The Horror! The Horror! of banning books

Two books–Heart of Darkness and The Unbearable Lightness of Being–written a century apart, both classics, challenged or outright banned for containing politically incendiary or offensive content. Thankfully, both books are now available to everyone, everywhere for reading, debating, loving or hating. And wouldn’t the world be a lesser place without these important historical records and emotional journeys into dark worlds, thankfully now long gone? Check them out and see what you think:

#1: Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad

“The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder – the man knows, and can look on without a wink.” 

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force–nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.”

“There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies–which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world–what I want to forget.”

~Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)

No book has opened my eyes to the horrors of imperialism more than Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).

Yet it is a troubling book. It is beautifully written but cringe-worthy for its racist portrayal of Africans.

I am not alone in this: Heart of Darkness is one of the best, most hated, and most controversial, books of our time.

Written in 1899, Conrad’s novella is a compelling story about the dark side of the Belgian colonization of the Congo (which Conrad witnessed first-hand in his journeys). Heart of Darkness is a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man–whether it be a century ago in the Congo, a few decades ago in Vietnam, or a few days ago in Syria.

But because it depicts the violence, hatred and racism of its time, it has been challenged for removal from US schools (source). It continues to be controversial for its racist and offensive portrayal of Africans.

This begs the question: can a book be so offensive and dated that it should not be read?

The truth is that Conrad’s portrayal of African’s is racist and offensive, and a sad reflection on his time. There are parts I still cannot read.

Words hurt, whether they are dated or not.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe wrote about this in his essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness ‘ “(1977):

“Although the work of redressing which needs to be done may appear too daunting, I believe it is not one day too soon to begin. Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth. But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.”

Yet, in a more recent interview, he does not agree Conrad should be banned:

“Those who want to go on enjoying the presentation of some people in this way — they are welcome to go ahead. The book is there. … I simply said, ‘Read it this way,’ and that’s all I have done.” (full story)

Writer Tim Butcher argues that the debate around the Heart of Darkness should not outweigh the importance of its message and power of its prose:

“Some of its power comes from its eloquent denunciation of the conceit behind colonialism and some from the harrowing thought that humanity has actually behaved like this. But its real power for me is that when I next pick it up, I know I will feel something new.” (full story)

#2: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera:

“A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person.”

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”

~Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a mesmerizing novel about love and politics in communist-run Czechoslovakia. Set in Prague, the novel centres on the relationship between one man, two women and a dog.

“[They] are living through a most tumultuous period for what was then Czechoslovakia: the crackdown by the Soviet Union after Czechoslovakia’s attempt at liberalizing reform. The Prague Spring of 1968 was a brief flowering of openness behind the Iron Curtain; what followed was a trauma hidden inside the city. The novel provides a key to remembering,” Nicholas Kulish writes in New York Times Travel.

The novel lets us look (uncomfortably sometimes) into the private lives of those living under this regime: What is it like to live without privacy? Where can you find space to express yourself? How much will you risk to speak the truth? Whom can you trust?

And what of love in the time of an oppressive regime? In what I think is one of the greatest postmodern love stories ever written, Kundera’s  characters (Tomas and Tereza) do ultimately find love and happiness, if only for a short time (spoiler alert: they both die in a suspicious car accident):

“On they danced to the strains of the piano and violin. Tereza leaned her head on Tomas’s shoulder. Just as she had when they flew together in the airplane through the storm clouds. She was experiencing the same odd happiness and odd sadness as then. The sadness meant: we are at the last station. The happiness meant: we are together.”

Kundera wrote the book while living in exile in Paris, France. It was critically-acclaimed and loved everywhere except Kundera’s home country, where it was banned for its depiction of life under Communist rule. The ban was lifted in 1989.

This book shook me up as a young woman used to living with complete freedom and spoiled for choice. It was an important introduction to life in Eastern Europe, a place I have visited and loved.

I can’t imagine my world without these books.

Have they changed the world for better or for worse? That is debatable. But in a very concrete way, they have helped to keep our history alive.

Humans forget. But books remember.

“History is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow.” (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, pg. 223)

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2 comments

  1. Nice discussion of the debate around The Heart of Darkness. It seems to me that in addition to being a classic, the racism in it can be informative as to how people used to think and how our understanding has changed. It’s mostly only a problem if we don’t recognize the racism for what it is.

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