Culture and Imperialism
What redeems certain empires, or perhaps only the British, according to Conrad’s Marlow, what saves them from mere rapacity, from being “just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale,” is “the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” At this point in Heart of Darkness Marlow is said to break off. It is “only after a long silence” and “in a hesitating voice” that he speaks again, and starts to tell the story of his journey to Africa and his meeting with the mysterious and dying Kurtz.
Marlow stops speaking, presumably, because he is troubled by the metaphor he has stumbled into. Bowing down and offering a sacrifice don’t sound like the activities of an organized and enlightened Western mind. They sound like idolatry, even if the recipient is an idea rather than a barbarous deity. The very thing that (perhaps genuinely) distinguishes the British from the ancient Roman and the modern Belgian empires identifies it with the supposed savages it is unselfishly dispossessing of their land, and worse still, with Kurtz himself, the European who has gone native, whose house is surrounded by human skulls, and who has himself become someone to bow down before and offer a sacrifice to. African chiefs are said to “crawl” to him. As so often in Conrad, an argument begins to collapse into its opposite. There is a slippage at the heart of empire, a crack in its definition of itself.
Other features of empire are intact and unthreatened in Heart of Darkness, though, and even Conrad seems quite untroubled by them. The epigraph to Edward Said’s powerful recent book picks up the passage on Marlow’s idea a little earlier, and continues into the quotation as given above:
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it…
As the carefully understated irony makes clear, Conrad was not a racist in the most obvious and virulent sense; he did not believe in the superiority of one race over another, and repeatedly mocks the very notion. But he did believe in race itself, as almost everyone did until more recently than we care to remember. Conrad welcomed the stereotype of the African savage, even if he thought (or because he thought) we were all savages at heart. He could see that Europeans might be as wild and morally benighted as Africans, or even more so, because of the veneer of their hypocrisy and refinement; he could not see that Africans might have their own enlightenment and civilization.
This is an effect of culture, or rather of power …