Monday, 4 February 2008


Football was, for me, three goals and two bruises. The bruises aren't quite bad enough to say that I'd have settled for one goal and no bruises. I was disappointed when, a couple of months ago, I got a return of no goals from a split chin and a trip to A&E.

I'm teaching first-years undergraduates again at the moment. This week, it's Heart of Darkness. Apparently, a check of the citation index will show me that Heart of Darkness is the most academically written-about text in the entire field, which is no small feat given the weight of criticism on every aspect of the minutiae of (for example) Joyce or Woolf. Anyway, if one goes beyond the 'Chinua Achebe Argument' about Heart of Darkness (that the novel is racist because it reduces Africa to the status of a colourful backdrop against which the crisis of identity in modernity might be staged) it is a wonderful work. This isn't to say, of course, that some of Achebe's argument doesn't hold up under certain conditions, but to make an argument about Conrad's poetic achievement. I might even be tempted to argue that to reduce the endlessly proliferating inferences of the text to nothing more thajn racist dogma is to inadvertently collude with any defamatory intentions Conrad might have held, as the novel, motivated by an uncanniness or extimacy (the furthest inside is always outside; reaching 'meaning' is always a beginning-again), crystallizes as a logic only through the supplementary activity of reading.

What I find particularly fascinating is the rhythmic movement of the novel, which develops an emergent para-metre out of disguised repetitions. On the page and 'inside' the narrative, the writing lingers at various staging points and stations, which might be best thought of in terms of temporary, unplanned postponements of movement and more extended periods of time in which progress is arrested according to plan. Each station acts as a staging ground not only for the receipt of information but for its digestion or interpretation, the transformation of the impressionistic and sensory flux of what Walter Benjamin termed erlebnis into the more stabilised, if provisional, solution of ehrfahrung. As the narrator, Marlow can be seen as the locus of rhythm in the novel even as the musical material originates from a putative elsewhere. Time after time after time, Marlow interrupts the flow of his tale to lend emphasis via the repetition of a particular word or phrase, particularly- and strikingly- when his topic of discussion is auditory phenomena.

Sound, for Marlow, seems to be the point at which the strange and familiar intersect. Nicholas Royle has insisted on the (ellided) significance of the auditory in discussions of the Uncanny (especially in Freud's essay itself) and it strikes me Heart of Darkness would be a good place to begin redressing this problem. Marlow's apparently idiomatic repetitions- in the sense that he might, as a seafaring storyteller in the literary tradition of the Ancient Mariner, be prone to lapses into a melodramatic register- are really indicative of the length of time it takes him to address the alien with a more familiar repertoire of sound-images, or images of sounds (at one point he remarks on how the noises emitting from the jumgle may well have the same function as church-bells in Europe). This, however, is not an extension of the imperial arm, but an acknowledgement of difference based on a projecting forward of time, or a lingering on the linguistically liminal in anticipation of a pending political epiphany which is already halfway 'home'. The ultimate emptiness of the novel's 'heart', or the failed command of the figurehead of progress which is somehow sounded again through the lack of an incorporated meaning, suggests to me both a vital recognition of the ethical implications of extimacy and a consolatory note to the fact of thinking oneself as an individual, or of thought, being ultimately grounded in sound-images. Therefore, I think out loud now, and perhaps don't have to do so on Thursday morning. As I say though, the emphasis on the sonic in the novel, which seems to be both preceded by and in anticipation of a rhythm one locates only formally, is one of the qualities of Heart of Darkness that truly bears analysis as (prose) poetry and, perhaps, elevates the work from the kind of political or ethical economies that the injunctions made by Achebe perhaps leave it stranded in.

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