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Decentering Heart of Darkness

Apr 14, 2018



Rohan Chauhan
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    Modern Language Studies

    Decentering "Heart of Darkness"Author(s): Perry MeiselSource: Modern Language Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 20-28Published by: Modern Language StudiesStable URL: .

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  • 7/30/2019 Decentering Heart of Darkness



    Conrad's Heart of Darkness creates the terms of its appeal bychallengingus to specify hemeaning Marlow triesto find n the characterof Kurtz. Those readers who write about what theydiscover in Marlow'stracks pursue what Marlow himself says he is unable to disclose: thesubstance, the essence, the details of what it is that Kurtz has done, andwhat it is that he represents.Answers to the enigma usually reveal a common predispositionamong the novel's critics to assign highlyconcrete meanings to the tale,oftenofa psychologicalkind,and to take themultiplicity fclues providedby the narrative as indices of a significanceto be foundbeyond the mar-gins of the text. Stephen A. Reid, for example, is unhappy with the"unspeakable" nature of Kurtz's "lust and brutality" nd claims that"it isnecessary, psychologically,thatKurtz's rites have a particularcontent anda particularpurpose."1 Reid's determination to ground the text in spe-cificity, nd in psychology, leads him to replace Conrad's silence about

    the exact nature of Kurtz's behavior with Frazer's account of primitivecustoms in The Golden Bough. Leo Gurko is less specific, but equallyinsistent on a ground to the narrative, which is, in his words, "heldaloftby the flame of externalnature rooted at the bottom ofthe story."2AlbertJ.Guerard's classic interpretation f the novel as "a journeywithin the self" offers more flexibleview of the tale, and indeed helps togenerate the views of our first wo critics. Still, there is in Guerard asimilar desire forspecificity, nd, of course, forpsychology, despite hisinsistence on the necessity of the "unspeakable" in Conrad's story. ForGuerard, Kurtz's admittedly"unspoken" conduct succeeds in becomingthe tokenofa strugglewith the instincts:"[W]hen the external restraintsof society and work are removed," says Guerard, "we must meet thechallenge and temptationof savage reversion."3Guerard's assumption that Africanculture is without "society" isnecessary, ofcourse, ifhis psychological symbolism s to hold. After ll, ifthe novel's landscape is to be read as the terrainof the id, then its nativeinhabitants have to be cast as primitives.Guerard's assumptions therebyconflictwith subsequent contentions in anthropologythat there are nosuch qualitative differences s he supposes between European and "sav-age" cultures,4 as well as with Conrad's own attemptto call such differ-ences intoquestion within the tale itself.Althoughthe cannibal crewmenaboard Marlow's riverboatdisplay, to his own surprise,a greaterrestraintthan thenovel's rapacious Europeans (104-105)*,and even thoughKurtz's*Allreferencesnd citations rom eart ofDarknessare from heYouth collec-tion,VolumeXVI oftheCompleteWorks,KentEdition GardenCity,New York:Doubleday, Page & Company, 925).20

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    "savage" womanstagesa "stately"ballet of farewell orher departinglover 135-136), uerardnonetheless nsists n hisprimitivismn order oground hetale'smeaning nthepsychological ategorieshe discerns nConrad's text.The consequencesof sucha method re tobe foundn theprob-lematic exture fthe criticalanguage tproduces.WhatGuerardmeansby "theevil ofvacancy"to whichthe "hollow" Kurtz"succumbs"5 s alittledifficulto tell nthe ight fhisfirstrgument. urely thetempta-tionofsavagereversion" arrieswith tsomefecundity,ome fullness finstinct hichGuerard's nsistence nhollowness ndvacancy, ikeCon-rad'sown, seems to call intoquestion.Indeed, Guerardfalls ntothesesame rhetorical ontradictionsimeandagain nhisreadingofthenovel."Marlow'stemptation," e writes, is made concretethrough is expo-

    sure toKurtz,"6 espitehis remarkater n thatConrad s always deferr-ingwhatwe mostwant o know nd see."7Similarly,henovelsymbolizes"thenightourney nto theunconscious, nd confrontationf an entitywithin he self,"8 ven thoughKurtz'svanishing ct late in the storymeans, accordingto Guerard,that"a partof [Marlow, too] has van-ished."9This is criticalanguage omehowdivided gainst tself,tipulat-ing the presence of meaning on the one hand, while noting thewithdrawal f tsground n the other.I suggest hatGuerard's ontradictionserivefrom ndueassump-tions boutConrad'stext, nd thathisreading,ikethoseofourother wocritics, allspreytothesameepistemologicalemptationshatMarlow sforced o overcomebythe end ofthe tale. Indeed, it is Conrad's radicalunderstandingfhow languageitself reates and controls he kindofknowledgewe have thatconstitutesMarlow'sdeepest realization, newhichhe finds,nConrad'swords, altogethermonstrous,ntolerable othought nd odious to the soul" (141). t is, moreover,Marlow's risis nknowledge hat llows us to see whyKurtz's vacancy" n thestorys infactnecessary nd inevitable, nd that ends to supplant ur critics' sy-chological errorwith horror ven more difficulto face.It is Conrad'sepistemologyhat wish topursuehere,and I shalltakeas myfocusMarlow'skeyconclusion boutKurtz,one based upontheevidence oftheshrunken eads displayedbefore he Inner Station:

    They nly howed hatMr.Kurtzacked estraintn thegratificationfhis varioususts, hat herewas something antingn him-somesmallmatter hich, hen hepressingeed rose, ouldnotbe foundunder ismagnificentloquence. 131)Marlow takes the heads as evidence for Kurtz's lack of restraint("showed").Like thenovel'scritics,Marlowdrawshisconclusion ytak-ingsuchevidenceas a token fwhat s notreally resent.Suchinferenceleads to conclusions bout the absence in another ense, too. What ispresent hroughheevidenceis preciselyKurtz's bsence ofmorality-"that herewas something antingnhim."Kurtzhassucha lackbecausehe seemsto be a lustfulreature, ullofdesire-that is, "wanting,"ike


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    Bellow'sHenderson, n another ense. Indeed, "wanting" akenas thepresence of desire depends upon "wanting" aken as the absence ofgratification.So inthemiddle fMarlow's ssertive laimwefind urselves ackto thekindofriddles hatbaffle imelsewhere nthe novel. What Kurtzhasdependson whathehasnot;whathehas notdependsonwhathehas.We seemtrapped n a playof anguage t theverymoment f Marlow'sattempto disclose omediscoveryboutKurtz,whoseown name mean-ing"short"nGerman)replays hissameplay.Thismutually nterdependentelation etweenthe twosenses of"wanting," r of"short," uggests hatmeaning s a lateral vent withinlanguage.Ourcritics, owever, ppearto share viewof anguagewhich,bycontrast, resupposes ome kindofdirect, r symbolic,inkbetweenwordsand things,notonly nConrad,butalso, forGuerardat least, nFreud.It is Freud, however,whodrawsour attention o language s anoppositional,r ateral,mechanism s early s 1910,well before henotionreceives tsofficialntroductionnto inguistics roperwiththepublica-tion n 1916of Ferdinandde Saussure'sCours de linguistique enerale,andonly levenyears fterhepublication fHeartofDarkness tself. nhisbrief ssayon Karl Abel's 1884pamphlet, The Antithetical eaningofPrimalWords,"Freuddiscovers n "astonishing"10hilological xpla-nationfor ontradictionsn the languageofdreams,and delights n itstransformationyAbel into a synchronicule about themechanism fmeaning n languageas a whole. "Our concepts,"writesFreud, "owetheir xistence o comparisons."1l itingfromAbel's pamphlet,Freudprovidesus withthefollowingccountofwhy anguageand itsconcep-tions onstitute relational rdifferentialtructure:

    "If twere lwaysight eshould otbe able todistinguishight romdark,nd onsequentlye should ot eable ohave ither he onceptof ightrtheword ort . ." "It sclear hatverythingn this lanetisrelativendhasan ndependentxistencenlynso far s it s differ-entiatedn respect f tsrelationso other hings.." "Sinceeveryconcepts in thiswaythe twin f tscontrary,owcould tbe firstthoughtf ndhow ouldtbecommunicatedoother eoplewhoweretryingo conceivet,other han ybeingmeasuredgainstts ontrary. ?"... "Since he onceptf trengthould ot e formedxceptsa contraryoweakness,heword enotingstrong'ontained simul-taneous ecollectionfweak,' s thething ymeans fwhich t firstcame nto xistence.n realityhisword enoted eitherstrong'or'weak,' ut herelationnddifferenceetweenhe wo,which reatedboth f hemqually.. "12

    The implications f Freud's and Abel's view of meaningas an"antithetical" ormationre latentin Saussure as well, and all threesuggest hat ignificationakesplace in a sphere partfromhose tates ftheworld owhich t refers.f anguagemeansbyvirtue fdifferentialroppositional elationswithin he systemt constitutes,henmeaning s22

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    the productof internal esonanceswithin he system,rather hantheeffect factual links betweenthe system nd real statesof theworld.Instead of a distanceto be lamented nd overcome,however,thisdis-tancebetween anguage nd theworld sa given ince t sthesignatureflanguage-of culture-itself.Thus it is the conditions f humanusage as a wholethat tipulatethe kind ofproblemthat Marlow confrontsn the next section of thesentencewe have been examining:

    . . . some mallmatter hich, hen hepressingeed rose, ouldnotbe found...It is thepossibility ffindingsome . . . matter,"n the sense of sub-stance,that Marlow claims "could not be found," ven in its effect fproducing othing oncrete ogobyinthe case of Kurtz.Ofcourse,thedifferential eaningof"wanting"has alreadysuggestedwhatMarlowhere makes explicit:thatlanguage-the inevitablemedium of his in-terpretationf Kurtz-is in no position o discover he "matter"whichMarlow, ike all interpreters, ishestoassign othe elusiveobjectofhisquest. Because language s a differentialr ateralphenomenon,t snot,after ll, ina subject/object,rsurface/depth,elation o the states ftheworld tssignsappeartodesignate.13But estthisrecessive uality f"matter" eemmerely anciful,etus turnfor moment o theverystart fthetale,whereit is preciselythesedifficultieshatConrad discusses nbroad terms.Marlow'sparableofthe Romanofficial ho came to Britainong go is, ofcourse,a cautionhebrings o bearonhis own notions bout thecentralityf heCongo.TotheRoman,Britains theperipheryf circlewhosecenter sRome.Andyetnow,centuriesater,Britains itself he center f nother irclewhoseperipheryncludesAfricanolonies.By implication,heCongowillper-force omprise hecenterofstill nother,newercircle,whoseperipherywill n turn omprise he center fstill nothernewcircle,and so on,adinfinitum.he model, notherwords, s epistemologicals well as politi-cal. Everydiscovery f center r an origins subject o a decentering,14or, toput it anotherway, everydisclosure f a ground s subjectto therecessionof thatground.15 onrad's formulationelps to explain,andmayeven govern,the problemof Marlow'squest forKurtz,and theforever ecessiveobject,orcenter,thatKurtz omprises.It is ust this hift rrecession fcenters hatmakesup thedramaofMarlow's earch.PursuingKurtzto theCentralStation,Marlowfindsthat there s stillanother enter,the Inner Station.AndhavingfoundKurtzthere,Marlowstillfinds heessentialKurtzto escape himagain,since the object of his quest is a "shadow" 134),"unsteady, . . pale,indistinct,ike a vapour" 142).All Marlowhas toworkwith s "a voice"(135),"discoursing"113)-nothing,that s, but language. In thisway,Kurtz has, in the Saussurean implications he text seems to affirm,"kickedhimselfoose of theearth" 144). In fact,Kurtzhas "kicked hevery arth opieces" (144).As a piece of anguage,Kurtz s "wanting"he


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    "earth" or "matter" that Marlow wishes him to comprise, so as to makehim an object concrete enough to seize upon. But because the recessiveKurtz is a mere series ofcontradictory,differential tterances (kurtz,forexample, is twice described as "long," 134, 142), his ground-hisobjecthood-cannot be located. "There was nothing either above orbelow him," saysMarlow, "and I knew it ... I . . did not know whetherI stood on the ground or floated in the air" (144).What is true ofMarlow's search for Kurtz is true also of Marlow'svery presence in the Congo. Notice, forexample, that the "insolubleproblem" (126) of the harlequin, "covered with patches all over, withbrightpatches, blue, red, and yellow" (122), resembles the map Marlowhas seen in Brussels, with its "blue, a littlegreen, smears oforange, and. . a purple patch" (55). No wonder the harlequin's "aspect" remindsMarlow of"something funny he] had seen somewhere" (122). Here at thereal site to which the map's representations refer,Marlow finds simplyanother versionof the (same) representation.That is, the grounded realityof what the map represents recedes fromMarlow even as he stands uponit, turning s it does into a representationof tselfmuch in the same waythatKurtz, too, is (only) language or representation.This recession of presence, this decentering, is in evidencethroughoutthe novel, and constitutes the book's active epistemologicalprinciple. In fact, t accords preciselywiththe famous definition f mean-ing attributedto Marlow at the startof the tale:

    . . . themeaning f n episodewas not nside ikea kernelbutoutside,envelopinghe tale which roughttoutonly s a glowbrings ut a haze,in the likenessofone of these mistyhalos thatsometimes re madevisiblebythe spectral lluminationf moonshine.48)Conrad's anonymous narratordiscards the notion ofmeaning as a core or"kernel" withoutreservation,settingup instead a more problematicdefi-nitionthatplays upon the meanings of"spectral illumination." "Spectral"signifies prismatic" and "phantom-like"at once, therebydefiningmean-ing as without substance (in the sense of"specter"), multiple and prisma-tic (in the sense of"spectrum"), and at a distance from n original sourceof illumination "moonshine").All ofthese requirementsare met, ofcourse, in the tale itself, nd,indeed, in our own Saussurean view of language, though they are by nomeans met in the tales our criticstell. What is more, it is precisely theserequirements that Marlow meets again at the close of the sentence wehave been examining:

    . . . some . . . matterwhich . . .could not be found under his magnifi-centeloquence.Just s there is no "kernel" inside, so there is nothingto "be foundunder"Kurtz's "eloquence." The reason has nothing to do, of course, withKurtz's being any more ofa liar than anyone else, but with the inescapa-24

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    ble conditionsfmeaningtself. he "matter" fKurtz'smeaning scapesMarlownot because thiswishful ssence is difficulto locateor, as thepsychologicalriticsmight rgue,because it mustremainrepressed,butbecause it simplydoes not exist. The geology fsurface/depth eaningmustgive away, n Marlow'sunderstandings well as in ourown,to alateral or surface opography-amap perhaps-of differentialelationswithin system frepresentationsr signs.Conrad,ofcourse, s concernedwithrepresentationshroughoutthe text. Even in our focus entence,Kurtz'seloquence is figuredm-plicitly s a fabric r raiment"under"makes"eloquence" a covering fsomekind),whileelsewherenthetext t s describeddirectlys "folds feloquence" (147),similar o the"diaphanousfolds" 46) of thenarrator'sown discourse. Like the book's images of maps, documents, dress,ciphers,and so on, the numerous mages of fabric onstitute epre-sentations frepresentations,ach one suggestingweave or a network frelationsmuch ike the one presentedbythe text tself. hese are Con-rad's alternative nd interchangeablemetaphors or hestructuref an-guage thatwe, likeMarlow, nterpretn thepursuit fdiscovery.I suggest, hen,that he horror hat ssails Marlowhastodo withthe mpossibilityfdisclosing central ore,anessence,even a ground owhatKurtz has done and what he is. There is no central hread n theweave of theevidences that onstitute is character,much ess no deepcenterto his existence s a surface fsigns.So when our critics uzzleoverKurtz's bsence whenMarlow inds imgonefrom iscabin,wemayofferhe alternativeonclusion hatKurtz's bsence is itself signforhismeaning, ne which s "short" r "wanting."Hence Marlow'spuzzlement t Kurtz's bsence takeson a directand precisemeaningwithin urpresentperspective:

    I think wouldhaveraisednoutcryf had believedmy yes.Butdidn't elieve hem t first-thehingeemed o mpossible.hefactsI was ompletelynnervedy sheer lank right,ure bstracterror,unconnectedithny istincthape fphysicalanger.Whatmade hisemotionooverpoweringas-how shall definet?-themoral hockreceived,s if omethingltogether onstrous,ntolerableothoughtandodious o thesoul,had been thrustponmeunexpectedly.hislasted f ourse hemerestractionf second,nd hen heusual enseofcommonplace,eadly anger,hepossibilityf sudden nslaughtandmassacre,rsomethingfthekind,which saw mpending,aspositivelyelcomend omposing.tpacified e, nfact,omuch hatdidnotraise n alarm.141)

    Marlow's"fright"nd "terror" re responsesto the "sheer blank" and"pure abstract[ion]" f KuYtz's elf-evidentbsence, even though-orrather, ecause-it is "unconnectedwith nydistincthape,"especiallythe"physical." hus thepromise fpresence,no matternhow terribleform-"a sudden onslaught r massacre,or something f the kind"-is"positivelywelcome" and pacifyingo Marlow's altogethermonstrous"realization hatpresence tselfs a fiction.25

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    Marlow,however, lays ittle ricks n himselfo instill sense ofground n the absence he sees in presence,where there is "nothingunderfoot"150).When theharlequin, or xample, ellshimthat hetexthe thinkss cipher s reallyRussian,Marlowfeels momentaryelief, sthoughRussianwere a morenatural,or grounded, ode thancipher.Indeed,Marlowgrants uch a reassuring,ndfictive, riorityo Russianmuch s he preferso accent heplainsense of word ike"degradation"(144) norder omakeKurtz pprehensibleo him. Like"wanting" r ike"short," fter ll, "degradation"-which eemsonly omean besottedordirty,with ll its echoesof soil andground-has a secondlayer fmean-ing,too. Thisalternativeignified uggests he sense of"noteven spec-tral,' that s, "gradation" hathas been neutralizedde-graded) r de-composed,so that even the prismatic radesoflightpromisedby thenarrator'sspectral"definitionfmeaning arly nthetaleare absent nKurtz'sradical ase. ThusMarlow s quiteliteralwhenhe says,"I couldnot ppeal nthe nameof nythingigh r ow" 144), inceConradfinallydrainsKurtz f lldistinguishing,ifferential,ameable ualities,render-inghim the "blank" 52, 141)that ffrightsarlowmost of all.Nowperhapswe can be morepreciseaboutwhyHeartofDark-ness is Marlow's tory.t is the narrativefa consciousness t oddswithitselfn anexemplary ay.Marlow's ensions a lateral ne,between wonotions f heworld-one present, neabsent; wanting"rkurtznbothsenses-with twogrammarsrvocabularies omatch. ndeed, this s theunspoken ensionwe have seen inGuerard's riticalanguage, oo,withits oscillationbetweencontradictoryhetorics,n oscillation hat nowappearsto be a responseto the self-divided iscourseof the narrativeitself.I shouldpointout,of ourse,howmyownreading fthe text allsinto a myth fpresenceof its own. My contention, orexample,thatMarlow's onflicts one "between wonotions f heworldwithgrammarsto match" uggests hat here re extra-linguisticdeas, ideaswhich xistindependentlyfthelanguagethroughwhich,bywhich-the natureoflanguagepreventsme from otblundering-theyreexpressed. simplycannotmakeanykindof statement hatwillnotassumethe ndependentexistenceof thingsor ideas apart from anguage. "Language," saysJacquesDerrida,"bearswithin tself henecessity f ts owncritique."17Moreover,some of the termsI have employed in my own criticallanguage-"key," forexample,or "layer"-contradict he verydecon-structionnddecenteringfpresence nddepth hat haveattemptedoshowatwork n the novel.So theproblematicmeaning fMarlow's uestfinallyssuesfromConrad'sconcernwith heproblematicsf ll meaningnHeartofDark-ness. Rather han psychological ork,HeartofDarkness s a text hatinterrogatesheepistemologicaltatus f he anguagen which t nheres.From hispoint fview,Conrad'snovel oinsthetraditionromwhich urpresent econstructive omentn criticismlso derives.As Derridahim-selfhas made plain,we are dealingwithnothingess thana departurefrom lassic Cartesian hinking,nwhichthetime-honoredssumptionswe make aboutthe status f anguageand the world are subjectto the26

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    kind of deconstruction announced by Nietzsche and extended by him,and by figures ike Pater and Freud, into our own moment of criticism.We are leftwithnothing ess than a critique of our normal stipulationthatbeing is presence, and, within the sphere ofcriticism,with a critique ofour belief that literary extsentertaina subject/objectrelation to states ofthe world and to their own meanings. Even to the extent thatwe maywish to encounter our psychological critics on the ground of Freud,Freud's work constitutes a pre-eminent critique of presence in its ownright, insistent as it is on the linguistic or representational status ofdreams in particularand of mental functioningn general. And like Con-rad, Freud's writing also constitutes a network of discourse in ironicrelation to its own discoveries.Heart ofDarkness and itsmeaning, then, do not stand apart fromone another in a subject/objectrelation the way our critics, in theirvari-ous ways, like to assume. Even the story's title is a paradox or riddledesigned to tempt its interpretersrather than to locate for us a heart orcenter that does not exist. It is not Guerard's "psychic need" or "literarytact"19-nor is it Guetti's "alinguistic" truth-that keeps the details ofKurtz's experiences or their meaning at a remove fromus in the story.Instead, it is the meaning of the storythatkeeps Kurtz's meaning absent,and, indeed, that makes ofabsence the ground ofpresence itself.New York University

    NOTES1. StephenA. Reid,"The 'UnspeakableRites' nHeartofDarkness,"ModernFictionStudies,9 (Winter 963-1964), 51.2. Leo Gurko,JosephConrad: Giant n Exile (NewYork:Macmillan, 962),p.151.3. AlbertJ.Guerard,Conrad theNovelistCambridge,Massachusetts: arvardUniversityress, 1958),p. 36.4. See Claude L6vi-Strauss, he Savage Mind (Chicago:UniversityfChicagoPress,1966;Paris: LibrairiePlon, 1962).5. Guerard,p. 36.6. Guerard,p. 39.7. Guerard,p. 41.8. Guerard,p. 39.9. Guerard,p. 41.10. SigmundFreud,"The Antithetical eaningofPrimalWords," nThe Stan-dard EditionoftheCompletePsychologicalWorksofSigmundFreud, ed.James tracheyLondon:HogarthPress,1953-1966), I, 156.11. Freud,XI, 157.12. Freud, XI, 157-158.13. JamesGuettihas also shownthat Marlow"admitsthat t is impossible" o"lookbeneaththesurface," lthough isreasonsforwhy language . . failsto discoverthe meaningof Kurtz and ofexperience" re simply hat"thereality fexperience iesbeyond anguage" ndthat theessentials f xperi-enceremain .. alinguistic";ee " 'Heart ofDarkness' ndtheFailureof heImagination,"ewaneeReview,83 (Summer1965), 498, 500, 501,502.


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    14. See JacquesDerrida, "Structure, ign, and Play in the Discourse of theHuman Sciences,"in The Structuralist ontroversy,d. RichardMackseyandEugenioDonato (Baltimore: ohnsHopkinsUniversityress,1972),pp.247-265.15. It is interestingo note thatFreud himself iscoveredthe same kind ofdecenteringwhen he searched n vain forthe primalscene of seductionduringhis researches n the1890's;see JeanLaplanche,Lifeand Death inPsychoanalysis,rans.Jeffreyehlman Baltimore: ohnsHopkinsUniver-sityPress,1976),pp. 31-32.16. Mario D'Avanzo has also noticed the similarityetween the harlequin'smotley nd themapinBrussels, ut findsnbothonly recurrentsymbol"for disorder"; ee "Conrad'sMotleyas an OrganizingMetaphor,"CollegeLanguageAssociation ournal, (March1966),289-291.17. Derrida,p. 254.18. See, for xample, Differance,"nJacquesDerrida, peechandPhenomena,and other essays on Husserl's Theoryof Signs, trans. David B. Allison(Evanston:Northwesternniversityress, 1973),pp. 148ff.19. Guerard,p. 40.

    E. M. FORSTER CONFERENCEConcordia University,Montreal, Quebec, is planninga conferenceon May 3-5, 1979 to mark the centenary of the birthof E. M. Forster.Major addresses by scholars of internationalreputation and seminar pa-pers and discussions will be included. Seminar papers (about 10 pages)should arrive by October 15, 1978. Send to: Prof.JudithHerz, EnglishDepartment Loyola Campus, Concordia University,Montreal. Quebec,H4B 1R6.