Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race

Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race

by Jane Marcus


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813529639
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication date: 02/15/2003
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Jane Marcus is Distinguished Professor of English at CUNY-Graduate Center and City College of New York. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy; Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman; The Young Rebecca West; and other works.

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Excerpt from Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race by Jane Marcus

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Like it or not, the fall of empire and the rise of fascism are written into modernism.
Treated separately by historians and literary critics, empire and fascism deserve to be looked at not only in terms of each other, as they doubtless were experienced, but also in terms of race and gender. Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race is a book about race, gender, and reading at a moment in which the end of empire and the rise of fascism coincided in Europe's twenties and thirties-a moment that led to the long "night wood" of Nazism. What Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood (1936) has come to stand for is a proleptic vision of Hitler's concentration camps in a text that is a "waste land" for the thirties. The writing of the racial "weakness" of Felix, the "non-Jewish Jew," and his child with an indifferent Aryan lesbian reads now as a prediction of how, as Hannah Arendt argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the racial fascism generated by a lost German empire and the rise of the third Reich as an empire turned into mass extermination of the Other.
In the terms of this book we are going to imagine that, on or about April 1934, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf 's remark in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924) about the Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in December 1910, "human character changed." I relocate that moment of great upheaval to 1934. It was in that year that Nancy Cunard's monumental Anthology Negro was published. It was printed byWishart, the Left publisher in London, but paid for by damages from racial slurs against the author in the press. (Wishart was also the publisher of Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable after it had been turned down by nineteen other publishers in four years.) Negro, as a collective documentary about African cultures on the continent and in the diaspora, was both the agent and evidence of that change. Not only did human character change, as Woolf argued the case for 1910, but, more importantly, the Enlightenment concept of what it was to be human changed utterly-to include people of color. For Woolf the change she observed in 1910, which had begun with Samuel Butler's attack on the English patriarchy in The Way of All Flesh, was most evident "in the character of one's cook":
The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more instances of the power of the human race to change? . . . All human relations have shifted- those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. - Virginia Woolf, "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"
What had not yet changed, and showed little chance of changing, was the relations between white people and people of color. Woolf and her cook shared the same nationality, race, and gender. (I do not say they shared religious beliefs, for Woolf was anti-Christian and agnostic.) Woolf was highly conscious of their differences, however, and she worried about the class gap that still divided them. Since they both read the Daily Herald, their politics were probably very similar. But the cook was obviously white and working class. For her the word character meant something other than its universal application in the quoted passage. A "character" for a servant was a letter or reference from her employer indicating that she was honest and hardworking. She spent most of her time in the kitchen, not the drawing room, had very little privacy, and was paid a miniscule salary. It is not clear that the servant had the same view of an apocalyptic change in her mistress's human character in 1910, although Woolf has shown servants in The Voyage Out and The Years performing a working-class nostalgia for the old days below stairs.
People of color, on the other hand, still lived like leviathans in the lower depths of European cities. And Woolf 's adjectives-"formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable"-are accurate in describing the European view of people of color. She and her husband, Leonard, lived in a state of alternating denial and fear because of his Jewishness. In Empire and Commerce in Africa (1920) and other powerful works condemning imperialism, Leonard Woolf failed to see the problem, which he considered to be entirely economic, in racial terms.
The Negro anthology is a major cultural landmark, awkward, imperfect, idealistic, and out-of-date. But it changed the way Europeans and North Americans were to regard Africa and it introduced people of color and their cultures to Europeans. The things that strike us now as racist and embarrassing in the volume are precisely the points where we may enter the tangled depths of the white heart of darkness in the two decades between the European wars. We may cringe at William Carlos Williams's fond memories of black maids, but we are impressed again each time we see his work included in a black text under the rubric "White Poets." But the Negro anthology marks the moment when certain white Western intellectuals met African intellectuals and artists on their own terms, with respect and admiration.
Their enthusiasm for the Other and the Other's arts and culture, for his body-and I say his advisedly-is indeed marked by a primitivist curiosity that was often erotic and sometimes exploitive. As a collective documentary involving hundreds of authors, black, brown, and white, from many different countries all over the globe, Negro is as contradictory and problematic as any other kind of interracial relationship, personal or political. But the impact of the anthology's integrated pages in a segregated world, the cultural gesture made by its multicultural, black-and-white Atlantic mix, is astonishing. Yes, I repeat, on or about February 15, 1934, human character changed. I want to mark the moment with a twist of Virginia Woolf 's words, noting for the record that it was still possible for her to mean white Europeans when she said "human character." We must turn to the work of another woman of her generation, Nancy Cunard, who gave her heart to the struggle for racial freedom, as Woolf had given hers to the struggle for women's emancipation, to find a contemporary multiracial meaning of the words "human character" in the collective noncommercial making of Negro. The worlds of empire and colonialism on the one hand, and the African struggle for independence and Left antifascism on the other, come together in this volume in 1934. It would be a barefaced lie to argue that this book alone could have dispelled European darkness of spirit about race. What is so surprising is that we have a record of that moment of social hope, and if we revive and circulate that record, we may learn a great deal from studying its sources and its making in 1932-1934.
Woolf wondered what genius might be like when caught and tangled in a woman's heart. It now occurs to us that the heart she sought might have been black, but the woman she was seeking was white. She had no concept of the black woman artist, someone who could be her sister or her friend, someone with whom to share a room or a laboratory. The darkness of Virginia Woolf 's otherwise enlightened heart is explored later on in this book in the chapter called "A Very Fine Negress." As we shall see in "Britannia Rules TheWaves," Woolf, like her husband, Leonard, in Empire and Commerce in Africa (for which she did a great deal of the research), had a powerful political and economic analysis of imperialism and absolutely no understanding of the "human character" of racial subjects-except as the experience of difference allowed her to construct herself. Otherness was not a lived reality to her, but a metaphor through which she could explore the oppression of women. She failed to feel her cook's class alienation, as she did her husband's denied racial Jewishness.
It is the project of Hearts of Darkness to explore women's writing of the end of empire and the rise of fascism. I want to relocate the heart of darkness in London and Paris, away from those light-filled lands of Africa and India where it has lodged in the Western imagination. In Nightwood's Paris pissoirs, churches, and bars, the hearts of Djuna Barnes's characters are black and blue with desire, envy, and spite. In Michael Arlen's romance novel The Green Hat, white woman's honor is celebrated by an Armenian writer who is treated as a racial Other by the people he writes for. Things have fallen apart, and, ominously, things are about to be cleaned up by the military. Other texts from this period that are not discussed in this book might be examined in the same way. Jean Rhys is another writer in whose novels we find the end of empire and the rise of fascism colliding, especially Good Morning Midnight. Phyllis Lassner is studying other contemporary women writers who explore this historical moment in women's writing, including Phyllis Bottome in Under the Skin and Martha Gellhorn in Liana.3

Table of Contents

Table of contents for Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race by Jane Marcus

The Empire Is Written
"A Very Fine Negress"
Britannia Rules The Waves
Laughing at Leviticus: Nightwood as Woman's Circus Epic
Bonding and Bondage: Nancy Cunard and the Making of the Negro Anthology
Laying Down the White Woman's Burden: Michael Arlen's The Green Hat and Mulk Raj Anand's Coolie
Coda: How to Recognize a Public Intellectual

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