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Agitational Ethics: Conrad, Malick, and the Sublime

From: Conradiana
Volume 43, Numbers 2-3, Fall/Winter 2011
pp. 147-159 | 10.1353/cnd.2011.0033

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There would seem to be an almost "natural" affinity between Heart of Darkness and an analytic sublime. This affinity goes beyond the order of the sublime as a textual process (and the sublime is always processional) and, it could be argued, is embedded in the heart of the text. This would be to argue that the "consciousness" that Heart of Darkness emerged from—the collapsing late-Romanticism of the latter half of the 19th Century and the formative heteroglossia of Modernism—was indebted to the sublime as both a textual and a theoretical set of issues. Even if ideas of the sublime were in recession by the time Heart of Darkness was written, it is still not at all difficult to measure the novella against their influences. Theoretical interest in the sublime waned, of course, from its high point in the 18th Century, returning in a burst of post-structuralist energy in the last moments of the 20th Century (led, to a large part, by Lyotard's interpretation of Kant and a postmodernist aesthetics). Given this, one question that presents itself is: Why is there so little in the reading of Heart of Darkness based on the sublime? Perhaps it is because Conrad himself can be seen as an author to whom the sublime occurs in the corner of the eye, not central but located at the periphery. Or perhaps it is a consequence of theoretical fashion, and Conrad's works simply found themselves at a time when the sublime was not a fashionable pursuit, or perhaps it was the related issue, and Conrad criticism moved through a range of themes—language and literariness, modernity, gender/sexuality, colonialism and race—so that the sublime could never really gain the sort of theoretical "critical mass" that made it seem viable.

There have been some works, however, analyzing Heart of Darkness in terms of the sublime and it is worth mentioning an example or two in order to gain a sense of how this (aesthetically) driven theory has been constructed with the context of Conrad. For what we find is rarely, if ever, a "pure" aesthetics of the sublime in the reading of Heart of Darkness, but rather a combining of theoretical perspectives.

It is perhaps not surprising to see that Kurtz is a recurring motif of the sublime—he is, after all, a personification of so many of the key attributes that the sublime demands. What is perhaps as interesting is how Kurtz has been read within a combination of theoretical contexts, qualified by the sublime. For example, we see the sublime rendering of Kurtz and post colonialism in Philip Dickinson's "Postcolonial romanticisms: The sublime and negative capability in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians": "Kurtz, having 'gone native,' and having, in Marlow's eyes, obtained such agency within such a political structure, is a sublime figure . . . As far as Kurtz is sublime, his self is a force of nature, a source of terror, and somehow divorced from 'natural' humanity, from civilization: the sublime asserts his intractable and fearful difference" (54). By combining the sublime with a political agenda, Dickinson continues that lineage of Conrad scholarship investigating the problematics of racial representations and the colonial contexts. In this sense the sublime becomes a point of analysis for otherness within the ideological frame of postcolonial theory. Dickinson continues this line, positioning the sublime effect (the most crucial attribute of this aesthetic domain) with the language (notably the narrativizing processes of the novella): "If the Burkean and the Kantian sublime are at radical odds, with the former dwarfing the human being and the latter asserting the mind's "supersensible" power, when it comes to the sublime in art the Burkean sense of the self 's incapacity might become impossible. Marlow is telling a story, and the sublime helps him to do so. It is a tool of, rather than a fetter to, expression. Translated in these terms, then, the sublime might reduce African humanity, might transform it into an aesthetic. Even more problematically the sublime is, historically, an aesthetic of European provenance: the very fact that there is a precedent in European literary...



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