Sunday, July 10, 2011

Heart of Darkness: Narration and Temporal Displacement

Well, I’ve read Heart of Darkness. And, yes, Apocalypse Now is quite different. But, no, I’m not going to subtract any points from Coppola for not being faithful to the text. Why? Because, even if he did carry around a copy of Conrad’s story and marked it up six ways from Sunday and copped the general river voyage situation and some lines from it, even then it wasn’t his text and fidelity isn’t relevant.

I suppose, as a stunt, I could subtract points from Heart of Darkness for not being faithful to AN, but what would that get me? Not even another day older and deeper in debt. That happens, but it's automatic and has nothing to do with this. So I won’t attempt that.

Herewith some notes.

At first blush the most interesting comparison between the two is in closure. AN closes upon the double sacrifice, one aspect of which has Willard, the Marlow character, killing Kurtz. That doesn’t happen in HD, where Marlow wasn’t sent to kill Kurtz, but simply to get to his station so Management could recover the ivory he’d gathered for the Company. There IS a moment where Marlow considers that he might have to kill Kurtz, but Kurtz backs off.

Instead, as Management has taken Kurtz’s ivory on board, so Kurtz brings the man himself, very ill, on board. He dies in transit: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.”

Kurtz entrusted Marlow with his papers, as Kurtz had asked Willard to convey the truth to his son. He gives the last packet of papers to Kurtz’s Intended. Note that difference: Coppola’s Kurtz is married with children; Conrad’s Kurtz is only betrothed. Here’s the conclusion of Marlow’s conversation with the Intended:
“‘Forgive me. I—I—have mourned so long in silence—in silence. ... You were with him-—to the last? I think of his loneliness. Nobody near to understand him as I would have understood. Perhaps no one to hear. ...’

“‘To the very end,’ I said, shakily. ‘I heard his very last words. ...’ I stopped in a fright.

“‘Repeat them,’ she said in a heart-broken tone. ‘I want—I want—something—something—to—to live with.’

“I was on the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of a rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!’

“‘His last word—to live with,’ she murmured. ‘Don’t you understand I loved him—I loved him—I loved him!’

“I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.

“‘The last word he pronounced was-—your name.’
Whatever comfort that lie may have given the Intended – didja notice, BTW, that this creature has no proper name, just a functional specification; I don’t know Conrad’s work at all – through I read The Secret Agent in college – so I don’t know whether this is a feature of his style or merely a feature of this text – it bothered Marlow enough for him to wonder whether it caused a disturbance in the cosmos:
It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such a trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his due? Hadn't he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn't. I could not tell her.
So, Conrad’s tale achieves its closure with a lie told to a woman about the man she loved, no, it would seem, worshipped. Coppola’s tale achieves its closure with the completion of a military mission, albeit one that was off the books.

I’m not quite sure what to make of that difference. Not sure at all. It seems to me that The State is very much in play in AN, but not HD. European civilization, yes, The State, no. To be sure, The State is not front and center in AN, but it’s the matrix in which the whole tale is set. Is love between a man and a woman the matrix in which HD is set?

An interesting puzzle.

Form and Temporal Displacement

One of the obvious things about HD, one which has, I assume, received ample commentary is Conrad’s narrative technique. Marlow’s tale is set in a frame story. The frame story is simple. A handful of men are on a boat in the Thames, Marlow among them. He tells the story to them.

The frame tale takes up several pages at the beginning and makes several appearances throughout the tale. Including, of course, one at the end, a rather short paragraph.

This device affords Conrad the use of second person discourse here and there as Marlow addresses his companions and, thus, us readers as well, drawing us onto that boat on the Thames. One of these incursions happens nearer the end than the beginning in the second of the story’s three installments:
Why do you sigh in this beastly way, somebody? Absurd? Well, absurd. Good Lord! mustn't a man ever--Here, give me some tobacco." . . .

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow's lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame. The match went out.

"Absurd!" he cried. "This is the worst of trying to tell. . . . Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal--you hear--normal from year's end to year's end. And you say, Absurd!
This occurs as Marlow has been narrating the only fight sequence in the story. They were perhaps a day’s journey from Kurtz’s compound and were attacked. Marlow lost his helmsman to a spear through the chest (like the Chief in AN) and Marlow’s feet and shoes were drenched in the man’s blood. So, Kurtz’s compound is near, but they’re not quite there.

Anyhow, Marlow continues on, presuming Kurtz to have been killed, and telling how
I was cut to the quick at the idea of having lost the inestimable privilege of listening to the gifted Kurtz. Of course I was wrong. The privilege was waiting for me. Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice.
And then . . . well, if I say everything about this passage that I find worthy of note, I’ll never get through this post. So, I’ll cut to the chase. Marlow rambles on about Kurtz and in the middle of the ramble we hear this:
Ivory? I should think so. Heaps of it, stacks of it. The old mud shanty was bursting with it. You would think there was not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole country. ‘Mostly fossil,’ the manager had remarked disparagingly. It was no more fossil than I am; but they call it fossil when it is dug up. It appears these niggers do bury the tusks sometimes--but evidently they couldn't bury this parcel deep enough to save the gifted Mr. Kurtz from his fate. We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on the deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favor had remained with him to the last. 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.

Note that last: ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—’ everything belonged to him. That’s not what I had in mind when I flagged this passage, but it’s worth thinking about.

But not now.

What interests me now is the temporal displacement. Marlow talks of filling the steamboat with ivory. But, at this point in the tale, they’d not yet gotten to Kurtz’s station and were not even sure of getting there. He’s jumping the temporal gun and telling us about something that would happen later on in the story, but certainly not now, not while they’re still repelling an attack from unseen attackers.

So, anyhow, Marlow goes on and on and on
He had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land – I mean literally. You can't understand. How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you...

The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells too, by Jove!--breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated....

The original Kurtz had been educated partly in England, and--as he was good enough to say himself--his sympathies were in the right place. His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz...
and on and on into a report Kurtz had prepared for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs:
It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: 'Exterminate all the brutes!' The curious part was that he had apparently forgotten all about that valuable postscriptum, because, later on, when he in a sense came to himself, he repeatedly entreated me to take good care of 'my pamphlet' (he called it), as it was sure to have in the future a good influence upon his career.
And, after a bit more, starts making his way back to the present point in the tale:
No; I can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him. I missed my late helmsman awfully,--I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house.
Finally, he lands back in the present, that is, the present moment in the tale itself, where he pulls the spear from his helmsman’s body and tosses his body overboard. We’re now back in the flow of the story, heading for Kurtz’s station, but presuming that Kurtz himself is dead and not having any idea of what they’d find there.

That whole passage is worth detailed explication, not to discover any depths, but simply to inventory the materials on the surface and to link them to other parts of the tale. Perhaps some other time.

And one must note that this, I don’t know what you call it, ‘peroration’ is the word that comes to mind, but it’s certainly not that. Whatever it is, it was prompted by the one death in the story other than that of Kurtz himself. But that’s not why has my attention, not now.

What interests me is simply the temporal displacement. Other than allusions hither and yon it’s the only such displacement in the story. Everything else is told in order, one thing after another.

Why? And how does it work? Do we have a means of answering such questions?

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