Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Preview: Meaning in Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Here's another draft fragment from my open-letter in progress. This fragment centers on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

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Now I want to look at a particular example, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is one of the texts most frequently taught in undergraduate courses. Why? Well, it’s relatively short, 40,000 words, which is a consideration, albeit a minor one. Surely it’s the subject matter – roughly, European imperialism in Africa – and, secondarily, Conrad’s impressionist style. Still, why, why do those things matter?

Let’s look at a short statement by J. Hillis Miller, a senior and very respected literary critic. He is old enough to have gotten his degree at Harvard at a time when, in his view, when few in the English Department there were much good at interpreting texts and his is one in the first generation of deconstructive critics. Shortly after the turn of the millennium the Association of Departments of English honored him for his fifty years in the profession. Of his early days as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins, the 1950s and 1960s, Miller tells us:
English literature was taken for granted as the primary repository of the ethos and the values of United States citizens, even though it was the literature of a foreign country we had defeated almost two hundred years earlier in a war of independence. That little oddness did not seem to occur to anyone. As the primary repository of our national values, English literature from Beowulf on was a good thing to teach. [3]
Which is to say, literature is taught as a vehicle for cultural indoctrination. Of course you know that; you don’t need Hillis Miller to tell you that. But I just wanted to get the idea explicitly on the record along with that little irony about English literature in the United States (Miller had earlier pointed out that, at the time, American literature was marginal in the academy, at least at Hopkins).

Just a bit more about Heart of Darkness, which is a relatively simple story. A pilot, Charles Marlow, needs a gig. He calls on an aunt who gets in an interview with a continental firm, which hires him to pilot a steamer up the Congo River to a trading station that has gone incommunicado. Marlow’s job is make contact with the agent of the Inner Station, named Kurtz, and recover the ivory that Kurtz has, presumably, been accumulating. Marlow is our narrator. Actually, he tells the story to an unnamed third party, who then tells it to us, but we can skip that detail for awhile. That third party presents the bulk of the story to us as Marlow’s own words. Marlow’s steamer is crewed by native Africans and, in addition to personnel from the trading company, there are pilgrims on board.

Marlow is presented as a brilliant and talented man who went to Africa to earn enough money to make him worthy of his Intended; we don’t learn this detail until late in the story, nor are we ever told her name. We’re also led to believe that he has gone mad, setting himself up as a demi-god to the natives and taking a native mistress. As for those natives, it is clear that they have been badly treated by the Europeans.

Whatever else is going on, Heart of Darkness is an indictment of European imperialism in Africa. And yet in 1975 Chinua Achibe, the Nigerian novelist, set off bombshells when he delivered a lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness” [4]. How could Heart of Darkness be racist, people objected, when the text obviously condemns imperialism? Easy, goes the rejoinder, for Conrad deprives Africans of agency, depicts them only as victims, and never has even one of them speak. Now, NOW, we’ve got something to think and talk about. Heart of Darkness may be over a century old, but the issues it embodies are very much alive in this, the 21st century.

And it gets better. Toward the end of his meditation on his years in the profession, Miller observes:
In the fifty years since I joined the Johns Hopkins English department, we have gradually, and now with increasing rapidity, moved out of the print age into the age of electronic media. Radio, cinema, television, DVDs, MP3 music, and the Internet now play more and more the role literature once played as the chief interpellator of citizens’ ethos and values. During’s literary subjectivity is becoming rarer and rarer among our citizens. They go to movies or watch television. [...] the changes I have named in English departments—the New Criticism; the rise of theory; the development of cultural studies, global English studies, film studies, studies of popular culture, and so on—can be seen as spontaneous attempts to find again the social utility that is being lost for the study of canonical works of English literature. [p. 65]
If THAT’s what floats your boat, Heart of Darkness is a natural object of study. As you may know, one of the great films of the last quarter of the previous century is Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and it was loosely based on Heart of Darkness. Instead of Africa we have Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Instead of a rogue ivory trader, a steamboat captain, and the Congo River, we have a rogue army colonel, a Special Forces captain, and the Nung river, a fictional river based on a real one, the Mekong [5]. In both texts (yes, a film can be called a text): a river, the jungle, and (something very like) madness. Compare and contrast is one of the oldest formulas in the book, and you can certainly employ it with these two texts [6].

Why not add a third into the mix? Seiho Takizawa has drawn and written a manga version that owes debts both to Conrad’s novella and Coppola’s film [7]. Now we’ve got three texts and three different media (prose, film, manga – aka Japanese comic book). How about a fourth text? I’m thinking of the “Congo” episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown video series [8]. As you may know, Bourdain is a chef turned I-don’t-quite-know-what, but he travels the world eating the local food and using that as a vehicle to introduce us to the local culture. In this episode he journeys to the Congo River and, in his voice-over, he explicitly references Heart of Darkness. The sound track uses quasi-Doors rock reminiscent of the “The End”, which Coppola used in the opening montage for Apocalypse Now, and at one point Bourdain “dubs” (his word) a boat the “Captain Willard” (from Apocalypse Now).

We’re now so deep in the inner workings of culture that I’m all but lost. We’re dealing with a story written by a Pole, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, writing in British English as Joseph Conrad, as translated into film by an Italian-American film-maker, Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom have impressed themselves on the imagination of an American-born chef of a somewhat privileged background [9]. Whatever that process is, it is certainly worth serious thought.

In the large, of course, it’s culture. More particularly we’re dealing with American culture. But, you know, in Conrad’s text, the Africans don’t speak. In Bourdain’s text they most certainly do and, who’d have guessed? in English. Not American or British English, but Congolese English. That in itself could consume a course.

For that’s what I’ve got in the back of my mind as I write this, courses. What do you teach in a first level undergraduate course in English literature? Sure, you can teach Heart of Darkness. Give it a week, maybe two (I have no idea what reading lists are like these days), for there are other texts to teach. In THAT course you’re never going to get to these other texts, Coppola’s film, Takizawa’s manga, or Bourdain’s episode of culinary adventurism. Maybe you can fit all four of these texts into a more specialized upper-level undergraduate course. But you could also incorporate those texts, and more [10] into a professional monograph. Which is to say, the kind of approach to Conrad’s text that is appropriate to an entry-level undergraduate course can, in one way or another, also be extended to a specialized monograph for a relatively small professional audience. And that approach centers on meaning: What is the meaning of these images and motifs as they are used and reused in various contexts? Why are they being used?

When Hillis Miller started teaching back in the 1950s Conrad’s text was the only one of these four that existed. Even if the others had existed, they wouldn’t have been taught because the conceptual matrix that would enable and justify them didn’t exist. Heart of Darkness would have been taught as one of the great texts of Western literature, which it is. The implicit contract is that, in reading and thinking about this text, the students will be internalizing important cultural values and attitudes.

The world in which Chinua Achebe could assail Heart of Darkness as racist was rapidly becoming different world, post-Civil Rights, post-Vietnam, African-American and feminist studies on the rise, and the Western canon was being questioned. When we teach Achebe’s critique we may not be asking students to internalize it, but we’re certainly asking them to internalize values that recognizes its validity. Apocalypse Now doesn’t really change the ethical landscape nor, I think, does Bourdain’s show, though I reserve judgment on that, as I’ve not really thought much about it.

We’re now in a world where English departments are beginning to examine popular culture and to teach it. More and more humanists would talk of cultural studies which is not, as I’m sure you know, quite what the term suggests. Cultural studies is not simply the study of culture; rather, it’s the study of certain kinds of culture from a certain, more or less, Marxist point of view. When cultural studies is good, it is, well, it is just that, good.

However, and this may be pushing things a bit, it seems to that the world of cultural studies is still a world that is dominated by canonical high culture literary texts. Yes, that canon is in question, other texts have been added, and we now examine movies, television shows, comic books, video games, and so forth, but in one way, shape, or form the central issue is that of complicity with, capitulation to, or resistance to hegemonic power. The student of cultural studies is, in the end, dressed in garments containing a scattering of threads from the robes of an Old Testament prophet – which is not a trope I’ve invented [11].

For myself, if I were to write a monograph covering those four texts – Conrad’s novella, Coppola’s film, Takizawa’s manga, or Bourdain’s one-hour video – I’d frame it, not as cultural studies, but as media anthropology. Conducting an anthropological investigation of your own culture is very different from interpreting the sacred texts of your culture. Very different. But that, more or less, is what has happened to literary criticism in the last half-century. At the beginning of that period it was the somewhat mystified interpretation of quasi-sacred texts – the critic as priest. While that activity still remains, it has somehow managed to elaborate itself into something approaching the investigation of your own culture as though you were a Martian ethnographer with no direct existential stake in the outcome of the investigation.

What happened to the great works of the Western world? What happened to furnishing young minds with the values appropriate to American citizens? Those questions are both real and rhetorical, but I don’t ask them out of a sense the bottom is falling out of Western civilization – though, in view of the results of the last Presidential election, we’ve gotten a bit closer to that.

Again I say: it’s high time we step back, put the whole business at arm’s length, and ask, in all humility: What are we doing?

* * * * *

[3] J. Hillis Miller, My Fifty years in the Profession, ADE Bulletin, No. 133, Winter 2003, p. 64.

[4] See the Wikipedia entry, An Image of Africa, accessed 12 February 2017, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Image_of_Africa

[5] Accuracy, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” (blog), accessed 12 February 2017, URL: http://apocalypsenow.umwblogs.org/accuracy/

[6] See my working paper comparing the two, Myth: From Lévi-Strauss and Douglas to Conrad and Coppola, Working Paper, December 2013, Academia.edu, URL: https://www.academia.edu/7866632/Myth_From_Lévi-Strauss_and_Douglas_to_Conrad_and_Coppola

[7] See the entry for Who Fighter with Heart of Darkness, Baka-Updates, accessed 12 February 2017, URL: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=6759

[8] See my post, Anthony Bourdain on TV (Congo), New Savanna (blog), February 10, 2017, URL: http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2017/02/anthony-bourdain-on-tv-congo.html

[9] See the Wikipedia entry, Anthony Bourdain, accessed 12 February 2017, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Bourdain

[10] See the Wikipedia entry for Heart of Darkness, the section on Adaptations and influences, 12 February 2017, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_of_Darkness#Adaptations_and_influences

[11] See Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading, University of Chicago Press, 1975, p. 267:
A great interpreter like Erich Auerbach, a great critic-scholar like E.R. Curtius, a prodigal son like Kenneth Burke, or men of letters like Paul Valéry and Edmund Wilson, who practiced the minor mode of prophecy we call criticism, are not annulled by the fact that they may be explicitly writing about the writing of others.

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