“It seems to me,” writes Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, “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 in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….” Perhaps it is because of its dreamlike quality that this great book means so many things to so many people: “There is now virtually an interpretation of the story to suit every predilection – the psychoanalytic, philosophic, political, post-colonial and gender-based.”
Outwardly it’s the story of a journey up a river deep into Africa to find a man, Kurtz, who set out with great talents and noble aims and degenerated to something fiendish. But it’s surely much more of a symbolic than a literal book.
The most obvious interpretation is that the book is a condemnation of the rampant Jingoism of those celebrating the British Empire and its bringing of “civilisation” to ”savages.” And the condemnation extends not only to Britain but to all the colonial powers of Europe.
But then is it a racist book? The Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe argued strongly that it was. We hear nothing from Africans, although the book is set in Africa. But perhaps that is because although set in Africa it is primarily a book about the degeneracy of Europe, the degeneracy that will culminate in the First World War that followed publication of the book by less than two decades.
Then we all make at least one journey into the heart of darkness if that darkness is death, but most of us also make several such journeys, setting out with a bold mission and good intentions but creating havoc. The darkness might be some individual failure or climate change. “The mind of man,” writes Conrad, “is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”
I read the book first many years ago and, as usual, enjoyed it even more second time. I took many quotes from both the introduction and novel (below), but—with my obsession with death—one of my favourite quotes is about dying and about the possibility that everything suddenly and momentarily makes sense just as we disappear into oblivion forever:
“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be….Perhaps all wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the Invisible.”
The episode [his physical breakdown in the Congo] formed ‘the turning-point in his mental life’, shaped ‘his transformation from a sailor to a writer’ and ‘swept away the generous illusions of his youth’.
Heart of Darkness was written against a background of recent imperial celebration of a feverishly utopian kind. Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 occasioned an exaltation of the British Empire and the importance of the imperial idea to the country’s future as an international power.
Articles in the New Review evoke the wider note of intoxicated eulogy in lauding the Queen as ‘the Great White Mother, the fame of whose virtue has won the loyalty of native races as the genius of Alexander or a Napoleon never could’ and characterizing the British imperial idea as an onerous religious destiny: ‘Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression’.
There is now virtually an interpretation of the story to suit every predilection – the psychoanalytic, philosophic, political, post-colonial and gender-based.
Later generations have been overshadowed by the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe, whose angry polemic of 1975 accused Conrad of virtually betraying his subject by eliminating ‘the African as a human factor’, lamented his ‘preposterous and perverse arrogance in reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind’ and condemned the author as a ‘bloody racist’.
In more senses than one, Marlow loses navigational clarity and purpose. The pressures put upon him reflect more widely on a tradition of liberal humanism that, when faced by the flinty actualities of wider colonial politics, has commonly suffered painful defeat and been left with a legacy of nervous irritation, panic, hysteria and frustrated silence.
The iconoclastic power of this portrait depends upon our recognizing that the ‘heart of darkness’ has its roots firmly in Europe and that Kurtz, as its malformed outgrowth, strikes Marlow as a symbol of present and active degeneration.
In other words, Kurtz’s protean incarnations reflect upon the insufficiency of language to express anything more than a frustrated desire for meaning.
What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river [Thames] into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
The yarns of seamen have an effective simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But, as has been said, Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages—precious little to eat fit for a civilised man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.
They were men enough to face the darkness.
All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forests, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.
Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the 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.
It was the furthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough too—and pitiful—not extraordinary in any way—not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.
“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.
As I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me like a snake would a bird—a silly little bird.
The snake had charmed me.
Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.
The merry dance of death and trade
I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire….But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.
‘He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.
The silence of the land went home to one’s very heart—its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.
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 in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”
Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there.”
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.
We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.
The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.
No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true.
The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
He was very little more than a voice.
All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.
‘You don’t talk with that man—you listen to him,’
There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs.
But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.
It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.
‘Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!’
I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.
“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath— “‘The horror! The horror!’
Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.
Perhaps all wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the Invisible.
“‘Intimacy grows quick out there,’ I said. ‘I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.’
‘As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England?’ William Booth