In Defence of Racism

I was stunned recently to hear that one of my students would be studying a novel by Agatha Christie entitled And Then There Were None.  Stunned because I know Christie’s work quite well, but I’d never heard of that one.  Handily, her complete works rest on a bookshelf in my house (a collection of volumes which was most foully filched from me by my sister, but let that pass).  I searched for a long time but I couldn’t see And Then There Were None anywhere.

It took a while, but finally I realised that the novel in question was called Ten Little Niggers, before it was called Ten Little Indians, before it got its present title.

Where exactly, I thought to myself, will this end?  With a new edition of the complete works of Joseph Conrad, including The African-American of the Narcissus?  And of course, we’d have to re-bowdlerise Shakespeare: how well does ‘the sooty bosom/Of such a thing as thou’ scan to sensitive modern eyes, exactly?  And what’s to be done with ‘It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear’? (Othello: I.ii.69-70, and Romeo and Juliet: I.v.44-45, respectively.)

These meditations resurfaced when I recently re-read Evelyn Waugh’s brilliant Decline and Fall.  And they resurfaced because I wondered what a bien-pensant cultural commentator would make of it.

Decline and Fall, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a spectacular romp through the worlds of British public schooling and British social aspirations – it’s hilarious, and some of the moments of hilarity only work because of the racism they examine.

Take this one, for example:

“‘The Welsh,’ said the doctor, ‘are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama.  They just sing,’ he said with disgust, ‘sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver.  They are deceitful because they cannot discern truth from falsehood, depraved because they cannot discern the consequences of their indulgence.’”

It might help, here, to recall that the attitude of the English towards the Welsh is analogous to the attitude of Australians towards New Zealanders.

Of course, somewhere, some self-righteous prick will now feel the urge to point out that categorising an entire culture as artistically null and composed exclusively of liars, thieves and degenerates is both unkind and inaccurate.  Of course it is.  But the kind of person who makes comments like that is generally unable correctly to define ‘plastic’, is too dim to notice the fine rhythmic control that Waugh exhibits in the dialogue here and wouldn’t even be able to make a start on why the two beautifully balanced clauses of the final sentence are so funny.

So, for the pricks out there, let’s have a closer look.

‘Plastic’ means ‘malleable’ or ‘flexible’, so we can assume – given the context – that the good Doctor refers to sculpture when he mentions ‘plastic art’.  Then notice the way the narrative voice breaks up the dialogue: “‘They just sing’, he said with disgust, ‘sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver.’”  Try reading it aloud, and then read it aloud again, but pause for the time it would take to say ‘he said with disgust’ (instead of saying it) before you read on.

Bingo – you’ve got the rhythm, and therefore the pedantry and the whole character of the Doctor in a flash.  And you should also have realised, having spent this much time on it, that Waugh is poking fun at a racist, not endorsing his views.

And isn’t ‘plated silver’ a nice touch?  Those sheep-shagging phlegm-factories of Welshmen can’t afford the real thing, you see.

And the final sentence?

Well.

Here it helps to have read rather more widely than the average fulminator against ‘racism’.  If you’ve read your Gibbon, you’ll recognise the cadence and you’ll have seen how the two clauses are elegantly held together by alliteration and repetition (‘deceitful… discern… depraved… discern’).  It’s a balancing act that uses consonance as its fulcrum.  You see the same trick used often and to great effect by the better prose writers in English – Jane Austen and George Eliot are only two outstanding examples.  And the Gibbonian rhythm is yet another dig at the Doctor, of course: who talks like that?

Arseholes.  That’s who.

But onwards we must go.

The Welsh were only a warm-up for Waugh.  Feast your eyes on this:

“‘I think it’s an insult bringing a nigger here,’ said Mrs Clutterbuck. ‘It’s an insult to our own women.’ ‘Niggers are all right,’ said Philbrick. ‘Where I draw the line is a Chink, nasty inhuman things.  I had a pal bumped off by a Chink once.  Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear.’”

You laughed, didn’t you?  I did.  Out loud and for a long time.  If you feel guilty I suppose you could tell yourself that you only laughed because the passage is so outrageous.  And if you didn’t laugh, you should have stopped reading this post somewhere around the first sentence – or just skipped to the last three.

But again, and crucially, there’s a point being made here.

In fact, there are at least two.

Why does Mrs Clutterbuck (and what a fantastically Dickensian name, by the way) say “‘It’s an insult to our own women’”?  Surely that’s something we would expect a bigoted man to say in unenlightened times?  And why would the genially drunk Philbrick, in this era (Decline and Fall was first published in 1928), bother to say anything that could be interpreted – however loosely – as being generous about black people, even if it happens to be at the expense of the Chinese?

It’s not so hard to work out, is it?  Waugh is satirizing a view of racial tension that depends upon paranoia: specifically, the fear that exotic men will seduce (if not carry away and ravish) all of your women.  But we expect to hear such absurdities from nervous and single males.  By putting the words into the mouth of a female character, Waugh is able to emphasise the peculiar absurdity of this view.  And good old Philbrick (by expressing the view that one foreign race is far worse than another because one member of such a race happened to be a monster) gives us a wonderful opportunity to laugh at the entire notion that a race should be subject to sweeping claims on the basis of isolated experiences.

If you’ve followed me so far, you should have no trouble laughing at the following, and appreciating it for what it really is:

“‘’Pon my soul,’ Colonel Sidebotham was saying to the Vicar, ‘I don’t like the look of that nigger.  I saw enough of Fuzzy-Wuzzy in the Soudan – devilish good enemy and devilish bad friend… I don’t see the race myself, but there are limits…’”

But if you’re still stuck, you might reflect on the fact that Papuans who fought with or helped out ANZACs in World War Two are still referred to as ‘Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels’ in the Australian media quite regularly.

What I suppose I’m raving against here, is humourlessness.  Which is a doomed project considering that any attempt to show that a joke is worthy kills its humour.  This, perhaps, is the final victory of the humourless over those who want to laugh.

Nietzsche said that a joke is an epigram on the death of a feeling; in doing so he anticipated the cliché that comedy is tragedy plus time.  Like so many of Nietzsche’s utterances, this one is wholly arresting, but in the last analysis not quite satisfactory.  Really good jokes don’t riff on deaths: they mourn them.

The unreflecting racism of Agatha Christie (or indeed of anyone else) is to be regretted: anyone who could write ‘I’ve been working like the worst kind of nigger’ (yup – that was Agatha) is to be condemned simply because they didn’t think.  But then again, all unreflecting writing is to be regretted.  It’s all humbug, cant and bullshit – pure and simple.

But when we start to censure anything that connotes discrimination (in the actual sense of the word) between races, we’re getting ready to kiss goodbye to art, as well as to basic rights of expression.

This is probably going to be the first of many entries I post on censorship and Puritanism, but the fundamental point for all of the posts will be quite simple.

It is this: censors don’t need to put effort into their jobs.  But critics do.

And anyone who doesn’t understand that can fuck off.

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13 responses to “In Defence of Racism

  1. I too have a plentiful Agatha Christie collection, thanks largely to the generous donations of the Adair library.

    Ten Little Niggers was also known as Ten Little Indians for a while. Here’s an old blog post of mine that touches on some of the themes you raise – but in a slightly less…literary sense.

  2. Er – where is this blog post exactly?

  3. A bit harsh at the end for those who fail to discriminate between the two responses, don’t you think? I mean, fuck off? Hasn’t ‘bugger off’ a kinkier ring? – and might represent, since censors are so obviously anal, a more fitting fate?
    But I’m probably last gen (or maybe even from ones before that!) and easily offended.
    The logic of your argument, however, is far from offensive.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Oto-san.

    I was worried about the tone of this one from the start. But this blog is more or less a play-ground for me, so I went for the rage on this occasion.

    I figure that the responses I get will shape how the writing evolves, and looking at subsequent posts I’m already conscious of the fact that they’re becoming rather more decorous.

    I hope.

  5. There was no censorship. The name was changed (and some content) during Agatha Christie’s lifetime and with her consent. So basically she was told that she had screwed up and for probably purely commercial reasons she corrected herself.
    That brings us to this : For all the flair you have shown in writing (“fuck off” for instance) you have fucked up on one of the fundamentals of being a critic, namely, doing research.

    • You wouldn’t describe telling an author that you won’t print their work without changes as ‘censorship’? I can’t see how her consent comes into it, frankly.

      I agree that I made no reference to the serialisation of the novel in the United States, (where, indeed, it took the title ‘And Then There Were None’ from its first publication) but it might be of interest to you to know that it was printed as ‘Ten Little Niggers’ in the UK until the mid-80s, some eight years after Christie’s death.

      I’m confident that my point stands.

  6. No sir I don’t agree. Censorship is when the society/govt, that is the third party, say they won’t allow publication. If the readers say we won’t read and inform others and appeal to them not to read an obvious piece of racism – that is choice. And when the publisher and the author know that the books wont be bought and decide to change, that is a purely commercial decision.
    Ten Little Niggers was the first Agatha Christie novel I read and I had become a fan of her ever since. I now regret reading her books because she was a racist pig till the end and I feel repelled by the thought of reading her even non-racist work. My daughter has started reading her books and I have told her about this. Of course the choice of reading/not reading is entirely hers.

    • ‘Of course the choice of reading/not reading is entirely hers.’

      Exactly.

      And those choices must remain open to us all, regardless of how ‘offensive’ the material may be to some. Hence my suspicion of censorship.

      If the semantics of ‘censorship’ trouble you, perhaps we might agree on the term ‘bowdlerisation’. Either way, if my post didn’t convince you, I doubt these comments will (and nor do they seem to me to be particularly fruitful), so I don’t intend to comment on this thread again.

      Thanks for reading, by the way.

      • If, however, you wish to keep the debate running, please feel free to email me at the address you’ll find in the ‘about’ section, and I will happily respond.

      • Fair enough.
        Thanks for the offer but I think I will pass. I too think we have said enough on this particular topic.

  7. I don’t:
    Sudhindra; the logic of your March 1, 3.07 reply, 1st para, last sentence, is surely questionable.
    author + publisher agreement = free press? (ie no censorship?) Cop and witness agree there’s no crime? Nixon and secretary agree there are no tapes? Gorky wasn’t compromised by Stalin? Whistleblowers are unnecessary?

    And all this without mentioning the most obvious, insidious and fatal type of censorship of all: the connivance between journo and publisher which results in nothing being written by the journo of any prickly pear value at all because she/he knows it won’t please. And not to please, is not to be published. And to agree not to published because you won’t make a quid(Not in this Press! Not in this Newspaper!) is not to be censored?
    This is self-censorship – albeit perhaps for commercial reasons. And Christies’s ghost was obviously very commercial in the UK.

    But self-censorship is another story: when’s the last time you told the truth to someone who mattered – when you knew that truth would hurt – or even cost you something? I know I hesitate and make ‘moral’ decisions all the time on such matters.
    Satirists don’t: they want to “Flay the iron ribs of the times with whips of steel (Ben Jonson somewhere). More power to their elbow!

    • allan,
      My point is this :
      Why should I (and many like me) read a book by an author, whom I detest because of my own personal value system? And why should not I say so in public? And what is wrong if many others agree with me?
      Agatha Christie connived with the publisher to please, as you say. But sorry, I did not cause it. She caused it either by being a racist in the first place, or by not having enough confidence in her own values. There have been countless authors who have not pleased the majority and have been published.

  8. How can one deal with tolerating the bigotry of close family members and friends . . . and not tolerating the bigotry of celebrities like Christie or some actor/actress?

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