This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship in the articles and issues of IU Press journals. Posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article and are primarily written by journal editors and contributors.
By Avram Alpert, author of “Empires of Enlightenment: On Illumination and the Politics of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness” in issue 40.2 of the Journal of Modern Literature.
When I was seventeen, I read D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen. When Watts wrote that after Zen enlightenment, “the peculiar anxiety which Kierkegaard has rightly seen to lie at the very roots of the ordinary man’s soul is no longer there” (66), I felt it was as if Zen had been transmitted across centuries to speak to the peculiar anxieties of my awkward teenage soul. Little did I know at the time that it was, in fact, not so much transmitted as entirely reinvented by Suzuki and Watts to serve precisely this purpose. They had stripped down the history of Zen, removed all its rituals, feuds, and political intrigues, and then combined it with elements of Romanticism and Transcendentalism to present a modern philosophy sculpted for modern humans, but stamped with the imprimatur of thousands of years of success.
It was not until college that I learned this other history when I began to read in the field of critical Buddhist studies—the trenchant critiques of Bernard Faure and Robert Sharf, especially. Wanting to learn more, I spent a semester at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. There I saw first-hand the complex relationships between Buddhist philosophy, political power, and the struggles of everyday life. Further still, I learned about just how many competing ideas and traditions existed within Buddhism. Within Tibetan history, even up to the present in the “Shugden affair,” these competing schools have led to extreme violence.
You would not know any of this history, however, if you read contemporary literary criticism or critical theory. There, for the most part, the history of Buddhism remains stuck in a sanitized, modernist, philosophical vision. And that is if critics pay attention to the presence of Buddhism at all. Thus, when I began reading the literary criticism around Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I found very few articles that dealt with the surprising references to Marlow as a “Buddha” in the narrative’s frame story, even as critics acknowledged the absolute centrality of the frame. Those who did discuss these references immediately jumped to the level of philosophical discussion—either for or against what they take to be the message of Buddhism, or Conrad’s interpretation of it—which makes it somewhat difficult to understand the relationship between those references and the very political matters that are at the heart of the book. What I wanted to understand in this essay was how, within the narrative of Heart of Darkness, Buddhism as a historical-philosophical-political complex was related to the history of colonial violence in the Congo.
The argument I develop here is that we first need to recognize that multiple strands of Buddhist history are woven into Conrad’s text: the philosophical interpretation as filtered through Schopenhauer; the political history as Conrad experienced it in Thailand; and the (perhaps unintentional) registration of global Buddhism’s modernist reforms of both philosophy and politics beginning in the nineteenth century as a result of colonial and other global encounters. Then we can see that Heart of Darkness presents an ambivalent relationship to Buddhism at the same time that it showcases a profound skepticism about the idea of “enlightenment,” East or West. That is to say, it registers a concern with what happens in human life when any group of people self-represents as having unraveled the inner truth (or heart) of existence. Whatever they may find there, such self-assurance seems to inevitably lead to a will to impose that discovery on others, or, at the very least, to secure at any cost the conditions by which that truth can be practiced.
Heart of Darkness offers us another vision than this absolute enlightenment: “spectral illumination.” Rather than a blinding light that claims the truth of existence once and for all, spectral illumination is a kind of tentative thinking that draws its insights from within the murky conditions of impartial vision in which humans dwell. In this essay, I take up Conrad’s call for acts of spectral illumination, and show how it might help avoid the worst extremes of political violence. I pull this thread across the narrative’s multiple scenes, linking a critique of colonialism, religious power, the European Enlightenment, and nihilism to the new possibilities founded by Buddhist modernism. Only by turning our attention to the historical Buddhist elements of the text does such a spectral illumination emerge.
Watts, Allan. The Way of Zen. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Avram Alpert is Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of English at Rutgers University. For 2016-17, he will be a Fulbright Scholar at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.
Read Avram Alpert's article “Empires of Enlightenment: On Illumination and the Politics of Buddhism in Heart of Darkness” in issue 40.2 of the Journal of Modern Literature, which is available now on JSTOR and Project MUSE.