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John James Ryan

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Lost in Translation: the disintegration of Language in Heart of Darkness
by John James Ryan   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

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An exploration of Conrad's conception of language in Heart of Darkness.


In Heart of Darkness, language offers characters a means of stabilising the ephemeral surface of their reality through a validation of the Company’s superficial vision of the Imperial concern. The inherent disparity in evidence between the West’s conception of the African wilderness and the actuality of their employees’ experiences manifests into a series of individual negotiations as each figure veils the underlying redundancy of their reality through a fabricated objectification of the unknown. This process fundamentally isolates each character within the confines of their own accommodated reality, inhibiting the communication of meaning between characters. Kurtz’s wilful confrontation of the underlying void of his identity serves as an act of resistance to this insidious framing of consciousness. Through recognition of the superficiality of the surface, Kurtz successfully creates a new social reality beyond the constraints of language. Marlow’s attempted ascription of meaning to the actions and sentiments of the other characters solidifies the insubstantiality of language in conveying the meaning behind another individual’s reality for “we live as we dream- alone”(44).

The report for the suppression of savage customs symbolises Kurtz’s gradual reversion from an “emissary of light” in the beginning of the novella into the animated “image of death” in the conclusion. The superficiality of his posited ideals within this text and their irrevocable contrast to the post-script signify the disintegration of language as a reliable means of validating the surface reality in the face of the contradictory. Kurtz’s physical absence in the earlier sections of the novella incites the materialisation of a figurative representation of his character through the intimations of others. The eloquence and potency of his articulation earns him the image as an “emissary of light; [a man] of higher intelligence, wide sympathies [and] a singleness of purpose” (53). He serves as a symbolisation of the overarching “idea at the back of” the imperial concern; the conviction that beneath the “aggravated murder... [With] men going at it blind”, there lies a belief in the morality of the endeavour. However, the simultaneous constitution of Kurtz’s character as both a manifestation of the Imperial system and the underlying moral centre of the concern presents a paradox. Kurtz stands a representation of the fabricated and romanticised sentiment of the paternal West which ravages the “unenlightened” Other beneath the veil of progress. Within the alternative reality of the wilderness, Kurtz comes to the realisation that the elliptical and enigmatic qualities of eloquent language preserve the surface reality, while concurrently enabling the continuation of the Colonists’ unspoken barbarity. Marlow’s intimation that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (77) illuminates not only the inherent superficiality of Kurtz’s egalitarian sentiments but also forms a parallel between his fated reversion to the atavistic and the threatened disintegration of the Imperial system. The report detailing Kurtz’s methods for the suppression of savage customs serves as an ominous insight into the gradual destabilisation of his sense of the real, foreshadowing “the horror” (95) of his final revelation. His initial sentiments assume “the unbounded power of eloquence-of words- [with] no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases”(78), drawing attention to the underlying disconnection between the enveloping ideal of the endeavour and the permissible avenues of action; the truth obscured through language. The articulacy of Kurtz’s rhetoric acts as a veil which inhibits the reader’s realisation that the report’s theoretical exposition of a method remains curiously devoid of any precise procedure or technique. The logical flow of the pamphlet presents a paradox to the reader in that the premise of Kurtz’s proposed suppression of the savage customs relies upon the deification of the white colonisers  in the eyes of the uncivilised Other; an exercise in reversion in itself. Through the assertion of this assumed supernatural superiority, Kurtz ironically denies the task of “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (40), which stands as the fundamental justification of Colonialism. The report’s illumination of this essential contradiction underscores the gradual disintegration of language as a means of reconciling the grandiose representation of reality and the actuality of the experience. Marlow’s intimation that the report “made [him] tingle with enthusiasm” (78) highlights the power of articulation in obscuring the inner meaning of its subject. The post script serves as an exposition of the reality of the “civilising” project, which the “burning, noble words” (78) of the pamphlet obscure. The overwhelming contrast between the two perspectives signifies Kurtz’s disavowal of the company’s self-serving conception of reality, a system which will “exterminate all the brutes!”(78), while maintaining the air of paternal benevolence. In this light, the pamphlet embodies Kurtz’s point of departure from the West’s linguistically-defined, ideological system into the inexplicable reality of the wilderness.

Kurtz’s journey into the Heart of Darkness serves as a metaphorical quest of self-discovery, which culminates in the realisation that his eloquence and authority in language veil his innate lack of a moral centre. The representation of his character as an emissary of light within the Imperial concern functions not only as a validation of the West’s ideological system but also as a material instantiation of his identity within reality. However, within the all encompassing silence of the wilderness “where no warning voice of a kindly neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion” (77) he discovers that the constitution of his character through his vocalised sentiments serves as a mere pretence of the veiled barbarity of the Imperial concern. This disintegration of language as a means of validating an altogether fabricated conception of his identity incites Kurtz’s construction of a self-orbiting sphere of existence within the immensity of the African landscape. His embrace of the void signifies an existential reformulation of the parameters of his reality, arising from “the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions” (94). Marlow’s characterisation of the wilderness as an instinctual and maternal entity “that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast” (94) underscores Kurtz’s rebirth within a primal symbolic order, which constitutes its reality through an emphasis of the materiality of impulses and sensations. Paralleling the emotional features of an infant, Kurtz experiences this realm of the real as an all-encompassing vision of reality, which operates as a source of sensory gratification. His universal possession of objects to which Marlow intimates in his sentiment that “everything belonged to him...My Intended, My Ivory, My Station, My River” (76) signifies a pre-linguistic, polymorphous vision of consciousness. This Pre-Oedipal conception of reality constitutes the amalgamation of the objects of Kurtz’s existence into a single, indistinguishable entity, which instantiates his authority as the only defined figure. Through recognition of the superficiality of the West’s organisation of objects, Kurtz deconstructs the fundamental distinction between the Self and the Other in taking “a high seat among the devils of the land” (77). Though “the powers of darkness claimed him for their own” (77), Marlow ultimately fails to realise that through an embrace of the void of reality, Kurtz transcends the boundaries between the familial and the incomprehensible. In conceding the fabricated validity of his identity to the incomprehensible wilderness, Kurtz releases himself from the organising principles of the Western system; the justification of our actions through language. In this regard, Kurtz’s “step over the threshold of the invisible” (96) enables his manipulation of the precepts of language as a means of instantiating the materiality of his constructed identity. His position within the centre of his own reality enables the vocalisation of his final affirmation in the closing section of the novel.

Finally, the harrowing images of the impaled heads which envelop Kurtz’s home serve as a final ratification of his reformulation of the social reality. Both Marlow and the Russian affirm the symbolic nature of these ceremonial ornaments, however, the reasoning behind the material evidence ultimately evades their perception. Marlow’s final contention that “they would have been even more impressive...if their faces had not been turned to the house” signifies the inefficacy of language in conveying the innate sensation and meaning produced in one’s experiences. Marlow consciously reformulates the motive behind these symbols as a means of validating his own preconceptions regarding Kurtz’s reversion. To him, “they showed that Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” (86), an intimation which serves as a confirmation of his own preconceptions. To the reader, the heads serve as the material evidence of Kurtz’s reconstruction of the parameters of his own reality. Within this larger context, the heads act as an ironic substitution for the “kind neighbours ready to cheer you or fall on you” (77) of civilised society. This existential act of self-surveillance serves as a perpetual validation of the superficiality of the linguistically-defined system, a society in which human interaction and camaraderie serve as pretence to the subordinating social order.

Marlow’s enigmatic characterisation of the significance of Kurtz’s final moments solidifies the inherent insubstantiality of language in conveying not only the meaning of another’s experience but also the central revelation of the narration. The attempted reintegration of Kurtz into the surface reality of the West enacts a severance in his character, isolating the eloquent fabrication of the past from “the hollow sham whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of the primeval earth” (94). Marlow’s ambiguous distinction of the real figure of Kurtz from the vacant shell emphasises the disconnection of their two realities, for “the original shade of Kurtz” (94) stands as the fabricated representation of the hollow sham. His forced removal from the wilderness instantiates this rigid dichotomy of the civilised reality and the unknown of Africa, an act which seals Kurtz’s fate for no individual can exist as a manifestation of both the self and the other. In his final moments, Kurtz intimates that “[he is] lying here in the dark waiting for death” (97), a sentiment which Marlow disregards for “the light was within a foot of his eyes” (97). This failed communication of experience embodies not only the psychological disconnection of the two figures but also the inefficacy of language in traversing the gap between two separate spheres of consciousness. In stepping “over the threshold of the invisible” (99), Kurtz sees beyond the materiality of the surface. Marlow’s restraint enables him “to draw back [his] hesitating foot” (98) and remain as an interpreter of Kurtz’s experience. Kurtz’s fatal embrace of the underlying void of existence culminates in his final affirmation “The horror, the horror” (97), a cry which connotes a materialisation of an incomprehensible sentiment through language. In this, Kurtz transcends the perpetual proliferation and recirculation of preconceived meanings within our linguistic system in an act of original creation outside of the parameters of representation. Marlow’s position upon the precipice of the perpetual darkness might enable his authority as a narrator of Kurtz’s final revelation but it inevitably inhibits his full comprehension of the meaning behind Kurtz’s experience. As such, the moral centre of the tale lies not within a mutual communication of an illuminating experience, but rather in the fact that “[Kurtz] had something to say [and] he said it” (98). Similarly, Marlow’s inadequate communication of the effect, which the horror exerts over him, solidifies the inefficacy of language in relating the inner substance of another’s experience. He contends that “it was the expression of some sort of belief” possessing a “candour”, “conviction” and the “appalling face of a glimpsed truth” (98). Yet despite such an overarching description, the abject terror which incites Kurtz’s sentiment remains fundamentally intimated to the reader. The surface characteristics that Marlow attributes to Kurtz’s final affirmation serve merely as a validation of its materiality in his account; the stylistic representation of a memory in narrative. The true meaning of “the horror” (97) lies beyond the surface of our reality, enveloping the inherent superficiality of each linguistic interaction. Marlow’s humiliation that “he would have nothing to say” (95) of his own experience culminates in his wilful substitution of his vision of the darkness for that of Kurtz, an act which enables the narrative reproduction of the latter’s journey through the ratification of Marlow as an author. In denying the validity of his own transformation however, our narrator inhibits the development of meaning within the details of his account for “it is impossible to convey the life sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence- that which makes its truth... we live as we dream- alone(55)”. The Revelation of the novel solidifies the insubstantiality of language in conveying the meaning of another individual’s reality.

The minor characters of Heart of darkness stand unified in their abject assent to the validity of the surface reality. Upon interaction with the incongruous reality of the African Wilderness, the Pilgrams rely soley upon the power of language in subordinating the terrifying incomprehensibility of the Other to the stable vision of the Self. This illusionary process culminates in the near deification of representable objects, whose evident materiality serves as a justification of their presence within the Imperial concern. The inherent superficiality of their sentiments solidifies Marlow’s initial intimation that the “philantropic pretence of the whole concern [is] as unreal as everything else, their talk...their government.. their show of work”(52) The pilgrims’ profileration of ideologically-charged labels in their characterisation of their cultural Other act as a means of stabilising their western perspective of the civilising project. Their assumption of the criminality of the African natives validates their position as the “outraged law”(40), thereby instantiating their role as civilisers, charged with the noble quest “of  weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” (40). In the absense of “the butcher and the policeman”(76), who symbolise the preservtion of order within society, the pilgrams enact the enigmatic power of language as a means of veiling their idleness. This insidious process manifests in the appointment of a brickmaker who “ could not make bricks without something that could not be found”(52) not forgetting the employment of “16 or 20 Pilgrams [who] beguiled the time by backbiting and intriguing against each other” (52). Devoid of the rationality of Western society, the Pilgrams enact a deification of the one material, which serves as an instantiation of the entire ephemeral concern; namely Ivory. Marlow’s external position as an observer enables his objective account of the Pilgrams’ illusionary reality, one in which “ the word ivory rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it” (48).This idealisation of a material object forms a parallel with Marlow’s earlier justification of Imperialism in the “unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up and bow down before and offer sacrifice to…”(34).  In the absense of a moral ideal, language enables the justification of the characters’ reprehensible actions through the idolisation and attribution of fabricated meaning to a material object. For Marlow, the Pilgrams’ hyperbolic justifications of their meaningless actions enacts the gradual disintegration of language as reliable means of ratifying ones experiences.


Through an emphasis of the inherent disparity between an individual’s conception of reality and the actuality of his experience, Heart of Darkness illuminates the gradual disintegration of language as a reliable means of conveying the inner truth of an character’s experiences, a point which culminates in Marlow’s insubstantial characterisation of the novella’s revelation: the horror of a linguistically-defined society devoid of actual meaning.


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