The Conradian: Review
Mask of Tragedy

By Tanya Gokulsing, Worcester College, Oxford

Nic Panagopoulos: "Heart of Darkness" and The Birth of Tragedy: A Comparative Study. Athens: Kardamitsa, 2002

Nic Panagopoulos intention in this volume is summed up by its title. Thus, his attempts not to prove actual borrowings but rather to explore "affinities and parallels" (7) between Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. Indeed, from the very beginning of his study, Panagopoulos is careful to emphasize that "it cannot be categorically proven that Conrad had read Nietzsche's work first-hand" (4). Nevertheless, he does hypothesize that "Conrad may have read the French translation which appeared in 1901" (3), and reminds us of the various references to the philosopher that we find in Conrad's correspondence.

Panagopoulos, moreover, maintains that "It seems unlikely ... that a writer as receptive as Conrad to the intellectual currents of his time would have chosen to ignore such a provocative and original thinker" (1). Although these questions as to the exact nature of Conrad's knowledge of Nietzsche are confined to the Introduction, they form the basis for the approach, which is to explore in some detail the textual echoes of Nietzsche's first book in Conrad's 1899 novella.

So it is that Panagopoulos goes on to provide a close textual exploration of "Heart of Darkness" with reference to, in turn, the Apollo-Dionysus opposition, Nietzsche's theory of tragedy, and the dangers of knowledge which Kurtz experiences firsthand, followed by the making safe of this knowledge through Marlow's artistic transfiguration of the experience into a narrative.

Panagopoulos's exploration relies heavily upon close textual scrutiny, and so it is particularly frustrating that a considerable number of the quotations contain errors and inaccuracies. Indeed, throughout the volume, the text itself is something of an issue: there are several typographical errors and, in addition, the scores of footnotes -- many rather long -- make for somewhat difficult reading. I wondered whether more of these could have been incorporated into the main body of the work.

Such quibbles aside, however, I found the approach extremely fruitful. Moreover, given the multiplicity of articles and book chapters dedicated to "Heart of Darkness," Panagopoulos's task -- to write something new about the novella -- is no enviable project, but his detailed reading proves profitable.

In Chapter 1, Panagopoulos briefly reminds us of the way in which Apollo and Dionysus were viewed in ancient Greece and offers an account of their associations for Nietzsche, before going on to provide a thorough examination of the appearance of the Apollonian and Dionysian in "Heart of Darkness." The central argument of the chapter is that "the conceptual opposition between culture and nature is ultimately undermined in 'Heart of Darkness' as it is in The Birth of Tragedy, for behind the civilised Apollo lies the savage Dionysus and vice-versa" (74).

This argument, it seems to me, is not new: it is simply an alternative way of exploring Marlow's own assertion, speaking about Europe, that "darkness was here yesterday." Never the less, Panagopoulos perhaps goes further than most in arguing that the Apollo-Dionysus (light-dark/civilized-savage) opposition is the novella's "structuring principle" (86), and he provides us with such a wealth of textual detail to support this claim that readers may find themselves looking afresh at certain passages of the story.

Turning to the tragic theme in "Heart of Darkness," Chapter 2 takes much the same form as the first, outlining both the origins of tragedy and Nietzsche's own theory before moving on to consider Conrad's text. Beginning from the premise that "'Heart of Darkness" adopts the basic format of the single hero-chorus-audience of early tragedy" (86), in the form of Kurtz, his worshippers, and Marlow, Panagopoulos sets out the basis for his discussion of tragedy in the tale. Marlow, Panagopoulos argues, "plays the role of the cultivated spectator of Greek tragedy" (96), a spectator invited to partake in Dionysian knowledge but who ultimately embodies "an Apollonian response to the savagery and horror of his Congo experience" (87).

This Apollonian response, argues Panagopoulos, is symbolised by the pose "of a meditating Buddha" (HD 162) which Marlow adopts at the opening and close of the narrative, and by his artistic structuring of "the nightmare" (HD 141, 150) into a coherent tale -- an issue to which Chapter 3 later returns. Meanwhile, of the chorus Panagopoulos focuses particularly on the Russian, who, he argues, is equivalent to Dionysus's mythical companion, the half-man, half-goat satyr of Greek legend. Finally, Kurtz himself is, Panagopoulos explains, "modelled on Dionysus" (96), inspiring both devotion and fear in his worshipping chorus, while causing his superiors to judge him "unsound" just as Dionysus's "popular orgiastic cult was seen as a threat to the religious and social establishment of its day" (107).

In addition, Chapter 2 suggests an interesting correlation between Nietzsche's (and, before him, Schopenhauer's) emphasis on the "universal language" of music and Conrad's emphasis on the human voice, for: "Just as music was considered by Schopenhauer the truest representation of the 'thing-in-itself' in this shadowy world of "phenomena," the voice is viewed by Marlow as the only reality of his whole nightmare experience of the Congo" (122).

Overall, Panagopoulos's argument in this chapter is persuasive, and he is successful making explicit the parallels between Nietzsche and Conrad. Never the less, it is, as the Introduction intimates, possible that the single hero-chorus-audience structure taken from Greek tragedy was so universally known that, in drawing on this structure for the writing of "Heart of Darkness," Conrad was inspired by wide reading rather than simply by his knowledge of Nietzsche.

The third and final chapter of Panagopoulos's study explores the dangers inherent in Marlow's journey, and the way in which that enigmatic experience is transformed, through art, into a coherent narrative. Particularly interesting is the argument that Marlow's (and Kurtz's) "incoherent and chaotic Dionysian experience" is transformed into "a familiar and meaningful Apollonian form" (148) both through the structuring of the experience into a narrative and through the lie to the Intended -- as both offer "an Apollonian state of innocence deliberately and laboriously affirmed in the face of the Dionysian horrors of life" (157).

As before, the admirably detailed textual commentary that Panagopoulos offers is highly persuasive, and he repeatedly draws out this textual detail to compare the ideas expressed in Conrad's novella with those discussed by Nietzsche. The figure of Hamlet appears frequently as a possible comparison -- or even model -- for Kurtz, and, although Panagopoulos does not argue this himself, it is interesting to speculate whether in some respects Hamlet allows for parallels between Conrad and Nietzsche; while the latter used Hamlet as an example of Dionysian man (see Panagopoulos 138), Conrad's familiarity with Shakespeare is well known. Indeed, he had certainly read Hamlet by the time of writing "Heart of Darkness," for Lord Jim, written during the same period, makes a number of allusions to it.

Overall, although one can never be entirely certain that affinities between "Heart of Darkness" and The Birth of Tragedy point to the existence of any real relationship between the books, Panagopoulos's thorough and detailed account is both admirable in itself and offers a number of thought-provoking points of convergence between the two texts.

© 2005 Tanya Gokulsing






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