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

Lecture - 12
Heart of Darkness - Part 7


So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth-Century Fiction. We were looking at Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So, from this lecture onwards, we will begin to wind up with these particular texts, and having discussed the salient and fundamental features that this text represents, and its political importance along with the literary importance that it carries today.
So, one of the things we have discussed already about Heart of Darkness is the politics of representation, how are things represented in Heart of Darkness as entire style of narration. And as we may know by now, it is a very complex narrative style, I mean it does superficially adhere to classic realism, but then it also keeps exposing the fundamental inadequacies of classic realism when it comes to narrating an experience like this.
And if you remember the last lecture the point where we stopped, where Marlow was admitting his inability, he was sort of acknowledging and screaming out the fact that you know he is unable to tell you the story. And he kept asking the audience, do you see the story, can I tell you the story, can I convey to you what really happened. And of course, that was a rhetorical question because he knows very well that the he cannot do it, he cannot convey completely what happens in Congo, and that we discussed how there was how the novel represents it sort of foregrounded his you know narrative inadequacies, and in that sense it is a very quasi postmodern novel Heart of Darkness.
So, it is one of those novels which are almost everything it’s late Victorian, it’s definitely modernist, it has lots of stream of consciousness technique. And also since we anticipate a lot postmodern narrative style in terms of his foregrounding of his narrative inadequacies and unreliability which is you know innately embedded in that novel, and which is connected to the whole sense of centerlessness that Heart of Darkness foregrounds and dramatizes.
So, you know everything about Heart of Darkness is centerless, the narrative is centerless, and Marlow is the primary narrator, but then he is the first person to acknowledge his you know inability to narrate, his struggle to narrate. And then we have the characters, so quite centerless as well, there is a degree of hollowness about the characters as well.
And we talked about how in one of the lectures if you remember how the hollowness in Heart of Darkness, it is the combination of spectrality and unknowability right. So, and of course, an example of exhaustion as well, so it’s exhaustion, unknowability and spectrality all put together which constitutes the hollowness in Heart of Darkness. There is a degree of existential exhaustion; there is a degree of ideals exhaustion. There is no ideas left; there is nothing left to salvage, redeem. And what is foregrounded and what comes across very heavily is a naked exploitative machinery of imperialism.
There is a completely naked enterprise; there is nothing you can dress up that with. There is no Christian narrative; there is no civilizing narrative; there is no missionary, a noble narrative that you can use to redeem the exploitative machinery of imperialism right, and that is something which Heart of Darkness does very well.
And of course, we have to remember and I mentioned this already, and now I will repeat myself that it is about Belgian imperialism, it is not about British imperialism. It is Belgian imperialism in Congo, it’s Belgians in the Congo. And the difference between the Belgian imperialism and British imperialism was fundamentally that the Belgians never even attempted to dress up imperialism as some kind of a civilizing mission, I mean it was very nakedly evident that it was a machinery of exploitation, it was very explicit. It is nothing that even sort of tried to hide or conceal this exploitative face of imperialism right, so that is the setting that Conrad is describing that is the setting that Marlow in the novel is inhabiting.
Now, in this lecture, we will start with Marlow’s first glimpse of Kurtz, you know how does he first see Kurtz and again we have seen already how the novel is actually quite cinematic in quality, there is a lot of close up technique, and there is also lot of defamiliarizing technique right. So, defamiliarization and delayed decoding of things which we have discussed already, and both techniques they contribute to the complex visual narrative in Heart of Darkness, a complex visual grammar in Heart of Darkness.
And that is important for us to understand, because you know the whole novel is narrated to us through a certain focus point, a certain focalized point, and Marlow is a focalized perspective, the focalized viewpoint through which we get to see what happened in a Congo. And of course, Marlow is he is a very unreliable focal point and that unreliability of Marlow, it gets translated it gets accounted for in the novel as well, because the entire novel then becomes very, very mysterious and cryptic.
So, we, as readers, we share the defamiliarization that Marlow experienced; we share the entire delayed decoding that Marlow experienced, I mean even we as readers we cannot quite decode what happens in Heart of Darkness. So, that delayed decoding that defamiliarization all that gets spilled over from Marlow’s experiential frame into the narrative frame that we inhabit. So, the narrative frame in Heart of Darkness is one in which delayed decoding and defamiliarization are embedded, innately embedded that is something which we keep saying as readers in Heart of Darkness.
And I think I mentioned at one of my articles on Heart of Darkness if you wish to read more on a more complex arguments about delayed decoding storytelling and existential exhaustion, there is an article of mine which got published in a journal called Janus Head which you can download for free if you just Google up my name, I have it uploaded in my academia.edu website. So, you can download that for free. And if you still have problems in downloading it, do mention that in the NPTEL forum that we have in this course, and my TAs can upload it for you to read ok.
Now, let us take a look at this section which should be on your screen when Marlow sees Kurtz for the first time, and he is narrating the experience of seeing Kurtz for the first time. So, this should be on your screen. I will just read out the lines first. As to me, I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse; the dugout, four paddling savages, and a lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, yon relief, on thoughts of home – perhaps; setting his face towards a depth of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station.
Now, this particular phrase I am just going to pick up on this a little bit and expand on it, the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters. So, this is a literal description or physical description of Kurtz’s physical movement, but it also becomes very quickly a symbolic movement right. So, Kurtz is a lonely white man, who turns his back suddenly on the headquarters. So, he is basically what we call in spy fiction and spy cinema today, a rogue agent right. So, someone who turns his back on the machinery which had historically created him right, so Kurtz is one of the first examples in British fiction on rogue agents.
So, he is an agent of imperialism, he is someone which who imperialism constructed. So, we are told over and over again that he was a finest soldier of imperialism; he was a finest engineered product of imperialism. But this product, the soldier of imperialism has now turned rogue has now turned his back after the entire machinery which had historically created him. And now he has become a problem to the machinery which had created him and now the machinery has to get rid of him.
So, you can see how Heart of Darkness is such interesting and deep resonance with some of the geopolitical tensions we have in our world today, where you know great soldiers, you know great friends, great machinery, suddenly become rogue, suddenly become terrorists, and the entire ontology of terrorism the entire ontology of rogue agency is something which is very complex. Because what that often means is you create the system creates a body or a wing or an individual as for a particular purpose to defeat the enemy, etcetera. And then at some point historical time later subsequent to that point, they that particular individual that particular agency, that particular wing, it turns rogue, it turns its back on the system which had created it, and now it is and then it is branded as a terrorist wing.
So, the entire idea of terrorism and rogue agency is something which is obviously, a very geopolitically contingent. And Heart of Darkness seems to be one of the earlier novels which anticipates such geopolitical crisis right. So, we have this Belgian you know colony in Congo an outpost, and Kurtz happens to be you know this finest agent of the Empire, the Belgian Empire who is now ironically become a problem for the Empire has become a problem for the machinery, and so the machinery has to get rid of him.
And if you take a look at the film based on this novel Apocalypse Now which is about the Vietnam War, American-Vietnam War there too colonial Kurtz was played by Marlon Brando, I think I mentioned it already. He becomes a rogue agent who has to be terminated, who has to be assassinated ok. So, this particular image is very you know telling and symbolic, the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters ok.
So, I did not know the motive. Perhaps he was just simply a fine fellow who stuck to his work for his own sake. His name, you understand, had not been pronounced once. He was that man. So, he becomes in a way Kurtz become the center in Heart of Darkness, but then once Marlow arrives in the center, he finds Kurtz to be a hollow man. And this is obviously, in connection to the hollowness of the center in Heart of Darkness, the centerlessness in Heart of Darkness as you would put it.

The half-caste, who, as far as I could see, had conducted a difficult trip with great prudence and pluck, was invariably alluded to as that scoundrel. The scoundrel had reported that a man had been very ill. So, we get reports that Kurtz have been very ill – had recovered imperfectly. The two below me moved away then a few paces, and strolled back and forth at the same distance. I heard; Military post – doctor – two hundred miles – quite alone now – unavoidable delays – nine months – no news – strange rumors.
So, look at again the randomness in information, and again among other things Heart of Darkness is also about the crisis of information. And you know as we know that information or the informative network or the economy of information is something which consolidated something which is central to the structure of imperialism. So, when that gets you know that becomes a crisis and obviously, the entire imperial machinery collapses.
So, if you do not get adequate information, if you do not get enough information on how on imperialism, the entire imperial machinery collapses. So, the randomness of information, I mean if you take a look at this phrase military post doctor – two hundred miles – quite alone now – unavoidable delays – nine months – no news – strange rumors, it is all non-interconnected right. So, this non-interconnected quality of information in Heart of Darkness is important for us to pick on and study ok.


And then you know the whole idea of stations in imperialism becomes important. And this particular description of stations is telling because here Marlow iss told that each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course but also for humanizing improving instructing right. So, again that is the ideal definition of colonial centers, that you know it should be the perfect center, the perfect relay station where things get better where things come in and move out right.
And then between the point of coming and between the point of arrival and the point of departure things should become significantly better right that is the whole idea of a center. And also this entire humanizing narrative; it should also become one of humanizing, improving and instructing ok.

And, that is the whole point the that is the whole point of a center, the whole point of the colonial machinery that it that it’s supposed to be efficient as well as humanizing in the first place and Heart of Darkness shows how the humanizing face goes away completely. (Refer Slide Time: 11:59)

But also the efficiency face goes away completely, it becomes inefficient in a machinery and that is something which Heart of Darkness constantly foregrounds. And that foregrounding is of course, done through the whole process of narrative imperfection right.

So, the idea that narrative becomes inadequate, uninformative, is also reflective how the inadequate and uninformative quality of imperialism in the first place. So, the narrative, a crisis in Heart of Darkness, and the narrative crisis in Marlow’s structure is reflective in some sense of the existential and political crisis in Heart of Darkness that it does not quite work out the entire imperial station, station and machinery it does not quite work out and that delay, that interruption and information that the fact that it becomes you know informatively interruptive, so that interruptive quality it spills over in Marlow’s storytelling as well.
It constantly gets interrupted; it interrupts itself. So, it is designed to interrupt itself all the time. So, in that sense becomes very complex narrative strategy which is sort of designed to be self-interruptive right. So, self-destructive and self-interruptive, these qualities inform the narrative politics in Heart of Darkness consistently ok. (Refer Slide Time: 13:22)

Now, what I am going to spend some time on now is looking at how Marlow describes the entire journey down Congo, and again we see how the natural landscape gets blurred away quite interestingly, and what we get instead is the perception of the landscape, and this is what one of things you know Heart of Darkness does very well.
And in that sense, it is very modernist how the palpable known material reality becomes secondary, and what becomes primary what becomes foregrounded is the perception of the reality. So, the perception is mapped onto the reality. So, we get the perception first and only much later, once we navigate through the perceptions do we get to know what the real thing is right.
So, we get it we get a very blurry cryptic image of forests, of rivers, and natural landscapes. And what we what we get an overabundance we get an overload of sensory perceptions. So, perception is foregrounded in Heart of Darkness; the perception becomes more important than information that is a very short quick way to put it. So, perception becomes more important than information. So, the informative reality or the informative materiality in Heart of Darkness comes much later if it comes at all. What we get instead an overload of sensory perception that becomes an important thing for us to understand as readers.
Now, if we take a look at this description in Heart of Darkness, it becomes important, it becomes interesting for us, and that sort of grasp that captures the entire centerless quality of Marlow’s experience, and the centerless quality of his narrative as well. And this is what Marlow describes the river as, and this should be on your screen.
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world. It is almost like a temporal thing. So, again look at the way in which space and time are mapped onto each other, the river is a space, a physical space. But the journey along that river the journey down that river, it becomes a temporal journey, not so much a spatial journey, so that becomes a very complex blurring of spatial and temporal parameters. We cannot even make out where this spatial parameter ends, and the temporal parameter begins I mean it is like a same thing, it is like a stream of consciousness.
So, quite literally Congo in Heart of Darkness becomes the stream of consciousness ok. It is almost like a journey back in time the 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. So, again look at the adjectives – warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There is no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side.
So, interestingly the only animals we see in Heart of Darkness, the hippos and alligators; we do not see other wild animals. So, again the material wildness of Africa, the physical wildness of Africa, it gets overshadowed by the perception of that wildness that becomes important. So, the only animals who appear in Heart of Darkness are almost apologies for animals say hippos and alligators, and not the you know the center animals which we associated Africa with ok.
So, hippos and animals, a hippos and alligator, sorry sunned themselves side by side. So, there is a degree of sluggishness which is represented by the hippo image, and the alligator sunning themselves again becomes an image of sluggishness, not of movement, not of dynamism. It is everything decelerates, everything gets defamiliarized. It is deceleration defamiliarization, and this has been a very important qualities in Heart of Darkness especially the way the story is narrated to us.
The broadening water flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all way all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once – somewhere – far away – in another existence perhaps.
So, again this whole experience of being cut off being alienated from everything you had known once upon a time. So, that existential alienation becomes obviously a response in the material world around you, and that becomes part of the package of defamiliarization the fact that Marlow does not quite know everything around him changes sort of the world that he knows the reality he knows changes dramatically and drastically. And that becomes a defamiliarizing technique in Heart of Darkness, I mean the familiar world defamiliarizes it becomes strange. You feel alienated as an individual as a human subject in that fast and dramatically defamiliarizing world around you ok.
There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare for yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence.

So, there is a dreamlike quality in Heart of Darkness is important. So, and dream of course is an interesting phenomenon because a dream is a liminal location between reality and fantasies. A dream is when you dream instead of asleep as well as not quite asleep right. You are moving, you have a physical connect to a certain extent, just for instance you have a nightmare you sweat, you become disturbed at a very visceral level when you have a bad dream. So, dream is a liminal location between reality and unreality between consciousness and unconsciousness right. So, dream is a subconscious stage which becomes important ok.
So, the entire idea of dream becomes important, and how this dream informed the narrative politics in Heart of Darkness, because as I just mentioned it is a liminal location between conscious and unconscious and that liminality of the dream is important for us, because Marlow is inhabiting a liminal landscape why he does not quite know what is around him, at the same time he is unconscious; he is conscious where at the same time he is not aware what is happening around him. So, that that degree of grayness is very much there in Heart of Darkness ok.

So, that that becomes an important thing, and that becomes something that Marlow is, obviously, grasping is struggling to grasp, struggling to navigate. So, navigation becomes interesting, because literally he is navigating his journey down the river the Congo River, but at the same time he is navigating with the world around him, the level of perception, the level of knowledge, the level of cognition. So, it is more it is a combination of cognitive navigation as well as physical navigation right, so that that combination is interesting, that is something we should pay some attention to ok.
So, text book talks about the metaphysical reality of this experience. And then he says and this should be on your screen. When you have to attend to things of that sort, the whole idea of not knowing what surround you that is all to the mere incidence of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily. So, again the whole idea of centerlessness becomes important; the inner truth is hidden it is concealed.
So, the centerlessness of the experience becomes important, it is concealed, it is not something which comes out you know on the surface. But I felt it all the same; I felt often this mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? Half-a-crown a tumble.
So, again and this is something which is interesting because Heart of Darkness in that sense is quite resonant, it is quite interestingly located you know and dialogic with some of the PTSD narratives that we have today for instance. If you take a look at a novel like Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers which is about the Iraq War. And it is about a US veteran coming back from the Iraq War, and finding the entire civilian life around him extremely strange, extremely uncanny.
So, in that sense Marlow, he is like a war veteran, he has come back from a war site. And he has turned it into a story of what happened in the war to a fellow civilians; but they cannot tell it, first of all he cannot capture in narrative what really happened to him. And, secondly, he has a very flippant and dismissive view of reality in western civilian space, because he has been to another space which is nonwestern, non-civilian in a western sense. And he has had he has internalized, he has consumed to certain extent, the uncanny quality of that landscape.
Now, he comes back to the civilian space, and he finds the entire business of making money, half-a-crown a tumble which is about making petty money through petty jobs. He finds the entire business of that very flippant, and very, very insignificant in quality. And this take on reality in a western sense or the western civilian sense, this very dismissive take is something which we had to pay some attention to as readers ok.
So, and then the only instance in the novel where there is a response from one of the listeners in Heart of Darkness is someone telling Marlow. Try to be civil, Marlow, growled a voice, and I knew that it was at least one listener awake besides himself.
So, we cut back through the story telling time, because we it is very temporally complicated and complex narrative as well because Marlow is obviously, going back in time to tell you the story of what happened to him in Congo. But then the present time in which story is happening is in London is in Thames, in a River in Thames called Nellie as we saw in the beginning of the novel. And then this is a very abrupt cut back into the time.
And this one voice which tells Marlow to be civil not to insult the Londoner’s so much, not to insult the white civilization so much just because he has been to nonwhite space. You know he is being told try to be civil, Marlow, growled a voice, and I knew and I obviously, is a unnamed narrator, the meta narrator in Heart of Darkness as it were, because of different levels in narration in Heart of Darkness is a Meta narrator who has listened to Marlow’s story.
And then is Marlow is telling us the story and the narrator inside Marlow’s story as well ok. So, the meta-narrator tells us there is another person awake, and I knew that there was at least one listener awake besides myself. So, at least one more guy is still up ok.
And the Marlow carries on with the cynicism. And the cynical quality of Marlow is interesting because that is obviously, connected to the exhausted masculinity that Marlow embodies right. So, it is exhausted, liquidated, imperiled masculinity that Marlow embodies. And all he can do is not being cynical; it is entire knowledge of imperialism, the entire glamour of imperialism, and the entire machinery of imperialism and instead of telling this person that I beg your pardon.
I forgot the heartache which makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter, if the trick be well done? You do your tricks very well. And I did not do badly either, since I managed not to sink that steamboat on my first trip. It is a wonder to me yet. Imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road. And I like this image a lot, this is the reason why I am picking on it.
Marlow is attempting to give you a civilian analogy right, an urban analogy of what happened to him in Congo. And this is almost funny dark humor, dark humorous analogy that he is offering at the moment. So, he is saying, let me try, let me attempt to give an idea of what I experienced in Congo when I was trying to sail a steamboat, not knowing not have any idea what I am navigating through, whether it is a forest or it is a whirlpool pool or it you know people are attacking us, or pelting us with stones, or it is a bold animal in the stream, I had no idea what the reality around me. And I somehow managed to not sink the boat, which is I think something of a miracle.
And then he is trying to capture that with an analogy or convey that with an analogy they are using urban markets and this is what he offers imagine a blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road. So, if you are a Londoner, I am giving you a London urban marker. So, imagine, someone blindfolds you and asks you to drive a van on a bad road, and you manage to do it without crashing it, without hitting something. So, it was that kind of a miracle that I experienced in Heart of Darkness in Congo.


I sweated and shivered over that business considerably. I can tell you. After all for a seaman, to scrape the bottom of the thing that is supposed to float all the time under his care is the unpardonable sin. No one may know of it, but you never forget the thumb – eh? A blow on the very heart. You remember it, you dream of it, and you wake up at night and think of it – years after – and go hot and cold all over.
So, he is saying I am a professional seaman. And the worst feeling you can get is your vessel hitting a surface, hitting the bank, hitting a stone, and that the sound is almost visceral in quality. It, haunts you forever it keeps coming back to you all the time ok.

And now again, I just want to spend some time on the whole idea of imperialism, the whole signifier of imperialism in Heart of Darkness which in the case of Belgian imperialism in Congo is ivory, because the whole idea of Belgian imperialism in Congo was the ivory trade, the fact that it was trading on ivory. And of course, that was then shipped back in massive proportions, it is a massive business, and it was sold in a very high prices in Europe, and we saw then how the European domestic space is full of ivory.
So, the ivory is a domesticated Africa, ivory is Africa turned into something which is consumable, something which has a price tag to it, something which is a privilege possession of the white people right. So, in this way, Marlow this is how Marlow describes ivory over here.
The word ivory would ring in the air for a while – and on we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, around the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating the hollow claps, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel.
So, again the centerlessness of the imperial signifier is important to first understand. So, if we just hang in the air like a hollow word, the word ivory, it will ring there for a while, and then we forget about it, and move on, and you know we will just consume the reverberations that will be around us all the time, the hollowness the hollow sounds, the hollow claps in the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel.
So, again even the acoustic politics in Heart of Darkness is that of hollowness it’s not really solid sound, it is not really sound of something solid ringing on, it is something the lack of solidity, lack of scented quality in Heart of Darkness it spills over even in the acoustic frame right. So, even in the acoustic frame that Marlow inhabits the sound frame the soundscape so to say in Heart of Darkness that too has hollowness embedded in it; that becomes an important thing, ok.

So, and that is something which you know Marlow describes over and over again right.

And then of course, we see the whole idea of the steamer toiling on you know and that the whole idea of steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy so right. So, the word frenzy is important is you know, in something of an irrational behavior.