Saturday, October 13, 2007

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness [Review]

An entry in the RIP II Challenge

Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Copyright: Initially serialized in 1899 and published as a book in 1902; this text is in public domain. I read the Everyman's Library edition (1993, Knopf, New York).

Genre: Fiction

Length: 110 pages

Summary: A party of five men at their leisure on a yawl within sight of London listen to one man, Marlowe, tell of his experience in working for a Belgian enterprise in Africa as a steamship captain. He recalls his journey into the jungle to take supplies up the Congo river to a station agent, Mr. Kurtz. We hear Marlowe describe the intimidating nature of the jungle environment, the Company employees who fritter away time and resources, the ill-treatment of black laborers, and the strange personality cult that has arisen around Mr. Kurtz as he wields monarchical powers in the depths of the jungle. Kurtz, by the time Marlowe finds him, is deathly ill and those who surround him present odd perspectives of his role and influence in the jungle setting. After an illness, Marlowe subsequently returns to England, himself a changed man who may or may not be able to articulate the substance of his experience.

There is a good deal of the hallucination and nightmare in Marlowe's story. Conrad has Marlowe provide us with a fragmented set of events and expects us to add in those details left outside the printed page while inviting the reader to come to his/her own conclusions as to the point.

Extract: "They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long eight-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."

Also Relevant: This is for many a controversial book. In 1977, Chinua Achebe wrote an essay, challenging the continued praise heaped on Heart of Darkness and stressing its inherent racism on the basis of Conrad's inability to see African society as being of equal stature with that of European society. Certainly, Heart of Darkness spells out the incomprehensibility that Africa represents for Marlowe (and by extension, Conrad); he is unable to understand the language, finds navigating the physical environment both intimidating mystifying, and ultimately is unable to account for the behaviors of any humans in this setting. The baffled conclusion to Marlowe's tale to his fellows expresses that lack of comprehension; he does not know how to go forward in civilized life now that he has returned to London. He cannot reconcile man's interior purpose with civilized man's history, having seen Kurtz in Africa. He speaks of having wrestled with a man's soul while being unable to express the essence of the man to those who pursue Kurtz even after death.

I sat and scribbled in my moleskine for several pages, trying to frame what I thought of this book. The themes are rather numerous for working through the author's point. One can focus on colonialism, light vs. darkness, constant movement inward (we know nothing of how Marlowe makes his way back to London) and at least another dozen concepts found in the text. Thinking about it from another standpoint, the Fowler and TipTree short stories discussed here owed a good deal to Heart of Darkness. I realized it only once I'd really finished the book. But everything and everyone is "The Other" in Conrad's world. I think Conrad's point was that there is a mystery to our existence that we may never fathom (the real heart of darkness). We can look inward for as long as we wish and we may never find an answer to that mystery; if too obsessed by the inquiry, we may even drive ourselves mad.

I need more time to think about this one.