What is the Historical Moment?

One idea I want to introduce here is that I want to ask the question not of “How did this historical come about”, but “What is the historical event (that can be associated with a moment of textual analysis)?” And let’s once again take a few somewhat arbitrarily chosen passages for Heart of Darkness as our fodder:

(44) “I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company’s chief accountant, and that all the bookkeeping was done at this station. He had come out for a moment, he said, `to get a breath of fresh air.’ The expression sounded wonderfully odd, with its suggestion of sedentary desk-life. I wouldn’t have mentioned the fellow to you at all, only it was from his lips that I first heard the name of the man who is so indissolubly connected with the memories of that time. Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser’s dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later on, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, `I’ve been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.’ This man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order.

(45) “Everything else in the station was in a muddle, — heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory.

The figure of light is a prominent one, it mostly means the “present”, or the original event, idea, the event where the understanding is equated with its happening. I’m also reminded of an earlier passage (13): “What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. .
. .” The idea is that which we are separated from. The dressmaker’s dummy — let’s call him that — certainly occupies a complex logic here: he is a kind of insistence, a kind of undeniability. Yet in a kind of weird twist all these figures can themselves be pushed into the past — so that the dummy becomes, paradoxically enough, a reminder of the possibility that understanding coincides with eventness. 

The next passage (45) is also worth mentioning, it is more typically Marlowian. There is a sort of long list, where we often get the impression that Marlow is sort of talking in order to cover up something — a weird Marlowian kind of exotic violence — the violence of darkness, but perhaps also of conviction. (We spoke of the “demonic” Marlow in the previous essay, I believe.) But there are also, of course, traces of other voices here. Kurtz’s voice always haunts the entire text. What is Kurtz, formally speaking, in terms of light and darkness? He can certainly be linked to the “previous trickle of ivory”. An incredily small and almost insignificant quantity, he is what everyone seems to seek, or what everyone is after, in both the senses of desire and time. Kurtz and Marlow are sometimes indistinguishable, as is here, where it becomes difficult to tell what exactly the temporality of this passage is. Or rather, more accurately, the chesspeices are there, it is a matter of waiting for them to be played, in order to form a configuration. The temporality , the intentions, of these passages are highly uncertain.

Let’s also touch briefly on the notion of dedication, which is how Conrad chose to end his book: “His last words were — your name!”. This dedication is, on the one hand, yet another complex reference, but more interestingly, it is also a way in which Marlow differentiates himself from Kurtz: for Marlow had not “stepped over the edge”. Marlow’s influence is more thoughtful, and has more to do with writing, with naming. I see Marlow as the philosophical component, I guess.

So there are all these different threads, all these different figures — voices — but I don’t want to settle on this notion of a ‘tapestry’, rather, I want to think, again, of this notion of maybe a kind of “chess game”. The point here isn’t to totally map out the infinite possibilities, but rather to the admittedly complex configuration that best crystallizes into the historical question: a matter of historiography rather than merely the explaining of history.

For this moment of crystallization — is precisely the moment when one can simultaneously (1) read closely (as opposed to see clearly), ie, understanding with pathos or conviction the action undertanken in a moment of darkness, after a moment of light, and (or the various complications of this, such as via dedication), or (2) understand this configuration as a historical power or moment — organized by the central, and yet oddly unimportant point of light

The point of light, the moment, the trauma — its role is odd here. We are speaking here, again, not of a tapestry, but rather of a configuration of voices that seems to go back to a common moment, Each voice seems to reference both each other and some prior moment of light. But what may be even more important are these figures of darkness that assert themselves in this configuration — so emptied out!





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