Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Heart of Darkness (and everything else we've read so far...)

Heart of Darkness (and everything else we’ve read so far)

So instead of rambling on about identity and time and hollowness and T.S. Eliot like I planned, I’m going to take a bit of a different approach to this week’s blog. In the spirit of the final exam, which is coming up sooner than any of us would like, I am here going to instead ramble on about the relationship between Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and ALL the other works we’ve read so far.

Sorry its long, but its good review! Congratulations to those who make it all the way to the end!

Here goes! (Be warned…some of these might be a bit of a stretch!)

i)                    Conrad and Genesis and Kant
There are many allusions in Conrad to Genesis. Some are obvious and some must be gleaned, but regardless, they are there. One of the first that occur is that the river that intrigues Marlow and sets in motion his desire to visit the “dark continent” is described as being snake-like, and further, that “’the snake had charmed [Marlow]’” (73). This of course, can be seen as parallel to how the snake charms Eve in the Garden of Eden.

It is interesting to draw parallels between Africa and the Garden of Eden. If, as Conrad suggests, the parallel exists, Africa as “the dark continent” is also the continent of temptation, the continent that embodies the fall, but also the Continent that brought reason and created societies built around that reason. This struggle between the negative and the positive aspects of Africa are in a sense, also played out in Conrad’s book. Africa begins as this place of wondrous intrigue and discovery for Marlow, but it quickly becomes a place of darkness. Interestingly, it is the influence of “reason” (i.e. the insertion of Western Civilization into the “natural” way of life lived by the natives of the region) that made Africa dark in the first place, or at least that’s the impression I’ve gleaned from the text.

ii)                   Conrad and Plato
Plato writes on oratory. He writes on the use of VOICE to convey a message. Not only to convey a message, but to completely convince an audience that the message is logical, meaningful and CORRECT. Plato’s orator completely captivates the audience in a fashion, I’d argue, similar to Mr. Kurtz. Is Mr. Kurtz an orator? I’d say it’s kind of unclear from the text.  Mr. Kurtz himself doesn’t have very many spoken lines as relayed by Marlow, but he does have quite the reputation associated with his voice.

“’He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch dance in his honour’” (125)

“’You don’t talk with that man – you listen to him’” (128) “’He made me see things’” (131)

It is clear that Marlow is given the impression before meeting Kurtz, which is that Kurtz ought to be placed on a pedestal. There is much obsession with Kurtz’ voice alone, which is where the connection to oratory comes in. Again, I’m not one to judge as to whether Kurtz is an orator or not, but judging by the information we are given, Kurtz was certainly charismatic and definitely commanded large audiences with his voice alone.

iii)                 Conrad and Sophocles and Butler
For this text, I will focus on responsibility. In discussing Antigone, it came up that responsibility is something that is selective. Characters in Antigone do not want to take responsibility for more than they must, but is that really taking responsibility at all? If we are selective in taking responsibility, as in we only own up to something that others can trace back to us, is it responsibility or just accepting that you had a role in the event in question?

In “Antigone”, the title character feels that Ismene has no right to be blamed for events. Sure, Ismene may be implicated, but Antigone claims that she is not at all at fault. Also, Kreon takes responsibility for the deaths of his family members, but not for Antigone’s death.

The reason I bring this up in relation to Conrad is related to the degree of responsibility in relation to “civilizing” the “dark continent”. In relation to above discussion under section I; if reason and civilization is responsible for making Africa into a dark continent, what degree of responsibility rests on each of the characters in Conrad’s novel, and what form does it take? Does Marlow feel responsible for the darkness he sees? Does he take responsibility? To what degree is Kurtz responsible, and does he take responsibility? Is there even responsibility to be taken?

To relate it back to Antigone, what is the relation between implication and responsibility? Can one be responsible by association? (e.g. Is Marlow responsible for Africa’s darkness because he is a part of western civilization, even if he has taken no direct role in perpetuating it?)

iv)                 Conrad and Marlowe
There are so many parallels that can be drawn between “Heart of Darkness” and “Doctor Faustus”. My principle focus will be their parallel plot.

In Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”, the main character is drawn to knowledge in much the same way that Conrad’s Marlow is drawn to Africa. Both main characters see something which is within their grasp if they just pull some strings and take matters into their own hands. Faustus pursues this knowledge through dealing with the devil while Marlow employs the help of women in his life to get him on a boat. What’s more, though, is that once each of these main characters are able to get what they initially wished for and set out on their quests, they, themselves experience change. For both characters, the thing they initially wished for and the image they built up in their minds about their experiences did not mirror the reality brought forth by experience. It is evident that the reality for both Faustus and Marlow is a bit of a let down from the image they built in their minds. In Faustus, his power changes him and he does not want to accept the consequences of his actions when the consequence comes due. For Marlow, what was so intriguing and fascinating about the “dark continent” turns into a fascination with Kurtz, which turns into somewhat of a disappointment when he learns of Kurtz’ character.

In essence, Doctor Faustus and Heart of Darkness follow similar plot arcs that each, in turn, have something to say of the human condition.

v)                  Conrad and Bulgakov
We all know that Bulgakov writes some fairly absurd things in “The Master and Margarita”. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail. But absurdity also runs rampant in Conrad. For example, around page 114 Marlow begins to think of himself in terms of desirability from a cannibal’s perspective. Is absurdity included as something like comic relief for the reader, or is intended to communicate certain madness as experienced by the characters?  

I’m not sure that Conrad wishes his readers to believe that Marlow has gone crazy, but is it his intent to imply that one simply cannot stay completely sane when in such a precarious situation?

Yet another option, and the one that aligns more with Bulgakov, is the idea that the inclusion of madness is meant as a political or social commentary. Society is crazy! Politics are insane! Does it take fictional absurdity for people to realize? More importantly, by communicating this notion through fictionalized absurdity, do readers even understand the point that is being made?

vi)                 Conrad and Hobbes and Rousseau
There are more than simply underlying tones of politics and imperialism throughout Conrad’s novel. It can be argued that the entire novel is showing the influence of Western civilization in creating darkness in the world. More closely linked to Hobbes and Rousseau, however, are the smaller discussions in Marlow’s story.

“’The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much’” (Conrad 72)

This is how commonwealths begin, is it not? When one asserts power and dominance over another? I mean this quotation has more racial overtones than what Hobbes or Rousseau write about, but the principle is similar. The intent is even the same! The intent is to “civilize” the natives of the “dark continent”, not to destroy them, but nonetheless, destruction occurs in the process. It is to be war under the guise of peace.
More closely related to Rousseau, however, is the constant discussion of going back. Conrad references often the pleasantness of the past, not so much in terms of people, like Rousseau does, but for plants and other vegetation. As Rousseau calls for a return to nascent society, Conrad calls for a return to “’when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings’” (105)…okay…maybe Conrad doesn’t quite want for society to go back to “’the earliest beginnings of the world’” (105), but he does seem to speak of it with a certain fondness.

Looking at the effect of imperialism and how societies, both civilized and uncivilized, as it were, there are clear connections between Conrad and Hobbes and Rousseau.

vii)               Conrad and Trouillot and Carpentier and Cesaire and Walcott
I’ve grouped these authors because of their connection to Henry Christophe. Henri Christophe was essentially charged with rebuilding an empire after overthrowing one that didn’t work for his people. In the process, however, came more oppression and an essential remaking of an empire that failed to serve its people in the first place. Henri fell into a trap of remaking; in an effort to make a change, the effects were quite negative for the people under his reign.

Is this, or something similar, also to be seen in Conrad? In an attempt to civilize the “dark continent”, or to make a change in Africa, are the people worse off? This is an interesting question to ponder in relation to Heart of Darkness. It would seem that with the ivory trade and all of the slavery and violence occurring in the Congo is a result of imperialism, perhaps gone too far. It would also appear that in the novel, civilization has not been very successful. Rather, under the guise of civilization, what really occurs is control; control over natives, control over resources and control of control. Then again, we only get a glimpse of this in Conrad’s novel.

viii)              Conrad and Wordsworth
Here’s where I can talk about Conrad’s command of the English language. The first time I read Heart of Darkness, I was fascinated with the language Conrad was using that I completely missed the plot (I guess Miranda was right!) and I had to read it again, paying attention to the plot, then message of the novel. Wordsworth, too, has an excellent command of the words that he uses. In both Conrad’s novel and Wordsworth’s poems, it’s entirely possible to simply enjoy the words on the page and let them transport you to a fictional place while you read, but also with both, underlying messages are present if one cares to look for them. Actually, one doesn’t have to look too far because there are, in most cases, very blatant references to the underlying messages in the works of both authors.

Basically, these authors are both great because their use of language is superb AND you can get more out their work than just a good story or poem. They force you to think!

ix)                 Conrad and Austen and Woolstonecraft
Thinking back to the lecture given for the Austen lecture, the narrative structure of Conrad’s novel has some interesting parallels. As discussed in seminar, it’s possible that the narrative structure (being that the story takes place on a boat and Marlow narrates a story within the story) is meant to prevent the reader from getting lost in the plot. In lecture, it was suggested that stories can be read either for the plot or for the message, but not both at the same time.

In Northanger Abbey, it’s easy to get caught up in the frivolous storyline and miss out on the underlying social commentary. In fact, this is also argued by Woolstonecraft and her aversion to novels – the idea that more often than not, readers do get lost, as it were, in the plot and miss the message entirely.

I’d like to argue that the structure and content of Conrad’s novel opposes this idea. Sure, it’s easy for the reader to lose themselves in Marlow’s narrative of his adventures in Africa, being as it’s so well written and Conrad’s command of the English language is superb, but Conrad doesn’t allow the reader to remain lost. Instead, Conrad returns a few times throughout the novel to the initial boat setting, where the reader is removed from Conrad’s adventure just long enough to re-ground themselves in the “reality” of the novel and see the bigger picture that Conrad’s writing about. Those brief pauses in Marlow’s story force the reader to enjoy Marlow’s narrative, but also reflect on its underlying themes and messages that Conrad wishes to portray.

Besides, even if one was able to ignore the underlying messages for the majority of the book, they wouldn’t be able to read the last words without wondering what, exactly, the heart of darkness was referring to. So, in opposition to what is represented in Austen and what Woolstonecraft dislikes about novels, Conrad produces Heart of Darkness.

x)                  Conrad and Freud
So in seminar, we were discussing Marlow’s need for rivets to fill the holes in his boat. Freud would have a field day.

xi)                 Conrad and Fanon
Parts of Conrad’s novel show how white people are put on a pedestal by non-white people, which is a main focus of Fanon’s work. For example, on page 74, when Marlow is talking of how his predecessor was killed (how he earned his position), it is revealed that a native thrust a spear into his back, killing him. It’s what Marlow says next:

“’The whole population cleared into the forest, expecting all kinds of calamities to happen’” (Conrad 74)
The white people were so high on a pedestal for the natives that the act of killing one of them brought them fear that the consequences would be catastrophic. It’s difficult to say exactly how the Africans felt, however, because Conrad doesn’t really give them a voice, but it is clear from the text, that the white influence is dominant.

xii)               Conrad and Foucault
Foucault talks about the repressive hypothesis in relation to sex. Instead of silence, discourse has abounded, perhaps brought on by repression itself. He believes that bio-power has regularized and normalized sex, but also suggests that bio-power can be problematic.

Less related to sex as Foucault describes, is there something resembling the repressive hypothesis and/or bio-power in Conrad as well?

xiii)              Conrad and Hacking and Paine
Hacking speaks of the Looping effect of human kinds: the idea that people conform to labels while simultaneously adapting the labels to changes that occur within themselves. He also speaks of memory and of identity. I’m mostly interested in identity in relation to Conrad.

Did anyone else notice that only two characters were named? Marlow and Kurtz are given names in the novel, but all of the other characters are referred to by their profession, mostly. On the boat, there’s the lawyer and the director (who was like a pilot). In Marlow’s story, there’s the brick maker and the accountant. In Kurtz’ life, there’s “my Intended”, but no other names than Marlow and Mr. Kurtz.
This is fascinating in a few ways: what is it about Marlow and Kurtz that Conrad would name them and not others? Could it have something to do with the ambiguity of their respective professions? What is Marlow’s job, exactly? What is Kurtz’ job, exactly? It must be more than that, though. Naming Mr. Kurtz certainly, if nothing else, adds to the mystery of his character and helps to build up the anticipation of meeting him. And naming Marlow? Well he’s one of the narrators, but might it be more than that as well?

Then Conrad goes and adds things like this:

“’I did not see the man in the name any more than you do’” (97)

“’The name was as true as everything else in his life – and death’” (136)

According to this, it would seem that Conrad does believe that a name is somehow tied to identity.
Another fascinating thing is that the others are mostly referred to by profession. This is a common thread throughout works we’ve read. Often, when not referred to by name, profession is the next most common means of identifying people. Why is that? Is it simply because it’s easy and supposedly communicates something to their character, or is it more than that? How much does profession really have to do with a person’s identity?

The third interesting thing is that often when Conrad refers to a group of people, and especially a group of “others”, that the descriptor is a more general one, and sometimes derogatory. Marlow categorizes “Cannibals” and “Pilgrims” and “Natives”.

What would Hacking have to say about identity in relation to referring to those by their profession?
How will I relate this to Paine? “Titles are but nick-names, and every nick-name is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it makes a sort of foppery in the human character, which degrades it” (Paine 40). While Paine is referring to political titles, such as “Duke”, the principle can be applied to this discussion of identity. In calling someone by their title, or by their profession, Paine would argue that the act degrades their character. Is it Conrad’s intention to degrade each character other than Marlow and Kurtz? Likely not, but nonetheless, it’s a perspective worth considering!

xiv)             Conrad and de Beauvoir
I will wrap up my insanely long blog post/review by talking about women in Conrad. Conrad certainly does absolutely nothing to discourage women from being seen as “the other”. In fact, Conrad perpetuates it. Conrad’s view on women:

“It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over” (79).

This certainly perpetuates the idea of women being delicate, placed on pedestals, and living in a world of their own, worlds away from the world of men, but also writes as if men have a complete knowledge of the women’s world, which is not something that agrees with Beauvoir either.


I wonder what a conversation between Conrad and de Beauvoir would have been like…

1 comment:

  1. That was a tremendous undertaking, and very well done for a blog. I think Hacking might also have something to say in relation to Rob's lecture, that it is no longer possible to discuss this book without discussing race relations, or considering its precarious place in the canon. We have new descriptions, and so the act of reading this book takes on new meaning.
    There are so many things I want to comment on with reference to this blog. I'll just say, yes, it is odd that there are only two proper names in this text. I think it's important to reflect on that. Hopefully we can talk about it tomorrow.

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