The Threshold of The Invisible: Said, Conrad, and Imperialism

Philosophy Today 50 (4):463-476 (2006)
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Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a frequent point of reference for Edward Said’s investigations into the various forces that structure and define the encounter of imperial societies with others. In Culture and Imperialism, Said explains the importance of Conrad’s novella by linking it to his concept of culture as the aesthetic acme of a society that simultaneously marks it and divides it from others. In Heart of Darkness, Said claims, we have a narrative that challenges its own imperial society by emphasizing the ambiguity of its cultural limit. Heart of Darkness is thereby able to dramatize and emphasize the constituent elements of imperial society, even as it is unable to exceed that society’s fundamental character. Said’s reading is important, and even vital, for an appreciation of the complexities of Conrad’s novella, but it does not go far enough. The ambiguity of Conrad’s depiction of imperial society is only an ambiguity to the extent that the novella is critiqued at the level of content, with a corresponding lack of emphasis upon its rhetorical form. Through a consideration of the three primary elements of this form – the careful situation of the Nellie as the site of the narrative, the work of interruption in Marlow’s narrative, and the reverberation of Kurtz’s dying words in the conclusion of the novella – this essay argues that there is very little ambiguity in Conrad’s text. Indeed, what ambiguity remains is a function of its effort to dramatize the limit of imperialism precisely as a limitation, as a cultural determinant that through its form perpetually determines other societies as inferior, even as this very culture, as a limit set against these other societies, shows their richness to which imperialism is essentially blind.
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