Humanity of the Primitive in Heart of Darkness, Dialect of Modernism and Totem and Taboo
The ways in which a society might define itself are almost always negative ways. "We are not X." A society cannot exist in a vacuum; for it to be distinct it must be able to define itself in terms of the other groups around it. These definitions must necessarily take place at points of cultural contact, the places at which two societies come together and arrive at some stalemate of coexistence. For European culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this place of contact—this new culture by which to define itself—came from Africa, from those "primitive" cultures whose society was being studied and in some ways appreciated for the first time. The African natives became the new Other, the new way to define what Europe was at that time.
The way in which this redefinition took place was through the institution of a fundamentally hierarchical system. "Primitive" versus "sophisticated," "barbarous" versus "cultured." The anthropology of the time—articulated primarily by Frazer—espoused an evolutionary view of humanity. Societies passed through several stages of development on their way to true civilisation, and, while the Europeans had made it all the way, the Africans were lagging just a bit behind. This, however, created a problem for Europe. If Africans were fundamentally the same as Europeans (albeit farther back on the evolutionary ladder), what did that say about the roots of European society? This uncertainty created a very disjunctive view of primitives in the literature of the time. In his book, The Dialect of Modernism, Michael North suggests that, "The colonial subject is either a part of nature, utterly literal and therefore soothingly simple, or menacingly unreadable, mysterious, and suggestive of some vast unknown" (North, 65). The European mind at the fringes of "civilisation," when confronted with this Otherness, cannot settle on one or the other of these alternatives. "European reactions to other cultures tend to oscillate between these two poles, and thus the same culture can seem simple, authentic, concrete, or, on the other hand, odd, uncanny, and arbitrary" (ibid.). While this paradigm of shifting viewpoints is exemplified by Marlow in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, it seems to find its resolution in Sigmund Freud's assertion that in many ways the modern man is the primitive man.
Marlow's oscillation between viewpoints is almost startling in its rapidity. On his very first meeting with the natives of the Congo, he swings from one pole to the other in only a few sentences:
They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks—these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and true as the surf along the coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at....