Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Report/Criticism: King Leopold's Ghost

The following is an assignment I had for a survey of African History until 1800 class I am currently taking. The assignment quite specifically stated that it was to be a book about African history BEFORE colonialisation, but, well .. my reasons are explained in the text.

[Publishing infoz:
August 7, 2009
King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Mariner Books]

I would like first - and feel it entirely necessary - to explain my decision in choosing Adam Hochschild’s historical survey of the colonization of the Congo called “King Leopold’s Ghost.” Although the assignment requirements are quite clear in stating that the book must have been written concerning the pre-colonial history of Africa, I chose instead to read and work with a text that instead was about the colonization of Africa. This was not decided out of a sense of entitlement of not having to follow the rules, or out of a rebellious, anti-authoritative sense of doing whatever I like, but rather two very specific reasons - one of which is perhaps more valid than the other.

The first reason, and the lesser of the two, is because I had some trouble finding works concerning this period of African history. However, as I spent time looking for publications of pre-colonial Africa, my mind returned to a topic that I spent a great deal of time working with in the last year or so, and one that has been forever lodged in my mind as one of the great evils of human history: colonialisation itself. As an aside, I will forever find it bizarre that regardless of which word-processing software that I use, the word “colonialisation” - regardless of spelling - is flagged as being a non-word. So, moving along.

During the winter semester last year, I took the class that Mary-Jo Kietzman offered that was centered around Tariq Ali - both his fiction and non-fiction - and post-colonial criticism in general. In it, I found an entire breadth of concepts that I hadn’t explicitly encountered before, but nonetheless found to have made a great deal of sense. While the class often focused on fiction - indeed, the majority of book-length reading that was done was on the fictional novels of Ali and Orhan Pamuk - much of the auxiliary reading was on Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Steven Harris’ “Postcolonial Criticism,” both of which deal more or less exclusively with the real-world implications and consequences of colonialism.

As stated, I am very drawn to this field of discourse. Additionally, I am a student motivated not by letter-grades but by the acquisition of knowledge and the development of understanding about the world. (I recognize that my using the word ‘acquisition’ here may be inappropriate in this context) Given this, I look towards projects and undertakings as means of learning in greater depth things which interest me and which I will find useful in my academic career. As a student of literature, narrative, discourse, dialogue and rhetoric, a solid understanding of the events leading up to and the consequences of colonialism are incredibly important. What I am particularly interested in are the compositional structures used by various authors in a variety of works, and how those structures affect the message that the author is trying to express. I also wanted to experiment, in a sense, with reading a piece of colonial history - written from the perspective of someone with an intense hatred for colonialism - as a piece of Orientalist literature/non-fiction. By which I mean, I wondered if Adam Hochschild was almost guilty of helping to enforce the problem that he hoped to shed light on.

On the Style of Writing Presented in “King Leopold’s Ghost”

Adam Hochschild is a writing professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, and has written many books concerning the histories and perspectives of many peoples, so he is not without the proper credentials to write a book such as “King Leopold’s Ghost.” His style is engaging and thorough, providing for a highly-detailed yet easily-readable account of the development of the Congo. He often includes details about the personal lives of the figures he deals with an attempt to humanize them and shed light on their decisions. Unfortunately, this often means that he creates judgments of his own which are then forced on the reader - for better or worse, Hochschild makes little attempt at retaining a more journalistic, objective viewpoint.

This problem first manifests in his descriptions of one of the central players in the conquest of the Congo; the explorer, vagrant, brutal commander and evil-bastard-in-general, Henry Morton Stanley. He charts his life as first a young boy repeatedly rejected by those typically tasked with caring, and one that became a sensationalist, yellow journalist whom characterized the wars the United States had with the western plains Indians. However, he generally describes him in almost benevolent tones; the reader’s first introduction of him is one built on sympathy and a recognition of his intelligence and beautiful handwriting. Although he is later disparaged as being, in general, a terrible villain, Hochschild gives him more initial praise than the other central player of the book and development of the Congo, Leopold II.

Instead of the flowery, almost uplifting narrative that Hochschild provided for Stanley, Leopold II is generally described exclusively in negative terms. As a child, his fixation with numbers above all else and his cleverness - portrayed as a fox - is emphasized constantly, as is his social awkwardness. Although some of these attributes were also applied to Stanley, they were given to him in a benevolent fashion, reasoning that he had a difficult childhood and that his flaws should possibly be seen as charming distractions to the rugged exterior of the man he would become. Leopold II, however, was never illustrated in a positive manner; although Hochschild clearly and repeatedly acknowledges Leopold II’s incredible intellect and deft social maneuvering, his awkwardness at a younger stage of his life was instead used to paint him as a wretched boy, only barely worthy of the title that he would receive.

As an example, when writing about Leopold II’s moves to acquire stock in the Suez Trading Company and in efforts to acquire a colony all his own, Hochschild writes,
“Leopold’s letters and memos, forever badgering someone about acquiring a colony, seem to be in the voice of a person starved for love as a child and now filled with an obsessive desire for an emotional substitute, the way someone becomes embroiled in an endless dispute with a brother or sister over an inheritance, or with a neighbor over a property boundary.” (p. 38)
While this might seem to be merely an author’s mental image and understanding of the reasons why a certain figure did a certain thing, the prose is nonetheless worded in a fashion intended to sway the opinion of the reader. Specifically, I am referring to his use of “badgering,” a word that, when used in this context, is never positive - indeed, it is always a negative connotation. Why Hochschild chose to use a word such as this - and others, as this is but one example of lexical issues that crop up repeatedly - is beyond my capacity to state with effectiveness. That said, it mostly just seems that he has a bias that he is unwilling to go to any lengths whatsoever to provide. I find this a strange stance to take as a professor working for a graduate school of journalism, a discipline that has built its foundation on objectivism.

His attempts at psychology feel, if anything, out of place. While Hochschild may very well have studied psychology while in university, may have even received a degree in it, his commentary revolving around it feels nonetheless to be that of an amateur. I find this almost entertaining given a line delivered in the Introduction of the book; “However, with my college lecture notes on [Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”] filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes, and inward vision ...” It would seem that amateur psychoanalysis is something of a regular theme for Hochschild.

Which isn’t to say that his conjectures into the discipline aren’t entertaining; they are. They provide color to characters that I imagine would be traditionally painted in shades of grey, and make “King Leopold’s Ghost” a more entertaining work to read in general. I’m just not sure that they really add anything relevant to the dialogue, and I find the forcing of the author’s opinion on me during reading to be troublesome.

On the Question of Orientalism

One of the questions that I had after I had found this book was whether or not Hochschild himself was guilty of Orientalising the Congo - and I believe that the answer is more or less “yes.” It’s a difficult thing for any western-educated writer or intellectual to escape from, and great care must be taken to ensure its avoidance. Orientalism, coined by Edward Said in his book bearing the same name, is essentially the use of language to describe cultures and peoples of the Orient - essentially everything east of the eastern borders of Europe and south of the Mediterranean - in a way that permits the mental palatability of colonialisation. Examples of this from the figures in question are found throughout “King Leopold’s Ghost,” most often when Hochschild is quoting Leopold II or Stanley. Indeed, Said and Harris both actually quote speeches given by Leopold II when he was working towards his colonial prospect.

Leopold II essentially justified his colonial aspirations of the Congo as ones of altruism and benevolence, seeking to make the ‘uncivilized’ of the Congo into good, civilized Christians. An example, given at the first meeting of the organization that Leopold II built for the purposes of justifying his colonialism (initially mapping it), follows;
“To open to civilization the only part of our globe which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness which hangs over entire peoples, is, I dare say, a crusade of this century of progress.” (p. 44)
This sentence alone is rife with what were really quite clever language machinations; his use of the word ‘crusade,’ which was always an attempt at Westernizing the Muslim east, infers tones of righteousness and divine ordinance. To characterize not merely the people of the Congo but the entire region as having been engulfed in darkness - and to then suggest that white, European powers were the only beings capable of providing that light - was not only a brilliant piece of rhetoric, but an incredibly disgusting one, suggesting that the people of the Congo are utterly inferior of taking care of themselves.

Incidentally, even spelling the name of the country that would become, ironically named, The Free Congo State, as Congo is Orientalizing it - according to the text, even though the people of the Congo had no written language, the sound its inhabitants made when referring to it was much closer to a K than a C. However, it was Anglicized, and made into a word appearing more compatible with the English language in general.

Unfortunately, Hochschild sometimes also slips into these lexical traps. While he never refers to the Congo as being backwards or really even alien, an almost imperceptible flavor of The Other arises whenever he speaks of the region. That one of his only real sources of information about the region was a native of the area - and one removed from the time on conflict by several hundred years - is troubling. Even more troubling is it that this man - the leader of the Congo when the Portuguese first began exploring and enslaving the area - quickly converted to Christianity, and learned to read and write in highly fluent English.

Granted, I cannot imagine that there were a great many voices from the region during the time which could have spoken out; they were being enslaved under the veil of Leopold II’s fraternity and human-betterment. Hochschild does address this early on in his work; “There was no written language in the Congo when Europeans first arrived ... we have dozens of memoirs by the territory’s white officials ... Instead of African voices from this time there is largely silence.” (p. 5)

There is a hero to the story Hochschild presents, however, even though he may be a westerner that was genuinely trying to aid the people of the Congo. Edmund Dene Morel worked incredibly hard to expose the terrible evils which Leopold II’s Free Congo State regime inflicted on the people, and generated international attention enough to Leopold II’s ruse and deception that he had an enormous impact on its development. However, Hochschild returns again to a writing style that is clearly much more favorable to some figures than others. As an example,
“Morel was all of a piece: his thick handlebar mustache and tall, barrel-chested frame exuded forcefulness; his dark eyes blazed with indignation. The millions of words that would flow from his pain over the remainder of his life came in a handwriting that races across the page in cold, forward-slanting lines, flattened by speed, as if they had no time to spare in reaching their destination.” (p. 187)
Instead of the damning language used for an early Leopold II, or the understanding, almost paternal tone adopted when speaking about Stanley, Hochschild instead portrays Morel as something even more than a firebrand - he paints of him the very image of a justified revolutionary, correct in all actions and entire righteous in mind.


I contrast these concepts - of Orientalism, lexical slanting, Othering and so on - with those found in the two textbooks for class. As it would be far too easy to find quotes almost entirely neutral inside of either textbook, I will avoid doing so, as the intent of the texts and of “King Leopold’s Ghost” are clearly different and to do so would be unfair. What I found fascinating about the two texts was a style of characterization and description that I’d never really previously encountered when reading about Africa; they each write about the continent as if it is normal. Not normal to the standards of the west, not normal for the middle east, but normal unto itself simply because it is. While they each sometimes sound almost defensive of Africa (understandably, I think), they portray it in a light entirely alien to that found in Hochschild’s work. Although I think that each perspective is interesting, I believe that I will prefer returning to the text for information about the continent - even if Hochschild’s capacity to incite the reader, to make him feel something - anger, hate, hostility, anything - far eclipses that of the authors of the textbooks for class. Sometimes, I just want the information - sometimes, I want to be allowed to form my own opinions.

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