Speaking Truth to Power: The Mythology of Imperialism


When I decided to teach Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness at Berkeley High School, it had been out of favor as an appropriate text because it was considered too controversial.  I wanted to do a whole unit on Africa and the Congo, including African authors, journalism, and history, and I figured we could start with this classic, largely because there were perhaps 75 copies lying unused in the English Department reading room.

The little maroon editions from the 1950s were encrusted in dust but I grabbed one and started to plow through.  I was amazed at how radical Conrad was, how critical his approach to European imperialism.  He described the project of colonialism as, “grabb[ing] what they could get for the sake of what was to be got.  It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.  The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

Yes, Conrad comes in for criticism today in schools because of the uncomfortable feeling he creates with the language, the racism, the othering of his lead narrator.  But he was not trying to make it light.  He was rubbing our faces in the reality of the colonial enterprise, just fifteen years after the continent was partitioned among European powers at a conference in Berlin presided over by the Pope.  I suppose it was the offensive reality of European thinking that kept Conrad books back in the corner of the book room and Henry James — safe, elite, upper-crust, Henry James with his white blind-spot in place — in demand every year.

We had a rousing time with Heart of Darkness.  But what was particularly striking, what became a side-bar discussion in the class, were the crazy notes in the columns written by students under the direction of their high school teachers of the 50s and early 60s.  Little underlined words and scrawled notes, like “gloomy,” “graveyard,” “world-weary,” “super ego,” and “foreshadowing,” bespoke a journey through the novel which carefully stayed away from any political reading, from the core finding of Conrad that the darkness, the real heart of darkness, was not in the center of Africa but in the Europeans themselves.  We were, of course, drawn to a reading positioned in the post-colonial and anti-imperialist sensibilities of our times.  But imagine an explosive novel like this reduced to psychological states and literary devices.  That was the world of literary criticism created by the right-wing modernists such as T. S. Eliot and elaborated by such critics as Columbia University’s Lionel Trilling.

The Mythology of ImperialismImagine, now, a young graduate student in the 1960s at Columbia trying to buck the smothering hegemony of the anti-political (actually, rightist political) eminences of the academy.  What insight, independence, and courage it must have taken to explode in the face of such idiocy, to jeer at the emperor’s new clothes, and to explode the lies about the dead white men of the Western tradition.  Jonah Raskin was that graduate student and he did write an explosive, transformative analysis of the literature of imperialism.  His book, The Mythology of Imperialism, began as his doctoral dissertation in the late 60s on Kipling and Conrad.  Through Jonah’s demonstrations, arrests, international travel, and revolutionary activism, he developed it further with sharp, critical chapters on D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Joyce Cary, and L. H. Myers.  First published in 1971, the book is out in a new edition from Monthly Review Press this month.

It is a delightful book, a spirited jaunt through much of British literature during the height of imperialism, and a polemic that refuses to pull punches.  His introduction to the first edition, ambitiously entitled “Bombard the Critics,” begins, “We, readers and students of literature, have been hijacked.  The literary critics, our teachers, those assassins of culture, have put us up against the wall and held us captive.  In classrooms we sat passively and took notes.  We were paralyzed, afraid of their power.”  Thus the gauntlet is thrown down.  As an urban high school teacher, I might add that the crime was not only done to the university students of literature but to the broad society, the many students who would not be admitted to the literary parlors, the working classes who would be ejected from the schools, and the millions who would be represented as savage or child-like primitives.

Raskin mows down the reactionary critics.  His account of Lionel Trilling‘s attempt to reduce Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit to a psychological profile is hilarious and scathing.  Trilling has taken this powerful tale of the cruelties of capitalism, the life of children in debtor prison, and the injustice of English society and attempted to universalize the “message” while gutting the core politics.  “The modern self, like Little Dorrit,” Trilling writes, “was born in prison.”  So the problem in the novel, according to Trilling, has to do with something about the Self, and the frustration of the Will.  Those English teachers who handled my Heart of Darkness volumes were channeling this exact Trillingesque crap.

I first came across The Mythology of Imperialism in the early 70s when I myself was underground, AWOL from the army after a stint of organizing against the Vietnam War as a private at Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Polk.  I was hungry for analysis, something, anything that tried to make sense of the world.  We knew that the world the establishment had created brought nothing but war and terror; how to explain this world, where to find voices of reason, hope, and a vision for a better future?  We found it in the audacity of the Cuban revolution, in the confidence of the Vietnamese resistance, in the brilliance of the Black Power critique.  Jonah’s book struck me, the exiled English and classics major, as a breath of fresh air.  Here was someone talking back to the dusty tomes.  Here was the joy and insight of liberation applied to the traditional canon.  What a delight.  I devoured the book and even picked up a used copy of H. L. Myers’ The Near and the Far, one of the few British novels about India which Jonah recommended with enthusiasm.

Of course, Raskin was breathing the same air, imbibing the same lessons that we all were in this period of liberatory rebellions.  Psychiatry was being turned upside down by Frantz Fanon and R. D. Laing; history was being re-written by Howard Zinn and Philip Foner; novels were being transformed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison; and on and on.  In the area of social and cultural analysis, Jonah Raskin was writing at the same time as the brilliant Cuban Roberto Retamar, who founded Tricontinental magazine, was penning “Caliban”; the Palestinian professor Edward Said was writing early works that would lead to Orientalism, a study that would launch the disciplines of Critical Studies and Post Colonial Studies; Michel Foucault in France was developing his studies of prisons and repression; Nguyen Khac Vien was penning Tradition and Revolution in Vietnam; Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart in Chile were penning their exposé of imperialist culture with How to Read Donald Duck.  In education during this period, Robert Moses from SNCC was applying the lessons of Charlie Cobb and Ella Baker of the Mississippi Freedom Schools in Tanzania; Paulo Freire had just published Pedagogy of the Oppressed based on his literacy and organizing work among the peasants of Brazil; and poor Italian students had published their Letters to a Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana.

While Jonah Raskin deplores the arrogance, the blinkered racism, the stupidity of the writers in the imperial center, he clearly enjoys their meanderings, their questing to make sense of this world.  Many of the most interesting writers of Britain in this period were those who defied the cool rationality of the master narrative, celebrating instead the vernacular, the conflict, the madness of the colonial provinces.  The best novels did not simply recount parlor debates of the rich; they explored the lives of real people, the conflicts of cultures and classes.  Mark Twain was much more the novelist of American reality than Henry James.  French authors Balzac, Hugo, and Zola all sought their truths in the streets and side allies.  They explored the heteroglossia (literally multiple tongues) of these conflicts that Mikhail Bakhtin described.  Why the language we use in education must be mired in the dull parlor formalities and must exile the voices that animate our best literature is something that has always frustrated me as an English teacher.

Excerpt from Jonah Raskin,
The Mythology of Imperialism

Raskin examines Rudyard Kipling‘s split consciousness, between identification with the empire and identification with the incredible people he encountered in his life in the colonies: “(He) defended the establishment and scorned rebellion, but at the same time he sought out the exiles, the outcasts, the bohemians; he roamed the underground, looked for the forbidden, the hidden, the disreputable.  He boxed, exported, and sold under the imperialist label folk culture, popular culture, the culture of colonial people”  (p. 75).  Kipling can be fascinating as a documenter of life in the colonies, even as he betrays an unhealthy devotion to imperialism and an infantilizing and patronizing attitude towards the oppressed.

Raskin spends a good deal of time on George Orwell, that huge presence in the middle of the 20th Century.  Orwell finds plenty to criticize about imperialism — which he described as “a world in which progress drinks nectar from the skulls of the slain . . .” (p. 44).  But Orwell too retained his fundamental loyalty to empire and considered colonial rebellion as ill-considered and fruitless.  Nevertheless, I found Raskin sometimes laid on Orwell sins which perhaps he was exposing and critiquing.  In the famous memoir piece, “Shooting an Elephant,” he speaks about his stint an English policeman in Burma who is called upon by the populace to shoot an elephant that has been causing mayhem in the village.  He resents the role of sahib, the duty that falls upon him to do the deed, and the unjust killing of the beast.  But Orwell’s description of the trapped man, caught in the obligations of his colonial office, is more a confessional, a self-revealing portrait which in its honesty condemns the choice he made.  Indeed, he is sketching the bind of those who serve the empire.  Again, this is familiar territory for a teacher.  We want to rebel, to “fight the man,” but most of our days are spent acting as agents of the state, sorting and even repressing the young.  The narrator describes himself as “stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible” (p. 71).  Ah, the anger at the kids.  You know it’s wrong but every teacher gets it.

Raskin’s play with Western literature, examined with eyes that have been opened up by the struggles of people in the Third World, is a welcome antidote to the authoritarian educational projects we were subjected to.  It points the way to a more lively, more diverse and meaningful curriculum for students growing up in the globalized communities of today.  And, of course, it welcomes the explosion of what we call “world literature” which is transforming our discourse and our reality with each passing year.

Raskin has since gone on to explore many other aspects of the culture, from studies of women writers, to American radicalism, from revolutionary exile author B. Traven, to writers such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack London.  It is good and timely that Monthly Review has chosen to re-release this excellent book today.

I only wish some smart editor had saved Raskin from himself by talking him out of including the Afterword to the new volume.  What starts out as an examination of Edward Said’s work becomes an exercise in self promotion: “Said took many of the ideas I proposed in The Mythology of Imperialism and developed them in Orientalism, which was published in 1978. . . .”  Edward Said was generous in his praise of The Mythology of Imperialism, but here Raskin places himself as the originator who shifted the paradigm in deep and incalculable ways, with Said playing adjunct as developer and popularizer.  Raskin would have done well to modestly accept the praise he received and to consider himself lucky to have been part of the dozens, hundreds, thousands of writers and engaged intellectuals who were literally reinscribing our understanding of culture and power.  Noting that Said’s consciousness had been profoundly shaped by his life in exile, Raskin says that he too is, well, sort of in exile, because, you know, we are all between homes: “We are all in exile literally and figuratively, materially and spiritually.”  Yes, of course, but to dance toward an appropriation of Third World or Palestinian exile identity, to make a neat equation and find the experiences basically identical, is both familiar and dishonest.

But this unseemly tack-on need not tarnish this good work.  It’s fairly common for academics, educators, political people, and activists in their later years to jostle a bit uncomfortably and self-consciously for position and legacy.  We can forgive them these silly breaches of good sense, highlight the great work they’ve done, learn from it and move onto the challenges here and the fierce urgency of now.

Raskin’s book forces us to look more deeply at the received wisdom of the great books of Western civilization.  He fired this opening salvo long before the “canon wars” broke out.  Like those who have the most experience in teaching, Raskin neither insists on exiling all of Western literature — so much of it is powerful and even subversive — nor in promoting only women and authors of the colonial and neo-colonial regions.  But his scathing critique creates a welcoming stage for such tremendous outsider writers of today as Junot Diaz, Amitav Ghosh, Nikki Giovanni, and Adam Mansbach.  When I am leading a literature class, the reality of the imperialist project, which colors everyone on both sides of the fence of privilege, becomes part of the discussion.  Chinweizu’s great study The West and the Rest of Us reminds us that there is a Western narrative to describe reality; then there is a reality of those deemed the “others” by the academic establishment.

The colonial regions, the Third World, the zones comprising OSPAAL (Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), whatever you care to name the vast majority of the regions and peoples of the world, have always offered fascination and fear to the Westerner (a term coined to mean mainly white people of Europe and North America).  So many myths and slanders abound, such as: the idea that these peoples have an animal nature (as Shakespeare’s creation of Caliban shows); that they are savage (meaning violent and uncivilized); that they are childlike (and in need of direction); that they represent our past, something we have evolved above; that they possess some kind of intuitive wisdom, magic powers; that they represent the Western fantasy of the ideal sexualized female or dangerously virile male; that they need our governance; that their wealth is wasted since they do not adequately farm, mine, or fabricate things.  And so on ad nauseam.

Often, for the Westerner, the exotic East is a place of longing and desire, a projected fulfillment that is somehow lost or out of reach here.  This was the case in the way the British constructed the magic kingdom of Shangri-La, and it carries forward in modern romanticization of Tibetan Buddhism.  It is a place where the West practices unspeakable violence, in its ritual of domination.  It is the source of our huge wealth, which is not brought by Santa Claus or created by little elves while we sleep — it is wealth created in thousands of mines and fields and sweatshops where people toil daily to create resources for us; and it is the region of our nightmares and fears, the permanent Other, which threatens to overthrow everything we have come to care for and feel entitled to.  And, we must add, that this colonial imaginary includes a domestic identity of the Third World peoples within the metropolis, African American, Chicano Latino, Asian, etc.

But a modern reader, a citizen in our global world, now has an opportunity to explore all sides of the story, to subvert the master narrative while embracing all voices.  In a sense, the reader now has an opportunity to commit a literary version of what Amilcar Cabral described as class suicide, the project of abandoning loyalty to the oppressor.  In this regard, I particularly enjoyed Raskin’s exploration of Burmese Days (p. 73) in which Orwell reaches the point of hating his own privileged people: “The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen, when you long for a native rising to drown their Empire in blood. . . ” and yet he realizes that he is implicated, he is complicit, in his inevitable role as pukka sahib, “You are a creature of the despotism, a pukka sahib, tied tighter than a monk or a savage by an unbreakable system of tabus.”  At last, we see that taboos, forbidden acts, are strictures not of the tribal peoples but of the empire itself.  And we are called upon to do something about it.

Rick Ayers is an Adjunct Professor in Education at University of San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley and New College.  This article was first published by the Huffington Post on 1 September 2009.