The word epic seems inadequate to describe Joseph Conrad’s phenomenal novella Heart of Darkness. You don’t so much read it as absorb it in small doses like a drug. There are limits in one’s capacity to cope with the concentrated formula.
The book opens one night on a boat by the Thames where Marlow, through his recollections, takes several friends (including the unnamed narrator) along the Congo River. A sea-man by profession, Marlow was under the employment of a colonising regime, charged with delivering a coterie of men upstream to seek out their first-rate agent, Mr Kurtz. Esteemed on account of the amount and value of ivory he had harvested, Kurtz had generated anxiety with news of ill health.
Heart of Darkness was published in 1899, nine years after Conrad himself sailed into Congo as part of King Leopold’s administration, in which the author discovered that far from the ethical purpose of bringing progress to the backwater — what was being propagandised — extravagant carnage had been perpetrated for the material gain of elephant tusks. Some academics are convinced the novel was driven by a burning conscience.
Kurtz, it seems, had not been tarred by the same hypocrisy that stained the Belgian government. Marlow saw the way white people, despite or because of their own motives, were inspired by Kurtz’s conviction each outpost “should be like a beacon… towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing.”
But on arriving at Kurtz’s station deep in the region the captain of the steam-boat came upon scenes of horror: decapitated heads of natives were poised on poles outside the windows. More astonishingly still, surviving others worshipped him, literally, in “midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites”.
In calm, elegant, if dense, prose Conrad explains the sense of madness the jungle — dark, from absent law and missing public opinion — induces. Implacable and silent and still the wilderness, in these pages, is not just a setting; it is an active presence, a protagonist in the complex drama of ruin without redemption. The reader is subliminally persuaded with the inference of travelling into one’s own inner environment from a journey into the forests.
Conrad, writing in his third language, makes you sensitive to the nuance between a conqueror and a colonist. The distinction lies in intent: while a conqueror occupies and raids with as much morality as “burglars breaking into a safe” a colonist, in offering of themselves by way of deliberate belief, wins minds and hearts. And we see the different fates that come to fall on them respectively, raising resonant questions about toppling despots and spreading democracy.
To encounter Heart of Darkness after reading later literary works is to appreciate how writers like Graham Greene and VS Naipaul and John le Carré had been influenced by it. In this slender heavyweight every minute observation serves to convey something. Marlow is peculiar in finding “meaning of an episode not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out, only as a glow brings out a haze…” — an image threaded through this compelling narrative like a motif, not least in earth clearings being invariably surrounded by the wilderness, as by truth, by evil.
As he ventured farther and farther into the bush Kurtz who started off altruistic was confronted by his own personal reality that had now been claimed by greed, by desire for power, desire to be worshipped. He then dies, after uttering his judgement upon his soul’s adventures on this earth: The horror! The horror!
Interestingly, the woman to whom Kurtz was engaged to be married is depicted with light on her forehead making visible the darkness around her. Yet, like the subject in the oil painting by Kurtz, she is blind(folded) to the facts around the man she alleges to love, around indeed herself.
For all that has been debated about this giant in literature — that it is a historical document, that it is a parable of humanity’s weakness — Heart of Darkness is really, to me, anyway, a story of betrayal and power, perhaps of (mis)trust, perhaps of love. It is an honest, unflinching portrait of the human condition.
I cannot decide whether Kurtz perceived the last gestures of his Congolese mistress as a triumph for him. But I know he longed for her, with hate.
Arguments, too, have swirled around the book’s racist quality, which fades on consideration of unsavoury portrayals for both whites and blacks. Experts pronounce the work as anti-imperialist, but I am not sure. Marlow, many say is Conrad’s alter ego, is clearly against imperialism by the Belgians; thing is, he appears to favour that by the British.
With so much packed into the sentences between 111 pages, as in lines of cocaine for insufflation, the only side-effect from Heart of Darkness, though, is enlightenment, as it must have been for Marlow, acute, sombre enlightenment.