I have asserted in earlier articles in this series that we are living in an Ironic Age. By that, I mean that there are various indications in the art, literature, film, theatre and other cultural expressions of our time that there has been a shift towards a focus on the ‘darker pole’. Myth tells us that from an initial Void there emerges a set of binary positions, commonly referred to as Light and Dark. What forms between these poles - i.e. everything that we know of as ‘the world’ - then tends to go into orbit around one pole or the other, or to strive to. That motion, that striving, arguably a part of Life itself, certainly forms the basis for the movement in forms of narrative ever since.
Epics and Comedies, as we have seen, move towards the Light; Tragedies and Ironies move towards the Dark. And throughout history these attempts to go into orbit have taken the forms defined by Northrop Frye in his book Anatomy of Criticism: Myth, Romance, High Mimetic (as in the plays of Shakespeare), Low Mimetic (as in novels) and Irony, as we see in modern and post-modern literature.
My initial encounter with this Ironic culture was when I first attended university in 1977. I had been a devotee of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis for many years, and it was in an effort to pursue my studies of their works that I went to university, only to discover that the structure of the curriculum in the English Department meant that I would need to wait several years before I could focus on them. The curriculum began with a study of Twentieth Century Literature, then proceeded in the second year to the Nineteenth Century and Shakespeare, before eventually breaking up into eclectic units such as Children’s Literature or Science Fiction. One had to ‘wade through’ all of this to get to a point at which one could select one’s topics of study - I ended up spending a total of seven years at university in order to achieve my initial ambition.
But the first year came as a real shock. I was not at all familiar with Twentieth Century Literature except for niches like fantasy and science fiction. The initial reading of some of the works of last century probably unhinged me to some extent: T. S. Eliot’s 'The Wasteland' and Sylvia Plath’s poetry featured highly. First among the novels was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Heart of Darkness is a good place to start in explaining what I mean by Irony in literature. Written in 1899, this novella by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad, about a voyage up the Congo River into the Congo Free State in the heart of Africa, was originally issued as a three-part serial story in Blackwood's Magazine but has since been widely re-published and translated into many languages. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness 67th on their list of the 100 best novels in English of the twentieth century.
In the novel, the story's narrator Charles Marlow tells the story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the River Thames of his obsession with an ivory trader, Kurtz. But to my naive adolescent mind, the novel twisted perceptions born in the world of Epic and effectively threatened to extinguish their light. This was a different fictional universe to the ones I was most used to: here, I learned of Marlow’s fascination with ‘the blank spaces’ on maps, particularly the blank space at the centre of Africa, which had turned into ‘a place of darkness’. The river that wound its way into the heart of this darkness resembled ‘an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land’ and that image of the river on the map hypnotised Marlow ‘as a snake would a bird’, making him feel as though ‘instead of going to the centre of a continent I were about to set off for the centre of the earth’.
Thus we are orientated to the darker pole immediately (if we were not already by the book’s title) and the imagery is already that of Myth: blank spaces, giant serpents, the sea, the earth. Conrad is using this imagery purposefully though: we are not being guided here towards release, victory or transcendence.
Marlow takes passage on a French steamer bound for the African coast and then goes on into the interior, eventually finding himself in a narrow ravine, ‘the gloomy circle of some Inferno’. Here, diseased Africans who worked on the railroad await their deaths. Marlow is ‘horror-struck’, and horror is the central emotion conveyed by the book.At the Company's Outer Station, which strikes Marlow as a scene of devastation, he hears of Mr. Kurtz, a ‘very remarkable person’ who ‘Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together’. As Marlow journeys deeper into the continent, he is met with a series of accidents, fires, scenes of torture and more devastation. Kurtz is referred to as ‘a prodigy’ and ‘an emissary of pity, and science, and progress’. Though clearly at the heart of much that seems morally wrong, Kurtz seems to represent for some the ‘higher intelligence, wide sympathies, a singleness of purpose’ needed to forward European purposes within Africa. As our moral bearings are subverted with a growing sense of horror, Marlow is told ‘The same people who sent him specially also recommended you’, subtly implicating our narrator and protagonist in the progression towards darkness.
Conrad uses the setting to convey a psychic journey deeper into a world which is unthinkingly hostile:
There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one's past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.
At one point, the crew of the river boat awakens to find that the boat is enveloped by a thick white fog and they hear a loud cry, followed by other mysterious noises. Then the steamboat is attacked by small arrows from the forest. The helmsman is impaled by a spear and Marlow watches him die. Marlow as narrator points out that the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had commissioned Kurtz to write a report. In the margins, apparently added later by Kurtz, a note reads ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’
As they draw nearer to Kurtz’s location, Marlow learns more about what is happening in the ‘darkness’: the natives worship Kurtz. He is admired by others for his apparent ‘insights’ into love, life, and justice, and primarily for his willingness to use power. All of this conveys to Marlow that Kurtz has gone mad.
It becomes apparent that others feel that Kurtz has harmed the Company's business in the region, using ‘unsound’ methods and that there is an intention to remove him from the station and hang him. Finding Kurtz weak with illness, they begin a return trip, but Kurtz's health worsens and Marlow himself becomes increasingly ill. As Kurtz approaches death, Marlow hears him weakly whisper: ‘The horror! The horror!’ The next day Marlow pays hardly any attention as they bury ‘something’ in a muddy hole. Marlow becomes ill almost to the point of death himself.
When he recovers, Marlow is contemptuous of the ‘civilised’ world. He visits Kurtz's fiancée a year later to find her still dressed in black and deep in mourning, asking him to repeat Kurtz's final words. Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's final word was her name.
This was my first real experience of a piece of fiction which journeyed into the ‘heart of darkness’ which had Conrad’s intended effect to draw the story into orbit around a darker pole - though Conrad denied any underlying ‘unity of artistic purpose’ in an author’s note to a 1917 edition.
Those of us who have been following this series will be able to clearly see the skeleton of Myth: the polar opposites, the archetypes, the motion towards a pole. But here, all is blurred and undermined: there is no ‘wise old man’ pointing the way to wisdom and victory, unless it is Marlow himself - but his philosophy is bleak:
Do you see the story? Do you see anything? 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, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence - that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream - alone. While the dream disappears, the life continues painfully.
Here, positive attributes are seen in a negative context: ‘Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others’. Instead of the protagonist progressing upward towards some kind enlightenment or freedom, the conclusion is empty:
Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself - that comes too late - a crop of inextinguishable regrets.
When Marlow looks upon Kurtz, the antagonist, he sees the dark pole itself, embodied:
He struggled with himself, too. I saw it - I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.
There is no quest for meaning to be found here. Quite the opposite, the transformation is towards the emptying of meaning:
I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.
The message of the novel, insofar as it has any, is a desolate one: ‘Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.’
I hardly knew what hit me in 1977. Which was the whole point - Irony strikes down conventional ‘bright’ morality and its themes of redemption, release and providential order. Conrad succeeded in setting the boat adrift, as it were: unmoored, I made my way deeper into the darkness myself.
Irony, by presenting a decaying, rotten underbelly of reality to the reader, also attempts to convey that it is the only truth - that that underbelly represents the bedrock of reality. Actually, all it is is the last stage of going into orbit around the darker pole, a pole where the Emerging Warrior King has fallen into the mire, where the Submerging Female Companion remains submerged in grief and delusion, where there is no sign of comedy, and where the Protagonist becomes the Shadow Protagonist.
There are plenty of examples of this in the literature of the Twentieth Century and beyond - but each betrays its essence when examined in the light of Myth.