Picture Puzzles

There is little doubt that the novels of Joseph Conrad will soon gather dust in forgotten sections of the few remaining libraries around the world. For one thing, Conrad’s novels have been castigated by China Achebe, who tells us that we should not read Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness because the author has the audacity to use the “N” word  with abandon. This is absurd, of course, and I have defended Conrad in print against this attack. But Achebe’s essay is much read while mine also gathers dust in libraries around the world. So it goes.

But, more to the present point, Conrad’s novels will not be read because the novelist was an impressionist, which is to say, he demands of the reader that he or she engage their imagination in order to enter the world the novelist has created. He hints and suggests rather than describing in detail; he allows the reader to infer from the written words what it is that has not been written. And while it is certainly the case that there are fewer and fewer readers of books it is even more certain that there are fewer and fewer of those who have the capacity to engage Conrad’s novels or indeed any work of art with his or her imagination. The problem is, of course, that our imaginations have become shriveled by the entertainment industry which is convinced that the more graphic and vivid the entertainment the more success it will have. God forbid that we should have to make an effort!

This is a shame because the world of the artist is a richer and fuller one than the one we occupy in our ordinary goings and comings. But it demands that we pay attention and that we imagine what is NOT being said.

In Heart of Darkness, for example, we are taken into the world of avarice and greed on a major scale as Europe is in the process of pillaging the world of Darkness in order to make a buck — the only real value that seems to be shared among those who are not the exploited of this world. In that novel, the hero, Marlowe, is seeking out the man Kurtz who has disappeared and, because he has been very successful in bringing tons of ivory back to Belgium, is sought by the company — if he is still alive. Marlowe wends his way past villages that have  been laid waste by greedy Europeans; he eventually finds himself approaching the hut where he is told Kurtz is to be found. He describes the sight as he approaches:

“You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable given the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as though from a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post [in front of the hut] with my glass and saw my mistake. Those round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing — food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the poles. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned toward the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way.”

The passage goes on for a bit, but Conrad does not describe the orgies and the murder of the blacks that Kurtz was engaged in to satisfy his sensualism and greed, his lust for human flesh and elephant tusks, not to mention his contempt for the blacks he exploited. Conrad demands that we imagine for ourselves. Can we do that any longer? I do wonder.

Another impressionistic novel that I finished lately also provides us with bits and pieces and asks us to out them together to form a complete picture. I speak of the Nobel Prize winner Yusunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes — which draws on the Japanese Tea Ceremony to assist us in putting the pieces together. Doubtless it is more difficult for us Westeners to do without the proper indoctrination into the complexities of those ceremonies, but it is made even more difficult because  most of us are forced to read the original in translation. Those difficulties aside, we must, above all else, think and attend carefully to what is said in order to imagine what is not being said.

Toward the end of the novel, Kikuji, the hero of the novel, has found his way into the interior of himself and realizes that the woman Fumiko is the one person in the world for whom he is able to feel real love. As he approaches her house very near the end of the novel he discovers from a young girl that Fumiko has “gone away with a friend.” Kikuji realizes at once that this means the Fumiko, like her mother, has taken her own life. Kawabata does not spell this out for us. He suggests it, as does Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and we are left with the terrible awareness of the emptiness in the man’s soul — a sense that comes to us as we put together the pieces the author has provided us with, using our imagination.

Kawabata’s novels, like Conrad’s, will also gather dust on the shelves of libraries around the world — in the East no less than the West, as we can infer (even at this distance) from the impact Western capitalism has had on the orient. For better or worse — and many a Japanese writer suggests that it is worse, much worse — the East is being informed by the West and Western values, such as they are. But in any event, both novelists demand that we use our imaginations and we are slowly but surely losing the ability to do that. How sad.

4 thoughts on “Picture Puzzles

  1. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” will never be relegated to the dust as long as people watch “Apocalypse Now” & learn that it was based on it. Another rewriting of this classic was by Tayed Salih, “Season of Migration to the North”. Perhaps Chinua Achebe has never heard of it (I have a hard time believing that).

    I have never had any patience for people who tell other people what to read & what not to read based on the language used in the book. The characters speak like the people on which they were based. We all know how real people speak. Can we stop pretending otherwise? How does boycotting a book in which characters speak like real people change anything? If anything, it shows how vile these people are!

    • The irony is that in “Heart of Darkness” the blacks are the exemplars while the whites are greedy, unfeeling rapists. I simply concluded that Achebe doesn’t know how to read!

  2. Hugh, as you know, our species has committed some highly offensive and horrific acts. If we whitewash these acts and not show the evil and lack of humanity, we are doomed to repeat them. We must learn our lessons in the most painful and articulate of ways. Had we not read”To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huck Finn,” “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” “The Book Thief,” etc. we would not learn how our darkest behavior can cause evil to occur and people to look the other way. My wife just read “Small Great Things” by Jodi Piccoult, and had a hard time getting started because of a racist being featured. She is glad she plowed through it.

    We must not whitewash history whether it is American slavery or genocide against Native Americans or South African Apartheid or Nazi Germany genocide against Jews or English imperialism over darker skinned folks or the Spaniards genocide over the Mayans to get their “oro.” Or, it could be more recent where we piled up bodies in Vietnam to try to win war of attrition over a foe defending its country.

    I was watching the old Dustin Hoffman movie “Little Big Man” the other day. It is not unlike a Forrest Gump view of history. But, it reveals clearly the greater humanity in the Native American tribes versus how he was treated in “civilized” society. This movie was juxtaposition of how kids were taught and the movies they saw about Native Americans.

    Sorry for the long-winded response. Being told not to read things strikes a nerve. Keith

    • It struck my nerves as well. “Little Big Man” was always one of my favorite movies and Hoffman one of the great actors of all time. Thanks for this.

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