In the novel the Heart of Darkness, Marlow, like Kurtz before him, and like countless Europeans before them too, ventured out from safe London to journey up that river into the heart of the continent.
That big river that “resembled an immense snake uncoiled” had a powerful attraction for Marlow. He admitted that, “it fascinated me as a snake would a bird.” It was the fascination of the abomination.
Most of such adventurers were dreaming of the glories of exploration. Some were lusting for exploitation. Many succumbed to the lures of treasure, and power, and unspeakable gratifications. Some sought the salvation of souls. Kurtz was one of them.
Many of those who came to the river where their journey began were, according to Conrad, “the joy pioneers of progress” who could drink their “jolly lager-beer.” They had no idea what they were getting in for, but they would find out.
In the outer room of the company office where these journeys began sat two old women knitting. They reminded me of Dickens’ old women knitting beside the guillotine as heads rolled in a Tale of Two Cities. A cat sat on the lap of one of them. When she looked at Marlow her glance over her glasses was described by him as follows, “The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me.” It was a simple but ominously elegant description. Marlow often thought of them when he was far away.:
“Often far away there, I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half by a long way.”
Marlow also described the company accountant who kept up his appearance “in the great demoralization of the land.” Marlow respected that, for it kept the accountant sane (sort of anyway) in a crazy land where everything else was in a riotous muddle. The accountant refused to be distracted by the pain around him. As he said, “The groans of this sick person… distract my attention. And without that it is extremely difficult to guard against clerical errors in this climate.” Clerical errors were more important than lives. One could even expand that to include moral errors!
It was there at the company office that he learned about Kurtz “a first class-agent”. So he was described to Marlowe, He was remarkable for he sent in more ivory than all the others put together. Of course, at what cost was he able to gather all that ivory? It really didn’t matter.
Marlowe was disturbed by the insanity of the company business in the yard. He saw many men there. He described it this way, as part of a strange religious quest:
“I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence. The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in all my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.”
Conrad knew that the entire European invasion was “fantastic” and also, was driven by “imbecile rapacity.” That is part of the dark center of this dark continent. And it is part of the dark centre of people. It is not innocent people who are led to imbecile rapacity. It is in their nature.
Conrad was also disturbed by the false consciousness of the European enterprise in Africa. It is astonishing to think that many of them believed they were there to help the downtrodden. They really believed they were bringing civilization to savages. They believed the illusions. That created a surreal world. Conrad said “It was as unreal as everything else—as the philanthropic pretense of the whole thing.”