In Patrick Brantlinger’s essay, Heart of Darkness: Anti-Imperialism, Racism, or Impressionism, Brantlinger discusses a reading of Heart of Darkness where Joseph Conrad deliberately contradicts himself throughout the novel. Brantlinger argues that Conrad’s anti-imperialism comes into conflict with his racist attitudes and his impressionist style of writing. He also argues that Conrad insistently evokes an idealism which his novel does not actually contain, and that his “modernist ‘will to style’ is subjected to such powerful self-scrutiny,” (322).
The argument that Patrick Brantlinger makes is, I think, a strong one. Through my reading of the novel, I made assumptions about Conrad’s beliefs based on the anti-imperialism throughout the novel. In other words, I was much more apt to dismiss the racism present or to assume that seemingly harmful discourses in the novel were part of a grander ultimate goal of intentional good. Brantlinger would argue that this reading is fllawed, and that although we should assume authorial intention in all aspects of the novel, this does not excuse the harmful attitudes or self-contradictions throughout. In fact, Brantlinger concludes that, “the ‘voice’ at the heart of the novel, the voice of literature, the voice of civilization itself may in its purest, freest form, yield only ‘the horror, the horror.’,” (322). Thus Brantlinger supports a reading of the novel where Conrad does not aim to uncover some idealistic truth or to construct a harsh criticism of current social values/behaviors, but instead, to show the inevitable ‘horror’ through his willful style of self-scrutiny.
If I were to counter Brantlinger’s argument, I might argue that Conrad’s style of self-contradiction may be read not as a demonstration of Conrad’s own conflicting beliefs, but instead, as a rhetorical strategy to make his novel less threatening towards the social values of the time. When Conrad includes racism in the novel it could be read as a way of lessening the impact of the critical attitudes contained in the novel. Moreover, Conrad could also use self-scrutiny as a rhetorical strategy to guide readers in uncovering certain truths. In other words, when readers engage with both racist and anti-imperialist attitudes, accompanied by the horrible and brutal realities contained in the novel, it might be a technique to guide readers in constructing their own anti-imperialist beliefs.