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Module 1: Heart of Darkness

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Twentieth Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture – 09
Heart of Darkness – Part 4


So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction. We were looking at Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. We have already started with the text we will look at a certain section today especially the section where Marlow goes and he gets interviewed by this mysterious Belgian company, which is to hire him to go to Congo for the ivory trade.
Now, the reason why I have selected the scene is we talk about the neurosis in the whole process, it becomes very automaton like process where a company hires someone. And then there is almost no human quality about this entire experience which is something which makes it interesting for us, looking at the entire machinery of imperialism.
Now, what that also is reflective of is the inhuman quality or the non-human quality of imperialism. It becomes almost an automatic process of exploitation an automatic process of operation, which is obviously evident in the way in which the hiring takes place in this particular section. So, and among other things this is also an important scene because it touches upon some of the contemporary concerns in Europe, criminology for instance was a big thing you know the whole idea of degeneration was a big thing.
So, all these pseudo-medical philosophies pseudo-medical thesis around criminology, degeneration, those were becoming more and more systematized in the 19th century, late 19th century which is the era in which this novel is set. You know Marlow finds himself in a situation where the whole idea of going to Africa also poses a threat of degeneration, also poses a threat towards some kind of criminality, because obviously, as we all know today the whole idea of degeneration and criminality was always conferred on the other the non-European, specially the African and who was considered to be savage, you know violent animalistic etcetera.
So any proximity to the African wildness any proximity to the African you know native or the savage, it would always pose this threat of degeneration and criminality for the European. And, this section where Marlow gets hired and there’s a sort of medical test done to him as well in terms of determining his fitness to go and work for the Belgian company. So, all that becomes part of a very complex cultural process, where the
European the non-European other was exploited, but at same time he was feared the nonEuropean space was exploited but at the same time feared for the possibility of degeneration and criminality.
So, criminology which was sort of a pseudo-scientific discourse around the time, where criminality was equated with the skull size or the size of the forehead with teeth, with skin color, of course, etcetera. So, we find how those characteristics were very heavily racialized, they are almost always non-white and also you know there is a degree of antisemitic quality about criminals as well. So, you know for instance if you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, you find that you know the whole idea of equating criminality with the Jew was very rampant, and especially the way Dracula gets represented the physiognomy of Dracula for instance is very, very, stereotypically Jewish kind of a physiognomy I mean that was how the stereotypical projection of the Jew happened right.
So, this is this thing is interesting you know all these aspects. Now, the reason why this is important for us because what we see through all these discourses, pseudo-discourses this whole idea of the threat, the whole fear and panic of degeneration etcetera. You know how darkness which is to say ignorance or non-enlightenment and nonillumination, a superstition for the matter it is very much part of the European phenomenon over here it is not really located in Africa, but this whole idea about the confusion about criminality, the racism around criminality, the very regressive idea of the degenerate etcetera.
And all that exhibits darkness, you know darkness in terms of lack of knowledge, in terms of confused knowledge or confusion in knowledge, which is interestingly located right in the heart of Europe, right in Brussels, which is the site of the imperial machinery where the imperial office is positioned where you know it sends all the emissaries or the agents of the empire you know down the Congo down Ganges down different parts of the world. But this is where the money comes back, this is where the capital grows, this is where the imperial capital happens and is operative.
So, to see darkness located there, to see pseudo knowledge located there, to see automatism located there is obviously, you know did remind of the fact, reflective of the fact that darkness is not really an anti or nonwhite phenomenon, darkness is very much part of the white civilization as well, white western civilization as well. Which connects this back to the very beginning of the novel if you remember Marlow had started the novel by saying this Jew which was in Thames - River Thames, the glorious river of civilization he said.
Well, this Jew had once upon a time been a heart of darkness, which is to say that you know the whole idea of darkness and light civilization and non-civilization, these are very mutable categories. And, these change all the time right and that is something which we come back to as we read this particular section.
So, I just dive into the text, and let us see how the very neurotic quality, the very automatic quality, the anxiety in the whole process is described and foregrounded, and dramatized in some details. And I quote this should be on your screen. A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar. I slipped through one of those cracks, and went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to.
So, it just seems like a very, very non-human, non-metropolis, non-metropolitan kind of a setting, it just seems like a desert, and it just seems like you know something of a mirage, he just gets lost in a maze, something very primal about this particular setting. And also if you take a look at the language where he is saying, I slipped through one of the cracks, it is almost like a fall, falling into an abyss. So, moving up or navigating into the staircases that these venetian blinds very complex windows and those, it is like falling into an abyss falling down a crack into an abyss that is something which Marlow is experiencing over here. I am relaying it to its listeners. And open the first door I came to.
Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. So, again this whole idea two women sitting silently, and knitting black wool is a very classical image of fate, fate being a woman who knits wool, wool being the obviously, the passages of time just sort of you know knitting and un-knitting wool at the same time, so your knitting and un-knitting time at same time, so fate becomes an entanglement of time and destiny.
So, it is a very classical Greek image of women you know knitting wool becoming an agents of destiny, agents of time, agents of fate. And that the classical kind of imagery is used and reused over here in a modern setting which is obviously, modern Brussels, the capital of Belgium where Marlow finds himself about to be interviewed ok.
Sitting and knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me – still knitting with downcast eyes – and only just as I began to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still and looked up. So, again look at the wordlessness of the whole process, the emotionlessness the whole process, she just walks up to Marlow, still knitting the wool, and only when Marlow has begun to think that maybe she is sleep walking, she is a somnambulist, and he is about to move away from her direction, she looks up at that moment.

Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned round without a word and preceded me into a waiting-room. So, again the wordlessness is important which is part of the neurosis over here, it has an automaton like quality, it is like a machine he is actually in the heart of the imperial machine at the moment. And there is no need for any word, there is no need for any human intimacy, there is no need for any human touch, there is no human quality about it at all. So, it is like walking into a bunch of automata as it was. So, all these people are figures of automata, they are automatic figures who are just propelling entire machinery forward, and Marlow finds himself in a company in these automata ok.
So, she preceded me into a waiting-room. I gave my name, and looked about. Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all around the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show that where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly-lager beer right.
So, again look at the divisions over here. Each color corresponds to something, there is a color of exploitations, color of merriment, and quite clearly each color denotes a country’s location or the spaces or territorialize location in the entire colonial process.
So, there is a patch which draws the colonial machinery, there is another patch which you know supplies merriment, there is another patch which gets abused etcetera.
So, all patches correspond to certain you know geopolitical positions at that point of time, certain cultural positions, and certain economic positions at that point of time. So, this mapping is quite literally a mapping of privilege that Marlow is witnessing. So, he is looking at a map a real map a patch of different colors, and each color corresponds to a position of privilege, whether it is privilege or underprivilege, one is exploiting or exploited a territory, and that that is determining its location in that map

However, I was not going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there – fascinating – deadly – like a snake. Again the primal quality is important over here, in the river Congo of course, as it is getting mentioned over here. And Marlow looks at it for the first time and thinks of some kind of a serpentine presence; it is almost like a biblical snake which is about to seduce him into this heart of darkness right. Fascinating – deadly like a snake.
Ough, a door opened, ya white-haired secretarial head, but wearing a compassionate expression, appeared, and a skinny forefinger beckoned me into the sanctuary. So, again the wordlessness is important over here, a white head appears, and he is beckoned by a finger you know into a sanctuary or the meeting room presumably. Its light was dim, and a heavy-writing desk squatted in the middle. From behind the structure came out an impression of a pale plumpness in a frock-coat. So, again there is a female presence in this room, and she is a secretary taking down notes maybe.
The great man himself. So, the great man – the owner, presumably the executive officer in this company, this colonial company, he was five feet six, I should judge, and had his grip on a on a handle-end of ever so many millions. He shook hands, I fancy, murmured vaguely, was satisfied with my French. BON VOYAGE. So, again this great man meets him, and again there is no human quality at all, there is no emotive communication at all, it is a very matter of fact a businesslike communication. And it is almost as if he is being scanned for fitness. So, the only thing he is fit for this voyage, because his French was satisfactory and he wishes Marlow good luck.
In about forty-five seconds I found myself again in the waiting-room with a compassionate secretary, who, full of desolation and sympathy, made me sign some document. I believe I undertook amongst other things not to disclose any trade secrets. Well, I am not going to. So, again this is coming back into present time. So, Marlow is saying well I had to sign some disclosure forms non-disclosure forms, where I had to sort of make an oath, make a promise in writing that I would not disclose any trade secrets of the company. Well, and he says I am not going to tell you, and it is restricted now either right. So, again the whole cutting back and across time is important, the two different kinds of narratives at play over here right.

I began to feel slightly uneasy; so this neurosis is beginning to make its presence felt the anxiety is making its presence felt. You know I am not used to such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy – I do not know – something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. So, again this is the beginning of the ambivalence that Marlow experiences throughout his imperial experience.
He is about to feel that something is not quite right; something is not quite you know correct in the whole process. And you know he is saying that it is almost as if he has been led into some conspiracy, something quite nefarious, something evil is about to take place, but he does not quite know what I cannot put a finger on it, and define it as such. And this ambivalence, this cynicism, this uncertainty is something which informs Marlow throughout the entire narrative, and he becomes almost a very nervous neurotic narrator.
So, he carries a neurosis with him wherever he goes that gets obviously, compounded and accentuated in the Congo, but when even he comes back to London and even when is telling a story now he is still being a very, very neurotic narrator right. He does not know quite what happened, he is cognitively very confused, and his narration is very, very neurotic and unreliable in the same in same degree. So, he begins to feel uneasy, it is almost like a you know physical problem for him, and he wants to get out.
In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. Again the word feverish is important, because what it does it just creates a claustrophobia around the entire atmosphere, it becomes very neurotic, claustrophobic condition, whereby you know the whole idea of this becomes unhealthy, unhygienic, and women who are very feverish, the almost frenzied presences, and the knitting wool feverishly, and very very feverishly. People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them.
The old one sat on a chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a rat and a cat reposed on her lap. So, again the presence of this feline animal the cat on a lap while she is knitting wool, again this sort of suggests something of a classical image of fate of whimsy of fancy etcetera. And obviously, this sole idea of time and faith become important over here. She wore a starched white affair on her head, had a wart on her cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses.

The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. So, there is almost like a clinical scan like quality about the gaze, it is very swift and very indifferent, there is no human connect and that is something I keep telling throughout this particular session that the nonhuman quality about this entire process of recruitment is obviously connected with the inhuman quality of exploitation the colonial exploitation. So, the nonhuman and inhuman are connected categories over here. They are connected categories in the sense that you know the politics of exploitation depends on a nonhuman clinical quality over here which Marlow is experiencing for the first time.
Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over, and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. Again the indifference is obviously very palpable, unconcerned wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and about me, too. There is an all-pervading gaze something which is seen through Marlow’s appearances, like a penetrating quality about him. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, and the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. AVE, Old knitter of black wool. MORITURI TE SALUTANT. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again – not half, by a long way.
So, MORITURI TE SALUTANT is like welcome of the death all right, a welcome to the land of the death. So, again there is a classical quality, but it is almost like in going into the netherworld. And interestingly we find that how the netherworld in Heart of Darkness is not necessarily always about going to a non-Europe space, because this happens to be right at the heart of the European metropolis.
This is Brussels, this is where the colonial machinery is located in a very privileged position. But even going in this particular office is like walking into a heart of darkness, just like walking into the dead land, the nether land, the land of Hades in classical mythology, where you have to be shipped into it. And once you get into it, everything around you is very dense and claustrophobic, and uncanny. The word uncanny keeps coming up over and over again.
And the word Darkness comes there to people agents who are guarding the door of darkness. So, the moment he entered the door he crossed with the threshold and he entered the heart of darkness. So, again and this again goes back to the beginning of the novel where Marlow saying that even London was once upon a time the Heart of darkness. So, the whole idea of darkness gets sort of more problematic over here because it is not necessarily about Africa, about Congo, about what happens in there, it is also about what is close to home, it is what is always close to what he can commonly consumed as enlightenment, logic, and knowledge, you know reason, rationality etcetera.
So, all these categories the sides of civilization as it were, they too, are almost embedded with darkness over here. You know classical category is important, the classical mythology over here is important; because this is quite literally I am moving into Hades in netherworld right. And Marlow has experience of moving into an uncanny space where everyone can see through everyone and no words are spoken, there is no human compassion, there is no human connect, everything is like very wordless and automatic in quality. And that obviously, becomes a machinery of colonialism with which the entire idea of imperialism is operative.
And now we come to this very sort of social Darwinist medical knowledge or medical politics over here which is important for us to revisit because you know what is interesting is how the whole idea of racism the whole idea of imperialism was sort of sanctioned to a large extent by medical science, contemporary medical science which proved it is quote unquote empirically that a European brain was superior to the nonEuropean brain. Because European skull size was different than the non-European skull size, so all the physiognomic makers of skull size, the shape of the forehead, the shape of the teeth etcetera, so all these became makers of some innate cerebral qualities innate faculty innate you know mental situations like violence, civilization, you know domesticity, rationality etcetera.
So, all these were equated or marked, with some material markers, some physiognomic markers over here. And the doctor over here is obviously, here to determine Marlow’s fitness for the whole program. And by fitness he is going to measure his skull size. He is going to you know ask about any degeneration the family any madness any insanity in the family etcetera. So, again the panic of degeneration, the panic of criminality is very much palpable over here. And a doctor is obviously, asking the social Darwinist questions about genetics, I mean this is not genetics, but heredity diseases, insanity, etcetera.
And because you know there is also this idea that this is a person Marlow is about to go to the Congo to Africa. So, he is going to go very very close to what degeneration is commonly consumed as a nonwhite space the other space etcetera. So, it makes sense quote, unquote for the company to determine his medical fitness for the whole program, again very very social Darwinist quality.
There was yet a visit to the doctor. A simple formality, assured me the secretary, with an air of taking an immense part in all my sorrows. Accordingly, a young chap wearing his hat over the left eyebrow, some clerk I suppose – there must have been clerks in the business, though the house was still as a house in a city of the dead – came from somewhere up-stairs, and led me forth.

He was shabby and careless, with ink stains on the sleeves of his jacket, and his cravat was large and billowy, under a chin shaped like the toe of an old boot. It was a little too early for the doctor, so I proposed a drink, and thereupon he developed a vein of joviality. So, they bought again you know little drink before the doctor arrives, and this guy this very shabby looking guy you know maybe some kind of a doctor’s underling or doctor’s assistant, he begins to open up to Marlow.
As we sat over our vermouths, he glorified the Company’s business, and by and by I expressed casually my surprise at him not getting out there. So, you know he talks about the Company’s business in very very positive terms so Marlow asks him the obvious question, that how come you are not there, why are you not there in the you know heart of the empire where the empire really is. He became very cool and collected all at once. I am not such a fool as I look, quoth Plato to his disciples, he said sententiously emptied his glass with resolution and we rose right.

So, again look at the abruptness of this particular sentence, when he gets more and more candid with Marlow, he talks about how positive the Company’s policies were, and then Marlow at some time at some point innocuously asks him why if he is so convinced about the company, how come you are not there in the Congo, how come you are not there in Africa when making profit for the company at which point his tone changes completely and very dramatically. And he says I am not as fool as I look to be right, and he finishes his drinks, and he rose, he gets up.
So, again there is something very clinical and sinister about this entire episode. And this is something which pervades the whole scene, the sinister, grey, mysterious quality about this whole enterprise of colonialism. And there is a translucent quality about it as well, that Marlow, sort of cannot see through entirely, but he sees himself being seen through completely. So, he is like surrounded by machines; he is surrounded by all this gaze that very metonymically looks at him in terms of his fitness, in terms of his you know mental health, and in terms of his ability to control the empire etcetera. But, he himself has very little idea, very vague idea of his surroundings right.
And again this is something which will continue in the Congo, even when he is sailing down the Congo he will have very little idea of what is going around him and that is something which we will look at in some details when we come to that point. But even here while supposedly the heart of civilization, the heart of knowledge, illumination, etcetera, he finds it very difficult to grasp his reality to find meaning to navigate meaning with what surround him that is something which he keeps coming up against throughout the story.
And now her goes to the doctor. The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. Good, good for there, he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Again, this is a very was a very common practice among criminologists up on a time.
This whole idea of equating madness with a skull size, over the violence with skull size etcetera, because all these empirical markers, these metonymic markers where you know rampantly consumed as sort of accurate knowledge, and you know there was a theory of racism, a theory of European superiority which is published, and consumed palpably which empirically proved and argued that you know the European was less prone to violence, less prone to insanity, less prone to murder than a non-European.
So, again this whole idea, this whole combination of statistics and biology or this biopolitics of medical knowledge is something that we see at very close quarters from very close quarters over here, which obviously, accentuates or corroborates what is historically true, the collusion between biomedicine and imperialism, the collusion between a medicine and imperialism which produced the whole idea bio-capital or biomedicine. Where medicine becomes racialized, medicine becomes motivated by ideology, medicine becomes politically and racially informed, and in that sense it produces theories and theses which will accentuate certain kind of racist ideology, or certain kind of a political foreign policy ideology at work. This is about the measure of Marlow’s head.
Rather surprised, I said, I said, Yes, when he when he produced a thing like the calipers and got the dimensions back and front of the and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in the threadbare coat like a gabardine, with his feet in slippers, and I though him a harmless fool. I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there, he said. And when they come back, too, I asked. Oh, I never see them, he remarked; and, moreover the changes take place inside you know.
So, again this ominous quality of a one-way traffic right, you just go to Congo you never come back it takes away your life it takes away your existential being it takes away your sanity, your rationality etcetera. So, he says the doctor says, I have never seen anyone who has come back from the Congo. So, I always measure the crania of the people about to leave for the sake of science, because he is again making an equation between a certain kind of a physiognomy, and a certain kind of a propensity right. A propensity for adventure, danger, which can very quickly connect to the propensity towards degeneration, as we will see ok.
He smiled, as if at some quiet joke. So, you are going out there. Famous. Interesting, too. He gave me a searching glance, and made another note. Ever any madness in your family, so again this becomes a series of hereditary questions about Marlow’s train and family is this any madness or not. He asked in a in a matter of-fact tone. I felt very annoyed. Is that a question in the interests of science, too? It would be, he said, without taking notice of my irritation, interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot. So, again this whole idea of changing in the brain becomes interesting.
Are you an alienist? I interrupted. Every doctor should be – a little. So, again alienist is this belongs to a particular science of knowledge, which is again a very complex mixture of some pseudo spiritual thing, at the same time some pseudo medical thing which is rampant at that time along with criminology, along with degeneration panic in late nineteenth century. I have a little theory which you messieurs who go out there must help me to prove. This is my share of the advantages of my the my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency.

The mere wealth I leave to others. Pardon my questions, but you are the first Englishman coming under my observation. I hastened to assure him that I was not in the least typical.

If I were you, said I, I would not be, I would not be talking like this with you. What you say is rather profound, and probably erroneous, he said with a laugh. Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Goodbye. Adieu. In the tropic’s one must be before everything keep calm. He lifted a warning finger. DU CALME DU CALME. ADIEU.
So, again all these voices, all these voicelessnesses, wordlessness, all these come together to create this one machinery of imperialism in which Marlow finds himself. It is almost like a heart of a machine, the belly of a machine, which is about to churn him out, and classify him as an agent of the empire. And right before his he is coming out of this, he sees this doctor who is taking all kinds of pseudo-scientific interests in him in terms of his propensity, towards degeneration propensity, towards madness etcetera. He is already almost mad because he is going to Africa and that is the common assumption over here right.
So, again look at the collusion between medicine and colonialism, between medicine and economy over here, which is obviously, creating this bio capital. So, this doctor becomes a very symbolic presence over here. He is voicing contemporary concerns with insanity, panic, degeneration etcetera which was obviously, quite heavily racialized in quality.
One more thing remained to do to – say good-bye to my excellent aunt. I found her triumphant.