Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heart of Darkness belongs to its time. Published in 1899, it bids farewell to one century and inaugurates another. Seemingly written for the survey course, it fits neatly inside every thematic slot into which academe has carved our cultural history.[1]

First, we can place the novella in the history of literature. Heart of Darkness signals the end of the linear, realist novel, of the dispassionate fictional investigation of manners and morals, of the calm, steady, and progressive plotting of a life. Instead, we have a frame narrator who records a story told to him by a friend, a febrile recitation of the impossible and the imponderable, of “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

The novella begins on a ship on the Thames, where a company of old sailors, all but one now respectable and professional Londoners, have gathered for a reunion. Our first narrator is one of these men, presumably a sober, decent citizen. Only one of the company still “follow[s] the sea”—Charlie Marlow, who also features in other Conradian classics like the story “Youth” (originally collected in the same volume with Heart of Darkness in 1902) and the novel Lord Jim (1900). Most of the rest of the narrative will belong to Marlow, and to his storytelling we can attribute the end of realist fiction and its mission, half-scientific and half-religious, to describe social facts and prescribe social duties:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But 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.

This haziness and ambiguity, this enveloping mystery, calls for a prose that registers not solid externals but the trembling of impressions across the inner eye; it calls, too, for a narrative structure that charts not linear time but the recursions and anticipations of the baffled, anxious, ruminating consciousness. Hence Marlow’s narrative, with its evocative (but not precise) descriptions, its subjective motions back and forth in time, and its air of pregnant but inconclusive symbolism. As for the Victorian novel’s famous sentimentality, its only remnant is in Marlow’s laconic remark, at a particularly arduous moment in the journey, “Now I think of it, it is amazing I did not shed tears.”

Second, Conrad takes his place in the history of economies, societies, and polities. What story does Marlow tell his old friends from the sea? What tale, like the Ancient Mariner’s, obtrudes death and disaster into what should have been a pleasurable gathering? Marlow recalls the time—implicitly in the early 1890s—when he signed up as a commercial captain to pilot a steamship on the Congo River for a Belgian company engaged in the ivory trade during the Protectorate of King Leopold II. Motivated from an early age to explore the “many blank spaces on the earth,” Marlow gets inspired to apply for this particular job when he finds himself struck by a map in a London shop-window. On the map, the Congo River fascinates him “as a snake would a bird.” Despite this predatory impulse, however, Marlow proves too sensitive for the job. He finds the trading operation in the Congo a farce of brutality and incompetence, a greedy scramble systematized into a dead bureaucracy and undertaken by grotesque, hollow characters in an obdurately alienating landscape.

The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I’ve never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

Marlow is tasked with piloting the ship up the river to recover a trader named Kurtz, “the chief of the Inner Station,” a fantastically productive extractor of ivory whose methods the corporation has come to regard as “unsound.” Kurtz, Marlow learns, had begun as an idealist, a humanist who saw himself as pursuing not wealth but the enlightenment and uplift of Africans. Symbolically, Marlow is shown one of Kurtz’s paintings long before he meets the man, a picture of “a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch.”

But when they arrive at the Inner Station, Marlow and his crew discover that, through the violence of his methods, Kurtz has set himself up as an idol among the surrounding tribespeople. He reigns from “a long decaying building” surrounded by a fence on whose stakes he has warningly surmounted human heads. Marlow discovers a report Kurtz wrote for an NGO dedicated to suppressing slavery in Africa whose “altruistic sentiment” the former idealist punctuated with the conclusion, “Exterminate all the brutes!” Despite this, however, Marlow finds himself drawn to Kurtz, magnetized, before he even meets him, by his reputed charisma and brilliance. And when the malarial and almost insane Kurtz dies, Marlow appoints himself the custodian of the man’s memory. Making a “choice of nightmares,” he sides with Kurtz’s messianism and extremism, his polarized idealism and nihilism, as against the managerial farce of the trading company’s “unreal” systematization of plunder.

Given his half-English mother and half-French father, “All of Europe had contributed to the making of Kurtz.” These developments recall Marlow’s comment, at the beginning of his recitation on the Thames, that empire, whether the Romans’ in Britain or the Belgians’ in the Congo, is only “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale,” unless it is redeemed by “[a]n idea at the back of it…and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.” Kurtz’s braided fanaticisms—the faith in enlightenment he carried with him to Africa; the opposing and absolute nihilism this idealism became in the Inner Station—answers, however ambivalently, Marlow’s desire that empire prove itself better than greed and bigotry hardened into system.

Marlow sees empire transforming from piracy into bureaucracy, the deadening management-by-calculus of human beings and therefore the inevitable dehumanization of both its agents and victims under the aegis of a profit-making machine that turns nature into number. Perversely, aesthetically, Kurtz remains human not despite but because of his brutality, which has no profit motive and no system. He may have begun as hollow as the rest of the other traders, but in allowing the darkness of untrammeled nature to claim him, to fill his hollowness with its black afflatus and to reveal that this darkness and wilderness had been part of him the whole time despite his delusions of enlightenment, he is what remains for this novella and for its coming century of the expansive and unreduced human being typified by the Renaissance adventurers who launched themselves from the Thames at the start of the British Empire—not the Prospero we may have wanted but the only Prospero we’re likely to get.

I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. 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 echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core….

With this meditation on empire and selfhood, Heart of Darkness makes its rendezvous not only with history per se but with the history of thought. When Marlow says, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings,” we are at the end of the century of Hegel and Darwin, the century that invented secular history as the stadial progress of natural and social forms. But we are likewise at the beginning of the century of Freud and Einstein, the century that said whatever is repressed—whatever seems left behind by progress—will always return because we were never really rid of it in the first place, and the century whose scientific discoveries as much as its psychological speculations revealed that measurement depends on position, perspective on location, making no final and definitive judgment of truth possible. Many of Marlow’s remarks reveal his felt superiority to Africa and Africans—more of this below—but even he has moments of theorizing relativity, from his early assertion that England also “has been one of the dark places of the earth” to his observations on the Congolese riverbank:

Perhaps on some quiet night the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint; a sound weird, appealing, suggestive, and wild—and perhaps with as profound a meaning as the sound of bells in a Christian country.

When Marlow says of Kurtz, “The man presented himself as a voice,” we fall headlong into the Nietzschean epoch where we still reside, when truth is understood not as the apprehension of God’s plan or the verification of nature’s law but as

a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transferred, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation.

Kurtz is not a man at all but a discourse, an ideology, a collocation of imperialist concepts. And in Kurtz’s transformation from a writer of reports for an NGO to an oracle of commands to a tribal army, he anticipates Hannah Arendt’s analysis of how the late 19th century’s ink-stained imperial bureaucracy became the early 20th century’s radio-crackling totalitarian mass mobilization.

As for the novella’s persistent misogyny—Marlow says, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are”—turn it inside out and we find the feminist complaint that resounds from Wollstonecraft to Woolf about (middle-class) women’s imprisonment in the domestic, their exclusion from the public sphere. This immurement in sentimental illusion is typified at the end of the novella by Kurtz’s mourning fiancée, to whom Marlow falsely reports that the man’s last words were her name. Yet her negative image in Conrad’s vision is Kurtz’s Congolese bride, of whom Marlow observes, “[s]he was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.” Here the adjective “stately,” an antonym of “savage,” at least implies that her elegiac gestures, conducted in the open air, have a function in the public life of her polis.

And Kurtz’s actual last words—famous last words: “The horror! The horror!”—sum the terror of the empty cosmos, the realm of blind will and appetite, disclosed behind the razed edifice of religion and tradition. In this slim volume, the spiritual condition of “[a]ll of Europe”—a condition whose forced export everywhere else Marlow’s imperial narrative implies—stands revealed.

Yes, Heart of Darkness belongs to its time. That’s not a good reason to read it, though, not unless we’re historians or antiquarians. If we have any reason to go on reading it, it must be because it somehow transcends its time. Otherwise, we may safely leave it there. And no canonical work has in its wake a single critique aimed at arresting its cultural persistence the way Heart of Darkness is pursued by Chinua Achebe’s essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (originally delivered as a lecture in the mid-1970s, published in The Massachusetts Review in 1977, and revised for the third Norton Critical Edition of the novella in 1988).

Achebe chose his target wisely. Any number of British and European classics are racist, but Heart of Darkness, insofar as anybody considered its politics at all, was considered in the early-to-mid 20th century an anti-imperial work, a bitter rebuke to colonialism in Africa, or at least Belgium’s particularly and notoriously violent form of colonialism. Then again, often its politics simply weren’t considered, left aside for mediations on its innovative modernist form—the impressionistic descriptions, the nested narratives, the subjective storytelling, the dense symbolism—or on its psychological allegory, its riverine quest to the “Inner Station” of the psyche, there to discover the primordial darkness that lives in us all. Against these critical trends, Achebe assembles an unanswerable docket of textual evidence, first, that the novella does not envision African people as people or their cultures as cultures, and, second, that we are safe in attributing this attitude to Conrad himself behind the screen of his surrogate narrator, Marlow—whose Congo experiences, in any case, reflect Conrad’s own.

So unanswerable is Achebe’s argument that in my decade-and-a-half career teaching English classes as a graduate instructor and then an adjunct professor, I never taught Heart of Darkness, not even when it would be most expected—in the British Literature survey, I used to replace it with Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—because I knew I would be obligated to teach Achebe’s essay next to it, and I knew as well that Achebe’s essay would obliterate the novella in the eyes of the students. None of the replies to Achebe—for example, neither Peter Firchow’s historical contextualization in the fourth Norton Critical Edition nor Hunt Hawkins’s careful textual re-scrutiny of the novella in the fifth—do much to mitigate for the common reader the Nigerian novelist’s charge that Conrad is “a bloody racist,” later revised for the 1988 version of the essay to the more decorous but more devastating “thoroughgoing racist.” It’s absurd to argue about whether or not a book is racist when its African characters are, as Achebe says, “just limbs or rolling eyes,” and when Africa itself serves the book as an extended metaphor for what was just starting to be called “the id.” And so culturally dominant has Achebe’s view become that a recent book implied without argument, as if it went entirely without saying, that a white writer’s disagreement with “An Image of Africa” was enough to indicate that the professor himself was a racist.

And yet—apply to me whatever label you must—I do disagree with Achebe’s essay. More, I find it and have long found it demagogic and naive, naive to the point of danger. Not because Conrad’s novella isn’t racist—of course it is—but because Achebe’s understanding of what literature is and what it is for drastically conflicts with my own. The essay’s rousing demagogy, especially in its first version (“bloody racist,” comparing Conrad to Hitler), can be explained by its context. Drowned out by dominant discourse, Achebe had to shout to be heard at all; the hegemony within academe his thesis would later achieve does not diminish the obstacles it had to overcome 50 years ago. But Achebe’s overall aesthetic philosophy has likewise become dominant—and this merits more scrutiny.

In the original 1977 version of the essay—the current Norton Critical Edition includes the 1988 revision with footnotes containing material excised from the 1977 original—Achebe demands that Conrad’s work be demoted from the canon, from the curriculum, from our culture, on the grounds that works of art, to be considered great, must advance a universalist humanism:

The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot. I would not call that man an artist, for example, who composes an eloquent instigation to one people to fall upon another and destroy them. No matter how striking his imagery or how beautiful his cadences fall such a man is no more a great artist than another may be called a priest who reads the mass backwards or a physician who poisons his patients. All those men in Nazi Germany who lent their talent to the service of virulent racism, whether in science, philosophy, or the arts have generally and rightly been condemned for their perversions. The time is long overdue for taking a hard look at the work of creative artists who apply their talents, alas often considerable as in the case of Conrad, to set people against people. This, I take it, is what Yevtushenko is after when he tells us that a poet cannot be a slave trader at the same time, and gives the striking example of Arthur Rimbaud who was fortunately honest enough to give up any pretenses to poetry when he opted for slave trading. For poetry surely can only be on the side of man’s deliverance and not his enslavement: for the brotherhood and unity of all mankind and against the doctrine of Hitler’s master races or Conrad’s “rudimentary souls.”

Achebe quotes the Soviet poet Yevtushenko, but he might have quoted a Russian precursor: Tolstoy’s late tract, What Is Art? with its rejection of Dante, Shakespeare, Raphael, and Beethoven, and its advocacy of a simple art that can understood by all people, priorities that foreshadow, for example, Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (Incidentally, a Marxist professor of mind once appreciatively if somewhat circumlocutiously noted the similarity between Achebe’s essay and Soviet criticism as part of a “Case Against Irony,” where “irony” is understood as the evasive anti-political effect of modernist subjectivism and fragmentation.) But the association of Achebe with dubious politics of his own, a mere tit-for-tat, an “I’ll raise your Hitler with my Mao,” even if it isn’t just dismissed (and maybe it should be) as a cheap shot, doesn’t penetrate to the heart of this particular darkness.

I’d like to focus, rather, on the emotional effect of the two texts, “An Image of Africa” on the one hand, Heart of Darkness on the other. When I read Achebe’s essay—and Achebe is a skilled enough orator to persuade me for as long as I am reading—I feel a swelling sense of righteousness and certainty. I feel that we have correctly discerned right from wrong, that we have earned our mandate to punish the malefactor and to reward in his stead whoever may be just. I feel that everything at last has fallen into place.

Conrad’s novella, by contrast, leaves me puzzled. I can never remember what happens when no matter how many times I read it because Marlow narrates the events out of order—telling what happened after he found Kurtz before he tells about finding him, for example. I can also never quite see what he describes; his descriptions are fragmentary and “parti-coloured” like Kurtz’s Russian disciple, dressed in shreds and patches. Marlow keeps reminding his auditors that he had a fever throughout the journey; a quality of hallucination hangs over the whole performance. The symbolism, too, is never quite solid—the two women knitting at the trading company’s offices, for example, represent the Fates; but there are three Fates, not two—so the narrative’s meaning can’t do anything else but proliferate like a malarial infection through the reader’s sweltering mind.

To the obvious objection—that Conrad’s performed confusion evades his complicity as member of an oppressor class; that Achebe’s performed certitude derives from his experience in an oppressed class—I can only reply that as long as the urge and motive to oppress remains universal in the species we should always think again when we’re convinced we can tell black from white, white from black. Heart of Darkness, in sum, embodies in its form and conveys in its affect a halt, a stillness, a paused bafflement before the world’s mystery. Marlow transfigures Kurtz’s extremism from rites violently enacted on nature and flesh to a ritual performance of literary art. This is what lifts the novella out of its own epoch, what makes the reading experience feel like an uncanny dream of one’s own, a ciphered message straight from the unconscious or the universe, rather than someone else’s stale yarn from some other time.

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? 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….”

He was silent for a while.

“… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”

The aesthetic transcends the managerial prison-house of modernity without rancor, without force, without bloodshed. Art is a magic circle where the repressed may safely return, a temenos where we may mediate on what remains implacable and inscrutable while we’re deciding whether or not converting the world into a lifeless grid of administration is all we can do to make ourselves comfortable on this alien earth. And those who wish to forbid art this questioning role, those who would insist that art must pass the test of moral certitude instead, may be preaching a more dangerous doctrine than they know, may, in fact, be serving the machine.[2] It would be too much to say that Achebe’s enlightened discourse reminds me of Kurtz’s before he arrived at the Inner Station, but we would be hopelessly naive not to heed Conrad’s warning about the eliminationist unconscious enlightened discourse seems always to carry with it.

The self-satisfied frame narrator twice compares Marlow’s storytelling posture to that of “a Buddha preaching in European clothes,” which I take as a clue to the final detachment, the transcendence of action, the arrest of desire, this mariner’s tale is finally meant to counsel to its respectable and worldly hearers.


[1] For a more general assessment of Conrad, please see my essay on The Secret Sharer and Other Stories. For a more hesitant approach to the question of aesthetics and ethics animating this piece, please see my essay on another iconic modernist novella, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. We make rhetoric out of our quarrel with others, said Yeats, and poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves. Between these two essays, with or without any ambition to turn criticism into poetry, may be found my quarrel with myself.

[2] This may be a clue to why, while I respect the careful realism of Achebe’s anti-Conradian classic Things Fall Apart, I don’t find it quite as fascinating as African literature’s other canonical ripose to Heart of Darkness, the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s sexual apocalypse Season of Migration to the North, which I wrote about here.