The Difficulties of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"
I just finished re-reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and found it just as difficult to read as I did in both undergraduate and graduate school. I am not quite sure why this novel has emerged as one of the tough ones for me, but I suspect there are elements in its distinct period language that act as a thin veil of (no pun intended) darkness that impedes my progress and understanding. I doubted whether or not I would even write about my re-read here, mainly because I have little to say about it other than what I have just pointed out. As a result, I have decided to type here my overly pretentious paper I wrote back in 1997. I wish I didn't have to retype it but the file seems to have disappeared with the many floppy disks I had to throw out for lack of a drive to copy them into my new computer. If the paper seems as incomprehensible to you as the text of the novel seems to me, it is no coincidence.
In Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the protagonist Marlow and the infamous Mr Kurtz act as bipolar extremes to the overall meaning of the narrative. One of the main reasons why these characters appear in such a disparate stance is because the different ways in which they absorb the environment around them; and, in particular, their very different interpretations of black and white. It is this difference in interpretations of black and white images that in the end proves fatal for Kurtz while, on the other hand, Marlow survives "the horror." The general association of images of blackness (dark) with savagery or evil behavior, and whiteness (light) with rightfulness and advantages of civilization are inherent in colonialist and imperialistic periods--one is rationalistic, intellectual, optimistic and religious; the other is sensationalist, materialistic, pessimistic and irreligious. Marlow is somewhat plagued by these periodical assumptions of racial and cultural disproportions, but in contrast to Kurtz, these assumptions have a very different result on the man who does not "want to bother [the reader] much with what happened to [him] personally" (5). Unlike Kurtz, who tends towards extremist moral illness, the unselfish Marlow is a Jamesian pragmatist at heart.
Marlow survives his experience of the darkness because of his pragmatic construction of the images he encounters in the jungle. His interpretation of the values behind light (white) and darkness (black) stands in the middle ground between what William James calls "the tough-minded" and "the tender-minded" approach; this is precisely what helps Marlow survive "the horror" of the alien environment he encounters (4). In contrast, Kurtz' extremist treatment of black and white, and his obsession with material gain represent what William James calls "the tough-minded" philosophy--a strictly empiricist column in the pragmatic stance (4). This paper will explore the idea that Marlow's survival comes as a result of him adopting a pragmatic approach, while Kurtz' demise comes as a result of his one-sided obsessions. Also, this paper will examine ways in which the pragmatic reading of Marlow helps elevate Conrad's novella above what Chinua Achebe denounces as a "racist and depraved book" (8).
The pragmatic approach, as per William James, holds that "[a] new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock. It must both lean on old truth and grasp a new fact; and its success... in doing this, is a matter of the individual's appreciation" (25). The notion of pragmatism in "Heart of Darkness" develops early; Conrad's construction of Marlow's morality depends on it. Marlow's inherent whiteness (old truth) accepts the African notion of blackness (new fact) without sacrifice of his European consciousness. For example, he objectively find the red patches on the map of Africa good "because one knows that some real work is being done in there" (7). And although Marlow understands that most imperialism is "robbery with violence," British imperialism is categorized and differentiated from French imperialism from the very start: "What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency" (4). The use of the term efficiency--a scientific term--by Marlow is further evidence of his devotion to grasping the "cash-value" of an idea without sacrificing the subjectivity of its truth. Marlow's statement defines in part the Mid-Victorian work ethic mentality. John Stillinger states in "The Mid-Victorian Period (1848-70) Economic Prosperity and Religious Controversy" that "[t]he aristocracy [of the period] was discovering that Free Trade was enriching rather than impoverishing their estates; agriculture flourished together with trade and industry" (895). While the first part of the Victorian Age was plagued with unfair labor practices and a struggle between manual laborers and technological advances, the Mid-Victorian period seems to have made a compromise between the rationalist and the empiricist vision of truth. James states that in truth, "[one] must bring out each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [one's] experience.... [T]ruth in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science. It means nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena" (21,23).
Marlow's perceptions of white (light) and black (dark) often transpose and challenge the traditional assumptions of the era. Marlow states that Africa is no longer a "black space... a white patch" on the map he used to daydream while a child, "it had become a place of darkness" (5, bold mine). Marlow's recognition of Africa as a "white patch" seems problematic when applying European cultural assumptions of superiority (whiteness as civilization). Nevertheless, the pragmatic approach allows Marlow to construct a yin and yang-like representation of Africa and Europe. "Yin and yang," states E.D. Hirsh in "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," are the "[t]wo forces of the universe... yin is the passive, negative force, and yang the active, positive force" (112). Thus, both white and black blend in Marlow's perception to yield an Africa which suffers an "uncivilized" darkness inflicted by European "light." Similarly, Patrick Brantlinger states in "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy Myth of the Dark Continent" that "Marlow is right: Africa grew 'dark' as Victorian explorers, missionaries and scientists flooded it with light... [and] light was refracted through an imperialist ideology" (185, bold mine).
The darkness in Conrad's masterpiece is represented by the jungle, which, assisted by peripheral devices, includes all of that which Kurtz' obsessions succumb to, and that which the responsible Marlow pragmatically approaches. This binary stance between the characters offers a starting point from which to argue for the pragmatic stance of Marlow. These two different "columns" are clearly depicted in James' idea of pragmatism. In the chapter from "Pragmatism" entitled "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," William James presents a model of columns which epitomize Marlow's and Kurtz' positions:
"The Tender-Minded" "The Tough-Minded"
Rationalistic (going by principle) Empiricist (going by facts)
While Marlow shifts between both columns during the narrative and ends up absorbing both, Kurtz' position aims more towards the tough-minded. Kurtz is not "physically" present for most of the narrative, but once the story winds up, the reader is aware of Kurtz' complete immersion into the tough-minded mentality. But Marlow depends on this immersion in order to realize his position. Donald M Kartiganer states in "The Divided Protagonist: Reading as Repetition and Discovery:" "On'y in contrived coexistence, in being situated as parallel [and opposites], can Marlow and Kurtz have meaning at all. Each protagonist mediates and reenacts the other, each is a tenor and vehicle for the other. Marlow appropriates Kurtz' adventure in the jungle as image for his own encounter with the darkness of meaning; at the same time Marlow submits himself as image through which Kurtz' actions can become intelligible--and in turn useful as image (163).
Possessing both the tender mind and the tough mind, Marlow's idealism and sensationalism are clear: "[w]atching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you--smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out" (10). In contrast with the use of the "efficiency" earlier, Marlow's use of the word "enigma" evokes pragmatism's constant pursuit of truth by using both rationalistic and empiricist approaches. James' proposal of pragmatism "primarily as a method of settling metaphysical disputes which otherwise might be interminable" again comes to mind--before pragmatism, all answers are possible (18).
Marlow's perception of the coast depicts a personification far from unfamiliar; it mixes the negative (black) with the positive (white)--the light with the dark. The coast remains unknown to Marlow, but he is able to describe the coast quite eloquently, and even ascribe a "voice" to it. Ironically, as the coast of Africa becomes more and more distinguishable to Marlow, he is unable to build on his earlier description of it. In other words, Marlow is unable to produce a definitive description that takes permanent position between the tender-minded and the tough-minded. The map of Africa on the wall from which Marlow develops his earlier constructions of meaning remains the same as he encounters Africa in real life. Marlow states: "Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent" (11, bold mine). The man-of-war is not, under the circumstances, firing into something as large and as dark as Africa hoping to impose its will upon it; Marlow understands this. Marlow's contemplation of the coast borders on a stream of consciousness narration. In "An Inquiry into the Good," Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida states: "The will often takes action as its goal and accompanies it, but the will is a mental phenomenon that is distinct from external action, and action is not a necessary condition of the will" (20). If the external action (firing of guns) operates independently from will as a mental phenomenon--something which could be interpreted as ideology--then Marlow's blending of both elements in his observation of the coast is truly an amazing pragmatic feat. The ship is firing at all that Africa embodies; the prospect of enforcing intangible European ideology (will) and tangible material gain (external violent action). Pragmatically speaking, while Marlow does not see the firing of the gun as an action entirely devoid of paradoxical absurdity, he is able to merge the empirical action (firing the gun) with the idealistic attitude (shelling of a possibly desolate area in order to prove an idealistic point) into one idea and abstract some truth from it. Marlow believes that firing the guns at the continent is absurd because one will never be able to kill it; but he sees the symbolic action to the whole affair. Along the lines of pragmatic interpretation, Anthony Easthope states in his book "Literary into Cultural Studies" that "'firing into a continent' is surely classic irony for it speaks of the action of the ship and the gun firing but, since strictly you cannot fire into a continent, it really implies a more general meaning: the uselessness of trying to subdue by mere force of arms a whole continent where millions of people live" (87).
Compared to Marlow, Kurtz' characterization takes on the proportions of a bestial man; yet, this bestiality holds an aura of sacredness to those who see Kurtz as a superior being. The extremism with which Kurtz succumbs to the jungle epitomizes "the tough-minded" characterizations of William James' pragmatist critique. In the article "Mr Kurtz, I Presume: Why Do Most Scholars Think There Was No Real Kurtz? Zaire Is Full of Them," Adam Hochschild states: "A month after the voyage [into Dark Africa via Rio des Belges] ended, Conrad--suffering from malaria and dysentery, and with his view of human nature permanently altered by the brutality and greed he had seen among the white men around him--quit his job and started back to Europe. He had come to the Congo expecting to find the exotic Africa of his childhood dreams; he found instead what he later described as 'the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience" (40). Kurtz embodies a "disfigured human conscience" and in doing so plays the opposite of Marlow's pragmatic driving force. In this sense, Marlow and Kurtz also resemble a Hegelian bipolarity; nevertheless, the synthesis cannot find a place in pragmatism because pragmatism does not believe in the triadic movement. While some of the traits included by James under the banner of "the tough-minded" are not--by any extension of interpretation--negative, the way in which these traits are applied by Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" can be seen as such. Yet, these negative traits Kurtz possesses hold a fascination for all the characters which speak Kurtz' name. For example, the harlequin states: "He [Kurtz] declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased" (51). Kurtz is beyond the rationale of other whites in the pursuit of ivory. At the time, the collection of material goods from Africa was justified even if the end result of the profit included the massacre of entire tribes of natives. However, because "[one] can't judge Mr Kurtz as [one] would an ordinary man," the action of killing a white man for the acquisition of material goods is justified. What is behind the fascination Kurtz imposes on others that, even at the risk of death, men chose to follow it? Perhaps the harlequin is a Shakespearean fool, in the midst of an irrational, desperate act comes to deliver the maniacal statement that turns out to be the missing link of the plot.
After his conversation with the harlequin, Marlow realizes that the fascination with Kurtz veers into the negative. The welcoming sign for Marlow as he approaches the subject of his drive and obsession is a set of "round knobs [that] were not ornamental but symbolic" (52). Pragmatism allows Marlow to see the factual objects (shrunken heads) as something with an ideological value (symbolism); yet, Marlow recognizes that "there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed Marlow that Mr Kurtz lacked restrain in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him" (53). Nevertheless, Marlow's obsession with Kurtz remains strong: "I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone--and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that experience" (59). These passages are reminiscent of another great literary work which explores the damaging effects of men who can exercise power over others, and the thorny minds of those who fall victims to it. In Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Ahab states: "What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?.... But heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! (592).
When Marlow finds Kurtz is missing, his words convey the voice of a pragmatist: "What made this emotion so overpowering was--how shall I say it?--the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly.... the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre... which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much, that I did not raise an alarm (59).
Much like Ahab's situation with the whale, Marlow's following of Kurtz is the result of the helplessness of his position. The protagonist's statement after Kurtz' death binds him for life to an image of darkness: "He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived--a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night.... the heart of a conquering darkness" (68). Again, Marlow blends the two columns and derives truth from it. From that moment on, the "splendid appearances" (tender-minded) live within the "frightful realities" (tough-minded) of the protagonist.
Marlow is tied to Kurtz even after the latter's death. Pragmatism helps Marlow survive the corruption that Kurtz' philosophy offers, but it does not help the protagonist avoid lying to Kurtz' fiancee. Does Marlow lie to Kurtz' fiance because at the time it seemed like the thing to do? As Marlow prepares to visit Kurtz' fiancee, he takes again into his absorption of the environment in order to survive the experience: "The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness. A grand piano stood massively in a corner; with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus" (68). Furthermore, Marlow's perception of "the heart of a conquering darkness" is a "vision [that] enter[s] the house with [him]" (68). Yet, the ever-heroic Marlow fights against the vision and wins with "an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to [him]... [he] would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul" (68). The protagonist realizes that he does not need salvation; he is saved inasmuch as pragmatism has saved him. It is Kurtz and his fiancee who need salvation. This salvation is in part non-deliverable for Kurtz because the latter is far gone into "the tough-minded" philosophy. Marlow realizes that Kurtz statement, "[l]ive rightly," implies that he himself could no longer do so (63). Marlow lies to Kurtz' fiancee, but in doing so, he is only exercising his ability to put into practice the extraction of "cash-value" of ideas in order to offer her salvation from what he considers "would have been too dark.... too dark altogether...." (72). In short, the "cash-value" of Marlow's idea to lie to Kurtz' fiancee is based on truth. "[A]n idea is 'true,'" states William James, "so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives" (30). Marlow's lie yields the most benefit--in his opinion--of a very unfortunate situation. As a result, Marlow's lie, in a sense, becomes truth. Fred Marden states in his essay "Marlow and the Double Horror of Heart of Darkness," that "by the act of lying, [Marlow] admits to himself that he is corruptible and, by implication, mortal" (79). But Marlow does indeed survive because, after all, "[t]he heavens do not fall for such a trifle" (72).
Pragmatism fails to elevate Conrad's novella about the racial criticism because, as a story-teller, Marlow fails to use pragmatism as a tool to rid the narrative of unfair, prejudicial stereotypes. As stated earlier, the inherent racism of the period sets the fate of the novella as propagating unfair constructions of race. This is evident in Marlow's use of sexual undertones connected to women and the exposure to the unrestrained darkness (black) of Africa: "Girl! What? Did I mention a girl? Oh, she is out of it--completely. They--the women I mean--are out of it--should be out of it. We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse. Oh, she had to be out of it" (44). Marlow's tone bespeaks an underlying threat to the purity of the "tender-minded" white woman: the "tough-minded" black man. In this case the columns are unable to meet; Marlow won't allow so. This is one "old fact" that Marlow will now allow merging with "new values," for the old European establishment would not allow him to do so. Europeans and Westerners "see Africanism," states Toni Morrison in "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," "used as a fundamental fictional technique by which to establish... unrestrained potency and degenerative sexuality" (80). In other words, everything that steps out of the darkness of Africanism does not come forth to share the light of civilization, but rather to corrupt it. Similarly, in her essay "Taking Tarzan Seriously," Marianna Torgovnick examines the abundance of abduction and implied rape of white women in the William Borrogh's classic tale: "Everyone involved in it--Terkoz [the gorilla that abducts Jane], Tarzan, Jane, the reader--anticipates Jane's violation, referred to, discreetly, only as 'Terkoz' intentions....' Scenes like this suggest certain rules: qualities like lust belong to animals and blacks, not to Euro-Americans, except when they are renegade, outcast; flirtations with miscegenation, especially between white females and nonwhite males, must never occur" (53).
Marlow's pragmatic moral inclination collapses after closer examination of his unbending "old truths;" they are simply embedded in his consciousness; he suffers from selective judgment. The protagonist is able to blend old truths with new facts, but the European tendency of holding old truths as only truths emerges in the end. It is not enough to say that pragmatism fails to show Marlow as a level-minded individual, or that it helps Conrad's construction of color borders against the numerous accusations of being racist; the defense of the text collapses due to historical racist assumptions. The overwhelming evidence is simply too much.
Marlow's voice is torn between compliance to the call of European "superiority" and compassion for all that he sees as injustice. Passages like, "They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom," echoes with Conrad's own perception of African conquest as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience" (14, 40). Nevertheless, critics like Chinua Achebe--who incidentally argues for Conrad's novella to be dropped from the Western canon--concentrate on passages which, in his rightful opinion, perpetuate the stereotype of Africa not only as inherently dark, uncivilized and savage, but also as "the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.... a place where a man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality" (125). Achebe condemns the following passage as utterly racist: "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.... a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stumping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heave and motionless foliage.... The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying on us, welcoming us--who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings... as sane men would be before the enthusiastic outbrake in a madhouse.... The earth seemed unearthly. We were accustomed to look upon the shacked form of a conquered monster, but there--there you could look at a thing monstrous and free... and the men were.... No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their now being inhuman (32).
Conrad's construction of color borders--which in turn represent the struggle between civilization and savagery--abandons pragmatism and juxtaposes European rationalist thought and African irrationality and sensationalism. In terms of literary formula, James Snead's comments of racial divisions in literature come to mind. Snead's categories could be used to determine how true Achebe's indictment is: "1--Economy of stereotype: This allows the writer a quick and easy image without the responsibility of specificity, accuracy, or even narratively useful descriptions... 2--Metonymic displacement: Color coding and other physical traits become metonyms that displace rather than signify... 3--Metaphysical condensation: Allows the writer to transform social and historical differences into universal differences. 4--Fetishization: Especially useful in evoking erotic fears or desires and establishing fixed and major difference where difference does not exist or is minimal. Blood, for example, is a pervasive fetish: black blood, white blood, the purity of white female sexuality, the pollution of African blood and sex." Using Snead's categories, the reader can determine that Conrad's construction of white (light) and black (dark) breaks well beyond the mark of the European racist ideology of the period; the pragmatic voice of Marlow is then left behind, nowhere to be found. The answer is then clear; pragmatism does not save "Heart of Darkness" from being categorized as a racist portrait of Africa; it only saves the protagonist. Nevertheless, there are more promising options to Achebe's extremist approach of dropping "Heart of Darkness" from the canon altogether. Toni Morrison closes her study of race in American literature by saying that [literary racial studies] are not about a particular author's attitudes towards race" (90). Whether truthfully pragmatic or not, Conrad's construction of color boarders lives within the confines of the author's historical experience; that is to say, he is not alive today to blend his old truths with new facts. Authors should not be condemned for what they wrote--further even, for what they failed to write; it is an "extraordinarily wrongheaded way of reading them" (128).