Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"An assuagement of life's vibrations": Conrad's Heart of Darkness, continued

Here is M-A Berthier's response to the remarks I made yesterday on Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
I wondered when they used the term "ambiguity" if they were thinking of one of Empson's "7 Types of Ambiguity," but I doubt it. The work is written with irony, of course, but that doesn't make it all that ambiguous. There is one part of the novella that has always seemed problematic to me, but a lot of criticism I've read on the subject treats this part with a heavy hand. The passage I am thinking of is the final interview with Kurtz's "Intended." Marlow goes to speak with her as an attempted act of "closure." He at one point clearly gets pissed off that she is so blissfully and idealistically unaware of what Kurtz was "really like," and Marlow reacts by making a series of sarcastic replies that are very thinly veiled double entendre. But he makes a mistake, and it triggers a flashback for him that is like the onset of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He realizes that he is blaming her at some level, and circles back, and does penance (in a sense) with a piece of violence to his own principles. Early in the novella, he said that he could never abide lies, because there was a scent of death about them -- but he then escapes the interview with Kurtz's Intended by telling her a lie; and the lie restores the balance of the universe for her, and keeps the "darkness" of his experience from contaminating the poor woman's life further. But Marlow's goal of obtaining closure with the interview is shattered, and now, like the Ancient Mariner, he tells his story to a bunch of financier types on a private yacht in an attempt to get the albatross off his neck. And you know that it never works, and he probably does this again and again and again to people who don't understand the work. (High school students and bad critics and readers.) At least a few critics of the work have taken Conrad to task about that last interview. I think you can criticize it legitimately for the dialogue he gave to the lady, because it's somewhat maladroit, and gives the impression that she has a brain not much larger than a petit pois. But Conrad often had a few characterization issues with female dialogue, so this is hardly a surprise, and I regard it as a small blemish. But to criticize the scene for what happens, or for Marlow's unreasonable anger seems to me to be a failure to come to grips with his psychic burden. Marlow didn't want that burden. He just wanted to go to the heart of deepest, darkest Africa, one of his childhood dreams. It became a nightmare, and it permanently darkened his view of the world. And he had to do that final task for Kurtz, and he wished to god that someone could stop the voices in his head. (The horror… etc.) When I hear Leavis et al. suggest that this is a satire on colonialism, I wonder what the hell he was reading instead of Conrad.
To which I respond: I remember reading a letter in which Conrad expresses disapproval of men who marry when they are young. I recall his saying such a move is driven by insecurity. My sense is that Marlowe is part of that sentiment. That is, Marlowe is Conrad's bachelor avatar, as well as a way to play off the English chap persona, which, in its wilder, cowboy form (a la Marlowe) could be about as good as it gets for expressing irony in our language. As a type, you could compare Marlowe to those Victorians who explored the American west just for the sport of it. Compare our own Francis Parkman. Restlessness. Expectations. But as for the bachelor persona... Conrad married after he became wealthy ( I seem to recall seeing pictures of her, and she express the kind a beauty an artist or a poet finds attractive, indeed the kind of beauty that attracts a deep, active, and vulnerable desire). In contrast to Marlowe, I think Conrad was "larger" in his ability to engage the world as a worldly and wise person, while Marlowe remains that footloose bachelor, which carries with it a heavy onus in terms of accepting the world as it is. Cowboys never have to grow up, and it is a jolly good time, but by the same token, if I am making any sense here, they also never do grow up, which is a lonely place, and a regrettable outcome indeed.   Marlowe's psychic burden is driven by his bachelor scruples, and his "code of truth."  But altogether, life is not so much a problem of resolving ambiguity or remaining loyal to some code; it is a matter of acceptance and compromise. That is, it's a matter of growing  up.

Jesse George, Mrs. Joseph Conrad

According to Wikipedia:
Jessie was an unsophisticated, working-class girl, sixteen years younger than Conrad. To his friends, she was an inexplicable choice of wife, and the subject of some rather disparaging and unkind remarks. However, according to other biographers such as Frederick Karl, Jessie provided what Conrad needed, namely a "straightforward, devoted, quite competent" companion. Similarly, Jones remarks that, despite whatever difficulties the marriage endured, "there can be no doubt that the relationship sustained Conrad's career as a writer", which might have been a lot less successful without her. SOURCE
Lady Ottoline Morrell offers the following observation of Jesse, which is perhaps significant insofar as it directly follows her description of the importance of the Congo experience to Conrad's view of the world:
He was dressed very carefully in a blue double-breasted jacket. He talked... apparently with great freedom about his life – more ease and freedom indeed than an Englishman would have allowed himself. He spoke of the horrors of the Congo, from the moral and physical shock of which he said he had never recovered... [His wife Jessie] seemed a nice and good-looking fat creature, an excellent cook, as Henry James [had] said, and was indeed a good and reposeful mattress for this hypersensitive, nerve-wracked man, who did not ask from his wife high intelligence, only an assuagement of life's vibrations.... He made me feel so natural and very much myself, that I was almost afraid of losing the thrill and wonder of being there, although I was vibrating with intense excitement inside; and even now, as I write this, I feel almost the same excitement, the same thrill of having been in the presence of one of the most remarkable men I have known. His eyes under their pent-house lids revealed the suffering and the intensity of his experiences; when he spoke of his work, there came over them a sort of misty, sensuous, dreamy look, but they seemed to hold deep down the ghosts of old adventures and experiences – once or twice there was something in them one almost suspected of being wicked.... But then I believe whatever strange wickedness would tempt this super-subtle Pole, he would be held in restraint by an equally delicate sense of honour.... In his talk he led me along many paths of his life, but I felt that he did not wish to explore the jungle of emotions that lay dense on either side, and that his apparent frankness had a great reserve.  SOURCE

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