Heart of Darkness is one of my favourite texts despite, or perhaps because of, its absolute ambiguity. Even at university I found it deceptive tricky. Initially part of a book of three novellas, its ambiguity and concept made it unpopular, even with Conrad. I think part of its trickiness is its strange pacing where months of conversations can pass in a page without apparent signposting. Paragraphing, overall, is not employed to progress the narrative. While this could reflect the disintegration of a double-framed narrative, I do not think this is really the case. It does increase the ambiguity, though, and that is perhaps part of why Conrad’s text on Belgian colonisation is so widely read now.
At the heart of this novel is the attraction of a place of nothingness, of a place ready to be experienced, or at least colonised, by those more capitalist. Even on a map, the threat of the unknown is clear, with the river ‘’resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land”. The image of this river on the map fascinates the second narrator and main character Marlow “as a snake would a bird”. Such a predatory perception perhaps reflects how competitive and pragmatic nature truly is.
What makes this a legitimate text is how it reflects Conrad’s experiences as a colonialist. Like the many books from thinkers that killed in the Vietnam war, Heart of Darkness is born out of how a poetic sensibilty affects the often brutal perception of money-making:
“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.”
Framing the strength of the colonialiser as arbitrary has two effects. Firstly, it reflects the internal struggles of the weaker members of the colonising body, their fears and social inadequacies. It is also makes clear the moral weakness of the colonising mission. I see this most clearly in the final words of Kurtz: ”the horror, the horror!” Marlow chooses to lie to Kurtz’s sweetheart that his last words were her name. Kurz, for all his charismatic attraction and rhetorical brilliance, suffers from this moral weakness. There are some very interesting readings as to who the Kurtz character represents from Conrad’s original trip.
Whoever this mythical figure might represent, he inspires great admiration in others. Perhaps he is replacing religious figures in an increasingly secular society, or rather a society that is increasingly prizing secularism. Maybe another part of Kurtz’s attraction to others is his willingness to use power to suppress. That he is able to forge his own morality in this place of ‘nothingness’ and otherness is attractive to a 1960s readership seeking social change, about the time when this text became popular. Such attraction would be more acceptable than Kurtz’s economic success that raises him as a man who “‘Sends in as much ivory as all the others put together'”.
I see Kurtz as also tapping into the idea of the capitalist Western being worshipped by savages, thus carrying over class expectations into an exotic realm. Such worship leads, however, to degradation. After reading this I rewatched Amistad, a film that devastates the mind with reminders of slavery’s brutalism (a tradition from which David Cameron’s family benefits tremendously as he takes happy-looking post-brexit selfies while his Eton friends continue to thrive financially). Such disdain for the sensibility of the exploitative rich is apparent in the perception of Conrad who sees this the first station as being “the gloomy circle of some Inferno”. Such dehumanised suffering is stark to anyone.
There are two pertinent criticisms that reduce the text. The first is that the evil that overwhelms Kurtz and the conversations that profoundly disturbs Marlowe are not revealed, at all. Whilst this could be said to enhance the ambiguity, I am not so convinced. Another criticism, more justified I think, is that the text sees Africa as the antithesis to European life, of an intellectual and industrial society. Industrialisation has improved the quality of life for society, but undoubtedly has also led to a worse experience for many as individuals. When I read of Watts’s response that only black people could accurately critique the novel, I am reminded of the recent book ”why I am no longer talking to white people about racism”. I think revisiting the stereotypes presented by Conrad is appropriate: slavery and colonialism are seen as desperate and depraved. The ambiguity of Kurtz can be read in 2018 as disgust.
Yet this disgust does not exist everywhere, especially outside of reading circles. There are very many people with unstable and low-status social positions who would love to openly denigrate others based on race. The dangerous expectations that the marketing industry leak into everyday interaction make any reference to shared expectations increasingly complex, especially with current Western leaderships openly operating PR-based styles of rule.
It is in that context that this book has its place. It is a profoundly poetic text with a difficult narrative. It ranges between simple declaratives describing the setting and complex metaphorical allusions as we experience them. Part of its ambiguity is in the attempt to seize meaning and goodness in a place that is nefarious. Being evil is presented as uncontrolled, capitalist destruction.
The unnamed narrator, which is of course the reader, is affected by the story and sees London differently after hearing it. If we attempt to recognise what colonisation was, and how it enhanced capital for Western society at great human cost both elsewhere and internally, then we can see what this book is about:
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.
We are attracted to ‘freedom from’ far more than we are attracted to ‘freedom to’… freedom from offers action, freedom to demands responsibility. Maybe that human truth is ‘the horror’ for Conrad. We need true civilisation to curb our worst excess.