On the `Moral Universe' in Literature

HOPES AND IMPEDIMENTS: SELECTED ESSAYS by Chinua Achebe, New York: Doubleday, London: Heinemann, 186 pp., $17.95

CAN a novel in which ``the very humanity of black people is called in question'' be considered a great work of art?

The Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic Chinua Achebe opens his latest collection of essays with a devastating reassessment of that canonized Western text, Joseph Conrad's ``Heart of Darkness.'' Achebe concedes Conrad's gifts as a stylist and storyteller. But he is convinced that the tale is blatantly racist, and that any novel which dehumanizes a portion of the human race cannot be classed as a great work of art.

Achebe is perfectly familiar with the defenses customarily offered on Conrad's behalf, and he neatly demolishes them, one by one. Ingenious attempts to distinguish between Conrad's viewpoint and that of Marlow, the tale's fictional narrator, do not faze him: Hiding behind a fictional persona, Achebe argues, cannot insulate an author from ``the moral universe of his story'' if the author has failed to provide an ``alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters.''

To the argument that the story is not so much about Africa as about Kurtz's disintegration in an African setting, Achebe responds, ``Can nobody see the preposterous ... arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?'' Acidly, he notes that Africans do not speak at all in ``Heart of Darkness'' except on two occasions, once in the famous conclusion ``Mistah Kurtz - he dead,'' and before that, to demonstrate their cannibalistic tendencies, ``Catch 'im.... Eat 'im!''

The defense that Conrad's racism would not have seemed unduly racist in 1902 strikes Achebe as the final proof of how deep-seated the problem has been. The esteem in which ``Heart of Darkness'' has long been held leads Achebe to conclude that ``the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa.... Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray - a caricature on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities ...''

As someone who always found Conrad stylistically as well as morally murky, I confess I read Achebe's essay with unmitigated delight, even though the pervasive cultural blindness that has allowed the glaring flaw of racism to go unseen is cause for dismay, not delight.

But few critics, including Achebe, have yet discussed the conflict between the writer's responsibility to avoid racial and ethnic slurs and the natural tendency to draw on a pool of cultural assumptions that seem to provide vivid, concrete symbols for abstract concepts and conditions, as when someone like Thomas Mann uses North and South to represent the temperamental contrast between the cool-headed businessman and the warm-blooded aesthete.

The 14 essays in ``Hopes and Impediments'' display Achebe's ongoing concern with the moral role of art in general, literature in particular. For Achebe, ethical concerns take priority over aesthetic ones.

In ``The Writer and His Community,'' Achebe suggests that the average African or Asian may have more in common with the older values of a Socrates or a St. Augustine than the modern Westerner steeped in the credo of individualism and still suffering the lingering aftereffects of the Cartesian split between mind and nature, self and community.

Written over the past 25 years, most of these essays were first delivered as talks. They have the special virtues - and weaknesses - that distinguish persuasive oral communication: incisiveness, wit, energy, and clarity on the plus side; oversimplification, exaggeration, and polemicism on the minus. For example, the hope that the West's emphasis on individualism may be balanced by an African concern for communal values seems unobjectionable.

But Achebe exaggerates the contrast between the two value-systems, and by now, the promise made on behalf of so many outside or oppressed groups - peasants, mystics, the working class, women (each of whom is expected to provide a less selfish way of looking at life) - has a rather hollow sound.

Achebe's focus on the ethical aspects of literature can also yield insights into its aesthetics and, indeed, its very essence. Art and literature, he insists, fulfill a unique role in human society by inviting us into a realm where we can investigate moral choices. Fiction provides a way to imagine ``the road not taken,'' enabling us to vicariously experience the consequences of different acts, mindsets, and behavior patterns. By reading, we enlarge our horizons and learn, perhaps, to make more informed choices.

In some of the essays, Achebe takes his stand on the side of allowing the writer maximum latitude to portray the world as he or she perceives it. Achebe is particularly concerned that the third-world writer not feel compelled to write to please the taste of Western readers and critics. One hopes it is also correct to infer from this that while Achebe would invoke a moral standard in denying that ``Heart of Darkness'' should be considered a great work of art, he would probably not dispute its status as art, or Conrad's right to give vent to his vision, however wrongheaded.

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