- Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought: Revisiting the Horror with Lacoue-Labarthe ed. by Nidesh Lawtoo
Nidesh Lawtoo’s volume is an exciting and provocative return to Conrad’s most celebrated work. This is no mean feat. The difficulties underlying any scholarly approach to such a critically overdetermined work of literature are seemingly insurmountable. J. Hillis Miller, one of the contributors to this new volume, already pondered the merit of such an exercise in “Should We Read Heart of Darkness?” (2002). That Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought is no less than an informative and thought-provoking contribution to scholarship on Conrad’s novella is thus a true accomplishment.
The book’s raison d’être already serves to distinguish it from existing volumes on Heart of Darkness; the volume centers not on Conrad’s novella but on Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s response to the novella, an essay that is here translated and introduced to the English public for the first time. Though he is very much in the company of many central figures of French theory who enjoy wide theoretical appeal today, Lacoue-Labarthe may be less known to English speakers. Lawtoo presents him as one of the founding figures of mimetic theory, an authority on what Lacoue-Labarthe himself terms “the metaphysics of the modern.” The philosopher is introduced through a variety of registers ranging from the literary-philosophical to the biographical. Miller’s essay “Heart of Darkness Revisited” offers an astute response to Lacoue-Labarthe’s reading of Conrad; Lawtoo sketches a brief philosophical introduction to his central ideas, and François Warin, a friend of the late philosopher, offers a more personal glimpse of their shared tour of Africa. An interview with Avital Ronell, a former student of the philosopher, concludes the volume with a brief dialogue that shuttles between the conceptual to the private whereupon Lacoue-Labarthe is revealed as a modest but exacting thinker.
Though it may initially raise questions, the decision to withhold the philosopher´s essay to page 111 emerges as a strategic choice on the editor’s part. By postponing our encounter with the philosopher, Lawtoo stages a mirroring of Marlow’s journey down the river in search of Kurtz’s elusive voice. Our experience of Lacoue-Labarthe is similarly mediated throughout a large part of this journey of discovery. If Lacoue-Labarthe materializes as the heart of the volume, much as Kurtz provides the elusive center of Conrad’s text, the two assume the guise of doubles in Warin’s short essay. The masks of primitive African art adorning the walls of the philosopher´s home, his multiple allegiances to the arts, philosophy, and politics—the parallels with Conrad’s story here appear to be greater than the sum of the stylistic repetition and the consequent irony cannot be overstated.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Contemporary Thought is readable, accessible, and engaging. Offering an impressive array of critical thinkers including Claude Maisonnat and Stephen Ross, the volume also hosts a particularly rewarding return to the novella by Miller, one of the canonical voices comprising its contemporary critical corpus. Lawtoo’s volume allows for a rehearsal of some of the commonplaces of Heart of Darkness scholarship from Lacanian and Freudian psychoanalysis to the themes of myth and voice. At the same time, it contains new and provocative ideas on the novella’s place in the philosophical tradition and its relation to mimesis, emotion, and even X-ray technology. Warin’s description of the death rituals in Africa is also valuable in suggesting that the African woman’s inexplicable arm-raising gesture in Kurtz’s station [End Page 385] may be recuperated within such practices as a gesture of reverence. It is my contention, however, that the volume’s greatest achievement is in its manner of approaching Conrad’s novella performatively, through the mediation of Lacoue-Labarthe’s essay. In so doing, the volume offers the reader precisely that active reading experience we often forfeit when reading critical treatments of fiction...