Kenostic vs. Heuristic Storytelling

“Robinson Crusoe” illustration by Walter Paget.

I once attended a lecture on the Polish-born English novelist Joseph Conrad. The lecturer talked about two types of text.

The first was “heuristic” in which the hero/reader gains knowledge as the novel progresses – like Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”.

Then other type of text is “kenostic” where the text empties of meaning, like in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”.

I haven’t come across this distinction since. Did that long-ago lecturer invent it?

I can’t remember much about him – he had blonde hair and (I’m not making this up) was writing a paper about the significance of people’s hats falling off in Conrad’s novels.

I remember his theory occasionally – and it makes me wonder – can authors still try to tell narratives that aim for teachable experiences or some “absolute truth”?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective heuristic as “serving to find out or discover.”

In “Robinson Crusoe” we learn truths from our marooned hero’s first-person reportage. Rationality, hard work, self-sufficiency and a belief in divine providence save Crusoe from death. Defoe initially pretended the book was a true story – magnifying the heuristic effect.

In “Heart of Darkness” the unnamed narrator observes that for the hero Marlow “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.” The sailor’s kenostic journey up the Congo river yields no truths about the human spirit but brings only post-modern doubt and uncertainty – its lessons are unclear. It empties of meaning like the man Marlow observes trying to carry a bucket of water with a large hole in it.

Where does this leave the modern author? Can we still aim for any kind of meaning or “truth”?

There is an audio version of this blog here:

Audio version.

“Robinson Crusoe” – illustration by Walter Paget.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: