Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Cultural Psychosis on the Frontier: The Work of the Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Cultural Psychosis on the Frontier: The Work of the Darkness in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Article excerpt

Therein consists the most elementary formal definition of psychosis: the massive presence of some real that fills out and blocks the perspective openness which is constitutive of "reality."

Slavoj Zizek, "Grimaces of the Real"(1)

Heart of Darkness has perversely proved a central document in postcolonial discourse. As Homi K. Bhabha puts it, "the long shadow of Conrad's Heart of Darkness falls on so many texts of the postcolonial pedagogy."(2) Notably, Bhabha cites Edward W. Said's Culture and Imperialism as an exemplary example of such a text:

   Heart of Darkness is the novel that invites the most comment and
   interpretation. It serves as a resource for many of the central arguments
   in the book. In Said's early discussions of the complex address and
   consolidation of the imperial idea as ideology, Heart of Darkness features
   prominently. In the later, postcolonial perspectives that deal with
   resistance and opposition, Said demonstrates the "anxiety of influence"
   generated by the novel on the anti-colonialist fictions of Ngugi wa
   Thiongo, The River Between and Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the
   North.(3)

When we turn to Said's book, Bhabha's comments are clearly borne out as Conrad's novel takes on a privileged and at times pervasive role. Importantly, however, there is a particular tension running throughout Said's discussion and use of Heart of Darkness to which Bhabha does not immediately direct our attention. This tension emerges from Said's recognition of an ambivalent status afforded colonialism in Conrad's novel, as it at once offers critics a perspective from which can be gained critical leverage on the discourse of colonialism and yet is itself one of the most concentrated and influential documents of modern colonial discourse.(4) In terms of the former, Heart of Darkness has commonly been seen to present a subversive perspective through Marlow's perversion of the West's image of itself as the place of light and civilization. After his up-river journey into the heart of darkness, the Western metropolis is revealed to Marlow cloaked in the folds of darkness he encountered at the ends of the earth: the white woman, the Intended, resembles Kurtz's African woman; the tall houses lining the city streets appear in the profile of the posts with human heads on them outside Kurtz's Inner Station; and the pounding of his heart echoes the beat of primitive drums heard in the depths of the jungle. As Bhabha himself observes, in Marlow's revelation of the darkness at home in the very heart of Europe through such a "discourse of daemonic doubling," he "beholds the everyday reality of the Western metropolis through the veil of the colonial fantasm."(5) In doing so Marlow performs a perversion of the West's ideal-image of itself as the true seat of civilization and light--a perversion which offers a certain critical leverage for interrupting the perpetuation of this self-image.

In line with the latter pole of the ambivalent status of colonialism recognized by Said, the "long shadow" of Conrad's novel has also been seen in far less positive terms. Most famously, Chinua Achebe has argued Heart of Darkness constitutes a document of high European racism to be rejected and purged of all cultural currency. In these terms the "long shadow" of its influence is felt more as a dark mantle to be cast off than a critically enlightening experience. For Achebe, Africa functions in the novel as a "foil" for Europe, constituting a negative, blank space onto which is projected all that Europe does not want to see in itself, everything that is abhorrent and abject.(6) The difference between this position and the former, which locates a subversive potential in the text, has largely to do with the respective degree of attention paid to the place of Africa in Heart of Darkness. It is with the place of Africa Achebe is notably most concerned, focusing on the way this place is marked by racial abjection. …

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