The Need of Myth

We are used to hearing about Myth as untrue, and also as “a special kind of truth”. I like the religious definition of “a story that tells a sacred truth,” as this cuts to the heart of it. That’s really, one suspects, what Tolkein was getting at with Middle-Earth: telling a story that told deep and real truths. In this sense, Myth becomes a kind of synonym for Art.

Let us now, by way of comparison, imagine abstract man, wihtout the guidance of myth – abstract education, abstract morality, abstract justice, the abstract state, let us imagine the lawless wandering, unchecked by native myth, of the artistic imagination; let us imagine a culture without a secure and primal sacred site, condemend to exhaust every possiblity and feed wretchedly on all other cultures – there we have our present age, the product of that Socratism bent on the destruction of myth. And here stands man, stripped of myth, eternally starving, in the midst of all the past ages, digging and scrabbling for roots, even if he must dig for them in the most remote antiquities. What is indicated by the great historical need of unsatisfied modern culture, clutching about for countless other cultures, with its consuming desire for knowledge, if not hte loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical womb? Let us consider whether the feverish and sinister agitation of this culture is anythign other than astarving man’s greedy grasping for food – and who would wish to give further nourishment to a culture such as this, unsatisfied by everything it devours, which transforms the most powerful, wholesome nourishment into “history and criticism”?

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, pg. 110

I have often found Nietzsche to be a passionate and entertaining mountebank: he talks nonsense, but he does so in a way that hits upon realities, incants the inexpressible. I have read that he was intended for the ministry; he makes a fine shaman. And this passage hits upon a reality. Why is our age so devoted to superheros? Why do we fight over them as past ages fought over gods? Because of the need for myth, some emotional primality, some ur-sense. The more we bust Myths, the more we long for them.

We are not, and never will be, as rational as we imagine. Some part of our deeper brain has needs that abstraction cannot satisfy. Words are not merely vehicles of argumentation, but of entrancement. This does not exist for no reason, or devil’s anti-reason. That which exists, fulfills a need.

We dramatize the weather, the traffic, and other impersonal phenomena by employing exaggeration, ironic juxtaposition, inversion, projection, all the tools a dramatist uses to create, and the psychoanalyst uses to interpret, emotionally significant phenomena.

We dramatize an incident by taking events and reordering them, elongating them, compressing them, so that we understand their personal meaning to us – to us as the protagonist of the individual drama we understand our life to be.

David Mamet, “Three Uses of the Knife”, pg. 3-4

The greatest sin we can commit against ourselves is to refuse to be human, to demand godhood of ourselves. We are not gods, and God forbids us to think of ourselves as such. Myth invits to share in what is greater than ourselves, not to supplant it.

Logic and Word Games

Over at Rotten Chestnuts, a post on Hegel and Marx that underlines the giant Problem of Philosophy.

One reason “underpants gnome metaphysics” appeals, of course, is that Hegel et al had a point. Classical logic has some huge gaps, as the Classical Greeks — i.e. the guys who developed it in the first place — well knew. Consider the famous “Achilles” paradox of Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC). Achilles and a tortoise are running a race. The tortoise gets a ten foot head start. Can Achilles catch up?

In reality, of course, Achilles blows by the tortoise, but consider it from the “logical” perspective. In order for Achilles to catch the tortoise, he has to cut the distance in half. Now he’s five feet away. But to bridge that gap, he has to cut the remaining distance in half. Which he does, and now he’s 2.5 feet away. To bridge that gap, he has to halve the remaining distance again, and now he’s 1.25 feet away, then 0.625 feet away, then 0.3125 feet away, and so on, out to infinity. According to “logic,” at least, Achilles never catches up.

Severian, “Final Sample“,

As Severian mentions, this is probably an analogy for a high-level mathematical concept, and NOT an argument that motion does not exist (much the same way Schrodinger’s Cat is an analogy on the difficulty of observing sub-nuclear particles, and NOT a denial of the Law of Non-Contradiction). Because the minor premise of this “logic” (the infinite halves) is, shall we say, entirely questionable. All Achilles needs to do to catch the tortoise is run faster than the tortoise does. If the tortoise is ten feet ahead, and moves at .5 feet per second (a generous estimate) and Achilles runs at 4 feet per second, then at the end of 3 seconds, Achilles has gone 12 feet from the starting line, and the tortoise is 11.5 feet from the same starting line. Boom. It’s over. Simple mathematics, which, I’m told, is entirely logical.

{But first he has to go HALF! Yes, and at a constant rate, Achilles will cover 2 feet in half as much time as 4 feet, and 1 foot in a quarter as much time, 1/2 foot in an eighth, etc. Achilles could be a dolt at times, but nobody’s stupid enough to slow their speed by half each second of a foot race. Stop being such a nerd.}

The next paradox he mentions is even dumber:

Consider an equally puzzling Ancient Greek problem, the sorites paradox. How many grains of sand make a heap? Or, since this is the Internet, how many hairs must Jean-Luc Picard, the best captain of the starship Enterprise, lose before he’s considered bald?


There’s actually a formal fallacy under this name: the Continuum Fallacy. But that’s less important than the deep and abiding idiocy of expecting that “bald” to be a precisely defined term. It isn’t, any more than “heap” is. And this is the Problem of Philosophy I mention earlier: it’s lost in an endless race to the bottom of granular defining. It’s all word games.

The Zen Master holds up a staff. He says to his pupils: “If you call this a staff, you deny its eternal life. If you do not call it a staff, you deny it’s present fact. Tell me, just what do you propose to call it?”

Like all Zen Koans, there isn’t one answer, but the one I find most useful is to look at this as a meditation on the limitations of language as such. No matter what word you use, you’re focusing on a specific aspect of the thing’s existence. No word exists that describes the fact that the staff as once part of a tree, which was one a seed, which was once part of another tree, and will shortly be dust to be sucked up by the roots of another tree, while also describing the fact that it’s an inanimate object you can smack your stupider students on the butt with.

Translation: words communicate ideas, and can so be very very vague while still being effective. Humans use language as a tool, language is not fixed. So demanding absolute precision in words outside of a highly technical context isn’t just nerdery, angels-on-pinheads; it’s a sisyphean nightmare, on the order of the infinite cyle-of-halves. The aforementioned Schrodinger may be right about subatomic particles (for all I know — I took Physics for Non-Science Majors), but that doesn’t translate up to an inability to determine if a cat is dead or not. Much of modern and post-modern philosophy is an exercise in playing word games in a fruitless quest to provide the metaphysical underpinning that used to come to us via religion. It won’t work, because words are too flexible and incomplete to meet these needs. Whatever conceptual structure we create, (say “gender”), we can uncreate just as fast, as soon as we find the limits of it. It’s nothing but Imaginary Wack-a-Mole.

Happy New Year.

The Three Tiers of Aesthetics

A long essay, but worth your time, which dovetails nicely with other things I’ve written on the subject. Our Cranky Professor lays out three “approaches” to aesthetics/beauty:

  • The Psychological Approach – In which one experiences beauty as an individuated response to the appearance of a thing. A Flower is Beautiful.
  • The Rational Approach – An understanding that beauty runs parallel to order. A well-ordered thing is a beautiful thing, whether or not you enjoy looking at it. The Human Brain is Beautiful.
  • The Mystical/Spiritual Approach – The idea that Beauty is rooted in the supernatural, as a reflection of a cosmic truth. The Buddah is Beautiful.

These can intersect (there are those prepared to argue that the Psychological Approach is simply the recognition of what is found in the Rational Approach), but what I like is that it covers the multiple meanings found in the word “beautiful”. Recall when I wrote this:

On top of that, the idea of objective aesthetics sounds to many people like “objective enjoyment” and enjoyment is an emotional response to something. You enjoy something. You cannot make yourself enjoy something that you do not, in fact, enjoy. The Star Wars prequels and David Lynch’s Dune are my personal evidence to that.

Originality is Not Art

This issue is handled by Approach Theory. Something can be “rationally beautiful”, while not eliciting a psychological response. A thing can be beautifully constructed, and still boring. This helps me understand what Camille Paglia was blathering about when she praised the end of Revenge of the Sith as a work of profound art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggessive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with natures brute primal power.

Camille Paglia, GLITTERING IMAGES, pgs. 188-189

Stipulate that George Lucas had all this in mind when he made the scene. Stipulate that Revenge of the Sith is the closest thing to the pony in the pile of turds that is the Prequel Trilogy. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and this scene is only slightly less boring. For one thing, it goes on way too long. For another, the emotions Paglia find in the scene are turned on an off like switches, a problem that abounds throughout theses movies. Suddenly Obi-Wan is in tears, yes, and McGregor does his level best to make it real. But there’s been nothing building to this moment. We haven’t seen Obi-Wans’ face grow in passion. They’ve been staring at each other and fighting for what seems like an hour. I don’t suddenly feel attached to McGregor’s performance. It leaves me cold like everything else in this trilogy does. I understand what Paglia’s saying. I can see truth in her assessment. It doesn’t change my individuated experience of the film one bit, and I’ve watched this scene since I’ve read this book. The prequels are still dull robot-kabuki decanted in a lab.

Thus, adopting an awareness of Approach can go a long way towards settling our various disagreements about aesthetics. It recognizes the subjective and the objective. Read the Whole Thing.

Lucretius’ Poetic Epicureanism

There once was an Epicurean Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus, who lived in the 1st Century BC. I say “Epicurean” as a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism began as a combination of an empirical epistemology (we can know things only insofar as we can observe them), atomistic materialism (there is nothing but atoms and the void) with concomitant naturalistic evolution, and a kind of agnostic Deism which early Buddhism would find agreeable. The simplistic reduction of all this, “seek pleasure, avoid pain” made the word “epicurean” a synonym for “libertine”. Mass awareness always destroys nuance.

Lucretius was an Epicurean of the old school, however, and composed a poem to Preach the Good News of Epicurus, called On the Nature of Things . It is not the most entertaining of works. Poetry can be a good vehicle for philosophy, but overall Lucretius appears to be one of those fellows in love with the sound of his own voice. I don’t mind volubility in Virgil; he’s telling a ripping yarn, and while the plot of the Aeneid moves slowly from point A to B, there’s plenty of action on the way. But listening to Lucretius tell me how good his arguments and sound his proofs are gets old quickly. Roman Stoics, at least going by Seneca, had at least the good sense to be laconic.

That said, one or two passages do leap off the page as good analogies:

Men shot; the hills
re-echoing hurl their voices toward the stars;
the cavalry whele, then suddenly post and pound
with earthquake power across the open fields.
Yet high in the hills there is a place from which
They seem a motionless bright spot on the plain.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, II.327-332

This perspective-shift serves to explain a problem with atomism described several lines above (II.309-310), that of “why, though all the basic particles are in motion, their total seems to stand at total rest.” Lucretius is at his best at moments like this, painting a picture to honor the bright and illumine the dark parts of his adopted philosophy. I argued in my post about “Cuties” (remember that? That was only a few months ago. This year is a lifetime) that Art achieves its highest form as a vehicle for ideas. It does not have to do that consciously in order to be successful, but it can aim for immortality that way. There’s no reason that someone in 21st-Century America should have found this in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble, other than its a higher and nobler form of Art. Stylistic quibbles aside, that merits the consideration.

Caligula will have things to say about him, as I have mentioned.

Storming Mottes & Baileys

A very long essay on by Gerald Crayon, describing how the pretentious rhetoric of the Academy, their overheated logorrhea (which differs from Corpo-Babble only that it is more polysyllabic), serves to empty the culture of its meaning. The logic goes like this:

  1. Academic Jargon is deliberately obfuscatory, in order to gatekeep the positions. Crayon refers to this as a “pseudodiglossia” (Diglossia being a culture using two languages, as in medieval Europe, where the 1st Estate spoke Latin and the 2nd and 3rd spoke the vernacular). Learning to parse the gibberish makes people feel invested in the psuedodiglossia (for the same reason that people feel loyal to hazing fraternities and the Marine Corps; you suffered to get there) and the mindset that produced it.
  2. The glut of college degrees has sent forth intellectually-hazed postmodernists, each of whom understand the central texts less well than the person who taught it to them (just as each bebop hipster was less hip by the number of degrees of seperation he was from Dizzy, Monk, and Bird – See Hip, the History for further details). This, plus the Internet, enables nonsense postmodernism to be embraced by digital tribes. Everybody’s knows that nobody knows nothin’.
  3. Consequently, gibberish enables equivocation, as Successor Ideologies (The semi-Marxist post-liberal Revolutionism of the Rising Intersectional Oppressed), use “harm”, “privelege”, “racism”, etc., have both their common definitions, and a highly technical definition derived from the Pseudodiglossia. And like MiniTruthers, the Successor Ideologues know exactly when to shift from one definition to the other. This is known as the Motte & Bailey technique.
  4. Eventually, the slippier slope gets slippier. We move from pseudodiglossia to paradiglossia. The new rules of how to speak have not descended from the Ivory Tower, but are being slashed about in Real Time by every Twitter BlueCheck. Also, the players of the game have gotten hackier, relying less on creative orthography than basic rhetorical schemes, such as alliteration. It’s whatever you can get to go viral, for however long, before someone else moves the goal-posts again. Hence, we move during the Trump years from endless gibbering about “racism” to eternal jabbering about “White Supremacy”, without anything changing. Who decided this? No one. The Internet. What does it mean? Nothing. It’s word games all the way down.

The conclusion is that the system is going to keep going for a while for no better reason than it’s stormed its way through the institutions and is imposing its will. Dissidents and critics of this are on the outside, and don’t even know what they’re looking at, let alone how to stop it. The only thing we can do, at this point, is to simply point out how deep the Sophistic Rot has gone, to point out that the nonsense is nonsense, to refuse to call a deer a horse, and above all, to cease pretending that those who call a deer a horse are simply mistaken. This isn’t a difference of opinion; it is the Game of Thrones. Win or Die.

Ovid, Virgil, and Lucretius Walk Into a Palace…

Back when I first conceived The Meditations of Caius Caligulia, I had a list of books I wanted to read to give me inspiration and background. Writers have to be readers, and I had the broad strokes of what I wanted to do, without the details. Details are key.

So I needed to read, at the very least, Suetonius’ chapter on Caligulia, and I, Claudius by Robert Graves (I was familiar with the BBC miniseries). I wanted to have a go at Camus’ play of Caligulia, because I’d been reading some Camus anyway, and because the “ennui-into-tyranny” line intrigued me.

These were the books that gave me the narrative structure of the project: Who Caligulia was, and why he acted that way. The novella is now finished, or at least, drafted. What does it need now?

I greatly enjoy the voice of the character: how he dances between flights of theophanic fancy and rigorous political meditations. However, I need a certain level of climax for the ending, and to do that, I will have to deep dive into some of the literature current in Little Boots’ time. These are:

  • Ovid’s Love Books. Ovid was a poet of the creeping epicureanism of Rome’s upper class. A kind of window on the Satyricon (which I also might read).
  • Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. A Hellenized Roman, a philospher of the capital-E Epicurean school. He’s already mentioned in the existing first Chapter, when Caligulia refers to him as “that atomist”
  • The aforementioned Aeneid

I pick all of these because they were current to the time, i.e., the late 1st century BC-early 1st century AD. Caligulia might have actually read them. And they speak to the culture of that time: the dawn of Rome’s Imperial Age and the concomitant cultural syncretism. I need to feed a blend of them into my not-quite-mad emperor, so that he can rise to his fullest. I do not know when I’ll have finished this process, but I’ve already had fun doing it.

The End is Never The End: Nietzsche and the Temptation to Prophesy

Running through The Birth of Tragedy is rewarding so long as you recognize that Friedrich Wilhelm was not primarly speaking to you. Rather, like a Cassandra howling at the walls, he was denouncing the folly of his own age, which we, not living in or even properly remembering Wilhelmine Germany, have no reference point to properly understand. Hence, if one reads a passage such as this:

In no other artistic age have so-called “culture” and art itself been so mutually hostle as we see them today. We can understand why such a feeble culture hates true art: it fears that it will bring about its downfall. But might an entire cultural epoch, the Socratic-Alexandrian, have come to an end after tapering to the fine culminate point of contemporary culture? If such heroes as Schiller and Goethe were unable to penetrate the enchanted portal leading to the Hellenic magic mountain, if their braves tstrivings brought them no further than the yearning gaze with which Goethe’s Iphigenie looked from barbaric Taurus to her home across the sea, what hop remains t their successors unless that portal should open of its own accord, in a quite different place quite untouched by all previous cultural endavours – amidst the mystic trains of reawakened tragic music?

Nietzsche, THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY, pg. 97

One comes away with laughter. Because an honest man will admit that he hasn’t the first notion what the old wierdo is agitated about. Sure, I grasp the meaning of “Socratic-Alexandrian culture”, which is Apollonian and science-bound, rational and bereft of true artistic insight, because I’ve gotten far enough that he’s explained it to me. But I’ve only red bits of Goethe and Schilling. I’m lost here. And the line about the “Hellenic magic mountain” is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever read, and I’m old enough to remember Usenet.

Nietzsche writes with wonderful agitation, and sometimes good ideas float through. This is of a piece with his desire for “Dionysiac” art and everything else. You always get the idea that he’s reaching to express something he cannot quite grasp. That makes him more interesting than the turgid logorrheacs he’s reacting to.

I will say that the line about culture and art being hostile to each other puts me in mind of some of my post about Modern Art via Ruskin. I wonder, though, what the old grump would say if he was granted access to a portal, a magic time mirror, and could look at what art and culture have become, in Germany and elsewhere, in the hundred years since his death. Would he approve of the “Dionysiac” artists, consider the sledghammer properly applied? Or would he recoil in confusion? Perhaps both?

He who writes about the wide range of art and “culture” finds it hard to escape the temptation to extrapolate his present observations into world-historical trends. But I have learned that whatever I expect to come in the near-future rarely comes to pass. No doubt I am guilty of wish-casting. The thing unseen warps our clean linear expectations. We did not get hoverboards and Jaws 19 in 2015. We got handheld magic mirrors into our own yearning and the beginning of the end of the film industry.

Or maybe not. Maybe cinema changes, merges with television, becomes a combined filmic art. Maybe both decline as we lose our ability to watch anything longer than a ten-minute YouTube video. Maybe the Matrix becomes real. Or maybe a thousand other different and contradictory things happen.

The one thing the present will do is flow into the future. And whatever we see down the river is like as not to be a mirage.

Notes on Ruskin: The Absurd Rule

Much of Ruskin’s On the Nature of Gothic involves a pre-Marxist critique of industrialization. I’m not sure if it qualifies as being From the Right, as I’m not certain of Ruskin’s politics, but it reads very Romantic, which is at least half a Reactionary movement. The old-school Romantics and Goths gazed back at pre-modern “natural” conceptions and the light footprint man had on Nature with longing. Rationalism and Enlightenment were, in their eyes, as tyrannical as they were liberating.

But so too are the critiques. There is much to sympathize with in Ruskin’s dislike of the Grand Standardization that industrialization entails, but he arrives at conclusions that boggle the mind. For example, he advocates regulation of industry in order to preserve human invention, human art. He creates three broad rules for this:

1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.

2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.

3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving records of great works.

John Ruskin, “On Art and Life” pg. 20

Let’s not spend any time arguing about how such a schema would be practically enforced, as that’s the least of the difficulties with it. We could get lost in haggling about such terms as “necessary”, “noble”, or “imitation”, and even if we agree on what exactly Ruskin meant, we might not agree to be bound by them. This is the problem many 19th century texts leave us with.

But in his examples, he constructs a thing I have noticed many times among those who establish a strong rule, and implement it strongly: a rule yielding absurd results. And by “absurd” I mean widely divergent results among things of minor variation. You see it often in the self-flattering exceptions our Modern Puritans make for their particular prejudices and bigotries. I will refer to it as The Absurd Rule:

So again, the cutting of precious stones, in all ordinary cases, requires little exertion of any mental faculty, some tact and judgment in avoiding flaws, and so on, but nothing to bring out the whole mind. Every person who wears cut jewels merely for the sake of their value is, therefore, a slave-driver.

But the working of the goldsmith, and the various designing of grouped jewelry and enamel-work, may become the subject of the most noble human intelligence. Therefore, money spent in the purchase of well-designed plate, of precious engraved vases, cameos, or enamels, does good to humanity; and in work of this kind, jewels may be employed to heighten its splendour; and their cutting is then a price paid for the attainment of a noble end, and is thus perfectly allowable.

Ruskin, pg. 21

We have thus created a rule under which jewels may be used to adorn objects, but not people. This has nothing to do with the nature of jewels, objects, or people, and even less to do with the goals and results, but the way cut jewels are created. It’s a highly specific distinction being made, and the results is quite strange. And in any case, jewels are going to be cut.

And let me stipulate that I understand his distinction: between creative and monotonous work. I even agree with the criticism that monotonous work is degrading to the human spirit. But the center of our value should therefore be on the humans who do the work, not the objects. The market for jewels and the market for plate, vases, and other goods are the same market, that of having beautiful things. If there’s no reason why someone can’t both cut jewels and make fine plate – and evidently to Ruskin, there isn’t – then we can simply create a rule allowing workers time to work on stimulating projects, and not spend all their time on dull repetitive work. That pus the humans at the center, rather than the objects, and does not anathemetize something (wearing jewels) that carries almost no moral value.

One finds the correct solution by focusing on the primary value.

Chadwick Boseman’s Death is a Reminder of All That We Do Not Know

I’ve never seen Black Panther. I think the last MCU movie I saw was the first Avengers. This is due to indifference. I’m not big into Marvel, and only slightly more into DC (the last DC movie I saw was Dark Knight Rises, which doesn’t count). That whole journey went right by me. Don’t take it personally.

So I don’t have anything to say about Chadwick Boseman as an actor. I’m sure he was good, or at least good enough to play the lead in the only comic book movie to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (what an antiquated term. No one calls them “moving pictures” anymore. Why don’t they call it Best Film?). I’m not here as a critic.

But that Twist. The fact that he’s been fighting Stage3/4 colon cancer since 2016. That he gave those performances, fought his way through Panther, Infinity War, and Endgame while undergoing chemo, catches the heart somehow. And sure, acting in a film is not storming the beaches of Normandy. But it’s not manning a checkout line at Safeway either. They pay you to do it because it’s work.

Above and beyond Bosments’s suddenly-apparent nigh-superhuman toughness, however, sits the fact that such a secret stayed hidden. Granted, Hollywood is good at hiding things. But health ain’t always exactly a secret. If Betty White had the sniffles, the internet would shut down for a day in pre-emptive mourning. But Black Panther had butt cancer and not even the 4channers knew.

That’s the lesson. Whoever you know, whoever you don’t know, whoever you hate, whoever you love, they’re carrying things that no one but God and their general practictioner know about. Things that are not spoken of outside of the four walls of their homes. What you see of a person – any person – is no more than what they show you.

That’s why The Man said Don’t Judge. Not because we’re incapable of judging, but because the full content of a human soul is hidden from us. We need most desperately to remember that in these supremely judgey times. For we are fragile, and our time is short.

Requiscat in Pace Æternam.

Books Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad

Recently I went on a quick camping trip and happened to take along my copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It included some selections from Conrad’s “Congo Diary”, a record he kept of his 1890 journey into the Belgian Congo, events of which clearly informed the subsequent story. This made for an immersive diversion as I watched a soft rain fall on my tiny cabin.

A book as intense as Heart of Darkness, written about so vivid a topic as Colonialism, as it was happening, is bound to provoke an active critical response. So to pad out my paperback volume’s slim 100 pages, we are treated to a series of critical takes on the book, ranging from H.L. Mencken to Virginia Wolff. But the most significant is that of Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, which in many ways provides a mirror and counterpoint to the earlier work.

Achebe’s critique stipulates the book’s virtues and then cuts right to heart, as it were, of darkness: the book exists as a horror story for the European mind, an encounter with Dark Africa, who in her primordial sublimity, shreds the European man’s faith in Progress, and in Himself, like the lamb in the lion’s mouth.

It is important to note that Conrad, careful as ever with his words, is not talking so much about distant kinship as about someone laying a claim on it. The Black man lays a claim on the white man which is well-nigh intolerable. It is the laying of this claim which frightens and at the same time fascinates Conrad, “the thought of their humanity–like yours… Ugly.”

The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Conrad was a bloody racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely undetected.

From “An Image of Africa”, Massachusetts Review, 1977

I have no intention whatever of refuting Achebe’s point. To expect a European, observing Africa in its colonized state, in 1890, to come away without the revulsion that is Heart of Darkness‘ central theme, is to expect a thing that never happened. 1890 was the era in which common tribalism had been ballooned by “Science” into the Biological Racism that reached its thunderhead in the Second World War. The Races, as such, were in closer contact than ever before, and had very little understanding of each other. The fact that Conrad savages the European characters in the story for their pirate morality is beside the point. He does not want to see Africans as humans, even as he cannot help it. He reduces them all to cannibals on the riverside.

But as it happens, I have also read Things Fall Apart. Moreover, like many books I was assigned in High School, it made an impression on me. I enjoyed the story’s arc. I enjoyed the anti-heroic protagonist. I savored his rise and his hubristic peripetaia. And then the end happened, and I put the book down feeling rather suckered. I found it anti-climactic and frustrating. In retrospect, I was perhaps unable at that age to appreciate that kind of an ending. But underneath that, is the way the historical/racial aspect of the story interrupted the narrative arc I was expecting in the first part.

This is of course, the point of the story. The reader is introduced to a vibrant and complex clan culture, that of the Igbo, that’s survived for untold years. We see a protagonist struggle within the context of that culture, but also as an individual with his own strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating as a human tale.

And then, the book tells us, the White People Show Up, and every part of this is destroyed and/or adulterated. It is a cultural collapse both deliberate – the missionaries fully intended to change the Africans’ culture – and unintended, as not understanding the culture, they could not foresee how the Igbo would react. That some of the whites – such as Mr. Brown – have benevolent intentions is irrelevant. They are the destroyers of the world we’re now invested in. Others, such as the District Commissioner, do not even have names, and function less as characters than as events, irruptions of Whiteness.

One doesn’t have to excoriate Achebe to draw the obvious parallels. Europeans in Things Fall Apart are reductions of their race in the same way that Africans in Heart of Darkness are. It is a mirror, reflecting the same encounter from the other side (albiet in British Nigeria rather than Belgian Congo). And just as I do not expect Conrad to see Africans as anything but Other, I cannot but expect Achebe to see Europeans the same way. The reality of the encounter demands it, even as it frustrates our grander moral principles. Humans have tribal instincts that are tied to our social dynamic. Conformity within that social dynamic creates cohesion and expectation. So any violation of that conformity in one sense feels wrong. As the Africans on the riverside don’t fit Marlowe’s conception of what a man should be, neither do the Europeans to Okonkwo.

It’s important to recognize this, because if we refuse to do so, we allow our sense of Other to permit actions that our moral sense would otherwise have found repulsive. 19th-Century Europeans regarded Africans as sufficiently human to expend time and treasure to shut down the African slave trade. But despite that moral discovery, other economic exploitations, and concomitant cruelties, were allowed to go on. Africans were still Other enough that their lands, their religions, their traditions, etc. were regarded with contempt.

But that was 1890. The modern age pretends to have transcended this dynamic, but they’ve simply reversed the polarity on it. European civilization has gone from being The Best and Most Natural Standard of Good, to the Foulest and Most Horrid Excrescence of Wickedness. That the second fails under examination as clearly as the first did does not deter those who speak it. Anger and revulsion at the darkness in the human heart wheresoever it be found will usually find a scapegoat. Others gonna Other.

For that reason, I favor reading both these books, as both examples and examinations of the problem we have communicating across groups. Human nature might never permit us to transcend the problem, but forearmed, we might pull back some from the Horror.