Academic journal article Conradiana

The Gibberish Threat: Unrestrained Narrative in Heart of Darkness

Academic journal article Conradiana

The Gibberish Threat: Unrestrained Narrative in Heart of Darkness

Article excerpt

Insides are hollow, empty but for word-smoke. We tell stories and darkness billows out; rises into clouds of murmur, gibberish, jabber, emissions of a million chimney-mouths. Joseph Conrad, a storyteller, makes narrative. Storytellers in his narrative make trouble. Individual voices threaten the clarity of purpose necessary to survive in Conrad's word-worlds. On the sea or in Africa's heart, words are orders or facts. They shouldn't slip, slide, stutter or hide. Signifiers should be solid, signifieds accessible. Words are Heart of Darkness's primary preoccupation: Kurtz is a "word" to Marlow; "incomprehensible words" cry from afar; bodies are reshaped by words (90, 146). Words are lies, are in "cipher," are hijacked by bad storytellers (121). Suspect voices add to this smoke-screen: Kurtz's (all but absent) voice, the suggestive Russian, pensive Marlow, the unnamed narrator. Teller after teller carries readers up this river. Teller after teller adds smoke to an ending, not of illumination, but "immense darkness" (148). Conrad makes the stuff of his art dangerous.

Perhaps it is useful, then, to consider darkness in Heart of Darkness as an accumulation of gibberish--words disassociated from things, inconclusive narrative, excessive speech and writing. Marlow's story runs into the night: the sun has just set when he begins, darkness literally thickens as he continues. In fact, it is as if his story, more than the passing of time, creates darkness. His words hang above the Nellie, seeming to form a "black bank of clouds" (148). This essay attempts to trace darkness-as-gibberish through several tics in Marlow's narration, Conrad's framing of Marlow's narrative and physical manifestations of darkness--both as places, atmospheres described as dark and as ominous alterations to characters' bodies. Smoke appears several times in the text, and will be used here metaphorically as the particle stream of darkness-as-gibberish: words breathed in and out, gathering above the site of their emission.

If words are the smoke that accumulates in Conrad's noisy and threatening darkness, then Peter Brooks's ultimately optimistic view of repetition, telling and retelling in Reading for the Plot needs reexamination. Excess words disguise (rather than compose) "unspeakable" darkness lurking at the text's heart, Brooks argues (255). Marlow falteringly tries to weave a "seamless web of signification" to cover this darkness. "Repetition appears to be a product of failure in the original telling," Brooks explains (259). He posits a mankind-wide "cover-up" of horror that demands an endless stream of listeners be "implicate[d] ... in a taint one can't live with alone" (240, 261). A teller launches his (necessarily) imperfect tale at a group of listeners/potential re-tellers, hoping someone will pick up where he left off. "One must tell and tell again, hoping that one's repetition will in turn be repeated, that one's voice will re-echo," Brooks writes (263). He suggests that Conrad celebrates narrative incompleteness and an inevitable changing-over of voices. But Brooks's reading invites gibberish, the real "horror" in this text and focus of this paper. Haunted by words, Marlow says:

   A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard--him-it
   --this voice other voices--all of them were so little more than
   voices--and the memory of that time lingers around me, impalpable,
   like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious,
   sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices,
   voices--(114)

Words are unmoored from sense and from speaker--and even, as "voices," from the possible anchoring of the written word. They float around Marlow like a perverse nimbus. These unrestrained voices are darkness let out of "sepulchral" cities (141). The story of evangelizing imperialism--as transmitted by women, newspapers, and pseudo-visionaries--is darkness breathed out and blown over Africa. …

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