Academic journal article Conradiana

Talking Heads: Bodiless Voices in Heart of Darkness, "The Hollow Men," and the First World War

Academic journal article Conradiana

Talking Heads: Bodiless Voices in Heart of Darkness, "The Hollow Men," and the First World War

Article excerpt

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) resounds with floating voices. Mr. Kurtz, the impetus behind Marlow's voyage to the core of the Congo, is "very little more than a voice," his memory "like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense" (57-8). Marlow, too, is "no more to us than a voice"; he and his audience lose their bodies as darkness descends upon the Thames (32). The primacy of spoken language in Heart of Darkness makes it clear that for Conrad, a subject is an embodied being capable of meaningful semantic expression, a speaking self. Ivan Kreilkamp and Martine de la Rochere argue that before the advent of turn-of-the-century technology--especially the phonograph and the x-ray--the severance of such a subject's voice from its body, brought on by death, would entail the subject's disappearance (Kreilkamp 220; de la Rochere 192). Though Kurtz's "disinterred body" is effectively in the realm of death, his voice remains in the living world: "A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart" (58, 84). Kurtz's impossible, ephemeral existence manifests a uniquely modernist anxiety, one that would be developed during the Great War. Can a being that inhabits the liminal space between two worlds--life and death, embodiment and disembodiment--communicate meaning? Or, do the barriers between these worlds function as what Paul Wake calls an "aporia," a "stalling point [...] which seemingly possesses no solution [...] the non-passage and non-place, the point at which logic and truth disappear" (42)? If the latter is true, then we can hope only to salvage meaningless contradictions from fractured subjects. (1) The severed heads surrounding Kurtz's house represent the nightmarish threshold of this absurd linguistic collapse, prefiguring a No Man's Land that is to be reified during the Great War. (2)

By forecasting the catastrophic violation of subjectivity wrought by the Great War, Conrad demonstrates that the urgent need to restore a meaningful voice to the body, a voice that can communicate experience after semantic expression is no longer possible, had its impetus before World War I. The war, rather than a sudden, unprecedented shock, may have instead been a final catalyst for a reaction already in progress, a growing anticipation and fear of disembodiment sparked by the technological advancements of the late nineteenth century, including the phonograph. With the war came a refinement of nascent military technologies and the military application of formerly nonviolent agricultural or commercial machines. The caterpillar tracks used on Mark 1 tanks in 1915, for example, derived from agricultural vehicles in use as early as 1905 (Keegan 298). Technology became not only a preserver of voices but also, by means of both mass death and trauma, a violating force that rips the voice from the body. Though the prewar Conrad does not offer a method of restoring expressive power to bodiless voices, T. S. Eliots postwar poetics respond to the violence of modernized warfare by reaching beyond semantic language and imagining a new, unified speaking self. I argue that what is at stake in both Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Eliot's "The Hollow Men" (1925) is the fate of speech as a technology, the continued application of knowledge--here, language--for a purpose, the communication of experience. (3) In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz's bodiless voice can have only an ephemeral, impotent existence once it passes into the depth of the forest, the border of which is marked by the severed heads outside his house. Conrad juxtaposes Kurtz's fading voice with a mystified, permanent forest, and by doing so he demonstrates the futility of what I will call the technology of speech, a subject's method of using linguistic knowledge to articulate shareable experience. "Technology" is a useful term because it highlights the continuity, for both Conrad and Eliot, of the voice and the entity that speaks. …

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