The Mythology of Imperialism

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The opening pages of Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness contain a powerful description of the ideology of imperialism: "The conquest of the earth...is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea..."

It is a novel that reminds us that the real heart of darkness was not in the centre of Africa but in the heart of European imperialism itself.

Imagine, however, this profound study of the European imperial project reduced to a novel of psychological states and literary devices. If you can, you will have some idea of the state of literary studies before the 1970s and growth of what became known as postcolonial studies, a discipline that would so completely transform how we read literature that now it is almost impossible to imagine what came before.

One of its foundational texts was Jonah Raskin's The Mythology of Imperialism, a book which calls upon its readers to view it as "a weapon for revolution" and suggests that the role of the writer is not just to explore the world but to be "a political and cultural revolutionary".

Living in the midst of the great national liberation movements that saw the British Empire crumble, the marches for civil rights struggles and struggles against the war in Vietnam, Raskin writes how he found it impossible to read and study literature as if there was no connection between the world of books and the world of ideas. In response, he wrote The Mythology of Imperialism, a book that challenged the basic assumptions about literature and society.

By critiquing four well-known British writers - Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, D H Lawrence, E M Forster - and the Irishman Joyce Cary, he forces us to look more deeply at the received wisdom of the great books of Western civilisation. All of these writers are shown in one way or another to have supported, often in contradictory ways, the project of imperialism. Raskin's real strength as a critic is that he deplores their racism without dismissing their work and indeed takes real pleasure in the writers' quest to make sense of the world.

Interestingly, in the 40 years since the original publication of Raskin's book, postcolonial studies occupy a powerful position within academia. Alas, under the influence of poststructuralism they have lost much of their radical origins and are now more often accommodationist than subversive. In this context this reissue is all the more welcome, if only to remind us that we have yet to reach the "post" stage of colonialism and that while the names may change the imperial project continues.