Heart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.
Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*
Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.
I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).
It might have been somewhat later, however, when I was going through a phase reading Kipling.** Both Kipling and Conrad are superb storytellers. However, Conrad seems a cynical counterweight to Kipling’s often boyish imperialist snobbery. In Heart of Darkness, he wrote of the journey along Africa’s coast, as the steamer heads towards its Congo destination:
We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.
Kipling would never have called imperial aspirations and activities a “merry dance of death and trade.” Yet Conrad’s work is riddled with such slights, such jabs. Civilization is a thin skin stretched over the callous greed of its bearers and Conrad sniffs its spoiled carcass.
Conrad describes a group of adventurers who come to pillage Africa with withering scorn:
To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.
And also of the company employees – whom he calls the “pilgrims”- and the bosses who ineptly oversaw the operations:
These chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . .
The image of Kurtz, the almost metaphysical goal of the quest, like some holy grail, is crafted like a slow jigsaw puzzle: pieces deftly placed, one at a time, while the complete picture remains a mystery until the end.
And in that end, it’s revealed as a collage of madness, ambition, and a moralistic warning about the perils of “going native.” Still, Marlow, the novel’s protagonist, is torn between criticism and wonder, between moralizing and jealousy. Kurtz fulfilled a dream that cried deep inside Marlow – likely shared by Conrad – to step off the edge and plunge into the heart of darkness:
This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up — he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. ***
Yet the story doesn’t quite end there. It continues to an almost anti-climactic finish that peels the skin from any potential heroism or redemption and leaves us aching. Marlow betrays his own lofty ideals and slinks off, having accepted discretion – rather than truth – as the better part of valour.
As the tale finishes, Marlow muses on the meaning of life in a way that would, I suspect, have appalled Kipling for its dreary existentialism:
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 grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, 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.
Are humans capable of good, or simply driven by passion and greed to pursue selfish, materialistic goals? Conrad doesn’t give a definitive answer, but I think he comes down on the side of the latter. Heart of Darkness might be an allegory, might be merely a commentary. Regardless of how you approach it, it remains with you long after you’ve finished it.
Many people are aware, of course, of the relationship between Heart of Darkness and the 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. As Wikipedia tells it:
The most famous adaptation is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 motion picture Apocalypse Now, which moves the story from the Congo to Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin L. Willard, a U.S. Army Captain assigned to “terminate” the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz. Marlon Brando played Kurtz, in one of his most famous roles. A production documentary of the film, titled Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, exposed some of the major difficulties which director Coppola faced in seeing the movie through to completion. The difficulties that Coppola and his crew faced mirrored some of the themes of the book.
But if you think you’ve got a handle on Conrad’s tale by watching the film, you are deluding yourself. You can’t simply skim the plot from the surface like fat from a boiling stew. A story is not merely a collection of events and characters.
Still, I have to admit that ever since seeing that film, I cannot help but think of Kurtz cast as Marlon Brando. And as I listened, yesterday during my drive, I could hear Brando’s soft voice in Kurtz’s words: “The horror! The horror!”
* Perhaps the effect is heightened by hearing it spoken rather than reading it. One can gloss over the written word, but hearing it pronounced, loudly, makes it stand out that much more. I have some criticisms about the actual recording, but recommend you listen to it yourself to judge the performance.
*** One is reminded of the plaintive wail of Herbert Morrison on seeing the Hindenburg burst into flames, in 1937.