I reread Conrad’s Heart of Darkness over Christmas.
It’s one of those books you have to read when you’re at university studying literature. Or maybe I read it in high school. Maybe both. I don’t really remember. Mostly, I remember it being a book about nothing. One of those books that I pretended to like at the time, because I was a literature geek and I knew I was supposed to like it. Great classics, you know.
Well, I doubt that Heart of Darkness has changed much in the last ten years, but I definitely have. Somehow, in the meantime, it has become one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
In high school, or at university, I just thought it was one of those modernist books without much action. Guy goes to Africa, takes a boat ride up a river, finds Mr Kurtz in the jungle, Mr Kurtz dies. Nothing is gained and nothing is lost.
Towards the beginning, there’s a scene in which they pass a war ship firing cannons into the jungle. No explanation, no apparent reason, and no response from the shore. This time, a light went on in my head. Of course. It’s about the total futility of human endeavor.
The futility goes on, later, on the banks of the river. A set of surreal, clownish characters parades through. It’s obvious that none of them have any reason to be there, nor any reason to be anywhere else. They’re victims of their own existence.
And finally, Conrad’s narrator finds Mr Kurtz out in the jungle. Kurtz, the universal genius is apparently a symbol for God, and the main character of the story although he barely ever appears.
Kurtz is already on the point of death when he is found. Before expiring, he suddenly realizes what he’s done—he’s gone out into the jungle and set the tribes to senselessly killing each other to collect ivory. He’s hoarded the ivory in a hut in the jungle, insisting that it belongs to him and not the company. He surely knows there’s nothing he can legitimately do with so much ivory alone in the jungle, but he’s unswayed. His greed has gotten the best of him.
When I got to Kurtz’s last words”The horror! the horror!” my 19 year old self just said, “What horror?”
Now, my 29 year old self knows exactly what horror Conrad was talking about. The journey up the river into the heart of Africa is a civilized man going and invading the wilderness. There’s no beauty in the unspoiled jungle: it’s a hostile wilderness that invades the Europeans in kind.
Kurtz has gone out into the jungle and there, outside of society’s control, he has found that something is missing from his soul. The horror is the senseless struggle that men go through to dominate their environment and those around them, futile like everything else, and only ending in death.
And what to make of this passage:
“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. I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it.”
In the end, the narrator is back in Europe, but Kurtz’s horror has followed him there.
Rereading it a few days ago on a second-class train wheeling slowly down the length of Italy, I felt like Marlow entering the darkness… and now, back in Spain and thinking about it, I feel the darkness following me.
Conrad has been criticized publicly by Chinua Achebe (author of “Things Fall Apart”) for his supposed racism, another one of his books has been republished as “The N-Word of the Narcissus.”
He does use the infamous “n-word” quite a bit, but I wouldn’t say there’s anything particularly racist about it. For the narrator and for Europeans at the time, we must imagine, these African tribes were a totally different culture about which nobody knew anything. They are described as something totally foreign, incomprehensible.
European colonialism is the backdrop for the story, and Conrad goes out of his way to ridicule the pretensions people had of civilizing the savages. Of course, Achebe is right that Conrad doesn’t give the Africans in the book a culture or a voice, but that’s because his characters and his narrator understood nothing about them. They were just another aspect of the African mystery for Marlow and company.
In any case, the immense darkness Conrad describes is still at large, within us and out in the broad world. That’s another thing that I understand perfectly now, with the wisdom I’ve gained in these last 10 years.