chapter  4
16 Pages

Conrad’s Darkness Revisited: Mediated Warfare and Modern(ist) Propaganda in Heart of Darkness and “The Unlighted Coast”


One night in the winter of 1991 I was starting to review my notes for an undergraduate lecture on Heart of Darkness when my wife called me downstairs to witness the opening salvoes of the Gulf War, the bombing of Baghdad narrated on CNN by a terrified Bernard Shaw. We watched the tracer fire’s greenish streaks crisscross the dark screen for a while until my wife became physically ill, and I felt compelled to turn from the television to the computer screen to think about what I would say the next morning to an audience of a hundred students expecting a lecture on Conrad. If I have properly deciphered my scribblings in the margins, I took some time that day to discuss what I called the political abuse of language, and Heart of Darkness proved even more effective on this issue than George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language” (1946). I reminded them of Marlow’s skeptical response to the French gunboat,“incomprehensible, firing into a continent” at a camp of unseen natives referred to as “enemies” (YOS 62), and later his disgust on seeing a string of chained Africans: “They were called criminals,” Marlow says, “and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea” (64). This yoking of idealizing abstractions to an alien particularity, I suggested, should make them suspicious of the duplicity of statesponsored rhetoric, such as the technological wonder of “Patriot” missiles, a military invasion called “Operation Just Cause,” or foreign leaders stigmatized as mad men. I could have gone on more polemically to suggest analogies between ivory and oil and the language deployed to secure them, but instead I moved into my planned discussion of the difficulties of distinguishing truth from untruth in modernity and Conrad’s investment in the idea of necessary fictions, a topic that seemed to take on greater pointedness than it had when I first delivered the lecture a year earlier, and one that subsequent wars have

made sharper yet. What I was almost discovering in Conrad then is my topic now, the complex entwining of modernism and propaganda in the early twentieth century.