Three ongoing controversies in Postcolonial studies involving David Stoll and Rigoberta Menchu; Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad; and Justus Reid Weiner and Edward Said center on the issue of misrepresentation and engage, not only the academic world, but also the world at large.
The Stoll/Menchu Controversy
David Stoll's controversial book, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (1999), confronts alleged inaccuracies in Nobel Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu's testimonio, I Rigoberta Menchu (1983). Menchu's book, a narrative of her experiences as a Guatemalan indigena peasant growing up during the recent Civil War, details not only customs and rituals of her Quiche community, but also recounts the terror and oppression her people experienced at the hands of the Guatemalan Army. Stoll, an anthropologist, critically examines Menchu's text for factual contradictions. He also analyzes political violence in Guatemala and speculates on the academic community's responsibility in teaching controversial cultural texts.
The Achebe/Conrad Controversy
In a lecture delivered at the University of Massachusetts on 18 February 1975, Chinua Achebe raised the issue of racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), a critique of European imperialism and Belgian colonialism.
Achebe is one of the first literary critics to question the way Conrad represented Africa and Africans in Heart of Darkness. Achebe feels that the African characters are not presented as individuals but as stereotypes, and in creating stereotypes Conrad devalues the African people. Achebe charges Conrad with using "Africa as setting and backdrop . . . as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humans, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?" (257). Using one country as a scapegoat to make another look good is bad enough, but even worse, Achebe points out is the "dehumanization" of the people and the country that this attitude promotes (257). The main question Achebe raises is whether or not a novel that is built on demeaning an entire people and their nation can really be considered "a great work of art" (257).
Achebe accuses Conrad of racism alleging that Heart of Darkness reveals the prejudices, not only of its author, but also of its unquestioning Western readers. Achebe builds his case by pointing out the way Conrad describes the African characters in the novel: "Fine fellows-cannibals-in their place," or "they had faces like grotesque masks," or "She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent." After giving examples such as these, Achebe concludes: "The point of my observation should be quite clear by now, namely that Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist" (257). Achebe finds the book "offensive and deplorable" (259). "I am talking about a book," Achebe says, "which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today" (259).
In addressing the
issues that Achebe raises literary critics point out that Achebe is confuting
author and narrator. More than once Achebe refers to Conrad as "Marlow/Conrad".
Of this counter argument, Achebe says, "Marlow seems to me to enjoy
Conrad's complete confidence-a feeling reinforced by the close similarities
between their two careers" (256). Achebe is referring to the fact
that both author and narrator navigated a steamship up the Congo River.
Achebe feels that even if Conrad did intend to separate his views from
his narrator's, he failed to do so by not providing "an alternative
frame of reference" (256). Scenes in which Marlow appears empathetic
to Africans, such as in the grove of death where Marlow says, "They
were dying slowly-it was very clear", Achebe dismisses as "bleeding
heart sentiments" (256).
The Weiner/Said controversy is similar to the Stoll/Menchu debate. In a September 1999 essay in Commentary entitled, "'My Beautiful Old House' and Other Fabrications by Edward Said," Justus ReidWeiner accuses Edward Said of misrepresenting his family's connection to Palestine in Said's 1999 autobiography, Out of Place: A Memoir..
Weiner, an American
who resides in Israel, is a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs and has worked for Israel's Ministry of Justice. Weiner
has a law degree from the University of California and Berkley and has
worked for a Wall Street Law Firm. He was the visiting professor at Boston
University School of Law. Edward Said, a writer, was born in Jerusalem
in 1933 to Protestant Palestinian parents. He is a leading spokesman for
the Palestinians. He teaches literature at Columbia University. Said is
a member of the Palestine National Council and is an outspoken critic
of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Weiner insists that
the issue is credibility. "He (Said) is wrapping himself in the Palestinian
flag to give himself immunity from questions and doubt" and "In
re-telling the facts of his own personal biography over the years he has
spoken anything but the plain, direct, and honest truth" (http://www.wmitchell.edu/calendar/weiner.html).
Weiner accuses Said of distorting the truth and of "outright deception
and of artful obfuscations."
The Weiner/Said controversy was covered in the following publications: London's Daily Telegraph, the New York Times, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Said's defense can
be gleaned from his literary theories. He points out the inability of
language to accurately represent reality. "In any instance of at
least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence,
but a represence, or a representation (Orientalism 21). Said believes
that Weiner attacked him in a right wing publication which would like
to discourage Jews and Jewish sympathizers from listening to Said's political
views, which include a belief that Israel should "become a state
of its citizens and not of the whole Jewish people" http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba990922.htm
In response to Stoll's accusations, Menchu suggests that critics focus on the real issues the controversy raises, such as, what voices are silenced and what voices are allowed to be heard (http://www.cccusa.org/news/99news18.html). Menchu also points out that she won the Nobel Peace Prize, not the Nobel Prize for Literature and that anyone concerned about accuracy of details should study the Truth Commission in Guatemala Report. She says, "The thousands of testimonies represent the collective memory of the victims, and 80 percent of those come from Mayan indigenous people of Guatemala" (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/99news18.html). Menchu stresses that she was a collective voice of her people and was not intentionally writing an autobiography. "For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography. We tell what we have lived (collectively) not just alone" (http://www.ncccusa.org/news/99bews18.html).
Chinua Achebe: "The European critic of African literature must cultivate the habit of humility appropriate to his limited experience of the African world and purged of the superiority and arrogance which history so insidiously makes him heir to" (Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays 6).
To examine the main
approaches of scholarly criticism to Heart of Darkness from its publication
through1954 see Robert F. Haugh's essay "Heart of Darkness: Problem
for Critics" in Norton's Critical Edition. Guyanese critic, Wilson
Harris and C. Ponnuthurai Sarvan of the University of Zambia defend Conrad
in their essays, "The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands"
and "Racism and the Heart of Darkness", both of which are included
in Norton's Critical Edition. Sarvan feels that Conrad merely reflects
the attitudes prevelant in his day, but "was ahead of most in trying
to break free" (285). Frances B. Singh in "The Colonialistic
Bias of Heart of Darkness" agrees with Achebe that Africa is used
by Conrad to represent an "evil and primeval force" (271).
Edward Said: "Of course I read Weiner's piece, and was struck by the enormous fabrication of lies and, how shall I put it, maligned construction . . .and then of course the most preposterous thing of all is that Weiner never spoke to me" (http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/ba990922.htm)
Edward Said: "London, Conrad says in Heart of Darkness, is no less a 'dark place' than the Congo. No one can draw a self-bolstering European patriotism out of Conrad and claim at the same time to be reading what Conrad actually wrote" (Reflections 103).
Edward Said: "Far from rejecting or disqualifying canonical writers because of crudely political considerations, my approach has tried to re-situate writers in their own history, with a particular emphasis on those apparently marginal aspects of their work which because of the historical experience of non-European readers have acquired a new prominence" (Reflections xxix).
"To take an axe
to Edward Said is to swipe at one of the more fruitful and elegant trees
in the orchard of human intellect. Said is one of the leading literary
theorists of our century, a commentator on music - opera in particular
- a historian, pianist and political essayist. Most famously, he is the
world's most instantly recognizable and tenacious exponent of the Palestinian
cause. He is the living example of that maxim coined by Theodore Adorno,
another radical refugee who came to New York, then from the Third Reich:
'For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live'."
ooks by Edward Said
include: Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975); Orientalism (1978);
The Question of Palestine (1979); Covering Islam (1980); The World the
Text and the Intellectual: The Reith Lectures (1994); Peace and Its Discontents:
Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process (1996); Entre Guerre
et Paix (1997); and Out of Place: A Memoir (1999). Recent publications
include The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000), Reflections
on Exile and Other Essays (2001), and Power, Politics, and Culture (2001).
http://www.salon.com/news/1999/02/12newsa.html Rigoberta Menchu responds to her critics.
In the Stoll/Menchu, Achebe/Conrad and the Weiner/Said controversies collective history is not in dispute. Stoll and Weiner both focus on minor inconsistencies they find in the texts. These inconsistencies, they feel, result in discrediting the "authority" or the "veracity" of the authors. In both of these controversies what began as a literary or academic dispute escalates into a political dispute because Menchu and Said are also writing with political purposes-to awaken cultural nationalism against a superior foe. The Achebe/Conrad dispute, which began as an academic dispute questioning Conrad's place in the canon, is also ultimately political. The real issue is how Africans have been perceived and continue to be perceived by xenophobic Western readers.
All three of these controversies highlight the necessity of becoming careful readers. "The reader's task is to be aware of the limits of language, to be alert to the ways in which words, formulas, and rhetoric can obscure understanding" (Innes 41). Any study of Postcolonialism would benefit from a discussion of reading strategies for students.
It appears to me that Postcolonial studies are fraught with landmines. Helping our students become aware of potential hotspots can broaden their perspectives and abilities in analyzing texts. Using any author's text as a source of cultural knowledge of all Guatemalans or of all Africans or of all Palestinians or of all Western Europeans is dangerous because the text can only reflect one person's version of reality and one person's interpretation of his experience. Keeping this in mind might be an excellent way to begin any postcolonial study. As Allen Carey-Webb says, "A truly postcolonial way of teaching requires that literature courses, to some degree at least, investigate themselves" (136).
Educators can assist
students in identifying polarized and reactionary thinking. Achebe says
he wants to "counter racism with what John Paul Sartre has called
an anti-racist racism, to announce not just that we are as good as the
next man, but much better" (The Novelist as Teacher 44-45). Menchu
also infers that the Mayans are superior to white men. "The outside
world-which we know is disgusting-has set a bad example . . ." (61).
Anti-racism racism attitudes tend to inflame revolutionary zeal rather
than advance the peace process. Both Menchu and Achebe are prone at times
to make sweeping universal statements. Achebe says, "No thinking
African can escape the pain of the world in the soul" (The Novelist
as Teacher 44). There may, in fact, be a few "thinking Africans"
who disagree. Menchu says, "white men are like their bread, they
are not wholesome" (70). Not all white men are bad. By making themselves
the spokesmen for their people, Menchu and Achebe insure that we are less
likely to hear from other Africans and Mayans who think their country's
interaction with the West was not entirely bad. In contrast, Said invites
tolerance and a balanced investigation of both sides-the Palestinian and
the Israeli. "My purpose is to put forth a narrative that is more
inclusive, but it is not meant to be anything more than restoring a history
. . . the only hope is to find a state of coexistence between the two
peoples who have lived there for so long"
Perhaps introducing texts with alternate perspectives would provide an opportunity for students to develop critical and analytical skills in comparison and contrast.
Postcolonial studies are political and the political is always personal. Knowledge of the controversies and the issues involved will deepen our students' appreciation of Postcolonial literature. Questions to raise in the classroom involve the following: Are these political or cultural texts or both? What is the genre involved-fiction, memoir, testimonio? Does genre affect the way we should respond to the text? Can one voice represent an entire nation and people? How do postcolonial texts raise awareness about the literary canon we have inherited?
As Achebe has demonstrated in his essay the ideological values of other cultures, especially dominant ones, are open to question. As students study the controversies they should be encouraged to investigate and scrutinize both Stoll's and Menchu's motives, both Achebe's and Conrad's, both Weiner's and Said's. This approach will allow students the opportunity to view both sides in political disputes and move them away from either/or, reductionistic thinking.
My suggestions for
teaching the controversies include familiarizing students with the genres
involved. Next, to familiarize students with the politico-cultural-socio
conflicts involved between Western Civilization and Guatemala, Western
Civilization and Africa, Israel and Palestine. Also, introducing students
to the way language creates and upholds ideology and assisting them in
developing reading strategies that will make them more aware of the way
texts and language can obscure or clarify our understanding of cultures
and political issues will begin to encourage complex and critical thinking
skills. Examining these three textual controversies will not only help
students identify the way texts create meaning, but also, as Stoll says,
will "encourage debate over representation" which is the recurring
theme in all three of the controversies.
Achebe, Chinua. "An
Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Heart of
Darkness. Ed. Robert Kimbrough. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,