from the readers’ editor Readers' Editor

Do literary allusions hurt?

The last missive of 2017 raised a politically sensitive question. A reader, who wants to remain anonymous, was distraught over the Weekend Sport’s page lead headline: “Into the Heart of Darkness” (December 30, 2017). He felt that the headline carried the baton of colonialism and looked at Africa as a “dark continent”. Was the headline pejorative in its content, context and implication? Did it smack of the arrogance of the “civilising mission” of the European colonialists and imperialists?

Literary treatment

I would endorsed the reader’s view had the sports desk used “dark continent’. However, my dilemma arose from the fact that the headline was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness. The desk took care to capitalise ‘H’ and ‘D’ in the headline, moving away from the general rule of avoiding capital letters in running text. I am acutely aware of the stringent criticism of Chinua Achebe against the novel and the novelist.

In his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe wrote: “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing 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 unremarked. 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.”

However, many including The Guardian, rate Heart of Darkness as one among the 100 best novels written in English. Robert McCrum, who introduced the list of 100 greatest novels written in English, wrote: “The English and American writers who fell under its [Heart of Darkness] spell include T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land), Graham Greene (A Burnt-out Case), George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) and William Golding (The Inheritors). It also inspired the Francis Ford Coppola 1979 film, Apocalypse Now, a work of homage that continues to renew the contemporary fascination with the text.” My personal affinity to Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton, also raises a flag of caution. Joseph Anton was a departure from regular autobiographies in many ways. It is not in first person singular, but in third person. It tells the story of a man who had to assume a name coined from the first names of two of the greatest writers — Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov — during his incognito days following the fatwa. He could see them as his godfathers and his motto during those difficult years was given to him by Conrad: “I must live until I die, mustn’t I?”

Ever since the publication of Edward Said’s influential work, Orientalism in 1978, scholars identifying dominant prejudices in major Western literary works have been growing. However, it was Said himself who provided a certain amount of elasticity to criticism in his later work, Culture and Imperialism, when he wrote: “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind… No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.” The search for identities in literature without harming its creative wellsprings is a difficult task.

This raises a very pertinent journalistic question: in headlines, where do the literary allusions end and where does the humiliating reference to identity begin? There are no easy answers. Any cut-and-dry prescription may end up like a memo from a cultural commissar. But, a laissez-faire attitude to a headline may damage reputation, credibility and trust. It is for the desk to realise the fine line that separates sensitive words from hurting words, and literary allusions from a literal undermining of individual or collective identity. The problem with a novel such as Heart of Darkness is that it lies at the cusp of both, where polemical debates refuse to die down.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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