Posts Tagged ‘education’

Guest post: Racism and the Works of Joseph Conrad

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Today I’m doing a guest post for Kaet because the subject matter fits her blog more than my own.

Joseph Conrad

Image via Wikipedia

I first encountered the works of Joseph Conrad when I was in high school when I had to read Heart of Darkness for English class. The volume I purchased for the class also had in it the novella The Secret Sharer which I promptly read as well. Although I was constantly reading, I usually selected my own fare to read and did not go above and beyond in school. However, Conrad was the first author I encountered who wrote above the sea and life at sea who got the details right. At the time, I still lived on a boat myself, and so The Secret Sharer was particularly vivid. Conrad instantly became one of those authors I regarded as a favorite. Yet somehow, I didn’t read more by Conrad, although I purchased a few volumes by him which I placed on my ever-overflowing “to read” shelf– or shelves, to be honest.

I did re-read Heart of Darkness my final year of high school, again for English class. I’d switched school and it was part of the curriculum for the final year, but the English teacher gave it short shrift that year. She made all too clear she was reading it because she had to but she preferred romances like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice.  The subject matter of Heart of Darkness could easily have lent itself to racism, and yet I did not notice any in the two works of Conrad I had read nor did either English teacher– both of whom reveled in such criticism– point it out to me.

Book Nigger of the NarcissusSo when recently I pulled off my shelf to read a volume containing three novellas by Conrad, I was not put off by the fact that the first of them was entitled The Nigger of the Narcissus. I assumed confidently that here was Conrad’s work analogous to Mark Twain‘s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which uses a thoroughly offensive word but which does so in a way that is thoroughly justified by a point that decries racism.

Then I started reading. The famous preface of the work enheartened me; here was a manifesto about art with recurring themes of words and color. Surely these were allusions to his following major work confronting racism. The objectionable word in the title appears repeatedly in the text, but with each of the five chapters I became more forced to the conclusion that the fact that the title character James “Jimmy” Wait happens to be a black man makes no difference in the story or its events. Maybe, I thought, that was itself the point?! Yet the casual racism of the characters, including the narrator, is never questioned, never challenged, never even held up in contrast to confront the reader. To all appearances, the matter of fact bigotry of the ship’s company in the novel, not a burning raging vehemence against a black man but thoroughly careless assumption that the title character is socially inferior by virtue of his color, remains throughout entirely unquestioned– even by the author. I conclude so reluctantly because no point whatsoever is made in the book that could not be made as well or better were James Wait white or his color simply never mentioned.

The other book in the volume I’ve been reading other than Heart of Darkness is the Conrad’s novella Typhoon, but that will have to wait. I’m still coming to grips with what I think of Conrad as an author. Certainly I’m disappointed and I feel I’ve lost my respect for Conrad as an author. In future when I refer to my liking of Conrad, doing so will always be apologetic, because in my mind his work has become tainted. While I know the prejudice was common in his time, yet that just does not seem to me a good enough excuse when others like Twain were coming out against racism before the book was published (which by the date of the preface was 1897).

Kaet here: My DH finished reading this novella today, and while I haven’t read it myself, he’s been sharing his impressions (and the storyline) with me throughout. Long time readers of this blog will know that reading classic fiction with racist and sexist elements in it, apparently acceptable at the time, but certainly not now, has been something I’ve struggled with (it’s something I certainly discussed when deciding how much of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s Tarzan series to read, for example), and so I thought these perspectives on the topic might be of interest here.


Family Values

Sunday, 3 August 2008

No crocheting this week, as it’s the Nine Days, so the books have it, I’m afraid! As I suspected, all I now want to do is crochet, but I can’t, so there it is.

224. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai

There are two quite distinct stories here, but they do tie together. The first part shifts around in time, gradually charting the unchanging life of Uma and her parents in their small town in India, with its few highs and lows, while the second (shorter) part tells of one specific summer in the life of Arun, her younger brother, as he stays with an American family between his first and second years at university.

Every time it has seemed Uma might get away, live her own life, whether as wife, worker, or anything else, she ends up being brought home, to the pleasure of no-one, and is now stuck looking after her parents for the coming decades. Arun is expected to have that life, but just wants to get away from everyone. Even though his father, like his host, is horrified at his vegetarianism, his own family does not have the disfunctional relationship with food (and each other) that they do, but even though he has a real experience with the Pattons, while Uma drifts through another summer of frustration and disappointment, I amn’t convinced either sibling is all that changed.

225. Planting & Building: Raising a Jewish Child by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe

So, no, I don’t have children, and I don’t have any reason to expect them soon (ie a spouse), and this isn’t even the first time I’ve read this book. The fact is, my Rabbi told me to read it (and reread it), as a framework for planning how I want to bring up my children one day, as it’s an important factor in choosing a husband. I think he’s right. Rabbi Keleman has translated the book beautifully clearly, as one would expect.

226. Coming Home: 20 Glimpses from the Road of Return in Modern America compiled by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz

The Bostoner Rebbe has been supporting students at the universities in Boston for decades, as well as people of all ages who have come his way, and here he has compiled the stories of twenty of them who became Orthodox Jews. I enjoyed reading these thoughtful appraisals and retellings of the varied journeys of some very interesting people.

Niccolo Rising chapter 6 shows us the Charetty family reunion, as the Widow returns, sweeping her daughters Tilde and Catherine along with her, and her unruly males back to work.


Thursday, 17 July 2008

I was out late last night, and didn’t put the computer on once I did get home, so no post and not much crocheting. (I have finished Syd Rabbit’s tummy, but not attached it yet.)

The books I have to discuss have no unifying theme at all, that I can think of. Any suggestions?

206. Great Lives: Mao Zedong by Fiona MacDonald

This is the point where I wonder at the series being entitled “Great Lives”, when the book ends up being pretty negative about Mao as a person and national leader. I suppose they really meant “Influential Lives” or some such. (I’ve only actually so far read this and the Gandhi one I mentioned a couple of days ago, although I know there’s one on Saladdin, among several others. It’ll be interesting to see what judgement is made on him.)

Anyway, Mao is certainly portrayed as influential in his middle and later career, but also egotistical, domineering and murderous. It’s got pictures, quotes, context and dates, and is an interesting read. I have recently read one or two books about modern Chinese life (although not politics/leadership specifically) but nothing really about the country’s history since Wild Swans, well over a decade ago. Another major topic to explore further!

207. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

A great fun novel, with thoughtful characters who have interesting and amusing adventures, without shying away from the darker side of life, even in a country apparently as wonderful as Botswana. I have heard episodes of the radio dramatisation of the series before, but I enjoyed the book more, and look forward to getting to the rest of the series.

208. Reaching the Stars by Ruchoma Shain

Shain writes as well about her own life as about her father’s, although this is a quite different book from All For the Boss. This is much more of an anthology of her memories and those of her many students in different contexts and continents, and of very different ages, as well as tips and thoughts on being an educator and guide to life, as well as the timetabled class. I enjoyed it, but would be far more likely to return to her first book than this one.