Category Archives: freedom

Heart of Darkness

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.

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Filed under books, freedom, review, violence

Infinite Summer: HALFWAY POINT

Me with deranged office puss Tornillo (Screw), my trusty reading companion out here on the back patio.

I am now 50% through Infinite Jest. It feels slightly strange to be at this point, here in Colombia of all places, but hey, it works.

I’ve been in Medellin for six days now, and haven’t done much else other than apply for jobs (I finally got one yesterday, so I’m officially done with that now, yay!), help my sister with her reports (this isn’t as generous as it sounds: if she doesn’t finish them, then we can’t celebrate the Feria de las Flores this weekend!), and walk through the smog-infested city center to the local Éxito (grocery chain) to buy essential goods such as lentils, brown rice, strawberry-flavored drinkable yogurt and cans of beans (“gotta have a protein,” my sister says, in reference to her salad-making theories). Oh, and read Infinite Jest, along with some essays from Jonathan Frazen’s How To Be Alone as a break. I am mostly likely going hiking through the jungle to an ancient abandoned indigenous city next week (I KNOW!), so I am definitely appreciating this downtime while I have it.

It’s a pretty intense book (I’ve probably said that already). Yesterday I had to put it down and go for a little walk around the back patio, watching the crazy Manx cat (owned by one of my sister’s office mates) hunt pigeons, and try to feel like I hadn’t just read a graphic death scene in which a character dies by getting a broom shoved up their mouth. (In the margins of such scenes I’ve found myself writing things such as Oh, David… ) The other day my sister asked me to summarize a scene or a moment from the book I’d found disturbing. Hmm… it was hard to choose. How about the part where during her confession at AA, a former crack addict/prostitute talks about carrying her dead crack baby around with her until it starts to smell? Or the moment in which one of the main characters reveals to his therapist that his first thought after stepping into the kitchen and finding the body of his father (who’d just committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven) js “that something smelled delicious!” Or the handless guy in the rehab center, “trying to saw at a waffle with a knife and fork attached to the stumps of his wrists with Velcro bands.” Or the Poor Tony has a seizure while in drag on the subway chapter. And how do I even begin describing the apparently infamous Eschaton chapter? In which a bunch of young boys play a complex role-playing nuclear war game that involves pegging targets with tennis balls and gradually descends into a level of chaos that wouldn’t be out of place in Foster the People’s new apocalyptic video? (If Infinite Jest ever gets turned into a critically acclaimed HBO series a la Game of Thrones, this is definitely the episode I would most want to see!)

From "Infinite Summer," a very excellent visual representation of the madness that is Eschaton.

There are a lot of things that could potentially be said about this book, though, apart from “wow, that’s disturbing and/or weird and/or memorable.” While talking about its bigger themes (i.e. entertainment, the nature of desire and addiction) with my sister, she said that it sounded like it would be interesting if someone wrote a thesis one day comparing the works of Jonathan Franzen and DFW. Considering they were apparently buddies, this wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Not only do they both deal with similar topics such as depression, the question of freedom and the alienating nature of modernity and technology, they both even use the word samizdat to emphatic effect, for goodness’ sake.

Franzen has one particularly good essay called “The Reader in Exile” that makes a few salient points, many of which I imagine would have made DFW pump his fists in the air in emphatic agreement. One of Franzen’s comments in the essay that I liked the most was his discussion of the reader as someone who is an outsider, the high school loner in contrast to the team captains and class presidents. I like how Franzen uses this conception of the reader as a rallying cry of sorts, maybe not quite on the level of “ATTICA!” but pretty close. He also makes the argument for what he calls “the oppositional writer,” pointing out that many writers themselves were like high school outsiders throughout their lives: Kafka wanted his novels burned, Faulkner hid in the South, Bolaño smoked cigarettes, ate tiny plates of salty sardines and worked as a security guard in rural Spanish beach towns. “The most original and farseeing novelists of our own day not only accept the shadows but actively seek them,” (177) which I think is about a good description as any of not only DFW but of many of my favorite authors (Arlt, Onetti, Woolf…).

I guess the main reason I like this conception of the reader/writer as an outsider is because I really agree with it. I mean, let’s face it, it does say a lot about a person to want to read books in this day and age (especially books like Infinite Jest, which let’s face it, is a really, REALLY hard book to recommend to most people—definitely none of the families I’ve ever worked with at the school, or even most of my co-workers). We live in a world with pretty much infinite distraction at our disposable. Compared to watching a movie or clicking blissfully and endlessly through infinite hypertext, the act of reading a novel (in Franzen’s words) is more akin to a state of meditation, in which a person can enter a state where they can reflect upon the meaning of things.

There’s a pertinent passage in IJ, in which two characters discuss the nature of desire, resistance and choice. Steepley insists that choice is what makes people free, while Marathe counters that that’s just an illusion, that the freedom to choose is actually a cage that keeps people enslaved (“How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?”). (320) This question of the nature of freedom and choice is particularly interesting in light of the AA passages at the rehab center, in which so much emphasis is put on the act of just “showing up,” of going through the motions, of just doing the actions of AA (prayer, group meeting and so on). According to this line of thought, action precedes and leads to the thought and the wisdom, not vice versa. One of the rehab old timers astutely compares it to baking a cake: you follow the directions on the box, and you don’t necesarrily need to understand the chemistry of how it’s all going to work out, you just need to have faith and trust in the directions that if you follow it, step by step, at the end you will have—voila!—a cake. In other words, there’s a lot to be said for just blindly following directions sometimes.

I think there’s a lot of value to this kind of mindset in regards to the act of reading IJ itself. So much about reading this book is just “showing up” and reading my allotted minimum of 10 pages a day. It could apply to lots of other things: yoga, for example, or going to my writing class, or even the act of writing in this blog or in my paper journal. A lot of the times we just show up, day after day, week after week, with all our weaknesses and ugliness and insecurities, and we just have to trust that even if we’re not there now, even if we’re nowhere even close, if we just keep coming and trying and sticking to the actions that we know are good for us, then one day we will eventually look up and realize that we are already in the place that we’re meant to be. Wherever that is, I’m looking forward to getting there. In a way, I feel like I’m there already.

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Filed under books, David Foster Wallace, freedom, Infinite Jest, review