The Chalk of Power

Synopsis of Class: Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Today I passed the Chalk of Power over to individual members of the class, who then pinpointed important quotations in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Our analysis of these passages allowed us not only to bring our discussion of Conrad's text to a close but to prepare the class for the ID section of the final exam. (For a sample final exam, click here.) To get ourselves primed we discussed the Conrad passage that appeared on last year's final exam: "No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence."

Anu got us started with quotations from p. 9 and 17, both of which involve the alienist who's interested in the mental effects of journeying into the heart of darkness. As he states, ""the changes take place inside, you know." Such passages illustrate to what extent the journey into the heart of Africa serves as a metaphor for an internal journey—into the heart of the self. Such passages also raise the very question of sanity. Is (either Conrad's or Coppola's) Kurtz really insane or does he achieve some true knowledge through his experience? Is it civilization that is really insane insofar as it remains blind to the barbarism at its heart. This questioning was then tied to the modernist questioning of all values previously held dear by the Victorian period (narrative, referentiality, religion, progress, bourgeois domesticity, capitalism, utilitarianism, decorum, empire, industry, etc.). D. J. Dangler then suggested that one thing which marks Kurtz's "modernity" is his extremism (p. 67). The particular form of extremism matters less than the search for something new, however extreme. Stacy Morgan elaborated on this point with the following quotation: "There was a sense of extreme disappointment, as though I had found out I had been striving after something altogether without a substance" (42). One of the things Marlow must realize is that he is really exploring his own fears and desires, which may explain why there is no "substance" to the thing he "finds" in the end. The quotation also underlines the ideological nature of truth. One result of the modernist questioning of all beliefs is a subsequent unwillingness to accept any truth as more than self-obfuscating mystification. Indeed, one of the points of Conrad's tale, as Jen Slawson and Michelle Beauchane explained, is that "civilization" rests only precariously over an ever insistent anarchy (as the discussion of the primitive on p. 32 suggests). Indeed, as Meg Lowry added, one of Conrad's points is that the "other" is always a part of any "self" just as the supposedly "primitive" is, by necessity, a part of the supposedly "civilized." Stacey also illustrated Kurtz's connection to the Romantic hero, particularly in his search for truths beyond the conventions of the everyday. As Conrad writes, "it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares" (57). The difference here is that this "hero" appears even more ambiguous than he does in the Romantic period—darker, more violent, more insane, more Satanic.

Another issue that we explored over the course of the last few classes is the way Conrad's text ties in to epic tradition. In other words, what precisely is epic about the Heart of Darkness? Some of the conventions that students identified in Conrad's text include the following: an epic voyage, battles (11, 40-41), the emphasis on empire building (2, 4), the monstrous (in the savage, in the heart of darkness), epic machinery (in the all-powerful jungle as well as the characterization of the white man by the native [7, 8, 15, 33, 45, 47, 63]), nekuia (the entire journey into the heart of darkness is a kind of protracted nekuia), an epic hero (Kurtz is constantly described in superlative terms as a "remarkable man," a phrase that functions much like an epithet), and Kurtz's hubris (45). We are also presented with certain reworkings of Romantic conventions: an inverted sublime in descriptions of the jungle, Kurtz's exploration of the "dark side of the self," and a Romantic hero of sorts (as we learn on p. 58, Kurtz even writes poetry).

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