One of the classes I'm taking is called Nonwestern World Literature, and it examines the relations between the cultures of the West and non-West through the literature of both sides. My first graded assignment was to write a post for the class discussion board comparing and contrasting my experiences with cultures other than my own with the adventures described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I've reproduced my work here for your insight and comments, you can read a short summary of Darkness here.
My own experiences with other cultures show little similarity with the adventures described in Heart Of Darkness, but upon comparing myself with the characters in Joseph Conrad’s novel, I find striking similarities in my reactions to a different culture living in my own community.
Unlike Marlow, I have never been immersed in a Nonwestern country, but where I live you don’t have to cross the border to have experiences with other cultures. I am exposed on an almost daily basis to the world of Hispanic immigrants, whose language, customs, appearance, and ethnic heritage are so different from my own that it is hard to see any common ground between us. There is a temptation to see these people as “foreigners”, no matter how long they’ve lived in America, and their nationality seems to set them apart from the rest of us. In an all-too-human way, this separation can cause us “locals” to feel somewhat superior to the relative newcomers.
This reaction echoes what Marlow said about foreigners being “veiled…by a slightly disdainful ignorance” to Western eyes. The classic reaction of Western civilization to the “exotic” and unfamiliar seems to have been contempt, stemming from an outrageous sense of pride. My own reaction to my Hispanic neighbors is somewhat similar to Marlow’s own—they seem set apart, different, simply “other.” I certainly don’t hate or resent them, but I’m not taking pains to interact with them either. This is where Conrad gives us a great warning: a tiny seed of disdainful ignorance can grow into racial hatred, even insanity.
There is danger in the moment we define ourselves as “us” and “them”. I may live my life on a separate plane from my Hispanic neighbors, without many activities or experiences in common, but the moment I imagine that they are on a lower plane, or even one that is very different from my own, that is when the darkness Conrad warned against can take hold. When I look inside myself and back at someone else who is part of another culture, I can see that their hopes, dreams, loves, strengths, and weaknesses deserve every bit as much respect as mine, and they demand not my pity but my understanding. In Heart Of Darkness, Conrad wrote about what can happen—what has happened—when a root of disdain spawns the brutalization of an entire continent.