The instructor who turns to this last section of the instructor’s manual, devoted to the twentieth century, will either be fresh and sparkling as a new




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The Twentieth Century


1901–present

The instructor who turns to this last section of the instructor’s manual, devoted to the twentieth century, will either be fresh and sparkling as a new semester or a year-long course unfolds, or else catching a second wind after traversing prior centuries or periods. You may be teaching a course with the relative luxury of being focussed on the twentieth century alone, as for example in surveys of Modern British prose and poetry, or in classes on modernist literature, both of which generally begin with Joseph Conrad or possibly let Oscar Wilde get in under the century’s wire; or you may be perusing these pages rather breathlessly and short on time, with twentieth-century literature only part of a longer course with a syllabus encompassing several centuries—for you, this literary period, like the twentieth century itself, quickly draws to a close. Whether your course has the comparative freedom of the former in terms of time and pace, or if it is on the tight schedule of the latter, with no time to dawdle over lesser lights, there are a few general principles to keep in mind in addressing the twentieth-century section of the Longman Anthology of British Literature, and some common pedagogical goals on the fast track or the slower, leisurely path, that we hope will invigorate your teaching.

Modern British literature (that is, post-Victorian, twentieth-century British literature) rejoins or embraces world literature, in a way that British literature accomplished at several of its peak periods, but not at all. William Shakespeare is an English writer, to indicate the obvious, but Shakespearean drama and poetry have had and continue to have world-wide audiences, scholarship, and cultural implications. The epic poetry of John Milton has had similar, if slightly less powerful, reverberations across many other literatures and tongues; the British Romantic poets opened up Romanticism for Europe in general and then, as Romanticism spread as a movement, they created a literary style, and a cultural politics, which traveled across the globe. Twentieth-century British literature in many of its facets—its prose, poetry, and drama—has the same global distinction and global dissemination, and the same innovative stature, as these past exemplars. Stating this fact is not meant to create a hierarchy within British literature, labeling some of its periods or productions “greater” than others by virtue of their being more widely read, or more influential, outside Britain itself. All questions of value aside—and it would be absurd to judge Donne’s poetry or Johnson’s prose or Austen’s novels as less great, or even less “universal,” than they manifestly are, only for not having leapt over the divisions of language and nation quite as nimbly—it is still the case that twentieth-century British literature happens to contain many of the premier names in modernism regardless of nation or language: Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Beckett, Yeats, and Lawrence. They constitute a formidable line-up no other single country can match across the key genres—and genders—of modernism.

Teaching the twentieth-century section of the Longman Anthology, then, has as a great plus the chance to watch British literature set many of the standards that ultimately will count as “modernist art” around the world, and to see English literature in action as a foremost innovator on the world scene. One common thread in the following guides to teaching the individual works or authors of the last section will emphasize ways the selections from this period can stand alone as a study in modernism, a compact modernist lineage. The changes occurring in the novel, in poetry, and in drama in the twentieth century—how they become “modern” in formal terms—can all be witnessed at their height in the authors of this section, who offer a lexicon of modernist literature just as experimental, powerful, and influential as Picasso’s paintings or Einstein’s physics for the lexicon of modernist art and modern science, respectively. The most dynamic—and true—way to present the century’s literature is at that high level of technical innovation and lasting human import: British literature in the twentieth century alters the forms and the roles of art.

Modernist form is by no means the only hallmark of twentieth-century British literature, but it is to be meaningfully discerned even in writers whose works, however monumental, might appear to have more than one foot set in a previous century. The two extraordinary writers in the section who most bear this out are George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, both Victorianists by birth, education, and literary training, yet each of whom stakes a claim to modernism in unique ways: Shaw in the decentered, ensemble nature of his drama, and Hardy in the old-fashioned echoes within his very modern poetry. What makes something “modern,” then, whether work of art, idea, or even person, is and should be a constant refrain in teaching the twentieth-century canon. One path through the Anthology selections, then, would involve extracting the modernist nugget—the works of Conrad, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, Beckett, and Lawrence—and using the Perspectives sections on Making it New, World War I, Irish Independence, and on Bloomsbury aesthetics, as surrounding and deepening contexts: in other words, foregrounding the era’s literary experimentation and achievements. Exploring the modernist “nugget” just described need not be only a formal enterprise—if the basis for our anthology holds, aesthetic choices are never divorced from cultural, historical, and political roots. One of the most exciting approaches to the modernist canon embedded in the section would be to tease out the complex literary geographies modernism contains, starting with Conrad’s foreignness and tracing modernism through the diverse cultures, classes, genders and regions of its development. Another pathway to adopt as a supplement to the primarily literary-historical route would focus on key issues emerging in the period, which spill over into the literature and also arise from within it: one such issue is the encounter with difference and diversity brought about by the loss of empire, through the challenges of independence movements and struggles, including women’s suffrage and trade unionism. Under such scrutiny, “British” modernism quickly reveals its fragmentation and its “otherness”; consider a syllabus which investigates how modernism came to be such an off-center movement in cultural terms, and why the greatest modernist writers in its tradition are women, or Irish, or working-class, or foreign-born. Modernism stands revealed as a veritable encounter with difference—in some cases literally, as T. E. Lawrence encounters the Arabic and nomadic cultures of North Africa, and finds himself; in some cases metaphorically, as Virginia Woolf insists on the productive silences of women’s voices and lives. Wyndham Lewis’s work sketches a modernist recoil from the masses; D. H. Lawrence’s writing explores the intertwining of sexuality and power in class terms. England’s cultural “opposite” for six hundred years had been its colony Ireland; in the twentieth century, Irish writers are the fountain of British modernism. The writing of these modernist giants—Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett—is itself an encounter with the Other, as their works hold up “the cracked looking-glass of a servant,” in Joyce’s phrase quoting Wilde’s, in which to mirror the history of English literature and the legacy of colonialism. A course set up in this way, in other words one that took modernism as a complicated and a divided phenomenon, a series of rich encounters with differences inside and outside, would flow quite readily into the post-World War II and the contemporary parts of the Anthology: Conrad’s modernist lineage could (and should) be traced through Naipaul, Rushdie, and Kureishi, while Yeats’s poetic modernism travels through to Auden, Larkin, the Irish poets Heany and Ni Dhomhnaill, ending with Derek Walcott’s voyage back to Conrad.

At the heart of the twentieth-century section is Virginia Woolf’s work: she is at the center of the volume because its editors see her writing as the quintessential representative of British modernism. Any instructor who can possibly supplement the anthology with one longer work should add Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; to do so would give students the best example of the trajectory of the modernist novel, in a work that refers repeatedly to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, within a narrative that highlights the global predicament of modern Western societies, and underscores the place of women in modern culture. Moreover, Woolf’s intricate prose and the audacious structuring of the novel stand as a model of modernist experimentation. Even without including this novel, the Anthology provides an extensive selection from Woolf’s well-known works of social thought, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, and several short fictions. The amplitude of the Woolf selections, along with the Bloomsbury perspectives section, allows an instructor to link Woolf’s writing with the lineage of female writers who precede her in the anthology, and to connect her prose writing with the important documents of cultural thought—Milton, Johnson, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Carlyle, Arnold, Wilde, Pearse—that form a major current of British letters, sometimes oppositional, sometimes not. Gender is an explosive feature of the twentieth-century section; male writers like Bernard Shaw, who argues for women’s equality no less passionately than Woolf does, D. H. Lawrence, whose novella The Fox centers on female sexuality, or Hanif Kureishi, who depicts fluid sexualities and the pressures on immigrant women in particular, can be read with Woolf, West, Bowen, Mansfield, Drabble, Gordimer, and others for a multi-faceted exploration of gender and sexuality as a profound force in modern literature and life.

As any instructor knows, one of strongest techniques for teaching is the creation of cross-references, so that issues or themes or styles accumulate force as they are repeated with a difference in works that cross-reference or allude to others. The twentieth-century section has a built-in engine for cross-reference in its first selection, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Critically accepted as the first modernist literary work, Heart of Darkness reverberates through all the prose fiction, much of the poetry, and some of the drama, even including the screenplay for My Beautiful Laundrette. Conrad’s brief but monumental novella refers back to the travel writing of the nineteenth century in its narrative thrust, points forward to the postcolonial voices narrating their own further journeys, incorporates in its astonishing style of poetic density the developments in imagery and rhythm made by poets like Hopkins, Hardy and others, and draws on the visual sophistication of the modern painters revealed and revered in the art criticism of Ruskin, Pater, and, later, Roger Fry. Most of the streams of critical interest in the twentieth century converge in Conrad’s work, and those that seem to remain frustratingly outside it—for example, the modern awakening of women’s self-awareness and self-determination—can be provocatively introduced by virtue of their absence in this rich text.

Britain is one of the few European countries to experience a revolution on its own soil during the twentieth century: the revolt for Irish independence reached its goal in the formation of the Irish Republic in 1922. The twentieth-century section of the Anthology provides ample selections from Irish literary and political documents—many of the latter works of literature in their own right—in order to allow the specificity of its Irishness to emerge from writing often lumped under the sanitized heading of British literature. The Anthology consistently emphasizes the linguistic, cultural, and political complexity of Great Britain from medieval times, and illustrates in its selections, commentaries, maps, and perspectives sections the complicated traffic between and among England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and, later, farther-flung colonial possessions in Africa, the Caribbean, Southern Asia, Australia, and the subcontinent. The Irish case is perhaps the most fully developed one in the Anthology, and since it did lead to the formation of a separate nation in the twentieth century, a thoughtful literary case history centering on Irish/English literary relations could make a powerful, interesting, and coherent syllabus in and of itself. Wilde, Shaw, Parnell, Collins, Pearse, Yeats, Joyce, Bowen and Beckett could form an internal unit on modernism in art and politics. Wilde’s defiant aestheticism and flouting of bourgeois norms takes on a different light when seen as a form of artistic polemic against English social norms and control; Yeats and Joyce offer two completely distinct paradigms of what political “action” might mean, and conceive of modernity in oppositional ways; Beckett’s Irishness takes him to Paris and to a hiding place within the French language.

The relationship between literature and national identity, or between literature and politics, could also be a strong focus for teaching this section. Wyndham Lewis’s Manifesto articulates a politics—verging on fascism—no less than an aesthetic program; Shaw’s preface to Major Barbara is a political essay in charming disguise, which counters Lewis with a form of pragmatic democratic socialism. T. E. Lawrence’s amazing writing on Arabia is a political study of a self encountering another world. The poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and others in response to the Great War is especially resonant seen in this light. The two sui generis memoirs of that section—David Jones’s In Parenthesis and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That—are luminous interconnections of the artistic and the political, the self and history. Evelyn Waugh’s story Cruise scathingly etches the decline of what he saw as England’s natural aristocracy; P.G. Wodehouse vaults over social unrest to make class distinctions mostly a hilarious matter of language on holiday. George Orwell and Salman Rushdie comment in their essays on the role of the committed or partisan writer, and the modern self in light of fractured or tormented histories, as do W. H. Auden, V. S. Naipaul, Ni Dhomhnaill and Heaney, in the divergent ways of their essays. The comic film My Beautiful Laundrette has a script which is a nonetheless serious exploration of identity and nationhood by those who are judged to be outside the mainstream of British life: the non-white immigrants, refugees, and returning Commonwealth citizens who make up “Black Britain,” the unemployed and immiserated, both black and white, the young “no-hopers” acting out their hopelessness, the squattters, drug addicts, and those seen as riff-raff, who constitute the new multicultural face of Britain.

The above paragraphs have described several pathways into the rich materials of the section, suggesting modes of organization—literary language and form, cultural issues and themes, historical contexts and events, and their dynamic interaction around specific texts, writers, or even styles. In what follows, ideas for teaching individual works intersect with these broader agendas, even as they harken back to other periods or literary forebears.

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness

This deceptively slim text was a fateful event in the history of fiction, a novel that set modern fiction on an entirely new course. To teach the novel is to examine what makes this a radically new narrative style, and how its innovations are linked to the historical circumstances of its production, to the story of how it came to be. The global history of imperialism that engenders this novel and pervades it is inseparable from the distinctive techniques of writing that distinguish it as a specifically modernist novel. The two tracks in pursuit of Heart of Darkness ultimately converge and tie together. Because the novella is so pivotal to the twentieth-century section, inaugurating post-Victorian literature, announcing British modernism, and reverberating in literary or thematic ways in virtually all the writing that follows it in the Anthology, this entry in the manual is longer than most, and includes a full-fledged interpretive reading of the text, as well as background for understanding it in critical and historical terms, to provide a possible paradigm for teachers of the text in the context of twentieth-century British literature.

Heart of Darkness is the story of a voice, of Marlow’s voice as it issues forth from the gloom of the shipboard of the Nellie as she lies becalmed, waiting for the turn of the tide to begin traveling back to London, where she is moored. His voice seemingly issues from the darkness—first of all, because it is growing dark on ship, with night falling as the story unfolds. Moreover, Marlow is left in partial darkness as a character—never fully described, never given a personal history—so that human personality and character is shadowy and “flat,” a silhouette. He has become nothing more, and nothing less, than a ribbon of sound. Conrad’s tale moves back to one of the oldest forms of narrative, the personal tale, the story of the eyewitness, the testimony of memory, and in that sense Heart of Darkness certainly is a return to an old-fashioned mode, to what Walter Benjamin called “the art of the storyteller.” In that same move, however, Marlow’s “living voice” is also directed toward an audience, the mostly silent companions he has on ship, the men who go by the names of their professions, the Director (a version of the CEO), the Lawyer, the Accountant. Tell students to imagine that Michael Eisner, Bill Gates, and Michael Jordan are all listening to Marlow on the deck of Steven Spielberg’s yacht, to get the effect of power and privilege Conrad intends. Marlow’s voice, then, is as hallowed in narrative history as the voice around the campfire, telling tall tales, or the tradition of the seaman’s “yarn” that begins in literature with Homer’s Odyssey; Conrad intends these parallels too. Yet in being a voice out of the darkness, directed to a shadowy assemblage of the forces of power in modern society in the “greatest city in the world,” Conrad also gives the ancient tradition a very modern twist: Marlow’s voice is like the disembodied sound of the gramophone, Edison’s new invention that was taking the world by storm. Marlow is an ancient mariner or a troubador type, but he is also a phonograph recording, a piece of modern technology, a technical “ghost.” The ear is emphasized over the eye—just as it will be in other modernist writing, as for example in Joyce’s Dubliners and Ulysses. As the narrator says, “we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences.” Hearing and telling are the ground of the story, while seeing is always a precarious achievement and a much less certain business. Marlow doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness to Kurtz’s and imperialism’s crimes, although he was, because seeing is not believing. He relies on telling, listening, hearing.

Conrad’s narrative “trick” is to make us, his readers, feel as if we are listening to the story, not reading it with our eyes. We have to “hear” its voice, just as Marlow’s listeners did. One fascinating project for students is to trace the references to sight and sound, to the “oral” versus the “written” across the whole novel. The narrative, then, could be looked at abstractly as the alternation of presence and absence; the presence of spoken words in time makes absent their written version, or at least postpones the sense that they are written—that’s the “trick”; a speaker takes over the narrative with his voice, and his voice overrides the fact that he is absent or unseen to his listeners as he speaks. Paradoxically, the goal here is “to make [us] see,” as Conrad’s famous preface states. “Only make them see,” he yearns of his readers, who have to “hear” first in order to then “see” in their mind’s eye, to transcend the absence of everything but words so that we may pass into a realm of vision beyond the words. Conrad tries to use prose in a negative fashion, in order to transcend writing and thereby embody direct utterance and vision—in other words, the voicing or sound that is so crucial to Heart of Darkness is a way of proposing a path out of words, written words with their inability to open out and to tell. Written words threaten to lie flat and inert and ignored on the page; spoken words can thrill, persuade, or horrify as they almost enter the body of the listener. Every experience begins with the relation of speaker to hearer and hearer to speaker: we are listening as much as we are reading, our reading is meant to take us through to a point where what we hear is Marlow’s voice. Conrad’s complex book leads us through sound to sight, taking the “long way around,” in a sense, because the mark of modernity is a doubt that words can capture and reproduce reality. The problem lies not only with words, which suddenly are seen to be much more than transparent windows onto ideas or thoughts—words are playing their own complicated game with us, as the philosopher Nietzsche among others discerned, whose thought about language was a strong influence on Conrad. “Reality” also is no longer felt to be certain, has vanished as a possibility. This arises partly because modern life makes reality hard—if not impossible—to determine: images are more real than real things at times, space and time are altered by technology, “reality” could be microscopic or telegraphic or x-rayed, or hidden in the unconscious. And, most perplexingly of all, a sense of what is real, or true, is not necessarily shared by people, whose perspectives or blindness can create their very reality. Heart of Darkness envisions a sharing of “truth” between speaker and listener that could escape some of the blindness of language. That attempt, though, seems bound to fail; Kurtz, for example, is reduced to a talking insubstantiality, rather than a man: “he was just a voice.” The darkness we are asked to enter in Heart of Darkness is a dark space where Conrad hopes that the language humans so excruciatingly use as a barrier to truth, and an obstacle to sharing what is real between ourselves, will somehow vanish, leaving in its place the complete absorption of teller and listener into an imaginative truth they share. This is one important sense of the darkness that so pervades Heart of Darkness: it is also a way of pushing beyond the constraints of language to suggest a shared substance, a negativity that becomes something, a darkness that can be inhabited as the shared space of memory and truth. And nonetheless, as is of course obvious, the novel is made up of words, and cannot escape using words to try to effect the very escape from them. This impasse or paradox begins to account for the importance of the voice, which helps to insist that the words are entering our minds in some other, almost telepathic way. “After Heart of Darkness,” the critic Marvin Mudrick says, “the recorded moment—the word—was irrecoverably symbol.”

Conrad embeds the method of this story into its own frame. Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge how complex that frame is; we don’t have Marlow as a first-person narrator who takes over at the beginning of the story and operates ever after with authorial control, narrative certainty, perfect knowledge or at least self-knowledge. We’re taken off-balance from the start by the fact that the narrative of Marlow’s voice is framed by another narrator, never named, who sets up Marlow’s discourse for us. The narrative makes concentric circles, with Marlow’s in a sense being surrounded or circumscribed by that of the narrator. This invisible narrator is not a “voice,” but a presence on the page, and has no omniscience, no authority, no ability to testify that language can convey truth and total exposition. This narrator who establishes the opening for Marlow’s voice is not superior in knowledge to Marlow or to us; he is also a listener—and he is decidedly not Joseph Conrad. Students can be shown how unusual the lack of authorial omniscience is—the vanishing of the eighteenth-century asides like “Dear Reader,” and the nineteenth-century moral commentary of Eliot or Hardy or Dickens is decisive. In this way the novel thoroughly sets aside any internal claim to total knowledge, to capturing reality, to presenting a wholeness that can be completely revealed in the language of the work. Instead, we are insinuated into the text and reminded of its provisionality. This move has many consequences: authorial omniscience is abandoned—even the text is seemingly dependent on what Marlow will say next. A passage has been made from the “closed text” of realism, as many literary critics have described it, i.e. the realist novel that can be finished, or summed up with a moral, or provided with a clearly tragic or happy ending, to the open text, where what is being told or narrated cannot be finalized, closed, or defined, since the meandering voice narrates a journey without a definitive ending, or final meaning.

The famous lines about how Marlow’s open-ended story differs from the “seaman’s tale,” a tale with a kernel of meaning inside it like a nut within a shell, are the best single source for explicating Conrad’s new method. A reader of Heart of Darkness can’t hope to bore in and extract a nugget of truth, to peel away a husk and extract the solid meaning within. The almost mystifying image Conrad’s narrator gives for the nature of Marlow’s storytelling is that of a moonlit glow bringing out a shimmering haze, where two insubstantialities are set in conjunction with one another. The meaning that surrounds what is being told like a vapor is, then, greater than the individual words within the sentences. The impression, in the sense of sensory impression, that is imparted by teller to listener, or reader, relies on the consciousness of the teller, not on some supposedly external reality, firm and fixed. When one probes this language, tries to open it up or make it a formula, one puts one’s hands into a retreating mist. This isn’t because Conrad is being opaque or deliberately difficult; his new mode of writing, which even his early readers recognized as “modern,” casts a net of words that fans out in a diaphanous way. To use another simile—Conrad’s style is like the many ripples passing over the surface of a pond when a stone has been thrown, because he conceives of language and knowledge in new ways. Heart of Darkness lodges us within a voice that knows that the teller is not separate from the tale, that what is told is the stream of consciousness. These impressions are not easily available, straightforward, complete, true or false. The Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” included in the volume states some of these artistic intentions directly.

Every word, then, in Heart of Darkness becomes a kind of charged particle, receiving its valence from the words that surround it and also from its repetition over time. Individual words accrete meanings that shift and change in this work, that are as indeterminate as the misty halo, not because of some obscurity or desire to thwart the reader, but because the process of arriving at the “truth,” insofar as that is possible, must shake language, or words, from their fixed moorings, must let words open out the way a radiance surrounds a misty reflection. The words in the book are “symbolic,” but not in the older critical understanding of the symbol as a permanent meaning carried by a word or image throughout a work. Conrad’s words are incredibly important—none of them is chosen casually, none of them is “merely” descriptive. When we talk about symbols in the older way, we usually envision going on some kind of a symbol hunt, tracking down the meaning of a word or image and then fixing it in amber, or stuffing it and mounting it on the wall in order to say—yes, this symbol eluded us for a while, but we finally bagged it. The metaphor of charged particles opening the paragraph was meant to evade this sense of finitude or completion. For example, taking the images of light and dark that naturally suggest themselves as vitally important to Conrad’s text, one can see that they are indeterminate, unfixed, never resolving themselves into neat identifications or discrete meanings, but instead operating as fields of force in the text, moving in and through Marlow’s account, where the “meaning” is never stated or defined, because it is being made, being spoken. “Dark” and “light,” “white” and “black,” seemingly clear-cut terms that are opposites to one another, in Conrad’s lexicon reverse their meanings, or subtly exchange places. “Whiteness” can become an immensely dark moral blankness, while “blackness” can suggest revelation and truth. We have to hang on Marlow’s every word, because with each word the story is created anew, the relations of the words and images to one another is altered and transformed.

The narrative form of Heart of Darkness makes a deliberate havoc of any simple scheme based on the quest, because the quest presupposes a final ending, reaching the goal or grail at some point. Marlow has set out on a quest of a sort—to make a trip up the river, incidentally encountering the Kurtz he has come to hear so much about—but the narrative doesn’t rest on the unfolding of that search. Instead, the narrative becomes retrospective, a looking back over in memory, to find in memory an understanding of what the experience might have meant. Unlike a quest, where the hero finds what he is looking for, or at least, like Ulysses, finds his way back home, Marlow’s journey is incomplete, fragmentary, and inconclusive. At the same time it is crucial for Marlow to make us see, as he sees or doesn’t see. The journey of the telling takes precedence over and displaces the actual journey to Africa and back, because it is not a matter of recounting an incident and then producing a moral out of it, but rather exploring the nature of the perception and the memory of that event, whose moral is only achieved in group awareness. Marlow is as much in the dark as we his listeners are; what the novel is built out of, then, is its words. Just as the mist surrounds the halo, so will Marlow’s words, his voice, become ghostly, until he is described as an ivory fetish, a blankness himself as he speaks the tale; just so will all aspects of the journey as they are described also take on a spectral glow, phantom-like at some level, unreal in the sense that their meaning is being made out of the ghostly medium of words. In that mist of inter-connection we look to find what we can see behind the words of this text. Thus as one moves through it, much of the account can be read as having the unreality of a dream—“we live, as we dream, alone,” Marlow says. The Anthology includes the song lyric “We Live, As We Dream, Alone,” by the important punk band Gang of 4, in part to cite how widespread the cultural references to Conrad’s masterwork are, in high art and in popular art, in fiction, film, and even popular music. The song zeroes in on one profoundly modern, or modernist, aspect of Heart of Darkness, which is the feeling of loneliness experienced by Marlow and, by extension, all modern people. No human community shares his, or our experiences, and Marlow, like the singer of Gang of 4’s ballad, must provide whatever meaning or truth will emerge from his life on his own. Modern loneliness is summed up too in the phrase T. S. Eliot borrowed from Conrad for his poem on modern existence “The Hollow Men.” In the absence of shared values and common goals, in the face of ambiguity, alienation, and solitude, human beings become hollow, become empty. Marlow, however, is not an example of a “hollow man”—he is still trying to tell the story which, if his listeners hear it, will redeem such loneliness and replace the hollowness of amorality. The question for Marlow, as it is the question for Joseph Conrad, is whether artful language can draw people together long enough to accomplish ethical community.

The book spins out a ghostly line of narrative, with a shimmering, poetic surface of words, but is also completely rooted in historical detail—thoroughly realistic, if we want to use that word. In teaching the book in relation to the Anthology as a whole, emphasizing the historical particularities is as important as giving full recognition to Conrad’s stylistic daring and modernist methods. Instructors should make use of the maps, which show the extent of the British empire by the turn of the century. The travel writing section of the nineteenth-century section is replete with the overtures to imperialism which bore fruit later in the century, and makes a strong companion piece with Conrad. Many of the subsequent selections—those by Forster, Waugh, Woolf, Greene, Bowen and Mansfield no less than those by Naipaul, Rushdie, Drabble, Gordimer, Heaney and Walcott—are vital intertexts with the history and ideology recorded so enduringly in Heart of Darkness. For what Conrad writes about in Heart of Darkness is true history: Marlow’s journey replicates the exact and horrifying conditions to be found in the Belgian Congo as they actually existed at the time, despite the fact that neither he nor Conrad ever names the country or its colonial rulers; every aspect down to the nuances of tribal differentiation is present in Conrad’s work. How are these two aspects of the text compatible: its radical inconclusiveness and yet its precise realism, meticulously and subtly conveyed? Moreover, Conrad himself had made a voyage up the Congo nine years before the writing of Heart of Darkness, as a ship captain commissioned by a trading company in Belgium, much as Marlow happens to be given a job. Conrad’s trip lasted six months, and involved bringing back a trader, Klein, who had become sick at his “station” and then died on board the ship Conrad commanded. The history of the so-called Congo Free State Conrad writes of but does not name is as follows: In 1876, King Leopold of Belgium who, in response to the smallness of his kingdom and the spirit of the age, had been looking around for an empire for some time, promoted the formation of the “International Association for the Suppression of Slavery and the Opening up of Central Africa.” At its founding international conference in Brussels, he announced: “To open to civilization the only area of our globe to which it has not yet penetrated, to pierce the gloom which hangs over entire races, constitutes, if I may dare to put it this way, a Crusade worthy of this century of Progress.”

Leopold had in mind a crusade in the only large area of Africa not already claimed by the chief colonial powers—England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands—and in the journalist-explorer Henry Morgan Stanley he found a comrade and co-conspirator to help him acquire it. Stanley set up a chain of stations along the upper reaches of the Congo River. The association’s concern with free trade, human betterment and the abolition of slavery was purest propaganda; as soon as possible, Leopold used shameless economic and political exploitation to carve out this territory, setting the other great powers against each other, and then in Berlin in 1885 won international recognition as the sovereign ruler of the Independent State of the Congo. He became the sole ruler of an empire of a million square miles; so ruthless was this empire that three million African lives were lost; finally, in 1906, Leopold was forced to divest himself personally of his holdings in the face of international outcry.

That is not to imply that there was a happy ending as a result, or self-determination for the Congo; merely that this style of individual or private imperialism was ended. Leopold had maintained the Congo Free State under completely different conditions than the other African colonies held by England, Germany, France and Holland. All exports from the Congo ports, and imports too, were so heavily taxed that trade could not be set up by any other countries; this turned the Congo into a warehouse of wealth for Leopold, whose intentions were not to colonize the Congo but essentially to strip it bare of all its resources, in particular ivory, wood, and important minerals. To accomplish this Leopold simply turned every “subject” into a slave; the men who Marlow sees dying under the trees in such numbers are those who had been rounded up as slave labor to create the railroad Leopold hoped would facilitate the emptying of the country: it had no use as a means of modernization, as there was no place to “go.” The laborers were not fed, and so died in massive numbers when they had worked as long as they could. The very railroad Conrad describes in Marlow’s reminiscences took eight years to build and was, interestingly, masterminded by a brilliant black engineer from the United States, George Washington Williams. Conrad, who was active in anti-imperialist circles, wrote often about the cause in journals and newspapers, and spoke in lectures before professional and humanitarian societies, was to call Leopold’s sixteen-year reign “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human consciousness.” Heart of Darkness shows these slaves or workers dying of starvation and overwork, holding thin pieces of wire, whose meaning seems to mystify Marlow; Conrad knew well what he was writing about, as Leopold had established these lengths of wire as a form of fake currency, having bundles of wires handed out to the slaves, and thereby claiming to pay them as workers, when in fact there was no food to buy, and no value to the wire currency even if there had been any food. The tone of harsh irony Marlow adopts at the absurdity of these cruel manipulations of language—slaves as “workers,” men who won’t accept slavery as “criminals,” useless wire as “money”—anticipates all modern critiques of politics and language, from Orwell to Rushdie. No settlements other than the stations were set up; other than these stations the primary force in the country was the militia sent out to conscript workers by burning their villages and destroying tribal living areas. The enormity of this genocidal process is hard to take in, hard to register, and it is that difficulty which Conrad speaks to in Heart of Darkness.

Marlow refers in a famous passage to the nature of the imperial project, that it is nothing more nor less than taking land away from those who have flatter noses than most white Westerners: “Only the idea redeems it.” Recall that this is early on in his oral narrative, at a point when it is still crucial to keep the attention of his listeners, to draw them in by articulating a notion they might be thought to share. The first section of his tale is, in fact, an attempt to connect and then to reverse the trajectory of imperialism as it begins to be his subject; looking out over the Thames, he recalls that England, too, now a seat of imperial power, was once a “place of darkness,” that it, too, was a wilderness conquered, invaded and penetrated by the Roman empire and civilization. He imagines two possible personas for this Roman stage, one a confident boat commander, the other a young citizen forced to travel out to wild Britain because of financial problems at home in Rome, and of their sense of the savagery and darkness of the England they visit. The unnamed narrator in the prologue articulates the glories of Britain in the first flush of imperialism, when adventurers and explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake set sail to bring back loot, or to found colonies, when imperial exploits were part of dazzling personal adventures and discoveries. It is Marlow, and of course Conrad, who suggests that present-day imperialism bears little resemblance to those days of buccaneering glory, ironically reversing the terms of light and darkness so that the sheen of Renaissance golden treasure becomes the dark heart of modern British empire.

Conrad took great pains to differentiate the types of imperialism present in his time, the height of British empire-building, when Britain quite literally ruled the majority of the world. Leopold’s gangster imperialism he deemed the worst type, whereas he found somewhat better the colonial type practiced by Britain in India, for example, where British people settled, and cities, railroads, schools, and courts were built, ostensibly for the benefit of some of the native subjects, as well as the ruling British. At the time, the support for empire was near universal, so that by making such thoughtful distinctions Conrad was already branded a radical. Fifty years later, making any distinction whatsoever in the degrees of harm caused by imperialism struck many people as intolerable acceptance of a vile political practice, and Conrad received blame as an apologist for imperialism, even though he had worked so hard to confront it, study it, and criticize it. Historical hindsight is responsible for many such judgments, and these are understandable, especially when imperialism was being challenged and overthrown. Conrad’s book cannot be read as simple imperialist apology, though, if it is looked at in fairness as the extraordinary work of anti-imperialism it was in its day, and if its bitter ironies are fully understood. Class discussions which revolve around the simple binary of Heart of Darkness as imperialist and racist, or neither of those things, will probably not resolve much. A better approach arises in and through the literary selections which follow in the Anthology—especially those post-World War II—as they enter into vibrant dialogue with Conrad, sixty or more years later. It should be noted, too, that while the major African writer Chinua Achebe branded Conrad’s book “racist” in the 1950s, at the dawn of the African novel in English, on the grounds that Conrad had spoken for Africans but had not let them speak for themselves, subsequent African writers and theorists of postcolonial literature and culture have acknowledged that Conrad had little choice. He wrote in a vacuum, from the only possible “side” he could know. The many adaptations of Heart of Darkness by contemporary African and African-diaspora writers from Achebe to Ngugi wa-Thiongo, Soyinka and Emecheta among others, have been the most fruitful and productive response to the issue of voice.

Still, Marlow holds out the slim hope that those forms of imperialism that sincerely are motivated by an idea—of improvement, justice, or “civilizing mission”—may be better than those forms awash in murder and hypocrisy. But if it is “the idea behind it [imperialism] that redeems it,” what is that idea, who has it, where is it confirmed? Marlow makes a distinction among imperialisms when he remarks on the colorful world map of empire hanging in the otherwise sepulchral offices of the Company that “a jolly lot of work gets done” in the red areas. Work is sacred to Marlow, and red is, of course, England’s color in the imperial banner sweepstakes—the very notion that the spaces on a map are colored according to whom they “belong” is an extraordinary inversion of the logic of color, and this paragraph about the map is, with the exception of the description of the Russian’s harlequin clothes, the only outburst of color in the somber chiaroscuro of the text. The book discriminates among imperialisms, not to support or admire one or the other, but to show the differences that exist, and perhaps to express hope that Britain will change its views on the efficacy of the “work” done in imperial contexts. Marlow describes his early boyhood relation to the map of the world and how he wanted to inscribe himself on the blankness at the heart of the imperial map. His desire to do so is also a fateful one; the snake-like river virtually uncoils itself from two-dimensionality and snares him, charms him, as he says. Here one can see the crossing over of the two tracks of analysis: the utter factuality of that imperial map, rendered precisely as it existed in history, and yet the dynamization of that map by the psychic forces of memory and consciousness at the same time. Conrad through Marlow shows us how seductive the very “blankness” was to Western eyes, who sought to know it in boyish innocence, leading to effects as grave and ghastly as the Belgian Congo takeover.

The railroad scene at the company station juxtaposes the crisply insane European clerk, who has made a fetish of whitening his laundry and wearing dazzlingly white garb no matter what the hardships on his African laundress, with the dying African men, diversely given the label of enemy or criminal by the Europeans at the station, one of whom has tied a bit of white yarn around his neck as a fetish or talisman, Marlow presumes. Marlow’s narrative shows that the white station clerk’s infernal whiteness is no less a “fetish” or primitive talisman than is the piece of yarn, which is no less ambiguous than any European self-decoration. He must move under the cliches of imperialism and racism, which would equate “black” with “savage,” tunnel into it by using these phrases ironically, as a way of getting to the heart of colonial language. The indeterminacy of darkness as the trope of Africa is the metaphor for its unknownness, the location of moral absence, the site of plenitude and discovery. Only against the darkness can one see the mist that makes the halo, or the spectral moonshine. The difficulty and the challenge to language in this first modernist work in English, is to make it at one and the same time both clear and fuzzy, both darkly ambiguous and brilliantly lucid, and brilliantly ambiguous and darkly apparent. Only out of a negativity can anything be revealed, a negativity so complex it shifts the entire terms of the modern novel. The people in the book, at least the Europeans, are negative too, as Marlow says of the bricklayer he meets, “empty inside, with nothing but a little loose dirt” there, or “they were nothing,” as he says of the pilgrims. Language takes on uncanny forms, or is described in talismanic or fetishistic ways, as if Conrad were deliberately adopting the worst criticisms Europeans made against African natives and colonial others and turning them against Western customs; for example,when Marlowe describes the way the word ivory rings in the air “like a god to be prayed to”; or the way the “little smile of the manager of the inner station is a kind of seal set on his words”; or the ways that, since they have no shared language, Marlow regards the Africans as gestural hieroglyphs, whose every movement of the hand is a carefully wrought form of speech.

As Marlow makes his way along the river, heading toward Kurtz’s station, with several of the pilgrims irritably and gun-happily in tow, his crew made up of presumed cannibals and their dwindling stores of dead hippo meat, again and again the landscape that surrounds them, the wilderness, as Marlow thinks of it, is described as having a face, a face whose features cannot be seen, but a face nonetheless. The anthropomorphizing of the jungle, turning it into a human figure with an implacable face, is crucially related to the voice that is Kurtz’s “gift.” “I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur. All this was great, expectant, mute, while the man jabbered about himself. I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or a menace.” And a little later, “Somehow it didn’t bring any image with it.” The face that isn’t a face; this figural language begins to establish the wilderness as a mysterious place that will not speak itself, that refuses to reveal itself by any act of voice, and the silence that surrounds Marlow is not at all the silence of, let’s say, the proverbial forest when no one is there to hear the tree fall, but a silence that is utterly meaningful because it constitutes a refusal to speak. This form of silence is evidence that the wilderness could speak, because against its majestic and even pregnant pauses the speech of humans is a jabber, an irrelevance, a mistake. So desirous of breaking through to the meaning of that silence does Marlow become that the novel begins to use the words that derive from the vocabulary of truth and knowledge—there is a veil that Marlow wants to pierce, a veil that hides the face he wants to gaze upon for the truth that presumably lies behind. These aspects introduce the gender questions an instructor will want to highlight, and to connect to selections by Bowen, Woolf, Lawrence and others, in terms of the relationship between women and truth.

This dialectic of speech and silence, of darkness and revelation, is complexly mapped out in the novel; one place to look for its complication is in the painting Kurtz has left with the young aristocrat at the central station, which he shows to Marlow. This painting is an allegory, in the style of that period’s salon painting, but it is also an allegory that reverses expectations. “Then I noticed a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch. The background was somber, almost black. The movement of the woman was stately, and the effect of the torch-light on the face was sinister.” Traditionally, it is the figure of Justice who is depicted blindfolded, carrying the scales, while the figure of Truth with her torch looks out with unfettered gaze from her representations in paint or in stone. Nietzche’s Genealogy of Morals pointed out that the icon of truth veiled as a woman was the impetus behind philosophical speculation; here that image is extraordinarily changed, the woman blindfolded while her torch is nonetheless carried aloft. Something is awry with the “truth” of what Europeans, and Kurtz, are doing in Africa. A woman symbolizes truth (light) turned to blind darkness. The Western white women in the novel—Marlow’s Aunt, Kurtz’s Intended—are “blind” to the truth, because they have been prevented from seeing it. They live, blindfolded in a sense, within the “beautiful lies” of imperialism, never recognizing the actual truth revealed by the lit torch of Marlow’s story. Their very morality and goodness is a kind of screen or shield, keeping them from seeing “the horror, the horror” beyond.

The mask, too, is an important substitute for the desired speaking face of truth: a mask figures that possibility, but also implacably takes it away. As Marlow approaches the village where Kurtz has been living, under the guidance of Kurtz’s disciple, the young Russian seaman, he makes a visual discovery. Using a pair of binoculars, he scans the enclosure ahead, where he had seen a series of poles topped with what he thought were ivory balls, totems on a stick. As the super-visual acuity of the binoculars permits him to see, these balls are actually heads Kurtz has had impaled around his encampment, dead faces, if you will, all of whom—and the personal pronoun is unavoidable—have their heads turned away from Marlow’s gaze, withholding themselves from it. Except one. That head he does indeed gaze upon, but this head’s eyes are closed. However, it is smiling; “the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth . . . smiling continually at some endless and jocose dream. . . .” Another dead end, in a sense: despite the aid of the binoculars, Marlow cannot succeed in entering that line of sight, and the head keeps its own secret, its own dreamy counsel. The binoculars too are not irrelevant to the dynamic of the entire book; almost cinematically, we are swept across Marlow’s line of vision, we see with him through these devices, distanced from what is to emerge by technological power.

In this anthropomorphic landscape, where the world refuses to speak itself, Kurtz’s voice is the sole source of truth; Kurtz is voice, is speech, is talk, against the stillness of the wilderness for Marlow and the others—whereas for those on the other side of the bank, the Africans, there is no wilderness, there is no silence. Again and again the text refers to the presence of the colonizers, to the pilgrims and even to Marlow himself as a “fantastic invasion.” Out of the jabber of their speech Kurtz, however, is said to be all eloquence, to have the gift of expression, and it is to this hope and indeed fetish that Marlow begins to cling. His world of rivets and hard work had kept him safe from the hallucinatory strangeness and indeed the horror of his encounter with what the company has made of this place, for a time; Marlow uses the Victorian ethos of the nobility of work to forget the silence; he vanishes into the world of rivets as long as he can, until that world is punctured as truly as the helmsman’s side is punctured by the spear. Marlow comes to suspect that even work is conforming to a system whose grasp is so vast it cannot be comprehended by individual effort, which holds out no redemption—what has Marlow’s devotion to the duty of repairing the ship’s bottom done but bring them to Kurtz’s outpost, to replace Kurtz’s “unsound methods” with the equally brutalizing corporate extractions of ivory the manager is going to institute? Kurtz, then, is not just a single “bad apple,” to be weeded out so that the merry work of imperializing can go on. Kurtz is the voice of that imperial project speaking itself and knowing itself—he is the one person who will admit to the horrible truth of what is being done.

Kurtz is a voice—we need to take that very seriously. What he has done has consequences, yes, but they aren’t neatly identifiable as timeless or universal patterns, and especially not as some kind of regression to “savagery.” The novel explores the notion of regression, of going back in time to some primordial state, when, for example, it says: “we were wanderers on a prehistoric earth”; its use of such metaphors results from its collision with and against the theory of progress that had arisen out of Social Darwinism, a theory Darwin himself argued against. Kurtz is a mouth—the first time Marlow actually lays eyes on him, from afar, he is being carried on a stretcher, shouting, and his mouth is a black hole. “He wanted to swallow this, swallow all the air, swallow all the earth.” Marlow can barely hear his voice, but it reaches him faintly, and he sees Kurtz physically as having become an ivory fetish, a piece of the ivory his gaping mouth has wanted to swallow.

One of the most famous quotes in the book addresses the nature of Kurtz: “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” He is one-quarter English and one-quarter French, with the other halves of each parental side left mysteriously missing; all Europe has made him, though, because all of Europe’s imperial discourses have combined in him. His eloquence consists in intermingling all the discourses of Sweetness and Light, Civilization, Power, Truth, and Good which the English, French, Germans and so on had employed to justify the progress of empire. Kurtz specialized in “burning noble words,” a “magic current of phrases.” These words belong, Marlow says, with the dustbin of progress, among the “sweepings and the dead cats of civilization.” Marlow can scarcely remember what Kurtz says after he hears him talk, and can hardly remember the speech of Kurtz’s he reads after the latter’s death: it’s all a cloud of verbiage. What he does remember, and so does everyone who reads Conrad’s book, is what Kurtz scrawled as the postscript, so electrifying, simple, and “true” it is like a lightning bolt, a phrase that flashes up against the rhetoric and illuminates it: “Exterminate the brutes.” Notice the postscript is in the grammatical form of a command, an exhortation, an order: Kurtz “forgot” to pretend that there was an idea behind it to redeem it—he just wrote what was happening—“kill them all.” Marlow hates this postscript, but recognizes he must tell the story of extermination everyone else, besides himself and Kurtz, is denying. When this passage arrives in the story Marlow, sitting on the boat deck, lights a match, and it goes flickeringly out. And Marlow, too, as the bearer of this terrible news, yellows and withers and becomes ivory-like, a hard fetish, an idol before his listeners. The tale, and the novel, is a flickering illumination; Marlow is trying to tell the untellable, the catastrophic, where no one can believe it. Marlow describes his audience, as well as the readers of the text, when he refers to them as lodged “between the butcher and the policemen, afraid of the gallows, the insane asylum, and of scandal.” Will they listen? Will we?

The Intended is described as “the echo of Kurtz”—she is the echo of his voice, not really a person. As Kurtz speaks his final words, “the horror, the horror,” Marlow again experiences the tearing of the veil over truth, and pledges his loyalty to Kurtz, because he has uttered the truth. After this, Marlow is an outcast among the other pilgrims, and he has to return to Europe, taking the relics and effects of Kurtz with him, as if in expiation. It is there he learns that Kurtz is, in a sense, the figment of an imperial imagination, a figment of language; no one can even tell him what Kurtz was famous for—journalism? painting? or for being a speaker, a fascist mass speaker without any particular politics except those of extremism? Marlow has gone to see the Intended; her apartment is as tomb-like as the Company offices, and as sinister: not because the Intended is evil, but because she is an allegory come to life. The Intended is the woman in the picture at the station, painted by Kurtz, blindfolded Truth in a glare of horrible whiteness. When Marlow yields to her pleas and tells her that Kurtz’s last words were “her name,” one might think that this is the lie Marlow hates to tell, a face-saving fiction that operates to keep a woman in the beautiful, blind world of truth. Marlow in fact tells the literal truth: her name—blindfolded Truth—is the horror; horror is the name for her. The horror isn’t just in Africa, in the Congo, in Kurtz’s outpost: the horror is back home, here in our language, in the words we use to name or to conceal what we are doing. Marlow temporizes for the sake of his audience, but it is as imperative that they hear, as well, what he has told the Intended and why. The Intended is “an ashy halo out of which dark eyes glowed”—she is the story itself, the glow around the haze, that “seems to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

Conrad did not learn English until he was twenty, and yet we start the formation of the modern British novel with his work. Why? Because all Europe went into the making of it; because the linguistic exile or displacement effected on Conrad as a writer is in fact the displacement, the sundering, of speech that Heart of Darkness enacts. Marlow is one individual seaman, the most old-fashioned of narrators, the storyteller, and yet it is his burden to tell what is kept silent, to tell of a new world of immense power, exerted in language a world away. Joseph Conrad brings this new modern story into English, and correspondingly brings English literature into modernism.

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