with the oppressed Other is in fact endemic to his apparent desire to produce an adventure novella with “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence” (1100). Conrad, supplemented by his invented excerpts from Kurtz’s report, fashions a fantasy of the Congo whose capital-I immensity requires the land to be a monster inhabited by monsters. These are human beings, but not to Kurtz, Marlow, or Conrad. The racial binary of Black and white has another dichotomy as its counterpart: invisibility and visibility. The distinct and arresting visibility of the Black body in Kincaid’s writing, namely in the way she describes her AIDS-stricken brother in My Brother and in the way she exposes the criminality of English and the language and the English—the criminal—contrasts Conrad’s Blackness which is defined by its invisibility. This invisibility is menacing, foreboding, and miraculous to the settler gaze. Notably, I cannot make so great a distinction between Conrad, the author, and Marlow, his hero. Neither can I make so great a distinction between Marlow and Kurtz. All three share a kinship delineated by whiteness and by solidarity to their race and caste. The brutal conditions of the Congo Free State and the victimization of the Black Congolese natives are features of “the shackled form of a conquered monster” (1049), their existence “thrilling” because it amounts to a fantastical discovery by the white man. There is something libidinal therefore, and psychosexual, about this fantasy of Blackness and of Africa writ large. It is a problematic erotic fantasy because it superimposes the unrestrained physicality of “the native”—how “they howled, leaped, and spun”—onto the suddenly unrestrained gaze of the settler. In other words, the settler is now allowed to gawk and stare, at near-naked bodies, at Kurtz’ Congolese bride in her exaltations of grief, at the “monstrous and free” (1049). Marlow admits an excitement at the Congolese natives’ “wild and passionate uproar” (1049), entering a stilted and ecstatic mode as he admits he wishes he too could “go ashore for a howl and a dance . . . [but he] had no time” (1051). Marlow here performs a lament that he must attend to his duties aboard the steamboat, with an air of superiority which asserts the necessity of his tasks for the “civilized” company, and the enlightened qualities, skills, and stoicism required to carry them out. 

Where the undifferentiated mass of natives possesses an uproar, Marlow is certain to remind his shipmates that he has “a voice too, and for good or evil mine is speech which cannot be silenced” (1051). Here, it is as if Conrad recognizes an ambivalence in the narrative which Marlow orates. Marlow is, significantly, speaking, and the novella’s frame narrator recounts his speech syntactically in quotations. Marlow himself is not the narrator, nor is he the only voice onboard the ship which floats down the Thames. There are those grunts and protests which Marlow retorts against—certainly his speech concerns evil (nowhere do I find “good”) and is uncomfortable for his upper-class British audience—but Marlow is notably the central speaking voice: a kind of displaced bard for this saga of settler colonial industry, a rugged hero and an adventurer who by his own boasts has survived “by hook or by crook” (1051). In Heart of Darkness, speech itself is a privilege of the white European. Conrad is careful to remind us that speech has its own power; in anthropological/anthropocentric terms intertwined with racialization, speech differentiates the intelligent from the instinctual, the white from the Black. Marlow’s fluency of speech mesmerizes the narrator, as “no more to us than a voice . . . that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river” (1020). In a darkness of any kind—the heart of the Congo River, or the gloom of the Thames—what beacon there is besides light is sound, and speech privileged to be deemed human. Speech in Conrad’s novella is therefore inextricably linked to whiteness. To what extent, then, does the monopoly over speech and over language serve the criminal in his crime? The white colonizer (the capitalist and the vulture of ivory) asserts that the sounds which emerge from the human speech of the colonized Other—whose racial inferiority he has an economic as well as ideological stake in asserting—are only sounds, and not language. How can the Other communicate in the narrative of a “humanitarian” colonizer like Conrad, then, but by the appearance of their destitution and the emaciation of their bodies, by their uproar, and by their frown, as in the case of the dying helmsman whose “frown gave to his black death-mask an inconceivably sombre, brooding, and menacing expression” (1087). The helmsman does not even have a face, much less a voice, but a “black death-mask” which implies that Blackness carries with it an implacable proximity to mortality. There is a kind of theatrical suggestion by the mask; certainly, the scene of his death is highly dramatized, but his silence adds to its unreality. Nowhere can Conrad’s Other have any way to speak, and without speech the Other cannot have narrative power or real political purchase in the estimation of the white settler. This problematic of speech and voicelessness is endemic to white abolitionist writings which lack the contribution of the oppressed group. The anti-slavery, anti-colonial, or anti-capitalist message of such writings is therefore diminished at the level of standpoint. Even though the impulse of Conrad in writing Heart of Darkness was testimony to colonialism’s horror, and even though he sincerely wishes that the “brutes” not be “exterminated” (1100), he nonetheless believes them to be brutes.

We must return finally to Kincaid’s ironic posture in A Small Place, and her indictment of white fantasy in the contemporary, neo-colonial, tourist economies of control in Antigua. Kincaid is explicit about the operation of language in its demoralizing and de-individuating effect on an oppressed colonized group, going so far as to force an uneasy claim to the racist imaginary of pre-colonial African cultures and societies as “living like monkeys in trees . . . [because] it was better to be that than what happened to me, what became of me after I met you” (53). Implicit in this trope are all those associated racisms: physical, intellectual, phrenological—all those arising from scientific racism. However, the animality of the “monkey” is additionally pre- or non-verbal, consisting of the same “howls and dances” that Conrad imprints onto the “unearthly . . . [but] not inhuman” Congolese natives (1049). To Kincaid, to be without the morally alienating English language would appear to be a blessing of great proportion, even if she were to transform into that racist fantasy which Conrad depicts and became voiceless as a result. The Caliban-esque curse inflicted on Kincaid repeats the trauma of her upbringing in a British colony, and reminds her of her formative understanding of what is normal and what is goodness. Kincaid recalls her childhood experiences of racism, and turns the animal insult against the British when she writes:

[A] headmistress of a girls’ school, hired through the colonial office in England . . . told these girls to stop behaving as if they were monkeys just out of trees. No one ever dreamed that the word for any of this was racism. We thought these people were so ill-mannered . . . We thought they were un-Christian-like; we thought they were small-minded; we thought they were like animals, a bit below human standards as we understood those standards to be . . . the English were supposed to be civilized, and this behaviour was so much like that of an animal, the thing that we were before the English rescued us, that maybe they weren’t from the real England at all but from another England, one we were not familiar with, not at all from the England we were told about, not at all from the England we could never be from . . . We felt superior . . . (40-42)

Here Kincaid does the argumentative work of toppling the fiction of British civilized society, simultaneously executing a semiotic dissolution of words at their meanings. Kincaid is unwaveringly scathing of the English and undermines the very name “England” through her repetition, reducing it to a sound which lacks purchase and meaning. This is her goal, because capital-E England, the England of Queen Victoria or any other monarch, means nothing as a signifier of nobility, uprightness, or divinely ordained dominion of the Earth and all its sunsets. England as it contains an expectation, a mythology, and a propagandizing to the Antiguan students is such a fiction that it serves only to confuse and dismay them with the manners and habits of the real English, whose empire has largely collapsed, and whose locus of control rests now in economic and cultural capital, and in regurgitating a fiction to hide a history of exploitation and brutality. After all, as Kincaid writes, England is supposed to be the nation of legendary monarchs and rich history, of contributions to humanity, of etiquette, and of literary icons. Kincaid herself reads English authors as a child, including those narratives of Victorian romance consisting of supremely polite, sublime beings of light. For Kincaid to write, “we felt superior,” it is not only to assert the reality of the colonized experience, but to readmit the agency of the oppressed and her pride in being human, when the white settlers, in their racism and ostentation, lower themselves to something less-than. How, crucially, could Kincaid and her ancestors have been “rescued” by such ignoble, degraded “human rubbish” (110)? 

Kincaid speaks from her experience and leaves out nothing, the result being a blistering critique of the colonizer on an institutional and individual basis. Kincaid’s critique of the English language is necessarily from a standpoint of mourning for what has been lost: “no motherland, no fatherland, no gods, no mounds of earth for holy ground, no excess of love which might lead to the things that an excess of love sometimes brings, and worst and most painful of all, no tongue” (44). Kincaid gives way of her begrudged, ironic bargaining for a racist imaginary of prehistory, to grieve for the real history which she has lost, which is impossible for her among millions to reclaim, and whose absence suffocates her without recourse. This is a generations-spanning crime committed by European colonial powers, by the American slave state, whose humiliating legacy is a systematically impoverished island nation overrun by tourists from those very same countries, spending that very same criminal wealth on alcohol, hotels, and private clubs, for the profit of a corrupt national bourgeoisie, in the vociferous appetite of neo-colonialism, which as Kwame Nkrumah writes, is “imperialism in its final and perhaps its most dangerous stage . . . the essence of neo-colonialism [being that] . . . its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from the outside” (ix). However, unlike in Ghana and elsewhere across continental Africa, neo-colonialism in Antigua attempts to completely circumscribe the language of the inflicted nation and thus the speech of its people. Kincaid writes: 

For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime? And what can that really mean? For the language of the criminal can contain only the goodness of the criminal’s deed . . . It cannot contain the horror of the deed, the agony, the humiliation inflicted on me. (44-45)

This significant passage extends beyond a linguistic failure of English to account for the crime, and the failure of the English-speaking criminal to organize his deeds as “good” or as “bad” or as “very, very bad” (45), to Kincaid’s own decisions in her use of descriptive words in themselves—importantly, how her use differs from Conrad’s when he calls Black people “monstrous.” Monstrous would be better used by Kincaid, among other words—“agony”, “humiliation”, “bitter”, “dyspeptic” (46)—to describe the crime and her feelings, not to insult the humanity of the crime’s victim as Conrad does. But English lacks distinction, and fashions frustrating binaries. It is contextual and amorphous, and is for Kincaid nearly impossible to speak in without the desperate awareness of its hold on her voice and its legitimation of itself to the exclusion of all other languages.

The responsibility, however, for Conrad’s failure of testimony in Heart of Darkness rests not only with English’s limitations but with Conrad, whose dehumanization of the racialized Other serves a desire to write sensationally about his subject matter. Kincaid resists the language’s grasp with creativity and honesty, and her message has a profound emotional impact as a result. English cannot truly hold Kincaid, nor can it prevent her from sharing the trauma of her experience and its immense weight on her future and the future of the African diaspora of the Middle Passage.

Works Cited

Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Portable Conrad. E-book, Penguin Classics, 2007, pp. 786-1009.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. E-book, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism. Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965. 

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. E-book, Knopf, 1993.

Scott, Joan Wallach. The Fantasy of Feminist History. E-book, Duke University Press, 2012.