Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'Heart of Darkness' and Late-Victorian Fascination with the Primitive and the Double

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

'Heart of Darkness' and Late-Victorian Fascination with the Primitive and the Double

Article excerpt

A fascination with primordial darkness, the oxymoronic "fascination of the abomination" that Marlow in Heart of Darkness offers to his listeners (6), was prevalent in the late nineteenth century, reflecting a belief in man's animal origins. A perusal of the main periodicals of the period such as Nineteenth Century, Fortnightly Review, Cornhill Magazine, and Macmillan's Monthly Magazine reveals that they aimed to tell the unvarnished truth about the ugly and frightening realities of man's nature hidden behind an attractive facade. The articles published include those by R. A. Proctor, Henry Rowley, G. J. Romanes, Grant Allen, W. J. Corbett, James Sully, H. G. Wells, and Lionel Johnson."(1) Essentially, the discourse of primitivism and degeneracy reverses the idea of evolution; it deconstructs the ethos of the improving spirit of the times.

A marked premise of nineteenth-century ideology, generating more colonial rhetoric, is the superiority of the white races in the evolutionary scheme to the "primitive" or "savage."(2) Rowley's essay might well have been written as a critique of this racist vision. It states that all creatures are united in the primitive natural state, and the highest/lowest hierarchy is blurred:

Nothing more astonishes an inexperienced traveler than the discovery that in all men, differ how much so ever they may in outward circumstances or acquired habits, our race still preserves its social character; that there are the same instincts, the same natural feelings . . . with the most degraded equally with the highest. (684)

Substantially, this suggests Marlow's observation about the connection between himself and the "savages":

No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. (36-37)

Overall, Heart of Darkness offers a paradoxical reading of black and white:

It was very curious to see the contrast of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew, who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we, though their homes were only eight hundred miles away. The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row. The others had an alert, naturally interested expression; but their faces were essentially quiet. (41)

In this perspective, Edward Tylor argued for the unsettling of rigid hierarchical separation between races, which he ranged on a spectrum of cultural evolution. He observed that

The character and habit of mankind at once display . . . similarity and consistency of phenomena, which led the Italian proverb-maker to declare that 'all the world is one country.' . . . It appears both possible and desirable to eliminate considerations of hereditary varieties or races of man, and to treat mankind as homogeneous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization. . . . In comparing mental and artistic culture among several peoples, the balance of good and ill is not quite easy to strike. . . . Savagery and Civilization are connected as lower and higher stages of one formation. (I: 6, 7, 28, 37)

The title of his book itself signifies that primitive people, in their communal capacities, are makers of culture--which discounts claims to cultural bias.

Many readers of the 1890s would surely agree with what Sully stated in "The Dream as a Revolution":

Psychology has of late occupied itself much with the curious phenomenon of double or alternating personality. By this is meant the recurrent interruption of the normal state by the intrusion of a secondary state, in which the thought, feelings, and the whole personality become other than they were. …

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