English 385 -- A Synopsis of "Two Visions in Heart of Darkness"


Said's essay is first and foremost a reading of Heart of Darkness from the 1990s. Said treats the novel as one of the most exemplary "imperialist" texts. Imperialism is "the idea behind it" Conrad refers to early in the novel, which unpacked refers to the following:


1)      the sense that the earth is limitless and open ("blank spaces on the map"), there to be explored and mapped. This is frequently linked to modern (post-Enlightenment) optimism over the eventual triumph of science, rationality, and free-market capitalism. [By the time Said is writing, this optimism has been severely checked by numerous historical events, including World Wars, "Vietnam," radical Islam, economic instabilities, third world debt, etc.]

2)      the eagerness and confidence with which Europeans appropriate areas of the world that are occupied by other people

3)      the ends to which Europeans will go to in order to assure territorial mastery

4)      the sense that people outside of Europe have no particular culture or civilization worth bothering about. If they are not savages, cannibals or primitives (terms generally used to describe Native Americans and Africans), they are despotic orientals (people who have civilization, but who favor absolutist rulers and religions in favor of enlightenment rationality).

5)      the assurance that western values, laws, and languages as well as Christian religious principles represent an improvement over indigenous systems


In this chapter, Said points out how these elements of the imperialist attitude come together in Heart of Darkness in especially powerful ways. Since these different elements cohere almost seamlessly in the novel, Said argues that Conrad's novel epitomizes the "imperialist aesthetic." The very use of this term is a provocative gesture; it is a way of suggesting that Conrad's style reflects his political philosophy. Or, that the form of his novel is driven by its (imperialist) content.

At the same time, Said is attempting to map the ways in which some of these attitudes survive in Europe and the U.S. after the decline of formal colonialism. They do not all persist, and some of the individual elements of the imperialist world-view have more or less disappeared.

Like Achebe, Said is critical of Conrad's egregious Eurocentrism, though Said does not focus on race or racism so much as Conrad's failure to allow the Africans any ability to resist European colonialism. Unlike Achebe, Said is interested in the fact that the novel is so sensitive to the failures of imperialism, specifically its hypocrisy, excesses (i.e., Kurtz), and its inherent corruption. Said argues that Conrad codes considerable ironic distance into his representation of the activities of the "Company" and its various employees. Said's reading is especially oriented towards the contemporary moment when he articulates the second mode of responding to Conrad, which foregrounds Conrad's references to the "outside" of imperialism, its precariousness and artificiality. This mode of reading is in tune with the onset of the "post-modern" era, when the modernist grand narratives (limitless space, rampant individualism, triumphant science, utopian socialism, etc.) no longer seem to make any sense.