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  • Two Narratives of Modernism in Heart of Darkness
  • Srila Nayak (bio)

Chicago, Illinois

In Frederic Jameson’s famous study, Joseph Conrad’s fiction is understood as a contradictory construct of “imperfectly differentiated cultural spaces” (208) and styles. Novels such as Lord Jim and Nostromo contain discontinuous generic conventions split between literary structures of Romance and mass culture and a highbrow “impressionist will-to-style.” In an important departure from Jameson’s argument, Patrick Brantlinger argues that Conrad’s impressionist or modernist style in Heart of Darkness is identical to conventions of romance narratives: “But the chief difficulty with Jameson’s argument is that the will-to-style in Conrad’s text is also a will to appropriate and remake Gothic romance conventions” (264). In his thesis, Brantlinger points to the contradictions of Conrad’s impressionist style as it delivers a critique of empire at the same time as it “submerges” the critique under the abstractions of a “will-to-style” that incorporates older codes of racial representation. Brantlinger’s essay assumes that Conrad’s tale outlines a familiar encounter between self and the other that reproduces nineteenth-century racial binaries and creates a dualism between the aesthetic moral vision of anti-imperialism and the failure of this very vision in Heart of Darkness.

Despite the aforementioned point of difference, both Jameson and Brantlinger’s assessments equally assume that Conrad’s critique of imperialism is compromised by an aestheticism that either “derealizes” the material aspects of imperialism or accommodates a racist ideology, which negates the anti-imperialist text. Contra Jameson and Brantlinger, I argue that the complexities that characterize Conrad’s literary modernism create a divided narrative in which the relations among modernism, race and imperialism work in several ways. Primary among these is the division between the modernist accounts of Marlow’s subjectivity and Kurtz’s subjectivity, closely identified with each other in Edward Said’s analysis (22), and their respective methods of registering the [End Page 29] effects of empire and racial otherness. More recent readings of Conrad’s novella mark a departure in the discussion of race from earlier critiques by Chinua Achebe and Frances B. Singh, in which Heart of Darkness is seen to contain “suggestions that the evil which the title refers to is to be associated with Africans, their customs, and their rites” (Singh 43). This solid localization of darkness is contested in Hunt Hawkins’s argument, “The lasting political legacy of Heart of Darkness, more than any confirmation of racism, has been its alarm over atrocity” (375). Reading against the grain of the general formula of analyzing racism in Heart of Darkness, Paul B. Armstrong argues that Conrad’s representation of the Other is not an act of racism as Achebe alleges, but a daring and deliberate exploration of the difficulties in understanding “cultural otherness”: “Conrad is neither a racist nor an exemplary anthropologist but a skeptical dramatist of epistemological processes. Heart of Darkness is a calculated failure to depict achieved cross-cultural understanding” (23).

While most accounts of Conrad’s politics of representation in Heart of Darkness tend to promote a singular reading of Conrad’s modernism as either germane to an exposé of imperialism and genuinely anti-racist or racist and weakly anti-imperialist, our understanding of the relations between the text’s aesthetics and imperialism must take into account the diverse ways in which various aspects of modernism are shaped by the colonial encounter. In her essay, Benita Parry revisits Heart of Darkness through the critiques of Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul and finds them “inadequate to comprehending the novel’s plural and contradictory discourses” (40). Against Achebe’s charge of racism in Conrad’s representation of Africa and Naipaul’s defense of the novel’s “totally accurate reportage” about the “world’s half-made societies” (40), Parry asserts that the text does not accommodate such univocal readings. Parry, by turns, recognizes the novel’s capacity for self-critique as well as its “racist idiom,” (40) its “powerful critique of imperialism as historical undertaking and ethos” (48) and its simultaneous “complicity with the imperial imaginary” (47). Parry’s analysis is significant for its recognition of the novel’s unresolved dialectics...


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