It is time to return to the classics. The novel, The Heart of Darkness is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. I think I have now read it 3 times. It is well worth a re-read. It is a definitely a classic. And it is a short read (unlike Moby Dick).
The book was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in England in1899 by Joseph Conrad whose original language was Polish. He only became fluent in his twenties. It always amazes me that he became such a good writer in English in such a short time.
It is a simple story. A steamboat captain Marlow, travels up the Congo River to meet Kurtz an agent of the ivory company for whom he works. There, Marlow finds Kurz living among “the savages.” He tells the story to a group of civilized Englishmen drinking and smoking cigars while sailing the river Thames in London. The setting is important. A key question is whether or not the heart of Darkness is London or the Congo.
The novel describes a journey by Marlowe, the protagonist and narrator, to the heart of Africa. It was a trip up the winding Congo river, (we presume). That river is described, not accidentally, as a snake. There Marlowe found a corrupt agent of the English company hunting for ivory. The book powerfully describes the black heart at the centre of European colonialism and exploitation of the continent of Africa and other places as well. He reveals the deep dark truth hidden by the pretense of lofty moralistic goals. Illusions he calls them. Of course, the book is more than a trip to the heart of the darkness of Africa, it is also a trip into the heart of darkness of each of us who remain behind in the safety and comfort of our homes. That darkness exists there too. And what Marlow finds, and what we would find in the centre of our own heart of darkness, if we were brave enough and honest enough to make the journey was horror!
One of the interesting things about how the story is told, is that it is told by Marlowe to 4 or 5 others sitting on a boat in the Thames. Why there? Why is this relevant? In my view it is important because Conrad wanted to make it clear that everyone is capable of savagery. The savage is within each of us–even civilized people in London, the centre of the world at that time. London is also in the heart of darkness!
Conrad lays bare the reality behind the ‘civilizing’ goals of the European traders. With that he lays bare the thin veneer of civilization and the thin armour around our own darkness inside of us, for none of us are pure. We are all tainted. We all share the rapacity that engulfed the traders like Kurtz.
With Conrad’s analysis we also learn the despairing truth behind the notion of the “benevolent despot” that has so tortured Africa. It is a lie. A lie that Kurtz embodied. Kurtz who eventually gave way to unspeakable lusts and gratifications had gone to the heart of the continent with enlightenment goals. Sentimentally, he wanted to be a humanitarian helper. So many Europeans have gone with similar lofty goals only to be thwarted. Not usually as sensationally as Kurtz, but they have been destroyed nonetheless by their own rapacity and naiveté.
As Marlow takes the trip up that river he realizes the land is a swamp and he feels the reality of the person who ventures into this dark heart on behalf of some commercial enterprise back home. Conrad feels for the innocence of that intrepid venturer, who does not know what he is getting into.
” Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know,–coming out here in the train of some pretext, or tax-gatherer or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had close around him,–all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. “(emphasis added)
Our commercial enterprises into the heart of dark continent have come cloaked in lofty goals. But, according to Conrad, the people who came may have looked like religious zealots looking to help the poor savages, but they were the real savages. They came with strength. It was an accidental strength based on the technological weakness of the indigenous. There was no moral superiority that accompanied it. Conrad described those efforts this way,
“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before and offer sacrifice to.”
One of the things Conrad looks at in the book is the conquest of the earth by the men of Europe a dubious enterprise at best. Conrad took a close look at colonialism and the sense of superiority and what he saw as the darkness at its heart. As he said, it was not always pretty.