P.C. Runs Amok

I was directed to this piece on The Stranger‘s Slog about the Amazon.com listing for a new edition of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus that has been retitled The N-word of the Narcissus.

WordBridge Publishing has performed a public service in putting Joseph Conrad’s neglected classic into a form accessible to modern readers. This new version addresses the reason for its neglect: the profusion of the so-called n-word throughout its pages. Hence, the introduction of “n-word” throughout the text, to remove this offence to modern sensibilities. The N-word of the Narcissus tells the tale of a fateful voyage of a British sailing ship, and on that voyage the ability of a lone black man to take the crew hostage. The ability of this man to manipulate an entire ship’s crew can no longer be seen as a mere exercise in storytelling. Conrad in fact appears to have been the first to highlight the phenomenon of manipulation based in white guilt.

I’d like to say that this is shocking and unprecedented, but I really can’t. I’ve seen too many books, plays, Christmas carols, and so forth edited by the PC Police to remove any hint of offense. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has also been criticized, not to mention banned, for inclusion of the same word, which was common language at the time – and Huck Finn was most specifically “against racial prejudice, increasing segregation, lynchings, and the generally accepted belief that blacks were sub-human.” The publisher of The N-word of the Narcissus defends his global search-and-replace of a piece of literature despite admitting that it was not a racist tome. Apparently, he was simply unable to contemplate reading a book (or being seen reading a book) with a word on the cover which gave him the vapors:

…My motivation for making the change was my own aversion to its profuse use of the n-word, which hindered me from ever getting around to reading it. When I finally did read it, I was astounded by its message. Conrad penned a complex, modern exploration of race relations such as I have seldom encountered elsewhere. And it is precisely the use of the n-word which obfuscates that exporation, which seems to indicate a superficially racist story rather than the sensitive, indeed jarringly relevant exploration which it actually is. I have no regrets for creating this version of the book. Indeed, I am glad for the attention it has brought to the book. The Nigger of the Narcissus deserves reading now more than ever, deserves discussion, deserves pride of place on reading lists, and if The N-word of the Narcissus contributes to this end, it will have served its purpose.

The message of the book has been in no way altered by the crude hack-job of editing out a single word from the title and the text; if it was worth reading, it was worth reading. (Disclaimer: I have never read it myself, as I am not a big fan of Conrad.) The only “purpose” which substituting “n-word” throughout the document can serve is to encourage others to continue editing, changing, and diminishing our cultural heritage. We are standing on the shoulders of giants; and rather than be enlightened by the view, Ruben Alvarado has chosen to piss in the giant’s face. (Not to mention that some find “the n-word” at least as offensive, if not more so, than the word it’s replacing.)

I certainly do not endorse the use of the word in modern discourse (I’m not a certain member in good standing of a certain blog), but there are only so many times you can edit, alter, and attempt to “improve” upon the past before all you’re left with is the special edition of Star Wars, and nobody remembers who fired the first shot in the Mos Eisley cantina.


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