Original Research

Heart of Darkness and the epistemology of cultural differences

P. B. Armstrong
Literator | Vol 15, No 1 | a648 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v15i1.648 | © 1994 P. B. Armstrong | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 02 May 1994 | Published: 02 May 1994

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P. B. Armstrong, University of Oregon, United States

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Heart of Darkness has a long history of disagreement about whether to regard it as a daring attack on imperialism or a reactionary purveyor of colonial stereotypes. Taking Achebe’s now famous indictment and Clifford's recent praise that Conrad was an exemplary anthropologist, this article argues that Conrad is neither a racist nor an exemplary anthropologist hut a skeptical dramatist of epistemological processes. The novella has received these divergent responses because its enactment of the dilemmas entailed in understanding cultural otherness is inherently double and strategically ambiguous. The article argues that the novella is a calculated failure to depict achieved cross-cultural understanding presented to the reader through textual strategies which oscillate between affirming and denying the possibility of understanding otherness. The article acknowledges that charges such as that made by Achebe are extremely valuable because they break the aura of the text and establish reciprocity between it and its interpreters by putting them on equal terms, and concludes that a recognition of how unsettingly ambiguous the text is about the ideals of reciprocity and mutual understanding will empower us to engage in a sort of dialogue with it which Marlow never achieves with Africans or anyone else.


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