Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

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Conrad’s 1899 novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ begins with a group of weekend sailors on a yawl, Nellie, anchored in the Thames Estuary waiting for the tide to turn.  While they wait, one of the crew members, Charlie Marlow, talks about the time he took a job captaining a steam boat up the Congo (though not actually named in the narrative) and what he found there.  His yarn is reported by an unnamed narrator.  Marlow recounts a tale of naked greed in a territory controlled by a Belgian trading company, Europeans degrading and brutalising the local people in the rush to exploit resources and maximise profits.

To add to the pressures of navigating between the Company’s stations in this inhospitable environment, Marlow is required to push on upriver to retrieve a certain Kurtz, a Company agent in ivory country.  After an arduous and dangerous journey Marlow finds Kurtz, but Kurtz dies.  Marlow leaves Africa and after he returns to Europe eventually finds himself trying to describe what happened as best he can to Kurtz’s hero-worshipping fiancée, his ‘intended’.  He lies to spare her the harrowing details, just as language was misused by Leopold II, who employed a screen of philanthropy to cover his depredations in the Congo Free State.  Even the well-intentioned Marlow cannot come away from Africa completely clean.

Marlow’s story is a strange dream-like narrative in which the reader sits with the audience on the Nellie as they listen.  They – and we – cannot fully comprehend what he is saying, not having witnessed the events personally.  If Marlow struggles to understand what is going on around him, the reader must perforce struggle even more, especially as the raw experience is filtered twice, by Marlow and by the secondary narrator.  Marlow is in Africa’s ‘interior’, the river like an intestine digesting those in it, yet he is always external to the land and its people.  The landscape from the river literally passes him by as he watches, an outsider who cannot see what is going on beyond the thin ribbon snaking into the depths of the massive continent.  This is no Rider Haggard-style romp, partly because of the slow pace and the densely complex language as Marlow struggles to understand an overwhelming experience, but also because Conrad’s documentary approach reveals things that a romantic adventure would avoid.

Conrad shows the invaders projecting their own desires onto those they enslave, seeing them as savage, even though it is they who are the savages.  Like miniature Leopolds they are absolute monarchs of their domain.   Blasting hills to build a railway is a metaphor for their arrogant despoliation of the land, ignoring that it had been home to people before they arrived and seized it.  Released from European social norms, the colonialists hold the natives in contempt.  ‘Civilisation’ is only skin-deep in a topsy-turvy place where cannibals are more trustworthy than fellow Europeans.  There isn’t even honour among thieves, as Kurtz’s manager plots his downfall from jealousy at Kurtz’s success in acquiring ivory.  A dark heart can reside within a person, irrespective of their external colour.

At the same time there is ambivalence in Conrad’s attitude to the project of empire.  The story’s original conservative Blackwood’s Magazine readers would have largely been supportive of empire-building, insulated from its excesses but enjoying its benefits; any concerns from reading the story could be complacently deflected by dismissing the Congo Free State as unrepresentative of the civilising effect of empire.  It is the extremes that trouble Marlow.  He questions Kurtz’s methods, not his mission.  Conrad is subversive, but it is unclear how far that subversion extends, making ‘Heart of Darkness’ fertile, if often clumsily handled, ground for anti-imperialist critics like Edward Said and Chinua Achebe.

It is not just Africa that has a heart of darkness beating within it; the Thames too, seemingly so placid and peaceful, sits under its own ‘black bank of clouds’.  It is connected by water to ‘the uttermost ends of the earth’, just as we are all interconnected.  Conrad does not offer solutions and the tone is one of pessimism: what is happening in Africa can happen anywhere and in any period.  Unlike those Blackwood’s readers who were able to ignore wider implications in the story, Conrad hints that abuse is systemic within imperialism.  The existential angst displayed makes it a very modern novel.

I wonder how many of the book’s readers see Marlon Brando when they read about Kurtz, and think of Brando running his hand over his bald head when they come to the book’s most famous line: ‘The horror! The horror!’  Francis Ford Coppola was able effortlessly to transfer the madness of the Belgian Congo to the madness of the Vietnam War.  Conrad still has currency, the ability to evoke in the receptive reader those ghastly photographs of Africans with their hands lopped off, and the contempt with which the colonialists in the Congo treated their victims in the pursuit of profit.  These days European money flows the other way, but Central Africa seems no happier for it.

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