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Journal of Modern LiteratureVol. 40, No. 2 • Copyright © The Trustees of Indiana University • DOI 10.2979/jmodelite.40.2.01Empires of Enlightenment:On Illumination and the Politics ofBuddhism inHeart of DarknessAvram AlpertRutgers UniversityIn the frame story ofHeart of Darkness, Marlow is compared several times to a medi-tating Buddha. While Conrad criticism has considered these references from a philosophi-cal point of view, it has not yet engaged how they relate to the main story’s representationof the politics of colonial rule. Focusing on this complex relation between Enlighten-ment — East and West — and colonialism, the novella presents a broad-ranging critiqueof both Buddhist and European Enlightenment when they try to impose their vision onthe world. The novella further suggests a distinction between absolute enlightenmentand what the narrator calls “spectral illumination” — insights that are not forced ontothe world, but rather continually emerge from it. This other politics of illumination callson us to continually reinterpret and transform the world, while refusing the false hopeof any final and conclusive enlightenment.Keywords:Joseph Conrad / modernism / colonialism / BuddhismOne of the obscurities we come across in the narrative thickets ofHeart ofDarknessis the twice-made comparison between Marlow and the Bud-dha — once in the novella’s opening pages, and again in its closing para-graph. Interspersed throughout the story we find references to meditation andreincarnation as well. The Buddhist elements are perhaps perplexing in a storylargely focused on Belgian imperialism in the Congo. Indeed, while criticalattention has been drawn to the place of Buddhism in Conrad’s work, it has yetAvram Alpert ([email protected]) is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral ResearchAssociate in the Department of English at Rutgers University. For 2016–17, he will bea Fulbright Scholar at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. His essays have appearedindiacritics, Postcolonial Studies, Twentieth-Century Literature, and elsewhere. He recentlycompleted his book manuscript,Unbearable Identities: The Global Origins of the Modern Self,from Montaigne to Suzuki.
2Journal of Modern Literature Volume 40, Number 2to ask what connection there may be between Buddhism and politics inHeartof Darkness.1 The standard narrative about Buddhism in Conrad criticism — thatit is an abstract philosophy about enlightenment largely divorced from worldlyaffairs — has made it nearly impossible for this connection to be explored.In this essay I suggest that we change this narrative by acknowledging that“enlightenment” — both East and West — is bound up with worldly ambitions andthe matrices of power.2 This is more accurate not only with respect to the historyof Buddhism, but also to the narrative ofHeart of Darkness. Conrad’s story, I willargue, enacts a critique of any worldview that claims absolute knowledge through

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Term
Spring
Professor
MICHAELG.SMITH
Tags
History, Buddhism, Heart of Darkness, Gautama Buddha, Modern Literature Volume

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