chapter  10
6 Pages

Between Degeneration and the Death Drive: Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

In this respect Kurtz is also a pervert, doing what the pervert does best, accelerating civilization into decadence (the overcivilized), but also, in the same moment - almost as the same process - regressing it back to the primitive (the pre-civilized). The desire of the pervert is characterized by aberrant movement which both progresses and regresses towards death. Put another way, Kurtz (anticipating Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice) makes a fatal, perverse deviation from the normative trajectory of an 'advanced' culture whose essence is within him, embracing in the process what that culture defines itself over and against. Crucially, this deviation is not an accident, nor entirely a consequence of the inherent instability of the solitary genius/pervert; he has deviated because and not in spite of fol lowing one of his culture's most advanced trajectories. As we saw earlier, perverts are agents of degeneration, but they embody the paradoxes which render unstable the very theory which creates and deploys them. The theory cannot contain the paradoxical dynamic which perversion attests to - that contradictory double movement, a regression into primitive origins and a progression, even an acceleration, into decadent decline such that civilization is doubly beleaguered: behind it is the scandal of its origins, while ahead is the scandal of its destiny, to become everything which it is not yet, yet always was. Nordau castigates the artists of his time because they try to disintegrate the arduously achieved and precarious unities of civilization. M y argument here (and subsequently in relation to Death in Venice) is that in a certain sense Nordau is right, albeit for the wrong reasons. What we find in writers like Joseph Conrad and Thomas M a n n is what Nordau knew and fights fiercely against, including the seductiveness of dissolution.