Robert Hampson: The urge to chart the heart of darkness

From a talk at the British Library by the Professor of Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London
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The Independent Online

Joseph Conrad begins his 1923 essay "Geography and Some Explorers" by invoking the fascination of maps. As he puts it: "It may be an effect of the incorrigible frivolity inherent in human nature, but most of us will agree that a map is more fascinating to look at than a figure in a treatise on conic sections."

Later in the essay, he describes his own early addiction to "map-gazing", and focuses on Africa: "I stand here confessed as a contemporary of the Great Lakes. I would have heard of their discovery in my cradle, and it was only right that, grown to a boy's estate, I should have in the later 1860s done my first bit of map-drawing and paid homage to the prestige of their first explorers. It consisted in entering laboriously in pencil the outline of Tanganyika on my beloved old atlas, which, having been published in 1852, knew nothing, of course, of the Great Lakes. The heart of its Africa was white, and big."

He recalls "heroic explorers": Mungo Park, Burton and Speke, and Dr Livingstone. Then he produces his own iconic, self-mythologising moment: "One day, putting my finger on a spot in the very middle of the then white heart of Africa, I declared that some day I would go there."

Conrad had, of course, already used this moment in his earlier fiction. In Heart of Darkness (1899), the narrator, Marlow, similarly recalls:

"When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. There were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, 'When I grow up I will go there.' "

One of the things that is interesting in this passage is the way in which Marlow equates the map and the place: there are not just "blanks" on the map; there are "blank spaces on the earth".

In Marlow's mind, it is as if places don't exist until they have been mapped by Europeans. This colonial solipsism is not unique to Marlow. As a rule, as Mary Louise Pratt observes, the "discovery" of sites like Lake Tanganyika "involved making one's way to the region and asking the local inhabitants if they knew of any big lakes, etc. in the area, then hiring them to take you there, whereupon, with their guidance and support, you proceeded to discover what they already knew".

However, she remarks, the "discovery" only gets "made" for real after the traveller returns home, and brings it into being through "a name on a map, a report to the Royal Geographical Society, the Foreign Office, the London Mission Society, a diary, a lecture, a travel book."

In Mappings, Denis Cosgrove describes "acts of mapping" as "creative, sometimes anxious, moments in coming to knowledge of the world"; and he describes the map as "both the spatial embodiment of knowledge and a stimulus to further cognitive engagements". Conrad and Marlow, in their responses to the "blank spaces" on maps, testify to this dual aspect of maps in relation to knowledge.

Cosgrove then goes on to offer a fuller picture of maps, "their partiality and provisionality, their embodiment of intention, their imaginative and creative capacities, their mythical qualities, their appeal to reverie, their ability to stimulate anxiety, their silences and their powers of deception."

In Heart of Darkness, we have seen maps as objects of reverie and as assertions of imperial possessions. Maps can be assertions of power: the power of knowledge, the power of empire, the power of the imagination.

But we also see the gap between that representation of power and the realities of power and possession on the ground. We see not the effacing of the European observer, but a bringing into the picture of his motives, desires, and intentions.