Darkness Surfaces

Lecture – English 385

September 5, 2001

Amardeep Singh


                The following stems from a desire on my part to find a way of reading Heart of Darkness that goes beyond the most direct level of political engagement (i.e., that goes beyond the question of its racism). What I try to do here is to take what I think is interesting and unique about it and assembles it into a kind of reading. It’s an unusual and experimental reading, one that goes against the grain of most conventional readings of Conrad.


I begin by asking: Is it possible to ignore the most famous line of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness -- “the horror, the horror”? I think so, and I think it may be possible to mount a thorough reading of the text that, for once, does not worry about the slippery and elusive representation of human interiority. The fact that Conrad never directly identifies what it is exactly that is so horrible for Mister Kurtz need not be a mystery that we have to unpack at all. What is the core of the self, the thing that makes us human? I personally don’t know, and I tend to think that the novel, despite Conrad’s virtuosic control of style, tells us very little about it. Moreover, the novel’s central figure for the collapse of the European idea of the human – Kurtz – is himself decentered -- present in the novel largely in the negative. We hear much more about him through various characters’ descriptions and fantasies about him than we do from his mouth directly. Kurtz, I would argue, is a shadow, a reflection, and a voice. He is at once a negative presence and the very symbol of negativity.


I am in other words doing three things: a) disregarding the novel’s supposedly central phrase, b) decentering Kurtz, and c) noting (appreciatively) Conrad’s thoroughgoing slipperiness, his refusal to ground the version of reality depicted in the novel to any realist norms. Rather than depths, what there is to grab onto in Heart of Darkness is a series of surfaces, textures, reflections, and sensations of the skin and the body. Rather than simply respond to these surfaces as the deflection of “deeper” truth, what I wish to do today is outline how the very superficiality of Heart of Darkness is itself historically significant, and also flesh out how a surface-oriented reading might work.

As possibly the first great work of modernist prose (the first, as it were, “modernist novel”) Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is part of an intense exploration of surfaces, of textures, and of the nature of skin. 

[Certainly present in James and Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray… is it present elsewhere? Woolf? Joyce? Lawrence?]

            We can contrast Conrad to the texts that came before. The classic Victorian novel (say, of George Eliot) still take interiority very seriously. Even where the narrative is of the self-realization of marginal or oppressed consciousness – the emergence of the secular individual. In conventional mappings of modern literature, novels have been consistently linked to ideas about the individual and individualism, largely because conventional novels provided an unparalleled access to human interiority. In contrast, it may be Conrad’s novel dramatizes the disappearance, dissolution, or demise of that interiority. If we take every line of the novel entirely seriously the realization that human interiority is formless (or even absent) can be completely disorienting or even unspeakably horrible. But if we read with an eye to surfaces, as well as a bit of ironic/critical distance, the “horror” of the absence of workable interiority might actually be intriguing.


“The horror, the horror”: To what does this cryptic utterance actually refer, if anything? It makes sense to separate Marlow’s interpretations and speculations of its meaning from the direct evidence we have coming from Kurtz’s mouth – which, other than the fact that it is something to do with death, is virtually absent. To be sure, Marlow interprets Kurtz’s statement and speculates on it, assuming as he does so that his own, personal experience of the “impalpable greyness” he experiences over the course of his post-Congo illness must resemble Kurtz’s death-bed vision (87). But this is merely Marlow’s speculation, and as such it is only a reflection of the truth. If we put aside Marlow’s description of Kurtz’s face at the final moment:

It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? (86)


Notice how loaded Marlow’s rhetorical questions are here. In fact, it could be that he has no clue as to whether Kurtz’s final moment entailed reliving his life “in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge.” Perhaps we might be skeptical of Marlow’s claim to access to Kurtz’s experience here, and of the novel in general, while remaining closely involved with its language.

The second most important character in the novel isn’t Kurtz but the jungle. Take for instance, the following passage:


Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through the dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart – it’s mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life. (31)


Here, as elsewhere, the jungle is alternately a symbol of depth (and accompanying its depth, an image of chaos, unrestraint, and inhuman noises) and an impenetrable surface – a mask of silence. It’s one of the wonders of Conrad’s prose technique that these two polar opposites reverse so often and so seamlessly in the novel that the reader may sometimes fail to notice the difference. What I want to suggest here is that only one of these opposing terms is actually dynamic, and that is surface, superficiality. The other aspect – depth – is represented only negatively: “mystery”; the “reality of its concealed life.” But Marlow never explains or unpacks the “mystery,” or fleshes out concretely that which is concealed.

The sense of depth invoked in the novel entirely in the form of suggestion, reflection, and rhetorical effect. Depth is, to use an old English teacher’s distinction, told about rather than shown. Conrad’s use of the unrepresentable (“unspeakable acts,” “indescribable terror”) can also be a device that mystifies us into accepting as inevitable and universal a mode of representation that is in fact very particular to Conrad’s view of the world.

Most of the time, depth in physical space is merely a grey zone looming around the concrete objects on the presence, objects which are notable for their surfaces. Recesses, elements that might constitute a true background in the frame of the view, always seem to end up recuperated to a foreground, and become surfaces themselves, surfaces that are impenetrable. There are especially important instances of this in the very beginning of the novel (I brought up these passages earlier): 

The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds” (4)


The water is a perfect reflective surface; it is bordered by a mist, which might seem to indicate depth. But even the depths, the background are converted to surface in the language of the passage. The mist becomes a “gauzy and radiant fabric,” “draping” the shoreline. The Thames here is described in much the way the Congo is at many instances – as a reflective, impenetrable surface lined by a curtain (or veil, or mask). For example:

The smell of mud . . . was in my nostrils, the high stillness of the primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver – over the rank grass, over the mud, . . .  I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur (31)


In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of the novel, Caryl Phillips lists as one of the novel’s “remarkable journeys” Kurtz’s journey towards madness – the voyage of the self to the core of its being. Phillips, unlike Chinua Achebe and Edward Said, accepts the validity of Conrad’s metaphor of self-discovery. He finds it reductive that Achebe, for instance, cannot see beyond the novel’s odious racial representations. Though I don’t read the novel exactly the way Achebe does, I wonder if Phillips lets Conrad get away with too much in allowing that the novel has anything substantial to say about the nature of the “self.” On the one hand, we find that the African background is in fact essential, even if it is an Africa in which no African voices seem to have a conscious presence. The representation of the landscape, which is far from accurate or naturalistic in any way (remember that Conrad wrote much of the novel before even beginning his own personal journey to the Congo), is for many critics of the novel part of the problem. Moreover, African people are almost entirely synonymous with the landscape they live in. Take for instance, the following passage, which appears in the novel in the middle of the skirmish with the Africans on the river:


[S]uddenly, as though a veil had been removed from my eyes, I made out, deep in the tangled gloom, naked breasts, arms, legs, glaring eyes – the bush was swarming with human limbs in movement, glistening, of bronze colour. The twigs shook, swayed, and rustled, the arrows flew out of them, and then the shutter came to. (55)


This passage is on one level rather troubling, as Marlow doesn’t represent the people in the jungle as individuals, but as a chaos of “swarming” body parts and skin tone. It is as if the jungle and the people in it are one angry monster/machine, opening its angry swarming mouth only to release arrows before it closes: “the shutter came to.” The jungle and the black bodies in the novel become synonymous, but what is curious is that they are almost entirely about skin. In a strange way, this tendency glosses one of the more puzzling lines in the novel, when the manager at the outer station says ‘Men who come out here should have no entrails’ (26). Men who come to Africa should have no entrails because Africa is space entirely structured by the skin, by the surface of the body. Processes such as the digestion of food (or meaningful reflection on the nature of the self) really have no place there.

It is also important to address the role of surfaces in our understanding of Kurtz himself. For despite all the references to Kurtz’s lack of “restraint,” and the absence of “some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence,” (92) [note that the missing “small matter” is never specified] Kurtz is never figured in the novel directly committing an act of violence. I am not suggesting that Kurtz somehow did not commit the deeds ascribed to him (which seem to only be a handful of murders and a lot of “thunder and lightning” designed to assure subservience and economic profit), but rather that it must be significant that we never see him doing any of it. His violence is reflective: it is merely Marlow’s perception of the threat of violence, or the visible evidence of past acts. The Kurtz we actually see, in contrast to the Kurtz who is the object of Marlow’s fantasies, is an emaciated and largely delusional person, a series of disjointed ideas, whose unity is missing, if it ever existed. The best symbols for him are perhaps schizophrenic moment in his pamphlet for the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs” -- “Exterminate all the brutes!” -- and above all, his disembodied Voice.

If Kurtz is the embodiment of the “heart of darkness,” if Kurtz is meant to be (rather than merely to see) “the horror,” his is largely an absent body, an absent heart, and an absent darkness. As Marlow puts it after the skirmish in chapter 2: “There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance” (57). That “substance,” I am arguing, never materializes. But what we are given instead is equally or even more interesting – a series of secret panels that, when pushed, slide out of the way to reveal nothing other than other panels.

Heart of Darkness is a novel in which seemingly marginal elements as well as the merely “superficial truths” and incidental occurrences, are in fact central and essential. Take the following passage, where Marlow reflects on his experience managing the minutiae of steamboat navigation as they proceed up-river:

When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incidents of the surface, the reality – the reality, I tell you – fades. The inner truth is hidden – luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks (42)


The real is hidden from Marlow as he proceeds with everyday activities (as he does his job), and that’s a good thing. But what is the real that is hidden from him? Merely a stillness. What separates the stillness of the real from the stillness on the surface of everyday life?

Interiority (or depth) is merely a construction of the exterior, of the surface. The things that are evidently English, European, and human, are necessarily defined by the limits of the English, European, and human. This is not such a radical proposition; every subject (or space), one could argue, is defined by its limits. We naturalize these limits, just as we naturalize the presence of the horizon on flat plains or on the ocean. But the horizon is not universal so much as it is particular to us: what we see as the horizon reflects the fact that we are fixed in a particular place and at a particular altitude. Heart of Darkness, confuses the matter by attempting to imagine a consciousness on the horizon of human subjectivity, the very limits and border of Englishness/humanness. When this consciousness (exemplified directly by Marlow, and indirectly by Kurtz) glances into the interior -- what it is that the limits contain -- all it sees is “impalpable greyness.”

I might conclude by referring again to Kurtz’s final moments, though I am less interested in “the horror, the horror,” or for that matter the phrase that Achebe fixates on as being a symbol of racism (or, for that matter, that T.S. Eliot quotes in “The Hollow Men”). The part that interests me is Marlow’s description of Kurtz’s face.

It was as thought a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. (86)


It’s fascinating that at this moment, when Kurtz supposedly has access to depths, that Marlow chooses an extraordinary word to describe the surface of his skin: ivory. Rather than a sign of absolute depth, Kurtz is for me a nearly rock solid surface – a block of ivory. Like ivory he’s alive, or at least was attached to something living. As a symbol of the ivory trade, his approach is highly destructive, totally parasitical, and utterly unsustainable (the more money you make, the shorter the period of profitability will be). In his dying moment Kurtz becomes pure surface: the embodiment of the hard, glossy commodity which is the only thing he successfully finds in Africa. It’s not the horror, the horror, but “the ivory, the ivory!”


Attention to surfaces enables:

1- A way to bring the extensive landscape description into alignment with the images of the body in the novel. The landscape is alternately clothed or naked, open (like a mouth) or closed (like skin).

2- A way to work with, contextualize Conrad’s racism. Rather than seeing Africans as people, he sees the surface of their bodies. This is a way in which he dehumanizes them, but it may also be interesting in other ways.

3- An awareness of the ways in which seemingly disparate characters or events are tied together in a coherent network of language, concepts.


Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield. But there was the fact facing me – the fact dazzling, to be seen like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an unfathomable enigma, a mystery greater – when I thought of it – than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate grief in this savage clamor that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind the blind whiteness of the fog (51-52).


But the landscape is also essential, even desired (as horrible as it is): the landscape that repulses them is what the characters in the novel are seeking. If the novel is really an abstract “voyage into the self,” why would the characters have to leave Europe? If Kurtz’s horror is as pure and as absolute a truth as Marlow seems to suggest – if we believe Marlow’s version of Kurtz’s dissolution and demise is sincere – why not simply play out this drama at a picnic bench under a leafy old Oak tree on the campus of Cambridge University? But it is basically common sense that such a relocation would be silly; it would utterly denature the story. The backdrop of the novel, which is to say central Africa, at the horizon (limit) of European colonial influence, is not merely incidental. It is, along with the colonial mission and the ivory trade that are the reason for the European presence, defining and central.