Ian Watt

Doing justice to all the phantoms in possession: Joseph Conrad, Edward Said, and me, New York City, 1978.

The following essay was published as an afterword to the Signet edition of “Heart of Darkness” and “The Secret Sharer” in 2009. 

 

In the summer of 1978 I came into possession of a copy of this small paperback, Heart of Darkness and Secret Sharer, an earlier version of the Signet edition I presume the reader has

just finished. It was green and battered and had someone else’s annoying writing in the margins. The introduction to that edition was written in 1950, by Albert Guerard, who was, along with his colleague at Stanford, Ian Watt, an important early Conrad scholar who did much to revive Conrad’s reputation after it had fallen into a certain degree of obscurity in the middle of the century.

At the time, I was 21 years old, an off-sequence sophomore at Columbia University, and I had set out specifically to read Heart of Darkness because when I’d read it as an assignment in high school,  I’d had some difficulty understanding it. Although it is short, only a hundred pages or so in this and most other editions, Heart of Darkness is one of Conrad’s most dense narratives.  The structure of the book is complex, Conrad’s irony is thick and relentless, and his language is difficult as well: he had learned English while living in France and his English would always be heavy with Latinates. As is often the case with Conrad, his point – his meaning or his multiple meanings – is a little hard to pick out from amid the somber moods and romantic outpourings of his narrative voice.

Yet I knew something important was there. So I was rereading it, sitting in the lobby of a building on Morningside Drive in New York City. Columbia owned the building and it housed several of the university’s most distinguished faculty members — Jackson in the history department, as I remember; Edward Tayler in English; and Allan Sachs who was the much admired chair of the physics department. I’d been handed a job that summer as a replacement for the union doormen of that building, taking their shifts when they went on holiday. On this particular occasion, it was midafternoon on a mild day in July. The wide lobby doors were swung open to let in the air, and the bright summer light was cheerfully lacking the mean white glare so common during New York’s overbearing summers. In strolled a handsome, well-built man I recognized as Edward Said, of Columbia’s English department. The foregoing sentence, and that he lived on the fourth floor of this building, constituted everything I then knew about him. The book that would make him globally famous, Orientalism, would not come out until later that year.

He walked toward me down the length of the lobby and I got up, put down my book, and started over to the lobby’s north side, as it was also my job to run the manual elevator located there. Said had a gruff and physically aggressive air with students, particularly in these years, and had barely spoken to me in the past. But suddenly he was interested. “What are you reading?” he practically shouted and strode over to the table where I’d laid my book. “Heart of Darkness!” he said.“Great book, great book” — I swear. It’s comical now, yes, but that’s what he said.  Little did I know, from this cheery reaction, that Said was a respected Conrad scholar himself, that he’d done his doctoral dissertation on Conrad, that Conrad’s exile and the ambiguous effects it had on his personality and his art would be a source of continuing fascination for Said, and finally that Conrad would be an author, and Heart of Darkness a text, that Said would return to over and over as he explored the fine mechanisms connecting the most transcendent art with specific cultures in specific historical situations.

We rode up to his floor and he quizzed me about what I’d studied and read, and he urged me to take his course that fall called “Modern British Literature”, where we’d read Heart of Darkness, among many other major late 19th century and early 20th century British texts. I can say now with clarity that this little exchange in that manually operated elevator, and the four subsequent courses I took with Said, and his friendship in later years, were the most important professional influences of my life. Said was, by a very long way, the greatest literary mind I have ever been in the presence of — and I would not be the critic and the writer I am without having known him and studied with him.  All because I was reading Heart of Darkness in that place, on that day.

*          *          *

This personal anecdote has a powerful relevance to Conrad’s work, it seems to me. The two tales you have found in this book were written at different stages of Conrad’s career, they differ markedly in style, yet they are connected by virtue of sharing one of Conrad’s most crucial themes: a haunting and accidental union between two people who by all rights should never have met, and who have – often incomprehensibly — the power to change each other in radical ways.

Conrad leaves a deep mystery at the core of the special relationships that drive both these tales. In The Secret Sharer, we are never directly enlightened as to why the Captain feels such a deep kinship with Leggatt, his “secret sharer”; even more difficult to fathom is Marlow’s psychological imprisonment, in Heart of Darkness, within the ineffable relationship he forms during his brief exposure to the monstrous Kurtz. Indeed, the great challenge with which Conrad leaves us, as readers, is to come to some sort of conclusion on our own about these dark intimacies, to figure out what happens inside a person’s consciousness when he is altered by the personality of someone else.

These relationships are vague in origins but quite tangible on the page.  While Leggatt is still clinging to the ship’s ladder and glowing with the phosphorous of the sea, our unnamed captain remarks that “a mysterious communication was already established between us two.”  This mysterious communication will lead the Captain first to extend toward Leggatt a puzzling degree of blind trust and second to take extraordinary risks on his behalf.

Similarly Marlow is inextricably drawn to Kurtz  (who is, like Leggatt, a murderer, but on a far larger and more ferocious scale). Part of Kurtz’s appeal are his words, his voice: “The volume of tone he emitted without effort, almost without the trouble of moving his lips, amazed me. A voice! A voice! It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper.”  Notice that as with virtually all his subsequent exchanges with Kurtz, Marlow here reveals almost nothing of the actual content of Kurtz’s conversation or pronouncements.  A bit later, Marlow is approached by the loathsome company manager, whom we might call a petty bureaucrat supervising the rape and plunder of a continent, and who wishes to go on record as deploring Kurtz’s “unsound methods”, even as he profits by them.  Marlow recalls with disgust that he “had never breathed an atmosphere so vile, and I turned mentally to Kurtz for relief – positively for relief.” The unhinged local despot and murderer is a moral relief, compared to the European company man.

In both stories, we see formed a profound bond — based on little available information or personal context — through some invisible but irresistible moral imperative, some core and highly mysterious requirement of being human. Written very close on the heels of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s major novel Lord Jim — which also features Marlow as narrator — offers a moment that sums up this mystery.  Jim, a criminal like Leggatt and Kurtz, comes to understand the bond that has been formed between Marlow and himself, the bond that resides essentially in the willful act Marlow has made in attempting to understand Jim, and sensing this Jim looks at Marlow and stutters, in shock, “I — you — I…” These might be the three words and two dashes that in all of Conrad’s work best contain and evoke his central artistic and moral concerns.

*          *          *

If we are going to understand the bond between these figures, it is important to look at how the stories are told.  The Secret Sharer  is told in a direct first person narration, but the story belongs to Leggatt — it is his conundrum that drives the plot.  For all the Captain’s maneuvering to protect Leggatt, the Captain is not the actor of this story, but the teller, and as he relates on to us, the readers, Leggatt’s story and the Captain’s own complex psychological reaction to it, a similar bond is formed between narrator and reader as was formed between the two characters in the tale.

Heart of Darkness multiplies this implied morality of narration, if we may call it that, several times over. Indeed, it is a frequently noted characteristic of Heart of Darkness that we have to do significant analysis just to determine what the story actually is and who is actually telling it.  The telling begins, as it were, on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie[1] where four friends, who were once men of the sea and who still enjoy sailing together, are waiting at the head of the Thames for the tide to turn. The reader is addressed by an unnamed narrator, who sets up the situation before Marlow starts to speak. Everything that Marlow will say will come to us through this other narrator whose name we never learn.

So we can fairly easily see a three-layered narrative structure that goes from Marlow, to his companion, to us. But is this really Marlow’s story? Or is Marlow not in a similar role in relation to the real story here as the Captain is, in The Secret Sharer?  This is Marlow’s story of hearing a story. This is the story of “a remarkable man”.

Conrad was by some  reports (though not all) a man who was uncomfortable with people; he was apparently capable of being gregarious in groups but he could also come off as awkward, shy, and gloomy.  Later biographers have revealed that he was subject to fits of temper that led him to be abusive to his family. He never lost his thick accent, although he had achieved the heretofore unimaginable feat, as a foreigner, of being certified as a captain in the British Merchant Service. It is not clear why he chose, among his five or six languages, to write in the one he learned latest in life: English.

This drama of language and culture and belonging also has its play in  Heart of Darkness.  You’ll recall that Conrad goes across to “the continent”, to “the sepulchral city” to gain employment, with the help of his aunt. The city in question is Brussels, and the country is Belgium, which controlled (with unparalleled brutality and savage looting) the entire Congo region.  These facts indicate a powerful atmospheric and literary situation that Conrad never once makes explicit to the reader: that Marlow, an Englishman, has spent this entire story, until he reaches Kurtz, among French speakers.  In addition to the other narrative complications we’ve explored, we must add the fact that the story has been “translated” by Marlow from French into English, that it took place, as it were, in French.  And when Marlow considers why Kurtz has bestowed on him all Kurtz’s horrible visions, he concludes that it was “because he could speak English to me.

In other words — always, other words, other languages, other forms of uncertainty — in other words, the painful, ruinous, almost lethal redemption that Marlow implicitly claims for himself — having undergone Kurtz’s own trials and lived to tell of them –- resides not only in the successful conveying – the honest evocation – of the story, but in the English language itself.  Knowing as we do the facts of Conrad’s life – his parents’ early deaths after imprisonment by the Russians; his travels; his time on the sea – there is something very moving about his profound connection to the English language, to his commitment to it as a vehicle of redemption, even for Kurtz, who, having finally found an English speaker, is freed to tell his horrifying truth.

Speech is Kurtz’s, and Marlow’s, timely savior. When Marlow rises at midnight to discover that Kurtz has left the ship, and encounters him, standing thin as death in the tall grass, trying to return to the tribesmen who are loyal to him, Marlow succeeds in diverting him by saying “’You will be lost… utterly lost’”:

One gets sometimes such a flash of inspiration, you know. I did say the right thing, though indeed he could not have been more irretrievably lost than he was at this very moment, when the foundation of our intimacy were being laid – to endure – to endure – even to the end – even beyond.

That this unlikely intimacy would endure, long past Kurtz’s death, and transform Marlow, is why he tells the story to others –- with their own intimacy and their own  capacity to change.  The story Marlow “hears” is Kurtz’s story. Marlow never really tells us what that story is:

I’ve been telling you what we said –- repeating the phrases we pronounced -– but what’s the good? They were common everyday words – the familiar, vague sounds exchanged in every waking day of life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.

The story resides in the end “at the heart of an impenetrable darkness.” It is all of Europe at its most corrupt. It is the ruination of a once-fine (though highly mistaken) European intellect; it is the absolute debasement of a self-serving high-mindedness. It is brutality and madness on a scale and of a depth even greater than what a 19th century Englishman would attribute to a shaman wearing antelope horns and dancing around a fire. It is the savagery that Marlow discovers (and that Conrad himself discovered in the Congo, a life-altering experience that helped make him into a writer) and that, he sees, lies hidden in the darkness inside each of us.  Most of all, for Conrad, there is the moral achievement, amid all that debasement and violence and terror,  residing in Kurtz’s peculiar ability to convey all of this, all of the madness and lust and savagery.  By being able to speak it, to show it, he is somehow redeemed: he is “a remarkable man.”

That is the “story” of Heart of Darkness and you really don’t get to it until the very end. Indeed, we journey toward it in a structural way – from the Nellie to Marlow to Kurtz – that is almost miraculously mirrored in the structure of the novel itself, which travels from Europe up the Congo River, stopping at the Outer Station, the Middle Station and the Inner Station, where we find Kurtz, and ivory in unimaginable quantities, and destruction, and speech.

*          *          *

Notes:

[1]  Conrad had a friend who had a yawl (a two-sailed boat of yacht size similar to a sloop or cutter, but with a small third mast far aft, near the rudder) named Nellie, and thus came the name he used in his novella. However it is also worth noting, an irony of literary history, that the only other significant novel in English preceding Heart of Darkness with the same configuration of distancing narrators, is Wuthering Heights, and the central narrating figure in that story, the equivalent of Marlow, is the maid, whose name is Nellie.