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  • “So little more than voices”:Conrad, Modernism, and Resistance
  • Christine Vandamme (bio)

It is a common assumption to consider modernist or premodernist writers as more concerned with aesthetics than politics and to deplore their apparent lack of interest in any specific political and ideological background. Fredric Jameson, for instance, has famously worked in this direction, arguing in The Political Unconscious that Conrad’s narrative and style could be considered as aesthetic compensation for the loss of value and transcendence experienced when faced with the forces of rationalization, reification, and fragmentation typical of the late nineteenth century (206–80). Jameson even speaks of the “strategies of containment” of the Conradian narrative which tend to defuse the historical, social and political questions of the time (266). He focuses mainly on Lord Jim and Nostromo, showing how the historicity of the event is systematically hollowed out and transferred onto another plane: existential, metaphysical or psychological. But my contention is that, concerning Heart of Darkness, the political asperities of the text are not erased or played down in any form of aestheticization but that, on the contrary, aesthetics serves a political purpose, that of forcefully exposing the contradictions lying at the heart of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, a system purporting to do one thing and doing the exact reverse. Furthermore, the containment strategies as well as the derealization techniques used by Conrad in the novella seem to be an extremely powerful and clever way to convey a scathing indictment of such a colonial system without appearing to question the idea of colonization as such.

There has been so much thorough historical investigation and collection of data about King Leopold’s Congo in the past three decades that the historical accuracy and relevance of Heart of Darkness cannot but appear in very clear and grim detail for the reader at the beginning of the twenty-first century.1 The symbolism and dense metaphorical network which characterize Heart of Darkness can no longer mislead the reader into thinking the work is not historically grounded as famous journalist Adam Hochschild thought at first: [End Page 179]

I knew almost nothing about the history of the Congo until a few years ago, when I noticed a footnote in a book I happened to be reading. [ . . . ] The footnote was to a quotation by Mark Twain [ . . . ]. Then it occurred to me that, like millions of other people, I had read something about that time and place after all: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. However, with my college lecture notes on the novel filled with scribbles about Freudian overtones, mythic echoes, and inward vision, I had mentally filed away the book under fiction, not fact.

(Hochschild 3)

The complex reader-response that Conrad’s texts produce is in itself a very interesting angle from which to reconsider the so-called neutrality of the modernist text. And the subtle defamiliarization effects at work in “An Outpost of Progress” and Heart of Darkness could be analyzed in more detail than they usually are so as to further establish Conrad’s radical critique of modern reification and illusory idealism. As will be demonstrated, when the blank map of Africa turns into a black hole where not only exploitation of man by man reigns supreme but where man is no longer in command, man can be said to be just an effect in an increasingly complex machine-like governmentality, that of colonial administration. As will be seen, defamiliarization is meant to trigger a very active type of reader-response, bringing about a sudden political and ethical awareness of the discrepancy between colonial propaganda and a ruthless and cynical system based on purely commercial interests, that of King Leopold’s colonization of the Congo.

The more and more complex enunciation strategies from the “Congo Diary” and the “Up-river Book” to “An Outpost of Progress” and ultimately Heart of Darkness dramatize, with effective use of chiaroscuro effects, the “Heart of Darkness” of a Western society in decline. They lead to an even greater inability to assign a source or a subject to the various voices of the novel, including not only the narrator’s and the characters’ voices, but also the implied author...


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pp. 179-194
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