Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Closure, Attachment, and Abstract Objects in Heart of Darkness

Or, Did Conrad’s Kurtz pioneer the Latour Litany?

I continue to think about the ending of Heart of Darkness, a conversation between the teller of the tale, Charlie Marlow, and Kurtz’s bereaved fiancée, known only as the Intended – a significant, depersonalizing, practice (one thinks of those characters in Dickens novels carousing about like self-contained armored vehicles). She wants assurances of his goodness and nobleness of spirit, which Marlow provides, despite the fact that, however remarkable he may have felt Kurtz to be, he also thought he was crazy at the end. She wants to know his Kurtz’s words and takes comfort when Marlow tells her that her name was the last thing that left his lips. But that is not so, at least not unless her name was Horror. And, in fact, I have no trouble imagining a bit of British sketch comedy in which The Husband refers to The Wife simply as The Horror.

But Heart of Darkness is not a comedy sketch. It is . . . well, what IS it?

The story’s ending reads like a grim parody of all those 19th Century British novels that happily end with He and She destined for wedded bliss. In Heart of Darkness He and She are like two continents, call ‘em East and West, and never the twain shall meet.

So that’s one thing. Here’s another. There’s that long paragraph in the second installment – it was originally published in three installments in Blackwood’s Magazine – in which Marlow, among other things, leaps ahead of his story and tells us about all the ivory they found at Kurtz’s station and piled onto the steamer. Let’s call that paragraph the nexus, for it seems to gather all the strands of the story into itself — I’ll say more about it in a later post. At 1503 words it’s the longest paragraph in the text, with 2nd, 3rd, and 4th longest being 1129, 1103, and 865 words respectively.

Anyhow, once the nexus gets good and rolling along, we have this: “You should have heard him say, 'My ivory.' Oh yes, I heard him. 'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my--' everything belonged to him.” Somewhat later in the story, in the third installment, we have:
Kurtz discoursed. A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now--images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas--these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.
It’s as though those things all occupied the same place in his mind. What is that place? There’s another connection to be made. In paragraph 160 (of 198 in total*) Marlow tells us that, when Kurtz’s mother died, she had been “watched over . . . by his Intended.” So, if I may invoke that myth logic I invoked so often in my remarks on Apocalypse Now, could it be that all those things – the Intended, the ivory, the station, the river, the career, the ideas – that they’re all stand-ins for The Mother?

To the infant, Freud has told us, The Mother is all – or is it merely The Breast? She is the World. For the adult Kurtz, a man given to abstract ideas of the highest purpose and grandest reach, a man now utterly detached from his familiar surroundings in the heart of a strange continent where he hopes to make his fortune, it turns out that he’s never left the scope of mother comfort. Except that she’s no longer there, and all the rest of it is inadequate to slake his infinite need for Mother’s Love Lost.

And so we get that bitter bitter lie of an ending. In those Happily Ever After books – kissing cousins to the Hot Romance books so beloved by Emma Bovary – one’s beloved provides the adult with the psychological closure Mother provided to the Infant. But there is no such closure for Kurtz – he dead – nor for the Intended. Marlow, however, out of his attachment to the man that might have been, and perhaps out of compassion, decides that there is no point in disabusing the Intended of her illusions. With her Beloved dead, there is no Happily Ever After for her. But at least he can allow her the illusion of the Happily Ever After that Might Have Been.

* * * * *

But let’s return to that list – my Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my career, my ideas, a Latour litany if ever there was one. What’s on my mind is the problem of extending human desire and concern beyond the range of phenomena bequeathed by biology. Biology gives us the need and desire for food and sustenance, for sex, and for what John Bowlby has called a secure base, The Mother, that is, the infant’s attachment figure (which isn’t necessarily the biological mother, though it usually is).

Bowlby (1969) reconstructed psychoanalytic object relations theory using primate ethology and some simple systems concepts. The result was the now familiar account of infant attachment. In 1982 Peter Marris published an essay, “Attachment and Society,” in which he discussed utopian religious communities and suggested (p. 199):
So those who try to live without exclusive ties of relationship, like the people of Oneida or the members of a monastic order, have to create a surrogate that will fulfill for them the same structural need for some ordering of priorities of concern. Characteristically, they find it in a symbolic relationship with the same emotional connotations as a personal pond; they are brides of Christ, children of a supernatural father.
That is to say, the attachment system is being “repurposed” by having attachment focus on symbolic beings rather than real ones. Much of ritual and story-telling, I submit, seems to serve such a purpose.

When Conrad invokes Kurtz’s litany (my Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my career, my ideas) and links it all to Kurtz’s mother via the Intended’s deathbed ministrations, he’s playing on that repurposing. He’s blowing its cover, so to speak, putting it out there for us to see. All of those things run together in Kurtz’s mind because they’re all attachment objects, or, if you will, facets of the primal object, the one that’s gone. That’s the psychic place they occupy in common.

Now, think of the whole story as being inscribed within that space, that space as it existed in Conrad’s psyche, as it exists in our psyche. Kurtz’s litany marks the center of that space while the listeners in the frame tale, which returns in the final paragraph, are at the periphery. The story itself covers or rather, given Conrad’s impressionist method, samples the rest of the space. And the nexus, in which the litany is introduced, samples the sample.

That’s a very clever bit of construction: litany within nexus within the story. And the story’s within the world.

* * * * *

* Yes, I’ve numbered the paragraphs, and counted the number of words in each of them. I’ve used the etext (#526) created by Project Gutenberg, which is available on the web.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, Basic Books.

Marris, P. (1982). Attachment and Society. The Place of Attachment in Human Behavior. C. M. Parkes and J. Stevenson-Hinde. New York, Basic Books: 185-201.

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