Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Readable across "Heart of Darkness"

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

The Readable across "Heart of Darkness"

Article excerpt

"HEART OF DARKNESS" is almost neurotic in its attention to the limits of the narratable, the difficulty of articulation, and obstacles to comprehension. As a result, that which is narrated and understood without marked effort acquires an exceptional status. This essay takes Peter Brooks's trenchant observation that "certain minimum canons of readability remain necessary if we are to be able to discern the locus of the necessarily unreadable" in "Heart of Darkness" as its point of departure (1984: 242). The "unreadable" or the epistemological difficulty of Conrad's best known and most canonical work might be re-evaluated through its moments of "readability."

Despite the interdependency of the categories readable and unreadable as formulated by Brooks, criticism has tended to focus exclusively on the novella's unreadable aspects. F. R. Leavis's discussion of the opacity of "Heart of Darkness" has had a long critical afterlife. In The Great Tradition (1948), Leavis describes Conrad's "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery" as, in fact, betraying "absence" (177-80). Conrad's deployment of words including "unknowable," "inscrutable," "unutterable," and "unspeakable" suggests to Leavis that Conrad is "intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means" (180).

After Leavis's criticism of the novella's superfluous impenetrability, several critics respond in the vein of Jeremy Hawthorn: "Dr Leavis associates Marlow's incoherence with a failure of meaning in the book, whereas it is part of that book's meaning" (1979: 30). While for Brooks, the unreadability of Marlow's narration "poses in an exemplary way central questions about the shape and epistemology of narrative" (1984: 238), Chinua Achebe interprets the unknowability of African characters and the indefinability of an African landscape to be the result of Conrad's racism. Through "a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery," Conrad's prose induces a "hypnotic stupor in his readers" that enables him to perpetuate "comforting myths": namely, the absence of African history and humanity (1977: 784). Rather than taking the idea of the readable as being part and parcel of the various iterations of the "inarticulable," "incomprehensible," and "indescribable" in the novella, as in some recent Modernist and postcolonial approaches, however, moments of readability are here the centre of analysis.

The idea of the "readable" as it is used here can be traced back to the pages of "Heart of Darkness." Losing patience with the Manager's criticism of Kurtz's "methods," Marlow sardonically suggests that the brickmaker - a man who neither makes bricks nor proposes to in the future - might instead "make a readable report" detailing Kurtz's failings (109). Marlow's use of this adjective refers, in the first instance, to legibility: the brickmaker, versed in the Company's business, its "talk," and its "government," should be able to produce a document satisfying the generic expectations of those in "the proper quarters" (66, 109). This "readable" document will also perform the desired effect of removing Kurtz from his post, and in his absence the Manager will acquire Kurtz's ivory. "Readability," as an expression of fidelity to discursive convention, also represents complicity with imperial commerce and the European exploitation of African natural resources.

In the second instance, Marlow's use of "readable" underscores the perhaps obvious but equally crucial point that the report is a written artefact: it can literally be read. Therefore, "readable" also instantiates a text-speech dichotomy that overlaps simultaneously with Brooks's division of the novella along a readable-unreadable axis. As a text, the brickmaker's written report is distinct from the novella's main event: Marlow's protracted oral narration aboard the Nellie.

Apart from the brickmaker's hypothetical report, Marlow encounters several other texts prior to and during his journey in Africa - snippets of newspaper articles and letters, Kurtz's notorious Report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, and An Inquiry into Some Points of Seamanship - that do not present him with the dilemma of representation. …

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