Torgovnick Chapter 7: Traveling with Conrad
– Marlow describes the African jungle in a paragraph replete with primitivist tropes – it is frenetic
– Heart of Darkness is much read, but typically discussions of its colonial setting and colonialist rhetoric are evaded
– Conrad is imperialist but also articulates and reinforces a system of gender values
– The novel can be seen as an indictment of Belgian colonialism (and the British, of course, assumed that their colonialism was better)
– Marlow condemns colonialism but goes on to say that “what redeems it is the idea” (of bringing liberty and enlightenment to primitive peoples)
– Marlow is famous for speaking vaguely. This vagueness is not depth: it serves to veil what Kurtz is doing in Africa, and what Conrad is doing in this novel.
– Kurtz has taken imperialism to a great extreme; his workers are enslaved and he has them worship him. Worse than that, he has an African wife.
– Kurtz is also involved in head-hunting, but for individualistic and not communal purposes (and putting heads of vanquished enemies on pikes is also a European custom)
– Headless people (as metaphor): without thought, without language, in the realm of the instinctual… Kurtz was once a great, humanistic writer, but he has lost his voice…
– Kurtz’ experiences in Africa forced him to look inward, where he found nothing; he filled himself, therefore, with this version of the primitive as both brutish and sacred
– For Kurtz, isolation also destabilized language, so that his original intent, to suppress savage customs, became “exterminate the brutes” (or is it so complicated: did he just not finally express what he and his meant all along?)
– Kurtz was trying to recoup for the West the direct, unmediated experience associated with primitive societies, and to recoup for men the emotional experience patriarchy bars from them
– When Marlow gets back to Brussels, he is at first shocked by the emptiness of Western existence – but unlike Kurtz, he exercises restraint
– The novel thematizes the power of words – words like work and business – to mask what is really happening in the Congo. Language is the saving lie for the Europeans, but in the end, words cannot mask “the horror” that lies beyond their boundary. The novel itself, in the end, falls into the same trap it exposes.
– Narrated by Marlow, the novel shares many of his limitations. It approaches, but then elides, radical themes. Marlow learns that the thoughts which came to him in Africa are to be repressed. And yet both Kurtz and Marlow experience loathing for Western culture.
– Indeed, in many of the writers under discussion in this book the creation of certain versions of the primitive is produced by a sense of disgust with Westen values. The primitive becomes a locale for the exploration of Western degeneracy and of ways to transcend it. Thus the primitive functions as a symbolic entity which responds to Western needs and becomes the faithful or distorted mirror of the Western self. Thus the hypercivilized and the primitive are collapsed and homologous. Both point to the dire fate of Western man and culture unless values like restraint and work can be made to hold.
– In this novel Conrad approaches miscegenation, ritual slaughter and head-hunting as fantasy sites. But he never makes the fantasy explicit – it is “the horror, the horror.” Real psychological intensity is bypassed. It chooses instead the nightmare of Conrad’s gorgeous language – which keeps “the horror” at bay. The limits of identity are interrogated, and other narratives are hinted at, but the operation stops there.
– Conrad’s version of the primitive is thus a cheat: it promises much, seems to offer tolerance and sympathy, but it leaves out too much and is finally unable to transcend the Western values it attacks. Ultimately, all we get are stale stereotypes of Africa.
– Consider the African woman in this narrative, with “wild” sorrow, “dumb” pain, “half-shaped” resolve and “inscrutable” purpose. She is the primitive, and she presumably dies because she exposes herself to the pilgrims’ bullets. And she is associated with the African landscape, which is death in this novella.
– The primitive evokes women, sex, death, mortality, intuition, the fantastic, the collective, the seductive, the dangerous, the deadly, the unchanging, the eternal. The text evinces a yearning for and fear of boundary transgression, violence, and death. And the circularity between the concepts “female” and “primitive” is so complete that it is hard to see which is the primary set of tropes.
– Consider the binaries self/other, male/female, subject/object, dominant/subordinate: discussion of the primitive seems to be about male identity and the fearful attraction of its loss. Modernity is bound up with the articulation of the psychological subject and the individualistic self; the primitive evokes, apparently, a drama of identity.
– Masculinity is associated with separateness, apartness, restraint, control, everything which is not primitive.
– “Going primitive” means trying to go beyond modern, Western masculinity.