The Beast in the Congo: How Victorian Homophobia Inflects Marlow's Heart of Darkness
Wilson, Donald S., Conradiana
Writing in 1899 about the serial publication of Heart of Darkness in Blackwood's Magazine, Joseph Conrad claimed: "One was in decent company there... and had a good sort of public. There isn't a single club and messroom and man-of-war in the British Seas and Dominions which hasn't got its copy of Maga." (1) Evidently Conrad had written his novel exclusively for a male readership. (2) However, there were actually two male audiences present for Marlow's tale: Conrad's literal, predominantly male readership, and Marlow's "crowd of men" (3)--entirely male (from stem to stern, so to speak)--who bear silent witness to the narrator-within-a-narrator's discourse. These four men--a lawyer, an accountant, a Director, and the nameless and non-occupationally established narrator, are based on an actual group of cronies with whom Conrad regularly associated:
Conrad was a lively raconteur who used to swap yarns with G. F. W. Hope, W. B. Keen, and C. H. Mears on Hope's yawl, the Nellie, anchored in the Thames. Hence, the setting and manner of the tale's opening. Hope was a company director, like the host in the tale; Keen an accountant; Mears a solicitor. (4)
Thus, Conrad's literal contemporary audience is paradigmatic of Marlow's fictive counterparts. Marlow's first-person narrative is not recapitulated into a vacuum; rather, he addresses a clique of late-Victorian male Londoners. The intimacy and specific referentiality of this setting presupposes its own aggregation of circumscribed masculine codes, mores, and taboos. Himself a late-Victorian male Londoner, Marlow must account for the rudiments of this subtle yet complex cultural system as he attempts to illustrate for these men his journey into the heart of darkness. I will use, among other scholarship, Eve Sedgwick's theory of Victorian "male homosexual panic" to culturally and historically contextualize Marlow's discourse, elucidating how the "crowd of men" necessarily inflects and delimits his telling of the tale.
"Male Homosexual Panic"
Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) and Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle (1902) were published within the same three-year span, and both fall historically into the cultural context characterized by what Eve Sedgwick has termed "male homosexual panic." (5) Her essay, "The Beast in the Closet," posits The Beast in the Jungle as the prototype for late-Victorian homophobia-inflected literature. Although, as Alan Sinfield points out, the category "homosexual" (and indeed, its necessary, normative opposite "heterosexual") was by the late nineteenth century yet to be officially recognized, (6) the British gentry, as rulers of both private and public spheres, yet perceived and felt embattled by an increasingly crystallized--using the term anachronistically--"homosexual" social presence. As a result, Victorian men further circumscribed their already hermetically sealed nexus of male privilege and domination. Unlike females, however, the amorphous "homosexual" could not be as easily recognized and thus summarily exc luded from the male domain; indeed, that particular enemy seemingly came from within. Thus,
[b]ecause the paths of male entitlement, especially in the nineteenth century, required certain intense male bonds that were not readily distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling male homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.... [This] secularized and psychological homophobia... has [at least since the eighteenth century in England and America] excluded... segments of the continuum from participating in the overarching male entitlement--in the complex web of male power over the production, reproduction, and exchange of goods, persons, and meanings (7)
This pervasive homophobia, however, was not without cost to its male practitioners. The constant fear of discovery and attendant castigation not only kept self-recognized sexual "deviants" in the closet, but emotionally anaesthetized ostensibly sexually "normal" males as well, effectively abrogating their freedom to question their own sexuality. Thus, the "freedom" male privilege subsumed was of a double-edged nature. Regarding social and economic status, male members of the gentry and middle classes were guaranteed, at the very least, the prospect of upward mobility and affluence. Sexually and psychologically, however, fear of discovery on both interior and exterior levels had these men walking a very fine, very circumscribed line. This was the background against which Joseph Conrad conceived his Heart of Darkness.
Without question, Conrad was on some level aware of and forced to account for this acute homophobic milieu in his novel. Yet given the tale's potentially scandalous central theme--one man's ambiguous obsession with and quest for another man--Conrad had to proceed with the utmost caution and care. Nonetheless, he clearly intended for Heart of Darkness to be his most interior, suggestively analytic, and overtly symbolic and psychological novel to date. Indeed, Marlow's fervent desire to meet Kurtz, as well as the exact nature of "the honor" he encounters within the Congo, are never explicitly delineated within the text. Sedgwick posits that the burgeoning Modernist predilection for elision was a principal means by which male homosexual content could be repressed in texts, for "at the threshold of the new century, the possibility of an embodied male-homosexual thematics has ... a precisely liminal presence. It is present as a--as a very particular, historicized --thematics of absence, and specifically of the abs ence of speech" (Epistemology 201). Conrad, who along with James penned his tale at the incipiency of the Modernist period, indeed integrates in the text a "thematics of absence," as well as a pervasive nebulousness. Note the prevalence of phrases denoting absence and/or indeterminacy throughout Heart of Darkness: "a thing monstrous and free" (37), "unspeakable secrets ... unseen presence ... impenetrable night" (62), "muffled shocks ... weird incantation ... strange narcotic effect ... mysterious frenzy... bewildered wonder ... blank fright ... abstract terror ... unconnected with any distinct shape," "something altogether monstrous" (63), "some vague notion ... [Kurtz,] indistinct like a vapor ... munnur of many voices" (64), "vague sounds," "monstrous passions" (65), "inconceivable mystery" (66), "[Kurtz's] was an impenetrable darkness" (68), "outside it was beastly, beastly dark" ... "impalpable grayness" (69). The thematic correlation and similarity in diction with The Beast in the Jungle is eerily strik ing: "The thing," (8) "a mysterious fate" (285), "the void" (291), "strange ... the oddest oddity ... his long riddle ... I don't focus it. I can't name it ... the abyss" (295), "the great vagueness.., what monstrosity" (296), "dreadful things ... I couldn't name" (297), "honors" (298), "the thing that I've never said ... [something] more monstrous than all the monstrosities we've named" (299), "[Marcher's] fortune, impenetrably muffled and masked" (307).
The connection between James's metaphorical "jungle" and Conrad's literal Congo wilderness is fundamental and inescapable; both are mysterious, uncharted, and impenetrable realms representing a lack of definitive structure and/or organization. James's (Marcher's) "Jungle," in which "something or other lay in walt for him ... like a beast crouching [emphasis mine]" (287) obscures, in Sedgwick's reading, the indeterminate "something" that is in fact an absence of heterosexuality, an ambiguous space which she claims is at least "homosexually tinged" (Epistemology 205). Conrad's (Marlow's) 'jungle" is the Congo itself, which "seemed to beckon with a dishonoring flourish ... a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart [emphasis mine]" (HD 35). In stark contrast to "civilized" Victorian London society, in which social codes and mores (especially regarding sexual conduct) are rigidly prescribed and enforced, the jungles of Africa conceal their own "beast"--th e ungovernable wilderness, wherein Marlow is forced to acknowledge the existence of "certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites" (50). Conrad's imperialist "knowledge" of "the horrors" of the jungle, which he shares with both his contemporary fictional and literal male audiences, offers the reader an implied (at best) understanding of what this nebulous "horror" actually represents--"the thought of [the native's] humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly" (38). This distinctly imperialist "horror" of a possible kinship with heathens subsumes all the manifest acts of barbarism which Marlow's discourse reveals: heads impaled on stakes, human sacrifice and cannibalism, native death squads, etc. Yet, to borrow Sedgwick's terminology, Conrad's implicit appeal to his male comrades--"We [Men] Know What That [the "horror" of the jungle] Means" (i.e., overt acts of "uncivilized" brutality and savagery)--fails to provide a definitive reference for the allusions to the "indistinct" and "unspeakable" aspects of the jungle which pervade the text. Based on the sheer number of such allusions, as well as their complete lack of a referent within the text, I would argue that the significance of the textual "abyss" these references engender reaches beyond a Modernist formal gesture on Conrad's part. Indeed, I will show that although he leaves much of the narrative open for analysis and interpretation, Conrad remains extraordinarily mindful of his homophobic male audience by defusing and explaining away any sexually ambiguous and risque statements, homosexual innuendo, or double-entendres during Marlow's highly abstruse discourse. This practice of selective omission and abjuration opens the narrative to the following questions: does the anarchic depravity of the jungle and all its "unspeakable rites" resonate for Marlow with homoerotic overtones? What, if anything, did Marlow encounter within the Congo and indeed, within himself? Could such "unspeakable secrets" (6 2), resulting in "pure abstract terror" (63), possibly have been tinged with homoeroticism, causing Marlow to react in a fashion commensurate with that of a Victorian homophobic Londoner?
An explication of Conrad's fundamental role in this discourse, vis-a-vis his literary creation Charlie Marlow, exemplifies a pattern of homophobic disclosure/refutation. Viewed in Sedgwick' s Victorian homophobic context, the "relationship" between Conrad and the fictional-and highly recondite--Marlow is certainly problematic. The pair share too many essential congruities not to be potentially equated with one another by many of Conrad's readers. Both are veteran seamen who experienced the "horrors" of the Congo firsthand; both are known storytellers (we are informed of Marlow's "propensity to spin yams" ); and perhaps most importantly, both are white males who call the British Isles home. It is not my intention, of course, to summarily conflate the two; however, given these crucial similarities, and in light of their shared Victorian homophobic milieu, Conrad must certainly have been aware of Marlow's ostensible role as his literary representative. With these factors in mind, Conrad would certainly have had to be vigilant in maintaining a level of propriety in his character commensurate with his conservative epoch. Conrad's 1917 Author's Note to Heart of Darkness makes clear that there exists between character and author a very strong and lasting bond of friendship: "[The] story marks the first appearance in the world of the man Marlow, with whom my relations have grown very intimate in the course of years [emphasis mine]" (3). Yet, as the text will show of Marlow himself, Conrad is careful to follow statements alleging "intimacy" between two men with explanatory assertions:
The origins of that gentleman [Marlow] (nobody has far as I know has ever hinted that he was anything but that)--his origins have been the subject of some literary speculation of, I am glad to say, a friendly nature.... It is pleasant to remember that nobody has charged him with fraudulent purposes or looked down on him as a charlatan.
Beyond his "intimate" association with the tale's narrator (inside-a-narrator), Conrad readily admits the autobiographical nature of Heart of Darkness: "the story is mainly a vehicle for conveying a batch of personal impressions" (x). If Conrad's journey paralleled Marlow's to a significant extent, then the author's literal voyage may well have involved a great deal of introspection and attendant self-examination ("I had plenty of time for meditation"  Marlow explains). Early in the novel, Marlow states that the Congo expedition was to him
the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me--and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough too--and pitiful--not extraordinary in any way--not very clear either. No. Not very clear. (11)
This passage makes clear that the journey "seemed to throw a kind of light... into [Marlow's] thoughts," yet what is originally depicted as an epiphanic moment is swiftly obfuscated by the statement "[it was] not very clear either. No. Not very clear." Once again, the exact significance of Marlow' s profound "illumination" is never delineated via a textual referent. Does Marlow's unnamed fictive revelation stem from a literal occurrence experienced by Conrad in the Congo? Furthermore, did this wilderness experience render the imperialist (and given his standing and cultural milieu, likely homophobic) Conrad frightfully uncertain as to his sexual identity, only to return him to a society in which sexual preference (via the heterosexual imperative) was preordained and rigidly enforced? Little is known of Conrad's sexual activities abroad, yet Ronald Hyam' s claim that the imperial field provided male Britons with the chance to observe (and practice) a variety of "deviant" activities forbidden at home does invit e a certain amount of speculation. Indeed, these deviant activities frequently were of a homoerotic nature, for the imperial realm featured "a built-in tint towards same-sex activity, because the empire was often an ideal arena for the practice of sexual variation" (5-6). (9) Of course, it is impossible to know whether or not Conrad's Congo experiences were of a homosexual nature, nor are these truths ultimately essential to this discussion. What we do have is the text, and the text alone characterizes Conrad's "intimate" friend Marlow as unwilling and/or unable to divulge to both his male comrades and himself the precise nature of his "sombre" discovery.
Conrad chooses not to begin the tale in complete moral and ethical alignment with Marlow; the subtle yet unseemly nature of the coming jungle narrative (and the lurid light it might cast over Marlow) demands a distance between the two. Thus, we are introduced to Marlow, via Conrad's first-person narrator, as an outsider in relation to the circle: "The worst that could be said of [Marlow] was that he did not represent his class. He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer too" (HD 9). From this statement, and the narrator's solely occupational description of the other men on hand, we gather that Marlow is anomalous both because he cannot be reduced to a mere occupational epithet (and thus cannot be readily identified in terms of class rank), and because he refuses to put down solid roots in the imperial Motherland. These dubious distinctions exhibit a lack of respect by Marlow for the very patriarchal system which offers both himself and his audience affluence and prosperity. Another fundamental asymmetry between Marlow and the men is his proficiency at storytelling, marked by an extraordinary eloquence (compared to that of his monosyllabic listeners--"[Marlow's] remark] was accepted in silence. No one took the trouble to grunt even")--and a predilection for complex and convoluted narratives. "The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical." Again, Marlow works against type; the "ideal" sailor adheres to a rugged masculine code of unpretentiousness and inarticulateness. The narrator, well familiar with Marlow's trademark introspection and abstruseness, is noticeably agitated by these bothersome idiosyncrasies, exclaiming: "we knew we were fated ... to hear about one of Marlow' s inconclusive experiences" (11).
According to Sedgwick, Victorian males were motivated by constant fear of the stigma of the ambiguous sexual "other," for during the Victorian era, men may "enter into adult masculine entitlement only through acceding to the permanent threat that the small space they have cleared for themselves on this terrain may always, just as arbitrarily and with just as much justification, be foreclosed" (Epistemology 186). Although he is presented as an enigmatic outsider to the circle, Marlow is a male Victorian Londoner, and he thereby endeavors--quite demonstrably--to strengthen the "intense male bond" (185) he shares with his fellow men. In his discourse on the history of imperialism, Marlow extols the bravery and intrepidity of Britain's Dark Age (male) Roman settlers; "Oh, yes-he did it....They were men enough to face the darkness....He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible which is also detestable" (HD 10). Indeed, the paragraph cited includes a total of fifteen masculine pronoun references. As Marlow progresses through history to contemporary British imperialism, his bid for kinship expands to include not just shared masculinity, but nationality: "Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this. What saves us is efficiency [emphasis mine]." Marlow's unflattering delineation of contemporary imperialism--a concept that, to those implicated in its advancement, can hardly bear explication--is itself a hazardous venture considering the patriarchal party for whom it is intended: "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." Note, however, how Marlow accentuates imperialism's inherent strengths by gendering it masculine--or rather, non-feminine: "[Imperialism] is not a pretty thing;" "What redeems it is... [a]n idea at the back of it, not a sentimental pretence but an idea;... something you can... bow down before, and offer sacrifice to [emphasis mine]." E ssentially, Marlow employs imperialism's more undesirable aspects as a pretext for increased masculine solidarity; "we British men do the world's dirty work because we know what's in the best interests for all."
Marlow's efforts to gain acceptance within the circle of males are typified by ever-increasing subtlety and craft. Reminiscing on his passage to Africa, Marlow recounts his "isolation amongst all these men with whom [he] had no point of contact" (17). The implication here is that Marlow failed to achieve the same level of camaraderie with those strange men which, now, among "brothers," allows him to recapitulate the darkest, most intimate (and therefore potentially compromising) epoch of his life. Subsequently, Marlow taps into the shared masculine and nationalist ideology of his "brethren" when he emasculates the French he encounters along the coast of Africa:
It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign drooped limp like a rag, the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the tow hull, the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts.... Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a smelt flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech-and nothing happened. Nothing could happen [emphasis mine].
Interestingly, Conrad's original manuscript described the guns as ten inches in length. (10) When Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwood's Magazine, Conrad dropped the length to eight inches. When published in the Youth collection in 1902, the length decreased yet again to six inches, where it remained. Incorporated with the overall phallic metaphor ("drooped limp as a rag," "thin masts," "tiny projectile"), Conrad's gradual arms reduction reflects Marlow's desire to gain the acceptance of his immediate male circle by belittling males not part of the closed group. To this end, Marlow contrasts his own masculine (or rather--once again--non-feminine) pugilistic faculties with those of the impotent French: "You know I am not particularly tender: I've had to strike and to fend off. I've had to resist and to attack sometimes... according to the demands of such sort of life as I had blundered into [emphasis mine]" (19). Marlow's reliance on the men's tacit understanding of "the demands of such sort of life" manife stly portrays his feelings of security within the group; yet his recurrent personal appeals to the listeners ("you know")--especially those connected to questions about his masculinity-resonate strongly with anxiety and/or uncertainty regarding their conception and acceptance of his "normative" sexual identity.
Marlow has adequate reason to suspect the sentiments of his audience; they are, upon occasion, vocal in their objections to the tale. While describing his "horrible" realization of a kinship with the African natives, Marlow covers a sign of weakness (repulsion caused by the howl of the native) by pontificating on the superiority of men:
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 And why not? The mind of a man is capable of anything... Let the fool gape and shudder--the man knows and can look on without a wink.... He must meet the truth with his own true stuff--with his own inborn strength [emphasis mine]. (38)
Marlow contrasts the innate male inclination toward (and code-governed duty to accept) the "frankness" of the colonial experience with his previous discourse on his aunt's prototypically feminine and fragile dream world. However, Marlow--in many ways an "other" to the group--defines masculinity to the men, a subversion of power within the circle which elicits an immediate response: "Who's that grunting? You wonder I didn't go ashore for a howl and a dance? Well, no--I didn't. Fine sentiments, you say? Fine sentiments be hanged!" Conrad, working through Marlow, exhibits an acute awareness of both literal and fictive male audiences, as evidenced by this and other such interjections by the listeners throughout the text. The presumption here is that masculinity is the bedrock of British imperialist culture; thus, anything deemed eccentric and/or outside this sphere would be by definition marginalized. Skillfully employing outbursts of incredulity by Marlow's listeners, followed by furious counteroffensive fulmina tion by Marlow, Conrad strengthens his character's coveted status as a "normally" sexually oriented male. The audience's immediate silence indicates the success of this tactic. In this particular exchange, Marlow gains a newfound masculine aggression from his confrontation with the mates. To submit to their authority now could prove irreparably damaging; instead, Marlow faithfully appeals to a masculine standard apparently shared by all "real" men--the innate ability and fervent desire to work with one's hands--the call to maintenance.
I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead and strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes--I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man.
Marlow uses similar tactics in a subsequent exchange with the men. When one objects to his somewhat effeminate display of grief, Marlow refuses to submit to the challenger. Instead of employing circumlocution in an attempt to reason his way back into their graces, Marlow strikes at the men below the belt (so to speak), undercutting their own sense of masculinity:
"Absurd!" he cried. "This is the worst of trying to tell. Here you are all moored with two good addresses like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal--hear you--normal from year's end to year's end. And you say, Absurd! Absurd be--exploded! Absurd!" (48)
Marlow contends that his pampered, civilized, and satiated audience would no doubt fold under the rigors of the wilderness. But his invective cuts far deeper into the male psyche: "My dear boys, what can you expect from a man who out of sheer nervousness had just flung overboard a pair of new shoes? [emphasis mine]." With those words, Marlow ascends to the apex of the phallic totem pole. His is the world of men; mere boys cannot hope to gain entrance until they have witnessed the "honors" which it naturally subsumes. Armed with renewed courage and virility, Marlow is now brazen enough to make this potentially incriminating confession of a venerable and somewhat effeminate sensibility: "And I think of it, it is amazing I didn't shed tears. I am, upon the whole, proud of my fortitude." (11)
Marlow's bravado and extreme volubility in asserting his manhood, however, tends to lead him astray from the prescribed concept of accepted male deportment. As before, Conrad doubles back and carefully removes any possible manifestation of effeteness, often using the instance to effectively redouble Marlow's ostensible manhood. Marlow's cowardly reaction to an inexplicable, malignant jungle presence exemplifies this practice of reparation: "It was so startling that I leaped to my feet and looked back at the edge of the forest, as though I had expected an answer of some sort" (HD 35). This boldfaced assertion of pusillanimity connotes an extreme unwillingness by Marlow to confront danger, and if left alone, it could breed doubt in the minds of his listeners. Marlow's appendage--"You know the foolish notions that come to one sometimes"--implies that male displays of weakness are both infrequent (only "sometimes"), and are to be scorned ("foolish notions" as they are) by "normal" men ("You know"--i.e., his list eners).
Unlike the prior passage in which Marlow is openly aware of his slighted masculinity, there are instances in the text in which the emasculation is subtler, even tinged with varying degrees of homoeroticism. For instance, Marlow must account for his sexually ambiguous association with his African helmsman: "I missed my late helmsman awfully--I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot house" (51). By removing the African man's humanity via imperialistic method--reducing him to an asexual mechanism--Marlow renders this relationship as unsusceptible of a sexual resonance:
Perhaps you think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back--a help--an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me--I had to look after him, I had to look after his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken.
Despite Marlow's skillful imperialist rhetoric, he can only offer a stumbling justification for his ostensibly homoerotic desiring of his helmsman: "[F]or months," I had him "at my back"--yet he was only "an instrument"--that is--"He steered for me"--you see--"I had to look after his deficiencies." Having negotiated this pitfall, Marlow again blunders into taboo territory: "And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory--like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment [emphasis mine]." The "kinship" which Marlow cites refers back to his earlier confession of "the thought of [the native's] humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly" (38). The idea of a racial connection with savages (the oppressed) represents, of course, the most obvious and significant "horror" to the imperialist (the oppressor's) psyche; yet, as with other instances of indeterminacy in the text, this highly ab struse--and possibly homoerotic--"supreme moment" represents an even greater threat to the male psyche. Perhaps Marlow's most egregious error lies in his sentimental depiction of the highly-charged gaze he shares with the dying African man. Kimberly Devlin claims that colonialism "is the perfect expression of the violence of the gaze, and not only in the metaphorical sense of the term":
Colonialism imposes upon the colonized society the ever-presence and omnipotence of a gaze to which everything must be transparent. The exercise of power, especially when the latter is arbitrary, cannot permit the maintenance of shadowy zones; it considers them equivalent to resistance. (12)
Between oppressor and oppressed, the gaze operates as "a castrating eye," effectively reinforcing a hierarchical power structure. When the gaze is shared between oppressor and oppressor (two white males of some economic standing), however, the balance of power tends to result in uneasiness, and more often than not, avoidance of eye contact altogether. The pervading darkness which obscures Marlow and his white male companions (all of some economic standing) eliminates the possibility of scopic phallic friction: "It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already [Marlow], sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice" (HD 30). Yet the "intimate" gaze which Marlow and the helmsman share works against imperialist form, crossing (and indeed ignoring) both circumscribed racial and sexual boundaries, bringing the men closer to their highly ambiguous--and thus highly proscribed--"supreme moment." This is a likely reason why Marlow immediately follows this stateme nt with the denunciatory "Poor fool! If he had only left that shutter alone" (51)--quickly restoring himself to his rightful, dominant position as a white male heterosexual. Marlow's disposal of the helmsman's body also resonates with homoeroticism: "[H]is shoulders were pressed to my breast; I hugged him from behind desperately." Yet by inflating the physical act itself, Marlow again deflates a possible sexual connotation, lauding his manly strength in the process: "Oh! He was heavy, heavy; heavier than any man on earth I should imagine." For good measure, he callously throws in this last: "Then without more ado I tipped him overboard"--eliminating any remaining ostensive shred of compassion for the man.
One glaring sexual abnormality for which Marlow must account is his lack of a female significant other. Like his bachelor counterpart Marcher, Marlow must project at least the semblance of "normal" sexual relations-- regardless of his true sexual preference--for the sake of the watchful homophobic community. Unlike Marcher, whose "little office under Government" (BIJ288) requires that he settle in London, Marlow is both a wanderer and a sailor, who cannot be moored to one location, and ostensibly, one woman. The sailor's life is itself a viable pretext for his (assumed) single lifestyle, yet Marlow, in his effort to represent "normal" sexuality to the men, contrives a relationship with a metaphorical female--his boat. In keeping with the nautical tradition, Marlow ascribes a female gender to his craft, --"my influential friend, the battered, twisted, ruined tin-pot steamboat.... She rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along a gutter [emphasis mine]" (HD 31). However, Marlow deflates the boat's aesthetic inferiority, and emphasizes its ability to accentuate his manhood:
She was nothing so solid in make, and rather less pretty in shape, but I had expended enough hard work an her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come Out a bit--to find out what I could do. No. I didn't like work. I had rather laze about and think about all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself [emphasis mine].(13)
Marlow's steamboat operates in much the same fashion as Marcher's companion May Bartram; the presence of both "females," in varying degrees, projects a clear and distinguishable facade of heterosexuality upon their respective men. Unlike May Bartram, however, Marlow's metaphoric "woman" does not pro as overt and recognizable a guise of conventional sexuality on a social scale, which explains the particular emphasis Marlow places on the importance of the boat when describing it to the group. However, it allows Marlow to rationalize the lack of a real woman in his life, thus helping to solidify his status as a man both on an interior level, and within the circle.
Marlow and Kurtz--The Real "Horror"
From the perspective of late-Victorian society, Marlow's intimate "relationship" with Kurtz is extraordinarily problematic. Marlow's association with Kurtz, who is an object of significant interest and fascination, can be included in "the forms of investment that force men into the arbitrarily mapped, self-contradictory, and anathema-riddled quicksands of the middle distance of male homosocial desire" (Epistemology 186). Indeed, although it is Marlow's yearning to explore the earth's "blank spaces" (HD 11) that brings him to the Congo, his incipient (and highly ambiguous) desire to confront Kurtz propels him, and his narrative, onward into the "heart of darkness." Accordingly, Marlow negotiates this aspect of the tale with utmost caution. In terms of Marlow's exterior motivations, Conrad constructs a legitimate agency with which to bring the two together (i.e. "the Company" wants their man returned). Yet the text shows that there is something altogether inexplicable about Kurtz--about the man himself--which attracts Marlow to him. Perhaps Kurtz represents another intriguing "blank space" for Marlow to probe and plumb. Conrad clearly intended that Kurtz be enigmatic, yet shortly after the novel's Youth debut, the author seems to rethink this decision: "What I distinctly admit is the fault of having made Kurtz too symbolic or rather symbolic at all" (x). Is Conrad, like Marlow, doubling back to cover a "fault" in a fit of panic? Contemporary critics of the novel aside, the concept of Marlow "exploring" another man, if indeed it was interpreted in such a manner, might well have been construed as homoerotic by Conrad's conservative, homophobic, white, male contemporary base readership. Marloiv's conservative, homophobic, white, male audience, however, might also recognize the homoerotic overtones subsumed here. Indeed, the text depicts Marlow as highly aware of "the horrors" of this contingency, evidenced by his endeavors to diffuse the manifest sexual tension between himself and Kurtz throughout the narrative.
Contradiction tends to be a component byproduct of Marlow's attempts to disambiguate his discourse regarding Kurtz: "I had plenty of time for meditation and now and then I would give some thought to Kurtz. I wasn't interested in him. No" (33). This is in itself a contradiction; why would Marlow turn his thoughts to Kurtz if he had no interest in him? Marlow continues: "Still, I was curious to see whether this man who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort would climb to the top after all and how he would set about his work when there." Here Marlow not only admits to being interested in Kurtz, but he offers a detailed explication of this interest--whether or not Kurtz's imperialist "work" has borne fruit (itself another implicit appeal to the audience's imperialist disposition). Later, when Marlow recollects that the native attack on the boat might signify Kurtz' s death, he explains that Kurtz's mortality had become his "dominant thought": "There was a sense of extreme disappointment as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance" (47-48). Marlow makes it clear that he had been eagerly anticipating a body--Kurtz's body-at the end of his "striving." Marlow here exhibits a sudden awareness of the potentially compromising turn that his tale has taken. With marked celerity, he latches onto the concept of mere conversation as the impetus for his desire to meet the man: "Talking with...I flung one shoe overboard and became aware that that was exactly what I had been looking forward to--a talk with Kurtz." Again, note the implicit contradiction (as well as the overt appeal to his male comrades for understanding) in his next utterance: "I made the strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing....The man presented himself as a voice."
Having established an "innocent" rationale for his interest in Kurtz, Marlow again strays from the straight and narrow:
I thought, By Jove! it's all over. We are too late; [Kurtz] has vanished--the gift has vanished...I will never hear that chap speak at all--and my sorrow had a startling extravagance of emotion...I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life.
The concept of Kurtz as Marlow's "destiny in life" evokes shades of Marcher's quest to confront an inexplicable predestination. Marlow' s ejaculation of grief for Kurtz, similar to Marcher's anguish over May, is both extraordinarily impassioned and effeminate, and immediately met with a characteristically masculine, inarticulate objection from the circle: "Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn't a man ever....Here, give me some tobacco." It is unclear whether the word "absurd" is actually used by his listeners as a rebuke; nevertheless it springs quickly to Marlow's lips, as if a self-assessment of his attraction to Kurtz. Marlow's grunts of indignation, culminating in a growling demand for tobacco, underscore a growing reluctance to employ (feminine) eloquence in his consciously masculine discourse. Conrad's invisible first-person narrator here reemerges, noting that Marlow's face, illuminated by matchlight, "appeared wom, hollow, with downward folds and droppe d eye-lids with an aspect of concentrated attention." The narrator's assessment of his fragile physiognomy fails to denote the hardness--the grizzled virility--characteristic of a mariner. Can we also infer that the discerning nameless narrator perceives Marlow's "concentrated attention" as an increased effort to "normalize" his professed affinity for Kurtz?
Marlow successfully employs the Russian (who is both an outsider to the British imperialist dominion, and, we are told, "the admirer of Kurtz" ), and his manifest ardor for Kurtz, as foils for the possibility of his own inconceivable affections. Note the blatantly erotic metaphor used to illustrate how, "when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night": "They [came] together unavoidably, like two ships becalmed near each other, and lay rubbing sides at last" (55). As Marlow augments the sexual tension between Kurtz and the Russian, he draws the men's attention away from a similar link between himself and Kurtz: "'We talked of everything,' [the Russian] said quite transported at the recollection. 'I forgot there was such a thing as sleep. The night did not seem to last an hour. Everything! Everything! ... Of love too.' 'Ah, he talked to you of love!' I said much amused [emphasis mine]." Marlow's insouciant tone seems to belie an interior celebration over the transcendence of heterosexuality signifie d by the Russian's puerile infatuation with Kurtz. The Russian exhibits a keen awareness of his transgression: "'It isn't what you think,' he cried almost passionately. 'It was in general. He made me see things--things [emphasis mine].'" The Russian's elliptical diction ("it," "things") underscores his inability to articulate the exact nature of his very intense, very profound connection with Kurtz. Indeed, "What [Marlow is supposed to] think" of two men discussing love represents yet another textual "hole" in the discourse left to be filled by a tacit male understanding of Victorian sexual propriety. Note how Marlow stresses the "almost passionate" fervor of the Russian's appeal-an appeal to Marlow's belief in the heterosexual imperative. The Russian now stands in relation to Marlow as Marlow stood in relation to his audience; "what [Marlow] think [s] ," or rather what his glibness seems to imply about the possibility of a sexual relationship between Kurtz and the Russian, is what his male audience may well believe--that they very likely share a sexual bond. However, when the Russian depicts the native's abject subservience to Kurtz, and its component association with sexual domination, Marlow is palpably irritated:
[Kurtz's] ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these people surrounded the place and the chiefs came every day to see him. They would crawl.... 'I don't want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz,' I shouted. Curious, this feeling came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stake under Mr. Kurtz's windows [emphasis mine]. (58)
Clearly, Marlow's terror reaches well beyond the visible horrors of the jungle ("heads drying on a stake"), and into the "indistinct" and "impenetrable" realm to which Conrad alludes throughout the text. Marlow finds this "curious," yet not to the extent that he is willing to examine "this feeling" in greater depth. Is this evidence of Marlow's desire to "crawl" to and be dominated by Kurtz, causing him to be "curiously" enraged (he "shouted") by its homoerotic implications? Marlow's subsequent reference to him as "Mr." Kurtz--an implicit suggestion of submission--strongly suggests just that.
Upon finally encountering Kurtz in the flesh, Marlow is stricken by the exiguous state of his masculinity:
I saw the man on the stretcher sit up, lank and with an uplifted arm, above the shoulders of the bearers ....I saw the thin arm extended commandingly, the lower jaw moving, the eyes of that apparition shining darkly far in its bony head that nodded with grotesque jerks. Kurtz-Kurtz--that means 'short' in German--don't it? ...His covering had fallen off and his body emerged from it pitiful and appalling as from a winding-sheet. I could see the cage of his ribs all astir, the bones of his arm waving. (59)
Having relied on the tales of Kurtz's barbarous jungle exploits as a basis for his fantasy vision of the actual, corporeal man, Marlow is clearly disappointed to discover a decrepit, moribund shadow of his envisaged virile warrior. Unable to account for his extreme disappointment, Marlow represents his anger in a form more compatible with his audience's masculine sensibilities: "I resented bitterly the absurd danger of our situation, as if to be at the mercy of that atrocious phantom had been a dishonoring necessity." Marlow appeals to his audience's collective male ego for understanding; there is perhaps no more "absurd" and "dishonoring" a threat to manhood than being rendered impotent by the authority of an effete, emasculated inferior.
Perhaps it is Kurtz's inability to physically dominate that now attracts and intrigues Marlow. Upon securing him from the hands of the natives, Marlow has Kurtz placed in a private chamber: "They laid him in one of the lit tie cabins--just a room for a bed-place and a camp-stool or two [emphasis mine]." The room resonates with an atmosphere of intimacy, and the single bed, and camp-stool "or two" (perhaps accommodating his own night of private conversation with the man), suggest numerous erotic possibilities. When Marlow discovers that Kurtz has escaped his sanctuary/cell, however, he is momentarily paralyzed with an inexplicable fear:
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. (63)
Once again, Marlow's honor cannot be connected to a specific, "physical" threat to his person. Rather, he is "unnerve[d]" by something so "monstrous" and "intolerable to thought" that he cannot withstand the horrible "moral shock" an examination of his feelings would inflict. Indeed, Marlow seems to be recollecting an extraordinarily repugnant occurrence: one of brutish, physical domination, and violation ("altogether monstrous," "intolerable to thought," "thrust upon me"). His description sounds very much like a rape. Does he subconsciously feel that Kurtz has betrayed an unspoken trust by fleeing his sanctuary (perhaps for his native mistress whose heterosexual love supersedes Marlow's possible homoerotic attachment)? To Marlow such considerations are inscrutable--"intolerable to thought"; the very notion "odious to [a homophobe's] soul." Just as Marcher's unspeakable doom was "his lack" (BIJ 305) of a prescribed heterosexual desire for May, Marlow's "monstrous" dilemma is the absence of a determinant heter osexual presence in his affiliation with Kurtz. Yet despite his bewilderment, Marlow attempts to account for this moment of befuddlement and emasculating prostration to an inexplicable power:
This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second and then the usual sense of 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. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm [emphasis mine]. (HD 63)
Marlow even welcomes a brush with mortality (the "sudden onslaught and massacre"--a "commonplace deadly danger") when it provides a logical, heterosexual explanation for his inexplicable, unsettling terror.
However, as Marlow pursues Kurtz into the heart of the dark jungle, the ambiguity of his motivations escalates indirect relation to the narrative's increasing homoerotic tension. "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 particular blackness of that experience [emphasis mine]" (64). As he re-experiences this powerful event, he seems to lapse in and out of an awareness of his audience, and becomes noticeably lax and risque in his choice of diction:
I remember the exultation with which I said to myself, "He can't walk--he is crawling on All--fours-I've got him." The grass was wet with dew. I strode rapidly with clenched fists. I fancy I had some vague notion of falling upon him and giving him a drubbing.
Marlow is clearly caught up in a powerful moment--perhaps the central moment in the tale, given his deceleration of the narrative's temporal flow, and careful attention to minutiae (the wet grass, the rapid stride, the clenched fists). Realizing that Kurtz is once again under his power, Marlow is eager to return the experience of violation he experienced on the ship. Yet he is uncertain as to his method of retribution; he definitely does not desire to rape Kurtz (an unthinkable concept indeed). The only acceptable manner in which he can vent his anger and frustration is through pure, socially-sanctioned, masculine violence--fisticuffs. Perhaps with his audience in mind, Marlow quickly adds--"I don't know. I had some imbecile thoughts." An examination of these "thoughts" reveals Marlow's ambivalence toward and fluctuation between sexual polarities: "The knitting old woman with the cat obtruded herself upon my memory as the most improper person to be at the other end of such an affair. I saw a row of pilgrims s quirting lead in the air out of Winchesters held to the hip." Neither image affords Marlow consolation during his possible crises of sexual identity. The woman, though sexually apposite, is aged and thus "most improper" as an object of desire; the image of the men (for whom attraction is strictly proscribed) errantly discharging rifles metaphorically suggests unfocussed sexual urges. Once again, Marlow quickly rationalizes his moment of weakness: "Such silly things--you know."
Marlow suddenly shifts the dynamic between himself and Kurtz, likening the chase to horseplay between two children: "I actually left the track and ran in a wide semicircle (I verily believe chuckling to myself) ... I was circumventing Kurtz as though it had been a boyish game." Early childhood is accepted and understood to be an asexual period of life; thus, in the context of puerile tomfoolery, Marlow's statement, "I came upon him and if he had not heard me coming, I would have fallen over him, too," is bereft of any perceivable sexual connotation. Marlow's powerful thirst for vengeance has also been usurped by a strong sense of compassion--and empathy: "This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow-this wandering and tormented thing" (65). There clearly is a kinship between these two; Marlow too is "a wanderer," and seemingly "tormented" by conflicting (and forbidden) sexual impulses (indicated by his sexless and nondescript rendering of Kur tz--"thing"). Regardless of his identification and commiseration with the man, however, Marlow continues to portray himself as the heterosexual stalwart, and Kurtz as the deviant: "I tried to break the spell, the heavy mute spell of the wilderness that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions [emphasis mine]." Once again, Marlow refuses to explicate exactly what this "mute spell of the wilderness" subsumes, nor can he acknowledge a personal affiliation with these "forgotten and brutal instincts" and "monstrous passions"; they are (and must be) attributed solely to Kurtz. In a final attempt to exculpate himself of any sexual misconduct, Marlow isolates the causality of Kurtz's indefinable madness hermetically within the man's very being, exclaiming: "But his soul had gone mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad [emphasis mine]."
The Truth Behind "The Lie"
Marlow's meeting with and subsequent lie to Kurtz's Intended is the closest he comes to questioning his own sexuality outright. Despite being alone in a dark room with a captivating woman, Marlow remains for the most part insensible to her feminine allure. Indeed, although the man is dead and buried on a distant continent, he cannot distinguish Kurtz's disembodied image from that of the Intended: "I saw her and him in the same instant of time--his death and her sorrow--I saw her in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them together--I heard them together" (73). Apparently the "horror" Marlow experienced in the Congo was not intrinsic to the Congo; even in the midst of civilization his disconcerting affinity for Kurtz has not subsided. (14)
The Intended, whose heterosexual love for Kurtz represents the Victorian standard, demands that Marlow settle on a sexual preference. Kurtz' s physical demise has rendered her spiritually bereft; she can no longer bear life without him, evidenced by her plea to Marlow to "[r]epeat [Kurtz's dying words] ... I want--I want--something--something--to--to live with" (HD 75). She is a martyr to heterosexuality; her perpetual mourning for Kurtz champions and reinforces the heterosexual imperative. However, Marlow continues to glimpse an echo of Kurtz within this beacon of Victorian sexual righteousness: "I remembered his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal scale of his vile desires [emphasis mine]" (72). Note that Marlow once again depicts Kurtz as the sexual deviant. Although he shares the Intended's sorrow, Marlow privately admits to "a sensation of panic" (73) which one could infer to be the result of the "horrible" realization that he possesses his own "vile desires" for Kurtz--a perverted reflect ion of the Intended's rapture. He cannot acknowledge the source of his grief, not to the Intended, not to his homophobic male audience, and not to himself. Thus, Marlow is paradigmatic of true "male homosexual panic"--an entrapment between oppressive social norms (that which is "right") and interior sexual ambivalence (that which is necessarily "wrong"--no matter what that actually is). Marlow's consternation is so intense that his visit with the Intended becomes unbearable: "I asked myself what I was doing there, with a sensation of panic in my heart as though I had blundered into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not fit for a human being to behold [emphasis mine]." Yet the Intended's torturous interrogation continues: "'You knew him well,' she murmured after a moment of mourning silence." In response, Marlow supplements his reference to male "intimacy"--"'Intimacy grows quickly out there,' I said"--with the proviso: "I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.'" Given his audience , Marlow more than likely refers to Victorian society's definition of the limits of one man's "knowledge" (in the Biblical sense) of another man. In this context, his "admission" of intimacy with Kurtz is actually a categorical denial of sexual desire and/or carnal knowledge. Unaware of the effects of her interrogation, the Intended presses on: "'And you admired him!' she said. 'It was impossible to know him and not to admire him. Was it?' 'He was a remarkable man,' I said unsteadily. Then before the appealing affinity of her gaze that seemed to watch for more words on my lips I went on, 'It was impossible not to .... [emphasis mine].'" Marlow's "unsteady" hold on his emotions is exacerbated by the "appealing affinity" of the Intended's gaze. How can he persist in thinking of Kurtz while in the presence of her captivating femininity?--and yet he does! So eerily consonant is their shared devotion to Kurtz that she completes his thought, saving him perhaps from compromising himself: "'Love him,' she finished ea gerly, silencing me into an appalled dumbness."
Marlow's "appalled dumbness" stems both from hearing the Intended speak his own unutterable words, and the painful confirmation of her love for the man. Marlow is jealous. "'But you have heard him. You know!' she cried. 'Yes, I know,' I said with something like despair in my heart" (74). Marlow's "despair," however, quickly turns to resentment: "'His end,' said I with dull anger stirring in me, 'was in every way worthy of his life"' (75). The Intended speaks from a position of authority. The love she shared with Kurtz is legitimate; she has experienced an aspect of the man that Marlow will never know. Faced with the knowledge of their felicitous love, he can no longer implicate Kurtz in his own mind; Marlow is now the deviant. "'And I was not with him,' she murmured. My anger subsided before a feeling of infinite pity." Despite his envy, Marlow cannot help but continue to comprehend her anguish with marked acuity. Her unfettered expression of love is intolerable: "'He needed me. Me! I would have treasured ev ery sigh, every word, every sign, every glance.' I felt like a chill grip on my chest. 'Don't,' I said in a muffled voice. ...'Don't you understand I loved him--I loved him--I loved him [emphasis mine]."' As the Intended sets Marlow reeling through the conflicted chaos that is his panicked psyche, she simultaneously offers him the means by which he can find equanimity, and (although he is unaware at the time) save face with his audience: "The Lie." "I pulled myself together and spoke slowly. 'The last word he pronounced was--your name.'" The Intended holds the power in this domain; Marlow must submit to her authoritative right to love Kurtz. Nevertheless, Marlow has emerged victorious. By telling "The Lie," he no longer is forced to ponder the possibility that his abject fascination with Kurtz is sexually tinged. The Intended may have Kurtz, but she is still only a woman. Marlow falls back on the same patriarchal power structure whose strained masculine bonds engendered "male homosexual panic," and marginaliz ed women in Victorian society. It is his duty as a man to keep the Intended from the "harmful" realities of life (however indistinct they seem to be in this context). Addressing the men directly, Marlow's terse statement expresses all the information they require in order to share in his ascendancy: "I could not tell her. It would have been too dark--too dark altogether..." (76).
Yet "The Lie" is actually a double lie. When Marlow explains to the men that he cannot share with the Intended the truth of Kurtz's depraved final months ("his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal scale of his vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the tempestuous anguish of his soul" ), he is, in effect, relying on a shared imperialist notion of what "the horror" of the jungle really represents--"the triumph of the wilderness" over civilization. These truths, of course, are much "too dark" to share with a woman, yet somehow just palatable enough for men. But Marlow, and indeed, his male audience, are in effect lying to themselves. The implicit acknowledgement between the men that "We Know What [the horror] Means" is a fallacy, for a Victorian male's very accession to heterosexual entitlement has, according to Sedgwick, "always been on the ground of a cultivated and compulsory denial of the unknowability, of the arbitrariness and self-contradictoriness, of homo/heterosexual definition" (Ep istemology 204). It is the same cultural conditioning which requires Marlow and his audience not to examine but to assume their own heterosexual preference that causes them not to examine why the jungle really frightens them, as well as why it actually drove Kurtz insane (and eventually killed him). Despite the homoerotic resonance evident throughout the narrative, there is no literal proof that what is behind Marlow's "abstract terror" and "blank fright" is necessarily homoerotic. It is absence itself which frightens Marlow and causes him to fill in this "blank" space with knee-jerk, imperialist dogma ("civilization versus savagery"). Thus, "the fearful or triumphant interpretive formula "We Know What That Means"...is a lie[;]...the particular lie that animates and perpetuates the mechanism of homophobic male self-ignorance and violence and manipulability." Ironically, it is the very intensity of this male bond-that which allows the men to share amongst themselves an unspoken knowledge of "the horror"--which is itself the horror. This intense male bonding masks what they would actually find most "horrible" of all--intense male bonds! Luce Irigaray's study, "Women On the Market," offers a particularly germane and compelling elucidation of the contradictory nature of such relationships. Irigaray claims that men use women as exchange objects to append a heterosexual pretext to their own homosexual need to interact with and be amongst other men:
The use of and traffic in women subtend and uphold the reign of masculine hom(m)o-sexuality, even while they maintain that hom(m)o-sexuality in speculations, mirror games, identifications, and more or less rivalrous appropriations, which defer its real practice. Reigning everywhere, although prohibited in practice, hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women, matter, or sign, and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man's relations with himself, of relations among men. (15)
Marlow and friends do not "traffic in women" per se (i.e., through exchange ceremonies such as matrimony or other socially sanctioned institutions), yet the results of their "merger" parallel Irigaray's conclusions regarding interrelations among males. Conrad's circle of men use their tacit male "knowledge" of superiority over the Intended (i.e., "Let's keep the woman out of this; she can't handle it") as a heterosexual pretext to intensify their own very exclusive, very intimate confederation. As long as Marlow and crew metaphorically join hands under a patriarchal flag and sing praise to their own "normal" sexuality, they effectively annul the homoerotic significance intrinsic to such activity.
Formerly ostracized by the group, Marlow is successful in gaining the acceptance of his male audience (or, at the very least, their respect for his journey into the abhorred unknown), a "victory" which parallels Conrad's successful depiction to his homophobic readership of a similar journey into the void. We see at the novel's climax that the fictive audience's previous grunts of protest and disbelief have been replaced with silence. A seemingly unspoken collusion exists between the men, broken only by the Director's sudden and dutiful exclamation "We have lost the first of the ebb" (HD, 76). There is a concord in tone between Marlow's narrative and the narrator's comments in the tale's final sentence: "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil