I was fascinated by this book, far more than I was when I first read it in college. I feel like that’s more of a reflection on more than the text. In the past six years since I last read it, I’ve traveled a lot, held a job, seen the world (?), had lots of Really Deep Thoughts about Really Big Issues and all that other grown-up stuff. All of my own experiences as well as my current interests helped contribute to my reading of Heart of Darkness this time around.
For better or worse, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia reading about the Belgium’s involvement in the Congo in the 19th century. It was a good reminder to me that you can espouse lots of theories about how this story is the representation of the decaying European mind in Africa and la dee dah, but then you also have the historical reality of like, well, this is what people do to each other. Like, when I look at the photos of rubber plantation workers (mostly children) who had their hands or feet cut off for not meeting their quotoas, I’m reminded that THIS is the heart of darkness. Like, you want to analyze or have a discussion about what the “heart of darkness” is? Just take a look around–it’s happening all around us, all the time.
I guess that was the main question I was left with after reading this book: HOW do we use literature or art to make sense or to depict these horrible, unspeakable experiences? I can’t get this these two images out of my head: one shows Conrad traveling on the boat down the river in Congo, seeing all these things and then going back to Europe and being like, “I need to write about this.” The other image I keep coming back to are those heads stuck on sticks that Marlowe sees when he first enters Kurtz’s camp. The footnote in my edition notes that heads were used as decorations around flower beds in the front of houses, and tended to surround stations where white men stayed. I feel like this text is Conrad’s effort to deal with these heads and with the photos below: the story keeps circling around these scenes of violence, coming back to them over and over again, trying to deal with them, but it’s like it doesn’t know how to. There are no words.
But to his credit Conrad tried; he really did. He stared into the heart of darkness and tried to write about it. What do I think of his attempt? Well, I think this book is pretty heavy, fascinating and brilliant at times. A couple of things stood out to me, especially the narrator, the ambiguity and the absurdity.
The story is told with a narrator-behind-a-narrator technique: Marlowe (Conrad’s stand-in) is the main narrator and then we have this second, unidentified shadowy person who is listening. I guess this was one way for Conrad to create extra distance between himself and the tale. It also has a really fascinating effect on the narrative in parts, especially in this section early on in the story (on the first two pages, when they’re settling down and getting ready to listen to Marlowe):
The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled–the great knights-errant of the sea…What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
(104-105, Oxford World’s Classics edition–FYI this was a great edition of the novella, with lots of extremely helpful and fascinating footnotes). I find this section fascinating because later, just as Marlowe is beginning to speak, he makes a reference to “you say ‘knights’?” (pg. 106), thus implying that this quoted passage is not just the narrator’s reflections, but is actually implied speech. I thought it was really interesting how Conrad presented this perspective of these imperial pirates and failed explorers as these “great knights-errants” in this very straightforward tone, as though we’re supposed to accept this view of the narrator’s, when actually he’s setting it up to be refuted.
On one hand this technique is fascinating, on the other hand it’s unsettling. It made it very difficult for me to assess when I was supposed to question what the narrator was saying and when I was supposed to take what he was saying at face value. I’m going to be honest; it was VERY problematic and very difficult for me. One example of when this was an issue for me was at the end, when Marlowe says “that is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz for the last” (179) and calls him “a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.” (178) I’m not really sure how to interpet that, if I’m supposed to accept this assertion or be suspicious of it the way I was with the knights passage at the beginning. The same goes for all the infamously racist sections (and perhaps the less famously sexist ones): does Conrad KNOW that they’re racist? Is he being racist on purpose so that he can be like oh, actually I’m refuting this perspective? WHAT is going on when he compares a tribal ceremony to a satanic ritual? Like, does he really mean that, or is that just the narrator’s perspective, because his head is all ****ed? I don’t know. I can’t write about the racist passages in this book without getting really upset and agitated. They REALLY bother me and they make me really sad. The last thing I’ll say about this is that I wish this book had a moment in which an African was allowed to speak for themselves. But they’re not. And it’s like, OK, this book is a portrayal of the decaying imperialistic European mind, not about the African experience. But still. Still. It makes me so sad.
I think one of the reasons why it was hard for me to figure out the narrator’s intention was the thematic emphasis on AMBIGUITY throughout the text (rather than on the clarity that comes after a Chekhovian-like epiphany or flash of insight). On a stylistic level there’s a constant insistence on mystery, obscurity, impenetrability (Conrad LOVES his adjective). You can find any description of nature or scenery on any page and what’s emphasized is its unknowability: “The silence of the land went home to one’s very heart—its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life… Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?” (128)
The closest moment we have to an epiphany-like scene or flash of insight comes with Kurtz’s infamous utterance of “the horror! the horror!” What I thought was really interesting about this scene is that before that point what’s really emphasized about Kurtz’s character is his eloquence and his way with words. It’s like what Dennis Hopper says (quoting directly from the text) in this movie clip: “You don’t talk with that man; you listen to him.” Check out Marlowe’s impression of Kurtz before meeting him: “The man presented himself as a voice… out of all his gifts the one that stood our pre-eminently […] was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating.” (152) Or look at this description of Kurt’z writing: “It was a beautiful piece of writing… This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.” (155) And then of course at the bottom of this extremely beautiful piece of writing, Kurtz has scrawled, “Exterminate all the brutes!” How telling.
So what’s interesting to me about “the horror” is that it’s really not that eloquent. It’s more like words are failing Kurtz at that moment and he can’t express any clear or straightforward truth about these atrocities that he’s committed and the horrors that he’s seen and done. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
There were other things in this book that really stood out to me. The pathetic absurdity, especially in Part I: the ship shooting pointlessly at invisible enemies (115), criminals digging holes for no reason (117), men trying to put out a fire with buckets full of holes (125). The office worker who complains that the groans of the sick and the dying make it difficult for him to focus (120) (I should imagine!). Marlowe is often compared to Buddha by the narrator, so maybe the absurdity makes sense if you consider the story to be more like a surreal dream narrative. Even Marlowe says, “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment.” (128) I thought this was one of the most effective things about the book.
Overall I “enjoyed” this book (even though reading it made me feel like I was either being suffocated and/or having a panic attack) and found it fascinating. There are some things about this book though that just really trouble me and that I find very problematic. It bothers me. It makes me very agitated, the squirm in your seat kind.
I’ll never forget that section in Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, in which someone hosts a literary salon, with lots of wine and readings of beautiful poetry, while all the while underneath the floorboards torture of political prisoners is taking place. This image keeps coming back to me again and again, I think, because it feels like a metaphor for literature to me: words on a page can be very beautiful, very aesthetically pleasing, but is it ultimately just a distraction for the horrors that are going on underneath? How do you write about it? How do you write about the horrors?
I don’t know. I keep coming back to those heads, man. I can’t get away from them. I don’t think Conrad could either.