Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Threshold of the Invisible: Said, Conrad, and Imperialism

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Threshold of the Invisible: Said, Conrad, and Imperialism

Article excerpt

"Writing is precisely the very possibility of change, the space that can serve as a springboard for subversive thought, the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural struggles."1

In The Concept of Mind, Gilbert RyIe writes at length about what he calls "the systematic elusiveness of the I."2 Always one step ahead, the agent of conscious, intentional action perpetually outstrips its own grasp. He concludes his description of this phenomenon by noting that "there is no mystery about this constancy [with which the I eludes conscious grasp], but I mention it because it seems to endow T with a mystifying uniqueness and adhesiveness. 'Now' has something of the same besetting feeling."3 The "now" and the "I," the moment and the agent of deliberate action, of creation, slip from an apprehension that could only ever be their reiteration. Imagine this essential frustration as Conrad penned his novella, Heart of Darkness, that now famous work whose historical contingency seems lost beneath its canonic status. All of the carefully wrought-perhaps overly-wrought-lines,4 the archetypal characters, the slow envelopment of its brooding themes-all of these elements emerged in time, out of nothing, across the space of a blank page, as ink traced out across parchment; a perpetually dislocated act of expression. Amidst the almost suffocating purposiveness of Marlow and his tale-recounted now by another-each moment, each mark imagined thus seems to hold back and refuse to decidedly yield to the fullness of the narrative. The necessity of this withholding, the indecision that marks the materiality of the written, is itself the expression of a question.

In Conrad's novella, this question obtains expression through the peculiar constitution of Marlow, and specifically through the hesitations and interruptions that Marlow succumbs to in the course of the tale. "Marlow" is the name that Conrad gives to that space of narrative creation-the "now" of writing-that eludes encapsulation or semantic mastery. Marlow is an agent of syntax, of the multiplicity of interpretations birthed by the perpetually tardy bestowal of meaning, as evidenced by his implication not only within the narrative of Heart of Darkness, but also in the earlier story "Youth," and the subsequent novels Lord Jim and Chance.5 Marlow, with all of his complications, is certainly not a necessary component to the story of any of these works. One could imagine them without Marlow, related directly, perhaps, in the first person and therefore stripped of the apparently needless complication of Marlow's (and hence Conrad's) indirectness. Marlow's persistency is, therefore, a sign, perhaps a cipher, of another expression that subtends the narratives of the works that he imposes upon. As Edward Said recognizes, it is one of Conrad's chief virtues as a writer that his works are troubled by the space of the imminent catastrophe of writing, the space of the "now" within which a work of literature takes form without the writer ever being able to foresee its successful completion.6

All of the narrative displacements of Heart of Darkness bear witness to this impossibility of narrative appropriating its own determinacy. The name "Marlow" does not designate a character; it hides or masks a figure, a constellation of indissociable elements that expresses neither a subjective "I" nor an objective "now." In Marlow, Conrad gives expression to an I that is immediately invested by the non-subjective forces of worldly relations, both personal and otherwise, and to a now that takes in more than this man writing, this ink, and this paper, is added a now that includes the non-objective, historical and contingent meanings acquired by these objects and others. This expression in no way implies an intentional decision on the part of the author but rather amounts to a denial of the very possibility of such a decision. Like Marlow, Conrad himself is an expression for his readers of the historically determinate world that gave shape to his writing. …

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