Towards the Heart of The Darkness

if you think Conrad’s novel was about anti-colonialism _ you are wrong

Book Review : ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1902) by Joseph Conrad
from ‘Essays with Two Introductions’
1st prize Koestler Awards 2005

Heralded as one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a short story comprising three chapters.  It was written some time after the writer’s own experiences of working in the Belgian Congo and published in 1902.  Popular opinion, past and present, has deciphered this novella as Conrad’s critical opinion of ‘colonialism’ in Africa.
In his biography of Conrad, Jeffrey Meyers describes the work as “the first significant book in English Literature to deny the idea of ‘progress’.  It shows the antagonistic interests of civilisation and colonialism.
But such a shallow interpretation displays innocence at its most mundane level and inadvertently raises the possibility that our collective lack of insight has actually been cultivated.

There is indeed a wealth of evidence to show that the first explorers and traders who unveiled the heart of Africa were looked upon as missionaries; bringing the ‘truth’ of a Christian God to the ignorant and naked savage.  But Henry Stanley was no David Livingstone and what these ‘intrepid folk’ were really getting up to after Livingstone’s death soon began to be realised back in civilised Europe.  Lust for ivory and the overall ignorance of the white man for any culture other than his own were insidiously creating what amounted to a Second Age of Slavery.  Left unchecked, the exploration and the exploitation of Africa was in danger of exceeding even the atrocities which had been visited upon the natives of South America by Spanish conquistadors some 300 years earlier.
In 1903 Roger Casement, in his capacity as British Consular official, travelled the explored area of Africa extensively.  His reports were so damning that an embarrassed King Leopold of Belgium felt forced to sell his considerable interests and acreage of the place that he thought of as ‘a private back garden’, to the Belgian government, in order that the lands around the Congo might be better policed.

Some years earlier, during his time ‘in country’, Casement had shared a hut with Conrad, at the mouth of the river Congo.  His spirit of adventure and attitude to exploring his surroundings made such an impression on the writer that aspects of Casement figure in an important character in Conrad’s story.  (However, his adventurous ‘free spirit’ would eventually lead Roger Casement to an ignominious end.  At the time of the Easter Uprising, 1916, he was caught landing onto the Irish coast from a German submarine; subsequently tried for treason and hanged.)

For all that, defining Heart of Darkness as a protest against colonisation has only superficial validity.  It is true that despairing images of the natives and the cynical portrayal of their white ‘masters’ leaves the reader in no doubt as to Conrad’s opinion of colonists.  But is that the only purpose behind this novel?  A closer examination of the story reveals that Africa is only once teasingly mentioned by Marlow, in the prelude to his monologue; and that reference is not to the continent itself but simply to a map from his boyhood.  Afterwards no place names are ever given and the other elements that form the structure of Marlow’s tale have little or nothing to do with any recognised aspect of ‘colonialism’.  We must ask ourselves why the author would include these elements within the necessary constraints of the short-story format, unless he had some other purpose.  In this review we shall examine some of those ‘unexplained elements’, considering whether the casual reader has really understood the message of the novel or the fundamental meaning of the Darkness that the author is referring to?

To make his attempt Conrad employs a character who is his alter-ego and whom he uses in several of his novels, including ‘Lord Jim’ (1900) and ‘Chance’ (1913); one Charlie Marlow who, like Joseph Conrad, is an experienced merchant seaman.  In ‘Heart of Darkness’ Marlow recounts the story of meeting a Mr Kurtz to four companions who are sitting on a private yacht, moored on the Thames where they are awaiting the turn of the tide in the looming dusk.  To pass the time one of their number produces a set of dominoes but there is an atmospheric mood that prevents the game from starting and which separates the group, leaving each man to dwell upon his own thoughts.  In the gloomy silence that ensues Marlow begins to speak and after some preliminary meandering he settles in to tell his story to the others, and to us.

If there is a heart to this Darkness then we can assume there is an edge to it as well, and thus a path and possibly a pilgrimage that leads from one towards the other.  Marlow begins the tale of his journey by relating that his search for employment had become ‘driven by an abnormal urgency’ and that the choices he made seemed ‘not his own’.
He arrives in “a city that always makes me think of a whited sepulchre“.  (This image is possibly a reference to the New Testament; Matthew 23. vv 27: ‘like a white-washed sepulchre; beautiful on the outside but inside full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean”.)  From thence he finds himself in “a narrow and deserted street in deep shadow… a dead silence… imposing carriage ways… immense double doors standing ponderously ajar.
Perhaps that lonely street has a familiarity to us all.  It reminds us of some place in the beginnings of a bad dream, where everything seems unexplainable and slightly threatening.  The first characters Marlow meets in one of the houses on that street are two old women, silent and dressed in black; who sit feverishly knitting black wool.  The comparisons we can make upon these two are not congenial.  There were others of their kind who sat, similarly occupied, witnessing the excesses of the French Revolution at the guillotine, or the Norns, who in Viking mythology, were spinners weaving the threads of a destiny that would lead to ‘Ragna rok’, the ‘Destruction of the Gods’.  And Marlow confirms the strange, nightmarish quality of his surroundings, by expressing his own sense of unease within that scenario.  He feels as though he’s being let into the secrets of an ‘ominous conspiracy’, with all the implications of a darker destiny should he choose to proceed.

But before we ourselves venture further on this journey into the Heart of Darkness we might gain some insights as to the meaning of that title by discovering something of the nature of the path that leads us there.  For within the first few pages of this short story, the reader has already been introduced to at least three aspects of the term ‘darkness’.  One of them is a natural fading of the light, another is witnessed within a collective mood, yet another is a ‘sinister’ atmosphere created by the story-teller Marlow.  These aspects seem relatively harmless when, under other circumstances, they exist in isolation.  However, in this instance we must assume their deliberate interdependence.  But thus defined, the ‘casual reader’ might avail themselves of the conclusion that these aspects were woven together simply as part of a writing technique, employed to draw us into Marlow’s account.

Again, that explanation touches on the surface only.  A deeper analysis must ask why such a method would work on us at all.   What part of our psyche is the author appealing to, in order to draw us in?  Be assured of this; by reading further into this story we will encounter a multitude of proofs that the darkness referred to here is an amalgamation of everything that man is prey to and superstitious of, both from inside his own persona and outside, in the unknown and threatening world. “There’s danger on the edge of town” writes Jim Morrison in his poem ‘The End’:  The casual reader prefers neither to venture to the edge of his communal existence, nor explore too deeply into the recesses of his own character.  Shallow interpretations of Conrad’s literary purpose do much to maintain their sense of safety.

But such is the nature of communities; the majority can leave these dark questions to the ‘driven’ few, the shaman, the caste of priests, the artist and the poet in their garrets.  It is for these ‘chosen’ to interpret the nature of our existence, to make exploration of the natural and unnatural forces which compel us.  And in their turn, the driven few must play their part by doing what they can to translate their deep discoveries into forms which might appeal and satisfy the lesser needs of ordinary men.  (But at what cost?!)

In that adage “art for art’s sake” there is the suggestion that it can only be the ‘driven’ who will fully share or comprehend those attempts at ‘translation’.   T.S.Eliot’s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ is dedicated to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ with a simple reference in its prelude: ‘to Mr Kurtz’.  It is the ‘driven’ who are hollow men, stuffed, leaning together, clutching at ideas and interpretations like “straws, Alas!”  In their search for the Intangible Truth “shape has no form, gesture no motion”.  Any meanings they might discover are lost in the exact moment of setting them down.  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote that after years of seeking enlightenment, scaling the Mountain of God, searching for ‘a meaning’; tortured man at last arrives at that place above the precipice where he expects to find a Face.  In his bitterness at finding nothing that he can recognise he attempts to scratch a human face onto the impassive granite of Eternal Truth.   And after so much struggle the consequence of that frustration is often dark despair.  Many give up, even though the sense of being driven never leaves them.  Others go mad or else they simply quit the attempt to translate altogether; decamp from the community and lose themselves to the journey, alone and misunderstood.  They explore far beyond the boundaries of ‘casual’ society, becoming ‘lost’ in the mountains and in every recess of their own being.
Remember us, if at all,“, writes Eliot, “not as lost, violent souls_ But as the hollow men, the stuffed men“.

If there is a truth that is universal to ‘the Search’ or if there is one thing that all those who are ‘driven’ are certain of, then it is this:  Within the journey the path to Enlightenment is bipolar, leading towards the Light and towards the Dark.  The directions are sometimes unclear, can even become entangled, and often it is difficult for the ‘driven’ to ascertain in which direction they are actually travelling.  Conrad alludes to this duality several times at the beginning of Marlow’s tale. Through no fault of his own Marlow finds himself praised by his aunt and others and raised up upon a pedestal, the existence of which he was completely unaware of.  In his attempt to simply find employment as a humble river-boat captain he has become exalted as a ‘missionary’, “Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.“  The ‘anti-colonialist’ lobby might argue that this particular passage supports nothing more than their simple proposition.  But taken in context, with the lonely street and the crones in black, knitting feverishly, we can say that this first confusion of Light and Dark signposted a far deeper meaning.  Certainly within Conrad’s story it tied Marlow to Kurtz for the first time.  After that it was simply a case of drawing them together.

And thus has the journey begun, like most paths of discovery; with a destination and outcome that are much more than we ever intend.  Comparable to Dante descending into Hell in ‘The Divine Comedy’, with each stage of his own odyssey Marlow is confronted by successively darker portents of the Heart to which he goes towards.  He discovers upon arrival at some obscure trading station, that the boat he is captain of is severely damaged, needing months to make repair.  Sinister surroundings and the chronic malaise of the environment permeate every part of his story. Rumours and innuendo about ‘a Mr Kurtz’, something about his ‘mission’; these make little impression on Marlow himself though he cannot help but notice the obsession in others.
He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him…  The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove ! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes…  The moon had spread over everything… over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple…  All this was great, expectant, mute while the man jabbered on…  I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace.  What were we who had strayed in here?  Could we handle that dumb thing or would it handle us?  What was in there?!

Kurtz lastly becomes an objective for Marlow simply as some kind of salvation from mild insanity.  Marlow concentrates his fevered energies on the repair of his damaged vessel with a view to continuing his almost involuntary journey.  Meanwhile readers begin to focus their attention upon the enigma that Conrad is creating for them; seemingly Mr Kurtz.  Finally, after a great deal of hardship and tribulations that have exposed Marlow to personal anguish and revelation, he coaxes his boat up river with a compliment of ‘Kurtz obsessives’ as unwanted passengers, to the edge; to the very brink of the Heart.  Perhaps suitably, dusk then descends to darkness.

When the sun arose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night.

Here, in the dawn, on the brink, we are confronted with our ‘duality’ at critical mass; the aspects of Light and Dark merging into a breathless moment of impenetrability.  Those of us who know little of meteorological conditions in the tropics might ask ourselves whether this sudden appearance of a fog is based on reality.  Either surreal or actual, it represents a barrier that must be passed through if we are to proceed.  From his position on the bridge of the river-boat Marlow has no idea what might await him on the other side of that fog.  But while the character Marlow can express his ignorance as he tells his tale, his creator, Joseph Conrad, definitely cannot make a similar claim:

In ‘An Outpost to Progress’, published five years prior to ‘Heart of Darkness’, Conrad voices the same bitterly satirical opinion of colonialism.  Although much shorter, this tale also contains a river-boat and a fog.  In this earlier version two inexperienced trading agents are more or less abandoned at a deserted trading post where the last tenant has died of fever and is buried and guarded over by a huge wooden cross.  After months of independence from civilisation the situation between the two colleagues deteriorates to a point where they are reduced to fighting over a few spoonfuls of sugar.  In the struggle that ensues a gun goes off and afterwards, in the gathering darkness, one of them contemplates his existence, sitting beside the corpse of the other:
He seemed to have broken loose from himself altogether.  His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last!  Appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous.  He revelled in his new wisdom while he sat by the man he had killed.  He had been all his life, till that moment, a believer in a lot of nonsense like the rest of mankind – who are fools; but now he thought!  He knew!  He was at peace; he was familiar with the highest wisdom!

In this ‘elevated’ state the killer nevertheless falls asleep, or thinks he does.  Within this trance he isn’t sure whether the fog appears in a dream or is real.  Morning finally arrives with a heavy fog that is actual, though there is still an element of the surreal in Conrad’s description:
the mist penetrating, enveloping and silent; the mist that clings and kills; the mist white and deadly, immaculate and poisonous.
Through this fog comes the whistle of the overly delayed river-boat, returning but all too late.  Now Conrad’s readers suddenly find themselves on the far side of Marlow’s fog; with one man dead for no sane reason and another so delusional that he hangs himself from the huge cross that guards a grave in the shrouds of the mist, the whistle of the river-boat ringing in his strangled ears.

Thus we have an idea of what Conrad envisages for Marlow when he encounters his own fog in ‘Heart of Darkness’; a sullen and poisonous barrier compounding Light and Dark, haunted by hapless victims who dared to venture too far.  In this place we are in danger of wandering lost forever from the medieval virtues of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’, and the niceties or otherwise of ‘colonialism’ have long since ceased to have any relevance, or even any meaning.  At this point it is safe to say that Joseph Conrad did not repeat his theme in two short stories simply to amplify his objections to the exploitation of Africa, but because he was driven to make a deeper exploration and attempt a further translation of the Darkness.  The superficial comprehension of this novel can finally be dispensed with and this review can turn its full attention to Conrad’s true intentions, and possibly to Kurtz, who awaits us all on the far side of the fog.

Clear the skies on a starry night and, looking upwards, what is it that we see?  Which elements of the ‘eternal firmament’ are we drawn towards?  Science assures us that the multitude of heavenly bodies are actually so numerous that could the naked eye see them all then night would be as bright as day.  But such is not within the perception of human vision and, likewise, human nature forgets to comprehend that each distant and romantic point of starry light is, in fact, a massive thermo-nuclear reaction capable of the most unimaginable destruction.
We only ever see what we focus upon; everything else is in darkness.

From the outset of this story Conrad has focussed us towards Kurtz; the reader’s impression of him emerges as Marlow journeys towards their eventual meeting.  The character who is Kurtz begins as nebulously as a misguided ideal from a foreign continent and only takes on a shadowy form when it is created by the focus of others who, for selfish reasons, have dealt with Kurtz and still must deal with his absent presence amongst them.  For himself Marlow learns to despise his colleagues because, to him, they seem incapable of perceiving anything beyond their own, meaningless agendas.  His thoughts and his reactions towards them become increasingly aloof and through their mutual recognition of Marlow’s self-imposed aloneness, he is gradually placed beyond the others in some way.  It is because of this ‘separation’ that Marlow becomes acquainted with Kurtz’ quasi-companion; an anonymous Russian who could be Roger Casement.  He too has been jealously rejected by the others, even though they only have rumour of his existence!  But this man has several times incurred great personal danger in attending Kurtz and in tending Kurtz when he was sick and perhaps his charming lack of self-interest is the only reason he’s survived.  Certainly it is this ‘innocence’ that places him on a par with Marlow; closest to Kurtz but somehow still untouched.

Their introductions made, Marlow then focuses on Kurtz’ trading station with his binoculars.  He sees human heads stuck on wooden posts and makes the point that they are facing inwards. Like all of us, it seems, they are looking towards Kurtz.  All the while Marlow’s ears are filled with tales of the Russian’s experiences with Kurtz.  He listens also to himself, while relating his own horrified reactions to his listeners (moored in darkness, on a boat on the Thames).  In Marlow’s distraction the reality he has so far recognised all around him is drowned by Kurtz’ voice expounding Kurtz’ ideas; the incessant and ceaseless report of Kurtz’ moods and actions, as he struggled for hegemony over the immensity of naked, necessary, teeming Life; trying to impose a moral conscience on that which has no human consciousness.  In failing to carve the Face of God we discover that Kurtz has dabbled with the Hand of God instead.  The outcome includes horrendous slaughter on a stupefying scale.  The only defence that Marlow can mount for Kurtz, to his unwitting, unwanted passengers: ‘He was a remarkable man’.

As for us, who can only vaguely focus on the Face or on the Heart; we are still with Kurtz.  We never know the details of Kurtz’ ideals or his plans; the most important thing about them is that they come from him.  What is clear from the ‘totem poles’ viewed in Marlow’s binocular vision and from the ramblings of the Russian, is that purpose, method, direction, even logic; have all been utterly lost in this wilderness.  But now exhausted, Kurtz is stretcher-borne from his station to the boat, clearly against the wishes of the dangerous, savage human souls that he has half-subordinated to his sacrilegious cause.  But the closer Marlow gets to Kurtz he is the only thing that any of us can see.  Marlow finally complains that even Kurtz, at the last, dwells in a torpor of introspection:
Kurtz discoursed.  A voice !  a voice ! It rang deep to the very last.  It survived his strength to hide in the magnificent folds of eloquence…  Oh, he struggled !  he struggled !  The wastes of his weary brain were haunted by shadowy images now…  My ‘intended’, my station, my career, my ideas – these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.  The shade of the original Kurtz frequented the bedside of the hollow sham, whose fate it was to be buried presently in the mould of primeval earth.
With a feeble hand Kurtz entrusts his ‘important’ papers and effects to Marlow, then, whispering in some dark vision of his own, he dies.  Yet all around Marlow’s listeners on the yacht, and all around Conrad’s readers, the Darkness survives in his very last words.

The river-boat returns through the impassive and unfaltering scenery and what have we left to focus or muse upon now?  That, being human, and by focusing on that element of Marlow’s story, we were duped into ignoring the obvious; the overhanging ‘primeval’ surroundings.  Were we recognising instead the tenuousness of our supremacy over them?  Or understanding that, as a species, we originally acquired our authority over Life on Earth through luck; an accident of merely biological proportions.  Or realising, whether or not we lastly succeed in vacating this planet; no-one will be here to witness the very last sunset.


It is not the memory of Kurtz that pursues Marlow back to civilisation; it is the Darkness in mortal man’s Enlightenment.  It haunts Marlow when he returns to the sepulchral city “resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other.
It is the Darkness which mocks the dispersal of Kurtz’ important papers, to ignoble and irrelevant ends, the Darkness which crowds the apartments of Kurtz’ ‘intended’, still dressed in black though a year has passed; still in mourning.  Marlow can hear the Darkness pressing in on him as she demands to know Kurtz’ last words.  His story trails off into an apology to his listeners, and to us: “But I couldn’t.  I could not tell her.  It would have been too dark – too dark altogether…

So much for ‘anti-colonialism’.
And as to judging the success or failure of Conrad’s attempt; do we think we are qualified???
Or should we, perhaps in a spirit of ‘self-preservation’, leave the judgement to the author himself, in his own commentary upon his own novel:
There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring.  It was like another art altogether.  That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own; a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell in the ear long after the last note had been struck.

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