Category Archives: Conrad

HD and Apocalypse Now

Louis K. Greiff, “Conrad’s Ethics and the Margins of Apocalypse Now.” Conrad, HD. Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. New York: Norton, 2006. 484-491. [And note: this edition of the novella has excellent historical resources, including essays by Hegel and Darwin (Conrad’s near contemporaries) on “race” – and, of course, much, much more. Also note: after this article, there are two more on HD and AN.]

+ Study question: Do you think Marlow has as much integrity as the author of this essay attributes to him? [I think he is more ambiguous, more like Willard, than this essay admits.]

+ Study question: Greiff seems to think Willard’s moral ambiguity and passivity are worse and less meaningful than Marlow’s – do you agree? [I don’t.]

+ Study question: Greiff thinks Clean undertakes the massacre of the sampan riders out of pure terror. Do you agree? [I don’t.]  

* The film follows the novel far more closely and interestingly than is always recognized.

* It is framed by a Doors song instead of a scene of Willard explaining his adventure to “normal” people; this musical bridge connects the bizarre story of the outback and the context of modern cultural experience. Nightmare is conflated with normalcy.  

* Conrad and Marlow seem to believe that there is a connection between man’s endeavor and the quality of his being. To work well at a meaningful task is to create self along with visible accomplishment. To work badly is to erode one’s substance, as Kurtz has done in HD. Marlow has the integrity and strength to resist Africa, and Kurtz has lost his. Marlow is solid and internally unified, and he’s an artist both at his work and in his storytelling; his stories reveal truths.

* Kurtz could have been a brilliant artist but he has no stable substance, he is hollow; as such h is available to dark opportunities and dark suggestions from within.

* In the film, Willard (the Marlow surrogate) is the corrupt one, and Kurtz is the solid and dedicated one. Yet the film’s characters do not neatly exchange moral positions with those of the novel. And in the film, all ethical significance of their efforts is lost.

* The saucier and the pilot: artistry and discipline; only the saucier, in the end, believes that humans possess souls and that good and evil (not just relativism) do exist. Note the pairings of sailors, Black and white… and notice the pairings of the surfers; Kilgore looks like a good soldier but is hollow at heart (leaves the dying enemy he was giving water to for the sake of surfing talk).

* Greiff seems to think HD has a clear resolution and moral certainty, and that it is an ethical drama, and that AN distorts the text at least by locating the issues in different characters. The “ethical drama” is reenacted in a subplot by four marginal figures, and the major characters are both corrupt. He also thinks the movie wouldn’t work if it didn’t do that … Willard and Kurtz are TOO strange, they represent the Pan-European but NOT Americans, Americans are much more like the marginal characters.

* To Greiff’s conclusions I am tempted to say WHAT? What if the point is that this war, this American war, really was as corrupt as these central characters? (Do you think I am being too simplistic here?)


Posted by on February 17, 2008 in Bibliography, Conrad


Heart of Darkness III

+Study question: what is the importance of Kurtz’ amazing voice?

* The Russian is “motley, as though he had absconded from a troupe of mimes, enthusiastic, fabulous.” How can he exist? He is an “insoluble problem” (a problem of interpretation). He says, “I went a little farther, then still a little farther — till I had gone so far that I don’t know how I’ll ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I can manage. You take Kurtz away quick — quick — I tell you.”

* Hearing of the Russian’s conversations with Kurtz, Marlow feels the jungle to be darker than ever. Kurtz apparently hates the place, but has it in his thrall and cannot get away. (His identity is bound up with it.)

* Marlow sees the shrunken heads on posts surrounding Kurtz’ house. They do not seem so horrible to him as what he imagines the ceremonies for approaching Kurtz may be. “After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist — obviously — in the sunshine.”

* The Russian seems to believe that Kurtz has gone overboard as he has precisely because he had such lofty ideas. Now Kurtz arrives and appears to be near death. But his voice is amazing. And then his fabulous woman appears. He says his “idea” is good and he will carry it out yet. To Marlow Kurtz already appears less unsound than the woman, the manager, and the rest of the atmosphere. Thus Marlow realizes that he is also marked as “unsound.”

* The Russian realizes he is in danger and/or obsolete, and leaves. Night falls, and Kurtz’ followers are beating a drum and chanting, mesmerizing Marlow. Then they fall silent; Marlow goes to Kurtz’ cabin, but he is gone. Marlow feels horror, and the thought of an actual, physical massacre is calming by contrast. He goes off to look for Kurtz.

* “I did not betray Mr. Kurtz — it was ordered I should never betray him — it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone — and to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.”

* He finds Kurtz near the campfires. “I had to beat that Shadow — this wandering and tormented thing,” says Marlow. Kurtz says he knows exactly what he is doing. But Marlow has to convince him to come away. Kurtz, he feels, is “struggling blindly with himself.” He carries Kurtz away, but has gone over to his side. And yet the African scene is, to Marlow, one of unspeakable horror. Kurtz discourses on his great ideas. And, “‘Oh, but I will wring your heart yet!’ he cried at the invisible wilderness.

* Kurtz is dying. “His was an impenetrable darkness.” As he dies, he says, “‘The horror! The horror!’” Marlow later says, “He had summed up — he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth — the strange commingling of desire and hate.” He has remained “loyal to Kurtz to the last” because Kurtz, so to speak, went to the ends of things (and because of his ‘voice’).

* Marlow has the fever and almost dies. But he gets back to Brussels and it seems absolutely silly. He refuses to give up Kurtz’ papers. Finally he gives the pamphlet on the suppression of savage customs to a journalist, and is left with private letters and a picture of Kurtz’ Intended. He decides to give these back to her.

* As he goes to her house, he has a vision of Kurtz and Africa. “The vision seemed to enter the house with me — the stretcher, the phantom-bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart — the heart of a conquering darkness. It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul.”

* The tall marble fireplace in the Intended’s house has a “monumental whiteness” (contrast the ritual fires in Africa, the heart of darkness). Yet he can see how the Intended is Kurtz’ other half. She believes in “the great, saving illusion.” And she believes he has set a wonderful example. Marlow says, “I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her, too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness.”

* She wants to know what his very last words were. Marlow can hardly believe she cannot hear them. But he says they were her name, and she says she knew it. “I could not tell her. It would have been too dark — too dark altogether. . . .”

* Marlow stops talking. The boat has lost track of the tide, and is becalmed, and a dark bank of clouds bars vision: it is as though the river leads into “an immense darkness.”

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Posted by on February 17, 2008 in Conrad


Heart of Darkness I – second half, and II

+ Take a look at this interesting edition of HD!

+ Yesterday in class we discussed the beginning of HD in relation to our films and to Torgovnick. We decided to watch Apocalypse Now in its entirety Thursday. Everyone is expected to have finished HD by Tuesday next, when Megan will give her presentation. We will further elucidate the novel, in connection with Torgovnick and AN, continuing, if necessary, Thursday (February 21), when Stana will give her presentation on Tarzan. Our plan for that Thursday, however, is to begin work on selections from Sarmiento’s Facundo, supported by a discussion of Said’s Orientalism, although some of this may be pushed off to the following Tuesday, depending on how comfortable everyone is with HD.

+ Our current study questions are, how is the jungle represented in this novel? In what terms is it described?, how does HD represent the Western self and exhibit the non-Western “other”?, and what can we say about the order of the narration and the structure of narrative voice(s)? will be key questions for us on those days. A journal entry related to one these three study questions, or on a thematic issue in HD of your choice, or a close reading of the HD passage of your choice, will be due Tuesday, February 19th. The following notes are intended to help people get more and more comfortable with HD.

+ Lagniappe question: who are the pilgrims with their staves, and why does Marlow call them that?

HD I – second half

+ The company agent is irritated that this “grove of death” (as Marlow puts it) distracts him from his bookkeeping. He says to Marlow: “When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages–hate them to the death.” He is impressed with Kurtz and says the Company intends him to rise high.

+ Marlow starts upriver. The landscape is very strange: there are abandoned villages, dead carriers, a mysterious festive white man, a murdered “Negro,” and Marlow begins to feel within himself those “scientifically interesting” mental changes the Doctor had mentioned back in Brussels.

+ After 15 days Marlow gets to the station, only to find that his steamer has sunk. It will take months to fix. Things are sordid and tense. The station manager inspires uneasiness. He had started up the river with the steamer before Marlow’s arrival because of an emergency. t is rumored that Kurtz is ill, and the situation is considered grave. Marlow is irritated and says, “I was getting savage.”

+ Marlow: “I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”

+ There is the strange incident with the hut that goes up in flames, and the mysterious, apparently Kurtz-related conversation about “taking advantage of [this] situation.” And there is competition among company agents, and rumors that one may be a company spy.

+ The brickmaker strikes up a conversation with Marlow, who sees he has a sketch made by Kurtz – who, he says, is part of the company’s “new gang,” apparently less dishonest and brutal than the old. People want Marlow to convince Kurtz that they are all right; they, too, can be more modern (less brutal) colonizers.

+ There is much corruption, rapaciousness, cruelty, exploitation, passive agression, intrigue, and inefficiency. By the time the chapter ends, Marlow has still not received the rivets he needs to get his steamer fixed.


* The Eldorado Exploring Expedition, described at the end of the last section, is run by the station manager’s uncle. One night Marlow hears these two talking. They are discussing company politics, and a “him” – Kurtz, and his ivory operations. Marlow is finally able to get an image of Kurtz, who, it is hinted, has ‘gone native’ to some degree or in some way.

* Again, there are many machinations, all only half hinted at, all having to do with money and power; people are envious of Kurtz, glad he is sick, and in no hurry to get him any medical attention.

* Marlow says of the uncle: “I saw him extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river — seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.” Is he suggesting that the uncle calls forth the natural evil of the land?

* Finally Marlow gets to start off up the river. “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. . . . ” “We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” There is some horrible inner truth that is unspoken, and meanwhile they are gliding into prehistory, punctuated by the signs of the most sordid colonialism.

* Fifty miles below Kurtz’ station they come upon an abandoned station with a note for them, saying to hurry up. Something is wrong, obviously. But there is also a book there, that seems “real” to Marlow in comparison to all that is going on in this jungle. The book has handwritten annotations in code.

* Eight miles below Kurtz’ station they are surrounded by an impenetrable mist, and there are screams which seem to come from the mist itself. Are they being attacked? Meditation from Marlow: their workers may be starving, yet they have not savagely attacked the whites (to eat them). How is it that these savages can show such restraint? A mystery. [Leslie: in this whole novella, it is as though the whites could countenance neither the Other nor themselves, or their own actions.] Perception: the screams are not war cries, but screams of grief.

* The “attack” is a confused form of self-defense, and the riders on the steamer respond in a confused manner. It is imagined that Kurtz may be dead, and Marlow realizes that what he wanted was to talk to Kurtz, hear him speak, for his gift, apparently, comes in words. It is “the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.” Marlow is profoundly disappointed at the prospect of this loss, and sighs as he has heard the inhabitants of the jungle sigh. He is so frustrated that he throws his shoes overboard!

* At this point in his story, Marlow is very agitated. He is going to discover, he says, that in fact he will hear Kurtz speak; Kurtz is very little more than a voice, and then there is a question of this “girl.” He talks wildly about her: women must stay in their lovely, unsullied world, lest the men’s world get even worse.

* Kurtz, meanwhile, has degenerated, but he has a great deal of ivory, which they load onto the steamer, and he seems to have gotten it out of some pact with the devil, and seems to have set himself up as a kind of god.

* Marlow makes several impassioned, interpretive statements: is he suggesting that only through civilization are we not taken over by the powers of darkness?

* Kurtz wrote a report for the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, but ended up participating in demonic rites. His recommendation in the report is that the whites set themselves up as deities. With that power, they can go on to do Good. “It gave [Marlow] the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” Scrawled at the end of the report, though, is the phrase Exterminate the Brutes!

* The “Pilgrims” and the Africans are both childlike and incompetent, it seems. Finally, thanks to Marlow’s efforts, they get up to Kurtz’ place, where Marlow meets the Russian who until recently lived in the station below. The book he found, annotated in code, is actually annotated in Russian. The Russian explains that the natives do not want Kurtz to leave, and insists that Kurtz has enlarged his mind.

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Posted by on February 13, 2008 in Conrad


Heart of Darkness I – first half

* Notice the recurrence of the (binary) motifs light / darkness and civilization / savagery. What is each term associated with? Do the associations change?

* As the novella opens, the characters are the narrator, Marlow, the Captain, the Accountant, and the Lawyer. They are sailing out the Thames. This is the frame story. Soon the narration is taken over by Marlow, who tells his story of Kurtz and the Congo river to his companions as they sail in English waters.

* Note that the story is about Belgian colonialism – implying that English colonialism could be different, and possibly getting the immediate audience off the hook, as it were.

* At the beginning: London is dark behind them (“mournful gloom,” “brooding gloom”) and there is a “luminous space ahead” [empty – reminiscent, perhaps, of Sarmiento’s desierto (we’ll talk about this possibility)]

* The Captain’s work is back in gloomy London, but he looks entirely nautical; the men are bonded together by the sea

* Marlow resembles an idol; the river is beautiful, meditative, and increasingly profound; the sea holds history, meaning, power, dreams; Marlow points out that England also “has been one of the dark places of the earth” [a colony, being “civilized” by the Romans]

* In thouse days England would have been savage, and the young Roman citizen would have felt rather desperate, felt the “utter savagery.” Wilderness, jungles, hearts of wild men, mysteries, “the incomprehensible which is also detestable.” “The fascination of abomination, the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender – the hate.

* Marlow goes on to discuss colonialism. “What saves us is efficiency – the devotion to efficiency.” The Romans were mere conquerors, not real colonists, and needed only brute force – “as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” Conquest and colonization are pillage of people who look different  from ourselves. “What redeems it is the idea only.” An unselfish belief in the idea, an idea you can bow down before, and make a sacrifice to…

* Going up the Congo River was “the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience.” It was somber, but it threw a light on everything, although this light did not make things clear.

* Back from the Orient, Marlowe had been loafing about London,  as though he were on a mission to civilize it.  He had always liked maps – maps with unknown places, blank spaces – although Africa, increasingly filled in with names on the map, had now become a dark place

* The Congo River coiled like a snake, and attracted him

* He got a job replacing a Dane who had been killed by Africans when he, after two years “engaged in the noble cause,” “felt the need at last of asserting his self-respect in some way” and beat up an old man

* After they kill the Dane they do not touch “the supernatural being,” and they appear later to have abandoned their village in some sort of primitive terror

* When Marlow went to sign his contract in Belgium there was some sort of ominous air in the office. He has a bad feeling. (Notice the proliferation of words here like eerie, uncanny, “door of Darkness,” the women knitting black wool)

* The Doctor measures his cranium, as he does of all those who go to Africa, but says he never sees them when they come back; “the changes take place inside, you know”

* The jungle, the Congo, Africa, is referred to as “out there.” The Doctor wonders if there is madness in Marlow’s family. He warns him to avoid irritation; in the jungle it is necessary to remain calm. Meanwhile, his aunt thinks of Marlowe going off to civilize, but he reminds her that the Company is run for profit. Women are out of touch with truth [what does Marlow mean by this?]. He feels like an impostor.

* Sailing along the African coast – coasts are enigmas – an alien mystery – monotonous – and the jungle beyond is so dark green as to be almost black. Marlow feels no point of contact with the other men on the ship, and feels more akin to the sea itself. Seeing actual Africans in African boats is a relief because they seem to fit in. The earth is empty and immense, the ship seems limp and weak, and once they come upon a man of war firing weakly, almost meaninglessly, into the bush (and the men on the ship are dying of fever)

* They pass by many deathly places (“the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still … atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb”). Marlowe feels a vague and oppressive wonder, and hints of nightmares; he sees the rivers that pour into the sea as “streams of death in life”

* Finally they get to the mouth of the Congo and Marlowe changes ships. This boat is run by a Swede. He hints at how white men go mad in the tropics, cannot take it.

* He arrives to his Company’s station where a railway truck looks “dead,” and in the shade “dark things seemed to stir feebly.” Then he sees black people run…and then a half starved chain gang. Their captain seems to be weak and evil, and apparently, we will meet him again.

* Notice the sarcasm with which Marlowe describes these goings-on – he is not impressed with the Company or with Belgian colonialism … it is an inferno … the hill is being mined … and there are African workers dying [of bad food and overwork]

* Now he meets a company official, very elegant, with the “backbone” to maintain this elegance in the tropics…he is very officious. The contrast between this and everything else going on is grotesque. Marlow has to wait there for ten days, during which the official describes Mr. Kurtz.

To be continued! 

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Posted by on February 12, 2008 in Conrad


Torgovnick 7

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.

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Posted by on January 27, 2008 in Conrad, Torgovnick