Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Horror Worse than Heart of Darkness

I’ve been doing the majority of my lighter reading during snatched moments at work, during two fifteen-minute breaks and my half hour of lunch. By far the easiest way to read and eat at the same time, I must admit, is via e-reader.  Hence I’ve been thankful for my Kindle, which doesn’t fly shut on me or have a binding to break or paper pages to stain, and which I can flip through easily with my pinky finger without so much as putting down my fork.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I tend towards being a cheapskate with my Kindle, downloading free, public domain books. I’ve read a lot of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, and Emmuska Orczy on my Kindle. I was in the mood for one of these lighter “dime novel” adventures, and decided to shake things up a bit with some Arthur Conan Doyle. The Crime of the Congo sounded Haggard-ish, so I opened that book up and began to read it.
It is not, I repeat NOT, a fictional adventure book. It is rather a report on the atrocities committed in the Congo to the Africans by the Belgian colonists. Doyle’s research is thorough, and his description of the events and actions graphic and detailed. No one could read Heart of Darkness after this book and think of it as a sort of morality tale of the dangers of natural racism. To do so, in my mind at least, would almost cheapen the suffering of the Congo people who were enslaved to harvest rubber in their own country, starved and beaten and dismembered and killed, and purposely and intentionally tortured as if they were not human. Most people would be disgusted if an animal were treated with such viciousness, much less another human being.
What was not taught to me as a freshman in Brit Lit, and should have been from the get-go, was that Heart of Darkness is a sugarcoated version of the historical reality. Conrad’s use of fictional (or pseudo-fictional) characters detracts from the real-life horrors of Belgium’s colonization of the Congo. And the way it’s taught by literature professors (who, granted, aren’t history professors) is more nebulous, a sort of metaphysical branding of one race’s brutal subjection of another to make modern “white people” feel retroactively guilty.
I’m not the only person who feels this way. Conrad's story may in some ways reveal the brutality of racism and colonialism, but in other ways it perpetuated stereotypes of Africa being a dark, wild, uncivilized place. None of the African characters are actually main characters, with dialog, development, or even pivotal roles in the plot. If anything the story could be read as how civilized white people were corrupted by a savage land bringing out the primal natures they had otherwise sublimated.
"The memory of these deeds will remain graven in the memory of men, and in the memory of Divine vengeance. Sooner or later the executioners will have to render an account to God and to history."
There are several things I hate about The Crime of the Congo. But that it was written at all is not one of them. I hate the truth of it. I hate what was done to helpless children, women, and men in the name of Civilization (but really for Money). I hate that racism exists, not just in history but hidden in nooks and crannies all over this fallen earth. I hate that man's heart is basically dark, and that it can gain enjoyment from inflicting atrocities on others. I hate that our world is a fallen one, and so far from the perfect community between man and God for which it was created.
But there are also many ways I love this book. I love this book because in it Doyle is trying to convince not only the Belgians, but all of Europe and even the Americas, to take action, to stop the barbarity, and to help those who were being victimized. I love that it's a call to justice, which at least hints at some hope in the future (which is missing in Heart of Darkness). I love that Doyle seems as horrified writing it as I was to read it, in an era where racism was much more socially acceptable.
In my opinion, this is the book--before, or even without Heart of Darkness--that high schoolers, college students, and any other inquiring minds should read if they want to learn about the nature of man, with all its capacity for (and affinity with) evil but also its possibility for redemption.

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