ENGL 212: Modern British Novels

Emma Riehl
Modern British Novels
Dr. John Neary
May 5, 2014

Horribly Beautiful: The Inexpressibility of Self in Heart of Darkness and Mrs. Dalloway

I believe the recognition of the true self and soul verges on impossibility. Such introspection cannot be conveyed through language and in silence we must embrace the terrifyingly beautiful fragility of human life. We can speak with others about our emotional or psychological state, but our words and theirs do not reach far enough–they’re merely tossed around our minds, producing flashes of recognition, of connotation, association–they tell us nothing of the person across from us. Such is the distance between humans when grappling with the idea of self and the quiet fear of simply being alive. One has to wonder if we are the same while simultaneously accepting that we will never receive an answer to our questions on the subject. Even in this acceptance, we have to question, we have to push boundaries, limits of expression, experience, interaction, and especially self-exploration and acknowledgement. The characters I am most drawn to in the texts we have read this past semester are, unsurprisingly, Clarissa Dalloway of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Marlow from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Both Clarissa and Marlow seek the definition of selfhood and confront its terrifying beauty directly only to discover that one’s own exploration of self is futile among the vast expanse of human mind and heart.

Marlow’s inferred meaning of his story of Kurtz is one that avoids being named yet expression of such deep truth must be attempted, felt, and reveled in. His notion that meaning envelopes the tale, not strictly inside it or even mentioned within it, can be taken as a metaphor for his belief of the state of true self. The journey to the center of the continent to seek out Kurtz, I believe, mimics our desired route into our own consciousness. Marlow was drawn to the mission because it lured him in. He did not go for power or money, but in a vain hope of satisfying human curiosity. Something lurks within the heart of the continent that calls to Marlow in an indistinguishable language–a beckoning mystery of known unsolvability. This call, I believe, is one we all must answer in our lifetime. One can answer the call, but must accept that the mystery will only slip away once we have completed the journey. We grow eager as we approach the beautiful dancing flame only to realize it is the burning wick of a sole candle extinguished by a single, faint breath.

This idea leads me to the figure of Kurtz, and what I believe he represents in the novel. Yes, he is more a concept, an idea, than he is a human character–but then again, he represents the full spectrum of humanity, the unhinging of the human psyche. He began, as we are led to believe, as an eager, ambitious, and refined (or restrained) gentleman. He loved a woman and enjoyed her companionship, leading a rather normal life.  However, once entering the dark continent he embraced wholeheartedly the polar opposite end of the human spectrum: he welcomed all that his past society rejected or attempted to ignore. Running rampant in greed, lust, power, and hunger, he freed his consciousness of its societal limits. It’s this dark freedom, I believe, that allows him to glimpse, however briefly, the vast expanse that is the self–the void, the expanding chasm of our being. Nothing divine is present in the horror. Grace has not set foot here. The word “horror,” plucked from linguistic obscurity by Kurtz himself, barely conveys the message of self (if conveyance occurs at all). The horror of being that Kurtz realizes does not merely apply to himself. Though I fully agree with Marlow that “we live as we dream–alone,” I believe that what Kurtz refers to as “the horror” is not merely his own “horrific” self. Said thought can easily be seen as fitting considering Kurtz’s character’s portrayal as a representation of the rather horrific human being, but I see it as much, much more than that. “The horror” is not a reference to his own internal darkness, but a reference to all that precedes and follows our life, our beliefs, our emotions, our imprint on the earth (if an imprint is left at all). “The horror” refers to the collective being that is humanity and all that surrounds it. It’s the fog that surrounds the center, where we believe the true self would be. It is the exterior mystery, the pervading mist that obscures our vision, the veil we pull on our own eyes when clinging firmly to a religious belief system–this is “the horror.”

The aforementioned elements are not horrible or “incorrect” in nature simply because they are referred to as “the horror.” I believe that Kurtz (and perhaps Conrad) are referring to such elements of humanity as “horrors” because a horror is something incomprehensible and the sheer mystery of it and at once the unbelievable truth of it makes it not only a horror, but the horror because it underlines our existence. Are these qualities that we attribute to the horror not the same as how we would, in a sense, describe the divine? True, Marlow’s view of the self stands utterly devoid of any elements of divine faith, and I am not arguing the contrary. Rather, I believe that the deeply mysterious and unbelievably truthful yet incomprehensible vastness of the “horror” described in Heart of Darkness likens to a modern view of divinity. The presentation of a world of beings living utterly alone and distant from one another and everything else only perpetuates the possibility for the opposite to be true considering the character of Kurtz and his polarity. Said point allows me to make the connection of Marlow’s story to that of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway of Mrs. Dalloway.

Clarissa desires connection and believes the self to be the whole world–a mist that pervades all corners of our life, even the lives of people we interact with. Our mists mingle. We are not alone. However, she cherishes solitude and independence. Our souls need privacy; we need time alone with our thoughts, our desires, our feeling of being alive. The privacy she craves is disrupted by concepts such as love and religion because through them we are converted and are no longer purely our own. I agree with Clarissa’s theory because to enjoy life we must be able to revel in the mystery of it all–the mystery of another person, of nature, of life itself. With regulated rules and structures that come with many branches of religion and in many romantic relationships, we are not allowed to embrace mystery and separation.

Septimus’s suicide is indeed an affirmation of life because it shows his desire to remain his own mystery, his own being, without being converted by Dr. Bradshaw. We are free–our selves are everywhere, are everything–without confinement of any kind, and Septimus is a testament to this. Yes, he suffers from post traumatic stress, but the disorder is his, a part of his self. Therefore, freedom through death became incredibly appealing to him. This notion of belonging to yourself and to the world rings quite true to me.

Just as Marlow expresses in Heart of Darkness, the center of the tale is not the stated meaning. The meaning is not stated, it is inferred. It surrounds the tale externally, enveloping it, obscuring while at the same time clarifying our sense of self. This mist is the self. An inexpressible, horribly beautiful, fragile, undeniably meaningful essence.

Kurtz sees the self and expresses, “the horror!” but I believe Clarissa, if she should choose to use a word to express the self, would breathily say “the beauty.” What’s the difference? Can be something be so horribly vast, impenetrable, inexpressible, and terrifying that it becomes beautiful? Is such a determination strictly subjective? I hardly believe Kurtz’s declaration of horror reflects his and only his feelings on the matter. His words echo through generations of readers, writers, and artists alike in our search for self. And, personally speaking, I do not accept the single negative connotation of the word “horror” to pervade all interpretations of Kurtz’s realization. It is ambiguous, sure, but I strongly believe it is the type of horror that inches nearer and nearer toward profound beauty. The word “horror” is just that: a word, and I daresay it nearly fits with the terror that seizes us in our deep exploration of self. What else could fit? Surely the journey toward selfhood is not peaceful. It’s unsettling, unnerving, dissatisfying, mysterious, yet it is so incredibly alluring and irresistible that we must, we absolutely must do it. And is it not beautiful–the siren song of the self to be discovered? And, if we can make it, if we can glimpse the self, we can then view it everywhere, in everything, and in everyone we meet. What better feeling than journeying to the center only to return to its exterior and see what you searched for everywhere–a light, intangible mist, forever evading language, a mystery that is so beautiful it is at once horrifying.