"A Meditating Buddha" and the Self in Heart of Darkness
Kwang-Sok Han
Yeo Joo College


The movement of Heart of Darkness constructs one cycle of return: the action of the story begins in a civilized society of Europe, moves into the raw nature of Africa, goes into self-knowledge there, and returns to the civilized world. This cyclic movement of return, though familiar and thereby easily overlooked, is quite significant relative to the problem of Marlow's self-discovery; it is the geographical movement of an action which coincides with the inner flow of Marlow's nature and the pattern of self-knowledge.

Heart of Darkness is centrally concerned with epistemological issues. Above all, it is a narrative engaged with the possibilities of knowledge about the self and the world. Many critics have pointed out that Marlow's journey into the center of Africa is a spiritual process of self-discovery, a metaphor for Marolw's spiritual odyssey to "the inconceivable mystery of [his] soul" (Conrad 82). Marlow himself acknowledges self-discovery to be the most important part of his journey and "the most [we] can hope from [the Droll thing life]" (Conrad 86). Yet critics have often overlooked that Marlow's mind is presented as a microcosmic expression of the macrocosm and that the cycle of return is comprehended as the principle dominating the two worlds simultaneously. Especially, the ignorance of the synchronistic and interacting relationship of Marlow's inner and outer worlds has led the critics to pay little attention to the significant relation of Marlow's process of self-discovery to the Buddha tableaux1) of the novel, which describes Marlow as sitting in the Buddha posture and compares him to a meditating Buddha on three crucial occasions, once in the beginning of the story(18,21), once in the middle(63), and once at the end(94).

Of course, a familiarity with the primary sources of the India and Buddhist texts cannot be claimed with any certainty for Conrad, but he read Schopenhauer who discussed at length the philosophies of the Orient in The World As Will And Idea.2) From this source Conrad, who was one of a number of important writers deeply influenced by Schopenhauer, could derive a great deal information concerning both the general outlines of Oriental thought and specific details of Oriental iconography. This paper will illuminate the dynamic relation of the process of Marlow's self-discovery to the Buddha tableaux, and demonstrate that the cycle of return offers not only a pattern of self-knowledge but a new epistemological way of looking at man and the world.


Marlow, before embarking on his story, explains to his listeners on board the Nellie that his plan to go to Africa began while he was looking at a map in a shop window. Fascinated by a river, ¡°a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled" (22), he intended to get charge of a river steamboat and "could not shake off the idea. The snake had charmed [Marlow]" (22). On the most general level, the story seems to be another version of the Fall into what is called in the Bible the knowledge of good and evil. The discriminative knowledge was indeed forbidden knowledge, because, as we will see, it is not a genuine knowledge at all: it cannot even tell us anything about good and evil. Intellection is necessarily dualistic because it always implies subject and object. Human civilization, constructed upon the discriminative knowledge and language which differentiate the blank actuality, as the blank spaces on the map have been filled in with names, inevitably places Marlow in the first "pose of the Buddha preaching in European clothes" (21) of civilization.

"Consciousness of self," argues Emile Benveniste, "is only possible if it is experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address. It is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally I becomes you in the address of the one who in his turn designates himself as I. Here we spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse" (729). The consequence of this linguistic discrimination is that the "I," the basis of discrimination, places itself as the center of everything and locates "here" as the standpoint from which one looks onto the universe, as the frame narrator describes London as the originating interior, "the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth" (17), a moral source from which there emanates "messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire" (19). If we, as Abe suggests, call this type of "I" an "ego-self," the ego-self shapes itself according to prescriptions enshrined in language, and stands in contradistinction to all other selves by differentiating itself from some other self (6). It is therefore unavoidable that the ego-self puts the question to itself, "Who am I ?" - an inevitable question for the ego-self because it objectifies everything, including itself.

According to Masao Abe,3) with regard to the question of "who am I?," it is necessary to ask ourselves, "Who is asking, 'who am I?'" The ego-self may answer, "I am asking, 'who am I?'" But this answer presents the same and yet different two "I"s: the subject "I" which is asking and the object "I" which is inquired into. When I am asking about myself, this myself is not the true "I" because it is already objectified and an objectified self is not a living self: the true and living self is the "I" which is asking (Abe 6).

It may look as if the self can be viewed objectively, but this is not true self; the true self is the self that sees the objectified self from behind. If the self is objectified, it immediately becomes something isolated from the true self. The true self is beyond objectification and determination. This turns out to be true if we raise another question, "Who is asking, 'who is asking, who am I?'" As Abe points out, here another "I" appears as a new subject and the "I" which was the subject of the previous question is now objectified and transformed into the object of a new question (6). This is to signify that the "I" as the true self can never be attained in such an objectification approach because it always moves back and stands behind the presentation of the objectified self. The true self is completely non-objectifiable: in Nietzsche's terms, "I itself" is "a thought construction of the same rank as 'matter,' 'thing,' 'substance,' etc. . . . so only as a regulative fiction with the help of which a kind of constancy, and therefore 'knowability,' is placed or invented into a world of becoming" (qtd. in Parkes 58). There is no other objective testimony to the true "I" except that which one gives about himself. The interior is the realm of what Bakhtin calls "that internally unfinalizable something in man" (Problems 58) and of what Derrida calls "a primordial non-self presence." This means that the true self, as the unobjectifiable, is empty and "hollow at the core" (Conrad 73). Therefore, when the ego-self, split at the root into subject and object, disappears, then we can come to the realization of no-self or no-ego-self. Marlow's voyage to the heart of Africa is a journey that goes "deeper into the heart of darkness" (50) in which he comes to the sense of "having been bewitched and cut off for ever from everything [he] had known once" (48), and in which the differentiation of subject and object, self and other, is overcome and he goes into the empty realm of no-self.

Heart of Darkness offers a significant image that is as persistent as necessary to the interpretation of Marlow's self-discovery. The tale offers a reaching towards a far distant point on the limit of experience. Early in the story the frame narrator describes the Thames as "a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth" (18). When Marlow begins to speak, he describes the terminus of his voyage as "the farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of [his] experience" (21). In Africa he experiences something "so real" that he has never seen in his life (37). And "I went a little farther," says the Russian, "then still a little farther - till I had gone so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back" (70). Kurtz had passed "beyond the bounds of permitted aspiration" (82), but "the knowledge came to him at last - only at the very last" (73). And when Marlow visits the Intended, he hears "the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness" (92).

This theme of "threshold" or "bounds" is very important in the novel. "Threshold" in the story is a line between light and darkness, morality and immorality, being and nothing, sanity and insanity, ego-self and no-self. This theme of "threshold" is most remarkably suggested in Marlow's description of Kurtz's final moment, in which Marlow notes that:

It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot . . . all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. (87)

The references to¡°edge" and ¡°threshold" signify that Marlow`s ego-self pushes itself further and further, comes to a deadlock, and collapses through the total realization of endlessness and unattainablility. This is to say that there is no continuous path from the ego-self to no-self, but rather a discontinuity which can be overcome only by a leap in which the ego-self is radically and completely broken through. The ego-self is pushed to an extreme situation in which objectification and binary discrimination can no longer be sustained.

As Suzuki points out,¡°self-knowledge is possible only when the identification of subject and object takes place" (25). Once the ego-self is broken through, the subject-object duality is eliminated and ¡°a flash of inspiration" of self-knowledge (81) is obtained. Actually,¡°the farthest point" to which Marlow`s ego-self is pushed, says Marlow, ¡°seemed . . . to throw a kind of light on everything about me" (21) and "the earth seemed unearthly" (51).

The essence of the experience of direct confrontation with the "edge" remains incommunicable; every word violates and distorts it, for it is an intuitive and immediate awareness rather than a mediated, inferential, or intellectual process. As Marlow puts it, "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" (42). The experience of the non-differentiated realm is like a "dream" in that "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" (42). When Marlow goes though "the door of Darkness" (18) and "glide[s£Ýpast like phantom, wondering and secretly appalled" (50), it implies that he is travelling in the non-differentiated realm of African wilderness, "in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign" (50), and that he attains the union with nature, "a unity, continuum" (Johnson 71). In this unity with nature, a non-differentiated continuum, the individual self is identified with the cosmic self Buddha who "embrace[s£Ýthe whole universe" (86), and it is not the individual Marlow's voice but the voice of nature herself which speaks in the darkness, a signifier of the non-differentiated realm.

Voice, in Heart of darkness, is the focus for an investigation of identity and presence, and for a phenomenological critique (Pecora 1001). "The phenomenological voice," as Derrida has analyzed it, "would be this spiritual flesh that continues to speak and be present to itself - to hear itself - in the absence of the world" (16). Marlow's voice is successful representation of the wandering "phantom" (50), a voice that is and yet is not there. "It had become so pitch dark," says the primary narrator, "that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice" (42). Marlow's narrative is "a narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river" (42). The pitch-darkness symbolically represents the ultimate reality, absolute nothingness or emptiness, which is dynamically identical with fullness. That everything is empty is realized in boundless openess. Emptiness is non-differentiated fullness. That is, emptiness and fullness are dialectically one in a non-conceptual, existential way. Furthermore, as the unobjectifiable, emptiness is one's true self. Thus the voice that speaks from the emptiness, like a voice in the desert, is at once present and absent: it emerges from the emptiness, yet it cannot be traced to a source; it speaks yet cannot be grasped. Marlow whose "lean face," like Buddha's, "appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention" (63) might be called Emptiness because, as the ultimate speaker, he cannot be objectified and cannot be anything whatsoever. The ultimate speaker is nothing but a voice that emerges from the darkness, and Marlow's voice is "spoken by no one to no one" (Miller 219). This notion of emptiness might explain why/how Marlow, as a "wanderer on a prehistoric earth" (50), could feel not only that "[Kurtz] was very little more than a voice" but that "[all of others] were so little more than voices" (63).

Marlow's concept of voice and personal identity is confirmed in his meeting with Russian, "the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit" (70). "I," says the Russian, "went a little farther, then still a little farther - till I had gone so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back" (70). This implies that he eventually takes off the clothes of the ego-self and lives in the primal unity with nature. So he "surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe"; "his need was to exist" "with a maximum of privation" (70). This self-denial or self-naughting spirit, from which moral power derives, has "consumed all thought of self so completely, that, even while he was talking to [Marlow], [Marlow] forgot that it was he - the man before [Marlow's] eyes - who had gone through these thing" (70). The Russian is in this sense indeed little more than a voice or nature herself.

Once the non-differentiated reality is disclosed in the realization of no-self, we come to recognize not only that the individual mind is the universe and the universe is the individual mind, but that part is the whole and the whole is part. This notion deconstructs the established concept of center and edge. In the prologue of the story the primary narrator describes "Kings' ship" past as an heroic movement "from Deptfort, from Greenwich, from Erith" to "the uttermost ends of the earth" (18). This radiating relation of "from" and "to" is immediately inverted by Marlow who invokes the memory of a Roman commander in Britain: "Imagine him here - the very end of the world" (20). London, which had been the generating center, now becomes the farthest frontier. As noted, since the "I," the basis of discrimination, places itself as the center of everything and always locates "here" as an experiential center, to speak of "here" as "the very end of the world" means that Marlow confutes the categories of perceptual experience, which enables him to represent the Congo as both "the farthest point of navigation" (21) and "the center of the earth" (27). When he arrives at the very "heart of darkness" (50), Marlow finds himself "on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy" (50). The two, antithetical center and edge, blend into one space-time continuum of Africa darkness. This is to reveal a paradoxical reality that the center is on the periphery and the edge lies in the center.

The commingling of center and edge gives a pattern to self-discovery: cycle of return. When the development of anything brings it to one extreme, a reversal to the other extreme takes place; that is, to borrow an expression from Hegel, everything involves its own negation. The same is true of "mind of man" in which "everything is" (51). Just as the Russian's mind has been "enlarged" by Kurtz (70), the boundaries of the mind are extended, but at the same time the mind contains all experiences because "everything is in it" (51). Here the cyclic combines the duality of center and edge, of the constant and the changing. To make a journey to the edge is to find oneself at the center, and to arrive at the center is to stand on the edge. As Marlow perceives, when Kurzt steps "over the edge," he is able "to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness" (86). Introspective plunge becomes possible only when one crosses a frontier. It is therefore essential to go a long way to the farthest point, through many difficulties, for Marlow to find the center he has never left. His mind has to be enlarged until it finds what it always has.

Certainly, Marlow's arrival at "the farthest point," at which his return trip begins, has brought him to no-self and non-differentiated reality. This negative realization is important and necessary in order for ultimate reality to be disclosed, but to remain solely within the confines of this negative realization, in which there is no differentiation, no objectification, no duality of subject and object, would be nihilistic. The negative view must be negated. Emptiness must empty itself.

It is true that Marlow in Africa feels a sense of union or related oneness which is strong enough to "confound the beat of the drum with the beating of [his] beat (31), but it is not a sense of "remote kinship" (51), "subtle bond" (66), or "distant kinship" (66). In Abe's terms, Marlow's ego-self in the civilized world of Europe was rooted in a mode of consciousness which may be likened to an opaque wall that blocks the view of this ego-self, thereby precluding any clear view of Reality" (11). In contrast to this, in his realization in the darkness of Africa that his self is emptiness, the no-self is "rooted in a mode of consciousness which may be compared to a transparent wall through which reality can be clearly seen without obstruction" (11). The transition from his civilized world of Europe to the heart of African darkness is a decoloring process by which the opaque wall is cleansed of all colours, an evacuating process by which his ego-self is "unaccommodated" to his no-self. He can now clearly see reality through the transparent wall. Yet, as Abe points out, "the 'I' is likely to confuse the transparency of the wall with its disappearance, for the wall appears to no longer exist. Thus the 'I', in 'seeing' Reality, deludedly comes to believe that it is identical with Reality, without any gap whatsoever between the 'I' and Reality" (11). Marlow has to break down the wall itself in order to throughly overcome the distinction between Reality and himself. It is not until the wall itself is removed that Marlow can clearly see "the non-differentiated sameness - which is at once the clearest differentiation - of ultimate Reality" (Abe 12), which, as we will see, seems to enable Marlow to say, "The last word he [Kurtz] pronounced was - your name" (93).

Yet the removal of the wall itself needs a leap in an extreme situation in which no-self is completely broken through just as the negation of ego-self was a leap at the far edge of Marlow's consciousness or intellect. Marlow's meeting with the Intended ultimately takes him over the verge for the leap just as his journey to Kurtz did for the leap of his ego-self into no-self. Martin points out that Marlow's encounter with the Intended constitutes a second journey which parallels his journey to Kurtz. "Without doubt," says Martin, "Marlow is reliving his journey to Kurtz during his visit to Kurtz's Intended" (30). Conrad juxtaposes the two encounters, he continues, in order to emphasize the difference between Kurtz and the Intended, between evil and good. I agree with Martin that there are two clear journeys, but he overlooks a very important fact: that in the eyes of Marlow whose perspective has been enlarged in the realization of no-self, the sameness of reality is disclosed, and binary discrimination does not take place.

Marlow's encounter with the Intended subverts conventional dualities by collapsing them. On a street like "a well-kept alley in a cemetery" (89), the house suggests a mausoleum, containing a "tall marble fireplace," with a "cold and monumental whiteness," and grand piano "like a sombre and polished sarcophagus" (90). Standing at the Intended's door, Marlow again sees Kurtz, who seems to live again and to enter the house with him. Marlow feels that Kurtz and darkness blend into light and goodness. In the interview scene, the images of light and whiteness actually suggest the opposites of purity and goodness. The Intended's fireplace is white, but with whiteness of the tomb. She is "illumined by the unextinguishable light of belief and love," but "with every word spoken the room [is] growing darker" (91). Her "great and saving illusion" does shine, but it is "an unearthly glow in the darkness" (92). The conventional image of whiteness and light are reversed and collapse into those of darkness, so that both darkness and light suggest the sameness of reality.

As their interview progresses, deconstruction of discrimination goes so far as to blur the distinction between past and present, between the jungle and the city, between Kurtz and the Intended: "I saw her and him in the same instant of time. . . I saw them together - I heard them together" (91). In addition, the Intended herself, who "put[s] out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them back and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window" (93), is identified with the native mistress "bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare down arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness" (93). Eventually the Intended's voice conveys the sound not only of Kurtz's final whispered cry but also of the wilderness itself:

The sounds of her low voice seemed to have the accompaniment of all the other sounds, full of mystery, desolation, and sorrow, I had ever heard - . . . the whisper of a voice speaking from beyond the threshold of an eternal darkness. (92)

Yet behind these non-differentiation of Marlow is hidden the higher level of differentiation between differentiation and "no differentiation." Unless this negative realization of "no differentiation" is overcome, he has no positive ground for his life and activity, so that he inevitably remains nihilistic and becomes so restless and uneasy as to feel "a sensation of panic in [his] heart" (91). Yet he again arrives at the far edge for the leaf. His encounter with the Intended pushes him to the extent that he feels that he "blundered into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not fit for a human being to behold" (91), which recalls "the inconceivable mystery" (82) of Kurtz's struggling soul and the "mysteries it had penetrated" (84). He again has come to the heart of darkness where he stands on the far edge, hearing "the whisper of a rising wind": "The horror! The horror!" (93).

In fact, Marlow's journeys to Kurtz cost him a sort of death: "No, they did not bury me, though there is a period of time which I remember mistily, with a shuddering wonder, like a passage through some inconceivable world that had no hope in it and no desire" (87). From this figurative death Marlow went to the non-differentiated reality in the realization of no-self. Similarly, the second journey also has cost him a sort of death: "my heart stood still, stopped dead short" (93). From this figurative death he breaks through the no-self, i.e., wall itself, and moves to the genuine non-differentiated sameness of ultimate reality.

This double negation constitutes a complete return to the most fundamental ground of the self: the original true self is awakened through this return. Hence the great negation as the negation of negation is at once a great affirmation. Great negation in this sense can be referred to the great death which is the breaking through of both ego-self and no-self, as is suggested in Marlow's double deaths. The third Buddha tableaux seems to signify Marlow who attains the true self as the great affirmation through a cycle of return: the negation of negation.

This notion of the great affirmation offers a new perspective on Marlow's lie to the Intended, which differs from the usual interpretation that Marlow lies to protect the Intended from the darkness, to protect her beautiful but fragile illusion of the truth about Kurtz. Some recent critics have identified the Intended's name as the horror.4) It can be thought that "the name of the Intended remains a permanent blank in the story, a blank which can only be filled in by 'The horror! The horror!'" (Ong,S.J. 153). Yet in terms of what Marlow has attained through his spiritual odyssey of a cycle of return, his lie is not a matter of truth and falsity, but a "great affirmation" of phenomenon which is beyond the binary right and wrong, good and evil, dark and light, truth and falsity. From the "inter-jective" point of view which is beyond subject and object, truth totally lies beyond all duality. So to speak, for Marlow who sees no longer from his subjective vantage point of view, the Intended is understood in her totality and individuality, so that her "saving illusion" and what she expects to hear can be affirmed in her totality.


Emptiness is man's true self; it is also the ultimate reality which is beyond and yet embraces past, present, and future. This absolute present of emptiness, which coincides with the spacial concept of the commingling of center and edge, brings us to a significant fact that Marlow's whole story is nothing but the events that take place in the absolute present of Marlow's consciousness. This is the reason why Marlow insists that he is trying to tell something like a "dream" (42), in which past, present and future blend into one another. And it explains how Marlow could see both the Intended and Kurtz "in the same instant of time" (91) and see "her sorrow in the very moment of his death" (91). Time means the flow of consciousness, and past and future are melted into present consciousness. Time overflows measures, and only eternal present exists in our consciousness in which "everything is," "all the past as well as all the future" (51).

Furthermore, the fact that emptiness is not only man's true self but also the ultimate reality means that there is only eternal present in his outer world as well as in his inner world. It is significant that The Nellie which Marlow and his listeners are on board is on the Thames, "wait[ing] for the turn of the tide" (17). ¡°The sea of inexorable time" (84) is comprehended as a symbol of the totality of time, manifesting the cyclic pattern of the ebb and flow of time's tides. Within the totality of time symbolized by the sea, each changes places with that which goes before, and each end becomes a new beginning. Just as "the tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service" (18) and yet "the sea is always the same;" (19), so time is always moving and yet always the same; the ripple of time comes out of and goes into the "here and now" of the sea, the totality of time. Time is not an arrow which comes out of a distant past and goes into an equally distant future that is not "here and now." Time is itself timeless.

Herein, the cyclic, which turns out to dominate one's inner and outer worlds simultaneously, does not imply either the repetitive or the serially discontinuous. It, as noted, combines the constant and the changing. In other words, the cyclic movement of return is one of renewal, of infinitude, revolution, change, with endless possibilities, but also with the symbolism of united world and comic completion.

Marlow, who "sat apart, indistinct and silent, in the pose of a meditating Buddha" (94) at the end of the story, symbolically represents the cosmic self which has attained the true self through the cycle of return and resides in the absolute present as well as in absolute space, in the ¡°truth stripped of its cloak of time" (51). Marlow is standing right ¡°here and now" prior to any form of duality such as before and after, time and eternity, center and edge, speaker and listener. In the tale's concluding image the frame narrator repeats his original linear space-time perception but now entangles it within the figure that he has learned from Marlow:¡°the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness" (94). To travel to ¡°the uttermost ends of the earth" is to return to the center, and the flow of time is to go into the eternal present, ¡°here and now" of ¡°the sea of inexorable time" (84), ¡°the night of time" (18).


ANSI/American National Standard Institute
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