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  • Marlow's Rhetoric of (Self-) Deception in Heart of Darkness
  • Barry Stampfl

A speaker who deliberately seeks to mislead his addressees aptly might be said to employ a rhetoric of deception. The language of one who does not intend to mislead but who has allowed his understanding to be occluded, by contrast, might be described as a rhetoric of self-deception. Although not ironclad, the distinction does seem to imply considerable logical and moral polarization. Consider the contrast between Iago and Othello, for example. Both perform criminal acts, but the treacherous Iago knows what he is about while the blundering Othello in important ways does not. Iago's self-knowledge makes him a villain while Othello's impercipience marks him as a tragic dupe. My point is simply that common sense would find it difficult to split the difference between these positions. If one knows something, then one cannot also simultaneously not know it. Nonetheless, given a theory of a divided self such as that afforded historically by psychoanalysis, a third position combining elements of the first two is conceivable. A rhetoric of (self-) deception would be informed by half-knowledge; it is the speech of someone deluded and yet also deliberately deceiving, who both knows and does not know what he [End Page 183] is about. In this formulation the effaced "self-" within the parenthesis appears as the site of conflict and of the suspension of contradictions. Partaking of that uncanniness that adheres to all evocations of the unconscious, the idea of a rhetoric of (self-) deception can be brought into play only by an uncanny text that demands the recognition of an epistemic condition midway between sight and blindness.

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is such a text. I will rely on psychoanalytic theory to provide the conceptual framework for a desublimated investigation of Marlow's narrative style.1 The discussion's point of departure and guiding rubric throughout is the Freudian formulation of negation (verneinung). But this analytical tool does not remain unchanged as it is applied to Conrad's novella. As we shall see, the linkage within Heart of Darkness between negators ("no," "not," "none," and so on) and belief qualifiers ("as if," "as though," "like," and others) expands the field of negation's explanatory force. Moreover, its application to Conrad's story leads to an identification of the unconscious with processes of imperialist history: specifically a Conradian rather than a Freudian insight.2 Negation in this essay instigates a polemic against idealism in the name of exegesis. The assumption that Marlow is in good faith when he attempts to convey the meaning of his experiences still deforms much Heart of Darkness criticism.3 Studies of Marlow's rhetoric [End Page 184] have tended to reproduce this assumption uncritically.4 Identifying a linguistic mechanism of unconscious bad faith, negation comprises an appropriately subversive supplement to the taxonomy of Marlow's stylistic devices. Application of the model desublimates and politicizes our understanding of his epistemological crisis. Freud's succinct essay on the topic begins the argument by describing a mode of (self-) deception pertinent to some of Marlow's most characteristic lexical choices.

"Negation" (1925) describes a phase in the psychoanalytic surmounting of repression in terms of the surface structure of the analysands' language. Specifically, Freud investigates the Janus-faced role of negative particles, pronouns, and function words as they operate in psychic economies moving uncertainly toward self-knowledge. In a crucial respect, such "no's" are mechanisms of psychic liberation: "The content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness on condition that it is negated" (235, original emphasis). Freud draws attention to the therapeutic implications: "With the help of the [linguistic] symbol of negation, thinking frees itself from the restrictions of repression and enriches itself with material that is indispensable for its proper functioning" (236). At the same time, however, Freud sees that the locutions in question essentially are faithful retainers to the process of repression. They only undo one of its consequences—"the fact, namely, of the ideational content of what is repressed not reaching consciousness" (236)—and ultimately give rise only to "a kind of intellectual acceptance of...


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