Europeans did not discover but rather invented the lands they colonized. Discuss.
The terms ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ gain proximity when they are set in relation to ‘history’ and ‘myth.’ From classical texts such as Thucydides’ Histories, where a fusion of fiction and fact constitutes the historical genre, to the works of medieval pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth, approaches documenting alterity have been a crafted within the paradox of fictional verisimilitude. Discovery can be the mother of invention as well as its plaything.
One view of History locates its basis in an empirical truth, anchored in the immutable event. This perspective is exemplified by the work of Leopold von Ranke, a 19th century German historian. Ranke’s emphasis on a source-based, empiricist approach to ‘history’ can be juxtaposed against ‘myth’ that, whilst also contemporaneously documenting its times, eludes the stasis the necessarily binds ‘history’; myth implies a traditional story, either wholly or partly fictitious, providing an explanation for, or embodying, an idea. It can be paradoxically the precursor and foundation of history as well as its offspring. For example, Herodotus, who “presented his work as the result of research…defined neither the subject of the research nor a clear-cut literary genre.” (p.35) Wilfried Nippel, Imagology ed. Manfred Beller & Joep Leerssen, 2007. This paradox is occasioned by the poet’s status as an originator, not only of literature, but also of culture and religion:
‘I think that Hesiod and Homer lived no more than 400 years before my time, and they were the ones who created the gods’ family trees for the Greek world, gave them their names, assigned them their honours and areas of expertise, and told us what they looked like. Any poets who are supposed to have lived before Homer and Hesiod actually came after them, in my opinion.’ Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, 1998) p. 117
The question for Ranke – during whose lifetime Germany experienced its unification under The Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck and the birth of a colonialist approach that was partly a product of the country’s nascent nationhood – was the part that historicity had to play in the ‘discovery’ of it’s colonial territories. On the one hand, it is arguable that Ranke’s historical empiricism failed to chime with the attitudes of his contemporary colonizers, such as Joseph Schmidlin, whose focus was largely on the ‘invention’ of colonial inhabitants, rather than their historical ‘discovery.’ In his assessment of The Catholic Mission in the German Protectorates, Schmidlin’s vocabulary is abundant with terms of invention and reinvention: “raising (natives) to a higher ethical standard” follows the potential for spirituality to “reshape the individual” who, in turn, might grow “more refined.” Nevertheless, it could also be argued that Ranke’s historicist approach, in the hands of those such as August Bosharts, spawned a perverted model of Darwinism, which, taken to its logical extreme bears out a rigid cast system: ‘we must finally reconcile ourselves to the fact that the Negro belongs to a lower race, created by Providence to serve the white man.’ (Bosharts, 1896)
The blurred distinction between ‘discovery’ and ‘invention’ involved, in Bosharts’ case, the full wallop of the supremacist European ego reflected onto the colonies. It is a position Marlow tries to avoid in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and one which Livingstone sidesteps thanks to his fundamental belief in the native’s propensity for understanding and assimilation of European ‘Christianity and commerce.’ For example, when Livingstone describes the Zambesians’ ‘respect’ for his ‘cleanliness’ ‘though remaining dirty themselves’ (Livingstone, 1858), his is a metaphor for their potential civilisation. Like Livingston, Evans Pritchard (1937 Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande) argued for the potential of natives to assimilate western culture and ideas: on the basis of his field work with the Azandes in the 1920s he observed that natives could easily distinguish between natural and supernatural phenomena, and only lacked the intellectual framework to rationalize these distinctions.
Joseph Conrad, took his anthropology one step further than Livingstone towards Herodotus by recording the journey he took up the Congo River in 1890 and choosing to document his experiences through a story within a story, figurative fact within the format of a novella. Conrad, like Prichard who postdates him, describes Marlow’s fascination with the semantic alterity of the native’s language:
‘they shouted periodically together strings of amazing words that resembled no sounds of human language; and the deep murmurs of the crowd, interrupted suddenly, were like the response of some satanic litany.’(Conrad, p.31)
Words here are frightening, other-worldly: the only framework in which Marlow can place them is ‘satanic.’ In Alterity and Transcendence Lévinas argued for an empathetic alterity in which one’s perspective is substituted for that of the ‘other.’ ‘Alterity is what is positive enough to appeal to being, and separate enough from it to order it imperatively.’ (Cohen, p.277). Heart of Darkness challenges this notion of alterity through the danger it invests in words. Words become Kurtz’s curse: his ability to manipulate them spawns his infamy as much as his magnificence; words ‘the unbounded power of eloquence – of words – burning noble words’ (p.33) build a paradigm which quickly become, for Kurtz, a ‘whited sepulchre’ (p.4). Kurtz is unable to remain ‘separate enough’ from his own narrative about the heart of darkness to ‘order it imperatively’: he not only substitutes his perspective for that of the ‘other’, he irrevocably donates his own ‘being’ to ‘the horror’ (p.32). Kurtz’s unfinished manuscript, which he bequeaths to Marlow, highlights the difficulty of documenting a land from the outside, the complexity of subjectively ‘discovering’ a land. Kurtz does not so much ‘invent’ his surrounding as he is reinvented by them. Lévinas refers to alterity as the “primacy of ontology:” the only words Kurtz has to express his being on the cusp of his existence are two which are “too dark altogether.” (p.36)
The heart of darkness is not simply a metaphor for the shades of good and evil but for the difficulty of penetrating that which is inscrutable. The landscape of the Congo is unfathomable:
‘watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, ‘come and find out.’ This one was almost featureless, as if still in the making, with an aspect of monotonous grimness.’ (p.5)
Marlow’s description here is telling of the propinquity between ‘discovery’ and ‘invention.’ Although he distances himself from the Belgians whom he describes as ‘conquerors’ of ‘brute force,’ distinguishes them from ‘colonists,’ through the way he describes the coastline he demarcates himself in alterity to the land he is exploring. The coast itself is not simply an enigma to Marlow but ‘like thinking about an enigma:’ the mystery lies not simply in the thing itself, but in the consideration of the ‘thing,’ the alterior being. It is not a blank canvass to be projected upon but an inviting, grand, mean, insipid…savage’ puzzle to be resolved. Unlike Odesseus who evaded the calls of the Sirens on the coastline, Marlow, like Kurtz before him, is drawn into this ‘monotonous grimness.’ Through his description of the coast he at once documents and invents the landscape he describes, undoing each adjective with its opposite: ‘smiling’ is disrupted by ‘frowning,’ ‘insipid’ undone by ‘savage’ and ‘grand’ reduced to ‘mean.’ His description avoids engaging with the geographical spectrum of colour, nature, geology and form, focusing instead on attributing human qualities to the coast, using an anthropological vernacular to describe his natural surroundings. Curious to break through the unreadable panorama, Marlow tries to capture this ‘almost featureless’ landscape by penetrating its ‘monotonous grimness’ with a lexicon that slips off the face of the ‘enigma’ he describes. He can neither invent, nor succinctly capture all that lies before him.
In this respect, Marlow’s narrative is preoccupied with locating selfhood as much as it is interested in documenting what he sees on his journey. Toward the end of the first part of his story, as he returns to directly address his auditors in the Thames Estuary, stumbling from his narrative back into reality, Marlow acknowledges the limitations of his descriptive powers. His rhetorical appeals ‘Do you see the story? Do you see anything?’ (p.12) highlight the impenetrability, not only of the landscape and journey he is describing, but the near impossibility of relating the enormity of his experiences at all:
‘I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.’ (p.12)
The repetition of ‘dream,’ which both begins and completes his thought, coupled with the searching nouns ‘sensation’ and ‘notion,’ seeks to quantify an ineffable experience. Reduced to repetitive synonyms: ‘absurdity’ and ‘surprise’ Marlow acknowledges the ‘vain attempt’ in capturing the ‘essence’ of his discoveries. He cannot ‘invent’ the land, the colonisation of which he is both party to and wary of, because he cannot describe it to his own satisfaction. Similarly, he cannot ‘discover’ it either as he is preoccupied with locating his own experience amidst the land that he is exploring. It is ‘impossible’ for Marlow to properly ‘convey’ the landscape to his listeners as it cannot be separated from ‘this epoch’ of his own ‘existence’ (p.12). Far from an alterity which encompasses the ethical significance of others in relation to himself, Marlow is interested in ‘the other’ in as much as he hopes it will reflect back at him ‘it’s truth, its meaning – its subtle and penetrating essence’ even though he knows this is ‘impossible.’ (p.12)
How proximate ‘discovery’ is to ‘invention’ differs not only according to who is telling the story but also largely depends on who is digesting the narrative. Marlow’s self-confessed inability to isolate, with linguistic precision, the exact impact of the experience of his journey into the heart of darkness is reflected in the silence of his audience; their reaction to his story is withheld from us, as is the response of the initial narrative voice who introduces us to Marlow at the beginning of the novella. In the absence of a commentary on the events described from within the story, the reader is left to assimilate and assess the country and inhabitants themselves. Post-colonial readings of texts encompass a range of subjectivity in as much as each reader can assume a creative role, especially with a text such as Heart of Darkness that wasn’t written as a post-colonial text in the vein of Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, but nevertheless is often co-opted into this particular cannon. Chinua Achebe’s reading of Heart of Darkness is well-documented:
“Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa…the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” (Kimbrough, 1988).
Darwinism coupled with post-Enlightenment European superiority was used to justify colonizers’ firm believe in their primacy in Africa. Johann Gottfried Herder declared in Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind (1784) ‘when has the earth ever been as universally enlightened as now?’ moving onto exclaim ‘Everywhere the savages become ripe for conversion…God willing, they will all be human beings like ourselves.’ Whilst to Herder the latter is a logical development in the colonization of Africa, derived from his firm belief in the superiority of Europeans, to a post-modern reader it is a patronizing non-sequitur. However, when reading Heart of Darkness in retrospect, alterity does not simply extend to the relationship between writer and colony, the between word and worlds, but to the relationship between reader and history. Foucault has argued in Les Mots et les choses that all historical epochs are underwritten by truths apposite to the moment and it is these that determine what is acceptable. From a position such as Foucault’s, Heart of Darkness is contextualized by the social history of its time, bound by the constraints of the limited perspective of its author. For example, Marlow’s reflection on the ‘savages’ (p.23) he describes is informed by his post-Enlightenment outlook. From this vantage point European colonization is shackled to ‘discovery,’ as discovery is bound by that which preceeds it and is anchored to the contemporary. Conversely, ‘invention’ follows no such narrative, it is atemporal and absolute. Chinua Achebe’s argument is that the perspective of a post-colonial reader is framed by universal standards that texts can be read against, and that Conrad’s ‘racist’ perspective is an unaccebtable ‘invention’, rejecting the excuse that his presentation of the ‘savages’ was born out of the ‘discoveries’ of his time.
To conclude, Ian Hacking has observed that ‘the whole language of many selves has been hammered out by generations of romantic poets and novelists, great and small.’ (Hacking, 1995). He was making a point about the way the literary imagination has shaped the language in which we speak of people: in Bougainville’s Pacific journal he appropriates his own, Christian lexicon to describe a people for whom ‘love’ is ‘the only God.’ They are ‘the happiest people on this globe’ and ‘still live in a state close to nature,’ ‘the true Utopia.’ The idea of a utopia is essentially paradoxical. The word ‘utopia’ is ambiguous, an equivocacy which gives rise to contradiction: a pun on the Greek prefix ‘ou’, means that it is heard as ‘eu’, hence utopia can mean ‘a good place’, which is evidently the meaning Bougainville ascribed to the word. However, the Greek prefix ‘ou’ attached to ‘topos’ also gives the word the literal meaning of ‘no place,’ moving its meaning closer to the destination of Marlow’s inscrutable and indescribable voyage. Alterity lies between the two definitions of ‘utopia’: it is ‘not nothingness, which could only be the nihilation of being. It is not ideality, self-sufficient and absolute in its immobile present.’ (Cohen, p. 277) Marlow’s voyage of discovery inevitably tends towards but falls short of inventiveness, as his descriptive language falls shy of penetrating the heart of darkness. Whilst The Azande lacked a framework for describing the intellectual distinctions between sorcery and science, Europeans colonialists, when discovering new lands, lacked a vocabulary to properly evoke them.
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