The Heart of Darkness Hypothesis

*Don’t click on the links here, I’m not sure how to get rid of them

Unfortunately in the last entry we were mostly concerned with a kind of theoretical development, but here I just want to elaborate on how this all applies to Heart of Darkness and on the argument being made in that book. The danger of theoretical development is really that we sometimes risk diluting the specificity of our insights. Heart of Darkness is about, well, a fascination with Kurtz, which is a singular insight, or a series of singular insights. But there is a corresponding “dreamlike sensation” that is the cause of this singular insight. Because Kurtz and the dreamlike sensation are in some sense the same thing. Kurtz is something that “doesn’t really exist”.

I just wrote on facebook, “There is no such thing as beginning and end because insights are less like doorways and more like chesspeices.”

I had an essay about painting a few days ago — which is probably not really all that correct now that I think about it, but I do want to talk about it. I basically spoke of an irreversible process in the development of painting. There is a moment, such as expressed in Boy of WInander, where we can no longer, for some reason, go back to the past, when the past becomes too much of a play. Yet the trick here — we have confronted this moment countless times before — is to let this moment retain its original mystery. “Melancholy” is applicable here — it is at once a commitment to someone specific — I mean, I relate it to heartbreak — yet at the same time an inability to go back, a loss of interest in the world at large.

… I always have in the back of my mind that Radiohead line, from Fog, “How did you go back, did you go back?”

So I think that the error, or a kind of impasse that I encountered here, when I thought about painting, was to attept to descriptively describe such a moment — I attributed it to a kind of emptying out the world. I mean, that’s why I became stuck, because I saw it as a formal shift within painting. But this is understandable, since we want to, eventually, make grandiose connections here, as regards to this moment.

I mean, this is why the “animal sophistication” argument is so important. I’m subscribed to a science blog and every week or so there is some new study that reveals how calculating and pragmatic animals can be. And this really makes one pause and wonder — behavior can’t be encoded genetically — and we can’t even relate it to a kind of ritual or habit (or even — what is ritual, after all, but supported by a kind of calculating, speculative rationality) — which really means that animals are thinking. This is the recurrent lesson here, it seems to me. I once tried to write some essays about the elaborte behavior of the jewel wasp and it seems to me that, in the end, all those efforts failed because there is undeniably a kind of thinking there.

By “thinking”, I am claiming more than, that concepts or at least equivalence classes are our (and the animal’s) basic access to reality. I am actually saying that there is some way in which animals behave as calculating entities, that they sort of understand these equivalence classes as concepts, as something that can be manipulated. Manipulation is very different from merely saying that equivlence classes are our access to reality — it is something that, for example, Star Trek isn’t even able to ascribe to Vulcans.

… as I was saying, the animal sophstication argument is important because we no longer want to argue for systemic shifts in the perception of reality — since we are asserting a continuity between all sentience — but rather we want to ask about the influence of specific insights. A few days ago I wrote about Spelunky and that is really, for me, the takeaway there — that there is a sweet spot, a Spelunkian sweet spot which we must remembe about our understanding, a sweet spot so easy to simply go past and forget. If there is a continuity in sentient intelligence then the real questions of origins is the way in which these insights take hold of us, as in Spelunky, and lead to this dreamlike state or the singular insight.

Now, returning to Heart of Darkness … well, for painting, the real occurence is not formal shift — rather, the formal shift is the specific insight and not the dreamlike sensation. Basically we have the general notion of painting progressing towards a kind of … “representationalism”. With perspectival painting, the vanishing point, or with still lifes, etc., there is a kind of loss of interest (cf, Boy of Winander) in the games that we play with painting, within painting. The whole thing seems kind of artificial. Now this is not to say that there is an end to mysticicsm. But there is, I believe, a kind of formal shift that recurs throughout various different genres: it can be thought of as a movement towards the pun, towards a kind of more abstract mysticism perhaps. Let me just paste here a segment from that draft:

Consider, for example, the development of painting: the time of relgious painting is now past. I mostly have in mind, and this is sort of an idiosyncratic link, something like Bosch, his elaborate paintings of hell, but there are plenty of other paintings that would function as well. There is a certain point, past the middle ages or something, when painting ceased to be allegorical, or allegorical in so direct a way. This seems to me like a vague loss of interest in the symbolic, which is not to say that paintings became representational, or that symbols ceased to exist. But rather, their role is now more indirect. As a kind of banal example, when we look at a more modern painting, like, say, a bowl of fruit, it would be missing the point to ask whether the apple is, say, supposed to represent sin or something, as the apple from the tree of knowledge. But nonetheless fruit continues to be a heavily symbolic element — I mean, why fruit? It is stationary, it has many colors — well, these sound like pragmatic considerations, but really they aren’t, since the question becomes why we are interested in things that are stationary or colorful, and the answer is that we have for some reason become concerned with the very moment of seeing — holding in abeyance the question of specific theories of seeing. Is seeing, for example, necessarily a ‘moment’ — can we be occupied with seeing? It really isn’t, but that’s part of the story that the bowl of fruit tells us. Is there a pure moment of seeing, some moment of aesthetic pleasure, some abstract understanding of color and form? Again, no, but these are part of the elaborate myth of the still-life, or at least one understanding, a kind of mythical background that isn’t really any less elaborate or populated than Bosch’s painting of hell, perhaps.

There is an eventness, a kind of violent singular eventness, a point of no return, to painting, but the nature of this movement is not really formal, though we tend to think of it as such. We are caught up in formal movements, we take on new ways of life, new behaviors, we become avante garde or something, but by that point we have forgotten about that initial insight, maybe we have lost it, or maybe we have internalized the trappings so much that it has become inevitable for all the wrong reasons. I mean, it is a weakness of we humans that we cling to some notion of an irreversible overcoming.

For Heart of Darkness we are concerned with the singular occurence of Kurtz and the dreamlike sensation of, perhaps, the jungle. In the final scene Marlow speaks of the trees that whisper, the “horror, the horror” and remarks:

Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness.



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