Unspeakable Horror: Outing Syphilis in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

  • Nicole Cosentino
  • Wendy Ryden
Chapter

Abstract

The authors posit syphilis as the source for Kurtz’s affliction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and argue for understanding the novella as a deployment of the rhetoric of disease, which yokes together medical fears and problematic sexual morality with a global violence infecting self-congratulatory European benevolence and charity. Conrad’s tale is both implicitly and explicitly eroticized as well as steeped in gothic representation of the hidden and revealed to manage an unsayable horror. As such, the language of the story parallels pervasive late nineteenth-century syphilis discourse that likewise relies on obfuscation and silences. Descriptions of Kurtz’s megalomania resonate with the symptomatology of syphilis and perceived syphilitics, such as Nietzsche and Columbus, who might have served as models for the character.

References

  1. Achebe, Chinua. 2006. An Image of Africa. In Heart of Darkness: Norton Critical Edition, ed. Paul B. Armstrong, 4th ed., 336–349. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  2. Alexander, George B. 1980. In Search of the Real Mr. Kurtz: A Study of Multiple Sources in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Dissertation, New York University.Google Scholar
  3. Anonymous. (1888) 2009. My Secret Life. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30360/30360-h/30360-h.htm
  4. Arrizabalaga, Jon, John Henderson, and Roger French. 1997. The Great Pox: The French Disease in Renaissance Europe. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Billy, Theodore. 1997. A Wilderness of Words: Closure and Disclosure in Conrad’s Short Fiction. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Butte, George. 1989. What Silenus Knew: Conrad’s Uneasy Debt to Nietzsche. Comparative Literature 41 (2): 155–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Conrad, Joseph. 1926. Geography and Some Explorers. In Last Essays, 1–31. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.Google Scholar
  8. ———. 1986. The Collected Letters, ed. Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies, vols. 2–8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. ———. (1902) 2008. Heart of Darkness. Ebook.http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Heart-of-Darkness.pdf
  10. Crow, Charles L. 2009. American Gothic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.Google Scholar
  11. Davidson, Roger, and Lesley A. Hall. 2001. Introduction. In In Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870, ed. Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Greaney, Michael. 2002. Conrad, Language, and Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Hayden, Deborah. 2004. Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. New York: Basic.Google Scholar
  14. Jabbour, Nicholas. 2000. Syphilis from 1880 to 1920: A Public Health Nightmare and the First Challenge to Medical Ethics. Essays in History 42. Web.Google Scholar
  15. Lowe, N.F. 1996. The Meaning of Venereal Disease in Hogarth’s Graphic Art. In The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth Century Britain and France, ed. Linda E. Merians, 168–182. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  16. Mitchell, Jonathan, and Michael O’Rourke. 2011. Quempire: A Loiterly Journey into Heart of Darkness. Thamyris Intersecting 22: 75–96.Google Scholar
  17. Paris, Bernard. 2005. Conrad’s Charlie Marlow: A New Approach to “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim. New York: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Patrick, G.T.W. 1899. Review of Degeneracy: Its Causes, Signs ,and Results, by Eugene S. Talbot. Science 9 (January–June): 372–373.Google Scholar
  19. Renner, Stanley W. 2012. The Secret Sharer, Nietzsche, and Conrad’s New Man. Conradiana 44 (2–3): 145–146.Google Scholar
  20. Roberts, Andrew Michael. 2000. Conrad and Masculinity. New York: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Roger, Charlotte. 2012. Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-century Tropical Narratives. Nashville: University of Vanderbilt Press.Google Scholar
  22. Ruppel, Richard. 2008. Homosexuality in the Life and Work of Joseph Conrad. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
  24. Sax, Leonard. 2003. What Was the Cause of Nietzsche’s Dementia? Journal of Medical Biography 11: 47–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Showalter, Elaine. 1990. Syphilis. Sexuality, and the Fiction of the Fin de Siecle. In Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth Century Novel, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 89–115. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Stape, John. 2007. The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad. New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  27. Vaughan, Megan. 1991. Curing their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Vora, Set K., and Robert W. Lyons. 2004. The Medical Kipling—Syphilis, Tabes Dorsalis, and Romber’s Test. Emerging Infectious Diseases 10(6).Google Scholar
  29. Wasson, Sara. 2014. Gothic Cities and Suburbs, 1800–present. In The Gothic World, ed. Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend, 132–142. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Watts, Cedric. 2012. Conradian Eldritch: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’. Conradian 37 (2): 1–18.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicole Cosentino
    • 1
  • Wendy Ryden
    • 2
  1. 1.University at AlbanyAlbanyUSA
  2. 2.Long Island University PostBrookvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations