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  • "Absurd be—exploded!":Re-Membering Experience through Liminality in Conrad's Heart of Darkness
  • Fred Solinger (bio)

Concluding his essay "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation," Homi Bhabha writes: "it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity" (320). Applying this concept to his reading of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Mark Mossman suggests that Bhabha is saying that "there are always social spaces or locations for an individual to exist in which the individual can operate, and can also understand and be deeply critical of every side of the culture as a whole: it is the ability to play both sides of system, the ultimate ability to perceive the schema of the cultural system in action" (74). These "social spaces" in which one can "play both sides of the system," in which one is "neither this nor that, and yet is both," may be called the liminal space (Turner 9).

It is from such a position, I intend on arguing, that Marlow narrates (and Conrad writes) Heart of Darkness. Marlow "followed the sea"; he was a man with "no birthplace, no home, no school, no fixed social or domestic ties"; indeed, as a seaman, if he can be said to have a home, it exists somewhere between ports (Heart 5; Watt 206). His voyages have led to experiences he can, at times, scarcely put into words. In telling his tale to his fellow sailors, Marlow attempts to bridge the "psychological abyss between cultures"; his narration—"Marlow's inconclusiveness, his evasions, his arabesque meditations on his feelings and ideas"—attests to the difficulty of such an undertaking (Ashcroft, et al. 62; Said 23).

What he is unable to say is just as important as what he does say: Conrad incorporates these "evasions" and "meditations" into Marlow's narrative as a way of waving a red flag at the reader (Said 23). My aim in this essay is to highlight the narrative techniques Conrad utilizes to produce these ruptures; to show why his re-membering of Marlow's fragmented experience is effective in exposing the horror of imperialism; and to demonstrate exactly how Marlow is speaking from a liminal [End Page 61] position, a position that enables him to be, if not exactly oppositional, then at least critical. Before I can do that, however, I feel I should begin by explaining what exactly I mean by liminality and how it applies to Heart of Darkness.

In his study of initiation practices in Africa during the early 1950s, under the influence of earlier work in the field by Arnold van Gennep, anthropologist Victor Turner identified three phases within the process. In the first phase, the neophyte is separated from his current position within the group or society; in the final stage, the passage is consummated. "Betwixt and between" the fixed points of the ritual exists what Turner refers to as the threshold, or liminal time (7). The in-depth study of this transitional period represents Turner's unique contribution.

Of this liminal period, he writes: "during the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the 'passenger') is ambiguous; he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state" (Turner 5). Liminality "takes place [ . . . ] out of the structures of ordinary life"; indeed, the neophytes are "sometimes said to 'be in another place'" (Stein and Stein 294). This "other place," the liminal space, is composed of the unstructured: "the unbounded, the infinite, the limitless" (Turner 8).

"As members of society," Turner writes, "most of us see only what we expect to see [ . . . ] what we are conditioned to see" (6). Society is therefore unable to allow for the existence of a "not-boy-not-man" (Turner 6). The neophyte remains of this society, yet he must be withdrawn from it in some way in order to consummate the rite of passage. This is accomplished either literally, by taking him to some unknown place, or figuratively, through the use of incantations, costumes or masks...