Printer Friendly

Two narratives of modernism in Heart of Darkness.

In Frederic Jameson's famous study, Joseph Conrad's fiction is understood as a contradictory construct of "imperfectly differentiated cultural spaces" (208) and styles. Novels such as Lord Jim and Nostromo contain discontinuous generic conventions split between literary structures of Romance and mass culture and a highbrow "impressionist will-to-style." In an important departure from Jameson's argument, Patrick Brantlinger argues that Conrad's impressionist or modernist style in Heart of Darkness is identical to conventions of romance narratives: "But the chief difficulty with Jameson's argument is that the will-to-style in Conrad's text is also a will to appropriate and remake Gothic romance conventions" (264). In his thesis, Brantlinger points to the contradictions of Conrad's impressionist style as it delivers a critique of empire at the same time as it "submerges" the critique under the abstractions of a "will-to-style" that incorporates older codes of racial representation. Brantlinger's essay assumes that Conrad's tale outlines a familiar encounter between self and the other that reproduces nineteenth-century racial binaries and creates a dualism between the aesthetic moral vision of anti-imperialism and the failure of this very vision in Heart of Darkness.

Despite the aforementioned point of difference, both Jameson and Brantlinger's assessments equally assume that Conrad's critique of imperialism is compromised by an aestheticism that either "derealizes" the material aspects of imperialism or accommodates a racist ideology, which negates the antiimperialist text. Contra Jameson and Brantlinger, I argue that the complexities that characterize Conrad's literary modernism create a divided narrative in which the relations among modernism, race and imperialism work in several ways. Primary among these is the division between the modernist accounts of Marlow's subjectivity and Kurtz's subjectivity, closely identified with each other in Edward Said's analysis (22), and their respective methods of registering the effects of empire and racial otherness. More recent readings of Conrad's novella mark a departure in the discussion of race from earlier critiques by Chinua Achebe and Frances B. Singh, in which Heart of Darkness is seen to contain "suggestions that the evil which the title refers to is to be associated with Africans, their customs, and their rites" (Singh 43). This solid localization of darkness is contested in Hunt Hawkins's argument, "The lasting political legacy of Heart of Darkness, more than any confirmation of racism, has been its alarm over atrocity" (375). Reading against the grain of the general formula of analyzing racism in Heart of Darkness, Paul B. Armstrong argues that Conrad's representation of the Other is not an act of racism as Achebe alleges, but a daring and deliberate exploration of the difficulties in understanding "cultural otherness": "Conrad is neither a racist nor an exemplary anthropologist but a skeptical dramatist of epistemological processes. Heart of Darkness is a calculated failure to depict achieved cross-cultural understanding" (23).

While most accounts of Conrad's politics of representation in Heart of Darkness tend to promote a singular reading of Conrad's modernism as either germane to an expose of imperialism and genuinely anti-racist or racist and weakly anti-imperialist, our understanding of the relations between the text's aesthetics and imperialism must take into account the diverse ways in which various aspects of modernism are shaped by the colonial encounter. In her essay, Benita Parry revisits Heart of Darkness through the critiques of Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul and finds them "inadequate to comprehending the novel's plural and contradictory discourses" (40). Against Achebe's charge of racism in Conrad's representation of Africa and Naipaul's defense of the novel's "totally accurate reportage" about the "world's half-made societies" (40), Parry asserts that the text does not accommodate such univocal readings. Parry, by turns, recognizes the novel's capacity for self-critique as well as its "racist idiom," (40) its "powerful critique of imperialism as historical undertaking and ethos" (48) and its simultaneous "complicity with the imperial imaginary" (47). Parry's analysis is significant for its recognition of the novel's unresolved dialectics, and while I find her study of the novel's indeterminacies very useful, my essay focuses more closely upon how the text's contradictory cultural contexts both affirm and deny the aesthetics of literary modernism. Thus, the analysis that emerges from such a reading refuses an either/or stance with respect to the relations between aesthetics and a critique of imperialism in Heart of Darkness, and argues that the compromised nature of Marlow's perceptions does not nullify the radical and unsettling critique of imperialism that emerges through the characterization of Kurtz. Nor does a transgressive alterity or self-difference within Kurtz, central to the narrative's attack upon imperialism, dilute the structures of imperial ethnocentrism that are employed to highlight the uniqueness of Marlow's modern consciousness.

The first part of my analysis argues that Conrad delivers an implicit critique of modernist style that unknowingly throws light upon the ideological underpinnings of Marlow's putatively fragmented consciousness and opens an avenue to critically explore this nature of the consciousness. Conrads critique of impressionism as a mode that can only offer a curtailed understanding of the world ultimately frustrates the aspirations of Marlow's impressionist narration. Marlow's response to the Congo and her people is unrelentingly dramatized by Conrad as trapped between a desire to articulate a new consciousness that is free of all ideological commitments to a stultifying Western rationality and wedded to the encapsulation of an acutely subjective impression, and his failure to do so. Thus, the cumulative effect of the explicit moments of rupture between the familiar and the "ineffable" in the text, the latter often signified by encounters between Marlow and a pathologized other, is to underscore the confinement of a putatively modern/ist consciousness to oversimplified categories of inarticulate wonder and nightmare, what Jameson refers to as "the naturalist psychic and narrative texts of daydreaming and nightmare" in Lord Jim (212).

The second part of my analysis argues that anti-imperialism as a product of literary modernism occurs in Conrad's construction of a crisis in the boundaries between self and other that leads to an anti-imperialist portrait of Kurtz. While it has often been recognized that Conrad's text exposes the violent and mercenary nature of imperialism, an attack on the unitary Western self as a means of imperial critique needs further attention. Thus, the trope of Kurtzs disjunctive subjectivity is shown to be the result of the social and political relationships of imperialist capitalism. Kurtz's altered identity is a disruptive critical force that compels recognition of the culture of imperial authoritarianism and rationalization and simultaneously seeks to subvert it.


I would like to begin my analysis by offering a more complex account of the relations between Marlow's representation of self and colony and Conrad's modernist politics. Marlow's subjective perception of the colonial world constitutes the fundamental feature of his impressionist method. Conrad repeatedly suggests the limitations of an individual's impression as Marlow's consciousness proves unequal to the task of grasping reality or truth that transcends the bounds of the European mind. The representation of Marlow's voice clearly indicates a gulf between his impressions of the Congo and her people and his transformed perception of the world after he comes into contact with Kurtz.

Below are the two narratives that encapsulate the distance between mere visual perception and conceptual intelligence:

I. "There were moments when one's past came back to one; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants and water and silence." (34)

II. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more.... If such is the form of ultimate wisdom then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. (70)

In the former, Marlow presents his listeners with a text that does away with the necessity for explanation and privileges a narration that only registers the comatose mind's perception of a preternatural landscape. In the second passage, the conceptual takes precedence over the language of psychic dislocation, as retrospect and distance allow Conrad to interpret the significance of his knowledge of Kurtz. Marlow's narrative seems to be on the edge of a modernist "turn inward" towards a non-material identity. However, in his account of the Congo, Marlow skirts the language of a new consciousness that would surmount the limitations of the West's experience of Africa. This projection of a consciousness enfeebled by the colonial difference it encounters signals Conrad's uncertainty regarding the radical nature of modernist identity, its limitations and contradictions in the face of cultural difference. Conrad's 1905 essay on Henry James contains his clear affirmation of consciousness as the crux of aesthetic value: ... the demand of the individual to the artist is, in effect, the cry, 'Take me out of myself!' meaning really, out of my perishable activity into the light of imperishable consciousness" ("Henry James" 13). In the same essay, Conrad goes on to point out that the "light of consciousness" (13) would help to "interpret the ultimate experience of mankind" (14). Conrad shows the shrinking of the radical consciousness under the "pressure ... of dreams and nightmares" experienced by Marlow and yet also returns to Marlow's consciousness as a site of revelation and insight into the meaning of life after his meeting with Kurtz.

Conrad's self-critique of modernism shows up not only the difficulties of achieving conceptual meaning when the consciousness is reduced to nullity by its perceptions. The critique, more significantly, underscores Marlows willingness to correlate an impressionist colonial representation with objective truth and meaning that is in need of no further justification: "And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. I got used to it afterwards. I did not see it any more. I had no time" (34). In his famous "preface" to The Nigger of the "Narcissus," Conrad states that fiction "if it at all aspires to be art" must appeal through the form of "an impression conveyed through the senses" (ix). He asserts that this splinter of an impression must arrest through the force of its particularity: "The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form; and ... reveal the substance of its truth" (x). Yet Marlow's narration is not impressionist in this special way of conveying a particularized impression that ought to, as Conrad points out, "make you see" (x). Describing his journey in the African continent, past the French colonies, Marlow explicitly says that his consciousness is unable to grasp a particular visual impression: "Nowhere did we stop long enough to get a particularized impression, but the general sense of vague and oppressive wonder grew upon me. It was like a weary pilgrimage with hints of nightmare" (14).

Although a correlation between Conrad's hopes for impressionism in the "Preface" and its operation in "Heart of Darkness" may not exist, it is necessary to recognize that the conflict primarily centers on the relations between the perceiving mind and the chosen mode of representation. In no uncertain terms, Conrad attributes impressionist technique to the artist's act of "descend [ing] within himself," and finding "in that lonely region of stress and strife ... the terms of his appeal" (viii). Geoffrey G. Harpham points out that in this manifesto, "Conrad is clearly struggling to convert his own painful experience of profound solitude into a basis for universal kinship: we are alike, he says, in being totally alone" (19). Conrad's literary doctrine of "the form of an impression" marks a new terrain for the consciousness that tries to bridge an individual subjective sense impression with an universalizable aesthetic form which would convey the impression in a way that "would appeal primarily to the senses" ("Preface'ix). In his brilliant study of literary impressionism, Jesse Matz argues that the impression's vagueness, ambivalence, and uncertainty have been mistakenly interpreted by generations of critics as impressionism's "range of possibilities" and a "mediation" of opposites (18), whereas, impressionism is "primarily indecisive" (18) and unresolved about the many-sided nature of an impression: "We will understand Impressionism when the impression is for us what it was for them (impressionists): a mercurial metaphor for perception, one that inspires and endangers aesthetic effort" (18). Conrad's statement that "an appeal" in fiction "to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses" ("Preface" ix) accords the impression the status of a worthwhile experience with profound implications for both literature and the modern consciousness.

According to Matz, for writers such as Conrad, "the impression is nothing less than a name for the aesthetic moment itself, a new sign for the old bridge between art and life" (13). One can then say that Marlows narration is shaped both by impressionism's ability to facilitate a modernist narrative that rebels against older forms of narrative imagination as well as its ability to undermine "written words" (Conrad, "Preface" x). Conrad extols the virtues of an art of the senses and its capacity to "disclose (its) inspiring secret," ("Preface" x) but Heart of Darkness underscores the inability of this aesthetic form to adequately represent the narrative's inspiring secret.

The "creative irresolution" (Matz 19) regarding the aims of impressionist literature that is embodied in this text is also inextricable from the constraints that govern Western colonial discourses of cultural differences. Conrad's deliberate exposure of the inconclusive nature of impressionism ultimately results in an aborted modernism, as Marlow's consciousness centers radical perception upon a reiteration of conventional rationalizations about the Other, and his desire to powerfully render the inarticulate chaos of an impression becomes a symbol of the threat of an alien landscape and her people. As we shall see, Conrad's advocacy of a subjective impressionism whose aim is to afford a "glimpse of truth" is thwarted by a consciousness that can no longer facilitate articulation or verbal representation, but, instead, regards its Manichean battle with the colonial other and the landscape as "unsayable."

In short, Heart of Darkness can be seen to signal a distinction between the ambitions for an idealized impressionism and its less than ideal workings in practice. Marlow's filtering consciousness is the chief medium for conveying impressions and the conflicted relationship between a modern consciousness and the impressionist mode indicates the complex dialectic that defines the relations between various modernist tropes; Marlow's narration insistently identifies a novel consciousness that glimpses the truth beyond the "surface of ordinary things," at the same time this modern consciousness resists the desire to represent an experience that goes beyond visible objects. Thus, modernist style or impressionism is blunted, subdued or deflected because it is mediated through a consciousness that is either overwhelmed by the world it confronts or is unsure how far it ought to go to represent a radically different other. Raymond Williams makes an important point about how the social and material world of the Congo is submerged under an abstraction:
   It is ... astonishing that a whole school of criticism has
   succeeded in emptying Heart of Darkness of its social and
   historical content.... The Congo of Leopold follows ... an endless
   substitution in which no object is itself, no social experience
   direct, but everything is translated into what can be called a
   metaphysical language--the river is Evil; the sea is Love or Death.
   Yet only called metaphysical, because there is not even that much
   guts in it. No profound and ordinary belief, only a perpetual and
   sophisticated evasion. (145)

Thus, Marlow at various times, invokes the other, only to capture it in the generalized terms of allegory or colonial ethno-geographic constructs and to admit the impossibility of a form that would render the specificity or particularity of this extreme experience. Marlow says that he avoided the temptation of a "response to the terrible frankness" of the other because he had to pay attention to the "surface-truth" of work, which would have been enough to save a "wiser man" (36). Yet once again "the mere incidents of the surface" rescue Marlow from discerning the "inner truth--luckily, luckily" of the "implacable force" at the heart of darkness (34). Thus, the African subject, in this context, is not the Romantic medium through which a break with older forms of consciousness can be achieved; Marlow's narrative of modernism confronts the Other with a strenuous grip on the mind that refuses to see, arresting the impressionist mode, until the other has been exorcized: "It looked at you with a vengeful aspect ... I did not see it any more" (34).

However, the narrative of modernism returns in a different guise when Marlow commences his account of Kurtz. The complex intimacy between them and Marlows pledged "loyalty" to Kurtz become the symbols of radical forms of consciousness and a new genre of modernist fulfillment. Marlow's narrative text repeatedly announces a rupture between the new conventions of modernism and the conventions of Romance and realism and identifies a modern consciousness as the point of departure for a new aesthetic model. Marlow's self-reflexive subjectivity marks its difference from older forms of consciousness, by highlighting its perception of a profound evil that is distinct from Gothic and realist stereotypes of evil and horror that merely reflect emotions attached to visible objects. Thus, Marlow frequently distinguishes the conventional vileness of the trading outpost Manager from the "ineffable" amoral force of the tropics and designates the sight of the severed heads on stakes outside Kurtz's compound as an experience of a tangible savagery that doesn't affect Marlow's consciousness to the same extent as other intangible and "subtle horrors": "After all, that was only a savage sight while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief ..." (58).

A similar instance of a dramatized face-off between a banal pre-modernist savagery and an ineffable modernist evil occurs when Marlow discovers the disappearance of Kurtz from his cabin:
   I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract
   terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger.
   What made this emotion so overpowering was--how shall I define
   it--the moral shock I received, as if something altogether
   monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul had been
   thrust upon me unexpectedly. This lasted of course the merest
   fraction of a second and then the usual commonplace deadly danger,
   the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of
   the kind, which I saw impending was positively welcome and
   composing. (64)

The greater impact of an "inconclusive experience" upon the soul is contrasted with a more "commonplace" perception of danger that is devoid of the moral insight that corresponds to modernist subjectivity. Ian Watt points out that the basis of "this narrative method is subjective moral impressionism" (355), and Watt's characterization is helpful in understanding how the narrative is particularly marked by a self-referential modernism. One of the issues that comes to prominence here is the rendering of a new aesthetics of experience connected with an interiority and a moral perspective that strives to go beyond conventional generic notions of villainy and heroism.

Towards the end of the novel, a preference for a modernist genre that corresponds to an exceptional subjectivity is announced with Marlow's move to foreground the more complex experience of knowing Kurtz, what he terms as "the foundations of our intimacy" (65). The latter experience is opposed to encounters with other ivory-hungry imperialists in the Congo who may appall but do not bestow any significantly new moral insights: "I had never breathed an atmosphere so vile and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief" (62). Marlow's revulsion, provoked by the manager's criticism of Kurtz's "unsound method," embodies, metaphorically, an intense desire to break away from the tradition of the representation of a banal and ultimately uninteresting form of human evil to focus on a subject who represents a new selfhood that can be understood on a plurality of levels. Marlows attachment to Kurtz's final declaration, "the horror, the horror" is the insignia of modernism which marks the excision of other European voices, constitutive of modern imperial culture and other Western genres of imperial adventure tale and Romance.

At this point, I would like to return to Marlows colonial representation to offer a more elaborate analysis of the relations between the latter and the larger context of modernism. If Marlow's narrative text functions as Conrad's critique of modernism then it is imperative to approach the question of how the politics of colonial representation overwhelms a modernist intention to cut ties with older forms of consciousness. The latter itself indicates the complexity of modernism as Heart of Darkness allows for a skeptical response to modernism's central trope of radical subjectivity and highlights the contradictions of aligning the trope of an alienated consciousness with a colonial representation. The philosopher Charles Taylor concludes Sources of the Self with an important insight into the nature of modernism's preoccupation with consciousness. A conventional paradox of modernism, Taylor points out, has been its "slide to subjectivism and an anti-subjectivist thrust at the same time" or the tendency of twentieth-century art to "go inward" which simultaneously involves "a decentring of the subject" (456). Through a study of the distinct differences between a Romantic conception of self and modernist interiority, Taylor argues that for post-Romantics "a turn inward, to experience or subjectivity, didn't mean a turn to a self to be articulated, where this is understood as an alignment of nature and reason or instinct and creative power. On the contrary, the turn inward may take us beyond the self as usually understood, to a fragmentation of experience which calls our ordinary notions of identity into question" (462). So, how do Marlow's perceptions of colonial difference shape the self-articulation of his identity?

In an important essay, Michael Valdez Moses asserts that "the Conradian scene of the imperial encounter," in contrast to Edward Said's famous thesis about Western colonialism's construction of the Orient, testifies to the "disorientation" of the Western mind and its failure to ensure a "modern European power-knowledge continuum that energizes, directs, and legitimates the imperial project" (44). The Western mind "finds itself at a loss, overthrown, confused ..." and experiences "uncertainty and alienation, radical skepticism, and intense critical self-examination" as the "categories of Western knowledge and power are ... unsettled and cast into doubt "(Moses 45). However, this fragmentation of the Western mind in the colony is only temporary and does not defeat the ethnographic concepts of difference and imperial power structures that aid European construction of the Orient. The modernist depiction of Marlow's consciousness, as the latter narrates his encounter with the Congo, emerges as an inadequate mode for a new kind of subjectivity. Marlow's "prehistoric" Congo resists modernism's attempt to make it signify the Western subjects new "epiphanic" consciousness. Conrad represents Marlow's experience in the Congo in terms of a complex dualism, one that registers the "fragmentation" of the unitary Western self as it confronts an extreme otherness, and at the same time is straitjacketed, due to an extremely narrow perception of the other, within a state of "dream-sensation" (41). Marlows claims to have achieved a greater insight into the non-visible realm are simultaneously undermined by a stereotypically elementalist description of his consciousness as "wondering and secretly appalled" (35), or, "captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams ...." (27). Thus, on the one hand, Marlow's consciousness is construed as modernist because he discerns hidden realities as he penetrates "deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness" (35). On the other hand, Marlow's desire to inaugurate the epistemology of a new perception is thwarted by a "counter-epiphanic" thrust of immobility, panic and incomprehension.

Charles Taylor moves beyond an understanding of modernism according to its "negative thrust" of anti-Romanticism and its rejection of the "expressive self," to explore modernism's "opening toward epiphany" as the constitutive mode of insight and illumination (488). In a penetrating critique, Simon Gikandi points out that Taylor's definition of modernism as an epiphanic moment of "revelation and insight" (31), achieved through close contact with the other, is inadequate to capture the complexities that emerge when the other is the "primitive or barbarian ... constitutive of the aesthetic ideology of modernism" (32). Taylor's insight about modernism was that epiphanic mode stemmed from modernism's realization that "unmediated experience" was not possible. Modernism sought to overcome this lacuna of European modernity by directing its formal innovations to bridging the distance between representation and experience to achieve an epiphanic "retrieval of experience." A choice between forms best suited to recapturing epiphanic experience confronts modernism: "What was needed was a distinction between forms which gave us experience dead and etiolated, and those which brought it back vivid and full" (473). Modernism's close attention to the "relation of form to experience" produces forms of representation, including impressionism, which make revelation and insight possible. The subjective impressionist narrative method that Marlow employs to capture the hidden reality behind appearances is bounded by imperial discourse on the difference between Self and Other. Conrad promotes the limitations of impressionism as a mode of unprecedented insight and asserts its curtailed nature as an individualized perception of the world. In his preface to The Nigger of The "Narcissus," Conrad points out that the inwardness of the true artist results in an impression that "creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time" (280). However, the other world of colonized tropical space fractures the aims of impressionism by rendering the paradoxical nature of Marlow's consciousness that has both reconstituted the material world of the Congo in terms of hallucinatory images and is at the same time inseparable from the objective world of imperial discourse and its perceptions. Therefore, in this dramatic relation between form and experience, Marlow's subjective impressions can only lead to a recovery of the older discourses of empire:
   Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest
   beginnings of time. We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an
   earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have
   fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed
   inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and
   toil. (35)

The above passage rehearses late nineteenth-century imperial discourse on the perils involved in colonizing the tropics. Much of the medical and social discourses on the colonization of the tropic highlighted the extreme difficulties required to transform it into a disciplined colonial site and, the tropical sites of Africa in particular were seen to present special challenges that undermined mid-nineteenth-century evolutionary and eugenecist optimism about the progressive march of colonization and triumphant survival of European races abroad. Marlow follows this "pathological atlas" by designating the colonial site as a primordial "accursed inheritance," that exacts terrible physical and moral costs from the Western self.

At a related level, Marlow's experience of extreme alienation does not accord to the seminal modernist category of fragmentation of the unitary self. According to Taylor, modernist fragmentation entails "the liberation of experience ... to the flux which moves beyond the scope of integration and control" (462). The paradigmatic modernist instances in which Marlow's narration expresses psychological distress, alienation and loss of epistemological certainties encapsulates the gulf between self and the world of the Congo, and not the "liberation" of self to the other. However, the modernist construction of difference is itself not an adequate critical model for understanding Marlow's motivations for recounting his experiences. The inscrutable wilderness of the Congo that engulfs Marlow's consciousness is in turn unsettled by the rational powers of the Western self. Marlow's description of the fragmentation of self is at another level an account of the preservation of self in the farthest outreach of empire. Thus, Marlow's interpretation of the Congo and her people is also an expression of the steady moral force of a form of anti-bourgeois Western reason. The latter is also implicitly presented, in Marlow's narration, as the best alternative to Western Europe's late-nineteenth-century culture of ruthless imperial greed. Fragmentation of the self in Heart of Darkness entails the reinforcement of "integration and control" as Marlow resituates himself in the objective, rational and moral context of enlightenment Europe:
   They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what
   thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like
   yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and
   passionate uproar. Yes, it was ugly enough but if you were man
   enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the
   faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that
   noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which
   you--you so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend.
   And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything--because
   everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What
   was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage--who
   can tell?--but truth--truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the
   fool gape and shudder--the man knows and can look on without a
   wink. But he must at least be as much a man as these on the shore.
   He must meet that truth with his own true stuff--with his own
   inborn strength. (36)

Marlow's overwhelmed consciousness stops short of the quest for an "unmediated unity" or a "merging with the other" (Taylor 471) as he substitutes the epiphanic possibility of a response to the humanity of those on the "shore," with a virtuous assertion of an "inborn strength" to confront the siren-call of elemental and primitive passions. Marlow's claims about self and other do not signal a "liberation of experience" or a disintegration of the "boundaries of personality." Thus, for this text the signal event of modernist epiphany consists in the unerring discernment of the path back to the center of Enlightenment modernity through the mode of an allegorical imagining of the other.

In his famous essay on Henry James, Conrad characterizes James as "the historian of fine consciences" and argues that such a fine conscience, in a work of fiction, is the locus of epiphanic insight: "It is most visible in their ultimate triumph, in their emergence from miracle, through an energetic act of renunciation" (18). Even as Conrad raises tantalizing questions about Marlow's "fine conscience" through a multifaceted notion of an impression, at another level, Conrad undoubtedly prizes Marlow as a morally consecrated self who can, despite his lapses, deliver an "authentic report of human experience" to his audience (Watt, Rise of the Novel 36). Thus, Marlow's responses to the Congo signal Conrads identification with Marlow and his moral distance from the primitive. Marlow's epiphanic consciousness in the context of a colonial encounter largely consists of a reaffirmation of the moral status of Western thought and reason which both penetrates the immorality of imperialism and successfully disengages from an African landscape that threatens to submerge all reason, restraint and tradition, as had been the case with Kurtz. Taylor points out that as a modernist epiphanic mode, an impressionist exploration is "precisely a retrieval of experience, which opens up to the easily hidden appearance of things" (468). The surface details of Marlows narration "can be seen as a veil hiding something more truthful or essential behind" (J. Hillis Miller 465), thus, seemingly fulfilling the aspirations toward a modernist epiphany: "The epiphany is of something only indirectly available, something the visible object can't say itself but only nudges us towards" (Taylor 469). While Marlow's narration is replete with instances that signal his insight into the "hidden appearances of things," an indirect experience is only represented according to older forms and stereotypes of racial and cultural difference. Thus, Marlow's wish to highlight a more profound discrimination among a "choice of nightmares" is compromised by his inability to find a mode of representation outside an imperial system's institutionalization of racial and cultural difference. Marlow can only render the antagonist to his fine moral scrupulousness in the terms of caricature ("You wonder I didn't go ashore for a howl and a dance"? [36]), and call upon normative Western categories of work and restraint ("There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man" [36]) to reinstitute boundaries of the self.

Although critics such as J. Hillis Miller have pointed to Conrad's "radical irony" that should prevent a "straightforward identification of Conrad and Marlow" ("Foreword" 7), Conrad's relationship with Marlow works on multiple levels, encompassing both ironic distance between author and protagonist as well as sympathy and identification with Marlow's moral vision. Conrad advances a matrix of relations between colonial geography and a Western philosophy of self, and thus, nature in this Other place becomes symbolic of the pre-modern, the pre-rational and of moral disease that both reinforces the authority of the modern Western subject and intensifies division and difference between Marlow and other Western subjects. The latter aspect can of course be observed upon Marlow's return to Brussels as a changed man: "I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other ... to dream their insignificant and silly dreams" (70). Modernism's claim to a distinctive treatment of consciousness then comes to be encapsulated in this horror and revulsion from both the other as well as from characteristics of Western modernity. Marlow's self-preservation is a triumph over the dangers of "being alone in the wilderness" and a much-vaunted inner change in Marlow is an implicit articulation and validation of a different culture of pre-instrumentalist European modernity and its moral truths:
   How could you--with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by
   kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping
   delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy
   terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you
   imagine what particular region of the first ages a mans untrammeled
   feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude
   without a policeman--by the way of silence--utter silence, where
   no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of
   public opinion. These little things make all the great difference.
   When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate
   strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness." (49)

The passage is remarkable for the way it urges attention to a transition from effects upon a Western self at home, fettered by the norms of a hollow modern culture to the self's unraveling when it encounters the "utter solitude" of a "prehistoric earth." It ends with the counterpoint of personal values ("your own innate strength," "your own capacity for faithfulness") intrinsic to an exceptional Western subjectivity that offers a surer guard against foreign invasion than the one provided by an adherence to morally impoverished and instrumentalist rules of conduct in bourgeois society.

Parry draws our attention to the paradox of Conrad's conservative imperial critique: "Yet having detached readers from spontaneous trust in imperialism's rationale, the fiction introduces themes valorizing the doctrine of cultural allegiance as a moral imperative which is independent of the community's collective moral conduct" (39). But the foundations of Conrad's "cultural allegiance" are constituted by an idealized moral culture that is critical of late nineteenth century bourgeois community's notions of morality. The essence of modernism in Heart of Darkness lies in this confrontation between self and the tropics that restructures relations between self, other and Western modernity. In her extensive analysis of the novel's "imperial metropolitan perspective," (22) Laura Chrisman persuasively argues that Conrad effectively reveals the "powerful material impact" Western instrumental culture has on subjectivity (24). Chrisman's study of the "interplay of the metropolis and imperialism" in Heart of Darkness effectively connects Conrad's attack upon imperialism to a critique of the capitalist ethos of the metropolis: "The text also displays a rather elitist tendency to detest bourgeois and petty bourgeois metropolitan subjects for their social conformism, psychological superficiality and existential inauthenticity" (35). The connection between metropolitan modernity and the global scale of imperialist politics is also at the center of Stephen Ross's analysis of Conrad's portrayal of imperialism. But Conrad's critique of Western imperialism is also nostalgic about pre-instrumentalist Western civilization, as Marlow's character exemplifies an aversion to passions directed by Western modernity's instrumentalist power structures. In the aftermath of Marlow's triumph over the racial other, the division between self and the social formation of instrumental Western modernity is also profoundly accentuated. Kurtz's greatest fault, according to Marlow, is a lack of restraint that enables the "powers of darkness to claim him for their own;" an evaluation which can be set up against the colonial judgment that Kurtz's absolute disregard for sound method had "ruined the district" (57). The distance between restraint and sound method points to the division of Western modernity into two moral universes.


The representation of Marlow's consciousness helps us think through the limits of a new self that is valorized by modernism. Marlow's alleged freedom from Western ideologies and conventional instrumentalist modes of perception comes to constitute the other identity of Western civilization and its values which have, according to Conrad, avoided capitalist reification. The role of Kurtz constitutes a radical and novel aspect of modernist critique of late nineteenth-century imperial capitalism. Interestingly enough, critics have mostly regarded the character of Kurtz not as a compelling part of the novel's critique of imperialism but as an example of the novel's complicity with the "imperial imaginary" (Parry 47). Parry contends that Kurtz is portrayed as a "heroic transgressor" whose indulgence in "material and psychic gratifications" is less important to Conrad than "a fear of the concupiscent satisfactions believed to be on offer to the European in a primitive environment" (47). In a similar vein, Brantlinger points to Conrad's "ironic" admiration for Kurtz: "For Conrad, Kurtz's heroism consists in staring into an abyss of nihilism so total that the issues of imperialism and racism pale into insignificance" (392). Thus, both Parry and Brantlinger conclude that the figure of Kurtz encapsulates an allegorical view of heroism which dilutes the novel's excoriation of imperialism's "insatiable greed." Analyzing the characterization of Kurtz as an integral part of Conrad's relentless exposure of imperialist capitalism, one recognizes the subversive aspect to Marlow's admiration of Kurtz. In his detailed study of Conrad's method of irony, Laurence Davies points out that "the compass of (Conrad's) praise is usually narrower than it first appears. Examples include Marlow's affirmation that, 'Kurtz is a remarkable man'" (227). An outcome of this irony is that the "economy of difference" that imperialism maintains between Western self and non-Western other are challenged and dissolved by the figure of Kurtz, ultimately resulting in the narrative's rejection of modern imperial culture's exceptional Western agent. J. Hillis Miller has come closest to capturing the inextricable elements of Kurtz's imperialist drive and his belonging to the "powers of darkness:"
   In Kurtz's case, the millennial promise made by imperialist
   capitalism, since it is hollow at the core, cannot be separated
   from the possibility or perhaps even the necessity of invasion by
   the 'it,' what Conrad calls the 'Heart of Darkness.' Kurtz's case
   is exemplary of that, a parable or allegory of that necessity. No
   imperialist capitalism without the darkness. They go together.

Although a penetrating analysis of Kurtz's function in the novel, Miller's study largely revolves around the unstable signifying power of "it" or darkness, and does not consider the critique of imperialism through the lens of Kurtz's complex identity.

Kurtz's immersion in the "peculiar blackness" of his surroundings is shown to be the inevitable result of his status within the imperial institutional structures of European modernity. The climactic scene in which Marlow discovers Kurtz's disappearance and follows his trail into the forest contains the most radical representation of Kurtz's identity, because it establishes a determined relationship between Kurtz as claimant to the throne of darkness in the Congo and his indisputable status as a subject of European modernity: "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz" (49). By this point, Marlow's narrative has also asserted Kurtz's renunciation of his Western self and a connection between him and Marlow's deceased African helmsman: "He had no restraint, no restraint--just like Kurtz--a tree swayed by the wind" (51). The rife psychosymbolic overtones in Marlow's description of his battle with Kurtz's "wandering, tormented Shadow" in the dark forest not only establishes the contrast between Marlow's heroic resistance to the "terrible vengeance" of the wilderness and Kurtz's irrevocable damnation, but also renders Kurtz's Otherness the formal product of the predatory ambitions of an imperial culture. The most striking dialectic in the passage is of course the interplay of Kurtz's profound estrangement from forms of Western identity and civilization and his continued invocation of Western culture's parameters of personal glory and success: "I had immense plans,' he muttered irresolutely.... T was on the threshold of great things,' he pleaded in a voice of longing with a wistfulness of tone that made my blood run cold. 'Your success in Europe is assured in any case,' I affirmed steadily" (65). Conrad's imputation that the greed and ambitions fostered by capitalist modernity offers a natural pathway to the primitive heart of darkness is also vividly captured earlier in the novel when Marlow reports overhearing a conversation between the corrupt Manager and his relative at the ivory outpost: "I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river--seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart" (emphasis added, 33).

The interrelation between pathologized tropical nature and corrupt colonial self contributes to the theme of a gradual elimination of a "radical difference" between a particular form of Western subjectivity and colonial other, that reformulates the limits and boundaries of nineteenth-century discourse of the polarization of races. Achebe points out that Africa is represented as a "metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European humanity enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? (344)." Achebe's critique while correct in its identification of the novel's racial ideology has also consolidated an approach that does not pay sufficient attention to the complexities of a representation that cannot be only captured in terms of cultural and racial binaries. Conrad simultaneously endorses and disavows racial othering and employs a particular perspective to propose a relation of identity and difference between the West and Congo. The identity established between the "profound darkness" of the other and the violent greed of instrumentalist imperialism, to return to an earlier point of this essay, also institutes a radical difference between late nineteenth-century Western culture as exemplified by Kurtz and Marlow's idealized Western civilization. The opposition between late-nineteenth-century imperial subjectivity and the humanist-European subjectivity of Marlow "who had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes" is negotiated through a representation of the Congo. The critical assumptions in Said's Orientalism are not challenged by the "Conradian scene" of the disorientation of the Western mind upon its encounter with the other, but by an internally divided Western identity and a reconfigured dynamic of otherness. Thus, Heart of Darkness's dialectic of difference opposes Orientalism's thesis about the stark binary between a singular imperial Western identity and a racial and geographical other.

Kurtz is both the arch-representative of a capitalist empire as well as its antithesis "who ha(s) taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land" (49). Voicing yet once again a fastidious reluctance to record a reality that would be appalling to a "fine conscience," Marlow angrily interrupts the Russian's account of Kurtz's veneration by the Congolese: "I don't want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz" (56). But in yet another instance of disorienting irony, Conrad carries through the echoes of Kurtz's adoration by the "natives" of the Congo when Marlow tells us that the latter's reputation also acquires cultic and fetishistic dimensions amongst Europeans and fellow imperialists in Brussels and Congo. Kurtz is envisioned as a politician commanding blindly adoring European masses: "But Heavens! how that man could talk! He electrified large meetings.... He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party" (72). Not just an "initiated wraith," Kurtz is also Europe's veiled identity enacting the dual roles of agent and outsider to Western imperial structures, an imperial subject who "had stepped over the edge" (70) and plunged into an intoxicating power. Thus, Kurtz's oscillation between self and alien or between the heart of darkness and the "vision" of "complete knowledge" ultimately comes to symbolize a modernist repudiation of outworn and corrupt systems of Western material reality and rationalization: "He had kicked himself loose of the earth" (66).

Kurtz is Conrad's cherished irreducible modernist subject who cannot be constituted by a singular framework of imperial subject or the absolute other; his whispered "horror" is itself an inarticulate sign of the effacement of the boundaries between the "original Kurtz" and the "hollow sham," as well as of the effacement of any distinction between imperial trade and massacres. If Kurtz's avid hunger for "power and success" begins as a positive assertion of imperialism, it culminates in a murderous absolutism or "savagery" that then comes to threaten the rational framework of Western imperial rule and its commitment to "sound method." In the narrative's acute perception of the jealous admiration and subsequent disparagement of Kurtz by fellow imperialists, Conrad unerringly identifies the hollow and contradictory value-system of empire. The conflation of imperial vices and primitive appetites produces a trajectory of subjectivity that is of overwhelming interest to Marlow as he repeatedly underscores the secret correspondence between a tropical wilderness and a hollow empire: "It (the wilderness) echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core" (56).

The dyad of imperial avarice and an ineffable primitivism that entraps Kurtz's soul is most effectively captured towards the end of Marlow's narrative as colonial rhetoric and the "conquering darkness" of the Congo are yoked together in Marlow's final summing up to his listeners, distinct from the lying idealization of Kurtz that occurs during Marlow's meeting with the Intended:
   The vision seemed to enter the house with me--the stretcher, the
   phantom-bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom
   of the forests, ... the heart of a conquering darkness ... I
   remembered his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal
   threat of his vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the
   tempestuous anguish of his soul. And later on I seemed to see his
   collected languid manner when he said one day 'This lot of ivory
   now is really mine. The Company did not pay for it. I collected it
   myself at a very great personal risk. I am afraid they will try to
   claim it as theirs though. What do you think I ought to do--resist?
   Eh? I want no more than justice. (73)

The passage's climax constitutes a moral "inward knowledge," the real fruit of Marlow's quest for Kurtz, of an intimate relationship between Kurtz the hollow and avaricious imperialist and Kurtz the high priest of primitive savagery. The swift movement from memories of the veneration of Kurtz by the Congolese to a remembered conversation about the primary fetish-object of imperial trade does not immediately produce knowledge about the connection Conrad wishes to draw between Western imperial desires and non-Western "rituals of ascendance and power." Nonetheless, the narrative at multiple points juxtaposes Marlow's dual impressions of Kurtz as rapacious colonialist and Kurtz as presiding deity of "dark" ceremonies in a manner that draws the reader's attention beyond a generalized metaphysics of an incomprehensible and disorienting otherness. Beyond the narrative's overt statements of a metaphysical or ontological darkness that encompasses the landscape of the Congo, her people and Kurtz is the skein of meaning that employs Kurtz as a pivot to achieve a correlation between imperialist capitalism and anti-civilizational otherness. However, the ambiguity of meaning does not relate to Kurtz alone but also extends to the Congo which enacts the role of a supplement as it simultaneously functions as an inassimilable and unrepresentable other as well as a signifier that gives substance to Kurtz's final words: "the horror, the horror." The Congo acts as substitute, antithesis and supplement to Western civilization depending on whether it is opposed to an essential core of Western civilization and the Western subject's (Marlow) vaunted values or whether it is viewed as an ally of the dark desires of Kurtz.

In Heart of Darkness, as I have emphasized, the modernist contract of capturing radical experience through a new relationship between representation and consciousness is breached by the persistent presence of nineteenth-century paradigms of knowledge of the other. Conrad's frequent depiction of Marlow's narrative, in terms antithetical and forgetful of his definition of impressionism in "Preface to Nigger of Narcissusfunctions as a partial critique of modernism and the challenges of achieving an idealized collaboration between consciousness and mode of representation. Besides this self-critique, I have argued that the text also demonstrates that the formation of modernism is filled with contradictions in its aspirations for new forms of consciousness and identity, when placed in a colonial setting outside the ambit of European modernity. However, the characterization of Kurtz as a self that "can't be reduced to unity" emerges as a more radical modernist form as it furnishes a new way of representing a critique of colonialism.


Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Heart of Darkness. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 336-349.

Armstrong, Paul B. "Heart of Darkness and the Epistemology of Cultural Differences." Under Postcolonial Eyes: Joseph Conrad After Empire. Ed. Gail Fincham and Myrtle Hooper. Rondebosch: University of Cape Town Press, 1996. 21-39.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Chrisman, Laura. Postcolonial Contraventions: Cultural Readings of Race, Imperialism, and Transnationalism. London: Manchester University Press, 2003. 21-38.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.

--. The nigger of the Narcissus: a tale of the forecastle. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & company, 1919.

--. "Henry James: An Appreciation." Notes on Life and Letters. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page 8t company, 1924. 11-19.

Davies, Laurence. "The Thing Which Was Not'" and The Thing That Is Also." Conrad in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carola Kaplan, Peter Maillos, and Andrea White. New York: Routledge, 2005. 223-240.

Gikandi, Simon. "Africa and the Epiphany of Modernism." Geomodernisms: race, modernism, modernity. Ed. Laura Doyle and Laura A. Winkiel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 31-50.

Harpham, Geoffrey G. "Beyond Mastery: The Future of Conrad's Beginnings." Conrad in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carola Kaplan, et al. New York: Routledge, 2005. 17-38.

Hawkins, Hunt. "Heart of Darkness and Racism." Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 365-375.

Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Art. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Matz, Jesse. Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics. Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Miller, J. Hillis. "Should We Read 'Heart of Darkness"? Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

--. "Foreward." Conrad in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carola Kaplan, et al. New York: Routledge, 2005. 1-14.

Moses, Michael Valdez. "Disorientalism: Conrad and the Imperial Origins of Modernist Aesthetics." Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939. Ed. Richard Begam and Michael Valdez-Moses. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Parry, Benita. "The Moment and After-Life of Heart of Darkness." Conrad in the Twenty-First Century. Ed. Carola Kaplan, et al. New York: Routledge, 2005. 39-53.

--. Conrad's Imperialism: Ideological Boundaries and Visionary Frontiers. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Ross, Stephen. Conrad and Empire. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

--. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Singh, Frances B. "The Issue of Racism in Heart of Darkness. Conradiana 14.3 (1982): 163-71.

Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

--. The rise of the novel: studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Williams, Raymond. The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.


COPYRIGHT 2012 Texas Tech University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Nayak, Srila
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Previous Article:Haunting and the other story in Joseph Conrad's Nostromo: global capital and indigenous labor.
Next Article:Conrad's incompetent secret sharer.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters