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  • Frustrated Listening: The Aural Landscape of Heart of Darkness1
  • Melissa Free (bio)

That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness2

In the wake of Ivan Kreilkamp’s masterful 1997 reading of the novella and in harmony with the sound studies boom that it just barely anticipated, scholars have begun listening in earnest to Heart of Darkness. Long distracted by “the dominance of the visual” in society generally (Bull and Black 1), humanities scholarship broadly, and analyses of Conrad’s work specifically, we took our time.3 At last, however, joining the “community of listeners” whom Marlow addresses (Kreilkamp 230), reader-listeners will hear three dominant notes: the silence of the wilderness, the “noise” of Africans, and the voice of Kurtz (Conrad, Heart 79).4 Of course, the portrayal of African sonic expression as noise is a “Eurocentric [ . . . ] mislabeling,” a “presumption” made by Marlow (McCarthy 625), whose understanding of the continent after which he has long had a “hankering” is thwarted by sound and silence, inhabitant and landscape, alike (Conrad 48). “Brag[ging],” however, like the imperial Roman with whom he opens his narrative, “of what he had gone through,” the sailor does not admit to his failure (46). Ladening the exalted voice of Kurtz with the promise of revelation, he instead attempts to convince those aboard the Nellie of the comprehension that eludes him. Inasmuch as Marlow seeks to gull his listeners, Conrad provides auditory readers with the means to hear this deceit. Constructing, through the framing device, the “scribe” (frame narrator) as listener and the storyteller (Marlow) as orator;5 emphasizing sound throughout the text; and describing, in his 1917 Author’s Note, the novella’s theme in aural terms (Conrad 6), Conrad took pains to encourage an auditory engagement with Heart of Darkness. Such an engagement, as I will demonstrate, enables reader-listeners to experience [End Page 1] Marlow’s disquiet with an unyielding continent; to register the absence of the elucidation he so desires and compels his listeners to anticipate from Kurtz; and, finally, to hear the hollowness of his own claims to knowledge. In emphasizing Marlow’s aural preoccupations, expectations, and frustrations on his African quest, Conrad suggests the arrogance that underlies the desire to interpret a reticent continent, as well as the vacuity of those voices belonging to those who have done so. The author himself does not fall into this category, for far from being a meditation on Africa, Heart of Darkness is a meditation on the desire to speak for it.

A fictional rendering of Spivak’s famous formulation of a subject that “cannot be heard” (35),6 Heart of Darkness implies not that Africa is inherently unknowable, but that it is incomprehensible to the European who seeks to possess it through knowledge. Hoodwinked by Marlow, for whom both the presence and the absence of sound emanating from the forest preclude its accessibility, the story’s critics have continued to insist on its overdeterminacy and to search for “the meaning” that evades the naval orator (Conrad 45). The meaning of Marlow’s “yarns,” however, as the frame narrator tells us, is “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze” (45). If, then, instead of seeking meaning within—in the heart of Africa, at the inner station, in the voice of Kurtz—we tune our ears to the ambient, the inaccessibility experienced by the seaman surrounds us like a sonic haze. Sound here functions dually: both as a means of access to the inaccessibility that Marlow wants his listeners to think he has circumvented and as a means of escape from the credulity he attempts to compel. Recognizing his narrative as an effort to establish a mastery that he has not achieved, reader-listeners can distinguish it from Conrad’s. The “sombre theme” of Marlow’s narrative, we then discern, is the proprietary desire to know, the better to control Africa, and the...


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