Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Psychoanalytic Approach to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

As one of the first novelists of the modernist movement, ambiguity and complexity were techniques used extensively by Conrad. The title of Heart of Darkness then is both an explicit enigma and a medium by which Conrad explores the human mind and behavior. The phrase “heart of darkness” itself is a recurring motif and used in such a way that the reader feels as if he is being guided to a place of self – actualization. The journey to the heart of darkness is an exploration into the human consciousness, and the culminating experience is the realization of the pervasiveness of our unconscious desires.

Conrad and Freud were both pioneers in stressing the irrational elements in human behavior which resisted orthodox interpretation. One of Conrad’s great contribution is exposing the nightmarish qualities of irrational politics which depend on the neurosis of a leader (i.e. Kurtz), in turn upon the collective neuroses of a people (i.e. the Europeans). This irrationality is best seen in the story on Kurtz’s greed for ivory. It is an object for the rich and hardly necessary for physical or mental survival. Such an insight is timeless, we ask ourselves, for when has human race carefully preserve life while also squandering it so carelessly? Conrad not only caught the hypocrisy of the conquerors in the story but also the “dark” side of nature in human behavior which tries to justify itself, only to surrender to explosive inner needs. These are the same material that Freud was concerned of. To analyze the seemingly illogic, the apparent irrationality of dreams, etc. Conrad and Freud both wanted to penetrate into the “darkness”. The state wherein people are free to pursue they’re deepest desires. Whether in sleep or like Kurtz and his followers- reality.

Marlow is a man of order and moral courage. He looks upon the world’s work as simply just and fundamentally good as long as it is done by civilized men (the white man’s burden). For example, he never asks why white men should be in
Congoor whether they should be there in the first place. He just assumes that they should be as bringers of civilization. But the great revelation took place when he sees and thrown into a world that is of chaos, “unspeakable rites”, inexplicable. A law – abiding man thrown into a chaotic world. In contrast, Kurtz is as much as an inner embodiment of Marlow. He is an “apparition” and a “shadow” which can be read as him being a part of Marlow’s psyche. Kurtz is the monumental testament to western colonialism. The desire to rise at everyone’s expense, the manipulation of people for selfish ends, the obsession for image and personal power. This and the various inner desires, he makes the id of Marlow’s mind. The id/Kurtz is the representation of Marlow’s impulses and beliefs that he dared not follow and suppresses it.
The idea of restraint is very evident in the passage describing the restraint of the cannibals. Marlow “would just as soon have expected restraint from a pack of hyena prowling amongst the corpse in a battlefield.” They are able to withstand the “devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its somber and throbbing ferocity,” They do so and Marlow cannot begin to understand why. These cannibals exercised restraint even the most desperate circumstance involving the most basic human need – food. These “cannibals” (if they were really) must choose between the restraints of civilization and the natural desire to feed themselves, and the reader will wonder why they choose the former. It is then quite absurd. The world is absurd and ironic as Kurtz choose not to restrain himself to something that is entirely pointless. Traditionally, beauty for the few is gained with blood of the many (e.g. the creation of pyramids involved the slaving and deaths of many Jews). The absence of social morality is equated to the nonexistence of Kurtz’s superego.

Marlow had plunged into the depths of his soul and seen a glimpsed truth. He had not only discovered himself but also “all the hearts that beat in the darkness” – what he saw is universal. He had identified the source of darkness in himself and in the consciousness of his civilization; and at that moment finding for the first time the heart of darkness.
Marlow’s discovery of the heart of darkness gave “light” on his life and the title illuminates the story for the readers. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a powerful exploration into the complex unconsciousness of the human mind.

11 ek ek:

Edward said...

Good work, but this is not a Freudian psychoanalytical approach. Characters in the story can only be embodiments of the author's psyche (which is only existent in real people, not in fictitious characters).
Source: Dawson, Terence in The Cambridge Companion to Jung, p.274

Geof said...

Good work (save for some typos, grammatical errors). Edward's criticism is unintelligible.

Pellytrot said...

This was very helpful! Great job! :D

Anonymous said...


Edward said...

Do invented characters in a novel have an Id, ego, or super-ego? Obviously not: Freud's structural model of the psychic apparatus belongs exclusively to real people (like Joseph Conrad, the man). A psychoanalytic approach sees the characters or actions in a novel symbolic of certain tendencies in the author's psyche ; e.g. repression, or trauma, etc. Is that clear enough?

Anonymous said...

Obviously Edward is suffering from some kind of mental problem. He implies that it is not possible for a character to have any kind of Freudian ideal (Id, super-ego etc.). I find this difficult to fathom, as reading books such as Frankenstein by Mark Shelley adequately portray Frankenstein's monster as his Id. I think it may be time to brush up on your reading strategies Edward, as your perspectives negate the whole idea of "Psychoanalytical Readings".

Anonymous said...

par edward

Edward said...

To: Anonymous. August 1, 2012 at 5:18 PM

I suppose it is commonsensical enough to regard your intervention as inadequate. Your first sentence is a clear example of argumentum ad hominem - for anyone who ever opened a logic handbook. It is neither about me, nor about you. It is strictly related to what Freudian psychonalytic criticism means.
What are the assumptions of Freudian criticism? What is the nature of art in Freudian criticism? Do you think it is profitable to answer these questions before using this approach to analyze texts? Or should you dismiss them altogether?
In Encyclopaedia Britannica, a popular, yet authoritative source, you find the following defintion: "Freudian criticism: literary criticism that uses the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud to interpret a work in terms of the known psychological conflicts of its author or, conversely, to construct the author’s psychic life from unconscious revelations in his work" (1)
You notice from the very beginning that the crucial emphasis is on the "author's psychic life". So, psychoanalytic criticism is an author-oriented theory, just like The New Criticism is a text-oriented school.
You don't psychoanalyze characters like Frankenstein or Frankenstein's monster. Instead, you look for "known psychological conflicts of its author". And you ask me: why the heck don’t you psychoanalyze Frankenstein? Because Frankenstein is not real, he is a projection and a discourse of its author (Mary Shelley - whom you have to psychoanalyze), much like your own dreamwork is your projection which you don’t psychoanalyze, but you analyze your own psyche. And as Freud would have you, your own dreamwork is distorted by defence mechanisms (condensation, displacement, figurability and secondary revision) (2). In much the same vein, a work of art is a dreamwork for the psychoanlytic literary critic whose aim is to unveil what lies behind the written text. Whence the practice of looking for symbols that can reveal the author’s “psychological conflicts”.
To psychoanalyze Frankenstein is to confuse reality and fiction, just because a work of art is mimetic and life-like. You can find academic support for my claim in the previously mentioned Terence Dawson who makes it clear that one can be easily taken in by this mimetic effect of art and rest one's analysis on “naive critical assumptions”: “that a fictional character can be read as if it were flesh and blood (and this, of course, is to confuse art and reality)” (3)

I am really open to dialogue and debate. Should you have any question, reply to this message.
Best wishes,

(1) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/219923/Freudian-criticism
(2) http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/dreamwork.htm
(3) "Dawson, Terence. Literary Criticism and Analytical Psychology." In The Cambridge Companion to Jung. Young-Eisendrath, Polly, and Terence Dawson. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1997. N. pag.274 Print.

Anonymous said...

Edward, your opinion is just that, and is incoherent besides. I am a teacher of literary criticism, as well as an experienced and educated literary critic myself. Edward is an ego-driven, verbose windbag that is so busy twisting himself into an existentialist pretzel that he can not see the archetypal forest for the popsicle-stick trees. Your treatment of Heart of Darkness through a psychoanalytic lens was concise and accurate, especially in such a limited space, and would be a terrific starting point for a deeper paper if you so chose. Any errors (grammar and punctuation) are minor and would not detract from an overall solid grade in one of my classes. Ignore Edward and keep on thinking critically.

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