Academic journal article Conradiana

Desire in Heart of Darkness

Academic journal article Conradiana

Desire in Heart of Darkness

Article excerpt

Heart of Darkness is by now so familiar to us, so studied, commented upon, written about, argued over, appropriated, liberated, vilified, recuperated, rehashed, taught and retaught that it might seem as though there can hardly be anything left worth saying about it. Yet despite the virtual industry of criticism which has sprung up around Heart of Darkness in the century since its publication, an important vein has been surprisingly neglected. This vein consists of readings which synthesize psychological with ideological perspectives to illuminate the inextricable intertwining of the psychic and the social in Heart of Dark-ness. That it has remained virtually unexplored is particularly surprising given Edward Garnett's recognition of its centrality to the novella in his 1902 review of Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories. There, he called Heart of Darkness a "psychological masterpiece" which relates "the things of the spirit to the things of the flesh,.... the invisible life to the visible, ... the sub-conscious life within us, our obscure motives and instincts, to our conscious actions, feelings and outlook" (Garner 132). The following year, another early reviewer pointed to this important feature of the novella by complaining of the "wearying" effect of its "entanglement of psychological with external phenomena" (New York Times Saturday Review 296).

Both of these comments most likely belong in the category of what the New Critics called the affective fallacy, a version of the "adjectival insistence" (Leavis 204) attendant upon the literary impressionist technique by which Conrad sought to convey psychological states through an atmospherics so intense that "by the end of the tale an event as natural as the darkening sky stands as a somber moral warning" (Levenson 405). But they also suggest the necessity of commenting on the irreducible commingling of the psychic and the social, the psychological and the ideological in Heart of Darkness. Their suggestion of this necessity has been echoed with varying degrees of emphasis by critics like Andrea White, Paul Kirschner, Kimberly J. Devlin, Tony C. Brown, Henry Staten, and Thomas Cousineau. Reynold Humphries and Barry Stampfl have argued for more or less intrinsic relationships in the novella between the unconscious and "the mechanisms of a capitalist economy" (30-31) and "processes of imperialist history," (184) respectively, while Tony E. Jackson has gone so far as to contend that "Heart of Darkness proves that not only are the sacred givens of Western civilization no longer true, but the self is no longer true" (Jackson 4). These comments are certainly provocative and promising, but they have almost universally failed to develop into focused and sustained analyses of the interdependence of psychology and ideology which I take to be the central problematic of Heart of Darkness.

Among the few exceptions to this failure is the recent work of Marianne DeKoven and Beth Sharon Ash, whose interventions have made important advances on our understanding of Conrad's obsession with portraying the complexities of the psyche even in the midst of overtly political plots. DeKoven explores the "connection... between literary modernism [including its focus on psychology] and political radicalism" (4). To this end, she reads the imperialist register of Heart of Darkness through Marlow's "antiheroic return to the terrifying heart of desire, the maternal origin of life that generates ... disillusionment and death" (85). Ash's study makes use of "psychohistory" or "psychosocial dialectics" (3) to read Conrad's novels in terms of his personal experience of, and reaction to, modernity. In pursuit of this type of analysis, Ash undertakes "close psychological readings of Kurtz and Jim, and of Marlow's 'inability to mourn,' [to] suggest that Conrad shares Marlow's inclination to disavow loss and the need to mourn it" (128). As I hope will become clear, my reading is sympathetic to both DeKoven's and Ash's, though it eschews both the feminist perspective which leads DeKoven to treat the Congo river as an instance of "the Irigarayan vaginal passage" (85) and the psychobiographical angle which brings Ash to relate her readings back to Conrad's "impossible relation to his own text" (3) as symptomatic of his experience of modernity. …

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