Sunday, July 26, 2009

Post-Colonialism and the Travels of Michael Crichton

Evidence that post-colonial uncertainty and tension exists is evident in Michael Crichton’s Travels. The book is essentially an autobiography of Michael’s journey through adulthood, facing first some medical school disillusionment, then life reorganization, and finally - the largest portion of the book - worldly exploration. In his travels to particular former colonies of major European powers, such as Jamaica, Mexico, and New Guinea, he describes his visits and interactions with the local populace. Although he has some understandable conversations and dealings with the locals, it’s those unusual and mind-boggling communications that strike him enough to record in his book. As far as I can tell, some ex-colonials have issues with independence, either with the visitation of the oppressing race, or with the need to find a new identity while keeping traditions.

“As everybody knows, Conrad is a romantic on the side. He might not exactly admire savages clapping their hands and stamping their feet but they have at least the merit of being in their place, unlike this dog in a parody of breeches. For Conrad, things (and persons) being in their place, is of the utmost importance”, writes Chinua Achebe in “An Image of Africa”. I believe Achebe wants to say that even if a white visitor, such as Conrad (who wrote “Heart of Darkness”) seems to have been, visits this profound and “savage” world of Africa, he would enter with expectations of some fixed, pre-historic culture and lifestyle. In Travels, Crichton describes these feelings in an interesting portion of his trip to New Guinea, which was once part of the German and British empires. He states, “I am here in New Guinea wrapped in layers of romance…” which he divides into the “romance of the anthropologist” (talking to the natives to learn their ways), the romance of the “visiting sophisticate” (examining how they conduct their lives in a scholastic manner), and the romance of the “pastoral primitive” (seeing people unencumbered by materialism). It seems that Crichton’s views on all of the above were shattered by the manners in which the traditionalism of the culture and modern materialism collided.

An example of misconstrued or warped notions during Crichton’s visit to New Guinea is when he first discovered a “primitive” bow and arrow. His guide on this trip, a native named Hebrew, urges him to try shooting a bow. Initially, Crichton had a glamorous view about bows and how superbly lethal and accurate they were. When he saw his first bow, he was confused; he was confused by the weak-looking nature of the weapon. Then when the native guide fired his arrow, it was like an epiphany of the romantic and deadly nature of primitive hunting to Michael. Another example of this “natural” tradition of a hunter-based nomad clashing with the modernity is when the tour bus driver told Crichton that he came upon a tribal war while driving a group of tourists: “One man who drove tourists in a bus told me on a certain day he had come upon a tribal war, and all the tourists – they were Italians – piled out of the bus to take pictures. While they were taking pictures, one warrior beheaded another with an ax. Right there in front of the tourists!” (Even more ironically, the tourists didn’t notice, since they were entranced by the colorful war costumes.)

Another interesting concept Achebe notices in Heart of Darkness is that “Conrad did not originate the image of Africa which we find in his book. It was and is the dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination and Conrad merely brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it. For reasons which can certainly use close psychological inquiry, the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparing it with Africa.” I would like to take this time to actually examine the concepts that Achebe revisits in his study of Heart of Darkness and, mostly, his desire to get into Conrad’s mind. As I read Achebe’s “Image of Africa”, it seems he has a desire to deconstruct the mind of Conrad and how the white race, particularly Europeans, seem to use Africa as a laughingstock and “the antithesis of Europe” while not actually truly understanding the peoples. Crichton affirms and supplements this sentiment when he visits the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico to visit the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal. He goes on to describe the various buildings located in this once great city of the Mayan Empire, but notes that even though the buildings are given names (of a modern variety), historians and archeologists do not truly know what happened or who lived in these buildings. “Nobody on vacation wants to walk through a great ruined city and be told, ‘We know nothing about this place’… But the truth is, we don’t know.”

One thing that Achebe does not mention is the attitudes of the ex-colonials, although the tone of the writing suggests some feelings (it seems he is hopeful that white people will change their perceptions of other races, particularly the African ethnicities). Crichton notices in his trip to Jamaica, which was part of the British Empire, is the silent dissatisfaction towards the visiting ex-imperial white race. “While the attendant filled the [gas] tank, several loitering black men came over and stood around the car, peering at me, and at Terry [his fiancĂ©e at the time]. Their expressions were sullen and angry. They just walked around the car and looked… One of the men kicked a tired in front of the car. The others looked to see what we would do. We didn’t do anything.” It seems that some countries still hold grudges against not just the imperial conquerors, but also that particular race in general. It is such a distrust that prompts an alienating attitude towards white people, and it may have been passed down from generation to generation. While Achebe did not touch upon the colonial angst experienced and passed down through each generation, Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse by Homi Bhabha states that “a desire that, through the repetition of partial presence, which is the basis of mimicry, articulates those disturbances of cultural, racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence”. It was hard for me to understand at first, but I believe that this statement is really talking about how the colonized peoples after independence require a form of continued mentality that they are oppressed by that same race, even if they’ve attained a de facto independence (i.e. Jamaica).

Twice in his chapter of Crichton’s trip to Baltistan, which is in northern Pakistan, he states how inconceivable the world those peoples lived in must seem: “I stared at him. He was completely serious. He was thinking about the best way to kill people. I was surprised that his perceptions of this landscape could be so different from mine.”, and later in the chapter, “These aren’t really people; they don’t have the same thoughts and feelings as we do, and they won’t understand what we’re doing.” When we as Americans think of foreign non-white countries, it always seems there’s a barbarism or this mystique of foreignness that we just can’t grasp and that subtly we look down upon. I’m not really sure any group of people really understands another, and that we just make generalizations that fit, while making excuses when they don’t. Sometimes white visitors with all of their western modernity and complexity do not simply understand the basic and raw nature of foreign peoples. Achebe concludes in his essay that “[P]erhaps a change will come. Perhaps this is the time when it can begin, when the high optimism engendered by the breathtaking achievements of Western science and industry is giving way to doubt and even confusion. There is just the possibility that Western man may begin to look seriously at the achievements of other people.”


  1. How interesting--a nice approach to the problem of the foreign writer writing about a place from his/her own perspective. The real question becomes, what to do? Should one not attempt it? Or should one expose one's own prejudices in the way that you seem to be suggesting Crichton did, and Conrad did not?