Sunday, January 03, 2010

Review: Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Several years ago, I spent the better half of a summer reading Lord Jim. Picking my way over the dense, congested prose was a slow business, and the effort became more tiring than rewarding if I kept at it too long. I was advised at one later point that Conrad is better traversed paragraph by paragraph--there is no shame in keeping a copy by your bed and conquering a little bit every night. I find these interesting observations, because I'm hard pressed right now to understand what the hell my problem was. Heart of Darkness, while some of the heaviness of the writing was still there, tore right along. (And in the other novellas in that economical Barnes and Noble canon fodder edition--Amy Foster and The Secret Sharer--were also quick reads.) It might be that Conrad works better at the shorter length. Or I might just be reading differently nowadays. Who knows? I'm mostly shocked that the count is "several years."

You might call all three of them allegorical stories, fictionalized memoirs built up around Conrad's larger ideas of imperialism, the immigrant experience, or the alienation of command. Heart of Darkness, is the ringer of the bunch, taking a deep look at human nature, civilization and savagery, yet again. As everyone who was forced to read it in tenth grade, or who has seen Apocalypse Now knows, the plot is the chronicle of a seaman's journey up the Congo River to relieve the ivory trading station furthest up, and to meet his counterpart in Kurtz, the enigmatic chief of the inner station. This is put into a frame story of an afternoon yarn shared among comrades, the main purpose of which appears to challenge the reader to pay attention to quotation marks, although it does allow Conrad to avoid speaking in an authorial or autobiographical voice.

Like many novels written at the turn of the last century, the bridge between the modern and the pre-industrial is palpable. Certainly Conrad snapshots the technological transition from wind to combustion marine power, and in Africa, the empire has dug deeper into the colonial model, deeper into the continental interior and its other-than-human resources. The unreliable narrator that Conrad uses to subtly balance the moral dimension of the novel seems to me (and I am probably wrong) like a more modern trick, and if Charles Dickens might have written any number of scheming, soulless bureaucrats, he lacked the context of a national corporation to describe the general manager in the unsettling way Conrad that did. The madness that fractures the nobility of Kurtz is an ancient theme too (though maybe his final assessment isn't), and we find Conrad following any number of nineteenth century writers contrasting man's wholesome instincts with his barbarous ones, but here he's looking more directly at whom his fellow Europeans are actually "civilizing."

It would be too simple to say that the Africans represent the savage aspect of man, although it's clearly a concept that Conrad entertains, and it would be easy enough to take that as a superficial reading (as his contemporary audience likely did). He is looking at race here, in colonial Africa, and, through a tangle of dichotomies and contrasts, comes off with suitable ambiguity in his condemnations and approvals. What is missing here, and what really makes the novella so challenging, is that there's very little authorial empathy for the dark-skinned Other. We end up with some complex jigsaw puzzle with the contours of the missing pieces discernable by their absence. There's no major black character--the psychological dynamics are among the whites, between the narrator Marlow and Kurtz primarily, and also Marlow dealing with his own and Kurtz's relatives, and the company managers. Kurtz clearly has as much powerful leadership mojo on the locals as he does on everyone else, but the exotic savages are not the ones interviewed. Of course, it's natural that these are the people Marlow actually talks to, and the author can release any moral judgments through his mouth, or else leave them obviously hanging.

Marlow observes the Africans and toys with the idea that they're like us, and dismisses it without justification. The men he first meets are a sorry bunch, conscripted into forced labor by the Belgian company. He offers a cynically accurate judgment on imperialism in general, but chooses to expiate it with some vague ennobling idea. He judges the British colonial efforts to be a more beneficent sort (and judging against Leopold's efforts in central Africa may have had something of a point), and does not fail to observe, at the beginning of the story, that in antiquity, Albion was a dark continent too (uh, despite the name). Marlow's bond with the black crew, to fellow seamen, even though he judges them inferior sorts, is stronger than with the white passengers. He offers the shipboard cannibals the dignity of self-restraint in difficult circumstances, while the white passengers also on board are ignorant loudmouths with hair triggers. For so little screen time, Kurtz offers the richest contradictions. He's introduced as an emissary of civilization, as a possessive monster, a leader, and while he has beguiled and intimidated the exotics into his service on their own terms, it's not at all clear that his savagery is an adopted native sort. I take him as a stark raving parody of the civilizing influence. The horror.

Conrad paints the African jungle as dark, eternal, mute, indifferent to man. The effect is supposed to include predatory tension, but it reminds me of modern observations of the big empty universe, the infinitesimal significance of humanity in the big void to anyone but ourselves--an observation that resonated a little with a science fiction nerd. I hadn't known that Conrad was friends with H.G. Wells, although it's the wrong generation of the genre: nature was smaller back then, and I think Wells' was more social speculation. I was also impressed with the virulence of the dark continent. According to the notes, fully a third of the International African Society were casualties of malaria and other disease. And yet they kept at it, until it was no longer profitable. That the manager rose by means of his stomach doesn't sound like an exaggeration.

UPDATE: Responding to LentenStuffe's comment below, and since I want to write here what I actually mean: I didn't intend to suggest that Africans as savages was the correct reading, just one that Conrad appeared to be aware of, and which he was contradicting. I was trying to list some aspects of the way he discusses it that may be challenging (supporting the idea of Congolese "savages" with weak arguments, and with ugly proponents, and showing a whole lot of the opposite; selecting a narrator, and characters with whom the narrator most empathizes, that doesn't offer much light to an African point of view). And I don't think the contrasts tend to be cut and dry, but to my reading, one of the important take-homes is that Kurtz didn't go native so much as he went around-the-bend colonial. He brought his savagery with him.

He nails me on another point too, and makes some great observations.

Also, this is one of the banned books selections, and is now labeled appropriately. It was a good excuse to finally read it.

13 comments:

LentenStuffe said...
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Keifus said...

1. Great to see you & happy New Year.

2. To be clear, I don't see that Conrad is identifying the Congolese as the savages--that is something I definitely did not intend to suggest. I do think that Conrad recognizes this as the probable assumption, however, and that he refutes it extensively, and sometimes subtly over the course of the story. I think some aspects of the way he refutes it can be challenging (supporting the idea of Congolese "savages" with weak arguments, and with ugly proponents, and showing a whole lot of the opposite; his selection of a narrator and the characters with whom he most empathizes). And I don't think his contrasts tend to be cut and dry, but to my reading, one of the important take-homes is that Kurtz didn't go native so much as he went around-the-bend colonial.

(Rereading what I wrote, I should have been much clearer about this. Would it be wrong to edit at this point? An indulgent luxury on these sorts of pages.)

3. I am sure you're right about Dickens. A definite reach.

Our general manager is a character that really unsettled me. I'd almost call him a parody of some modern corporate manager, but we're maybe a little early for that (or that's what I was thinking, until I remembered some of the legal professionals from Bleak House). Thing is--midges to eagles--within the story, the manager is also a convincing, complex (complex and empty), and rather frightening fellow.

4. "...a very large stage for one white man to act out his identity crisis." Powerful stuff: a lot of literature could be indicted this way. A lot of history too, I fear. Thanks for the suggestion (and for keeping me honest).

LentenStuffe said...
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Keifus said...

Well, I added a hopefully clarifying addendum. I wish I had stated anything as succinct and accurate as those two paragraphs of yours.

I've not read Achebe, but you've really piqued my curiosity. A while back, I was having some problems similar to what you quoted (reading Ender's Game of all the better things I might have picked up), noticing how very much, and how very wrongly, we like to pretend that emotional burdens absolve evil committed, as if it's a wash. I don't think I ever worked it out satisfactorily (hardly small questions)--the world seizes without repentance and forgiveness too. Sounds like Chinua Achebe is addressing similar ideas, and I'm intrigued.

What did you think of the other Conrad shorts mentioned, by the way? I realize that The Secret Sharer is one of his more famous ones, but I found the allegory a little heavy-handed in that one, and had problems with that unreliable narrator's credulity. I found myself thinking it's a better story if you imagine his secret passenger is a figment.

Keifus said...

By the way, if you are still reading, I did happen to read and enjoy your "ship of truth" poem over at the other place, and had intended to comment on it before I lost my chance.

It reminded me of a John Masefield piece that is famous enough for me to be familiar with (making it very famous indeed--it was actually promoted by an English teacher long ago). I wondered whether that similarity was intentional, and if, moreover, the role of "Truth" as it affected your boat was an intentional contrast. Relevant to your intent, it seems the Masefield poem has been appropriated by many a Christian sermon-writer, and I think incorrectly so. They have their own argument for the endurance of Truth, and of a soul, but in the several examples I saw, they wrongly apprehended the active verb "to build".

I would have bugged you for your opinion on the poem and on Masefield in general if it looked like you were in the mood. I do like the opening couple of lines (Man with his burning soul/has but an hour of breath); I'm not sure I don't find the sentiment to be a little pat overall, however. But then, I tend to find poetry rather difficult and distrust my impressions.

Schmutz said...

Ship Shape. I had to look up a few words, but enjoyed it immensely too.

"It would be too simple to say that the Africans represent the savage aspect of man, although it's clearly a concept that Conrad entertains, and it would be easy enough to take that as a superficial reading (as his contemporary audience likely did)."

I don't think you needed to update.

Always a pleasure reading your reviews. Thanks. That's the thing about reading stuff like Heart of Darkness. You read it your way, Lentenstuffe reads it his way, and I read it mine. I imagine Conrad would have had it no other way. If there was only one way to read it, there wouldn't be much point in writing it.

LentenStuffe said...
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LentenStuffe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keifus said...

Schmutz: I have occasional (let's say "occasional") problems with clarity, something I do worry about. I can hardly express myself (or think) without at least three parentheticals and a double- or triple-negation, sometimes it seems.

Shipshape: No doubt your explanation was originally included, but it's been a couple weeks, and I only was able to read it quickly once. It's a very nice image. And you've validated my suspicion on the matter of the poet.

Schmutz said...

I enjoy reading your book reviews very much Keifus. A staple in my internet surfing. It's been so long since I read HOD that I'm going back and reading it again.

I was merely suggesting above that the passage of time has brought about a wide variety of interpretations of Conrad's novella. Just my opinion, but the political interps really didn't get going full-bore until the 50s and 60s.

It really is timeless the more I think about it.

Schmutz said...

And, for your other thousands of readers, some of whom may not have a copy handy....

Heart of Darkness

Keifus said...

Schmutz, I have to think it's easier to look at using today's hindsight, when the colonial effort looks so monstrous, and it's acceptable to say so outright.

rass said...

Heart of Darkness by joseph Conrad is a great attempt by the author in highlighting human greed and hypocrisy.Man intrinsically is a parasite, right from the day the world came into being.The divine scheme of things is always giving man which he does not deserve and man instead of sharing the load of life with his other fellow beings prefers to find easy targets
Rass Masood