Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Exorcismo Fallido: El Estatus Espectral De Kurtz Y Su Funcion Ideologica En 'Heart of Darkness' De Conrad

Academic journal article Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos

Exorcismo Fallido: El Estatus Espectral De Kurtz Y Su Funcion Ideologica En 'Heart of Darkness' De Conrad

Article excerpt

Failed Exorcism: Kurtz's Spectral Status and Its Ideological Function in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'

1. Introduction

Critics of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' have shown little concern towards Marlow's persistent characterisation of Kurtz as a spectre. (1) He describes Kurtz as a "disinterred body", a "ghost", a "shade", an "initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere", "an animated image of death", a "shadow", an "atrocious phantom", an "apparition", "a vapour exhaled by the earth" and an "eloquent phantom" (Conrad 1946: 115, 117, 134, 142, 160). Even those critics who frame the novella within the genre of the gothic either overlook this conspicuously gothic element or just go no further than dropping some passing remark on the topic. (2) John Hillis Miller's 'Joseph Conrad: Should We Read Heart of Darkness?', chapter five of his book Others (2001), is a most remarkable exception. Miller's argument concerning the novella revolves around the unexplained obligation that Marlow feels towards Kurtz, a sort of fateful imperative he cannot but obey. (3) Indeed, immediately after what I consider the privileged blind spot in his narrative, Marlow justifies his decision to go after Kurtz, who had left the steamboat to return to his nightly worshippers in the wilderness, in the following terms: "I did not betray Mr Kurtz--it was ordered I should never betray him--it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone" (Conrad 1946: 141. Emphases added). In being loyal to Kurtz, Marlow is, according to Miller, fulfilling the ethical injunction of telling "the truth about the dead" whom one survives (2001: 107). Yet, Miller adds, what is peculiar about Marlow's bond is that it is an act of faith towards one who is already a ghost from the very beginning:

   Kurtz is presented when Marlow finally encounters him as already
   the survivor of his own death. Kurtz is already the ghost of
   himself. In that sense he cannot die. This is testified to in the
   way he survives in Marlow's narration and in the way the dusk still
   whispers his last words when Marlow returns to Europe and visits
   Kurtz's 'Intended'. It is hardly the case that Marlow has laid the
   ghost of Kurtz's gifts with a lie, since the ghost still walks,
   even in the room where Marlow tells his lie to the Intended. The
   ghost, far from being laid, is resurrected, invoked, conjured up,
   each time Heart of Darkness is read (2001: 107).

According to this, 'Heart of Darkness' is a text that activates a chain of compulsory (and, we may add, compulsive) interpretations focused on Kurtz's ghost which starts with Marlow's narrative, passes then on to the unnamed frame-narrator, and afterwards transcends the intratextual limits to affect any reader of the Conrad novella. We, readers, like Marlow and the receptive listener of his inconclusive oral tale, must remain faithful to Kurtz's ghost and join the endless circuit of performative interpretations which are so many failed attempts to exorcise this spectre. Kurtz functions as the privileged instance of radical otherness that, paradoxically at once, cannot and should not be finalised, demanding justice from us, and keeping "[t]he structure of Heart of Darkness ... a self-perpetuating system of an endlessly deferred promise" (Miller 2001: 126).

I share Miller's opinion that Kurtz's spectre is not exorcised despite Marlow's affirmation that he had "laid the ghost of his gifts with a lie" (Conrad 1946: 115). (4) Unlike Miller, however, I interpret Marlow's failed exorcism and his concomitant loyalty to Kurtz's ghost not as an ethical obligation to avoid totalising temptations and keep the field of otherness open, but as Marlow's last-ditch attempt to preserve the coherence of the British and imperialist culture in which he is embedded and from which he derives his identity. Thus, for me, Kurtz-as-ghost functions in Marlow's narrative discourse as the last and lasting one in a long series of ideological strategies. …

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