Historical Evocation in the Heart of Darkness

I’m continuing my over-dramatic foray into reading — “the jungle of reading” — again, carefully, heeding my own warning, for the first time in a few months. Last time I spoke in an over-dramatic (but not sarcastic) way about how easy it is to lose oneself when reading. This is true, what this means that it’s so easy to get overwhelmed and leave thinking you’ve actually understood the text, it’s easy to be washed into the sea of interpretations and believe that you’ve discovered something unique or gained some insight. It’s very easy to “love” a book, so that one “agrees with” the author — which the vast majority of the time means emerging with a gross misunderstanding. The book is inhuman, it is not your friend. One rarely leaves with what one wants to find, and this is in fact, contrary to what romantics believe, a bad thing. And yet this very simple task is what we aspire to do here — to leave with what we are looking for.

In other words, we do not seek to have an experience with the text. This is an error (or maybe an erroneous implication) of our overdramatized last entry — this notion that somehow the correct or the true understanding of the text was confusion. Yet if we were to enter the text looking for that, I believe, we would not depart with it. Not that we would return to clarity, but we would at least depart with an impression of just how inadequate or full of erroneous presumptions our notion of confusion was. As another example, I wrote on Facebook the other day:

The Emperor’s New Clothes is backwards (compared to reality), the boy was the only one who saw the clothes, while the rest of the town had, under various sorts of pressure, been insisting on nakedness.

This is an interesting inversion, but it itself can be again inverted. So I become the boy who experience the “flash of insight” into the clothedness of the emperor, into the inpenetrability of the text, but obviously this insight itself is wrong (in its current form) since this clothedness is just another form of nakedness.

So that our desire to find what we are looking for, when reading, seems almost an attempt to overcome this problem — the deconstructibility of the text, when we always return either in a kind of drunken stupor (Kurtz?) or with our views radically changed (as in the BBC Office — “So you traveled to Asia … to find yourself.” “– and China”). So that this desire to maintain the self in the jungle of the text is not, actually, a form of dogmatism, nor is it a kind of historical accuracy, nor is it conquering the text — as I imagine it, the idea here is to enter sufficiently prepared, since we have to adapt ourselves to the text beforehand…

Two figures spring to mind here: first is this notion of historical evocation: this is obviously not merely nostalgia or a kind of copying the styles of an earlier period, and this is because we hardly know what history is. The text itself is haunted by the history, we are not the first ones to have walked here. The text is paradoxically enough inhuman in the very midst of the human: that is, it is
(1) (falsely) human because the very purpose of culture is … almost … nothing but the elimination of paranoia and the instilling of the belief that we intuitively understand the text — something I myself am severely guilty of. I say “almost” because in another sense culture is quite aware of these defensive actions, and perhaps this is sentimentalism.
(2) Inhuman, because the actual experience of reading causes us to lose ourselves
(3) but human, again, because there are traces of the human in the text: not merely or even primarily the author, but rather what I term “historical evocation” — maybe, metaphorically, the remnants of earlier times, other explorers who have wandered here, etc.. And this reading of possible signs in the midst of the jungle is really what I imagine reading to be.

The second is the river: this figure hits close to home, the river is that which Marlow follows, “rigorously”, in the jungle in order to maintain his identity. The river is the source of a kind of historical imagination at the beginning of the book, and perhaps throughout — the figure itself is already very interesting. Constantly flowing, forever changing, entirely amorphous — well, almost — it is said to have the form of a snake, at times — but, at the same time, occasionally it calls out like the “speech of a brother”, it is what sailors call “home”, or it is that which takes one away to distant lands.

TBC

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