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  • Living Alone:Solipsism in Heart of Darkness
  • David Rudrum

". . . As if I could read the darkness."Philosophical Investigations, §635

We live, as we dream—alone."1 This, Marlow's most eminently quotable aphorism, encapsulates a theme central to the outlook of modernism: what Virginia Woolf called "the loneliness which is the truth about things."2 This loneliness derives not from the absence of others—Marlow is surrounded by friends when he makes this assertion. It is a deeper condition brought about by recognizing the limits of selfhood, by confronting or being confronted by them. This condition is central to Marlow's narrative predicament: he attempts to fathom the enigmatic self that is Kurtz, to understand "the tempestuous anguish of his soul" (HoD, p. 246); he is led, by this attempt, to question the nature of his own self; and, finally, he tries to relay the impenetrable essence of both these selves to the "other minds" of his narratees on the yawl Nellie. As we shall see, Marlow concedes defeat in all three of these struggles. Heart of Darkness, then, is a novel beset by the limits of subjectivity.

It is also a novel which foregrounds the limits of language. Marlow concludes that we live in isolation from one another after musing on the failure of language to communicate adequately, to facilitate intersubjective understanding: "it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence" (HoD, p. 172), he says. [End Page 409] Conveying the meaning of his narrative to others is repeatedly written off as unattainable, and on numerous occasions Marlow, presumably wrestling with sheer wordlessness, falls silent.3 Indeed, Marlow's narrative is peppered with words highlighting the limits of language: words like "inconceivable" and "unspeakable," which F. R. Leavis famously dismissed as "overworked."

Leavis described Conrad's "adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery" as "worse than supererogatory," "tending to cheapen the tone" to a point "little short of disastrous." He concluded that Conrad was "intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means."4 That Leavis—a critic who fetishized "the concrete presentment of incident, setting and image" through the concrete use of words—should have failed to grasp and to value the novel's brush with wordlessness, is unsurprising (Leavis, p. 208). Nor is it surprising that two of the episodes in the novel that most clearly encounter the limits of language—Kurtz's last words and Marlow's lie about them—were written off by Leavis as examples of Conrad having a "bad patch" (Leavis, p. 208). Yet it is nevertheless instructive that a novel that insists on its linguistic and communicative limits should thus have been misread.

This article reads these two issues of the limits of language and the limits of subjectivity together. To do so is to invoke a philosophical position in which language, selfhood and worldhood are interrelated, and their limits coterminous—a position found in the early thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein.


Like Marlow, Wittgenstein also sees the self as essentially isolated from other selves, and language as demarcating its limits. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the interconnected remarks "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" and "I am my world" delineate Wittgenstein's rethinking of the "egocentric predicament" in which, to paraphrase Marlow, we all live alone.5 This position entails a close relationship with solipsism: as Wittgenstein says, "what the solipsist means is quite correct" (TLP, 5.62)—which is not, of course, to suggest that solipsism itself is correct. The grammar of Marlow's assertion encapsulates this point. The card-carrying solipsist would assert "I live alone," but the loneliness that Marlow and Wittgenstein envisage is a [End Page 410] condition of our subjectivity that we all have in common, but cannot share. It is a transcendental solipsism.

Nearly 300 years before Heart of Darkness was written, a poem by Robert Herrick anticipated some aspects of Marlow's assertion of transcendental solipsism:

Dreames Here we are all, by day; By night w'are hurl'd By dreames, each one, into a sev'rall world.6

This poem makes explicit something left implicit in Marlow's...


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