[ilds] Artistic Freedom

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Tue Aug 18 13:57:09 PDT 2009


Sumantra,

Thank you for a thoughtful response to my previous posting, which  
bears relevance to issues of Durrell's "Orientalism," his portrayal of  
Alexandria — distorted or not, unfair or not, racist or not, etc.  I  
brought in Chinua Achebe's attack on Conrad's "racism" in Heart of  
Darkness as an example of misdirected criticism, quite similar to  
attacks, as I heard them, leveled at Durrell's Quartet.  If I  
understand you correctly, you agree with Achebe's article or are at  
least sympathetic to his position.  I am neither.  Nor am I willing to  
take a position of compromise, as you quote Bruce Fleming saying  
below.  As I said before, I object strenuously to this line of  
argument.  I want to defend artistic freedom.

A short excursus into Achebe and Conrad.  In my view, Achebe is so  
obsessed with the colonial experience in Nigeria and Western Africa  
that he is unable or unwilling to grant a European artistic freedom in  
describing his homeland.  In a posting on 8/16/09, Jacob Riley has  
already described his interpretation of one of Conrad's objectives in  
HD, namely, the novella is not intended as a "realistic" depiction of  
the Congo.  I agree.  Conrad uses geography symbolically, the sea vs.  
the jungle, different arenas for different struggles.  Fellowship and  
courage in the former, human psychology and human nature in the  
latter.  But Achebe doesn't like the Congo, nor his Africa, being used  
as a European symbol for any of humanity's dark desires.  He is also  
so defensive about Conrad's depiction of Africans that Marlow's  
distress at the suffering of men under colonial rule is called,  
European "bleeding-heart sentiments."  Amazing.  Achebe even tries to  
rob Conrad of human compassion.

(Re the title of "The Nigger of the Narcissus," Ian Watt doesn't  
consider it an example of Conrad's racism, given the connotations of  
the author's time, which were not as highly charged as they are  
today.  Watt concludes that Conrad's usage "need not carry any  
individual moral aspersion."  See Watt's Conrad in the Nineteenth  
Century, [1979], p. 106.  I agree with that observation.  Watt, by the  
way, a Brit by origin, was one of the greats of English criticism.)

Now, writers use geography for all kinds of symbols.  Dickens has his  
uses of London in Bleak House, Forster his uses of the Marabar Caves  
in A Passage to India, Bowles his uses of the Sahara in The Sheltering  
Sky, etc.  Some positive, some not.  Given Achebe's approach,  
nineteenth-century Londoners might object to the representation of  
their dismal city and say it's a distortion, it's unfair.  A  
distortion?  Yes.  Unfair.  No.  Then there're the examples of  
Shakespeare's Othello and other Renaissance playwrights.  Should Turks  
object to the depiction of Cyprus, so close to the Ottoman Empire, as  
an outpost where rational men are "turn'd Turk," i.e., barbaric?  The  
Ottomans, after all, had their own distinctive culture and  
civilization.  Should Shakespeare be branded a racist for sometimes  
depicting Othello as a caricature of a black Moor (cf. Olivier's  
characterization of Othello in his film version — an unflattering  
portrayal, an Al Jolson in blackface, which indeed has a solid textual  
basis)?  Should Italians protest Webster's Duchess of Malfi and  
Jonson's Volpone for their portrayal of Italy as essentially a big den  
of iniquity?  No, no, no, in my opinion.

My reaction to Lolita is based on the subject matter.  An American  
locale has absolutely nothing to do with it.  I'm queasy about the  
topic, uncomfortable, as I am with De Sade's Justine.  Pedophilia and  
sadism — I have problems with those two.  Being queasy is not a  
rejection of the novel; it's an admission of my own limitations.  You  
misunderstood my comparison with Mountolive's experiences in a  
brothel.  I guess I wasn't clear.  I am about as shocked with Humbert  
Humbert chasing a pubescent girl as Mountolive is shocked when  
stumbling on that brothel of child prostitutes, where he is overcome  
with "disgust and pity" (AQ, Faber, 1962, p. 628).  This is a telling  
episode that accrues to Durrell's great credit and should counter  
arguments that seek to depict him simply as an Oriental Romantic.   
Mountolive is a Romantic, and at the end of his novel, the mature  
diplomat seeks to revive his youthful infatuation with "Egypt," that  
Egypt where, at the beginning of the novel, he rhapsodizes, "'Egypt'  
he said to himself as one might repeat the name of a woman.   
'Egypt'" (p. 398).  Well, he goes out to recapture that experience in  
the Arab Quarter of Alexandria ("This world of Moslem time stretched  
back to Othello and beyond" [p. 624] and stumbles on a den of child  
prostitutes.  Not exactly the feminized Egypt of his Romantic dreams.   
Would you call the adventure of this Englishman unfair towards Arab  
sensibilities?  Arab Egyptians may, but I wouldn't.


Bruce



On Aug 18, 2009, at 5:20 AM, Sumantra Nag wrote:

> Bruce Redwine <bredwine1968 at earthlink.net>
> Subject: [ilds] Takes, Message: 4, Sat, 15 Aug 2009
>
> "I mentioned earlier Chinua Achebe's article on Conrad's /Heart of
> Darkness /(1899), ..."
> ----------------------------------------------------
> Bruce,
>
> I've read Achebe's paper on Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' ('An Image of
> Africa: Racism in Corad's Heart of Darkness', from "Hopes and  
> Impediments:
> Selected Essays 1965-1987", pp1-13, Random House, New York). And  
> also a
> paper by Bruce Fleming 'Brothers Under the Skin: Achebe on Heart of
> Darkness' from 'College Literature', Oct92-Feb93, Vol 19/20 Issue
> 3-1,pp90-100.
>
> I would say that in the 20th (and by extension in the 21st) century  
> even a
> title like "The Nigger of the Narcissus" (Joseph Conrad) would sound  
> racist
> to an Asian or African reader - or perhaps I should say Asian or  
> African
> ear. Certainly the very use of the word Nigger still sounds racist  
> even in
> this literary conyext. The same would apply to at least some, if not  
> every
> passage quoted by Achebe from Heart of darkness in his essay on  
> Conrad's
> racism. Conrad was writing in the 19th century for a totally European
> audience. Achebe's assessment of 'Heart of Darkness' and his strong  
> charges
> of racism against Conrad can undoubtedly be reviewed objectively.  
> But even
> after that is done, I would question the view that the content of a  
> novel
> and its social aspects don't matter, if form or the overall effect  
> on the
> reader is attractive in other ways. Here I would quote your own  
> response to
> Grove about Lolita:
>
> "But I'm very queasy about an elderly Humbert Humbert chasing among an
> underaged "nymphet," as though the undertaking were one of the   
> Russian's
> butterfly hunts.  I'm about as shocked as Mountolive was  when he  
> stumbled
> on a brothel of child prostitutes." (Bruce, Message: 10 Issue 13,  
> Sun, 16
> Aug 2009)
>
> Does the American setting of Lolita have anything to do with this  
> reaction?
> While the casual mention of child brothels, Cavafy's boys and "...five
> sexes.." in Alexandria is inoffensive because of the location's  
> physical and
> cultural distance? Just a bit of acceptable "exoticism" and background
> colour in the sea of "aestheticism" which is Durrell's writing? (I'm  
> sorry
> Bruce, I hope I'm not putting this across too strongly, but you have  
> been
> very strong about Achebe's attack on Conrad and impatient with all  
> mention
> of what you might call an "Egyptian point of view" or a local  
> Alexandrian
> perspective with regard to the Alexandria Quartet.)
>
> In his essay 'Brothers Under the Skin: Achebe on Heart of Darkness',  
> Bruce
> Fleming notes:
>
> "(...we may come to the conclusion that a work is bad for reasons of  
> content
> as well as form...)..All literature exists in time; it fades in and  
> out of
> correctness...In the confrontation between Achebe and Conrad,  
> therefore, it
> seems that we must be sympathetic with both sides".
>
> To dismiss criticism of a literary creation because it is made on  
> the basis
> of content or ideology, it seems, is to narrow one's own basis for
> judgement. After all one point of view does not obliterate the other  
> - it
> adds another dimension. And who is to judge which dimension is  
> unacceptable?
>
> Sumantra

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