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  • The Horror of Mimesis:"Enthusiastic Outbreak[s]" in Heart of Darkness
  • Nidesh Lawtoo (bio)

"It would be," he said without taking notice of my irritation, "interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals on the spot, but . . ." "Are you an alienist?" I interrupted. "Every doctor should be—a little," answered that original imperturbably. "I have a little theory which you Messieurs who go out there must help me to prove."

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness

1. The Alienist's "little Theory"

The Belgian doctor whom Charlie Marlow meets just before taking off to the heart of darkness is a minor, irrelevant character who tends to go unnoticed. Marlow even goes as far as calling him a "harmless fool" (Heart 15). And quite rightly so, since the "old doctor's" interests in measuring his patients' heads with a "thing like callipers" clearly shows that he follows, à la lettre [to the letter], the notorious craniological theory of Cesare Lombroso—an Italian jurist who considered that criminal tendencies were innate in individuals, and that criminals could be recognized by the shape of their heads (Heart 15).1 Yet, at the same time, this French-speaking doctor seems to stray from Lombroso's deterministic physiognomic theory. In fact, he affirms that "the changes take place inside," making clear that his true interests do not concern anatomy, but psychology instead (Heart 15). And he adds: "it would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals on the spot" (Heart 15). What [End Page 45] the doctor says applies, of course, to his medical practice, so that as Marlow impatiently asks, "[a]re you an alienist?" he unequivocally answers, "every doctor should be—a little" (Heart 15). The actuality of this last statement in the medical field is, indeed, unquestionable; but cannot the same be said for humanistic disciplines like literary criticism and theory? After all, psychology has been a crucial component in literary studies for a while now, and often, literary characters have provided critical readers with interesting "cases" to solve. It is, thus, in this sense that I sympathize with the old alienist's project. In a way, I even intend to continue, at the literary level, his psychological research. In fact, "I have a little theory, which you [Mesdames and] Messieurs who go out there [in that literary jungle which is Heart of Darkness] must help me to prove" (Heart 15).

After the publication of Albert Guerard's Conrad the Novelist in 1958—one of the earliest influential studies to explore the psychological dimension of Heart of Darkness—critics have often invoked the psychoanalytic notion of "identification" in order to define Marlow's ambivalent relationship to his double, Mr. Kurtz. This point has been made so often that Conrad can now be referred to as "a novelist of identification" (Harpham 131). And indeed, the reference to an affect which troubles the distinction between "self" and "other(s)" seems particularly apt to account for Conrad's career-long fascination with the homo duplex [double human].2 And yet, Conrad himself already made clear that "[t]he homo duplex has, in [his] case, more than one meaning" (qtd. in Hay 32). In this paper, I suggest that Conrad's interest in identification is but an instance of his more general engagement with what I call psychic or affective mimesis, a form of behavioral imitation whose primary characteristic consists in generating a psychological confusion between self and other(s) which, in turn, deprives subjects of their full rational presence to selfhood, of their capacity to think rationally, of their individual substance, as it were.3 At work in Conrad's novella is, quite literally, an outbreak of such mimetic phenomena: somnambulism, compassion, enthusiasm, emotional contagion, hypnosis, depersonalization and suggestion are all fundamentally mimetic, psychic tendencies that haunt the Conradian conception of the modern subject.

What my "little theory" hopes to "prove" is that Heart of Darkness's narrative struggle with colonial praxis and ideology is predicated on a confrontation with such a mimetic conception of the subject in its gendered, racial and political manifestations. It is well-known that Conrad's novella posits a hierarchical distance between dominant and [End Page...


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