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

"It Was Very Quiet There": The Contaminating Soundscapes of "Heart of Darkness"

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

"It Was Very Quiet There": The Contaminating Soundscapes of "Heart of Darkness"

Article excerpt

TO A significant extent, "Heart of Darkness" is a story about resistance to sensory input. Far from being a narrative communicated through sense impressions, the story is related mainly through a consciousness that is trying to avoid engaging with the outside world. To Marlow, a man's strength in the jungle is measured by his ability to handle its violent assault on his senses. He is profoundly aware that the real threat of the wilderness is not to the body but to the mind, and he repeatedly returns to the danger of sense impressions to his mental health: "The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too by Jove! - breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated" (94). The risk of contamination comes from the persistent "assault" of "the powers of darkness" in the wilderness, against which a man's "innate strength" is his only protection (94). Marlow consequently struggles to engage as little as possible with outside reality. His resolution to stay "uncontaminated" during his journey fails, of course, as he cannot escape the wilderness's attack on his senses.

Marlow's tendency to block sense impressions is especially noteworthy when it comes to the novella's soundscapes, through which the jungle's effect on his mind and his consequent mental corrosion can be charted. From the start of his narrative, Marlow's resistance to the wild's undefined dangers is established through his unwillingness to engage with the sounds of the wilderness. For what is most interesting about the represented aural setting is not so much what Marlow hears as what he does not. As he regards the "prehistoric" land that surrounds him on both sides of the river where he is carefully manœvering his boat, he repeatedly returns to one of its aspects: its profound silence (79). The unreal quality of this silence says more about Marlow than about the setting the silence is meant to describe.

To understand why Marlow is so reluctant to engage with the world around him as to suppress its sounds is to engage with one of the central enigmas of "Heart of Darkness": in what way is Marlow changed - "contaminated" - by his journey to the wilderness? The idea of "contamination" is essential to the argument here. Although he tries to suppress them, Marlow is eventually "contaminated" by the sounds of the wild and, as a consequence, nearly corrupted.

This essay will argue that the colonial enterprise in Africa is presented as a threat that does not only affect the Africans who are suffering at the hands of the colonizers, but also susceptible Westerners such as Marlow and Kurtz. Far from spreading progress, light, and Empire, Kurtz falls victim to his weaknesses when exposed to what the novella presents as the wilderness's degenerative force. Marlow's suppression of sense impressions - specifically sounds - is linked to his fear of this force, a fear that defines his encounter not only with the African landscape but also with its indigenous people, with Kurtz, and, ultimately, with aspects of himself that he would have preferred to ignore.

Although Marlow lives to tell his story, the chain of contamination that begins in Africa is still in process when he narrates his journey to his friends aboard the Nellie. This discussion of the soundscapes in "Heart of Darkness," which begins with an exploration of the silence Marlow experiences in the wilderness and its effect on him, concludes with a consideration of the frame narrator's function in the text; it will be argued that he, too, is contaminated by listening to Marlow's story and by experiencing it through his senses.

The mystery surrounding Marlow's experiences in Africa turns on the paradoxical nature of his sensory engagement with the external world. On the one hand, this engagement is, of course, unavoidable, as he can hardly escape everything registered by his eyes and ears. On the other hand, it does seem as if he can choose to some degree how deeply to involve his senses with the wild. …

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