The Victorian Sage

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Tag: heart of darkness

Philip Roth: An Unadaptable Author (Voice and Argument in Adaptation)

Today’s Guardian does a hatchet job on Ewan McGregor’s (director and lead actor) adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and along the way makes some points about the “calamitous history” of Roth adaptations. One problem they point up is the tendency to use voice over, apparently because adapters are unwilling to lose the Rothian voice. I suppose it indicates that voice is a far bigger element of Roth’s success than plot, and that voice tends to be less amenable to screen adaptation than plot. But such a failure is in itself interesting in the light it casts on the author adapted, in that an experience of the work shorn of the author’s voice can give us insights into the limitations of said author.  Roth, apparently, is less a great novelist than a great voice. But maybe the power of the voice is what lies behind everything, from novelists and poets to politicians and leaders. One is reminded, perhaps, of various passages concerning Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.


A voice! a voice! It rang deep to the very last. It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence the barren darkness of his heart. Oh, he struggled! he struggled! The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now—images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression. My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments. The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth. But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.

The idea of voice is one that has received attention in adaptation scholarship, although it is also one that can easily lend itself to evaluative fidelity criticism (“the film has the same plot, but, I don’t know, it just fails to capture Roth’s voice…). Can an adaptation have a voice of its own, or is it only a ventriloquist’s dummy? Andrew Davies is an interesting case study: an auteur of adaptations, an adapter whose voice is known. He is the only adapter who has been honoured with a scholarly monograph (that I can think of): Andrew Davies (Manchester UP, 2005) by Sarah Cardwell (one chapter of which is freely available on her page). Cardwell finds in Davies’ adaptations a particular voice of sympathetic irony (115), irrespective of who the source author is. She also considers that his best adaptations are, for the most part, those of authors who have a strong voice, not because he captures that voice in its singularity, but because he engages in a conversation with them, and, as he put it himself, “sometimes I’ll have a little quarrel with the authors” (ibid.). Thus, these works become multivocal, or, to use a word that Cardwell somewhat surprisingly doesn’t use, heteroglossic.

So, perhaps the problem with Roth adaptations is that the argument doesn’t take place. It’s easy when dealing with a reputedly great writer to take their words as holy writ. It takes confidence to approach adaptation more as a conversation or even a “little argument”. A paradigmatic example of the argumentative adaptation that I have been studying (and will be publishing on in the near future) is the 2007 BBC series of Oliver Twist, written by Sarah Phelps, which deals with issues of anti-semitism, class bias, and gender politics in Dickens’ novel. I’m not for a second suggesting that this series is a model (in fact, I’m not even sure I like it very much), but it is certainly a very different approach from the reverential one we often associate with the adaptation of works of literature.


A Cultural Role of Power, Comfort and Gratification

When it comes to Thomas Carlyle, perhaps it could be argued that the form and content of his writing is in itself less interesting and less worthy of study than the reception of his writing. How did he attain to such massive influence over his time, such that George Eliot was able to write, in a quote used frequently by Carlyle scholars:

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would be only like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.

It is possible to go into infinite detail on the books that owed elements of their content or form, there philosophy of ideology, to Carlyle’s influence, and in my thesis I do go into much of this, though I primarily limit my investigations to the anglophone world. But to study the source of Carlyle’s influence, perhaps not only his works need to be studied, but also his biography, a biography well known to his contemporaries – even more so after his death with the publication of Froude’s controversial account. It is impossible to draw a line between the iconicity of Carlyle himself and the influence of his works, but with the debasement of one, partially via Froude, came the discreditation of the other.

In Norma Clarke’s “Strenuous Idleness: Thomas Carlyle and the man of letters as hero” (Manful Assertions, ed. Michael Roper and John Tosh, 1991), Carlyle’s early life and correspondence is mined for clues to the nature of his work, and to his own emotional and intellectual coming-of-age. Clarke notes that “less well noted and more paradoxical is the way [Carlyle] created, out of the qualities of those he elevated into great heroes, a cultural role for aspiring male writers that was redolent with possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” (40). She goes into little detail on this interesting observation, but it is perhaps a direction in which Carlyle studies needs to move. I hope to add something to this in my own work. Quantitively, I will deal with many instances of literary influence in my “Reception History” chapter, including a focus on the English bildungsroman in which the psychogenesis of the author is laid bare – in this genre in the late 19th- early 20th century, somewhat confirming Clarke’s point, Carlyle is a particularly pervasive presence. Carlylean manhood looms over all the literary men of the age, admonishing and encouraging.

The sense of the cultural role of the writer is something Carlyle could be seen to have had a hand in changing, temporarily at least. Carlyle’s essay on the Hero as Man of Letters – “our most important modern person” – offered a model of heroism to Victorian youth. From a reception point of view, one may wonder how far one can take this influence, how far the thread can be followed. Can one read it into 20th- and early 21st-century work? Not directly, as Carlyle is not widely enough read, but in a mediated form. one possible locus for reading Carlyle as an indirect influence on 20th-century culture is Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s famous Vietnam War film from 1979. And I am looking at this film at the moment. Not just the film itself, but the making of the film – a production famous in itself and inflecting how the film is watched and rated – as seen most notably in Eleanor Coppola’s documentary Hearts of Darkness.

Francis Ford Coppola’s main source for the film – apart from John Milius’ script, which provided much material for the early part of the movie, but was discarded for the latter part – was Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Without wanting to give much away, I am trying to suggest that certain Carlylean memes are found in HoD – and in this I am follower several prior sources – and thence found their way in mediated form into AN, and, even, into Coppola as his personality developed during the protracted production of the film. That is, Coppola was, belatedly, a member of that group for whom “possibilities of power, comfort and gratification” were derived from a Carlylean representation of manhood. Thus I’m suggesting that the Kurtz figure owes something to Carlyle, the work and the biographical figure. Kurtz, it should be remembered, is a man of words, a voice, both literary and oral. The narrator’s most intense experience of Kurtz’s power and genius is not through witnessing the vaguely described actions of the Great Man, but through his words:

It was eloquent,vibrating with eloquence, but too high-strung, I think. Seventeen pages of close writing he had found time for! But this must have been before his—let us say—nerves, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which—as far as I reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times—were offered up to him—do you understand?—to Mr. Kurtz himself. But it was a beautiful piece of writing. The opening paragraph, however, in the light of later information, strikes me now as ominous. He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’

I have italicized all of the phrases wherein the effect of Kurtz’s words is described. Conrad tells rather than shows: the only words we are given are the final scrawl that, it is clear, is entirely out of character with the rest of the piece. The content of Kurtz’s piece is irrelevant to the narrator;only the effect is important, and that is considerable indeed. The subject of this passage and perhaps the entire novella is the power of the voice, even divorced from any substantive content. Conrad is questioning the voice, but in the formal terms of the plot, he appears to conclude that the importance of identification with a powerful voice outweighs the fact that what is said may be nonsense – if God is Dead, we need to believe in somebody, even if we know that our belief is based on illusion. Hence Marlow’s (the narrator of the above passage) final decision to lie to Kurtz’s “Intended” about Kurtz’s activity, to keep up the illusion. A melancholy lesson indeed.

But the power of the voice of the artist was a live issue in the late 19th century. As late as 1916 Yeats asked in the wake of the Easter Rising: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The answer to that question was probably No, but the Man of Letters at the time had a power unknown to his 21st-century counterpart. But returning to Eliot’s quote, the next line after the passage quoted is: “The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his opinions are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.” This is an element of Carlyle’s reception which needs further elaboration, but his influence, the power of his words, was out of all proportion to the substantial agreement they invoked. His contemporaries credited him with great inspiration, but almost all rejected his central political stance. This is a very complex element of discourse, of theory, of politics, of inspiration, of the movement of mind of large groups of people: the great distance between the power of the voice and the substance of the content. To be wrong is no bar to being influential; to tingle with eloquence, to soar, to create enthusiasm, to set down a magic current of phrases, all of these things are what create social and political efficacy. And none better exemplified this than Carlyle – to fully go into this we would have to consider Froude’s biography and associated publications, which had established Carlyle as somewhat of a fraud, a man obsessed with masculine ideals that he made no effort to live up to, but that he never ceased to prescribe to his readers in peremptory and sometimes bullying tones. But even before going into the author’s personality, we can know from reading the copious reflection on him by other writers that few agreed with him, but they all read him very intently.

The appeal of Carlyle lay in a few aspects, one of which was certainly that figure of the Hero as Man of Letters. To be able to take oneself and one’s doings that seriously – as seriously as Yeats thinking he had provoked a rebellion! – was pivotal in a time of God-being-Dead and rationalist melancholia. That is transcribed in Kurtz, the real Man of Letters, so much a man that he not only spoke and wrote, but also acted. And this is something I will be looking into: watching Heart of Darkness and witnessing the absurd grandiosity of Coppola; hearing him say in the commentary to Apocalypse Now that “Director is one of the few dictatorial posts left”, watching him (or reading in Eleanor’s notes) gorge on power and gratification. Here we have again the Carlylean spirit, kept alive through a handful of memes in Heart of Darkness, from which memes Coppola constructed his own authorial persona – while he adapted Heart of Darkness, it was adapting him, and giving unto the world a new Hero, a creative artist with the courage of his convictions, who courted absurdity, pretentiousness, etc., to create Art – but, after all, I’m not sure that Hearts of Darkness is not a more than Apocalypse Now itself, and that what is depicted so memorably in that documentary is any more than the Art of being a Jerk.

Reading Heart of Darkness and Conrad’s Biography

I’ve read all of Joseph Conrad’s major works – Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo (still haven’t gotten around to finishing the last one, though) – plus several of the not-so-major ones, and have yet to really “get” what it is about him that has inspired such tributes from experts and literary critics. The Guardian are currently running a series of the 100 best novels of all time, and the recently published entry for Heart of Darkness shows how that book remains a central text of 20th-century literature, and a uniquely provocative piece of work. The short and rather insubstantial synopsis of HoD by Robert McCrumb has attracted no less than 332 comments – far more than any other in the series (David Copperfield, for example, only gets 38). The general consensus in these comments is interesting, in that it’s anti-Achebean; that is, it doesn’t accept the view famously put forward by Chinua Achebe that Conrad shows himself in this work to be a “bloody racist”. Rather it takes the searing-indictment-of-colonialism line, or else the ahistorical allegory-for-human-condition line. Both, obviously, are likely to produce reactions more favourable to the novel than the bloody-racist view. These were the views critiqued by Achebe, but they have evidently recovered and remain the dominant readings.

The searing-indictment-of-colonialism line is one that I have always found it difficult to get behind. That wasn’t how it struck me on my first reading of the novel many years ago, and it still doesn’t strike me that way. One key passage is often quoted:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .

This passage is quoted by a poster calling himself “lurgee” on the Guardian page linked above; for the poster, it shows how Marlowe “understands the hollowness of the idea [of colonialism]”. To me, it shows the exact opposite – finishing on the idea of redemption for colonialism, even though it’s admitted to be very unpleasant in practice. I think that HoD, in short, can be seen as more or less an indictment of the practice of colonialism (or a specific practice, even), while remaining a defence of the idea. What I find objectionable in this is that it reads to me like Conrad’s message is that the idea always trumps the practice/ reality. That’s what the closing scene with the Intended is about: the practice/ reality of colonialism in the Congo is painted as horrendous, but even so, Marlow insists that the idea must be protected by the lie to the intended. Here I think Conrad is very Carlylean indeed. Carlyle’s central idea was of the importance of faith, as opposed to material reality:

Faith is properly the one thing needful; how, with it, Martyrs, otherwise weak, can cheefully endure the shame and the cross; and without it, Worldlings puke up their sick existence, by suicide, in the midst of luxury. (Sartor Resartus)

One can also draw a line here to Slavoj Žižek’s definition of ideology, as being related to the as if. The ideologist doesn’t really believe, but acts as if he/ she does. In a cynical, post-theological world, it is through the as-if ideologists that ideology is saved (The Sublime Object of Ideology). And this is Marlow: he doesn’t believe – in fact, he knows he’s speaking untruthfully – but he feels that the beautiful illusion should be perpetuated, even though it’s a mask for exploitation. The pretence of belief is still better than the admission that it’s all a sham. It’s the ideology of the cynic – the dominant form of ideology in contemporary society, according to Žižek. In this, the book really does reveal a “modernist” consciousness.

This probably begs the key point that separates searing-indictment readers from bloody-racist readers: Marlow. How do we read Marlow? Searing-indictmenters will see Marlow as your prototypically modernist unreliable narrator; bloody-racisters will see him as an avatar for Conrad himself. I tend to the latter view.  The term “unreliable narrator” originates with Wayne Booth, who wrote:

For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. (The Rhetoric of Fiction)

Are the norms of HoD different from those espoused by Marlow? The provisional and blog post-ish nature of this analysis (so-called) will be clear when I say that I don’t remember any point in the narrative where this is apparent. There is no narrative outside Marlow bar the framing narrative, which is only a tiny proportion of the word count, and which provides little direct reflection on Marlow. But, then again, what description it does provide of Marlow is patently admiring, not to say worshipful. Think of the visual description:

Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. He had sunken cheeks, a yellow complexion, a straight back, an ascetic aspect, and, with his arms dropped, the palms of hands outwards, resembled an idol.

There’s a definite sense in the descriptions of Marlow that’s he’s being presented as some sort of sage, a holder of mysterious knowledge beyond the ken of the frame narrator. So if Marlow doesn’t overtly reveal any unreliability, and the frame narrator paints Marlow in rather heroic colours, the only possible way to see Marlow as unreliable is by using the concept of irony.

Irony, quoth the OED, is: “[t]he expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect”. If one sees Conrad as being very ironic indeed throughout HoD, one can say that Marlow is unreliable. But is HoD as ironic as all that? There are moments of irony, certainly, perhaps even a persistent strain of irony, but to see Marlow as unreliable, one would have to posit HoD as being almost totally and wholly ironic because a) almost the whole book is seen through Marlow and b) Marlow is overtly reliable: he’s knowledgeable, articulate, evidently competent at his job, respected by the only other consciousness we’re given access to (the frame narrator).  I’m not inclined to read HoD as being that weighted with irony, and I would suggest that a knowledge of Conrad’s life and politics very much supports the Marlow-is-reliable position (which in turn tends to, I would suggest, undermine or at least complicate the searing-indictment reading).


Biographical readings of literature aren’t really fashionable in academia. One could blame the whole postmodernist author-is-dead-Barthes-Foucault thing for this, but in any case, using the author’s life or personality to explain his work is more associated with biography these days than with literary criticism. But I think it can’t be ignored. As a reader (as opposed to a student of literature), I have always tended to look to the biographies of writers I’m interested in to complement and clarify my reading of their work. And knowledge of Conrad makes it clear that Marlow served for him as a kind of idealized self. Idealized above all in the fact of his being English, for Conrad was above all things an Anglophile. This should be remembered when assessing the attitude to colonialism in HoD. In the text of the story itslelf, Conrad differentiates sharply between British imperialist practice and all the other kinds:

 [A] large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red [the colour denoting colonies of Britain]—good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer.

Real work is equated with British colonialism, and British colonialism alone. So for the first readers of HoD, on its serialization in Blackwood’s, there is an indication that their own feelings of patriotism are not being challenged – indeed, they’re being in this passage strengthened by the force of the contrast with all of the Bad Imperialism that’s going on among the continental powers. And this was pretty much exactly Conrad’s own view. Speaking of the Boers of South Africa, he wrote:  “They have no idea of liberty, which can only be found under the British flag all over the world”  (Meyer , Joseph Conrad [Kindle], p. 81). In terms of Anglophilia, its hard to disentangle Conrad’s politics from his personal ambitions and his attempts to fit in. His friend and sometime colloborator Ford Madox Ford noted that “[his] ambition was to be taken for – to be! – an English country gentleman of the time of Lord Palmerston” (Meyer, p. 128). Conrad never fully played the role in real life: his accent always gave him away; his pronunciation was frequently way off. But in fiction he managed it through Marlow, who Meyer sees as the author’s “alter-ego” (p. 190). Marlow was urbane and wise, restrained and understated in a gentlemanly fashion, and above all English.

So, at least, I have always seen the character, and reading Conrad’s biography has, for me, confirmed it. Biography always forms a part of my methodology for interpreting literary works. The work is not a freestanding entity, but was always created by a particular individual with particular experiences, ideals, prejudices, circumstances and what not. And when you bear that in mind for HoD, the savage-indictment line doesn’t really hold up, or is at best half the story.


On watching the first 6 minutes of Heart of Darkness (Nicholas Roeg, 1994)

I have been reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness recently, and have of course watched the much-admired semi-adaptation of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). I also took a peek at the lesser known adaptation from 1994, directed by Nicholas Roeg, a noted filmmaker in his own right for works like Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Roeg’s HoD is not too readily available, but it has been uploaded onto YouTube in small segments, only the first of which I have watched, six minutes in which Marlow is introduced, sitting in a boat engaging in a conversation with an emissary of “the Company”, identified as a lawyer, come to collect Kurtz’s papers, which Marlow refuses to give him. The framing device for the film, then, is not Marlow telling a story to some sailor chums as in Conrad, but, it would appear, to the Company Lawyer. The dialogue for this opening scene is taken partly from Marlow’s preliminaries to his story in Conrad, and partly from the scene related towards the end of the novella between Marlow and the Lawyer.

Company Lawyer Guy raises a toast to Empire-building

What is interesting is the way some of Marlow’s dialogue is given to the Lawyer. This is a man of advanced years, stiff and respectable looking, stocky, ponderous in his movements, with a starched collar (played by Peter Vaughan). He is a quintessential, stereotypical Victorian man of business. He is also, somewhat improbably, drinking wine from a glass while on the boat talking to Marlow. The drinking of wine signifies his gluttony, his devotion to sensual gratification; his clothes and appearance signify his unthinking conservatism and lack of imagination; his lip-pursing while Marlow talks of the evils of colonialism illustrates his unsympathetic nature. In these opening minutes, we are given one of the most famous speeches from the novella:

It’s just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. The conquest of the earth mostly means the taking it away from those with different skin tone, slightly flatter noses than ourselves. Not a pretty thing when you look into it too deeply.

That’s all, just those lines. Another part of the speech is, in fact, given to the Lawyer, a paean to the Romans: “A brave lot they must have been”, he concludes. It is in response to this that Marlow counters with the conquest/ robbery with violence analogy. Those familiar with the novella will note that after making this analogy, Marlow makes a very important qualification: “What redeems it is the idea only” etc. This part of the speech is left out.

By choosing which thoughts of Marlow’s can be retained, which must be removed, and which displaced onto an obviously demonized representative of corrupt authority, Roeg’s HoD does something a lot of adaptations of classic texts of recent times do. The thinking behind it goes, I believe, something like this: “Conrad was a great writer and Heart of Darkness is a great book – everyone knows that. Therefore he must have had properly liberal and progressive political views, as only moral and ideological correctness is consistent with classic literature”.

Thus Conrad’s irresolvable ambiguities are ironed out, and anything questionable is A) left out or B) communicated in an obviously disapproving way that also implies Conrad disapproved of it.  This is a feature of popular discourse on what it considers classic literature: ambiguity is not an appropriate feature, unmistakeably liberal politics are. With this reading we’re back in the pre-Achebean days of HoD criticism – not that I remember those days but if Achebe is correct then the work was discussed without reference to its colonialist sympathies. Not that I’m advocating a wholly Achebean reading, either. The text isn’t really reducible to any single reading.

This is a subject that has struck me in my studies of adaptations of Victorian writers like Dickens, Gaskell, etc. It seems adapters and their audiences are constantly looking for ways to read these writers as liberal-progressives, even radicals. I’ve recently been looking at Gaskell in some depth, and would describe her as a conservative and paternalist writer; yet adaptations are constantly trying to rewrite her politics. Conrad is politically a more complex case than Gaskell, but all of these writers function similarly in popular discourse: it seems that current popular discourse can’t gets its head around the notion of great literature and conservative and even reactionary politics, so, rather than adapting possibly not great literature with the right politics, it attributes the right politics to the ready-established greats, and adapts them through that lens. This is made abundantly clear in adaptations of relevant works. This is surely something that warrants study in the near future. What I have written here is not very original observation, perhaps, but it has not been fully dealt with, either.

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