- “Triumphant Health”: Joseph Conrad and Tropical Medicine
Without question, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is plagued by the idea of sickness. With its images of dying natives and mad Europeans, it might be tempting to read Heart of Darkness as a warning against crossing the imperial threshold; this suggests that the dark jungle kingdom is beleaguered by some primordial miasma waiting to pollute the white body of the colonial, both physically and psychologically. Such a reading, however, reinscribes Western projections of exoticism and primitivism while missing the nuances of how sickness and health function in the novella vis-à-vis the larger context of tropical medicine. While most medical readings of Heart of Darkness tend to account for Kurtz’s psychological maladies, this article addresses how the embodied forms of tropical disease and health operate in the novella: Conrad uses disease as a sign, in both material and semiotic capacities, to signify the effects of European imperialism and the health that sustains it.1 As Conrad’s text reveals, health can be quite sickening.
The novella challenges notions of European health and even its own textual constructions of naturalized African insalubrity by implicating European colonials as pathogenic agents causing what I refer to as coloniopathy; that is to say, the physical sickness in the Congolese is caused by colonialism. Consistent with the text’s oft-cited indeterminacy, illness in the Africans both demonstrates the pathogenic effects of colonialism and reflects Western notions of Africa as an unwholesome environment. Even while Conrad critiques the morbid effects of empire, he is unable to avoid using its tropes, such as primitivism. European health, bolstered by advances in medical science, also carries a complication: on the one hand, it denotes the positive ability to resist lethal disease; on the other, it signifies both the physical and mental capacity [End Page 132] to perform genocidal work in the colony and immunity to the horrors of that work. It is in this tension that the novella troubles the deployment of tropical medicine in the Congo, a developing sub-discipline in Western health care at the time that emerged from parasitological research in regions at or below the equator.
Understanding how the ambiguous relationship between health and sickness functions in the novella with respect to the history of tropical medicine contributes to the larger discussion of Heart of Darkness’s problematic representations of race. Questions about whether or not Conrad was racist and whether his work has any merit because of its constructions of natives as primitives have occupied Conradian and postcolonial scholars such as Ian Watt, Patrick Brantlinger, Chinua Achebe, and Edward Said for the past few decades. This essay’s reading of coloniopathy in Heart of Darkness takes account of the ambiguous representations of sickness as being of both European and African origin by drawing from Said’s argument that though Conrad critiques empire he cannot escape it as a guiding ideology for his critique. But beyond strictly literary debates, this reading contributes to more recent theoretical scholarship pertaining to the intersection of politics and biology in the novella in the context of tropical medicine’s history.2
A coloniopathic reading of Conrad promises two insights. First, it reveals a nuanced understanding of how literary genre destabilized the history of tropical medicine and its late Victorian representations. Conrad’s own experiences of illness shape his use of impressionism and modernist indeterminacy to challenge the Victorian imperial romantic narratives attached to heroes and soldiers of tropical medicine. He ascribed his life-long invalidism to infections acquired in the Congo.3 It was, however, his sickness that enabled his writing: his correspondence with close friends and physicians makes the case that, had he not been struck by disease in the Congo, he would more than likely have continued his maritime career and not become a writer. Sickness, especially the crippling gout he attributed to tropical disease, made the act of writing difficult, yet, as one of his friends notes, his recovery in the hospital after the Congo gave him time to “do nothing and reflect.”4 It gave him time to work through how exactly health and sickness had been and were being...