"Taking himself seriously, so you don't have to."

A Report: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

So, after finishing the book (the novella, novel, long-short story, what have you), I find myself at a loss for words [since proven otherwise]. First, it is a story within a story, a retelling of a retelling, a relation of the original story by one removed by time alone, retelling from memory. My few criticisms probably come from this form, which in light of that fact, become less critiques of the author’s intention, but that of his narrator. Of course, he is to blame, in some sense, intentionally or not, Conrad shoves the adherence to the themes of death and moral degradation from himself to his narrator. It’s easier to see the effect that an adventure of this sort can have on a man when he is the one telling the tale, we see him huddled above a smoking pipe, relating his story around the campfire.

He places himself directly in the line of fire: as author, as character. And whether this character is anything like the author himself is beside the point, and irrelevant. He is what he says. And we can see him all the better for this form.

I will not reproduce a summary of the text, as I assume the reader of this essay must have since read the work in question.

At its conclusion, I was left with piecing together the life of this “Kurtz”. Who seemed in the first respect, as related, to be a man of great repute, but with altogether something amiss. Perhaps it was my preconceptions coming in (the film “Apocalypse Now”, portrayed him demonically), but I noticed that very little struck me as errant from that preconception. Marlow hoped to meet Kurtz, early characters spoke of him well, but again, they all mentioned something just odd about his methods, to paraphrase. Then, it was no surprise to see that he was indeed a monster, a raging, looting, grasping, ruling beast. He had become the king of the jungle; no small feat for a man of western society, whether inborn with despicable tendencies that aided him in this quest, or “found”, by necessity, the question was answered. I had thought that with the high praises of his peers, the other English conquerors (whose weak-wills and boomsticks and adherence to a sense of unexamined aristocracy, in particular, provided that they not see the man [or any man for that matter] as he truly is, to mistake a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a bastard for a fair maiden, merely observing his tendency to practice, to work, to will his way toward a goal, without caring for who, or what, is actually sitting behind the machinery) that the man was a viceroy of a common kind, one that lived for his own pleasures, and envied all that was for others, and saw an opportunity in the Congo to strip from the land a kingdom of his own, far from the judgmental eyes of town and country, in a place where such a thing were possible: where one man can make a kingdom, and where such is no affront to higher powers beyond his reach (though the manager does allude to his “unsound method”).

This is what I had thought. And certainly it was, more or less, Marlow’s opinion as well. And with this, Marlow should have had no trouble at all, no resistance, no thought to do otherwise than to pummel Kurtz in his own kingdom, for men of that sort, whether in society (as a criminal) or in nature (as an animal), understand no less that a physical beating. Of course, as we wound down that river, the sense came upon the narrator and upon the reader that this was no mere criminal in disguise. No man running from his country, but instead taking it, the best of it, outward to foreign lands. His voice, a man who could speak, who could rally men to sacrifice themselves willingly for his (and their own) benefit. This highly-lauded man, these words preceded Marlow’s descent and left him with just an ounce of question to hear the man out, nay, rescue him in the grips of fever. Kurtz’ reputation saved him.

But very little do we actually hear. The death, the torture, the atrocities committed by Kurtz are only alluded to with the heads set on stakes. And again, very little from the man himself regarding his much-acclaimed principles and intentions. We are left with an archetype, a blank page from which to draw our conclusions, before the book’s conclusion itself fills not the painting itself, but gives it a frame. And a gilded one it is, full of promise and love. All that was said to be good of man. No more a criminal, no more a scoundrel, but a beneficent human with the highest ideals of society, thence striding forth into the unknown, primeval abyss.

And so we know of what became of him. Of what he sought, what he became, and what he received in his due time.

What he received was death, of course. But as Marlow related, death, and even its lingering threat, is little compared to moral decay. For death will always be amongst us, as something that does not solely exist in the Congo, or anywhere else. It is everywhere. It is nature’s way. It seems that the worst of what death is, is what it can drive a man to do, what it makes him sacrifice, as he pushes against the immovable gray waste, he may find himself pushing ever deeper into darkness, pitch black. And what this innate fear drives him to do can be worse than death itself, the deplorable moral death and harnessing of humans to drain their blood, spilling for want of courage in the face of terror itself, feeding upon itself, gathering disciples and armies to repel the onset of the immobile wall, and dashing themselves to bits, trampling each other, in bloodthirsty lust to fight or escape the inevitable.

So, what is to be said of this implication? What is man, truly, but a beast if left to fend for himself? To pluck a man from society and throw him into the jungle is a common theme in many books, especially during the time of this book, though I fear to say that Conrad mayhaps have drained the life right out of that particular genre. His Robinson Crusoe is one of darkness, of rapacious gain, of ruthless greed, if for no other reason than there was no other reason. In this case, greed could keep a man sane, as it did for the other English pilgrims and managers. But Kurtz had lost his sense of society entirely. There was nothing left. To take a man from that, place him in a world of savages (sic) and count on him to do as he was always best at, to keep his strength alive, to utilize the tools he had, there was no other option for him. Had he been a different man, he would have found a different path. Were he a cook, he may have cooked food. Were he a sailor, he may have driven a boat. But a leader of men? Taken from the “civil” to the tribal?

Every man works with the tools he has. The tribes were a tool for him, but impending death was the only object in that backwater. Ivory? By that point, it was only a hobby.

Is that, then our true message here? Impending death is the only object. Peel away layer after layer of civil society, morals and principles, fellow neighbors, and find that gray wasteland. To welcome it is to rebel against your own nature. To reject it is to push further into the abyss, further into deception, hate, and subjugation. Is nothing redeeming?

Nay, I say. Were it entirely true, we would not be here.

I think one element is most important to keep in mind while reading. Considering the time that it took to take “us”, the descendants of Grecian virtue, to come from our most auspicious beginnings, as hunter-gatherers or even in early forms of village life from agriculture, how far had we advanced intellectually? Advance or progress can be argued with. Let us ask, “How much have we changed? How much time was necessary for those changes to take place from their original inception?” This is the distance which those 800 miles into the heart of darkness make. Many, many thousands of years, millenia, separated Kurtz from the tribal society in which he later presided. This is no small interval, both in time and in ideas. Considering it so, it is amazing the progress that has been made in these mere 100 years of the twentieth century, though there certainly is still much to “change”, if that is the intention, in the Congo itself, from what I hear on the news reports. It can certainly be argued that the state of the governments of this world are much as that of Kurtz himself, in his darkest days, in that jungle, though he be the sole arbiter. The state that we have created is one that itself certainly has elements of that moral decrepitude, but the individual seems repressed, compressed, unable to be so atrocious (baring many examples, of course. This is no small point, however, it would require its own essay.)

We need to keep the hope alive that we are doing something better, every day. It is very difficult. For now, I feed upon that, and there is no book, novella, or long-short story that can take that away. It would require something much more drastic. And I should hope that that drastic thing does not come soon, as I think that belief comes not from a place without evidence, but from one of which I have not yet inspected. I have not yet found it, and how to find it, I know not.

Perhaps the evidence for this belief may only be found when the drastic does happen. When the atrocities appear for want of nothing else, for when the bubble can grow no longer and must burst. Perhaps in that conflict we can find our true meaning. Perhaps only then can we peer into the mirror. Paradoxical as it may seem, perhaps we may only find our answer amongst “the horror”.

One Comment

  1. Evryeone would benefit from reading this post

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