His themes were drawn from people he had known or heard of, places he had visited or coasted past, and the storms and calms of the ocean. He had tried his hand at one or two short things before he began, while still at sea, to write the story of a Dutchman whose moral nature had been degraded through long years among aliens in the tropics. From the first, Conrad's imagination exercised itself not in the invention of incident and character but in the shaping and interpretation of reality.(9)
This tale promises not an "image of Africa" but a self-conscious exploration of imagings of Africa, the language and tropes of a cross-cultural encounter.
The idea of Empire
...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. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...
Since he was writing Heart of Darkness for Blackwood's Magazine, Conrad had a fairly clear conception of the nature of his immediate readership: conservative and imperialist in politics, and predominantly male. He wrote to William Blackwood, the publisher, in advance to reassure him: "The title I am thinking of is "The Heart of Darkness"- but the narrative is not gloomy. The criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilising work in Africa is a justifiable idea". The first sentence suggests something of the reliability of Conrad's statements in this letter. The second sentence, with its criticism of inefficiency and its apparent endorsement of "The civilising work in Africa", curiously echoes Marlow's preamble to the story of his own collusion with imperialism. Marlow describes the Roman colonization of Britain in terms that suggest an obvious parallel with later British imperialism, but he offers the disclaimer: "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency". This utterance, like Conrad's statement to Blackwood, apparently remains within the frame of reference of imperialist discourse. However, when Marlow recounts his meeting with the Company's chief accountant at the Central Station, the moral inadequacy of "efficiency" as a justification within a colonial context is clearly affirmed. After Marlow's praise of the chief accountant for "keeping up his appearance" (his "starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character"), Marlow's narrative reveals the dissociated sensibility that lies behind the accountant's efficient book-keeping:
...When a truckle-bed with a sick man (some invalided agent from up-country) was put in there, he exhibited a gentle annoyance. "The groans of this sick person,-2 he said, "distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate..."
In the Opening section of Heart of Darkness Conrad deploys various strategies in relation to the implied reader, the conservative, white, male reader of Blackwood's Magazine. To begin with, there is the evocation of "the great spirit of the past" by the unnamed first narrator. This celebration of British trade and exploration "from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin" constitutes what Joyce critics term a "reader trap". Conrad offers, through this anonymous narrator, the kind of nationalist history and imperialist rhetoric with which his first readers would have been familiar in order to lull them into a false sense of security at the outset. However, for the careful or experienced reader, hints of a different vision are suggested towards the end: "Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land". Just as the words used subtly subvert the narrator's confident rhetoric, the reference to Sir Francis Drake might also have reminded some of Conrad's first readers of a less than flattering article on Drake that had appeared in Blackwood's six months earlier, while the reference to Sir John Franklin's expedition arguably implants an allusion to European cannibalism at the start of the novella. Marlow's affirmation of the "idea" that redeems imperialism in his preamble is an even clearer example of a "reader trap". On a first reading it can lead the reader to assume that the story that follows is to be an exploration and enunciation of that "idea". It is only on subsequent readings that proper weight is given to the image with which Marlow concludes ("something you can set up, and bow sown before, and offer a sacrifice to..."), and that the reader begins to appreciate the psychological dynamics implicitly underlying both the aposiopesis with which the speech ends and Marlow's impulse to narrate the tale that follows. Marlow's assertion of the redeeming "idea" behind imperialism leads him into figurative language which subverts the idea he has been asserting. Marlow's speech breaks off. And it breaks off because he realices the implications of the image he has just used. Marlow, after all, knows the end of the story he is about to tell, and the story concerns not the redeeming "idea" behind imperialism but rather someone who, encouraged by the power-relations and discourse of imperialism, sets himself up as something for others to "bow sown before, and offer a sacrifice to...." Indeed, it might be argued that it is this image that prompts Marlow's story rather than any search to express the redeeming "idea". As in those gestalt drawings that can be read as either a vase or two profiles, as foreground and background change places, here language that is offered as figurative suddenly asserts its literal meaning, and this kind of unsettling of language proves to be a characteristic feature of Marlow's narration.(10)
Commentaries of others authors about the theme
Chinua Achebe's famous attack on Heart of Darkness refuses to consider either the text's dramatization of Marlow's consciousness or Conrad's strategic use of the distance between himself and his English narrators. Conrad is not presenting an image of Africa but rather Marlow's experience of Africa and Marlow's attempt to understand and represent that experience. Marlow is a fictional character whose consciousness operates according to contemporary codes and categories. If Marlow's perceptions are at times racist, it is because those codes and conventions were racist.
As Anthony Forhergill has pointed out, Marlow is "conscious enough of some racial stereotypes to turn them ironically against their white users", but he is ultimately caught up in complicity and contradictions at a cultural and political level. However, Conrad's narrative method (which Achebe dismisses) represents a more radical stance than Marlow's, since it objectifies and problematizes Marlow's narrative, his perceptions and representations.
The nub of Achebe's criticism of Conrad is the kind of reading of Heart of Darkness that sees it only in psychological terms: "Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the bread-up of one petty European mind?" As Achebe asserts, a psychological reading that focuses only on Kurtz or Marlow and ignores the social and historical context replicates the dehumanization of Africans that Heart of Darkness' critique of imperialism deplores. Achebe also argues that African representation in European writing, and that Heart of Darkness does nothing to remedy this. His history of the Congo is written from the perspective of European contact with the Congo and his narrative generally is firmly fixed within a racist and imperialist Christian framework.
Edward Said commented that Heart of Darkness exposes in the discourses of imperialism . Africa is not the arbitrarily selected backdrop for a story about "The break-up of one petty European mind": Kurtz's "break-up" is the result of his place in the hierarchically structured engagement of Europe and Africa; Kurtz is a victim of one of the discourses of imperialism; and Kurtz's history shows how damaging that discourse is to both Africans and Europeans.
As Benita Parry observes, Conrad's position was similar to that faced by anthropologists when they return to their own country to write up their research. Conrad shows his understanding of the parameters within which he was writing by mirroring them in Marlow's relations with his audience. Marlow's audience, like the readership of Blackwood's Magazine, is made up of males of the colonial service class. Marlow is forced to confront the problem of making his experience intelligible to an audience that readily manifests the limits of its understanding and tolerance: "Try to be civil, Marlow, growled a voice". Marlow adopts various rhetorical strategies in relation to this particular audience, and, as we have seen, Conrad similarly shapes his narrative strategies to a specific implied reader. But, far from purveying "comforting myths" (as Achebe alleges), the narrative strategies of both Conrad and Marlow work to subvert many of the assumptions accepted by their audience.
One area where this clearly happens is in relation to imperialist discourse and its antithetical language of "light" and "darkness", "civilized" and "savage".
As Eric Woods has argued, light/darkness imagery in imperialist discourse contained an ambivalence that proved ideologically useful. On the one hand, as this speech illustrates, it implies a moral imperative (to bring light into areas of darkness) and thus justified missions and settlements. On the other hand, it also served to consolidate fixed categories, a perception of "us" and "them". By contrast Conrad's handling of this imagery breads down this sense of fixed opposition and undermines the implied "moral imperative". After the first narrator evokes "the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames", Marlow responds to his images of light and darkness by observing "And this also...has been one of the dark places of the earth", Marlow then explains this statement by reference to the Roman colonization of Britain, where the "savages" feared by the "civilized man" are the natives of the Thames valley. The ascription of "savagery" to the other is clearly a projection of the fears of the colonizer in an environment and among a people he can not comprehend. By the end of the narrative, with the return to the Thames, it is clear that "darkness" is not something safely in the past, nor is it something "other". Instead of affirming the opposition of darkness and light, civilized and savage, Marlow's narrative works to destabilize it: darkness is located at the heart of the "civilizing" mission.
As Frances B. Singh suggests, while Heart of Darkness is clearly critical of colonization, and presents the Africans as the innocent victims of European greed and will-to-power, the imagery of darkness it uses as metaphysical discourse associates "evil" with the categories used in anthropological descriptions of "primitive" peoples. The narrative carries the implication that Kurtz's "evil" is signalled by his "going native", and that "evil, in short, is African". While the narrative makes it clear that the till-to-power implicit in the very idea of a "civilizing mission" is what leads Kurtz to set himself up as a god, the fact that he sets himself up as a tribal god reinstates the idea of racial superiority at a deeper level than the critique of colonialism. (11)
(9) ã A Literary History of England. The 19th Century and after (1789-1939)
Samuel C.Chew. Bryn Maur College
Richard D. Altick. The Ohio State University
Edited by Albert C.Baugh- Second Edition
London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.
1967- Meredith Publishing Company.
(10) ã Heart of Darkness with the Congo Diary
Introduction and Notes Crobert Hampson,1995
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
Pages: 24, 27, 28, 29 and 30.
(11) ã Heart of Darkness with the Congo Diary
Introduction and Notes ã Robert Hampson, 1995
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England.
Pages: 31, 32, 33, 34 and 35.
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