Heart of Darkness and Power

I’m finding the comparative method very rewarding these days… not to say that I’ve found a method that works, but rather, that literature does, indeed, tend to address the same problems, ie, that comparison still requires one to be on the right track. But I’ve been thinking comparatively for the last few sessions about Bartleby and Heart of Darkness and I do feel that the former is a great way to bring out what the latter is dealing with.

The task however isn’t all that straightfoward, since we aren’t really sure who to side with. No one is really in charge there. Or, if we chose to believe that colonists are undermined by the jungle or by the blacks, then there is the issue of Kurtz, who is able to come to power even as he is ‘nothing more than a ghost’. Basically Heart of Darkness is troubling because, first, it is historical, and second, it seems to be about the victory, the historical victory, of what we’ve been calling ‘the psychotic’.

In both Bartleby and The Black Cat, there is the issue of negation, which is important because the stories are not about demystifcation or exotic otherness but about some endemic  “psychotic” element. However, already, as we move from The Black Cat to Bartleby, we find that Bartleby to be far more human, so that Bartleby isn’t, precisely, the black cat, but rather someone who is able to see the black cat, and who works, it seems, for the black cat. Bartleby is forlorn, pensive — his “occupation” of staring at walls, blank but not quite, reflect, simultaneously, the attempt to see and the attempt to conceive of that momentary, “external” relationship to the sign. That is, the letters he received in the dead letters office — well, I imagine letters as offering “another way out” — I think that Melville specifically makes mention of a (hypothetical) wedding ring, pardon, and check, all headed for the deceased. Letters offer some way to bypass the system which has doomed someone, some new take on a situation, a new relationship. The letter is a fresh “momentary” relationship that, in the office, is extinguished — and maybe that is a good thing in this case, as it preserves that “psychotic” or subversive element we’re been talking about without having it being holisticized into some continuous experience. A singular moment or insight that seems to reorient one with respect to one’s situation — so that Bartleby’s staring at walls is at once a speculative attempt to understand this moment and an attempt to perform or act out this moment. Ie, simultaneously self-aware, performative, and visual.

When we get to Heart of Darkness, the entire world seems to be in ruins, there seems to be no clear organization there. The closest thing resembling a psychotic criminality actually occurs only in the last scene with the Intended, who is probably the closest direct link to Bartleby. But for the jungle, I think, we are basically dealing with the question of what can come to power, which is something that we didn’t deal with in Bartleby. The question is how we can move away from “negation” (as Bartleby had himself moved away from the “psychotic”) above towards the question of the seed of power. How can the negational exist without anything to negate?

It’s an exciting question which I don’t have an elegant answer to, so let me just offer a few provocations.

Univerals Nihilism — We are certainly trying to establish some continuity between African and Europe, animals and man, pre-linguistic and linguistic, and so on. The manager is one instance of this continuity, for Conrad nihilism is universal, it is associated with a kind of “weak flabby devil” — “one gets the suspicion that there is nothing there”. Nihilism in this sense is a kind of universal adaptability, and simultaneously, a resistance to change, basically via, and I’m not sure how much this makes sense, a kind of absolute self-regard.

The origins of langauge — When we spoke about accepted criminallity and the psychotic , we should make mention of a relationship to signs. Bartelby defines a new relationship to the sign — well, to the wall, whose nature is uncertain — he is fascinated with walls, but what did he see in them, does the material matter, or only the marks on the surface, etc.? For the black cat, there is the sense that, perhaps, nothing supernatural was required, but there is the implication that the cat understood gestures from an external perspective, for example, knew that the man could lie, and knew that he could lie in turn.

But there is no difference between truth and lie — I think Nietzsche, in that famous essay On Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense, said that truth was a coin whose face had been rubbed out from overuse so that it resembled metal. There is no difference between an external and in internal understanding of the sign, and indeed, Bartleby plants himself precisely at this edge. My point is that more important than the difference between truth and lie is the recognition of the symbol as such, which is perhaps what characterizes the black cat’s supernatural intelligence.

For Heart of Darkness, Kurtz’s power comes despite him, presumably, not knowing a word of their native tongue. I don’t think he brought something new to Africa (the implication is actually precisely the opposite) but what is interstinge is that Kurtz the musician, the universal genius, is able to incorporate himself into that tribe precisely via these momentary, Bartlebyesque, discontinuous performances with the mark. I mena, it might not really matter what he said — presumably he mostly English — but that does not mean he didn’t communicate. This momentary, “burst-like” relationship to the mark does not predate the sign… TBC


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