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CONRAD'S REPLY TO KIERKEGAARD by Jerry S. Clegg Varied answers to a fixed question have often guided interpretations of Conrad's novella, Heart ofDarkness. Who, that question has been, was Conrad's model for the enigmatic colonial official he calls Kurtz? Hannah Arendt has speculated that it was Carl Peters, an early explorer of east Africa.1 Norman Sherry has picked Arthur Hodister, a Belgian officer, as his candidate.2 Ian Watt has likewise suggested historical figures: Henry M. Stanley and King Leopold of Belgium.3 Since all these men had a reputation for cruelty, those thinking that Conrad had them in mind when describing Kurtz have stressed the political message of his story; for them it is basically an indictment of colonialism. Stephen Reid has argued for a mythic model. Kurtz, he holds, was meant to be seen as one of the man-gods of Frazer's Golden Bough—a primitive king who is obliged to maintain his political position by engaging in certain bestial rites.4 Kenneth Bruffee has recendy cast Kurtz as Conrad's version of Byron's Childe Harold, arguing that the eventualjudgment on him by the character Marlow represents the effort of a squire-narrator to free himself from the pernicious influence of his knight-hero.5 For Bruffee Heart of Darkness is the prototype of a genre oftwentieth-century literature thatrejects the values ofaristocratic romance in favor of democratic norms. There may be truth in all these associations of Kurtz with known colonizers, mythical kings, and fictional knights, but they share a pair of deficiencies. They do not clarify the argument of Heart ofDarkness and so do not dojustice to its copious philosophical content. They also 280 Jerrys. Clegg281 fail to note those features ofKurtz that identify his model most precisely. The prototype of Conrad's famous character is biblical. He is a modern version of Abraham, and the work most intimately related to Heart of Darkness is Kierkegaard's panegyric on Abraham: Fear and Trembling. Conrad's story is, in fact, an addendum to Fear and Trembling written from the point of view of a poet-narrator—Marlow—who has accepted some, but not all, of the tenets of Kierkegaard's own poet-narrator, Johannes de Silentio. It is Marlow's quarrel with de Silentio that explains the structure of Heart ofDarkness, that constitutes its deepest message, and that tells the reader who the model for Kurtz was. An appreciation of that quarrel also helps clarify other matters. It makes plain, for example, the symbolism of light and dark that Conrad uses as an accompaniment to his argument.6 Heart of Darkness is, unarguably, a meditation on several subjects. It is about the Belgian Congo under the administration of King Leopold. It is also about European colonialism in general. It may be about other matters as well. Its primary subject, however, is the relationship of the religious to the ethical and the aesthetic. Since for Conrad the ethical and the aesthetic were allied, this subject may be best cast as the relationship ofreligion to art. It is introduced at the very start ofthe novella. Conrad's primary narrator there offers a theme for his seafaring friend, Marlow, to meditate on aloud: the great English knights-errant of the sea who, like "jewels flashing in the night of time," have born the torch of civilization into the mystery of an unknown earth.7 As this theme is announced, what was a mournful gloom that had hung over London becomes a lurid glare under the stars, and Marlow begins to talk of these, and still other, kinds of light and their relationship to the dark. The primary narrator has already identified what the dark stands for: time. Marlow does not challenge that equation. He only asks who, and with the aid of what kind of light, effectively combats "the night of time." During his meditation he considers four answers to his question, three of which are of primary importance. Certain "redeeming facts," illustrated by the restraint shown by hungry cannibals, quietly dazzle with reassurance, and so what mightbe called the person ofethical conduct— when stripped bare of pretense and the opaque "cloak of time...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 280-289
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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