English 632: Seminar in Narrative Theory

Sample Reading of Conrad's Heart of Darkness by Jeff Schneider

"'Do You See the Story?':

The Talking Cure in Conrad's Heart of Darkness"


In Lacanian psychoanalysis, telling stories is essential to the analysand's (re)cognition of trauma. Julia Kristeva refers to the analysand's narrative as an instance of "'borderline' [neurotic] discourse" which "gives the analyst the impression of something alogical, unstitched, and chaotic" (42). She then explores the pleasure (jouissance) that the analysand experiences in the course of Lacan's talking cure. For the analysand, the pleasure is in the telling: "[T]he analyst is struck by a certain maniacal eroticization of speech, as if the patient were clinging to it, gulping it down, sucking on it, delighting in all the aspects of an oral eroticization and a narcissistic safety belt which this kind of non-communicative, exhibitionistic, and fortifying use of speech entails" (42). This notion of pleasure-in-telling serves both as a point of departure in my reading of Marlow's narrative--his own talking cure--and as a means of interrogating the pleasure-in-reading within the narratological economy of desire.

In his Freudian interpretation of the Heart of Darkness, Peter Brooks asserts that "we must ask what motivates Marlow's retellings--of his own and Kurtz's mortal adventures" (239). Brooks concludes that the primary motivation is Marlow's search for some kernel of essential meaning at the core of Kurtz's tale. Reading in a Lacanian register, I argue instead that the search for meaning plays a secondary role to the telling of the tale itself. Indeed, as Slavoj Zizek notes, symptoms have no meaning outside the context of the recreated scene of trauma: "The analysis produces the truth, i.e., the signifying frame which gives to the symptoms their symbolic place and meaning" (189). Marlow seems aware that for his tale to have any meaning at all for his listeners he must provide a context for reading. In fact, this move to contextualize is Marlow's narrative modus operandi: "[T]o him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine" (4).

His desire to recreate the context from which meaning arises becomes even clearer when, in an anxiety-ridden moment, Marlow demands: "Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams" (23). Here, the description of the "dream-sensation" also clearly recalls Kristeva's characterization of the "alogical, unstitched, and chaotic" impression created by the analysand's "'borderline' discourse." Ultimately, Marlow realizes that his desire to recreate the scene of trauma can never be completely fulfilled. Marlow asserts:

You can't understand. How could you?--with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man's untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude without a policeman--by the way of silence--utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering a public opinion? (44-5)

Of course, they cannot understand, for, as the quotation implies, his story takes place outside the realm of the Symbolic Order and squarely in the realm of fantasy--the Imaginary. Marlowís primary motivation for retelling his tale has less to do with uncovering its essential meaning than with his obsessive, yet futile, need to recreate the scene of trauma.

In telling his story, Marlow also attempts to stave off madness, for the talking cure protects him from the threat of an autistic silence: "And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also were buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets" (57). The silence of the "grave" recalls Lacan's notion of Symbolic death, whereby the analysand's silence signifies his expulsion from the Symbolic. What Marlow truly desires, then, is a means of escaping the specter of Kurtz's fate--being seduced by the heart of darkness and silently dying in the wilds of the Imaginary:

It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to me, I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul. And the memory of what I had heard him say afar there. . .those broken phrases came back to me were heard again in their ominous and terrifying simplicity. I remembered his abject pleading, his abject threats, the colossal scale of his vile desires, the meanness, the torment, the tempestuous anguish of his soul. (68)

Like the return of the repressed, Marlow's memory of Kurtz haunts him, inspiring him to talk through his neurosis. The talking cure for Marlow is both obsessive and in vain because it lacks the possibility of signification in the Symbolic. There is no possibility of transference to his listeners, for no one who has not journeyed into the heart of darkness can ever fully understand the scene which he attempts to recreate (recuperate).

If Marlow can never access the kernel of essential meaning--residing in the Real--what then is the extent of Marlow's pleasure in retelling his story? He hopes in the telling to achieve a final recognition of his symptom. As Marlow notes on his return to Europe, "it was my imagination that wanted soothing" (66). But, it is precisely the play of the Imaginary and the inaccessibility of the Real within his narrative that forecloses any curative possibility in his "'borderline' discourse."

The reader certainly takes a vicarious--perhaps even sadomasochistic--pleasure in participating in Marlow's talking cure. The nature of the pleasure-in-reading is the possibility of participating in the trauma without having to experience it firsthand. If the essential meaning of being in the world were revealed and every trauma were laid bare, there would be no questions left to ask and no stories left to tell. By not revealing the heart of darkness--which Lacan would argue can never be revealed--Conrad leaves the necessary space for desire in the narrative. Thus, the narratological economy of desire is maintained.

Works Cited

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover, 1990.

Kristeva, Julia. "Within the Microcosm of 'The Talking Cure.'" Interpreting Lacan. Eds. Joseph Smith and William Kerrigan. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Zizek, Slavoj. "The Truth Arises from Misrecognition." Lacan and the Subject of Language. Eds. Ellie Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher. New York: Routledge, 1991.


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