Sunday, May 17, 2009

“Heart of Darkness,” Impressionism and Marlow’s Self Identity

Question to be answered: Does Conrad use Impressionism as a style to produce a new kind of modernist consciousness or a new conception of self that is more focused on the inner truths of life than outward phenomena?

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, we are lead into the heart of Africa through the eyes of Marlow, who views the outer world within his closed consciousness. Few critics would oppose the great aesthetic value of the vivid impressions provided by this character. But what I find relevant in the value of Conrad’s descriptive style is that it produces a new kind of conception of the self. The identity of Marlow is an example of this conception. His narration is more focused on inner consciousness than on the outward phenomena. This new type of self identity created by Conrad can be associated with his Impressionist style. Before expanding on this claim, I will explain what Impressionism is and how it works in literature. I will later explain why the aesthetic value of impressions is so important to the modernist consciousness and its conception of the self.
Ian Watt, in his article “Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness”, argues that the novel is essentially impressionistic. Watt refers to David Hume as a philosopher who clarifies through his theory of knowledge what this concept is. To Hume, all the perceptions in the human mind resolve themselves in two distinct kinds: impressions and ideas. Our impressions are those with the greatest force and violence, and our ideas ore those defined as less lively perceptions, which occur after we reflect on our original sense-impressions. This means that an impressionist work would focus on impressions, and put lesser force on the causes or meaning of those impressions, which come afterwards, once reflection takes place. Heart of Darkness, understood in this way and lived through the consciousness of Marlow, is an Impressionist work. It is evident at times that Marlow represents what a man cannot know. He begins his tale by mentioning to the other sailors that what he experienced affected him personally, but that some of his impressions are not clear, and will probably never be.
Yet to understand the effect of it on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw, how I went up that river (…) It was the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me-and into my thoughts. It was somber enough too-and pitiful-not extraordinary in any way-not very clear either. No. Not very clear… (H.o.D pp.7)

A problem with the Impressionist style is found in the relationship between individual sense impressions and meaning. Given that Conrad provides us first with Marlow’s vivid description, and later, with his interpretation of the event described, the force of the impression becomes stronger than the understanding of it. Even before he begins his tale, Marlow affirms that the most he can talk about are his inner impressions. So it appears that we will never be allowed outside Marlow’s consciousness, and outside the walls of the closely shut cell containing his impressions. So this style creates a new definition of the self, one that engages us with the character’s inner thoughts but leaves little objectivity towards the outside phenomena. In other words, Conrad only provides us with Marlow’s vivid impressions, so as readers we are limited to the hollowness of these descriptions which either lack meaning, or have no objective relevance to outside phenomena. Watt explains this almost tragically when he writes, “From this it follows that the ideas we form of the outer world and of other minds, may be but a day dream.”
Another characteristic of Impressionism as explained by Watt, is the unordinary sense of temporality it presents. Marlow’s mind receives messages from the outside world, but his reflexive process, and his decoding of meaning is much slower. Watt calls this “delayed decoding,” and points that it is a consequence of Impressionist writing. The process of delayed decoding is what lets Marlow roam inside the vaults of consciousness for so long a time before arriving to a more general idea. As readers, we don’t get what the general meaning of an event is because Marlow can only decode his impressions. We first get a description of a vivid impression, and later a delayed meaning which has lost its force. This makes the consciousness of the modernist self different from other accounts of identity. Marlow for example, is a self less aware of reality and more aware of his impressions, to the point where his impressions become his reality.
As an example of this delayed decoding process, I mention the part where Marlow encounters in the forest a variety of heads attached to poles as a product of Kurtz’ bloody rituals. There is a reason I believe why this scene does not directly lead us to make a moral judgment like we typically would. The force of Marlow’s impressions limits a more general description of the outer reality, so it is difficult to know if Marlow—closed within his consciousness—really understands what is happening. Despite the fact that the Russian mentions how Kurtz “is bad, very bad” (H.o.D pp.57) Marlow does not understand what those figures mean until later, and even then, he does not directly link Kurtz to this horror.
And then I made a brusque movement and one of the remaining posts of that vanished fence leaped up in the field of my glass. You remember I told you I had been struck at a distance by certain attempts of ornamentation, rather remarkable in the ruinous aspect of the place. Now, I had suddenly a nearer view and its first result was to make me throw me head back as if before a blow.

The problem of reading this passage only through Marlow’s consciousness is that we are left with many gaps to fill in. Conrad provides us with a modernist creation of the self, where the outer world is never revealed fully revealed. Marlow’s temporal delay in decoding the messages he receives from the outside (first he believes the heads are mere ornaments, then he realizes they are something else-something more sinister) also limits his understanding of reality. This temporal device utilized by Conrad, prevents Marlow from experiencing shock, or horror, instinctively. If he did, this would lead us to believe Marlow’s sense of morality is more accurate. But once he figures out that these “ornaments” are decapitated heads, he pushes us back inside his consciousness where morality is absent and all we have left are pure impressions. Instead of accurate description of the outside phenomena, what we get is Marlow’s stream of thought:
“was not so shocked as you may think. The start back I had given was really nothing but a movement of surprise. I had expected to see a knob of wood there, you know (…) There it was black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids- a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, with dry shrunken lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of eternal slumber. (H.o.D pp.57)

Here lies the most relevant aspect of Conrad’s impressionism. The modernist self becomes extremely aware of his inner truth but, unable to escape the trap of his consciousness, becomes terribly unaware of outside reality. Instead of seeing the entire horror of Kurtz’ immoral acts (the decapitated heads being evidence for this) what we get is Marlow’s comparison of death to “some endless jocose dream of eternal slumber.” At this level and through Marlow’s consciousness, the horror of death and Kurtz’ irrational murders diminish in force against the vividness of pure impressions. This is the irony of a modernist conception of the self: how it limits us to the character’s stream of thought, and how it prevents us from keeping track of the general meaning prevailing in the story. Not only is it evident that the physical impressions precede Marlow’s understanding of a cause. It is also evident that Marlow’s delayed decoding of events is a strategy which prevents us, on a first read, to focus on the objectivity of the horror.
So the irony about this conception of the self is that for the sake of pure impressions and vivid descriptions, for the sake of entering Marlow’s stream of consciousness, we get a limited account of what the outside phenomena really means. Patrick Brantingler in his article Imperialism, Impressionism and the Politics of Style defends this view, although he relates it to impressionism. To Brantingler, Conrad’s impressionism allows him to mask his nihilism, or to maintain contradictory values between imperialism and anti-imperialism. Relating this idea to Conrad’s modernist account of the self, we could say that the way he masks this contradiction is through Marlow’s consciousness. If we understand impressionism as a discourse which expresses or disguises contradictions, like Brantingler does, then we can also view Marlow’s limiting consciousness as one which also masks contradictions. When Marlow expresses how he thinks the decapitated heads are to be seen (as sleeping happily over the poles, for example) he prevents us from understanding reality outside his mind. But if we do escape the trap of his consciousness, we can also read this passage at a different level, where the horror of Kurtz’ murders and bloody rituals gets unmasked from the impressionist style that disguises it. So, with the story’s impressionist style, Conrad manages to create a modernist account of the self who is more concentrated on his inner reality than on the outside phenomena. In this paper, I have tried to point to this, but also, to unmask the contradictions and problems that this account of the self raises.


1) Brantlinger, Patrick. Imperialism, Impressionism and the Politics of Style. “Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism.” Ithaca. NY. Cornell University Press, 1988. Reprinted in “Heart of Darkness, a Norton Critical Edition.”
2) Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” Norton Critical Edition. Norton and Company press. NY. 2006.
3) Watt, Ian. Impressionism and Symbolism in “Heart of Darkness.” “Conrad in the Nineteenth Century.” Berkley. University of California Press. 1979. Reprinted in “Heart of Darkness” Norton Critical Edition.

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