Joseph Conrad

1998 South Africa Conference
Reported by
Keith Carabine, University of Kent

        Many moons ago, during the London Conrad Conference (July 1994) a young South African academic called Attie de Lange dreamt of a conference to celebrate the centenary of "Heart of Darkness" and the emergence of a new "rainbow nation" in his country. Encouraged by the support of Gail Fincham of the University of Cape Town, the J. C. Societies of Great Britain and America, and by Paul Armstrong and Jakob Lothe, Attie confirmed his intention at the Conrad-James Conference in Canterbury (July 1995). Three years later, tempered and wizened by an epic struggle to raise funds and support from Potchefstroom University and town council and from external sources such as C. U. P. (South Africa), by 1,000 e-mails, and by protracted negotiations with university administrators, air-lines, bus companies, game parks, hoteliers, and academics, Attie bestrode Johannesburg airport, greeting scores of weary and excited delegates from 18 countries, including Chile, Norway, Israel, Australia, China, and Japan. And from that moment on we experienced the greatest, most ambitious, and best organized Conference any of us had ever attended.
        In order to give a sense of the scale of the conference, allow me to select from and annotate the "Entertainment and Excursion Programme," which most delegates who claimed expenses wisely hid from their Deans. On the first evening, 24 March, we bussed to a "Wine and Cheese Reception" at the Elgro River Lodge, where delegates mingled and relaxed, experienced the first of many magnificent African sunsets, and watched brooding herons and soaring hawks. The evening of 26 March we were the guests at a "Mayoral Banquet," a magnificent occasion funded by the town. We were cordially greeted by the ebullient black mayor on behalf of his councilors who were clearly delighted to be part of the first International Literary Conference ever to be held at the University, once a bastion of African culture. I sat between the gentle and bright Mayoress and a weathered white councilor who had once supported apartheid and fought in Namibia, and who had embraced more changes in ten years than most of us have experienced in a life-time. When I asked him why a cash-strapped council supported Attie's dream, he replied: "because we want you all to become ambassadors for the new South Africa." On Friday evening we had a "Bush Braai" (barbecue) at the Pilansberg Game reserve, where the carnivores amongst us ate our first kudu. The following glorious day we safaried and saw lions, giraffes, baboons, hippos, and a spectacular variety of birds, including dozens of the multi-colored, elegant lilac breasted roller, the one bird I had always wanted to see. We breakfasted on the 29th March in Sun City, the crass Las Vegas of the old apartheid system, and the same day we flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where our evening feast was preceded by the University choir who enthralled us with a medley of traditional African songs. The Cape Town events were splendidly organized by Professor Gail Fincham. The evening of the 30th was spent on the waterfront, where 25 of us entertained Attie and his wife Leentie and the Fincham family, and we drank Jordan Estate Fume Blanc and Chardonnay, which are (wine-bibbers, please note) the best value for money wines in South Africa. During the evening of the next day, J. M. Coetzee and Andre Brink read to us and C. U. P. hosted a reception. On April 1st delegates visited either Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for many years or the Cape winelands, meeting up in the evening at the superb Spier Estate for a final Cape Malay Banquet. On the 2nd we breakfasted in our fine hotels and many delegates stayed on to holiday in and around Cape Town and to visit the game reserves of Southern Africa. The academic life does have its compensations.
        The conference itself took place over four days, two in Potchefstroom and two in Cape Town, comprising five plenaries and some 100 papers in triple parallel sessions. We were immediately presented with a fine 173 page booklet containing The Abstracts of the Conference. (Attie has 20 copies left which he will supply on a first-come-first-served basis.) Hillis Miller opened the Conference with "Should we read 'Heart of Darkness?'," a puckish question, given that 4 out of 5 papers cited the novella in their titles! Fears of over-saturation and repetition proved groundless, however, and all of us were impressed with the sheer variety of approaches and responses to this divided, ambivalent, and extraordinarily fertile novella. It was discussed as a late Victorian, a modernist, a post-modernist, and a post-colonial text; feminist, gender, and cultural studies readings abounded; and it was approached through teaching and the canon, film and theater, translation, psychoanalysis, linguistics, Bakhtin, cartography, sociology, race, cannibalism, journalism, late nineteenth-century theories of race and anthropology, and through the anti-slavery debate. It was read in relation to a host of other writers, including Goethe, Cooper, Dickens, Haggard, Conan Doyle, Kipling, Ford, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, Soyinka, Ngugi, Brain Fawcett, Rushdie, Abdulrahzak Gurnah, Bessie Head, and Andre Brink.
        Given the plethora of papers, given I missed most of the third day through illness, and given that everybody I spoke to told me that they had just heard "a terrific paper," my account is necessarily limited. I heard fine papers by several young scholars such as Man Yin Chiu ("Pearls and Ivory:A Study of the Influence of 'Heart of Darkness' on Leonard Woolf's 'Pearls and Swine' "), Allan Simmons ("Conrad and Casement"), Uzo Esonwanne ("Race and Reading: A Case Study of the Criticism of 'Heart of Darkness' "), Byron Caminero-Santangelo ("The Right Way of Going to Work": The Question of Progress in 'Heart of Darkness' and When Rain Clouds Gather"), and Stephen Donovan ("Prosaic Newspaper Stunts: Conrad, Modernity, and the New Journalism"). I enjoyed hugely the papers in the session I chaired by Merry Pawlowski (" 'Heart of Darkness' and Woolf's The Voyage Out") and Joshua D. Esty ("Consciousness Streams: Conrad's Congo, Woolf's Amazon, and the Sources of Modernist Style"). I also heard a good paper by Brian Cheadle ("Pip, Marlow, and the Lie of Silence"). Of the plenaries, Jeremy Hawthorn's "Power and Perspective in Conrad's Political Fiction: the Gaze and the Other" was a masterpiece of concision and clarity; Laura Chrisman's "Critical Locations: Conrad, Metropolitanism, and South Africa" sharply critiqued Jameson's view of post-colonial literature; and Laurence Davies's closing appeal for a renewed appreciation of the "orality" of "Heart of Darkness" sponsored the most vigorous discussion of the Conference.
        Attie and Gail plan to edit Conrad in/and Africa which will concentrate on "Heart of Darkness" in W. Krajka's Conrad: Eastern and Western Perspectives series; and they are hoping to find a publisher for a second volume, Conrad at the Millenium. Several delegates look forward to an overview of the main issues raised by this unique Conference. Once the volume(s) are published, the annual conferences of the J. C. Societies of America and G. B. (in 2000? 2001?) could perhaps invite panels on (say) Conrad and Post-colonialism, race, and gender?

as reported in
Joseph Conrad Today,
Volume XXIII, Nos. 1-2,
Publication of the Joseph Conrad Society of America, 1998

Return to the JCF Conferences page

Return to JCF Hompage