Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique

By Benita Parry | Go to book overview

9

Narrating imperialism: beyond Conrad's dystopias

[T]he radical qualities of art, that is to say, its indictment of established realities and its invocation of the beautiful image … of liberation are grounded precisely in the dimensions where art transcends its social determination and emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behaviour while preserving its overwhelming presence … The aesthetic transformation becomes a vehicle of recognition and indictment … only as estrangement does art fulfil a cognitive function: it communicates truths not communicable in any other language; it contradicts.

Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics1


I.Heart of Darkness

It is in the spirit of Marcuse's remarks on the radical qualities of art that I want to look at Heart of Darkness, 2 a fiction in touch with and alienated from the consciousness and unconscious of imperialism, a book that is saturated in contemporary notions about cultural hierarchy and 'emancipates itself from the given universe of discourse and behaviour while preserving its overwhelming presence'. For by telling a story of catastrophe and about nescience, Heart of Darkness subverts imperialism's claim to be the agent of universal progress and in possession of all knowledge. Both Marlow's recourse to mismatched terms when sardonically speaking of the imperial venture as 'the fore-runner of change, of conquest, of trade, of massacres, of blessings' (p. 98), and the metonyms of menace in the apparent tribute made by the primary narrator to Britain's long and glorious history of imperial endeavours, render the celebratory idiom of imperialist self-representation suspect: 'The old river … had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with its round flanks full of treasure … to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests - and that never returned' (pp. 6-7). More explicitly the reiteration of received phrases such as the heavenly mission to civilize, the noble, exalted cause, just proceedings and magnificent dependencies, serve to mock imperialism's grandiloquence, as does the description of Kurtz by a company agent hostile to the 'gang of virtue' as 'an emissary of pity and science and progress' (p. 36). Instead Marlow's recollections are of an abject colonialism: 'I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly' (p. 23).

Because narrative, syntax and imagery rehearse and refuse the official version of imperialism's advent and itinerary, the effect is to engage the reader in the existential dilemmas of the moment in which the novel was conceived and delivered; and because

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