Monday, September 24, 2007


"My hour of favour was over; I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe: I was unsound! Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares."--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Last week the text for discussion was Conrad's Heart of Darkness(1899), that powerful and slippery novella that, each time I read it, seems harder and harder to fathom. Some works of art are like that: the earlier you encounter them, the easier they are. Make up your mind about them quickly and move on. But then there are those milestones -- those works that are perennially "assigned," so that, in a sense, one is never "done" with them: The Great Gatsby . . . The Waste Land . . . Ulysses . . . Moby Dick. I guess most of Shakespeare's major plays fall into that category too, but there one can always lean upon the facts of the period. But what are the facts of the modern period, "our" period? Which are incontestable? Which are useful? What is the context that matters?

Heart of Darkness can be an adventure yarn, and a pretty good one it is, if a bit anticlimactic; it can be proto-modernism -- its symbolism if at times obvious is extremely deft and, more importantly, evocative, and it satisfies that literary need of using familiar tropes from "the tradition" to add density and suggestion in a modern setting; it can be an exemplar of impressionistic narrative, of the unreliable narrator, of ironically posed and articulated tale-telling; it can be a mini epic of colonialist exploitation; it can be a severe questioning of the late Victorian sense of propriety and "the white man's burden"; it can be a racist tale with liberal underpinnings (à la Achebe) that is ultimately culpable in treating Africans as impossible others, animalistic and unintelligible; it can be an odyssey into a wilderness that undermines the resources -- moral, intellectual, psychological, material -- that make such exploration possible; it can even be -- thanks to Coppola's messy if ambitious film -- "analogous" to the American experience in Vietnam in which "the enemy is us."

Reading it this time, I was mainly interested in what Marlow thinks he means when he says he has "a choice of nightmares" and that he chooses Kurtz's nightmare, rather than the nightmare of the Belgian operation from which Kurtz is a renegade. In other words, on the one side -- the rejected nightmare -- is the organization men, the self-satisfied, unquestioning exploiters who see an opportunity and seize it, no exceptions, no questions asked, no quarter given or requested. But the other nightmare isn't so easy to assess. Kurtz's "unsound method" is deemed by Marlow "no method at all." But if that's because "method" gives way to "nightmare," we still must wonder what it means to choose that nightmare, that "unsound method," and be "loyal" to it as Marlow insists he has been.

In a sense, that loyalty is the "method" of telling the story, perhaps, the "sunken Buddha" pose from which Marlow's voice emanates, becoming a voice as Kurtz became a voice. Kurtz, Marlow insists, "had something to say. He said it. . . . He had summed up - he had judged. 'The horror!'" But these reflections occur after Kurtz's death; the sense of choosing Kurtz's "nightmare" occurs while Kurtz is still alive, though clearly doomed. The point is: Kurtz hasn't yet "summed up" when Marlow first speaks his allegiance. So the moment that seems definitive for me, is when Marlow states: "I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him -- himself -- his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air."

Here we have the Nietzschean conception of Kurtz. Kurtz an artist of life, a will to power, a fatality -- as Nietzsche would say. No method at all. Some might find this moment hyperbolic -- what in fact has Kurtz achieved? What has he accomplished? Not much, surely, in world historical terms. But that is precisely the greatness of Conrad's conception: how to give a sense of a completely new understanding of the world, a shattering of every conviction about what man is, a loss of any standards, practices, sources, meanings, images that can be appealed to. One might as well say here is the moment -- here a being -- "beyond good and evil," because those terms simply can't be applied in any conventional -- which is to say acceptable, determinate -- sense. A nightmare, certainly, if you would like to turn this into method, into a specific act to be praised or blamed. It's a moment when Marlow -- and possibly Conrad -- is willing to be "of Lucifer's part" as Milton couldn't help being in Paradise Lost. To choose: the most seductive phantom, the most baleful ghost, the most cunning demon, the most errant knave, the most impossible claim. In a manner of speaking, Kurtz's "method" is the "method" of Une saison en enfer. Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Heart of Darkness effectively end the nineteenth century in the name of something "Unsound!"

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