Mark Lachniet A22034364

New Historicism as it pertains to Conrad's Heart of Darkness

"Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting - on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer to truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience"

-Joseph Conrad, Notes on Life and Letters

The new historicist view of literature maintains that all writing is a kind of historical document. As such, all writing (including fiction) is in one way or another anthropologically relevant. Any piece of writing, be it fiction or fact contains hints of the historical situation in which it was born. In a sense, fiction can give us a better view of history than second hand accounts of it. While historians typically look at history from a second-hand point of view, contemporaneous writing (including fiction) can offer a first-person perspective that may elude even the best historians. It is the belief that any literary work must be understood in a historical context that drives the new historicist. It is the belief that only by understanding the situations and beliefs of the period in which it was born can we understand the true meaning of any literary work.

Even this is a bit of a stretch, because the new historicist approach eludes a "summary description." It is, instead, a "fuzzy" art because it is truly impossible to understand the original context. Unless we have personally experienced the period in question, it is very difficult to get at the real feeling of the era. Even if we were physically present, for example in England around the time of Heart of Darkness's release, we might not have had the same experiences and influences that Conrad himself had. In this sense, the new historicist approach is rather imprecise. It is, however, essential to consider when trying to make meaning out of literary works. Jerome McGann states that we need to make sociohistorical subjects and methods central to literary studies. In fact, this seems to be every much what we are doing in this English class when we relate colonial writings to the history of Empire. The approach gives us a starting place for understanding the work, and hopefully the author's intent. It also gives us a better understanding of the historical period. Unfortunately, although the new historicist is interested in facts, he must also wonder if the truth can ever be purely and objectively known. For example, history may have been misrepresented, or it's meanings may have changed so subtly as to change the significance of a work without us knowing it.

One element that is central to using the new historicist approach is the recognition of change. New historicism hinges upon the fact that change occurs constantly, and that truth and life aren't static. At one time, this was not the case. Consider the not-so-distant past, in which our ancestors were schooled in a rigidly "classical" education. It was then the perception that life was but an extension of the old ways - that knowledge had been created and that we must relate to the past as a constant and permanent truth. It was thought that the morals and lessons of old stood as examples of some inherent truth about humanity. Through time, however, we have come to believe that the morals and lessons of old were products of their time, and cannot be judged anachronistically in our own time period. Now, we look at change, and realize that it is a localized series of events that lead to a constant development of human history. This allows us to look at literature in the context of a changing world and draw meaning from it in this way. Indeed, "[new historicists] have also struggled to see history from a decentered perspective, both by recognizing that their own cultural and historical position may not afford the very best understanding of other cultures, and times, and by realizing that events seldom have any single central cause."

In looking at Heart of Darkness, we see a story told from a "multiple narrator" point of view, which is inherently mired in a variety of historical contexts. For example, we are given the viewpoint of the sailor/narrator, who is in turn relating a story told from the viewpoint of Marlow, who is in actuality relating a story written from the point of view of Conrad. With this in mind, it seems impossible to consider Heart of Darkness without thinking about how these perspectives affect and lend meaning to the story. As Brook Thomas, the author of the new historicist criticism in our book, notes, the meat of a story is not "inside" a kernel, but rather outside, existing within a social context.

Brook notes that there are several difficulties about judging the past. Among them is the fact that people have a natural tendancy to judge things based upon the current standards of society. For example, we now have an understanding of gender issues that was hardly in existence at the time of it's writing. Thus, it is impossible and unfair to judge the author (or his characters) by today's understanding of gender relations. In addition, the problem of language adds another element of confusion. Words and language change through time, and so does their meaning. A critic interested in Conrad's treatment of race might correctly point out the use of the socially charged word Nigger within his work. However, when viewed from a historical perspective, this use may have had a very different meaning. These are some of the issues that we must keep in mind when looking at literary works of the past if we can have any hope of interpreting the author's intent.

Lastly, Brook also brings up the idea of a "counter memory" which serves to disrupt the official history. In the case of Heart of Darkness this is found in Marlow's story. His story of the savagery inherent in man serves as a counterpoint to the grand ideal of imperialistic civilization. To Brook, the official memory is the "light" of empire which brings it's civilization and education with it to it's many colonies. On the contrary, the "darkness" of Conrad's story is the "horror" of the underlying truth of humanities savagery. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad doesn't describe to us the truth about empire, but rather shows us the lie (or counter-memory). When this lie is related to us by a person presumably living within this period, we become able to draw meaning from Conrad's work.

To me, this idea of the "lie" of civilization is very important. It is possible to look at all of history as a series of lies, or rather a "chronology of assumptions" which mold and shape our understanding of reality. Consider the following premises in Heart of Darkness. First of all, there is the assumption that the empire is just, and that it is inherently good in character. The second assumption is that the English are better than the savages. Thirdly, there is the assumption that the English are different from the savages due to their civilization. Next, the assumption that western civilization is inherently good. Lastly, that western civilization is better than the "savage" state of living.

Now, think about Heart of Darkness from the point of view of a person in some small "savage" tribe who has never been exposed to western civilization. If his idea of a just society is simply to hunt, survive, and care for his family, he will have a great deal of difficulty understanding the story because he hasn't bought into the inherent assumptions necessary to make meaning out of it. We, as critics of literature, are in a similar situation, though not quite so pronounced. We can somewhat identify with the context that Conrad operates from if we attempt a historical reading of the piece. However, the attempt is ultimately flawed because it is impossible to capture all the influences that Conrad had in writing the book.

In all, the historicist approach is a powerful tool in understanding literary works. It is particularly important when looking at the works of Conrad, himself a professed historian. Conrad paints his picture of the Heart of Darkness within the context of larger cultural and societal issues. He forces us to consider where we have been as a people, and where we are going. He asks us to reconsider our assumptions, and to recognize some qualities of humanity that persist throughout history. All of these things are impossible to consider without taking into consideration the "big picture" of human experience. In writing Heart of Darkness, Conrad allows us to see a glimpse of his time period, but more importantly makes us take a look at our perception of human history in it's entirety. Sometimes, this forces us to realize that there does in fact still linger the counter-memory of our savage origins, despite our professed civilization. To me, this is Conrad's message, and one which we should all take to heart.