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The Representation of Cross-cultural Encounter in Heart of Darkness – Free Essay Example

Cross-cultural encounter facilitates personal growth and challenges understandings of the self and world. By encountering different cultures, individuals are able to gain an understanding of their own culture as well as the world around them. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, explores the journey of British explorers up the Congo River and the inhumanity towards various individuals as a result of imperialism. By using Africa as a foil to Europe, the depersonalisation of Africa itself clearly highlights the slander and injustices towards countries that are considered less superior than another. Similarly, Caryl Phillips’ travel narrative ‘Anne Frank’s Amsterdam’, highlights the role of cross-cultural racism in challenging understandings of the self and the world around them. The dealings and comparisons of various cultures address the injustices present in society and instigates critique and judgements on civilised and less civilised areas around the world.

The realisation of differences between different cultures stemming from cross-cultural encounters give rise to biased opinions and racism. By experiencing different cultures, individuals’ preconceived notions are challenged, allowing them to develop new perspectives on themselves and the world they live in. Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, explores cross-cultural racism through the inhumanity and depersonalisation of Africa and Africans.

Marlowe dehumanises the Africans and portrays them as wild and primitive. This is exemplified within animalistic imagery coupled with zoomorphism, “All their meagre breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill”. This depersonalisation of Africa as a culture and continent highlights to the audience the cross- cultural racism present as a result of Conrad’s European assumptions during his time. The dehumanisation of Africans is further portrayed within the simile coupled with visual imagery, “They had faces like grotesque masks”. Conrad’s description of African men’s faces here consolidates his racist perception on the culture as comparing the men’s faces to ‘grotesque masks’, Conrad lumps them all in with the distasteful things Marlowe sees in the Congo. This inhuman grotesquery accentuates the condescending attitudes of both Marlowe and Conrad towards Africans, deeming them to be nothing but savages. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian novelist and critic, regards Heart of Darkness as a general slander against Africans where it celebrates dehumanisation and depersonalises a portion of the human race. By deeming Africa to be a country devoid of all recognisable humanity to which the Europeans can take advantage of, Achebe portrays to the audience the racism present as a result of cross- cultural encounter between the two cultures. This thus emphasises the biased opinions and racist remarks instigated as a result of various differences between cultures. Individuals’ understandings of the self and world are challenged as readers come to understand that “the dehumanisation of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in this world” is still prevalent in today’s society. Thus, cross-cultural encounters facilitate personal growth as individuals are more aware of the problems that exist in society, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them. Similarly, Caryl Phillips’ travel narrative ‘Anne Frank’s Amsterdam’, explores cross-cultural racism stemming from one’s encounter with a different culture. Phillips portrays his intolerance of the American culture through his hostility towards the encounter of the American tourists. This is exemplified within the emotive language coupled with the negative connation of ‘cackle’, “Then American voices began to cackle in my ears”. This highlights the role of cross-cultural encounter in instigating discrimination between different groups of individuals, ultimately challenging understandings of the self and the world. Debbie Lisle’s “Introduction: the global imaginary of contemporary travel writing” highlights the role of travel writing in shaping the way we understand the world. Through ‘Anne Frank’s Amsterdam’, one is able to realise the prevalence of cross-cultural discrimination in the world and how this ultimately impacts the individual’s perception of themselves and their surroundings. As Debbie Lisle asserts, “Travel writing organises the world through a number of prevailing discourses and sediments that world into a seemingly incontrovertible reality”. Exploring the inevitability of racism, Caryl Phillips accentuates to us the role of travel writing in highlighting the harsh realities in the world where cultural differences between countries are frowned upon. Thus, the realisation of differences between countries as a result of cross-cultural encounters pave the way for discrimination and biased opinions. These realisations ultimately challenge one’s understanding of the world and portrays cross-cultural encounters as negative experiences that instigate feelings of hostility amongst individuals.

The role of imperialism instigates civilised and uncivilised depictions of the world and presents cross-cultural encounter as a catalyst to this negative perception of the world. Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, raises various questions about the impulse towards imperialism and how exerting influence over other countries was one of the central values of the British. During the period when Heart of Darkness was written, Britain controlled various colonies around the world and this dominance became the foundation to which Britain defined its identity and purpose. Portrayed through symbolism, the physical darkness of the forestation as Marlowe journeys deeper into the Congo, highlights to the audience the emotional conflicts between the civilised and uncivilised individuals. The Africans viewed the civilising troops as a disruptive force that overtook their lives whereas for the British, occupying the land and controlling the Africans is a gradual process that ultimately corrupts them. The irony here is that the British who were sent to civilise Congo eventually become the ones who are uncivilised, resorting to brutality and growing power-hungry. Exemplified within the metaphor coupled with the gaze “he became instantly the prey of an abject funk, and would let that cripple of a steamboat get the upper hand of him in a minute”, Marlowe minimises the skills of the African helmsman and declares him to be almost of no worth. In this sense, Conrad emphasises the narrator’s condescending view of Africans as to Marlowe, Africans will never be the masters of their own land. This thus emphasises the role of imperialisim in instigating civilised and uncivilised depictions of the world, presenting cross-cultural encounters as a catalyst to the negative perceptions of Africans and the British. According to The New Yorker article, “The Trouble with Heart of Darkness”, Achebe believes that Heart of Darkness “is an example of the Western habit of setting up Africa as a foil to Europe”. By using Africa as a backdrop on which to project European insecurities, Denby believes that Conrad’s real purpose is the desire to comfort Europeans in their sense of superiority. Thus, as Achebe asserts, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization”. Emphasising Conrad’s obsession with superiority and the intention to use Africa as a backdrop on which to project European insecurities, the cross-cultural encounter of Britain and Africa instigates the civilised and uncivilised depictions of the world as a result of imperialism. Similarly, Caryl Phillips’ travel narrative accentuates the confronting encounters by Phillips as he realises the dire treatment of Jews by the Nazis. The Holocaust made a powerful impression on the young Phillips and this is accentuated through the rhetorical question “If white people could do that to white people then what the hell would they do to me?”. Questioning humanity, Phillips portrays to the audience the negative impacts of the twentieth century fascism in Europe in instigating negative representations of cross-cultural encounters. Hence, Phillips gains a deeper understanding of the world around him as he realises the confronting nature of humanity. As Lisle connotes, travel writing is an important cultural voice because it “reveals how previously colonised, marginalised and silenced groups are engaging and struggling with the hegemonic power relations currently shaping the global sphere”. Through the tourist gaze, Phillips’ travel narrative highlights to us the comparisons between Germany and the Jewish population where the marginalisation of Jews in the past still resonate with today’s uncivilised depictions of the world. Thus, one’s desire for power instigates negative perceptions of different cultures and presents cross-cultural encounter as a catalyst to critique and judgement of the world.

Cross-cultural encounter facilitates personal growth and challenges understandings of the self and world. Both Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and Caryl Phillips’ travel narrative ‘Anne Frank’s Amsterdam’ explore the depersonalisation of various countries and presents cross-cultural encounter as a catalyst to critique and judgement of the world. By exploring the realisation of differences between cultures and countries, both texts emphasise the prevalence of racism as well as the role of imperialism and fascism in instigating civilised and uncivilised depictions of the world. Thus, the dealings and comparisons of various cultures and countries address the injustices present in society and goes on to challenge understandings of the self and world.

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  1. Achebe, C. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.’ Heart of Darkness : Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Paul B Armstrong. 4th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006.
  2. Conrad, J. Heart of Darkness. Cambridge University Press. 1899.
  3. Debbie Lisle. ‘Introduction: The Global Imaginary of Contemporary Travel Writing.’ In The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing. Cambridge, CUP.
  4. Denby, D. ‘The Trouble With “Heart of Darkness”’. The New Yorker. (1995)
  6. Phillips, C. ‘Anne Frank’s Amsterdam’ From The European Tribe. 1987.

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