The article by Colleen Burke titled Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Metaphor of Jungian Psychology is well written, insightful and instructive. The author draws on parallels between the works of two great intellectuals in the form of Joseph Conrad and Carl Gustav Jung. Although Conrad and Jung were not contemporaries, one could see striking resemblances between the theories proposed by them. Indeed, Conrad preceded Jung by a generation, yet there are strong analogues to Jungian Psychology to be witnessed in the works of Conrad, most accessible in the novella The Heart of Darkness.
The rest of this essay will delve further into this assertion, by way of underscoring the valid rationale presented by Colleen Burke in her article.
Access to Jung’s views on Africa is to be found in his personal memoirs of his travels within the continent. In his classic memoir Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Jung expounds on the mysteries of African wilderness to that of its political and social institutions.
In his observations, Africa is a ‘place of darkness’, where primitivism, barbarism and wild nature have suppressed the development of finer civilization. Jung contends that for the European explorer, the novelty and shock of this experience is not merely intellectual and cultural, but rather goes deeper. It is no less than an encounter with his/her own primal unconscious that the European experiences.
We find in The Heart of Darkness too that the African journey of the protagonist Marlow is symbolic of his journey within.
And akin to the chaos and expanse of the African landscape, the inner world of the European individual countering Africa comes across as a dream-world bordering on the surreal. For example, “both Jung and Conrad experienced Africa as a dreamscape, slipping from the physical to the metaphoric in a trance-like state.” In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung notes while in Kakamegas that he was unsure if his perception had shifted from dream to the reality or vice versa. Likewise, the central character of The Heart of Darkness, Marlow, talks about his ambiguous feelings thus: “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation….” (Conrad, as quoted in Burke, 1996).
Hence, it is evident that both Conrad and Jung held analogous views on the interconnectedness of the rich African geo-physical tapestry and the inner-depths of individual sub-consciousness. Moreover, the timeless, ethereal and primordial feel of the African cultural experience is a metaphor for the alienation of the subconscious self from outward manifestation of personality. What both Conrad and Jung are hinting at is that the cultural constructs carried by Europeans are fragile indeed, easily shaken by the powerful forces lying within the Dark Continent.
Further, both authors suggest an evolution of consciousness that accompanies a journey deep into Africa. This evolution is said to enhance and enrich the psychological life of the subject. Beyond the affect on the mind and the psyche, there’s also the potential for spiritual growth. In the case of Marlow, the journey is “the archetypal myth dramatized in much great literature since the Book of Jonah: the story of an essentially solitary journey involving profound spiritual change in the voyager. In its classical form the journey is a descent into the earth, followed by a return to the light.” Again, this perspective is present in the works of Jung as well.
We also find manifestations of Jung’s concepts of the anima and animus in the narrative of The Heart of Darkness. These two primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind are clearly evident in the descriptions of the motives and actions of Marlow and Kurtz. Colleen Burke’s thesis is strengthened by the fact that both authors in discussion draw upon their personal subjective experiences of Africa as much as from objective interpretation. While this may go against norms of scientific enquiry, probing into the sub-conscious terrain is best accomplished through subjective/personal expression. This strong parallel between the works of Jung and Conrad, further supports the stated thesis.
The other theme persistent throughout the works of both authors is that of ‘darkness’. This word is subject to wide range of interpretation, as it represents the enveloping darkness of the swamps of Congo as well as the resident evil of individual consciousness. It could further be interpreted as the political intrigue and chaos that has engulfed the continent ever since European imperialism got established. This notion of ‘darkness’ articulated by Jung also shows up through references to ‘shadow’ in The Heart of Darkness. As Burke notes,
“the word ‘shadow’ itself postulates the illusory nature of this unconscious assertion of evil; a shadow is a reflection of reality rather than substantial reality. But it is no less dangerous, for the archetypal; shadow in the unconscious spins the illusions that veil the conscious world, leaving the individual out of touch with reality…” (Burke, 1996)
Hence in conclusion, in the face of such compelling evidence showcasing the analogue between the postulations of Conrad and Jung, it is difficult to find antithetical positions to Colleen Burke’s thesis. Perhaps, if there is one area she fails to address, it is the misplaced sense of European ethno-superiority that is obvious in both Conrad and Jung. But beyond this, Burke accomplishes what she sets out to do, namely, to find the metaphor of Jungian Psychology in Conrad’s masterpiece The Heart of Darkness. This achievement should stand the test of time and further critical scholarship on the subject.
Colleen Burke, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Metaphor of Jungian Psychology, 1996.
Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Ed. Aniela Jaffe. New York: Random House, 1989.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness, New York: Dover, 1990.