Sunday, August 7, 2011

HD Postscript: Toward a Heart of Darkness Handbook

Now for something different.

For some time now I’ve been thinking about the need for ‘handbook level’ information about texts and, correlatively, a professional discipline organized to produce such handbooks. The purpose of this post is to look back over what I’ve written about Heart of Darkness and suggest some things that should be considered for inclusion in such a handbook.

And suggest is I all can do. It’s not merely that literary studies doesn’t have such handbooks (though casebooks serve such a role to a limited extent) but that, if we did, it would not be possible for any one person to enter something into the handbook. All material would have to be vetted in some way. For, when I talk of ‘handbook level’ information I’m talking about consensus among expert specialists: THIS is what we know about, in this case, Heart of Darkness.

Literary studies is not such a discipline. Moreover, if there is a consensus on anything, it is that the discipline cannot, in principle, be organized in such a way because our subject does not permit it. Yes, there is historical information about authors and texts, that admits of consensus. But little else does, or at any rate, little else of significance.

Handbook as Description of a Sharable Promptuary

For literary studies (and kindred disciplines such as film studies and cultural studies) has been driven by the search for meaning, and meaning just doesn’t seem to admit of cumulative knowledge. In the informal extreme, each reader makes his or her own meaning for any given text. That is in fact how the profession has conducted its business, the understanding being that each one is entitled to “roll their own” reading so long as they can come up with a coherent rationale for it.

The last thirty years has seen a wild proliferation of rubrics under which coherent rationales can be constructed. They’re called readings. And, again I’m speaking informally, the meanings set forth in such readings are taken as explanations of the text:
Q: Why does the text exhibit this or that feature?
A: So it can express this or that meaning.
Beyond this, one family of critical approaches, reader response theory, has emerged that explicitly asserts that each reader has their own reading.

Here’s what one reader response critic, Normal Holland, has to say about the role of texts in readers experience (Five Readers Reading, pp. 286-287):
Every reader has available to him what the writer created—the words-on-the-page, that is, the promptuary (a store of structured language) from which he can build an experience. To be sure, the promptuary includes constraints on how one can put its contents together, but these constraints do not coerce anyone. One is always free to go to the extreme of total delusion . . . But most reading is not solipsistic. . . . [Readers] work with what is publicly available—the words-on-the-page as a readiness of structured information. They make from that sharable promptuary a completely original and private experience.
That’s what I want to describe in the handbook, the sharable promptuary.

My principle contention is that there is more to this sharable promptuary than our meaning-hungry profession realizes or, alas, perhaps, is prepared to admit. Some features of the promptuary may seem trivial but, on that point, I just don’t care. If it’s trivial, then there should be no problem making a note of it. Let’s do so and move on.

Further, this or that feature may seem trivial now, but assume importance in light of later knowledge. Features that seem trivial in any one text taken in isolation may assume great interest when examined across a large body of texts, where they may show systematic variation across space and time. The only way to know is to start recording features and survey them periodically as our descriptive knowledge accumulates.

Enough of this. There is more justification and rationalization to be done, but not here and now. I want to get down to outlining some of the features of this hypothetical handbook.

Handbook Basics

I assume that the fundamental form of the handbook will be online and digital, with components freely downloadable. At the center of the handbook we’ll have the text itself, in searchable form and ‘hot-linked’ to the handbook. Many tools have been developed for working with electronic texts, see, e.g. The TAPoR Project.

Many texts, of course, exist in different variants. Heart of Darkness is one of them. These variations will have to be accommodated, with appropriate commentary. This, of course, is already a feature of critical editions. And if there are competing critical editions, betokening a lack of consensus at even this basic level, well, the handbook will have to accommodate these competing claims. That should be doable in an electronic format.

There will, of course, be copyright issues to be negotiated. I have nothing to say on that score. Or, rather, I do. What I have to say is that copyright is proving itself to be a nuisance and should either be eliminated or severely curtailed. Unrealistic as the assumption may be, I assume that copyright problems have disappeared.

So, we have the text in its variant forms. Comment on those variations implies historical knowledge of various sorts. I assume that such knowledge will also be part of the handbook.

As will contextual information of the sort one finds in casebooks. Some of this may be within the handbook itself, while other materials will be linked to the handbook—the boundary between the handbook proper and the rest of the web is, necessarily, a porous and fluid one. In the case of Heart of Darkness this material would include Conrad’s letters and other writing, contemporary reviews, other material on Europe in the Congo, including grisly photographs of Africans with their hands cut-off, which are in the two casebooks I’ve been using the past few weeks.

Beyond this one might as well extend links to, or support for searching, the entire critical literature on the text. That literature doesn’t itself belong in the handbook, for it is not consensus information, but it should be accessible from the handbook. And vice versa; one should be able to move easily from critical articles on a text to the handbook on the text.

With that out of the way, just what material on Heart of Darkness, and what material from these posts in particular, could be in the handbook? As you read through these suggestions, keep in mind that I am imagining a world in which each text that is significant in the canon will have a handbook, some more richly developed than others. Thus the features that I’m singling out for Heart of Darkness can be compared with corresponding feature of other texts. I expect that such comparison will tell us a great deal but, of course, am in no position to predict what such knowledge might be like. It should go without saying that the suggestions I am making are just that, suggestions, and that they are meant to be indicative rather than comprehensive. I’m interested in indicating the range of materials that could go into a handbook.
Note: Rather than place hyperlinks to earlier HoD posts within the following discussion I have listed all the posts, with links, at the end of this post. Within this discussion I simply refer to those posts by name.
Narratological basics

Narratology has developed a rich set of descriptive concepts in the past four decades, concepts that cover more than I’ve examined in these notes (e.g. focalization, characterization, representation of speech, and so forth). Constructing a complete narratological description of the entire text would be a formidable undertaking, and that’s what I imagine being done in the long term—say, an intellectual generation or two. But we should not let the daunting nature of ‘doing it all’ distract us from simple steps we can take now.

Heart of Darkness involves a double narration, an obvious feature and one commonly mentioned in the literature. What is not so common is examining exactly what the top-level narrator does. He doesn’t just begin the story and end. He also intervenes at various points in the story. Note them. Explaining just why he intervenes at those points, that’s a more sophisticated matter, one that need not be included in the handbook now.

And then there is the classic distinction between story and plot, which is important in Heart of Darkness because in at least one case, the paragraph I’ve called the nexus, events are narrated (plot) out of order (story): We learn of that a large mass of ivory was located at the Inner Station and loaded onto the boat; but we’ve not, at this point, reached that point in the story (prolepsis). There are no other strong anachronies that I’m aware of, but there are certainly references forward and backward in the story. These too should be charted.

Specific attention should be paid to Kurtz’s story: 1) What events in that story do we know about, in chronological order? 2) When and how are these events introduced into the narration?

Then we have the specific device Conrad used to introduce that nexus paragraph. Intense forward motion in the narrative (we’re in the middle of a fire fight) is stopped, the narrative shifts to that summary exposition of Kurtz’s career (the nexus paragraph), and then shifts back to the fire fight at the point where it was interrupted. This needs to be noted. It seems unlikely to me that Conrad is the only one to use this device; others must have used it—I'm thinking of a passage in Tristram Shandy where Walter's coming down the steps and a considerable digression is inserted between one footfall at the next; is that essentially the same device?

As for designating that particular paragraph as the nexus, that’s what I have done in my analysis. I will even go so far as to assert that I believe that designation indicates an objectively real function that paragraph serves. But my saying so doesn’t make it so. Thus, I don’t imagine that designation being used in the handbook.

And that takes us to the argument that I, in effect, build around that designation.

Center Point Construction

I’ve singled out the matter of center point construction for separate discussion because two issues are involved. One of them is purely descriptive: Should the nexus paragraph be designated as a separate level of narration, as I have argued. I have also and in addition argued that that makes Heart of Darkness a case of center point construction, which I regard as a superset of ring-form (cf. “The Heart of Heart of Darkness”).

The first issue is a relatively narrow one that can be considered mostly on the basis of examining Heart of Darkness alone. I’ve argued the point, but that argument, or a revision of it, has to be widely adopted to include that feature in a handbook description. The argument about center point construction is a much wider one, about narrative techniques in general. Until such a notion is well established as a term of art within the profession it cannot be introduced into a handbook on a descriptive basis.

The Litany

By the litany I mean, of course, a Latour Litany, as I discussed in “Ontology at the Heart of Darkness”, which first appears in the nexus paragraph: “’My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘ everything belonged to him.” The descriptive issue is similar to that with center point construction. The phrase is certainly there in the text, but what of it? The term “Latour Litany” is from object-oriented ontology and, at the moment, gains its wider meaning within that intellectual context, which currently provides the best rationale for giving this phrase special consideration. That would not qualify it for specific mention in the handbook as object-oriented ontology is hardly a consensus methodology.

There might, of course, be a “close reading” rationale for inclusion, though perhaps not “close reading” in the (now classical) sense. Perhaps “close” in a more linguistic sense. Alas, I’d say that even that is a bit problematic.

Paragraph Distribution and Periodogram

These two descriptive devices, from posts “HD7: Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo” and “Conrad’s Special K: Periodicity in the Heart of Darkness”, are examples of what Franco Moretti has called distant reading. The fact that they utilize new and untested methodologies disqualifies these results from inclusion in a current handbook. Yet, should the methodologies prove valid, these would items would definitely be handbook material.

The Rest, Plus Interpretation and Evaluation

My best guess is the most of the material in my Heart of Darkness posts would not be handbook material. Perhaps some of the commentary in my sixth post, “Heart of Darkness 6: Some Informal Notes about the Nexus,” would make it, as it is mostly, though not entirely, descriptive in nature. Some of it might be subsumed under narratological catogries. To the extent that such material is included, it should be included for the entire text, not only that one paragraph.

The Chinua Achebe post is not, for the most part, directly about Heart of Darkness at all and, so of course, contains little that belongs in a handbook. The fact of his essay on Heart of Darkness, and the response to it, of course, is part of the text’s reception history and, as such, might well be included in the handbook.

If I mention that particular post here, it is because it is, indirectly, a gesture toward deconstruction. For that post is a statement about the inadequacy of language to fully mediate or circumscribe human interaction, and THAT is certainly a central theme of deconstructive thought. And that inadequacy, it seems to me, is what, paradoxically, opens texts both for interpretation and to evaluation. Those are linguistic activities, but the language proper to them is always chasing a mirage.

Interpretation and evaluation are certainly important to humanistic scholarship and teaching, yes, even evaluation. They are not handbook material, but may well call on handbook material as they attempt to explicate: What does Heart of Darkness mean for us, now, in this place at this time?

* * * * *

The Tristram Shandy web has an online version of the text that has been fitted out with various tools for analysis and investigation. Though I’ve not had time to explore it, it seems that it would have lessons useful to the online handbook I’ve been imagining.

Earlier posts in this series:


  1. Have you seen the Norton Heart of Darkness?? Has boo-coo historical information, and Lit-krit-a-cism too--even some material on yr fave gonzo flick Apoc.Cow.

    Enough to turn off any rational student from Lit biz forevah--or perhaps, to understand Count Conrad's own deprecating of Anglo literary klassix. Conrad hisself would have had students like engineering or something practical. Or join the navy. Then perhaps attempt to write (they can carry Voltaire in their duffle bags or something).

  2. Got it. The stuff on ApocNow, not so hot.

  3. this is a great post. thanks for sharing