Sunday, February 22, 2009

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

"His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines."

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the monologue of a man reflecting on his journey from the safety of home to the unexplored shores of a distant land and in through the arteries and rivers on a steam-ship. It is a uniquely told story which cuts to the soul of World-War era humanity.

The story is set in the early 20th century and the heart of colonialism. The Congo is considered uncivilized; its inhabitants prehistoric savages; its ivory and land for the taking. The explorer considers himself the frontrunner of human progress; the bringer of civilization.

As the title suggests, the journey is like a plunging into the heart of darkness. For the most part the reader is allowed to assume what the explorers do---that the Congo and its inhabitants are the darkness, and those on the steamship the brave salvation. But as the pilgrimage goes it becomes clearer that the inverse may be true.

After all, from early on Conrad has hinted that "your strength is just an accident rising from the weakness of others." In fact, he writes in the first pages, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

So it is that on arrival in the heart of Congo the most awe-inspiring and yet most frightening person met is the acclaimed conqueror and ivory-trader, the German intruder, Kurtz. He is awe-inspiring for the power and influence he has garnered and the wealth he has collected. He is frightening for what this has made him.

By the end the pilgrims see the "savages", for all their strange ways, as human, but at the reaches of human progress they see Kurtz, who plays their "god", as humanity gone insane.

"His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself."

It would be a stretch to say that this book is an enjoyable read, but it is most certainly a trip. One can easily see why it is a classic of modern fiction, and why the guy reading it on the ship in King Kong was petrified. Those who begin the trek thinking that the "heart of darkness" is found in the place and people of this prehistoric land find it in the power and pride of their conquerors. The heart of darkness is what we find when we let our glorious humanity go to our head.

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