Friday, April 30, 2010

Conan and Racism

In my continuing project to talk about On Mighty Thews until everyone is sick of hearing about it, here are some things I've been thinking about as I delve into the source material. I've been doing a lot of critical thinking about the pulp fantasy genre, especially Howard's Conan stories, which are my first and greatest love in the genre.

Loving Conan puts me in a pretty difficult position though, given the incredible racism of the stories. How racist are we talking? Pretty damn racist:
The blonde Achaians, Gauls and Britons, for instance, were descendants of pure-blooded AEsir... ...and from pure-blooded Shemites, or Shemites mixed with Hyborian or Nordic blood, were descended the Arabs, the Israelites, and other straighter-featured Semites. - in "The Hyborian Age"
People try to dismiss the racism of the stories by comparing them to other sources from the time, saying Howard was just echoing views popular at the time the stories were written. I'm not convinced. It doesn't make it less racist just because everyone else was doing it too. If you want to make an argument about whether this makes REH a bad person or just someone who lived in a less enlightened time, then go ahead. That's not my issue. I don't care about REH the person, and whether I'd have him over for dinner or whatever. What was going on in his head doesn't matter. What matters is what he wrote, and what he wrote is unambiguously racist:
The hut door opened, and a black woman entered - a lithe pantherish creature, whose supple body gleamed like polished ebony, adorned only by a wisp of silk twisted about her strutting loins. The white of her eyeballs reflected the firelight outside, as she rolled them with wicked meaning. - in "Vale of Lost Women"
So I used to say that I liked Conan despite the racism, that I "read around it", enjoying the action stories and glossing over the racism. But that never quite sat right with me. It felt like a cop out. Racism is so central to what the books are about. The whole theme of the stories is about the difference between civilisation and savagery. Ignoring the racial politics of the stories seems like missing the point. And besides, when I thought about it, I didn't "read around" the racism. I actually enjoyed reading those parts.

Now, maybe it's just the thrill of the forbidden. A guilty pleasure, indulging in the taboo. Maybe it's the seductive simplicity of it, shrugging off the weight of history and enjoying the power and priviledge of being white. That's a pretty ugly thought, and I'd like to think it's completely untrue. But if I'm being honest, there's probably a bit of that going on.

But there's also something else. It was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Tarzan of the Apes" that threw it into relief for me. Tarzan was a big influence on Howard, I'm sure (Burroughs' description of the "Cimmerian darkness" of the jungle seems like an irresistible clue for a possible Conan origin). Burroughs' racisim shares some traits with Howard's:

Presently they reached the center of the village. There D'Arnot was bound securely to the great post from which no live man had ever been released.

A number of the women scattered to their several huts to fetch pots and water, while others built a row of fires on which portions of the feast were to be boiled while the balance would be slowly dried in strips for future use, as they expected the other warriors to return with many prisoners. The festivities were delayed awaiting the return of the warriors who had remained to engage in the skirmish with the white men, so that it was quite late when all were in the village, and the dance of death commenced to circle around the doomed officer.

Half fainting from pain and exhaustion, D'Arnot watched from beneath half-closed lids what seemed but the vagary of delirium, or some horrid nightmare from which he must soon awake.

The bestial faces, daubed with color—the huge mouths and flabby hanging lips—the yellow teeth, sharp filed—the rolling, demon eyes—the shining naked bodies—the cruel spears. Surely no such creatures really existed upon earth—he must indeed be dreaming.

The savage, whirling bodies circled nearer. Now a spear sprang forth and touched his arm. The sharp pain and the feel of hot, trickling blood assured him of the awful reality of his hopeless position.

Another spear and then another touched him. He closed his eyes and held his teeth firm set—he would not cry out.

He was a soldier of France, and he would teach these beasts how an officer and a gentleman died. - in "Tarzan of the Apes"

But then there is also this characiture of a black servant, Esmerelda:

Esmeralda opened her eyes. The first object they encountered was the dripping fangs of the hungry lioness.
With a horrified scream the poor woman rose to her hands and knees, and in this position scurried across the room, shrieking: "O Gaberelle! O Gaberelle!" at the top of her lungs.
Esmeralda weighed some two hundred and eighty pounds, and her extreme haste, added to her extreme corpulency, produced a most amazing result when Esmeralda elected to travel on all fours.
For a moment the lioness remained quiet with intense gaze directed upon the flitting Esmeralda, whose goal appeared to be the cupboard, into which she attempted to propel her huge bulk; but as the shelves were but nine or ten inches apart, she only succeeded in getting her head in; whereupon, with a final screech, which paled the jungle noises into insignificance, she fainted once again. - in "Tarzan of the Apes"

That was really hard to read for me. It was ugly. It felt like an insult, unneccesary hatred sitting in the book like a turd on a tablecloth.

So what's the difference? Why am I cool with reading about "naked savages" and "primitives", but not with Burroughs' caricature?

Here's what I think it is:

I don't believe that an author's intent matters when you're interpreting that work. I don't think Howard's personal racism matters to how we interpret his work. I don't like Farenheit 451 any less knowing that Ray Bradbury thinks it's all about the evils of television. He's wrong. What matters is the words on the page, and how we interpret them in this, modern context. So how do I interpret Howard's Conan stories?

I think the Conan stories, taken as a whole, are about the position of "Man" in the universe, between poles of civilisation and savagery, between the cultured world of cities and technology and sophistication, and the howling wilderness. On the one hand, there is the corruption of civilisation, the filth and the lies and the weakness. Howard has a strong vein of homophobia running through his depiction of civilisation. It is a weakening influence. It makes men soft.

On the other hand, there is the throbbing, black, remorseless jungle. Here, strength prevails, but it is an awful strength, devoid of reason. The primitives are strong but ultimately disgusting, stupid, bent to the will of a stronger white man.

What I see in Howard's Conan is the confrontation of white supremacy with the undeniable humanity of black people. It's an attempt to reconcile the position of white people in a world of increasing social change. It reveals the concurrent fascination with and horror of blackness in our society. The savage is both more powerfully masculine, and yet less fully human, stronger, more vital, and yet more cowed to a stronger will. I think Conan himself is an embodiment of the fantasy of the white man to be fully master of both the savage and the civilised, and yet it's an uneasy fantasy. Conan is a monster. We love him, and yet we are repelled by him.

What if, when we ignore Howard's obviously racist intent in writing the stories, we can see his Conan works not as racist texts, but as texts about racism?

I think that reading Conan today, it reads as a perfect parody of every fear white people have about black people, as an examination of the paradox of the myth of the savage Other. I think Conan shows the natural conclusion of our peverse constructions of the meaning of whiteness and blackness, hysterical masculinty, the peverse fetishisation of purity, justifications for colonialism and slavery, and the continuing opression of people of colour.


2 comments:

  1. A year late, but I only recently bought On Mighty Thews. Very interesting topic. My view is simply that when a writer writes about racism, does not imply he condones it, or shares those sentiments. He is simply exercising the power of creation. We will probably never know whether Howard was a racist or not, but what he does is certainly to depict a definitely racist world.

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  2. You wrote, referring to Conan & Howard:
    "On the other hand, there is the throbbing, black, remorseless jungle. Here, strength prevails, but it is an awful strength, devoid of reason. The primitives are strong but ultimately disgusting, stupid, bent to the will of a stronger white man."
    You're wrong on this point. Conan (through Howard's writing), a white barbarian, was completely at home in the wild and in the dark forests of Cimmeria. The barbarians (white, black, brown) are at home in the wilderness and more attuned to the animals and the wild. It is the 'civilized' people who think all of the wilderness and its denizens are bad. Take for instance, the forest dragon in "Red Nails"; the civilized Valeria thinks the dragon is disgusting whereas Conan simply views it as a fellow beast, with understanding if not any sympathy.

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