Attitude in Heart of Darkness

Let’s just analyze a passage, chosen fairly randomly, from Heart of Darkness:

(HoD 39) “I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn’t one that was not broken. It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to me I had stepped into a gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf moved, with a mysterious sound — as though the tearing pace of the launched earth had suddenly become audible.

I want to focus on this notion of Marlow’s “attitude”.

You know I have been lately having a resurfence of ‘confidence’, I mean, that I am going to read clsely this passage, as you wil see, but I now no longer regard it as a trivial activity. We will be reading too closely and seeming to pursue trivial questions, but they in fact won’t be trivial.

Now with this in mind — a related issue, I mean, to ‘confidence’ — one of the things that we often get stuck at, when reading a text, is, well, is the insight of a work. We understand the work to0 well. Now this understanding seems to have the advantage of vaulting us towards grander, philosophical questions. You know, just scanning the above, there are a lot of hot-button words here. Hole: that could certainly mean something. How about criminal? Let me relate an anecdote — you know, I am somewht embarassed by how many good anecdotes I am getting from my interactions with this one fellow, embarassed because I see him as incredibly misguided. Anyways, we were talking about Bartleby and I gave my argument about … well, I don’t think I wrote it down here, it was about Bartleby and the mark of writing. That’s not important, what I want to get at is that this fellow was so hung up on the phrase “I would prefer not to”, focusing too much on this word “would” as a “deferal”. Obviously those are ‘hot-button’ words. I sense a kind of annoyance welling up in me even as I recount this. Most of all there was the feeling of him trying to teach me something, as if I clung too tenciously to rosary beads or something, and he was bravely out there with zero assumptions or something. But, that’s not actually the point either, the point is that it is obviously highly limiting to read hot button words — which means, more generally, it is sort of a bad thing to read too closely, to agree too much with it — hopefully you see the reading I am trying to avoid here.

So, “close but not too close”. Towards this end we have to resort to an older and seeminglyoutdated practice, ie, humanism, understanding, and intention a person — Marlow, in this case. I actually have a draft here about the “demon”, Marlow. We sometimes forget that he is demonic simply because he sounds like such a sensible person, but it is there. I mean, here is someone with zero attachment to family, land, status, the future, etc. The point is we must remember not to get too close to Marlow, there is something inhuman about this person.

(The point here isn’t, of course, “accuracy” — ie, to have a somehow a ‘more accurate’ reading of this text. Yet this is what it sounds like, isn’t it? But as I said I am “confident” here, confident that this line of thinking will allow us to arrive at greater stakes. I don’t want to go over them here, at the moment — I can, but I don’t want to right now, for the sake of focus — so bear with me for awhile longer!)

So let’s just revisit HoD 39, which I have chosen somewhat at random, I mean, based on certain heuristics. There is a lot of talk about being ‘apalled’ but Marlow is not apalled in retelling it, I mean. Nor should we take the obvious route of saying that he is trying to instill us with a kind of abstract uncertainty. There is something highly intentional here. The attitude is, oddly enough — in contrast to the content — one of work or methodical progression — something is being done here, by the demon Marlow. As with Bartleby we can speculate that this work is driven by an earlier moment of trauma, or perhaps “absolute clarity” — conveniently enough, the events in the story. But actually — and this may seem obvious — not the events in this very passage. For one thing, we can remember that Marlow said something to the effect that: “I honestly don’t want to bore you with personal details, but in order to talk about Kurtz, I will have to tell you how I got there, and my experiences.” Kurts seemd to “throw a kind of light” onto the whole affair, that was nonetheless “not very clear”. Basically, I’m just saying that the events in this passage don’t directly influence the work that is being done in writing it, but rather, seem to reference some other event.

We can say the same thing about Marlow, as we did about that demon Bartleby — the sense of industriousness is there but it is hard for us to relate to. But we can almost relate to it — as so many have, to Kurtz, I mean. We are sort of like goldfish, I mean — or, we are like what Marlow said about that old man who believed there is life on Mars — we are capable of conviction even if we don’t know the heart of the matter. In fact, the anecdote I gave about the annoying fellow and Bartleby certainly serves to illustrate this. I was annoyed at him, in particular at his industriousness, at how he is trying to teach me. I remember another component of our discussion now: I told him, moments earlier, that the watchwords for my understanding of Bartleby was “Epic storytelling, exotic violence.” Hopefully you know me well enough to know that I despise being interesting just for the hell of it, but nonetheless — the violence, the work, has to be exotic. It has to be an interesting, and unusual kind of work, and what annoyed me was just how banal the work he was doing was — teaching, demystifying — despite whatever exotic concepts he had taken up. I used to say: “The most pernicious power is convincing the strong that they are weak.”

So my point is that we can understand labour with a kind of clarity even if we do not understand the trauma. In this case, the labour appears with a clarity despite the fact that the past event, upon which it is based, is bracketed off, bracketed off sufficently, I mean — I don’t know, with sufficient carefulness so that it doesn’t overshadow the labour, I don’t know. We will basically be doing the same thing that the fellow in my story is doing — talking about something without knowing the details of its very heart, but of course there are also many differences, including our awareness of this. (The common experienece of reading is certainly that the book alternates between being close by and distant. The closer we draw to the book the more we can read it, but getting too close and our endeavor becomes merely teaching. At the correct distance we can, it seems, understand the demonic labour which is the true heart of the issue. This may seem like metaphorical grandiosity but I mean — I am confident, I have become confident, that this is basically how great historical events come about. In the last essay we talked about transmissibility in history, and it can be said that here we are paying closer attention to how this transmission takes place.)

… All the above still felt too much like an introduction. But let’s actually say a few things about this passage. The cocentration on holes, and on digging is interesting, and highly concrete. It is the pratctice of placing marks on the ground. This is an allegory for work that occurs after the event. It is interesting, I mean — vaguely misguided, but also startlingly concrete. There is something undeniable about a hole, like there is about a punch to the face. But Marlow also associates this with “accounting” — holes can be enumerated, I mean, it is work undeniably done — and with the “philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do”. The ravine is yet another mark, but in this case its intention is uncertain, as does the word “scar”, which suggests another kind of ambivalence.

The central issue of this passage seems to be the connection made between the apparent industriousness of the written or spoken mark — the undeniable work of Marlow — and the uncertainty of the marks on the ground — these wholes, scars, ravines, etc. To further complicate the matter these holes were presumably dug by the natives themselves in a Bartlebyesque sort of manner, I suppose. There is work here but there is also the signature — a demon, or of various demons — both Marlow and Kurtz, I mean, we have not yet gotten to their differences.

The most important thing here, which is a question that we cannot fully answer with a single passage, is the relationship between the past and the “present”, I mean, the labour being done. The relationship that will allow us to reach, not so much a moment of clarity, but rather, at least, of conviction. Marlow detected a note of pathos to the sounds of the natives, but that is not the direction we will want to pursue here. The attitude here is one of industrious progression, a la Bartleby, rather than pathos, lingering, and stillness. Yet this may soon give way to other voices.. (TBC)



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