Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Hypocrisy of Imperialism
Heart of Darkness explores the issues surrounding imperialism in complicated ways. As Marlow travels from the Outer Station to the Central Station and finally up the river to the Inner Station, he encounters scenes of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery. At the very least, the incidental scenery of the book offers a harsh picture of colonial enterprise. The impetus behind Marlow’s adventures, too, has to do with the hypocrisy inherent in the rhetoric used to justify imperialism. The men who work for the Company describe what they do as “trade,” and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of “civilization.” Kurtz, on the other hand, is open about the fact that he does not trade but rather takes ivory by force, and he describes his own treatment of the natives with the words “suppression” and “extermination”: he does not hide the fact that he rules through violence and intimidation. His perverse honesty leads to his downfall, as his success threatens to expose the evil practices behind European activity in Africa.
However, for Marlow as much as for Kurtz or for the Company, Africans in this book are mostly objects: Marlow refers to his helmsman as a piece of machinery, and Kurtz’s African mistress is at best a piece of statuary. It can be argued that Heart of Darkness participates in an oppression of nonwhites that is much more sinister and much harder to remedy than the open abuses of Kurtz or the Company’s men. Africans become for Marlow a mere backdrop, a human screen against which he can play out his philosophical and existential struggles. Their existence and their exoticism enable his self-contemplation. This kind of dehumanization is harder to identify than colonial violence or open racism. While Heart of Darkness offers a powerful condemnation of the hypocritical operations of imperialism, it also presents a set of issues surrounding race that is ultimately troubling.
Madness as a Result of Imperialism
Madness is closely linked to imperialism in this book. Africa is responsible for mental disintegration as well as physical illness. Madness has two primary functions. First, it serves as an ironic device to engage the reader’s sympathies. Kurtz, Marlow is told from the beginning, is mad. However, as Marlow, and the reader, begin to form a more complete picture of Kurtz, it becomes apparent that his madness is only relative, that in the context of the Company insanity is difficult to define. Thus, both Marlow and the reader begin to sympathize with Kurtz and view the Company with suspicion. Madness also functions to establish the necessity of social fictions. Although social mores and explanatory justifications are shown throughout Heart of Darkness to be utterly false and even leading to evil, they are nevertheless necessary for both group harmony and individual security. Madness, in Heart of Darkness, is the result of being removed from one’s social context and allowed to be the sole arbiter of one’s own actions. Madness is thus linked not only to absolute power and a kind of moral genius but to man’s fundamental fallibility: Kurtz has no authority to whom he answers but himself, and this is more than any one man can bear.
The Absurdity of Evil
This novella is, above all, an exploration of hypocrisy, ambiguity, and moral confusion. It explodes the idea of the proverbial choice between the lesser of two evils. As the idealistic Marlow is forced to align himself with either the hypocritical and malicious colonial bureaucracy or the openly malevolent, rule-defying Kurtz, it becomes increasingly clear that to try to judge either alternative is an act of folly: how can moral standards or social values be relevant in judging evil? Is there such thing as insanity in a world that has already gone insane? The number of ridiculous situations Marlow witnesses act as reflections of the larger issue: at one station, for instance, he sees a man trying to carry water in a bucket with a large hole in it. At the Outer Station, he watches native laborers blast away at a hillside with no particular goal in mind. The absurd involves both insignificant silliness and life-or-death issues, often simultaneously. That the serious and the mundane are treated similarly suggests a profound moral confusion and a tremendous hypocrisy: it is terrifying that Kurtz’s homicidal megalomania and a leaky bucket provoke essentially the same reaction from Marlow.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Observation and Eavesdropping
Marlow gains a great deal of information by watching the world around him and by overhearing others’ conversations, as when he listens from the deck of the wrecked steamer to the manager of the Central Station and his uncle discussing Kurtz and the Russian trader. This phenomenon speaks to the impossibility of direct communication between individuals: information must come as the result of chance observation and astute interpretation. Words themselves fail to capture meaning adequately, and thus they must be taken in the context of their utterance. Another good example of this is Marlow’s conversation with the brickmaker, during which Marlow is able to figure out a good deal more than simply what the man has to say.
Interiors and Exteriors
Comparisons between interiors and exteriors pervade Heart of Darkness. As the narrator states at the beginning of the text, Marlow is more interested in surfaces, in the surrounding aura of a thing rather than in any hidden nugget of meaning deep within the thing itself. This inverts the usual hierarchy of meaning: normally one seeks the deep message or hidden truth. The priority placed on observation demonstrates that penetrating to the interior of an idea or a person is impossible in this world. Thus, Marlow is confronted with a series of exteriors and surfaces—the river’s banks, the forest walls around the station, Kurtz’s broad forehead—that he must interpret. These exteriors are all the material he is given, and they provide him with perhaps a more profound source of knowledge than any falsely constructed interior “kernel.”
Darkness is important enough conceptually to be part of the book’s title. However, it is difficult to discern exactly what it might mean, given that absolutely everything in the book is cloaked in darkness. Africa, England, and Brussels are all described as gloomy and somehow dark, even if the sun is shining brightly. Darkness thus seems to operate metaphorically and existentially rather than specifically. Darkness is the inability to see: this may sound simple, but as a description of the human condition it has profound implications. Failing to see another human being means failing to understand that individual and failing to establish any sort of sympathetic communion with him or her.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Fog is a sort of corollary to darkness. Fog not only obscures but distorts: it gives one just enough information to begin making decisions but no way to judge the accuracy of that information, which often ends up being wrong. Marlow’s steamer is caught in the fog, meaning that he has no idea where he’s going and no idea whether peril or open water lies ahead.
The “Whited Sepulchre”
The “whited sepulchre” is probably Brussels, where the Company’s headquarters are located. A sepulchre implies death and confinement, and indeed Europe is the origin of the colonial enterprises that bring death to white men and to their colonial subjects; it is also governed by a set of reified social principles that both enable cruelty, dehumanization, and evil and prohibit change. The phrase “whited sepulchre” comes from the biblical Book of Matthew. In the passage, Matthew describes “whited sepulchres” as something beautiful on the outside but containing horrors within (the bodies of the dead); thus, the image is appropriate for Brussels, given the hypocritical Belgian rhetoric about imperialism’s civilizing mission. (Belgian colonies, particularly the Congo, were notorious for the violence perpetuated against the natives.)
Both Kurtz’s Intended and his African mistress function as blank slates upon which the values and the wealth of their respective societies can be displayed. Marlow frequently claims that women are the keepers of naïve illusions; although this sounds condemnatory, such a role is in fact crucial, as these naïve illusions are at the root of the social fictions that justify economic enterprise and colonial expansion. In return, the women are the beneficiaries of much of the resulting wealth, and they become objects upon which men can display their own success and status.
The Congo River is the key to Africa for Europeans. It allows them access to the center of the continent without having to physically cross it; in other words, it allows the white man to remain always separate or outside. Africa is thus reduced to a series of two-dimensional scenes that flash by Marlow’s steamer as he travels upriver. The river also seems to want to expel Europeans from Africa altogether: its current makes travel upriver slow and difficult, but the flow of water makes travel downriver, back toward “civilization,” rapid and seemingly inevitable. Marlow’s struggles with the river as he travels upstream toward Kurtz reflect his struggles to understand the situation in which he has found himself. The ease with which he journeys back downstream, on the other hand, mirrors his acquiescence to Kurtz and his “choice of nightmares.”
- Kant's Aesthetics
a. The Judgment of the Beautiful
Overview: The Critique of Judgment begins with an account of beauty. The initial issue is: what kind of judgment is it that results in our saying, for example, 'That is a beautiful sunset'. Kant argues that such aesthetic judgments (or 'judgments of taste') must have four key distinguishing features. First, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable. The latter type of judgment would be more like a judgment of the 'agreeable', as when I say 'I like doughnuts'.
Second and third, such judgments are both universal and necessary. This means roughly that it is an intrinsic part of the activity of such a judgment to expect others to agree with us. Although we may say 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', that is not how we act. Instead, we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments - and especially about works of art -and we tend to believe that such debates and arguments can actually achieve something. Indeed, for many purposes, 'beauty' behaves as if it were a real property of an object, like its weight or chemical composition. But Kant insists that universality and necessity are in fact a product of features of the human mind (Kant calls these features 'common sense'), and that there is no objective property of a thing that makes it beautiful.
Fourth, through aesthetic judgments, beautiful objects appear to be 'purposive without purpose' (sometimes translated as 'final without end'). An object's purpose is the concept according to which it was made (the concept of a vegetable soup in the mind of the cook, for example); an object is purposive if it appears to have such a purpose; if, in other words, it appears to have been made or designed. But it is part of the experience of beautiful objects, Kant argues, that they should affect us as if they had a purpose, although no particular purpose can be found.
Having identified the major features of aesthetic judgments, Kant then needs to ask the question of how such judgments are possible, and are such judgments in any way valid (that is, are they really universal and necessary).
It is useful to see the aesthetics here, as with Kant's epistemology and to a certain extent his ethics also, as being a leap over the terms of the debate between British (and largely empiricist) philosophy of art and beauty (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Burke) and Continental rationalist aesthetics (especially Baumgarten, who invented the modern use of the term aesthetics' in the mid-18th century). The key ideas of the former group were (i) the idea of a definite human nature, such that studies of beauty could, within limits, be universal in scope; (ii) the assertion that beautiful objects and our responses to them were essentially involved in sense or feeling, and were not cognitive; (iii) that any 'natural' responses to beauty were generally overlaid by individual and communal experiences, habits and customs. The main disagreement with rationalist thought on the matter was in the second of these ideas. Baumgarten, following Leibniz, argued that all sense perception was merely 'confused' cognition, or cognition by way of sensible images. Thus, although beauty certainly appears to our senses, this by no means demonstrates that beauty is non-cognitive! Beauty, for Baumgarten, has more to do with rational ideas such as harmony, rather than with the physiological.
Kant asserted the basic distinction between intuitive or sensible presentations on the one hand, and the conceptual or rational on the other. (See 'Kant's Transcendental Idealism' in the article on 'Kant's Metaphysics'.) Therefore, despite his great admiration for Baumgarten, it is impossible for Kant to agree with Baumgarten's account of aesthetic experience. (By 'aesthetic' here we mean in Baumgarten's sense of a philosophy of the beautiful and related notions, and not in Kant's original usage of the term in the Critique of Pure Reason to mean the domain of sensibility.) In addition, Kant holds that aesthetic experience, like natural experience leading to determinate judgments, is inexplicable without both an intuitive and a conceptual dimension. Thus, for example, beauty is also by no means non-cognitive, as the British tradition had held.
Thus, Kant begins to analyze the experience of beauty, in order to ask as precisely as possible the question 'how are judgments about beauty possible'. Kant's initial focus is on judgments about beauty in nature, as when we call a flower, a sunset, or an animal 'beautiful'. What, at bottom, does such a judgment mean, and how does it take place as a mental act? In order to begin to answer these questions, Kant needs to clarify the basic features of such judgments. On Kant's analysis, aesthetic judgments are still more strange even than ordinary reflective judgments, and must have a number of peculiar features which at first sight look like nothing other than paradoxes. We will now describe those features using Kant's conceptual language.
Taking up roughly the first fifth of the Critique of Judgment, Kant discusses four particular unique features of aesthetic judgments on the beautiful (he subsequently deals with the sublime). These he calls 'moments', and they are structured in often obscure ways according to the main divisions of Kant's table of categories (See article on Kant's Metaphysics).
The First Moment. Aesthetic judgments are disinterested. There are two types of interest: by way of sensations in the agreeable, and by way of concepts in the good. Only aesthetic judgment is free or pure of any such interests. Interest is defined as a link to real desire and action, and thus also to a determining connection to the real existence of the object. In the aesthetic judgment per se, the real existence of the beautiful object is quite irrelevant. Certainly, I may wish to own the beautiful painting, or at least a copy of it, because I derive pleasure from it - but that pleasure, and thus that desire, is distinct from and parasitic upon the aesthetic judgment (see sect;9). The judgment results in pleasure, rather than pleasure resulting in judgment. Kant accordingly and famously claims that the aesthetic judgment must concern itself only with form (shape, arrangement, rhythm, etc.) in the object presented, not sensible content (color, tone, etc.), since the latter has a deep connection to the agreeable, and thus to interest. Kant is thus the founder of all formalism in aesthetics in modern philosophy. This claim of the disinterestedness of all aesthetic judgments is perhaps the most often attacked by subsequent philosophy, especially as it is extended to include fine art as well as nature. To pick three examples, Kant's argument is rejected by those (Nietzsche, Freud) for whom all art must always be understood as related to will; by those for whom all art (as a cultural production) must be political in some sense (Marxism); by those for whom all art is a question of affective response expressionists).
The Second Moment. Aesthetic judgments behave universally, that is, involve an expectation or claim on the agreement of others - just 'as if' beauty were a real property of the object judged. If I judge a certain landscape to be beautiful then, although I may be perfectly aware that all kinds of other factors might enter in to make particular people in fact disagree with me, never-the-less I at least implicitly demand universality in the name of taste. The way that my aesthetic judgments 'behave' is key evidence here: that is, I tend to see disagreement as involving error somewhere, rather than agreement as involving mere coincidence. This universality is distinguished first from the mere subjectivity of judgments such as 'I like honey' (because that is not at all universal, nor do we expect it to be); and second from the strict objectivity of judgments such as 'honey contains sugar and is sweet', because the aesthetic judgment must, somehow, be universal 'apart from a concept' (sect;9). Being reflective judgments, aesthetic judgments of taste have no adequate concept (at least to begin with), and therefore can only behave as if they were objective. Kant is quite aware that he is flying in the face of contemporary (then and now!) truisms such as 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. Such a belief, he argues, first of all can not account for our experience of beauty itself, insofar as the tendency is always to see 'beauty' as if it were somehow in the object or the immediate experience of the object. Second, Kant argues that such a relativist view can not account for the social 'behavior' of our claims about what we find beautiful. In order to explore the implications of 'apart from a concept', Kant introduces the idea of the 'free play' of the cognitive faculties (here: understanding and imagination), and the related idea of communicability. In the case of the judgment of the beautiful, these faculties no longer simply work together (as they do in ordinary sensible cognition) but rather each 'furthers' or 'quickens' the other in a kind of self-contained and self-perpetuating cascade of thought and feeling. We will return to these notions below.
The Third Moment. The third introduces the problem of purpose and purposiveness (also translated 'end' and 'finality'). An object's purpose is the concept according to which it was manufactured; purposiveness, then, is the property of at least appearing to have been manufactured or designed. Kant claims that the beautiful has to be understood as purposive, but without any definite purpose. A 'definite purpose' would be either the set of external purposes (what the thing was meant to do or accomplish), or the internal purpose (what the thing was simply meant to be like). In the former case, the success of the process of making is judged according to utility; in the latter, according to perfection. Kant argues that beauty is equivalent neither to utility nor perfection, but is still purposive. Beauty in nature, then, will appear as purposive with respect to our faculty of judgment, but its beauty will have no ascertainable purpose - that is, it is not purposive with respect to determinate cognition. Indeed, this is why beauty is pleasurable since, Kant argues, pleasure is defined as a feeling that arises on the achievement of a purpose, or at least the recognition of a purposiveness (Introduction, VI).
The purposiveness of art is more complicated. Although such works may have had purposes behind their production (the artist wished to express a certain mood, or communicate a certain idea), nevertheless, these can not be sufficient for the object to be beautiful. As judges of art, any such knowledge we do have about these real purposes can inform the judgment as background, but must be abstracted from to form the aesthetic judgment properly. It is not just that the purpose for the beauty of the beautiful happens to be unknown, but that it cannot be known. Still, we are left with the problem of understanding how a thing can be purposive, without having a definite purpose.
The Fourth Moment. Here, Kant is attempting to show that aesthetic judgments must pass the test of being 'necessary', which effectively means, 'according to principle'. Everyone must assent to my judgment, because it follows from this principle. But this necessity is of a peculiar sort: it is 'exemplary' and 'conditioned'. By exemplary, Kant means that the judgment does not either follow or produce a determining concept of beauty, but exhausts itself in being exemplary precisely of an aesthetic judgment. With the notion of condition, Kant reaches the core of the matter. He is asking: what is it that the necessity of the judgment is grounded upon; that is, what does it say about those who judge?
Kant calls the ground 'common sense', by which he means the a priori principle of our taste, that is of our feeling for the beautiful. (Note: by 'common sense' is not meant being intelligent about everyday things, as in: 'For a busy restaurant, it's just common sense to reserve a table in advance.') In theoretical cognition of nature, the universal communicability of a representation, its objectivity, and its basis in a priori principles are all related. Similarly, Kant wants to claim that the universal communicability, the exemplary necessity and the basis in an a priori principle are all different ways of understanding the same subjective condition of possibility of aesthetic judgment that he calls common sense. (As we shall see, on the side of the beautiful object, this subjective principle corresponds to the principle of the purposiveness of nature.) Thus Kant can even claim that all four Moments of the Beautiful are summed up in the idea of 'common sense' (CJ sect.22). Kant also suggests that common sense in turn depends upon or is perhaps identical with the same faculties as ordinary cognition, that is, those features of humans which (as Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason) make possible natural, determinative experience. Here, however, the faculties are merely in a harmony rather than forming determinate cognition.
b. The Deduction of Taste
Overview: There are two aspects to Kant's basic answer to the question of how aesthetic judgments happen. First, some of Kant's earlier work seemed to suggest that our faculty or ability to judge consisted of being a mere processor of other, much more fundamental mental presentations. These were concepts and intuitions ('intuition' being Kant's word for our immediate sensible experiences - see entry on 'Kant's Metaphysics'). Everything interesting and fundamental happened in the formation of concepts, or in the receiving of intuitions. But now Kant argues that judgment itself, as a faculty, has an fundamental principle that governs it. This principle asserts the purposiveness of all phenomena with respect to our judgment. In other words, it assumes in advance that everything we experience can be tackled by our powers of judgment. Normally, we don't even notice that this assumption is being made, we just apply concepts, and be done with it. But in the case of the beautiful, we do notice. This is because the beautiful draws particular attention to its purposiveness; but also because the beautiful has no concept of a purpose available, so that we cannot just apply a concept and be done with it. Instead, the beautiful forces us to grope for concepts that we can never find. And yet, nevertheless, the beautiful is not an alien and disturbing experience - on the contrary, it is pleasurable. The principle of purposiveness is satisfied, but in a new and unique way.
Asking what this new and unique way is takes us to the second aspect. Kant argues that the kinds of 'cognition' (i.e. thinking) characteristic of the contemplation of the beautiful are not, in fact, all that different from ordinary cognition about things in the world. The faculties of the mind are the same: the 'understanding' which is responsible for concepts, and the 'sensibility' (including our imagination) which is responsible for intuitions. The difference between ordinary and aesthetic cognition is that in the latter case, there is no one 'determinate' concept that pins down an intuition. Instead, intuition is allowed some 'free play', and rather than being subject to one concept, it instead acts in 'harmony' with the lawfulness in general of the understanding. It is this ability of judgment to bring sensibility and understanding to a mutually reinforcing harmony that Kant calls 'common sense'. This account of common sense explains how the beautiful can be purposive with respect to our ability to judge, and yet have no definite purpose. Kant believes common sense also answers the question of why aesthetic judgments are valid: since aesthetic judgments are a perfectly normal function of the same faculties of cognition involved in ordinary cognition, they will have the same universal validity as such ordinary acts of cognition.
The idea of a harmony between or among the faculties of cognition is turning out to be the key idea. For such a harmony, Kant claims, will be purposive, but without purpose. Moreover, it will be both universal and necessary, because based upon universal common sense, or again, because related to the same cognitive faculties which enable any and all knowledge and experience. Lastly, because of the self-contained nature of this harmony, it must be disinterested. So, what does Kant think is going on in such 'harmony', or in common sense for that matter, and does he have any arguments which make of these idea more than mere metaphors for beauty?
Up to now, we have had no decent argument for the existence of common sense as a principle of taste. At best, common sense was plausible as a possible explanation of, for example, the tendency to universality observed in aesthetic judgments. (As Kant admits in sect.17). Such a demand for universality could be accounted for nicely if we assumed an a priori principle for taste, which might also explain the idea of universal communicability. This argument, however, is rather weak. Kant believes he has an ingenious route to proving the case with much greater certainty.
Throughout the Four Moments of the Beautiful, Kant has dropped many important clues as to the transcendental account of the possibility of aesthetic judgment: in particular, we have talked about communicability, common sense and the harmony of the cognitive sub-faculties. Kant then cuts off to turn to the sublime, representing a different problem within aesthetic judgment. He returns to beauty in sect.30, which forms the transition to the passages tantalizingly called the Deduction. These transitional passages feel much like a continuation of the Four Moments; we will treat them as such here, since also Kant claims that the sublime does not need a Deduction.
The Deduction in fact appears in two versions in Kant's texts (sect.9 and 21 being the first; sect.30-40 the second, with further important clarification in the 'Dialectic' sect.55-58). Here, we will discuss only the second. Both explicitly are attempting to demonstrate the universal communicability and thus intersubjective validity of judgments of taste. Which for Kant is the same as saying that there is a 'common sense' - by which he means that humans all must have a kind of sensing ability which operates the same way.
Briefly, the argument begins by asserting that aesthetic judgments must be judgments in some sense; that is, they are mental acts which bring a sensible particular under some universal (Kant's Introduction, IV). The four moments of the beautiful are then explicitly seen as being limitations on the conditions under which this judgment can take place (no interest, purposive without determining purpose, etc.); all these Kant summarizes by saying that the judgments are formal only, lacking all 'matter'. By this, he means that although the judgment is a judgment of the presentation of a particular (singular) object, no particular determination of either sensible intuition, or understanding forms a necessary part of the judgment. (In ordinary cognition of the world, this lack of restriction would be entirely out of place. It would be nonsense to judge whether a particular thing was a sofa without restricting my judgment to that particular thing, and to the concept of a sofa.) However, considered in general (that is, in their essence as sub-faculties) the faculties of imagination and understanding are likewise not restricted to any presentation or kind of sense, or any concept. This means that Kant is describing the 'proportion' between understanding and intuition as something like the always present possibility of the faculties being freed to mutually enact their essence.
Because such faculties in general are required for all theoretical cognition whatsoever, regardless of its object (as Kant claims to have proven in the first Critique), they can be assumed present a priori, in the same form and in the same way, in all human beings. The presence of the cognitive sub-faculties in their various relations is equivalent with the principle of the universal communicability and validity (i.e. common sense) of any mental states in which these faculties are involved a priori. Therefore, an aesthetic judgment must be seen to be an expression of this principle. The key move is obviously to claim that the aesthetic judgment rests upon the same unique conditions as ordinary cognition, and thus that the former must have the same universal communicability and validity as the latter. It is just that, presented with the beautiful, our cognitive faculties are released from the limitations that characterize ordinary thought, and produce what above we called a cascade of thoughts and feelings.
It is difficult to know what to make of this argument (with the various other versions of it scattered throughout the text) and the hypothesis it purports to prove. For one thing, Kant's work here is so heavily reliant upon the results of the first Critique as to not really be able to stand on its own, while at the same time it is not clear at several points whether the first and third Critiques are fully compatible. For another, does not all this talk about the faculties 'in general' seem as if Kant is hypostatising these faculties, as really existent things in the mind that act, rather than simply as an expression for certain capacities? However, there is no doubting the fascinating and profound implications of what Kant is proposing. For example, the notions of common sense and communicability are closely akin to key political ideas, leading several commentators to propose that what Kant is really writing about are the foundations of any just politics (see e.g. sect.60). Or again, the 'freedom' of the imagination is explicitly linked by Kant to the freedom characteristic of the moral will, allowing Kant to construct a deeply rooted link between beauty and the moral (sect.59). Finally, of course, there is K