Critical Analysis of Colleen Burke’s ‘Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: A Metaphor of Jungian Psychology’

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.

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