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Into the Heart of Darkness

Column by Mike Gonzalez, March 2002

The global 'civilisers' have left a bloody legacy in Africa.

It seems appropriate that Francis Ford Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now' should be reissued. Its central figure, Kurtz, the crazed officer who reverts to a state of barbarism deep in the rainforest, might be taken to symbolise the same 'evil forces' that Blair and Bush denounce in their daily meetings with the press. Kurtz first appeared in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', but his role was complex. On the one hand, he represented those forces of primitive violence that lay just beyond the frontiers of the 'civilised world', the very same shadowy 'others' with which the current leaders of the free world threaten the badly behaved children of their day. On the other hand, he stood for an inner moral weakness at the very heart of the empire which could corrupt and undermine it from within, the contradiction of a project that claimed moral superiority and used bestial methods to achieve it .

Where, then, was the heart of darkness--at the core of ourselves, or out there in the unfamiliar landscapes of Central Africa, the North West Frontier or the South Asian rainforest? Listening to Donald Rumsfeld's bloodthirsty threats against the world beyond the border, it is hard not to see in him yet another incarnation of Kurtz and, behind him, of all the other 'civilising' agents that imperialism has sent into the unmapped places.

If there were any doubt of the terrible human costs of this integrative mission, glance at any page of Mike Davis's powerful account of Victorian expansion, 'Late Victorian Holocausts', to see how 'Europe itself was being barbarised by its complicity in secret tropical holocausts'. The 'great hungers' of a century ago were no more acts of nature than Rwanda, the forgotten genocide of the 1990s, was a tribal war left over from some earlier age. It was a very modern cataclysm, in which the dying Hutus and Tutsis completed the task of mass murder on behalf of the same global 'civilisers' whose attention is turning now to the north of the African continent.

Barbara Kingsolver's 'The Poisonwood Bible' tells the story of a mother and four daughters transported to Congo by their missionary father, Nathan Price. He is in every sense a stereotypical representative of that Christian evangelism that really deserves the name of 'fundamentalist'. He booms and rants at the occupants of Kilanga, the village where they set themselves up, railing at every living practice as ignorance and barbarism. His wife and children, equally oppressed by his tyrannical bigotry, look for places where they can survive--the domestic or childhood spaces still innocent of complicity with this representative of imperial ideology. For about the first third of the novel these five lives remain attached to an American-ness represented by the photograph of Eisenhower pinned to the kitchen wall. In the father's case, it is the pursuit of power and control that defines being American--the overwhelming conviction of rightness and a willingness to use terror (real or ideological) to underline it.

But it is 1960, and the movement for the independence of Congo is growing under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba. In the second part of the novel his victory in the presidential elections sets in train a series of violent upheavals that bring his murder and the rise to power of the tyrant Mobutu, and throw these young women into the stream of history. Their individual lives become subject to forces that they can barely name--and they come dramatically to the realisation that the cheerful, avuncular figure on the kitchen wall is a man willing to destroy a whole society, to impose a new barbarism in the name of civilisation.

The novel has been described as 'postcolonial'. It retells the history of the liberation struggle in Congo from within, and describes how tough it proves to be to sustain a hope of freedom when the predictable assaults of nature combine with the savagery of imperial geopolitics. But is that recognition of the misrepresentation of the African past enough to earn the label postcolonial?

There is a danger in much of the postcolonial debate of slipping into a paradox--of acknowledging 'otherness' and difference as a way of drawing a line under the lineage of imperialism. As the rhetoric of 'heart of darkness' returns, should we respond simply by affirming the 'rights' of the nations of that continent to autonomy? Or should we, like Orleanna Price in the novel, accept our own complicity in the imperial vision?

None of these seem very satisfactory. Perhaps the future expression of opposition to the devastations of empire should begin by seeing that 'postcolonialism' has to be more than an ideological space filled by a language of rights and cultural respect. It has to be a different world, more culturally complex but at the same time more diverse in its centres of power. It isn't a matter, in other words, of shedding light into the 'heart of darkness', but of rooting out its sources in the neon-lit heartlands of empire.

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