There are several reasons that I am an attorney instead of an English professor (my original plan). A relatively minor reason that I don’t usually mention is the dominance of multiculturalism in the academy as a lens for talking about and judging literature and culture generally.
What I mean by “multiculturalism” is a particular kind of intense focus on race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality, and other categories that might make a person a minority, and the ways in which cultures construct and deploy these categories (generally in ways that disadvantage the minority). Anyone who has studied English literature at today’s universities should understand what I mean. But so should anybody familiar with the rhetoric of certain liberal politicians, some of whom (for instance) have recently assumed it unnecessary to make any substantial explanation of why they deem it deeply wrong for Joe Biden to have had collegial relationships with segregationist senators.
As an example of multiculturalism’s dominance in the academy, race issues, including whether a particular work or author is racist, receive undue attention, to the neglect of more fruitful areas of inquiry (such as those a text itself pursues). Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is widely regarded as a racist text because its African characters are caricatures of primitivism. But the text does not intend to say something about Africa or African races. Africa merely serves as a foil to Western civilization–he represents his nameless African characters as being more or less without civilization in order to say something about humanity and civilization itself. Any “primitive” population could have served his turn about as well, and a fictional primitive race would have worked even better in some ways. Indeed, he essentially does utilize a fictional race, since he makes no attempt to tie the nameless and almost character-less Africans to any actually existing history or culture. They are essentially symbolic–stylized representations (i.e., caricatures) of primal humanity.
I would guess that Conrad was very well aware of the existence of African culture–and indeed that Africa’s civilizations, far from constituting a tabula rosa, were complex, storied, and nuanced. I suspect he would have been moved, but not especially surprised, by Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” had he been alive to read it. (Achebe’s masterpiece is in part a response to “Heart of Darkness,” and it shows the complexity of African tribal culture–and how the subjugation of those tribes by Europeans ignored this complexity and compromised these cultures.)
Was it racist for Conrad to reduce his African characters to mere embodiments of primitivism? I don’t think so. Literature operates in this way all the time. It is valid, and even essential, to strip a character of most of the complexity of an actual person for artistic effect. Most of the characters in Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are 90% caricature. Nobody is offended by this, I hope. The fact that Conrad’s caricatures are African does not transform his caricature into sin. Nor does the fact that his caricature advanced an already-existing stereotype of Africans being primitive. It would arguably be wrong if this stereotype would foreseeably be used as justification for mistreating Africans. But even to the degree that some Europeans used the African’s supposed “primitive” nature as an excuse (and a very poor excuse) for mistreating or belittling him, advancing the grounds for this excuse was at worst an unintended side effect of Conrad’s caricature.
Furthermore, tribal Africans, even as depicted by Achebe, were in fact primitive under certain definitions–not without culture, but with a simpler, smaller-scale culture–with conceivably fewer persons in a tribe than there are government agencies in the U.S.; without national politics or news media, without the separation of church and state, of public and private, or even of kitchen and bedroom; without written histories or elaborate customs determining the appropriate dress for hundreds of different kinds of occasions; without the extreme division of labor that characterises today’s first-world societies and makes them alien to their own members insofar as nobody thoroughly understands most of what its other members are doing; and with vastly greater cultural homogeneity, so that everybody basically knew the same religious/mythical stories, observed the same rituals, sang the same songs and danced the same dances. In that simpler, more holistic, more communal, and in many ways healthier existence, there was neither any purpose nor any possibility for the general population to be formally educated, and much less call for the kinds of intellectual straining that were valued in Western society, with the result that tribal Africans appeared to Europeans intellectually as well as culturally “simple.” And so the attribute of primitivism in these senses is exaggerated by Conrad in a way common to all art, which necessarily seizes upon and exaggerates the elements in a thing that are relevant to its project and ignores the rest. As one Annie Weatherwax put it in a blog post, “The purpose of art is not to depict reality—it is to transform reality into something more interesting and meaningful. And the only way to do this is to distort, exaggerate, or in some way embellish what is there.”
But more importantly, I don’t even really care if the text is “racist” (whatever that means). Most 19th-century people (including the minorities) accepted various doctrines about race that are now almost universally rejected as “racist.” Supposing that Conrad held some such doctrines as well, which for all I know he did, it is to me an uninteresting fact with very little significance for reading “Heart of Darkness.” The book is not about race or racism. It’s about culture, power, and disillusionment. It’s about Kurtz succumbing to the temptations that only a man capable of seeing past the constructedness and artificiality of culture is able to feel, or to feel in the way he felt them. Marlow, the only other character equal in stature to Kurtz, is brought to recognize more forcefully that culture is as artificial as clothing, and that it covers over a heart of darkness. Yet he chooses not to pass on his own disillusionment, and he maintains a path of basic decency, constituting the text’s only gleam from out the dark.
Accordingly, the text has more fundamental issues to address than racial prejudice–more fundamental in that racial prejudice is one part (and a rather banal part) of human culture, while the text explores the nature, effect, and value of culture in general. And when we read it, these more fundamental issues should claim most of our attention.
I have dwelt at such length on this particular text for two reasons. First, I think its treatment epitomizes how the pet issues of multiculturalism tend to dominate our discourse and distract from other more interesting and fundamental issues. Second, in the case of “Heart of Darkness,” the more fundamental and interesting issue is the value of culture–the historically contingent sets of constructed customs, habits, rituals, value systems, and languages through which we filter our experience and create shared meaning. And multiculturalism, as its name suggests, offers itself as a metric for judging culture. According to multiculturalism, a culture (or an element of culture) is “good” insofar as it permits other cultures to coexist with it on equal terms.
I would submit instead that a culture or cultural element is “good” insofar as it promotes human wellbeing. Heart of Darkness offers the jaded view that culture promotes human wellbeing by covering over human nature. But at least it draws a clear connection between culture and human wellbeing, which today’s multiculturalism often fails to do.
Among the chief conditions of human wellbeing–indeed, almost the “one thing needful,” according to holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl–is a meaning to live for. Frankl slightly alters a Nietzche quote when he claims, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” To find meaning in one’s life is more important to human thriving than external conditions, political rights, or even physical health. And therefore, failing to find a worthy meaning is certainly more devastating than suffering from the vestiges of patriarchy, classism, racism, heteronormativity, and the other forms of discrimination that obsess multiculturalism to the exclusion of more fundamental problems–such as the modern famine of high and beautiful meanings of the type that animated many of our ancestors.
The relationship between a person and the meaning of his life at a particular moment is analogous to a master/servant relationship. It would be simplistic either to say that a person chooses a meaning or that the meaning chooses the person. In reality, there is a complex interplay between discerning a need or an opportunity for some good effort on the person’s part and initiating that effort rather than another. Often people feel “called” to a particular “vocation”–and this may be the vocation of a short time frame rather than of a life–e.g., the vocation of helping a friend who is in the hospital by looking after her kids for the day. But a meaning that one lives for is “higher” than oneself–in at least the sense that one serves it. The healthiest identity a person has at any given moment is that she is fulfilling a good meaning.
There are bad meanings that we sometimes serve as well–selfish, destructive, empty meanings–meanings that run around in descending circles towards hellfires that consume without enlightening. Often they remove our ability to hear or respond to the call of better meanings. Drug addiction may be the clearest example of a bad meaning, but one’s own pride is the bad meaning we most commonly serve, and the most fundamentally bad among them–the false necessity of massaging, or defending, one’s ego at the expense of others.
Culture has a significant role to play in encouraging people to serve good meanings instead of bad–especially pride. The ancient Greek plays explicitly taught the danger of hubris. “Pride goeth before the fall” is a saying that hopefully most English-speaking people still remember. But more important than the express instruction that cultures provide are their rituals and customs, many of which seem calculated to remind the participants of the social relations in which they stand to one another–to check the tendency of each person’s ego to “go off on its own” by bringing them together in acknowledgement of each other. Greeting rituals, such as handshakes; clothing customs, by which we acknowledge the expectations of the people who will see us when we choose our clothing; and civic rites such as standing for the national anthem or getting married–all of these affirm the community and remind the individual of his responsibility towards it. To this extent, they are a check on the self-vaunting and other-forgetting tendency of the ego.
But multiculturalism is generally antagonistic towards any authority (other than itself) that purports to dictate how a person should live or identify herself. By demanding that the characteristics, identities, and lifestyles of all people be validated, and making the degree of validation the measure of value, multiculturalism sets itself at odds with all masters, good or bad. It proudly opposes slave masters, but it also finds itself at odds with the “shoulds” implicit in (1) the mastery of a good meaning, and (2) the rituals and customs of any given culture–because both of these (correctly in my view) posit something that is in some sense “above” the individual.
Multiculturalism focuses on the way that the wielders of cultural power have abused and continue to abuse minorities–but this victimizing narrative actively obscures, or at least draws attention away from, much more important problems facing today’s world, such as the difficulty modern people have in finding meanings in their lives worthy of human beings, and, relatedly, our difficulty learning to serve the good masters rather than the bad. A narrative relating these more important problems would cast the individual (whether from the majority or minority) in the role of power abuser insofar as the individual fails to serve the highest and best meaning available to her–and as victim insofar as her culture renders those meanings unavailable.
My beef with multiculturalism is that much of the literature that is critiqued on multiculturalist grounds is actually attempting to relate these more important kinds of narratives, and would be much more significant if understood in this light–but you would never understand this from what the professors have to say about the texts. Many of them seem to consider it the highest wisdom to be able to identify exactly how this text too manifests a problematic gender ideology, or how more and more subtle forms of racism actually underlie apparently everything.
Heart of Darkness is an instance of the power abuser narrative: Kurtz’s poor choices in the absence of cultural restraint, and the consequences of those choices, is the text’s devastating burden. This narrative communicates a more fundamental reality, and it (unlike the victim narratives of multiculturalism) has an affirmative and practical application for every person at every moment.
As suggested by Heart of Darkness (and implicitly denied by multiculturalism), we are not our own masters–we are inevitably servants. At our best, we serve the highest and best meaning available to us at a given moment. At our worst, we, like Kurtz, serve our own pride or destructive desires. And culture has a role to play in fostering the best and discouraging the worst in us all. In that role, culture, like the meanings we serve, functions as a “master,” commanding the individual to remember the other. And therefore, the main value of culture–its proper focus and the main way it serves human wellbeing–is in promoting, not the validation of our individual identities, but the enlightenment of our shadow-prone natures.