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  • ‘It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland’: The Rhetoric of the Mad African Forest in Conrad, Céline and Greene
  • Kai Mikkonen (bio)

This article examines the rhetoric of madness in post-Conradian portrayals of the sub-Saharan African forest. My specific interest lies in certain privileged moments of description in Graham Greene’s travelogue, Journey Without Maps (1936), and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), in which the language of description ceases to represent thought as the sane contemplation of an object and instead invents ways to imitate the irrational mental processes of dreams, hallucination, or madness. These privileged instances of cultivated confusion draw especially on the effects of stupefying detail – or its opposite, the stupefying lack of detail – in their language and logic of description. Such scenes suggest an analogy between the landscape of the forest and the landscape of the mind; the descriptions of the landscape are continually bearing the signs of the traveller’s disintegrating mind, so that they also become vehicles for its representation. What further contributes to the rhetoric of madness in these descriptions is the conflation of the space of the forest with the portrayals of Africans, colonials and fellow travellers. Here, however, I will only point to some of the specificities in these writers’ work as it blends the space of the forest with the minds of other people. As Shoshana Felman argues, the rhetoric of madness involves the thematization of a certain discourse about madness in literature, which, ‘mobilizing all the linguistic resonances of eloquence, asserts madness as the meaning, the statement of the text’.1 In the light of this, I intend to examine the way in which the description of African forests identifies certain ‘mad’ properties of the place as well as of the persons within that [End Page 301] space and dramatizes the relationship between reason and unreason and between the object and the means of description.

My choice of texts is motivated not only by their common themes and similarities in description but by their mutual debt to Joseph Conrad’s portrayal of the African landscape. Céline’s novel develops the many-layered symbolic meanings of Conrad’s ‘darkness’ and sense of immensity in the West African forest, and can be seen as another variation on the motif of losing one’s sense of the (European, rational) self in Africa. Greene’s travelogue explicitly evokes a connected group of texts on Africa that includes Conrad’s Congo Diary (1890) and Heart of Darkness (1902) as well as Céline’s description of the African landscape in Voyage au bout de la nuit.

Conrad’s Madness-Inducing Jungle

Many colonial novels from the era of high imperialism – from Joseph Conrad to Rudyard Kipling, from Pierre Loti to André Gide – were preoccupied with the white man’s degeneration and miscegenation in the colonies.2 Popular fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for which Patrick Brantlinger has coined the phrase ‘imperial Gothic’, centred on the three principal themes of individual regression or going native, the invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism and demonism, and the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world. This fiction thus conveyed the widespread anxieties of the time about the declining British Empire, for instance by cultivating a sense of confusion between the civilized (or rational) mind-set and the primitive (or the occult).3

At one extreme in these stories of colonial regression or anxiety is the portrayal of a mental disintegration that threatens the colonial adventurer with madness. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the question of mental disequilibrium is first evoked in relation to Marlow’s motivation for travelling to Africa. During a physical examination before the journey begins, the colonial company doctor asks whether there was any madness in Marlow’s family. Irritated by the question, Marlow retorts, ‘Is that question in the interest of science, too?’.4 The doctor explains that he has a ‘little theory’ about the mental changes from which individuals suffer in the African colonies. What this colonial madness might involve, however...


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pp. 301-315
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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