[ilds] Bitter Lemons and Academe

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Tue Apr 5 05:18:24 PDT 2016


Yes.  I thought of adding Chinua Achebe to my list of postcolonial writers but thought my comment had already grown too long.  Now that you’ve brought him up, I’ll elaborate.

I’m not a fan of Achebe, a Nigerian novelist and critic, and his diatribe on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  His essay, “An Image of Africa:  Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” was first delivered as a lecture at the U of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1975 and was later published in the U of Massachusetts Review in 1977.  In the lecture, he calls Conrad a “bloody racist”; in the article, he emends that phrase to “thoroughgoing racist.”  The Brits are attuned to the difference.  I find “thoroughgoing” more offensive.

Ian Watt was a Brit and one of the great critics of the English novel and Joseph Conrad in particular.  (See his Rise of the Novel:  Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding [1957] and Conrad in the Nineteenth Century [1979].)  In his article, “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Critics,” anthologized in his Essays on Conrad (2000), Watt dismantles and refutes Achebe’s charge of Conrad’s racism.  In my opinion, of course, anyone who takes Achebe seriously has not read Heart of Darkness closely.  This is not to say that Conrad did not have prejudices which extended to certain ethnic groups (he had a preference for the Malays over the Chinese, I seem to recall), but to call him a “racist” I find outrageous.

Unfortunately, as Regina Martin’s recent article in PMLA suggests, Achebe’s charge of Conrad’s “racism” is now widely accepted as fact and would seem to have the stamp of approval of the Modern Language Association.  (Interestingly, Martin does not cite Achebe; apparently, she felt no need to reference the obvious.)  This is what I find disturbing.  I attribute it to the excesses of “postcolonial” thinking and argumentation.

Re your other comments, I think you’re right that Durrell likes to have things both ways.  That’s part of his sly persona.  As to Cyprus and the Cold War, that historical context is important.  But that’s the present of 1957.  One of the things I’ve always liked about Durrell and his epigraphs (along with the illustrations) is how he places one foot in the present and another in the past, deep time.  It’s no coincidence that he worked in Kyrenia (or was it Nicosia?) but found a home in the village of Bellapaix, a Crusader refuge.  All Romantic Classicism, I guess.


> On Apr 4, 2016, at 7:05 PM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi Bruce,
>> Postcolonialism in the academy has some pernicious consequences.  In a
>> recent article on Joseph Conrad in /PMLA,/ the premier journal of
>> American literary studies, we find this first sentence:  “Critics tend
>> to agree that Joseph Conrad’s novels engage in a critique of
>> imperialism, but, given the novels’ pervasive racism the nature of that
>> critique persist as a source of debate in postcolonial studies” (Regina
>> Martin, “Absentee Capitalism and the Politics of Conrad’s Imperial
>> Novels,” /PMLA 130.3/ [2015]:  584).  “Critics” do /not/ tend to agree
>> on Conrad’s “racism” (read an eminent critic like Ian Watt on Conrad and
>> the authoritative/ Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad)/ but Martin
>> would have it so.
> I'm not a Conrad scholar, but I can probably trouble this a bit -- we hosted the Conrad Society's conference here at FDU-Vancouver just after the last On Miracle Ground.  One side would certainly defend Conrad from the charge, but there's also a famous lecture (later paper) by Chinua Achebe on Conrad in which he offers the biting comment "Conrad was a bloody racist."   He goes on to give a more nuanced outline of the sentiment, but the laconic form makes the point.  As an instance of how that plays out, the outstanding Conrad scholar John Stape taught for us here in Vancouver and brought the conference here, and my Campus Provost was friends with Achebe -- when they talked, it was from two very different perspectives...
> By granting the critique of imperialism along with the racism, I'd suspect Martin was trying to speak in a way that would reach both of those crowds (more a way of getting the two major readerships to feel okay than necessarily the central gesture).  I'd have to go to the article and read to say more!
> That said, a comparable comment on Durrell from a global figure like Achebe but born in the mid-1970s would be rather helpful (a comparable age gap for us today from Conrad & Achebe).  After all, people tend to actually read the polemics -- it's the same reason bad reviews are better than tepid reviews: the stirring of curiosity is always a help.
>> As to Durrell’s /Bitter Lemons,/ calling the book a “whitewash” of
>> British policy is far, far too simplistic and another misreading of a
>> complicated text written by an author who was deeply conflicted and
>> troubled.
> As you know, I tend to read Durrell as often ironic, and many don't agree with me -- I've said on the listserv in the past that I look to the opening of /Bitter Lemons/ in exactly the same way as I look to the opening of /Justine/ in the same year.  It speaks in the contradictions but not in what's said, much like the closing interpretation of silence.
> Justine opens with Freud & Sade, but I think it's Freud *vs.* Sade, and the cut or unspoken portions are the most important.  Likewise, /Bitter Lemons/ opens with its claim "this is not a political book" but follows up an epigram that makes the irony pretty overt: "A race advancing on the East must start with Cyprus" followed by grand conflicts between nations and imperialism then a closing reference to how important the Suez Canal makes Cyprus.  It's always struck me as something like "of course I could not write this book if it were a political book, so it isn't -- by the way, I'm lying."
> Durrell's anonymous writings on Cyprus make it clear he was thinking of the Cold War, not some "genuine" claim Britain had.  Only three years later he would write that humanity lives "under sentence of death and simply living from reprieve to reprieve."  It's unsurprising for the period -- in fact, what is surprising is that an author would turn to the kind of lush writing we find in the Quartet at that precise moment.  If we read /Bitter Lemons/ beside 1957 in literature, some other trends might stand out: Fleming's /From Russia, with Love/, Kerouac's /On the Road/, Pasternak's /Doctor Zhivago/, Rand's /Atlas Shrugged/, Wyndham's /The Midwich Cuckoos/, etc...  Durrell certainly stands distinct from his contemporaries, but the Cold War mentality seems ready to hand!  I think we'd be wise to see it as ready to hand in /Bitter Lemons/ as well, even if it's mumbled.
> All best,
> James

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