Sunday, April 18th, 2004
The past and space, memory and presence, are interwoven. Existentially, we are always in the moment yet moving. Existence (the experience of life, of ourselves living) is paradoxical, since time moves continually yet we feel fixed on solid ground. Certain modernist trends (which could be traced back to Copernicus) shake this ground up by insisting on uncertainty, by experimenting with forms, by unsettling the observer; its not hard to do in the 20th century as technology and environments change swiftly. How is this uncertainty, this unsettling dramatized? In Heart of Darkness, Marlow slowly makes his way up, down, through, over (all these descriptions depend on point of view) the water course, he makes certain observationsConrad dramatizing the actionabout his environment, interpreting experience, fixing it, since we cant fix it ourselves. Marlow says:
We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a signand no memories. (1984)
In In Memoriam, Tennyson struggles with grief. But for Marlow the very conditions of life in the moment have changed. He feels, first of all cut off. But its like hes been cut off from anything in particular. He feels cut from the comprehension of things. Hes signaling a cognitive shift. Solid ground can be described as a metaphor for normality, sanity, reason. You are on solid ground means that you get it or getting close to a solution. But here Marlow glides as a phantom. But what does it mean that hes traveling in the night of first ages? In a way this reads like a wall, a separation from what hes known in his life: purpose, civilization, a normal existence in a modern world, where things make sense, where events, actions, motives, and shapes appear coherent. But in his new situation, similar is narrative disposition to the composers travels in Alejo Carpentiers Los Pasos Perdidos, Marlow moves forward into the past, into the past as a modern man, hence his comprehension of the new (old) world is taxed, perhaps even impossible to understand. But whats the problem with this? Partly, the problem is memory. Memory provides context, anchor, a line from the past and the future: I remember tomorrow as a plan, a concept derived from the habits of yesterday. This is where maps come in. In IF we refer to the map to figure out where we are, what weve already traversed.
In human terms, memory is the the map keeper, the foundation on which the map has been drawn. But as Marlow grows small as he proceeds into the heart of darkness, he has no memories with which to provide context.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but therethere you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men wereNo, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of itthis suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanitylike yoursthe thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar . . . but if you were man enough youd admit to yourself that there was somewhere in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you — you so remote from the night of first ages — could comprehend. And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything–because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
The night of first ages is, of course, a figure. The negativity of night is a response, a cultural twitch. Marlow makes lots of these, of course. Nevertheless, the figure transfigures also, and maintains the coherent image with opposing, light. We could claim that darkness simply signals Marlows sense of disconnection with the men, women, and the world hes penetrated, in terms of a distance, a remoteness of relationship, a remoteness of understanding. This is an inner distance. Marlow says that the meaning, the relationship, the ancient sense is somewhere in you. The map never dissolves entirely.
Marlow has been awed by the space hes entered, crushed by the physical enormity of the jungle.
“Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. (1982)
Trees, trees, millions of trees, massive, immense, running up high; and at their foot, hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico. It made you feel very small, very lost, and yet it was not altogether depressing, that feeling. After all, if you were small, the grimy beetle crawled on — which was just what you wanted it to do. (1983)
The physical description of the jungle and the people in it, Marlows sense of remoteness and size, a distance from himself, a hollowing, signals his reaction to Kurtz:
But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. . . . (2001)
Marlow develops his imagery deliberately and subtly. Distance slowly develops into a remoteness, then to a solitude and a hollowness as a response. Hollowness reverberates the loss of the real, the loss of the sense of the individual self, the I of place and space, which gives the map meaning and fixity. Kurtz, he claims, is hollow at the core, but how does this change the meaning of the idea of transcendent time as Marlow moves from the civil present into the barbaric past, his new present time, which is so disturbing? What is, therefore, solid, knowable, fixed in place?
I tried to break the spell — the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness — that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations. And, don’t you see, the terror of the position was not in being knocked on the head — though I had a very lively sense of that danger, too — but in this, that I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of anything high or low. I had, even like the niggers, to invoke him — himself — his own exalted and incredible degradation. There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or floated in the air. 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 on 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. Soul! If anybody ever struggled with a soul, I am the man. And I wasn’t arguing with a lunatic either. Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear — concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear; and therein was my only chance — barring, of course, the killing him there and then, which wasn’t so good, on account of unavoidable noise. But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had — for my sins, I suppose — to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it — I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. (2007)
Theres that phantom imagery againwe glided (1984), a recalling of the passage down, or up, or through. This is a hint that the river is like thought, too. The mind moves like water. In the tale, mental state takes on the state of nature. Wildness is wildness, order order. The outer is the inner, the inner the outer. The map whose edges suggest wilderness or mystery draws, beguiles. Eve dreams of godhood, always, Frankenstein of glory.