Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post-Colonialism

Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post-Colonialism


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ISBN-13: 9781775820819
Publisher: University of Cape Town Press
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Outposts of Progress

Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Post-Colonialism

By Gail Fincham, Jeremy Hawthorn, Jakob Lothe

Juta and Company Ltd

Copyright © 2015 UCT Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77582-089-5


Humans and animals in Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress'

Kai Wiegandt

Joseph Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress' has most often been read as a less subtle precursor to Heart of Darkness. Early criticism focused on the moral deterioration of the white agents, Kayerts and Carlier, taking the story mainly as a satirical critique of imperialist pretence (see Said, 1966: 142; Watt, 1980: 75; Firchow, 2000: 103; Schwarz, 2001: 126). More recent critical discussion has, instead, foregrounded the role of the African, Makola, who Conrad portrays as anything but the stereotypical African and who thus becomes an important vehicle for the deconstruction of racial bias (see Maisonnat, 1996: 114; Hampson, 2002: 218; Hamner, 2001: 175–6; Sewlall, 2006: 7–9). In this I want to address a hitherto neglected aspect of the text: the importance of the reattribution of human and animal characteristics to Kayerts, Carlier and Makola in this context. I will further argue that this reattribution is informed by an idiosyncratic blend of biological, ethological and social discourses of the fin de siècle. As the oppressed Makola rises above Kayerts and Carlier, the pair sink to a subhuman level: '[B]eing constantly together they did not notice the change that took place gradually in their appearance and also in their disposition' (Conrad, 2012: 84). Although exhibiting some colonialist attitudes towards the natives, the story requires its nineteenth-century readers to question whether the African is more human than the degenerate white men and demonstrates that the link between humanity and whiteness is arbitrary. 'An Outpost of Progress' in fact deserves a place of its own next to Heart of Darkness; the latter is aesthetically more accomplished and may ultimately carry greater moral force, but fails to respect the native population in its depiction. As I will show at the end of this chapter, the portrayal of humanisation and dehumanisation is a technique at the heart of Conrad's critique of imperialism; however, the texts employ this technique quite differently.

Recognising the human by works, gods and speech

'An Outpost of Progress' tells the story of Kayerts and Carlier, two agents of the Great Trading Company who are left in charge of a remote trading post. On good terms with their neighbouring native chief, Gobila, who provides them with food, they lead an indulgent life. Their plan to 'sit still and gather in the ivory those savages will bring' (Conrad, 2012: 80) fails when one of their African servants, Makola, who prefers to go by the name of Henry Price, secretly trades all of their local employees for ivory. One of Chief Gobila's men is shot by the strangers who buy the men, after which Gobila stops sending food to the trading post. The Company's director is supposed to return after six months but fails to appear, while Kayerts and Carlier begin to quarrel. The situation is aggravated by hunger and despair, culminating in a quarrel over sugar, when Kayerts accidentally shoots Carlier. The director eventually returns to find the cross he had erected earlier over the grave of the post's first manager now bearing the hanged body of Kayerts, with his swollen tongue protruding from his mouth.

Makola possesses two characteristics the European agents evidently lack from the start: a strong work ethic and a sense of the divine. According to the influential nineteenth-century race theorist Count Gobineau, black men and women were characterised not only by an inferior intellect and moral weakness but also by very strong animal propensities (see Sewlall, 2006: 7) such as laziness and a lack of hygiene. Given this traditional view, the story's lengthy introductory paragraph is startling. Not only does it present Makola's abode in greater detail than that of the white men, but it also comments on the bedrooms of the Europeans as follows: 'The plank floor was littered with the belongings of the white men — open half empty boxes, torn wearing apparel, old boots, all the things dirty, and all the things broken that accumulate mysteriously round untidy men' (Conrad, 2012: 77). The white men's bedrooms resemble pigsties, whereas no disorder or dirt is to be found in Makola's modest hut.

Assessed against the measure of the Victorian work ideology most vigorously promoted by Thomas Carlyle, which claims that only a working individual is a healthy and proper individual (see Watt, 1980: 148–55), Carlier and Kayerts fall short of the lofty position traditionally given to the coloniser. As the narrator mentions several times, Kayerts and Carlier have officially been sent to this unnamed spot in Africa to bring civilisation to the savages; however when the director of the Great Trading Company leaves the station after dropping them off, he comments: 'They must be mad at home to send me such specimens. I told those fellows to plant a vegetable garden, build new storehouses and fences and construct a landing stage. I bet nothing will be done. They won't know how to begin' (Conrad, 2012: 78). The director's choice of the word 'specimens' suggests that he deems Kayerts and Carlier to be no proper individuals, yet he appears hardly more human than the underdogs he commands: the steamer on which he departs resembles 'an enormous sardine box' (Conrad, 2012: 78); despite his elevated position, he is an exchangeable cog in a large machine, and it is fitting that when the steamer finally returns at the end of the story, a 'shriek inhuman' (Conrad, 2012: 98) is heard. At least the director's prophecy turns out to be correct: his agents achieve none of the progress intimated by the story's title, and the only signs of civilisation in the station are the books left by the deceased first manager. Whereas a tale like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe shows that civilisation can be rebuilt from few remains, 'An Outpost of Progress' presents two men whose reading leads them only to gossip about d'Artagnan, Hawk's Eye and Father Goriot as if they were real people (see Defoe, 2001; Conrad, 2012: 82–3).

If religions are achievements of civilisations, the religions of the white men and of Makola are not only different in nature but are also at different stages of development. When the narrator ironically comments that Makola worships 'evil spirits' and gets on 'very well with his god' (Conrad, 2012: 77–8), he suggests, as he does again in the course of the text, that to be human does not necessarily mean to be humane. Here he also notes Makola's relationship with the divine sphere, whereas Kayerts and Carlier do not seem to have any interests that transcend their basic needs. Instead of praying, Carlier suspends himself with both hands from the cross and marvels that it does not move (see Conrad, 2012: 83); this scene leaves no doubt that Christianity — the supposedly civilising force behind colonialism — does not influence the agents at all.

The importance of Makola's multilingualism has been previously stressed, but not with the view that language is a specifically human attribute (see, for example, Hampson, 2002: 223). Speech has been deemed the most important criterion in the definition of the human since the beginning of Western civilisation. Only when determining the ethical obligations of humans towards animals would Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) later claim that the decisive question to be asked about animals was whether they could suffer (rather than whether they could speak). Before Bentham and even throughout much of the twentieth century, the principal criterion of comparison between animals and humans was speech. Animals lacked the ratio of the animal rationale because they did not have reason, and could neither think nor speak (see Derrida, 2008: 26–9). This logocentric view is also in place in Conrad's story, where linguistic ability, more than any other factor, determines who dominates whom.

As Harry Sewlall has shown, the treatment of language in 'An Outpost of Progress', published in 1897, is quite different from that found in Heart of Darkness published two years later, and seems a good basis on which to counter Chinua Achebe's famous attack in which he accused Conrad of, among other things, withholding language from the natives (see Sewlall, 2006: 11; Achebe, 1978: 6–7). The reader learns from the first paragraph that Makola speaks English and French (see Conrad, 2012: 77). Makola's masters do not possess his multilingualism, which becomes obvious when natives appear who 'made an uncouth babbling noise when they spoke' (Conrad, 2012: 81). While their chiefs bargain for hours with Makola over elephant tusks, 'Kayerts sat on his chair and looked down on the proceedings, understanding nothing' (Conrad, 2012: 82). It is highly ironic when Carlier, who is deprived of speech and understanding in this situation, calls the natives 'fine animals' (Conrad, 2012: 82). He does not understand that the value of a language depends on the number of speakers who share it and not on its supposed prestige. Nevertheless, the Europeans speak of 'this dog of a country' and continue to refer to the natives as animals, a habit the story illustrates ironically: '"Pah! Don't they stink! You Makola! Take that herd over to the fetish" (the storehouse was in every station called the fetish perhaps because of the spirit of civilization it contained)' (Conrad, 2012: 82).

The issue of Kayerts's and Carlier's linguistic incompetence becomes crucial to the plot when armed Africans from the coast arrive at the station. Again, the language they speak sounds 'like one of those impossible languages which sometimes we hear in our dreams' and is, in Carlier's words, 'a different kind of gibberish to what we ever heard' (Conrad, 2012: 85). When Kayerts asks Makola whether he understands what they say, he keeps silent, but his wife is able to converse with the visitors and apparently acts as an interpreter for her husband. When Kayerts and Carlier inquire what the strangers might intend, Makola suddenly 'seemed to have forgotten French — seemed to have forgotten how to speak altogether' (Conrad, 2012: 86). Kayerts and Carlier think their servant is drunk, but his silence is strategic. Makola understands the foreigners but keeps silent about the trade to which he has secretly agreed with the armed men.

It is noteworthy that Conrad's treatment of language reflects the contemporary developments of the day in biology and ethnology. In Java in 1891, a Dutch medical officer, Eugène Dubois, had discovered a skull of Pithecanthropus erectus, a forerunner of modern humans that was incapable of speech and was, therefore, considered by Ernst Haeckel, one of the leading biologists of the day, to be the missing link between humans and animals. Haeckel used language to differentiate between man and animal. It was the linguist Heymann Steinthal who first remarked that Haeckel's use of language as a criterion to determine humanness was erroneous because there was, indeed, a continuum between animal and man. Steinthal discovered that in between man and animal there was a zone of indeterminacy in which the animal did not yet seem human but no longer satisfied the criteria to be judged an animal. It accords well with this contemporary questioning of language as a criterion of humanity that Conrad stages a shifting of the ability to speak from its traditional bearers to more unexpected ones. While the attribution of language to Makola is a testimony to Conrad's anti-imperialist commitment, the story also demonstrates an awareness of the traditional link between language and the white man. The story unwittingly calls to attention the symbolic mechanisms in scientific and philosophical discourses that, according to Agamben, classify and distinguish humans and animals through a dual process of inclusion and exclusion. As Agamben (2004) has shown, these discourses isolate animal aspects of the human and exclude them from humanity proper; that is, they bring about an animalisation of certain parts of the human. This begins with Haeckel's search for a missing link that is not yet human, leading on to claims by racial propagandists that a black man's brain works like that of an animal, to today's definition of brain death, according to which only a few brain functions are considered to be properly human whereas the rest of the brain belongs to a person's 'animal' body (see Agamben, 2004: 33–8). One of the strongest features of 'An Outpost of Progress' is that it illustrates and reallocates some characteristics, which, at the end of the nineteenth century, were considered to be properly human.

Civilisation's animals: Family and crowd in the (un)making of the human

The narrator of 'An Outpost of Progress' considers social ties as characteristics defining humanity, no matter whether these ties involve European or African customs. The African workmen on the station, for example, miss their own land, 'where they also had parents, brothers, sisters, admired chiefs, respected magicians, loved friends, and other ties supposed generally to be human' (Conrad, 2012: 87). Considering this criterion of humanity, it is interesting that Makola has a wife and three children, whereas the agents' families at home have disintegrated. The narrator's biting irony is here directed against those who do not consider Africans to be fully human. Kayerts's wife is dead and his sisters are raising his child. Carlier has made himself so intolerable to his family through his laziness and impudence that a brother-in-law has made great efforts to get rid of him by way of a far distant appointment in the Company (see Conrad, 2012: 77, 80–1). Both agents now live outside any kind of human society. Unlike Daniel Defoe's Crusoe, they have not internalised the values of their society and, furthermore, do not have continued access to them. Kayerts and Carlier call to mind what Aristotle writes in Politics:'He that is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god; he is no part of a state' (Aristotle, 1996: 14). Outside the human state, Conrad writes, 'they felt themselves very much alone — when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness, a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained' (Conrad, 2012: 79). The agents are clearly no gods, although their fantasies of imperial rule suggest that this is how they like to perceive themselves. However, Conrad goes beyond classical opinion in a remarkable passage that suggests another reason for Kayerts's and Carlier's standing outside humanity:

They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds [ ...] The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions, and principles, every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd — to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one's kind, to the clear perception of one's loneliness — of one's thoughts, of one's sensations — to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous, a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike. (Conrad, 2012: 79)


Excerpted from Outposts of Progress by Gail Fincham, Jeremy Hawthorn, Jakob Lothe. Copyright © 2015 UCT Press. Excerpted by permission of Juta and Company Ltd.
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Table of Contents

Preface v

The contributors vii

Introduction x

Section 1 Language, culture and history

Chapter 1 Humans and animals in Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress' Kai Wiegandt 3

Chapter 2 Bloody racists of 1899: Some fictional contexts for Conrad's alleged racism in Heart of Darkness Andrew Glazzard 18

Chapter 3 Penetrating the impenetrable in Conrad's fiction Jeremy Hawthorn 33

Chapter 4 Heart of Darkness as chronotope: Conradian avatars in fiction, criticism, publishing and pedagogy Russell West-Pavlov 49

Chapter 5 At the dying of two centuries: Heart of Darkness and Disgrace David Medalie 72

Chapter 6 Victory, music and the world of finance Konstantin Sofianos 84

Chapter 7 The paradox of progress: Far-reaching deliberations and 10 per cent loans Robert Hampson 110

Section 2 Writing and genre in Conrad's fiction

Chapter 8 Heroes of the real: Conrad's epic without a cause Josiane Paccaud-Huguet 125

Chapter 9 Being elsewhere: Conrad, Malinowski and the anxiety of storytelling Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan 139

Chapter 10 Going about: Conrad's progress in A Personal Record Douglas Kerr 156

Chapter 11 Duo, trio and quartette: A comparative reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's and Lloyd Osbourne's The Ebb-Tide and Joseph Conrad's 'An Outpost of Progress' Jürgen Kramer 171

Chapter 12 Irony and narrative distance: Imperialist critique in Conrad's An Outpost of Progress' Jakob Lothe 186

Chapter 13 'Positioning' the reader in Conrad's Marlow narratives and in Ngugi's wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat Gail Fincham 198

Index 217

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