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Conradiana, vol. 36, no.

12, 2004

Desire in Heart of Darkness



Heart of Darkness is by now so familiar to us, so studied, commented upon, written about, argued over, appropriated, liberated, vilied, recuperated, rehashed, taught and retaught that it might seem as though there can hardly be anything left worth saying about it. Yet despite the virtual industry of criticism which has sprung up around Heart of Darkness in the century since its publication, an important vein has been surprisingly neglected. This vein consists of readings which synthesize psychological with ideological perspectives to illuminate the inextricable intertwining of the psychic and the social in Heart of Darkness. That it has remained virtually unexplored is particularly surprising given Edward Garnetts recognition of its centrality to the novella in his 1902 review of Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories. There, he called Heart of Darkness a psychological masterpiece which relates the things of the spirit to the things of the esh, . . . the invisible life to the visible, . . . the sub-conscious life within us, our obscure motives and instincts, to our conscious actions, feelings and outlook (Garnett 132). The following year, another early reviewer pointed to this important feature of the novella by complaining of the wearying effect of its entanglement of psychological with external phenomena (New York Times Saturday Review 296). Both of these comments most likely belong in the category of what the New Critics called the affective fallacy, a version of the adjectival insistence (Leavis 204) attendant upon the literary impressionist technique by which Conrad sought to convey psychological states through an atmospherics so intense that by the end of the tale an event as natural as the darkening sky stands as a somber moral warning (Lev-



enson 405). But they also suggest the necessity of commenting on the irreducible commingling of the psychic and the social, the psychological and the ideological in Heart of Darkness. Their suggestion of this necessity has been echoed with varying degrees of emphasis by critics like Andrea White, Paul Kirschner, Kimberly J. Devlin, Tony C. Brown, Henry Staten, and Thomas Cousineau. Reynold Humphries and Barry Stamp have argued for more or less intrinsic relationships in the novella between the unconscious and the mechanisms of a capitalist economy (3031) and processes of imperialist history, (184) respectively, while Tony E. Jackson has gone so far as to contend that Heart of Darkness proves that not only are the sacred givens of Western civilization no longer true, but the self is no longer true (Jackson 4). These comments are certainly provocative and promising, but they have almost universally failed to develop into focused and sustained analyses of the interdependence of psychology and ideology which I take to be the central problematic of Heart of Darkness. Among the few exceptions to this failure is the recent work of Marianne DeKoven and Beth Sharon Ash, whose interventions have made important advances on our understanding of Conrads obsession with portraying the complexities of the psyche even in the midst of overtly political plots. DeKoven explores the connection . . . between literary modernism [including its focus on psychology] and political radicalism (4). To this end, she reads the imperialist register of Heart of Darkness through Marlows antiheroic return to the terrifying heart of desire, the maternal origin of life that generates . . . disillusionment and death (85). Ashs study makes use of psychohistory or psychosocial dialectics (3) to read Conrads novels in terms of his personal experience of, and reaction to, modernity. In pursuit of this type of analysis, Ash undertakes close psychological readings of Kurtz and Jim, and of Marlows inability to mourn, [to] suggest that Conrad shares Marlows inclination to disavow loss and the need to mourn it (128). As I hope will become clear, my reading is sympathetic to both DeKovens and Ashs, though it eschews both the feminist perspective which leads DeKoven to treat the Congo river as an instance of the Irigarayan vaginal passage (85) and the psychobiographical angle which brings Ash to relate her readings back to Conrads impossible relation to his own text (3) as symptomatic of his experience of modernity. Much closer to the approach I take here is that advanced by Michael Levenson in his provocative and nuanced essay, The Value of Facts in

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the Heart of Darkness. In the course of reading the novella as a drama of officialdom (395) in the context of Max Webers work on bureaucracy, Levenson points out that the complex interweaving of psychic with social, which forms the crux of my reading, originated in the process of the novellas composition: Heart of Darkness . . . was conceived in distinctly social and political terms, and well into its composition Conrad thought of it in this way. A work which has become perhaps the leading example of modern psychological ction began with an expressed disregard for the fate of individuals (392). Tracing the composition history of Heart of Darkness, Levenson shows that even as Conrad attempted to write an objective critique of imperialist inefficiency, he could not remain indifferent to the fate of individuals. Thus the emphasis on the political question and historical facts (392) of Part One gives way to Conrads characteristic obsession with the fate of individuals, leading him to create a theater for the psyche, not in an isolated individual, but in a social conguration that gave the mind an expanse on which to play itself out (401). Levenson continues, Conrad, in other words, envisions that form of community in which social organization becomes psychological expression. . . . Heart of Darkness challenges the structure of institutions with the structure of the mind (401). Levenson pursues one avenue suggested by these comments by borrowing Max Webers notion of charisma to read Heart of Darkness as a drama of officialdom (395) that moves from an institutional to an instinctual domain (405) so that facts are inlaid with value until judgment has become a task for the senses rather than the ethical mind (405). I nd the implications of Levensons commentary provocative and compelling, but I propose to pursue them in a somewhat different direction from his, concentrating less on Heart of Darknesss movement from the institutional to the instinctual than on its depiction of a fundamental continuity between them. DeKovens, Ashs, and particularly Levensons analyses are provocative and rewarding, and provide a crucial context for my analysis. Their insights inform one of my basic assumptions here: that, for all its engagement with the sociopolitical realities of modernity, Conrads work remains concerned rst and foremost with individual experience. I propose not to contravene their readings so much as to extend and develop their suggestion of a fundamental continuity between social organization and psychological expression. To this end, I will trace the dialectical interdependence of the psychic and the



social in Heart of Darkness to illuminate the remarkable visionand critiqueof modernity their interaction articulates. I will begin by briey outlining my theoretical and methodological commitments, before sketching in the dominant social organization in which the novellas action takes place, and nally elucidating the family romance by which Conrad inscribes the impingement of the ideological upon the libidinal to formulate a critique of modernitys impact upon individual subjects. Before I begin my analysis, I want to take a moment to outline its theoretical and methodological commitments, and to dene perhaps the most vexed term in my discussion: modernity. First, though I use a Lacanian model of psychoanalysis to explicate Conrads text, my overriding concern with the modernity manifest (though in different ways) in the work of Conrad and Lacan also leads me to use Conrads text to elucidate Lacans concepts from time to time. I have tried to keep this tendency from inverting my preferred relationship between text and theory (with the latter placed in service of the former), and hope that the end result is a clearer interpretation of Conrads work than would have been possible without the reciprocal illumination of Lacans theory. In this context, and for the purposes of this essay, my use of the term modernitywhich I take to reect Conrads conception of, and engagement with, his contemporary culturemay best be delineated in relation to the dominant social, political, ideological, and economic force of at least the last 150 years: capitalism. As the primary feature of modernity, capitalism encompasses other characteristically modern phenomena like rationalization (both the tendency toward Taylorized efficiency in labor practices and the incipient hegemony of instrumental reason in epistemological and ontological realms)1 and secularization (a diminishment inrather than an absolute loss ofshared normative values and belief systems based on a metaphysical teleology).2 Capitalisms remarkable malleability answers to Marshall Bermans characterization of modernity as a cultural situation of permanent revolution (95) ensuring not only its survival, but its increasing domination of all aspects of life as the age of industrial revolution and nation-statebased empire building gave way to consumer culture and the postcolonial period of transnational business interests and corporate globalization. The last, and single most important, feature of modernity as incipient global capitalism which informs my discussion hereand Conrads critique in Heart of Darknessis its power to produce specically modern subjectivities. In Marxs classic formulation, capitalist

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modernity not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object (Marx 230).3 This element of modernity turns on the unprecedented manipulation and conguration of desire (both psychological and ideological) under capitalist culture, forming the focal point of both Conrads critique and Lacans theory, simultaneously justifying my use of them together here and suggesting a larger (though perhaps not explicitly formulated) truth about the experience of modernity.

The oppressive social organization in Heart of Darkness has been abundantly documented already, so I will avoid redundancy as much as possible by simply highlighting its key features in the basic terms integral to my reading. Following Walter Allens contention that Conrad often set his works in remote locations out of a need to create laboratory conditions (Allen 309) in which to pursue his themes, I maintain that we may read the social organization of Heart of Darknesscaptured in the corporate culture of the allegorically-named Company (Heart of Darkness 12) for which Marlow and Kurtz workas a metonym for modernity. Almost from the tales outset, this social organization is powerfully linked to the psychic situation through the symbolic order. In the primal scene of the novel (one which Conrad shares with his narrator), the young Marlow pores over maps choosing the places he would most like to visit, lingering especially over the many blank spaces (11). The biggestthe most blank, so to speak (11) is the heart of Africa, the journey to which forms the occasion for his tale of psychological discovery. From the Western perspective that Marlow would have had as a young boy growing up at the heart of the British Empire, these blank spaces are but undiscovered dominions, areas without proper social organization, civilization, or enlightenment. Their blankness suggests darkness as well, a chromatic expression of the feral character that resonates with the clich of darkest Africa and which is routinely taken to be the darkness of the novels title. It is somewhat perplexing, then, to nd that the exploration and mapping that take place between Marlows youth and his maturity appear not as an illumination, but as a darkening: [B]y this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got lled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of



delightful mysterya white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness (1112).4 In Lacanian terms and in Marlows conception, the mapping of the blank spaces amounts to the construction, rather than the rendering, of geographical reality. Just as, according to Lacan, the application of the symbolic to the real produces reality as the organized world in which subjects exist, so its application to the undifferentiated spaces indicated by blankness on the map produces geographical reality. This production of geographical reality is so elementary an operation that its manufactured result appears simply as rendering; it is an ideological procedure whose opacity masquerades, for its consuming subjects, as transparency. And yet Marlow alerts us to the articiality of this process when he describes the changes made to the mapped area not as lling in representations of geographical features, but as the advent of lakes and rivers, whose origin in symbolic at is reinforced by their association in a syntactic group with names: It had got lled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. Reproducing on a geopolitical scale the production of reality through the application of the symbolic in the process of subjectivization, mapping here produces geographical reality by organizing the ux of the natural world according to categories and demands of a particular (i.e., ideological) symbolic order. In this case, the particular symbolic order manifest in the mapping process is that of modernity as capitalist rationalization, culminating in monopolistic trading concerns driven by the prot motive and the steam engine (12).5 Conrad lays out this ideological dimension by linking the darkening strokes of mapping to the black ink used to indicate prot in accounting. A graphological counterpart to the delineation of lakes and rivers in the mapping process, the ledger-work of accounting translates geographical exploration into gures of prot. This connection is reinforced by the chief accountant, whose importance is signaled in part by his position as the gatekeeper to the river at the Outer Station, an important point at which the symbolic map is tethered to the real landscape. His position combines with his ability to create order out of the chaos surrounding him by reducing everything to gures in a ledger to forge a conceptual link with the power of mapping to make order out of the unruly landscape through the application of a symbolic grid of coordinates. This set of associations takes on the dimensions of a critique of capitalist modernity in light of the privileged position Conrad gives the

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Company over any political entity as the driving force behind, and the primary beneciary of, the mapping process. Conrad makes a decisive point here as he pushes aside the predominant conception of imperialism as a nationally driven endeavor, instead making a private forprot enterprise the chief agency at work in the region.6 In this context, Marlows Englishness meshes with the Companys continental base to create a picture (and critique) not of nineteenth-century nation-state imperialism, but of the incipient multinational capitalism that will become the dominant feature of modernity. Unwilling to let the truth behind such seemingly transparent projects as geographical exploration elude his account, Conrad insistently lays bare the occulted connections that function as the inner workings of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disgured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration (Stanley Falls 187). In doing so, he provides us with a model for reading through his juxtapositions to discern their critical logic, restoring the disgured history about which he writes to a fuller and more meaningful vision of modernity. The reality of the social organization thus produced by capitalist exploration and exploitation of the region is grounded in one particular signier, a commodity which is of the essence of Africa and vital to European prot margins. That signier/commodity is ivory. The word ivory rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it (Heart of Darkness 26). As a commodity, ivory justies the Companys presence in the Congo and organizes all the commercial (which is to say virtually all) activity in the region; it lures Kurtz there in the novellas prehistory, sends Marlow after Kurtz, and even imagistically draws the Intended into its web of inuence at the novellas close. Though ivory itself is clearly the object of the materialist operation of the Companys interests in the region, its real power lies in its status as a fetishized signier, a quasi-sacred point de capiton7 rounding the ideological eld of reality as dictated by the prot motive. Marlow himself points to this operation as he restricts us to the realm of the signier by directing our attention to ivory as a mantra rather than a material goodhe does not see any ivory at all until he arrives at the Central Station. In addition to, and consistent with, its status as a point de capiton, ivory also represents a multivalent objet athe object-cause of desire8which further tightens the bonds between the psychic and the social in Heart of Darkness: it is the object-cause not only of the Com-



panys desire, but also of its employees desire inasmuch as they earn percentages on the prot it generates. At this point, the operation of the fetishization takes on a more explicitly psychological dimension as the (conjoined) twin registers of libidinal and capitalist desire converge on a single signier (cf. the depiction of the Intended in terms of ivory [Heart of Darkness 7275]). The transferal of libidinal desire onto the object of capitalist desire replicates and reinforces the process by which exchange value and association transform the product into a fetishized commodity. This entire process is bound up with the colonization of libidinal desire by capitalism as modernity transforms subjectivity, producing, in its extreme manifestations, men like Kurtz. The status of ivory as both corporate and individual point de capiton/objet a thus links corporate desire to personal desire. Marlows emphasis on its status as an overdetermined and fetishized signier foregrounds this operation of desire as both a psychological and an ideological element of the novellas social organization, and prepares the way for its sustained critique of modernity through its exploration of desire and subjectivity. Backing up the de facto potency of ivory to ground and organize the ideological eld in Heart of Darkness is the establishment of an entire legal system around it. In this respect, the Companys prot-driven hegemony extends to a conguration of the law that corresponds closely to its Lacanian formulation in The Function and Field of Speech and Language. The most salient point of this formulation is that the law is at root the law of the signier: the law of man has been the law of language since the rst words of recognition presided over the rst gifts (Lacan 61). The logic of substitution and supplementarity intrinsic to the operation of language permeates all aspects of social exchange for Lacan, from gift-giving through marital contracts, to the establishment of larger social pacts and treaties (Lacan 6167). In this regard, the Lacanian formulation of the law is both universal and local, transhistorical and contingent: it governs all exchange from the most basic offering of a signier in place of a material item (rst formulated by Freuds explanation of the childs game of fort/da) to the elaborate, multivalent, and locally variable fusions of the libidinal with the social and commercial in traditional marriage ceremonies (Lacan makes specic reference to the modern restriction of the incest prohibition to mother and sister, for example, as a particular instance of a universal law [Lacan 66]), and the highly specialized terms of exchange involved

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in pacts governing social, commercial, and political prohibitions and licenses. The law in Heart of Darkness operates analogously, taking its universal dimension from the Companys hegemonic governance, and its particularity from the Companys designation of ivory as the sine qua non of exchange in the region, whether social, political, libidinal, or economic. It is the means by which the Company not only controls commerce, but also gives identities, establishes purposes, assigns destinies, and with its bizarre conguration of Central and Inner Stations even constructs geography (Levenson 395). The Companys power to dictate the law and thus to manipulate reality itself brings us back not only to Lacans emphasis on the law as the law of the signier, but also to Marlows emphasis on ivory (as opposed to the material good, ivory) as the fundamental element in the ideological eld he enters when he signs on with the Company. Taken together, Lacans theory and Marlows description bring to light the constitutive interrelationship between signication and desire in the ideological eld of Heart of Darkness, even as they point to the larger eld of modernity with which both Conrad and Lacan engaged. Marlows insistence that the introduction of the law has brought about not order but criminality provides perhaps the best example of how the arbitrary relationship between signication and reality accomplished by the law informs the Companys social organization of the Congo: A slight clinking behind me made me turn my head. Six black men advanced in a le toiling up the path . . . They were called criminals and the outraged law like the bursting shells had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea (Heart of Darkness 19; my emphasis). Again insisting on the primacy of signication, Marlow points out that the men are only criminals by virtue of the power of the law to call them such. The full absurdity of this designation of certain men as criminals according to a system of which they know nothing, and which they do not understand, comes out only much later, when Marlow attempts to make sense of the Harlequins assertion that the heads on stakes outside Kurtzs hut are those of rebels: Rebels! What would be the next denition I was to hear. There had been enemies, criminals, workersand these wererebels (58). By association, Marlow links the logic behind introducing and administering the arbitrary law of modernity (nine tenths of which concerns possession) to the unsound methods of Kurtzs administration at the Inner Station. Prior to the advent of the



law (and its enforcement by the Company), the men Marlow sees at the Outer Station could hardly even have been called criminals, let alone been criminals; the introduction of a social order driven by the need for prot introduces a value system whereby there can be something in the world allowing one man to steal a horse while another must not look at a halter (27). In one fell swoop, Marlow brings the Foucauldian gesture of pointing out that the advent of the law necessitates the advent of criminality together with the Nietzschean insight regarding the construction of the law as a cultural instance of the delineation of good and evil as indexical concepts which take their signicance from the power which nominates them. The connection between the arbitrary establishment of the law and the imperatives of the economic culture behind the Companys hegemony in the Congo is solidied when Marlow stumbles into the grove of death only to discover that the criminals he saw on the path are in fact guilty only of being physically capable of furthering the Companys interests. When this capability expires, as it has for the men Marlow sees in the grove of death, their sentence of hard labor becomes a death sentence: The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die. They were dying slowlyit was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom (20).9 Neither enemies nor criminals, these men are simply helpers who have outlived (barely) their usefulness. Marlows bizarre use of the term helpers at this juncture points to the difficulty of reconciling what he sees with the signication options left him by the Companys lexicon: he can neither include the men among the law-abiding, since they have been deemed criminals by the authority of the land; nor call them slaves, since to do so would be to accuse the Company of behaving illegally itself.10 Helpers thus attempts to balance these two equally inadmissible options even as it exposes the dynamic of legalistic inversion at work in the Companys governance of the Congo region. In the traditional order of punishment by labor, a law is instituted, the violation of which condemns the criminal to hard labor as a servant (rather than an enemy) of the state against the laws of which he or she has transgressed. In this case the work is a corollary to the law, supplementing it as a reparative measure for the damage done or posed to the social organization by the criminal. In the Companys inversion of this

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process, the demand for work is discovered rst. The institution of the law is put in place not with the intention of ensuring the stability of the social organization, but to generate a captive work force. It is legislated slavery accomplished according to the arbitrary logic of signication and the potency of speech acts. Marlows inability to assimilate the truth of the situation at this point in the narrative indicates the difficulty of Conrads critique, as it strives to emphasize the extent to which modernitys recognition of the arbitrariness of the law can give way to its appropriation by vested interests. By rst insisting on Marlows sensitivity to the operations behind signication and then depicting a crisis of that sensitivity at a crucial moment in Marlows initiation into the corporate culture of the Company, Conrad sets down a prescient vision of the laws appropriation by economic interests as modernity spreads to become a global phenomenon. The underlying principle of the law as it operates in Heart of Darkness, and the source of its relevance for my reading, is the imperative to suspend and defer gratication of desire, to subordinate the individual will-to-gratication to the larger corporate (i.e., social) will. In this regard, the law that is generated by the Company, and which sanctions its activity, bears a striking similarity to the psychic law as experienced by the infant at the point of entry into the symbolic order. The action which prompts this transition from primary narcissism to subjectivity is the fathers command that the infant defer his or her gratication of desire for the mother; it is a self-enforcing and self-validating limitation of gratication which is based ultimately on the fathers right to enjoy gratication before and in excess of the infants gratication. In both the social and the psychic situations, compliance with this command (though enforced with the threat of destruction) is rewarded by admittance to the communitywhether that of the human community bound together by the symbolic order or that of a more circumscribed ideological community. By this mechanism, the ostensibly willing (but in fact forced) containment of the will to gratication is imbued with ethical, even moral, value; it is an individual sacrice which serves the greater good of the community. This doubling and the problems that arise when desire is divested of all regulatory forces (i.e., when the father has no limitations on his own gratication, or when a particular corporate or social entity behaves without restriction) forms the crux of both Lacans and Conrads engagement with modernity. It suggests not only similarity but continuity between the psychic and the social, and articu-



lates the basic interdependence which structures and textures Heart of Darkness. From the semi-autobiographical primal scene in which Marlow rst registers the blank spaces on the map of Africa to his participation in the darkening work of imperialist exploration, Conrad creates a microcosmic vision of modernity in Heart of Darkness. Characterizing the ivory collectors as pilgrims and capturing the fetishization of ivory as the ideological point de capiton of the social organization, Conrad posits incipient global capitalism as the horizon of the social organization by making the Company, rather than any nation, the chief power in the land. This last move drives home the implications of the ideologicallymotivated constructedness of this social organization by focusing on the Companys power as the origin, arbiter, and executor of the law. Starting with the Companys ability to create an entire class of criminals by discursive at, Conrad repeatedly draws our attention to how such constructions not only displace people and despoil landscapes, but actually alter individual identities and recongure subjectivities. This nal step in the establishment of a social organization, the ideological eld on which the narrative unfolds, sets the stage for a closer consideration of how that ideological eld impinges upon those to whom its basic principles seem inevitable, if not natural and justpeople like Marlow, Kurtz, and the Intended.

Though it takes place most obviously on a broad scale like that outlined above, the critique of modernity in Heart of Darkness nds its most compelling articulation in the narrative of libidinal desire and disrupted family romance which subtends the tale of Kurtzs disintegration. In the background of the narrative of Marlows journey up the river to fetch Kurtz is a domestic setting that explains not only Kurtzs original decision to go to the Congo, but also his erratic and nally fatal behavior once there. Most critics sum up Kurtzs background by pointing to the statement that [a]ll Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz (50), ignoring the additional concrete information with which Marlow provides us (70, 74; I will return to these particulars shortly). Perhaps the most striking feature of this background is that there is no mention of Kurtzs father, and his mother is mentioned only when she dies, attended, signicantly, by his ance, the Intended. This truncated

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family narrative does not explicitly tell us a great deal about Kurtzs background, but it does offer a suggestive starting point. The absence of a father places the full burden of Kurtzs psychic history on his mother; when she dies in the company of his Intended, the family romance passes into a state of suspension supported entirely by the Intended. In the absence of any siblings, and with the death or absence of the parents, the Kurtz family romance is threatened with a nal discontinuity and the Intended is cathected with the entire libidinal burden of familial continuity. And while this is a long way from a unique situation (the perpetuation of family lines devolves onto individuals, particularly individual women, all the time), Conrad makes the most of it as the narrative it sets in motion underwrites and counterpoints the surface plot of modernitys imperialist excesses. Perhaps the chief way in which Conrad draws our attention to the importance of the libidinal register of the novel is through his insistent recourse to calling Kurtzs ance simply his Intended. Conrad capitalizes on this overt signication by wedding it to the commentary on signication, and its role in constructing the reality we encounter (whether narrative or concrete), that he has already undertaken through Marlows difficulties with and evasions of the incommensurability of signication. Functioning as a rigid designator, the signier Intended both marks Kurtzs ances place in the symbolic order surrounding Kurtz (she has, apparently, no existence apart from her function as his betrothed) and literally denes her; it is the essence of her subjectivity as a signier for other signiers. The word Intended carries a sense of deferral and suspension of desire that backs up the more subtle commentary on signication and desire encoded in Marlows uncertain use of inadequate or overly general signiers. As a literal embodiment of intention as yet unfullled, the Intended captures the narratives basic concern with the deections, deferrals, and suspensions of desire, becoming the source of the momentum energizing [Kurtzs] mistaken mission; in short, his intention (Baker 342). Her status as Intended is, in effect, an existential condition which xes her in a state of suspended gratication. Furthermore, this suspended gratication is not her own, but that of Kurtz, in relation to which she is the ever-receding endpoint; she represents the objet a in Kurtzs experience of desires asymptotic operation. The specicity of Kurtzs narcissistic insistence on possession resonates with the cultural emphasis on possession encoded in the institu-



tion of the law, suggesting some continuity between personal subjective desire and its cultural and institutional counterpart. Conrad works with this suggestion of continuity by having Kurtz speak of his Intended in the same breath as he speaks of his ivory (Heart of Darkness 49), making her the libidinal counterpart of the commercial ivory. The generality accorded by her anonymous moniker subtends the specicity of her role in relation to Kurtz by making her an almost allegorical gure of modernitys interference with the libidinal lives of its subjects. The capitalization of her appellation recalls Marlows sardonic reference to his aunts characterization of him as one of the Workers, with a capitalyou know, and aligns her with other characters who are dened only as generic versions of their roles in the Company, like the accountant, the Manager, the General Manager, and Marlows audience on the Nellie. The emphasis on the signier which underwrites so much of the novel thus also comes to the fore here, as Intended functions on both the subjective and the cultural levels, inscribing the logic of signication and desire into the fabric of Marlows narrative on a level at once intensely personal and diffusely general, simultaneously concentrating the question of subject formation in a particular instance and pointing to its general conditions under modernity. This emphasis on the power of signication to structure reality also points to the ways in which it can mask certain unpalatable features of reality. Just as the law of the Company designates those it needs for slave labor as criminals in order to maintain a ready work force, so the formal designation of Kurtzs ance as his Intended masks the economic imperative that keeps their relationship from consummation and sustains them both in situations of perpetually suspended and deferred desire. When Marlow goes to visit the Intended near the end of the narrative, he tells us, I had heard that her engagement with Kurtz had been disapproved by her people. He wasnt rich enough or something. And indeed I dont know whether he had not been a pauper all his life. He had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there (74). The very language of this description calls to mind a banks rejection of a loan application on the basis of insufficient collateral, revealing the literal bottom line, the vulgar economic principle behind Kurtzs decision to go to the Congo. For all his burning noble words (50) about exerting a power for good practically unbounded (50), Kurtz also goes to the Congo with the pragmatic aim of making his fortune.11 Further, Marlow gives

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us good reason to believe that though Kurtz may have been poor all his life, it is not until his poverty keeps him from marrying the girl of his choice that he gets impatient enough to undertake such a desperate enterprise. Though it is almost glossed over in Marlows narrative, this detail points to a fundamental strain of the novel: Kurtz is rst and foremost a victim of the impingement of economic imperatives into the libidinal life of the individual subject. His desire for the Intended is thwarted by class considerations that ultimately come down to money; in response, he undertakes a dangerous but also lucrative enterprise to earn the satisfaction of his libidinal desireall under the sign of such honorable intentions as serve to assuage public uneasiness about imperialism and private qualms about not only the pursuit of sexual gratication, but social status and respectability as well. Initially evaluated in monetary terms, being designated as not good enough because he is not rich enough, Kurtz unthinkingly buys into the very system that so reduces him. That is, he not only ties his own worth to his nancial wherewithal, but also makes the Intended into a commodity, the right to enjoyment of which he can literally earn. Kurtz goes off to become a self-made man, intending to use the machinery of capitalist social climbing as a means to the end of his libidinal desire. Faced with the indenite deferral of his libidinal desire, Kurtz devotes all his energy to procuring ivory, believing that the satisfaction of his personal desire is inexorably tied to his generation of wealth for the Company (on which he earns percentages). The result is a career that enacts the asymptotic logic of desire, a logic which operates on both the libidinal and economic levels and which ultimately leads Kurtz to his horrifying insights and death. Driven by his frustrated libidinal desire, Kurtz makes a Faustian12 deal with the Company and enters the realm of capitalist desire and production in which satisfaction exists only in the perpetuation of desire. He thus exemplies the interplay between the social and the psychic, experiencing in his journey towards the horror the historically specic capitalist exploitation of the enduring psychic reality of desire. Generations of critics are thus right to assume that what happens to Kurtz next is that he loses all restraint; what they have missed is that the colossal scale of his vile desires (Heart of Darkness 72), as they are unleashed by this lack of restraint, is continuous with the desire he feels for the Intended and which is stied by his penury. The monstrous desires in which Kurtz indulges while warlord of the Inner Station region are the direct result of his frustrated desire for the



Intended as it is exacerbated by his comparative poverty (74); it is no accident that the two chief outlets of his desire while in charge of the Inner Station are sexual license and the procurement of more ivory than all the other agents together (48). While the point that Kurtz devotes himself to procuring more ivory and hence producing wealth both for the Company and himself needs little arguing, there is decidedly less evidence for my contention that the other main outlet of Kurtzs desire is sexual license. In the absence of direct textual evidence for this assertion, we must turn our attention to the gure of the African woman, Kurtzs concubine at the Inner Station. Described only as wild and gorgeous . . . savage and superb, wildeyed and magnicent (60), the African woman is clearly presented in conventional imperialist terms as a gure of unbridled, uncivilized passion and lust. That she is a favorite of Kurtzs and most likely his sexual partner as well is suggested by the fact that she has the value of several elephant tusks upon her (60) in addition to her other adornments. Given that the stockpile of ivory Kurtz has hoarded leads Marlow to comment that one would think there was not a single tusk left either above or below the ground in the whole country (49), the African womans ivory adornments point to the same kind of equation of wealth and libidinal desire that characterizes Kurtzs earlier relationship with the Intended.13 Whereas he had been prevented by his economic situation from giving the Intended the all-important gift of a ring, however, he clearly encounters no such resistance from the people of the African woman. The cleverly masked vulgar terms of his frustrated attempts to possess the Intended, here revealed as the primitive nature of Kurtzs concubine, allow Conrad (in complicity here with imperialist ideologies of racial difference) to expose the connection between libidinal and material accumulation. This combination, taken with the other testimonies throughout the narrative of Kurtzs unrestrained gratication of his various lusts (57) and monstrous passions (65), indicates that he has not simply halted at the satiation of his lust for wealth when the opportunity to transform that wealth into libidinal satisfaction as well presents itself to him. Finally, the simple binary of African woman/Intended combines with the associative logic of enjoyment/repression to suggest that the African woman stands as much for the (uncivilized and narcissistic) gratication of libidinal desire as the Intended stands for its (civilized and neurotic) suspension and deferral. Indeed, Tony E. Jackson points out that,

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at least within the lexicon of representations current at Conrads time, the savage per se (of which the African woman is presumably a particular instance) embodies the fantasy of a pre- or rather nonsymbolic consciousness, of a condition wherein desire is immediately satised, wherein being is pure and unmediated by culture. This representation gures the savage as living, relative to Western industrial civilization, in a state of jouissance (Jackson 102). In direct opposition to the restrictively civilized conduct of the Intended and her family, the African woman truly does embody jouissance, and her close association with Kurtz indicates not only that he has attempted to gratify his libidinal desire as well as his economic desire, but that he has discovered something essential about the nature of desire itself in the process. Indeed, I would like to suggest at this point that the twin forces of libidinal and economic desire which crisscross in Kurtz lead him to a discovery of the nature of desire so profound and troubling that it prompts his famous last words. In the increasingly unbridled gratication of his various lusts Kurtz gradually becomes possessed by what Marlow calls the heavy mute spell of the wilderness that seemed to draw him to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratied and monstrous passions . . . this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations (Heart of Darkness 65). Supported in this spell by a social organization that encourages lawlessness so long as it is protable, Kurtz manages to exceed even the loose limits of laissez-faire proteering. His unsound methods are tolerated so long as he continues to ship ivory with the correct paperwork (the invoice which so infuriates the Manager at the Central Station [33]) and to buy supplies from the Company stores. Only when he withholds ivory and repudiates the Companys monopoly on supplies (i.e., when he sends a load of ivory to the station but himself turns back without obtaining fresh supplies from the Central Station [34]) is he deemed to have gone too far. Only then does the extremity of his transgression extend beyond simply breaking the law, to eschewing all law together; he is not an outlaw, but utterly unlawful. Nearing the end of his pursuit of desire, Kurtz leaves behind the restrictions of social organization altogether and gives in to the seductive spell of instinctual gratication: [I]t had taken him, loved him, embraced him, got into his veins, consumed his esh, and sealed his soul to its own (49). Essentially experiencing a regression to primary narcissism through the gratication of his every desireas



encouraged and facilitated by the Companys prot ethicKurtz rediscovers the instincts of unfettered desire in all their violence and uncompromising demand for unmitigated, uninterrupted, and undiluted jouissance. Indeed, Marlows description reads like a proto-Lacanian description of what might happen to an adult who managed to devolve psychologically back far enough to remember the undifferentiation and total identication of the self with the gratication of ones desires characteristic of the presymbolic infant. Yet Kurtz is unable nally to complete this regression, just as he is ultimately unable to satiate his desire. He nds instead that the loss which drives him relentlessly onward in his quest for the elusive objet a is irremediable, just as there is no such thing as enough ivory to satisfy the Companys demands. Marlow points to this conclusion as he speculates on the meaning of the heads Kurtz has mounted on stakes outside his hut: They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratication of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him some small matter which when the pressing need arose could not be found under his magnicent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deciency himself I cant say. I think the knowledge came to him at last only at the very last (57). Demonstrating characteristic astuteness, Marlow hits on the crux of Kurtzs tragedy: the discovery that desire remains insatiable because it originates from a deep psychic wound which no object or succession of objects can ever heal. The something wanting in him is at base the dhiscence of subjectivity, the gap between signier and signied which, according to Lacan, structures and drives subjectivity. As Marlow extends his consideration of the nature of Kurtzs tragedy, he approaches even closer to articulating this conclusion outright as he makes a connection between the spell which enchants Kurtz and his discovery of the fundamentally fractured nature of the mature psyche. [T]he terrible wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitudeand the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. (5758)

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Having exhausted the external channels for satiation of his desire (the fantastic invasion), Kurtz is nally deected into looking into himself for the answer to the enigma of desire. When he does so, he plays out a dramatic crisis of subjectivity as he takes introspection to its literal and logical conclusion, glimpsing the abyss of human subjectivity and seeing in his nal moment of extremity that jouissance and death are one and the same end of desire. This insight constitutes the substance of the vision which prompts his famous whispered cry (72). Marlow contextualizes Kurtzs last words with the terminology and conceptual apparatus for reading his insight as the culmination of a lifelong pursuit of desire: It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some visionhe cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: The horror! The horror! (68, my emphasis) Beginning with the age-old image of blinding insight (and one which recalls the blindfolded woman holding a candle in Kurtzs sketch [27]), Marlow focuses on vision as the primary modality of Kurtzs supreme moment of complete knowledge: he cries out at some image, at some vision that has the appalling face of a glimpsed truth, and not at some notional, conceptual, or ideational truth. Part of the reason for this, I would suggest, is that the vision Kurtz has is a glimpse of the hollowness within himself, of the death drive behind the incessant movement of desire; as such, it remains beyond the reach of symbolization and beyond articulation.14 It is a vision of the nothingness, the pure and irremediable absence at the heart of subjectivity posited by Lacan, a truth the vision of which is made available to him only through his approach to the historically-specic kernel of antagonism at the core of capitalist society (Laclau xi). Marlow supplements this suggestion by tying Kurtz to the ivory which has formed the primary object of his desire during his time in Africa. This alignment draws on the inevitable association of death with ivory collection to depict Kurtz as an embodiment of the death that lurks in the jouissance of desire. This conuence



of apparently opposite extremes is reinforced nally in the succession of expressions that pass over Kurtzs face (pride . . . power . . . craven terror . . . hopeless despair) as he approaches the moment of extremity in which he has his denitive vision. Eyeballs rolling up in the moment of death as they do in the moment of jouissance, Kurtz has a vision of the void at the core of subjectivity and expresses it the only way he knows how, not by describing it, but by crying out a warning that applies equally to the transhistorical structuration of subjectivity and to the historically-specic system which exploits and recongures that structuration.15 The circuit of desire which reaches, to borrow from Marlow, the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of experience (Heart of Darkness 11) in Kurtzs nal words is nally completed as Marlow returns to its starting point by visiting the Intended. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Intended when we nally meet her is her stasis. In contrast to both Kurtz and Marlows physical and psychological journeys, the Intended has an almost deathly demeanor that is indicative of her arrested situation: She came forward all in black with a pale head, oating towards me in the dusk (7273). Her embodiment of the principle of suspended and deferred desire in the primal scene that drove Kurtz to the Congo is reinforced: [S]he was one of those creatures that are not the playthings of Time. For her he had died only yesterday. And by Jove, the impression was so powerful that for me too he seemed to have died only yesterdaynay, this very minute. I saw her and him in the same instant of timehis death and her sorrowI saw her sorrow in the very moment of his death. Do you understand? I saw them togetherI heard them together. . . . my strained ears seemed to hear distinctly, mingled with her tone of despairing regret, the summing-up whisper of his eternal condemnation. (73) Seemingly impervious to the passage of timewhich is perhaps the most immediate experience we have of the movement of desire (the variations in dure relative to ones desire)the Intended quite literally lives the suspension of desire which she represents in the narratives exploration of its dynamic. Having waited for Kurtz long enough to outlive his mother, the Intended nds that her position as the object of Kurtzs desire fossilizes with his death.

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The mausolean atmosphere in which she lives penetrates Marlows consciousness so that he not only experiences a collapse of time akin to the Intendeds, but also senses that he has stumbled onto the ground of death (or the entropic suspension of desire which may even be worse than death), which he experiences as a diluted version of Kurtzs nal vision. I asked myself what I was doing there, with a sensation of panic in my heart as though I had blundered into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not t for a human being to behold (73). The Intendeds drawing-room apparently correlates precisely enough to Kurtzs dying vision that it provokes a sense of panic in Marlow, as he nds that, despite his effort to draw back his foot from the abyss into which Kurtz stepped, he has somehow ended up in practically the same place. Indeed, immediately before he enters the Intendeds house, Marlow has a vision of Kurtz on the stretcher opening his mouth voraciously as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind . . . a shadow insatiable (72). This vision seem[s] to enter the house with Marlow as though the entire momentum of unrestrained instinct unleashed by Kurtz were mounting a colossal return of the repressed to invade the sanctuary of suspended desire that is the Intendeds abode: It was a moment of triumph for the wilderness, an invading and vengeful rush which it seemed to me I would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul (72). Finally the setting is complete, as Marlow recalls Kurtzs nal words both as a foreshadowing of the lie he will tell the Intended about those words and as a powerful indication that he is about to encounter a vision of what they signify. All of these images, memories, and motifs come together at last as Marlow, having seen the conclusion of Kurtzs obsessive pursuit of desire, now arrives at its origin only to discover that the Intended, in her full allegorical signicance, is in fact coterminous with the horror of Kurtzs nal vision. Coded into the tale of Marlows quest, the tale of Kurtzs being driven to the Congo by his frustrated desire for the Intended provides a domestic, libidinal undercurrent to the narrative. The Intended, cathected with Kurtzs desire, is the crucial element in this narrative and its vital link to the novels broader ideological dimension. This connection appears as she is cast as the libidinal equivalent to the ivory in the novels symbolic economy: Kurtz is only in the Congo to earn enough money to be granted her hand in marriage. She bears the libidinal burden of the Kurtz family narrative, and her appellation itself ties her into the dynamic of deferred desire (physically, economically, and



semantically) as she becomes a manifestation (like the ivory) of the objet a, the concrete and intimate evidence of the asymptotic logic of desire. This trajectory culminates as Conrad exposes the interdependence of capitalist and libidinal desire in Kurtzs twin obsessions with producing more ivory than all other agents combined and with indulging the sexual license made available to him by his concubine at the Inner Station. Finally, Kurtzs last words articulate his vision of the truth of desire, its absolute insatiability and basis in an irremediable subjective lack (what Lacan calls dhiscence) upon which the commercial culture of modernity capitalizes. * * * Depicting the theory of social organization [that] contains implications for a theory of modern character (Levenson 399) hypothesized by Weber, Conrad in Heart of Darkness traces the contours of modernitys impact upon subjectivity and desire. Beginning with the laboratory conditions of a social organization which captures the features of modernity with which he is primarily concerned in Heart of Darkness (the culture of capitalism, ideological legitimation via fetishization, and coercive enforcement of the law according to corporate expediency), he gradually zeroes in on the subjective consequences of such a culture via the concrete impingement of economic imperatives into Kurtzs family romance. Heart of Darkness thus reveals Conrad to be much more than simply our most searching critic of bureaucracy (397), but in fact our most astute diagnostician and piercing critic of the clash of the psychic and the social that takes place on the eld of modern subjectivity. Tracing the particular conuence of forces governing the subjects in Heart of Darkness in Kurtzs losing battle with the vagaries of desire as it is excited, manipulated, and exploited by the emerging capitalist hegemony, Conrad thus provides perhaps the consummate account of the predicament of the modern subject lost in a new cultural reality, a place on the map so darkened now that it is impossible to read what might have gone before or instead.
1 For more extended considerations of rationalization as a feature of modernity, see T. J. Jackson Lears, Marshall Berman, and Georg Lukcs. 2 For more detailed discussions of secularization under modernity, see Matei

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Calinescu, especially 4142 and 6263; Karl Marx, Grundrisse; Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (eds.); Georg Lukcs; and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, especially chapter one, The Concept of Enlightenment. 3 Other critics who have described the same process in varying degrees of Marxist idiom include Calinescu, Lukcs, Peter Nicholls, Bradbury and McFarlane, Lears, and Berman, whose summary of Marxs conception of this process in The Manifesto of the Communist Party is perhaps the clearest and most concise of any:

the theme of insatiable desires and drives, permanent revolution, innite development, perpetual creation and renewal in every sphere of life; and . . . the theme of nihilism, insatiable destruction, the shattering and swallowing up of life, the heart of darkness, the horror . . . [is] infused into the life of every modern man by the drives and pressures of the bourgeois economy . . . [so that] their inner dynamism will reproduce and express the inward rhythms by which modern capitalism moves and lives. (102)
Jeremy Hawthorn and Ian Watt have remarked upon this oddity of Marlows narrative, though neither accords it the attention it deserves in relation to the interconnections between the psychic and the social that structure Heart of Darkness. See also Benita Parry, 23. That this is an element of the text which needs explication is borne out by the fact that such an astute critic as Walter Allen glosses over the relationship between darkness and enlightenment, preserving instead the simple binary according to which the Heart of Darkness of the title is at once the heart of Africa, the heart of evileverything that is nihilistic, corrupt, and malignand perhaps the heart of man, but which nonetheless remains symbolized by Africa, shrouding in darkness the Europe to which Marlow returns (30405). 5 See also Levenson 395. 6 A good deal of the astuteness of Conrads depiction here is a direct result of Belgian King Leopolds diabolical anticipation of government-business collusion. Making up for his relative lack of resources for the exploitation of the Congo by granting concessions to private business concerns (in exchange for a share of the prot), Leopold effectively bridged the gap between imperialism as a national interest and imperialism as a business venture, a transfer captured by Conrad in his radical reconguration of national imperialism in favor of the nameless Companys trading concerns. 7 A point de capiton is a privileged signier which taps into the irrational impulse to see a particular signier as uniquely meaningful (i.e., as not subject to the slippage of signication which renders other signiers radically unstable) (Lacan 303). An ideological point de capiton operates similarly on a cultural level, structuring the ideological eld by lending the appearance of immanent content



to certain signiers, thus uniting the psychic and the ideological (Zizek Sublime Object of Ideology 8797ff.). 8 Objet a is the name Lacan gives to the lack generated by the infants entry into the symbolic (at the injunction of the law in its incarnation as the paternal function); it identies that which is lost as the individual becomes a subject. As such, it is both the object of the subjects desire and its cause. It is the object of desire insofar as the subject compulsively strives toward it; it is the cause of desire in its phylogenetic persistence in the psyche as a trace of that lost plenitude toward which desire tends. For further discussion, see Lacan 26466 and 31424, Dylan Evans 12426, and Slavoj Zizek Looking Awry 38 and The Sublime Object of Ideology 87129. For an especially illuminating example of the ideological dimensions of point de capiton and objet a, see Zizeks brilliant discussion of Marlboro and Coca-Cola as anchors/objects of desire in the ideological eld of the spirit of America (The Sublime Object of Ideology 96). 9 See Friedrich Nietzsche, 437599. The connections between this arbitrary legality and capitalisms need for a ready and cheap labor pool become even clearer in light of Patrick Brantlingers observation that the conquered races of the empire were often treated as a new proletariata proletariat much less distinct from slaves than the working class at home (182). 10 Another possibility, which Marlow does not seem to consider, is workers, though using this term would complicate matters for him even more as it would place them in the same category in which his aunt places him when she calls him a Worker (15). 11 Several critics have noted this fact, but none has paid sufficient attention to its signicance; for examples, see Watt 164, Kirschner 46, Staten 731, Devlin 728, and Tessitore 91103. 12 That the drama of Kurtzs career is essentially Faustian is something of a critical commonplace, though it is most clearly worked out by Cedric Watts (74 ff.); see also Watt (167). 13 Jeremy Hawthorn provides a slightly different reading of this detail: Marlows comment that the African woman must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her can be taken a number of ways. Either it suggests that this woman, too, is corrupted by the love of wealth or (I think more likely) that in using the ivory to provide decoration and display, she represents a more vital and straightforward life than the Europeans (Hawthorn 202, n.12). I am not quite sure how the two readings Hawthorn suggests are mutually exclusive of each other, nor how they indicate an essential difference from the Europeans love of wealth for the purposes of decoration and display, which we now know as conspicuous consumption. My own sense is that the differences between the Intended and the African woman in this regard are more cosmetic than substantial. 14 Marlow himself addresses this inadequacy shortly before he recounts Kurtzs nal words, as he expresses his frustration at trying to convey the real sense of his experience: Ive been telling you what we saidrepeating the phrases we pronouncedbut whats the good. They were common everyday wordsthe familiar vague sounds exchanged on every waking day of life. But

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what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terric suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares (65). 15 Avrom Fleishman gives Kurtzs insight explicitly political content: If we were to give a name to Kurtzs vision of the horror, it might appropriately be anarchy: that state of social decomposition at the opposite pole from organic community. This anarchy is already latent in the individualindividuality and anarchy are implicated in each otherand in the absence of an ordering community it springs into action as terrorism (92). My only reservation about Fleishmans reading comes from Conrads less than orthodox conception of and attitude toward anarchism. Given his professed belief that the millionaire is the greatest anarchist (letter to Cunninghame Graham Oct 7, 1907; quoted in Eloise Knapp Hay 189), we might just as well say that the anarchy Kurtz sees is merely the underlying ethos of laissez-faire capitalism.

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Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Watt, Ian. Conrad in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979. White, Andrea. Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition. Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1991. . The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.