Many times, words by themselves do not convey an idea wholly or conceal it altogether. Instead, the voice carrying the words conveys the idea, lending shape and new meaning to the familiar syllables. Words resonate with prescribed meanings, whereas voice creates its own meaning and identity. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, voice comprises the primitive component of language, with words existing only as a secondary function of voice. Glimpsing a “primitive truth,” Kurtz’s voice and soul unite so that his knowledge speaks through his voice, rather than through his words. Alternately draining words of their meaning and filling them with new meaning, Kurtz’s voice contains the power to define his own words. Strip Kurtz of his common syllables, and what remains is a terse note in a margin of seventeen eloquent pages, a frightening voice shaped by unfamiliar words. Marlow first hears of Kurtz as a word repeatedly spoken by others. As Marlow navigates down the river, traveling farther from civilization, Kurtz’s voice amplifies, ultimately consuming the name and the man himself.
The voice of Kurtz is heard and realized not in the familiar words of others, but in the journey down the river into the unknown. People’s inability to pronounce Kurtz’s name suggests the authenticity of Kurtz’s own voice and the weakness of the words used to describe him. When describing Kurtz, familiar vocabulary fails altogether; Kurtz remains a word with little meaning. Marlow first hears of Kurtz from the Company’s chief accountant at Outer Station. When asked who Kurtz is, the accountant responds, “He is a very remarkable person” (37).* The accountant does not mention his name without adding t...
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...r. The structure of words and the report are unable to contain his voice. Like Kurtz’s last words, these simultaneously drain all meaning from words and add their own new meaning, highlighting only lies.
In German “kurtz” means short. What Kurtz actually says is plain and terse, but appalling. It is not hidden behind words, but revealed within Kurtz’s own voice and scribbled in margins. However, it is the voiceless words, the written words, the lies, and not the note scribbled by his own voice that Kurtz asks Marlow to preserve. By wanting to preserve his report, Kurtz acknowledges the power of written words. He knows that besides Marlow’s memory, writing is the only thing that can begin to immortalize him. But, perhaps, Kurtz’s knowledge is meant to die along with his voice.
* Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (London: Penguin Books, 1995).
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