21 May 2015

Heart of Darkness: Pro- or Anti- Imperialist

The question of whether Heart of Darkness needs a high five or a smackdown has permeated discussion of the book since shortly after its publication. Critics such as Cedric Watts cite Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an anti-imperialist read. Other critics such as Chinua Achebe demonize the text as not only in support of imperialism but a text which reinforces racist stereotypes. From a Marxist perspective, the textual ambiguity may, in part, be the result of the ideological constraints under which Conrad was writing.

Conrad was limited by the ideology of Western civilization. Heart of Darkness “relies on a set of commonly-held European assumptions about the continent as a whole” (Gorra 568) such as racial superiority. Darwin himself promoted a distinction between “high” and “low” races, suggesting an unequal distribution of intellect. This belief “fostered in all citizens a sense that they were members of an imperial race and encouraged them to identify with the ideal of their nation’s world role…such arguments depicted expansion and control as not only moral but somehow natural” (Icoz 248). Conrad had to work from within this construct.

Conrad’s particular history, however, situates him in an ideologically fluid position. As the son of Polish gentry who were exiled from their homeland by Russian imperialists, Conrad has seen, first-hand, the horrors of imperialism (Icoz 246). But we cannot forget the “gentry” in the previous sentence, meaning Conrad’s social class wars with this anti-imperialist attitude as he cannot fully identify with the other victims of imperialism. His social, economic, and geographic displacement does not fully compare to the atrocities being visited upon the foreign, non-white natives in other colonized lands. So Conrad doesn’t fully relate to the white imperialists or the African natives. As such, he finds himself writing from the ideological position of neither.

This leads to an ideologically conflicted perspective. A specific example of this is when Conrad has Marlow refer to the natives as "not inhuman" (Conrad 36). Marlow, like Conrad, seems to be continually trying to break free from his ideological constraints. A part of him sees the horror of imperialism and racism and wants to fully condemn it; he wants to say the natives 'are human'. But to do so would require a massive break with his dominant ideology, so the most he, and Conrad, can muster is that they are "not inhuman".

Conrad again questions the dominant ideology when he has Marlow reflect that finding Kurtz was “not worth the life…lost in getting to him”, referring to the death of the African helmsman (50). To soften the blow, Marlow talks directly to his audience – and Conrad talks directly to his – saying: “Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara” (Conrad 50). Conrad makes a bold statement suggesting that the life of a white man is not worth the life of a black man; but he has to rather aggressively backtrack to pacify his readers. Here, once again, Conrad’s position is ideologically mixed.

If he had taken a firm stance on the side of anti-imperialism, would we even have the text to analyze today since “the material context of literary production places limits on what can and cannot be said or expressed at a particular historical moment” (Rivkin and Ryan 645)? Even if Conrad wanted to directly expose cultural wrongs, he may have relied on subtlety to reach rather than alienate his audience. Even the "enlightened" who would, at the time, question the common practices of imperialism, cannot completely remove themselves from their ideological perspective. After all, "one of the effects of ideology is the practical denial of the ideological character of ideology by ideology" (Althusser 700). We can't escape it. It is entirely plausible that because Conrad had “to depend on the interest and sympathy of his readers…he did not fully acknowledge his dark insight into colonialism. He had to be content with satirizing the evils of imperialism while hinting at admiration for its ideals” (Icoz 246).

In essence, Conrad questions Western power through the very act of writing about Western power. Whether this is enough to situate this work as a true condemnation of imperialism is another question. Perhaps it is enough – for the time – that Conrad even questioned something so many saw as natural, an inherent right and responsibility, of Western society.

For those who've read the story, what do you think?

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 693-702. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Paul B. Armstrong. 4th ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.

Gorra, Michael. “Joseph Conrad.” Hudson Review 59.4 (2007): 541-571. Academic Search Complete. Web 13 January 2015.

Icoz, Nursel. “Conrad and Ambiguity: Social Commitment and Ideology in Heart of Darkness and Nostromo.” Conradiana 37.3 (2005): 245-274. Academic Search Complete. Web 13 January 2015. 

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Introduction: Starting with Zero.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 643-646. Print.

14 May 2015

I Fell in Love With Narratology or How I Got My Geek On

During this past winter, as you know, I took an Introduction to Literary Theory as the first class in my online Masters in Literature program. It was pretty awesome despite the fact I had to read Henry James' Turn of the Screw and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, two books with which I am not at all enamored.

For my final paper in the course, I could choose to analyze either of the books through any of the literary theories studied. I knew I wanted to use Narratology which, as the name implies, is the study of narrative structure; specifically, this theory focuses on the commonalities between all stories. Individual texts are read and analyzed in an effort to identify these commonalities (Barry 214-215). Vladimir Propp, for example, analyzed hundreds of Russian fairy tales and compiled a list of 31 functions by separating out the component parts of the fairy tales (72) (Barry 218-220). These functions are “the basic building blocks” of the narratives within the studied fairy tales (Barry 220). While Propp focused on how the narrative is structured, Gerard Genette tried to analyze how the story is told, posing questions such as from what point of view is the story told, who is telling the story, and how is the story packaged (Barry 227). This type of analysis fascinates me. How disparate parts work together to create meaning is something of a passion of mine whether we are talking about literature or film.

Choosing between James and Conrad was difficult, but I decided that the narrative structure of Heart of Darkness was the teensiest bit more interesting to me. Peter Brooks calls Heart of Darkness “a detective story gone modernist: a tale of inconclusive solutions to crimes of problematic status” (238). This “inconclusive” and “problematic” text has for over one hundred years, intrigued, angered, and confused readers. And damned if it didn't do the same to me.

These emotions can, in part, be attributed to the authorial choices Conrad makes regarding narrative elements, and that is how I chose my paper topic. Through a narratological analysis of Heart of Darkness, I specified the narratological elements, analyzed how they affect reader interpretation, and explored how they contribute to the highly ambiguous nature of the story. I tried to prove that Conrad uses narrative techniques to obfuscate any singular, identifiable meaning in the text. Damn that man. Damn him but good.

I felt pretty successful with the paper, and I received a high A on the paper, so things look good. My professor actually suggested I develop the paper a bit further with a few more sources and submit it for publication. He thinks I have a pretty good chance of getting it published. Very flattering. I'm still wavering on whether or not I'm going to actually do it.

What this assignment did was give me a love of narratology, a literary theory that is certainly not currently in vogue like feminist theory, gender studies, post-colonial, and the so on. I even had a hard time finding sources about narratology outside of the most awesome Mieke Bal, a Dutch cultural theorist, who is pretty seriously awesome. Just a few of the roles she's had: Professor of Semiotics and Women's Studies, Chair of Comparative Literature, Professor of Visual and Cultural Studies, Professor of Literary Theory, and Founding Director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. She has published over 30 books on a wide variety of subjects and she's also a video artist. Seriously, she's who I want to be when I grow up (you know, if I had, like, ambition).

I suppose I'm just sort of sharing with this post, and it does give you the briefest of introductions to narratology and Mieke Bal, so maybe you learned a little something. :) 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I have the ability to apply narratology to the works I'm reading for my new course, Graduate Studies in Medieval Literature.


Barry, Peter. “Narratology.” Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009. 214-238. Print.

Brooks, Peter. "An Unreadable Report: Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1984. 238-263. Print.

Chatman, Seymour. “The Structure of Narrative Transmission.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 97-124. Print.

Propp, Vladimir. “Morphology of the Fairy Tale.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 72-75. Print.

12 May 2015

Ten Authors I REALLY Want To Meet

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Ten Authors I REALLY Want To Meet

I'm not really "in" to authors. Rarely do I read a book and go buy the rest of that author's ouevre. I don't think there is a single author whom I have read completely. So the way I'm doing this list is not "authors I want to meet because I'm like the biggest fan ever". I've given my reasons below:

Neil Gaiman: Not only do I love the books of his I read, I also think he's a super cool real life person.

Lord Byron: Dude, he was so badass.

Marquis de Sade: Do I really need to explain? I mean, I have questions. And I'd like to hear his thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey.

Colette: Because she is (was) totally awesome. A sexy and sexual star of the Moulin Rouge who also published a crapton of work.

Ernest Hemingway: To slap his misogynistic face. And then, if history is any indication, to fall in love with him.

Agatha Christie: having tea with genius

Hunter S. Thomspon: But I want a doctor on hand...just in case

Allen Ginsberg: One of the only poets I enjoy reading.

Stephen King: To have a serious conversation about how that sex scene in IT jacked me up for like a week as I read it in seventh grade.

John Green: He's funny. I like funny. He's geeky. I like geeky.

I could go on and on here.

10 May 2015

Happy Mothers Day!

My beautiful kids...


Because part of the fun of having kids is funny-face-pictures....

Happy Mothers Day to all the wonderful, exhausted, frustrated, loving moms out there

07 May 2015

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

As I've said in posts past, I hated Heart of Darkness on my first reading (way back in high school). Normally I wouldn't touch this book again with a ten foot pole, but the grad course I signed up for decided this was one of the novels I had to read, so....

Upon re-reading, I now remember why I hated this book so much.

Ambiguity.

So Marlowe heads into the Congo in search of the legendary Kurtz; he meets him for like two seconds, and in essence finds out the dude is quite the douche, but still Marlowe insists on admiring this man...or at least protecting his reputation, preserving his words.

This book is hailed as a scathing condemnation of colonialism and despised for being the exact opposite, a disgusting perpetuation of racism. I'm not sure if this is an argument in favor of the book sucking or being truly great. There is definitely an argument to be made that the book is one of the greats because of its ability to 1) cause intense emotion and 2) provoke controversial discourse.

The only redeeming feature of this book for me is that it is short.

Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. I will admit that my second reading and subsequent 20 page paper on the novella did make me hate it a bit less. While I don't particularly care for the story, I do see its relevance, its impact, and its skill. After all, I don't think it's easy to write a cohesive, chronological narrative that is so indeterminate, so cryptic.

For more reviews, check out:

05 May 2015

Top 10 Books I Will Never Read

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Top 10 Books I Will (Probably) Never Read

This list could be remarkably long so to narrow it - and embarrass myself - how about Top 10 Books ON MY SHELVES FOR YEARS that I Will (Probably) Never Read. I know. Sad, right?

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
Testimony by Anita Shreve
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullogh
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

In some of these cases, I really do want to read the book, but every time I pick it up, I put it right back down without making it more than 20 pages. I know a handful of these are TOP TEN BLOGGER BOOKS OF ALL FREAKING TIME, but if any are really really really really worth reading, let me know.

04 May 2015

The Creepier Covers of Heart of Darkness

As I stated in yesterday's post, the month of May shall be dedicated to the horrifically ambiguous, remarkably dark and depressing novella that is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The tale in Heart of Darkness does not lend itself to flowery, brightly lit covers full of smiles and joy; however, these are some of the creepiest covers for the book.

 



And the Winner Is...


I've given you my opinion on winner of Creepiest Cover; which do you think should take the trophy?

03 May 2015

Currently | 3 May

Eating and Drinking // Trying to eat healthy, not succeeding every day

Reading // I'm at a bit of a standstill with pleasure reading right now as I delve into medieval literature for my course. Beowulf is up next!

Listening // I'm still listening to Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I love this book, but I'm not exactly sold on the audio. As such, it's taking me more time to finish the book than it should.

Blogging // I'm on some sort of strange blogging kick right now, and I hope the momentum keeps up!

Teaching // We are wrapping up the semester this week; then we have finals week, and then FREEDOM!!!

Loving // This picture of Carter and his girlfriend. He likes 'em young and bald.


Oh, and this picture of me and the other members of my crazy family...

Contemplating // How we rectify the massive disparities in translations of Old English poetry. Seriously, how is one ever to know the truth of the matter?

Promoting // Heart of Darkness May. Yep, I'm dedicating the month to a book I don't very much like. What can I say? I want to share some of what I did in Intro to Lit,and it helps me work through my very contradictory feelings on the novella. I have a review, a narratological discussion, some thoughts on whether it's super awesome or really racist, a look at Apocalypse Now (based on Heart of Darkness, sort of), and a few more odds and ends. I sincerely hope you all join in, show up, and help me out.