At first Kurtz could not stand to looking into the Heart of Darkness either. He said, “I can’t bear to look at this.” But eventually he did. He broke down and looked. But that drove him mad. This is how Marlow described it:
“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. Kurtz looked into the mind of all of us—into the heart of darkness within each of us and declared “The horror. The horror!”
Kurtz, went to the edge and looked down into that heart of darkness that most of us just cannot do. We cannot stand it.
Though Marlow could not muscle up sufficient courage to go to the edge and look down into that heart of darkness, as Kurtz had done, he remained loyal to Kurtz for that was his “choice of nightmares.” He respected the courage of Kurtz “to dream the nightmare out to the end.” Marlow recognized that he had learned tragic things about life, like Leslie Fiedler’s hero who could carry that torch to the end of the cave. Marlow described the lesson this way, with just the hint of a summing up of his philosophy, of what he has learned from his encounter with Kurtz,
“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
Marlow’s final statement was less declarative, more tentative than that of Kurtz. Marlow knew that Kurtz “had summed up—he had judged. The horror!” Kurtz’s final statement had “the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate
Yet somehow Marlow saw Kurtz’s final summing up with its astonishing characteristics. For it was the most horrible conclusion imaginable. Yet Marlow said “It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last.”
But what was the victory?
That was why Marlow when he returned to London, the “sepulchral city” as he called it, he felt sorry for those poor shallow souls who had not gained such knowledge as he had in the jungles of Africa. He had gained knowledge. A terrifying knowledge but knowledge nonetheless. As he said,
“I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficult in restraining myself from laughing in their faces , so full of stupid importance. I daresay I was not very well at that time. I tottered about the streets—there were various affairs to settle—grinning bitterly at perfectly respectable persons.”
This reminded me of what my great uncle Peter once told: If you have been through the Russian Revolution you would not bother going to the bar in Labroquerie. After all was it not true that in Labroquerie all I did was gulp my unwholesome beer and dream my insignificant and silly dreams?
Joseph Conrad was wise. After reading Heart of Darkness we might be a little wiser too. This book is well worth the read.