Art of Darkness: Chinua Achebe and Maleficent Fictions

by Joe Morby on April 22, 2015


Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

As often happens following the departure of high profile writers, the occasion of the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s death in early 2013 provided the book-reading world with the reminder to review his work.He was hardly prolific- five novels, a handful of short stories and a few slim volumes of essays were all that he produced in some fifty years after his first publication- but the quality of his work generally excused his lack of productivity. He had the mark of any great writer- you would read his work, marvel at his effortlessly brilliant turn of phrase, turn to whatever guff you were working on yourself and consider packing it in for good. Reading his intelligent prose alone was enough to snuff out several myths of African incapability right away.

But while his fiction, in particular Things Fall Apart, the one novel of his people can usually name, is much discussed it is worth looking at the body of non-fiction he left behind. It is in his essays that we get an idea of his major motivations, particularly his life’s goal of setting the cultural record straight about Africa but also his view of using literature as means of identifying and treating society’s ills, either through simply educating the West about his culture or by using fiction, particularly satire, to challenge the direction his own country was taking.

Perhaps his most important motivation was the need to tackle what he called ‘maleficent fictions’, the kind of deliberately erroneous narratives that malign oppressed peoples and insulate others from just evaluation. He described them thus: “Belief in superior and inferior races; belief that some people who live across our frontiers or speak a different language from ourselves are the cause of all the trouble in the world, or that our own particular group or class or caste has a right to certain things which are denied to others; the belief that men are superior to women- all are fictions generated by the imagination… what distinguishes beneficent fiction from such malignant cousins as racism is that the first never forgets that it is fiction and the other never knows that it is.”

The maleficent fiction he concerned himself most with was the image of Africa that had been constructed during the colonial era and that still permeates and taints the West’s considerations of and dealings with that continent. We all, of course, recognise the description. Africa, even in the modern world, lurks at the back of the Western mind as a kind of human nadir, a troubling reminder of society’s flaws, a testament to man’s history of inhumanity. Africa, in the public consciousness, is a cocktail of civil wars, severed limbs, inadequate housing, bush meat, looted treasuries, babies with AIDS, Boko Haram kidnappings, pidgin English, bare feet, illegal poaching, abused women and Idi Amin’s cannibalism. Culturally it is imagined as a blend of tribal beats, shimmying torsos, painted limbs, evangelical exorcisms, ludicrously long motorcades, internet fraud, Islamic extremism, habitual bribery, polygamy, eating with the fingers and Nelson Mandela. It is, Achebe writes, “Africa as “the other world”, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”

Particularly persistent is the myth that Africans, and by extension black people in the West, are lacking intellectually, that they are less capable of sophistication and efficiency, and less able to behave in a ‘civilized’ way. This infantilization of ‘the natives’ that came with the colonial discourse never really went away. The suspicion is that Africans are inherently stupid, and that their continent’s strife, wars, famines, misgovernment and corruption must be a consequence of this. The underlying social, economic and political reasons for Africa’s problems are ignored in favour of explanations based solely on the supposed character of ‘the natives’- it is as if that most persistent of logic fallacies, the fundamental attribution error, has been applied to the entire continent.

It is this same mindset that gives only a begrudged allotment to black and African commentators in the West, usually on the condition that they only talk about race issues or black culture, seemingly their only qualification. They apparently can only be experts on themselves. If we’re talking about black issues, then it is conceded that a black person might know something about it, and so they are let into the club on strict license. But their thoughts on anything outside the cultural boundaries are irrelevant- their views on art, life, aesthetics and other people’s politics are belittled or just plain ignored. In short, they are not afforded an opinion, because who would care what an African thinks? This chauvinism prevents the West from fully understanding Africa. Of the Western observer, Achebe wrote “I think he would fail unless he displayed an openness of mind and a readiness to accept another way of looking at reality. This turns out to be difficult for many people in the West… it’s up to them to correct that defect- the defect of self-centredness.”

The ‘other world’ portrayal Achebe discussed most in his essays was Joseph Conrad’s turn-of-the-century novella Heart of Darkness. More than any other book, it would come to dominate Achebe’s refutation of the false image of Africa, a dialogue that would in turn elevate the slim 80-odd page work to a new level of infamy, serving as a kind of archetype of colonially condescending literary fiction, godfather to the subtle misconceptions that still persist when Africa is mentally compared to the West. The book, set in the Congo, barely features Africans themselves but instead observes them from a distance, shrouding them in primitive mystery and a quite bestial aura; the ‘heart of darkness’ itself is not just the darkness of colonialism but also the temptation to ‘go native’, to relapse into the primordial, barbarous state that deepest Africa must inhabit in contrast to the quiet gentility of Europe. It was a critique of colonialism that itself employed the colonialist mindset. A vision of Africa, Achebe writes, “as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”

Achebe’s aim, however, was not to smother the book; indeed, he taught it in his literature classes. This way he could highlight its faults, and keep it around as a kind of warning that otherwise fine books, be they written in elegant prose or captivating in plot, could at the same time harbour the kind of misleading myths and official fictions that bolstered colonialism, or worse.

It was this artistic and literary competence that made Heart of Darkness so troubling, as it made Conrad’s solipsistic view so much easier to swallow. “Conrad,” Achebe writes, “chose the role of purveyor of comforting myths”, and “managed to transform elements from centuries of transparently crude and fanciful writing about Africans into a piece of ‘serious’ and permanent literature.” Ironically, Achebe himself was partly to blame for that permanence. The outraged response some critics gave to Achebe’s damning conclusions meant that the book would be an opponent he would wrestle for his entire career, long after much ‘colonial fiction’ had disappeared from popularity. For while so many of those works, including John Buchan’s Prester John and the Irish author Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, both also dealt with by Achebe, would be largely forgotten or would languish out-of-print, Heart of Darkness, possibly even by virtue of it’s title alone, would enjoy a lifespan lengthened by this controversy, arguably one far longer than such a work would normally enjoy.

For Achebe, the damage of such relics had already been done- they had provided a precedent for the enduring image of Africa: “Their centuries-old obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa has been bequeathed to the cinema, to journalism, to certain varieties of anthropology, even to humanitarian and missionary work itself.” (Of that last Achebe was fond of reminding his readers, in particular the missionary “Albert Schweizer’s immortal dictum in the heyday of colonialism: “The African is indeed by brother, but my junior brother.””) This, in turn, colours our dealings with the ‘dark continent’, the way we conduct trade, the way we report its problems and its wars, the way we treat its citizens on our streets.

This historic need for Africa to provide a negative reflection stemmed from the pragmatic need to provide a cover story for colonialism: “So much psychological, political, and economic interest is vested in the negative image,” Achebe writes. “The reason is simple. If you are going to enslave or to colonize somebody, you are not going to write a glowing report about him either before or after. Rather you will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with.” But there was more to the myth of Africa than pacifying propaganda. It was, and still is, necessary to allay certain insecurities and guilt over the form that Western societies themselves have taken- built on greed, gross inequity, classism, military supremacy, economic coercion, violence and cultural stagnation. These symptoms are palliated if one can point to Africa and say, “Well they’re worse! Look at what their societies are like!”

The West still fixes Africa as a kind of opposite, a baseline from which progress and aesthetic escalation can be measured. It provides a handy contrast when one is comparing political stability or technological prowess. It is the ugly friend you can stand next to at the party to make yourself seem prettier. Achebe writes: “For reasons which can certainly use close psychological enquiry, 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. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: There I go but for the grace of God. Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray- a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently, Africa is something to be avoided…”

Africans were assumed to be bereft of the kind of social and cultural mores of the genteel world- the grace of Zen in the Far East, the opulence of the Near East, the emotional stoicism of Christian Europe, the enterprise of the Americas. To provide the required contrast, it was necessary to construct a savage. And yet science, reason and empathy would constantly nag at the colonialist’s mind, which could not help but recognise himself in those he denigrated. Achebe pointed out that “It is not the differentness that worries Conrad but the lurking hint of kinship, of common ancestry.”

The ebullience of African cultural life was at odds with the staid ‘civility’ of European life, which had been emotionally atrophied by centuries of Christianity. And it was the Christian obsession with sex that fed the sexual myths of the African, prurient minds seeing only sin and primordial passion where others saw clothing appropriate to the climate. This revulsion at the apparently animalistic emotional life of the African would feel itself justified when the scale of the HIV epidemic in Africa was realised. Much of the West’s armchair reaction to African AIDS has been somewhere between apathy and pity, a mixture of pious noises about promiscuity and religious reproach, with the continent seeing a resurgence of Western missionaries that ironically recalls the continent’s conversion to Christianity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now it still seems necessary to bring ‘light’ to the dark continent, with the addition of churches, the adoration of deeply-tanned Christs, and the small-minded relief this brings to those in the West who still believe that cultural refinement comes with the cross.

But of course, tackling maleficent fictions does not mean excusing the uncomfortable realities of Africa. Nothing is gained by avoiding the fact that, by many scales, it is an awful place. Its countries litter the undesirable extremes of virtually every social index measured. Achebe pulled no punches in describing his own home country as “one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun. It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short it is among the most unpleasant places on Earth!” With his wicked wit he added “It is a measure of our self-delusion that we can talk about developing tourism in Nigeria. Only a masochist with an exuberant taste for self-violence will pick Nigeria for a holiday…” The point is to extricate the misleading myths so that the remaining situation can be seen and dealt with more clearly. If its nations can be so readily plundered, its genocides so casually ignored, its poverty so easily slept on and its backwardness so cheerfully mocked, it is, in part, because old fictions are still at work, telling a misleading story of Africans as something that that they are not. “For too long, Achebe wrote, “the world has been content to judge peoples and nations in distress largely on the basis of received stereotypes drawn from mythologies of oppression.”

Similarly, avoiding maleficent fictions does not mean avoiding all mention of Africa or black issues. Overly cautious sensitivity to racial matters in Western media has only led to a kind of radio silence on African culture and affairs. In artistic narratives they are rarely mentioned save when their race or culture is explicitly required (one might call it the ‘Othello effect’). There can also be a tendency for Western artistic portrayals, keen to avoid the charge of insensitivity, to romanticize the African, sometimes to absurd levels. By way of apology, the maligned peoples of the world, from Native Americans and Australian Aborigines to Maasai tribesmen and San Bushmen, are often granted a fictional identity, similar to the old idea of the ‘noble savage’, that bestows upon them spiritual powers, usually realised as a kind of special understanding of nature that the Westerner naturally lacks. They become a kind of supernatural being, full of ethical purity and tribal wisdom- you could call them ‘National Geographic Africans’. Ironically, this well-meaning but ultimately patronising portrayal falls into the same old patterns as before, the ‘tribal wisdom’ merely acting as compensation for the sentient and cultural parity that they are still denied. They are still the same ‘junior brothers’ as before, except now they are given something akin to ‘animal instincts’, coupled with a sort of humble philosophy that never threatens to remove them from their low socio-economic status. Achebe himself refrained from portraying Africans this way, despite the fact that doing so would have been no doubt commercially successful; even in the world of Ezeulu, the divinely-empowered high priest protagonist of his novel Arrow of God, we are always aware that we are in an artificial world.

Achebe’s fiction was certainly not starry-eyed about his culture, and neither was it blindly critical about colonialism; the injustices and ethical contradictions that came with his native Igbo tradition are central to his works, with acknowledgements of the education and infrastructure that colonialism brought wafting over without the need for apology. His way of tackling the maleficent narrative was not to produce a hagiography of his people, but merely to tell their stories with a just and objective eye. His characters were neither the mystical supermen of the apologists, nor the grunting darkies of colonial fiction, but flawed, conflicted, passionate, emotional and above all human characters.

This essential humanism is present in all five of his novels, from the journalist doomed by his integrity in Anthills of the Savannah to the well-meaning but baffled colonialist Captain Winterbottom in Arrow of God; it is present, of course, in Okonkwo, the protagonist of his best-known novel Things Fall Apart, a man whose own pride, masculinity and obstinacy lead to his downfall when his traditions come into cultural conflict with those of Africa’s new arrivals. While those unfamiliar with his books would no doubt suspect that they will be harsh critiques of European intervention, colonialism actually only exists in the periphery of his stories. The narratives belong entirely to the Africans themselves, whose societies are not to be defined simply by what was done to them, but rather by what was done by them. This simple act of humanising Africans is essential. On teaching African literature in the West, Achebe wrote “You are dealing with students who are coming out of a tradition where Africa is not really like anywhere else they know… there are no real people in the dark continent, only forces operating; and people don’t speak any language you can understand, they just grunt, too busy jumping up and down in frenzy. This is what is in the minds of these students as they come to African literature. So I find that the first thing is to familiarize them with Africa, make them think that this is a place of people; it’s not the Other Place, the opposite of Europe or America.”

Achebe’s view on the role of the artist, and writers in particular, was one that reflected the role and purpose of art in his own Igbo culture, where art was traditionally much more accessible and incorporative than in the West, where it is mainly the preserve of a privileged minority. The Igbo artist, Achebe writes, tempered this individualism “by setting limits to its expression. The first limit is the democratic one, which subordinates the person to the group in practical, social matters. And the other is a moral taboo on excess, which sets a limit to personal ambition, surrounding it with powerful cautionary tales.”

As a result, Achebe’s view of the artist is as someone whose work always reflects their society, be it their own culture or humanity in general, and does not get caught up in excessive individualism and the self-centred hero-worship that it leads to. He saw literature as a celebration of the human spirit that refuses to shy away from difficult political or cultural themes. It may have been fiction, but reality was not to be avoided: “People are expecting from literature serious comment on their lives,” he wrote. “They are not expecting frivolity. They are expecting literature to say something important to help them in their struggle with life.”

Such literature should not read like a textbook. There are plenty of those around already. Achebe writes “How often do we hear people say, “Oh, I don’t have the time to read novels,” implying that fiction is frivolous? They would generally add- lest you consider them illiterate- that they read histories or biographies, which they presume to be more appropriate to serious-minded adults. Such people are to be pitied…” The special skill of fiction is its ability to carry a message further through time than a news report or journal article. It was this ability that Achebe admired in that most African of fiction formats, the fable, that carries a memorably simple moral message or observation down through the generations. His own message, imbued into his own artistic work for posterity, was of course centred around the dangers of maleficent fiction and the importance of integrity in art: “It is as though the ancestors who made language and knew from what bestiality its use rescued them are saying to us: Beware of interfering with its purpose! For when language is seriously interfered with, when it is disjoined from truth, be it mere incompetence or worse, from malice, horrors can again descend on mankind.”

Quotes collected from:

Conversations with Chinua Achebe, by Bernth Linfors (Ed.), University Press of Mississippi, 1997

Home and Exile, by Chinua Achebe, Canongate Books, 2003

Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, by Chinua Achebe, Anchor Books, 1998

The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, by Chinua Achebe, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Heidi Ostendarp March 24, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Hello! I’m searching for a quotation by China Achebe. In it, he compares a completely positive perspective on the history of a country or culture to a beautiful but distorted view through the bottom of a glass bottle. He also emphasizes the value of taking a more balanced view. This essay reminded me very much of this quotation. Do you know where this quotation appears? If so, please let me know.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: