Heart of Darkness
The Unthinkable on the Edge of Thought
Some books aren't so much read as quoted, cultural artefacts that many people know about but not many people have directly accessed. There are people constantly quoting Shakespeare without knowing where the passage comes from, nor even knowing it happens to have originated with the Bard. How many people know of Scrooge without having read A Christmas Carol, and of Quasimodo without knowing the book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Certain works enter our cultural consciousness like fairy tales and biblical stories: they work by osmosis, more than by effort. They permeate the culture. Is Heart of Darkness one such book? We needn't exaggerate our claims, but figures like Marlow and Kurtz, the idea of a heart of darkness that is both personal and geographical, reflecting our deepest desires and finding in them the spatial metaphor of darkest Africa, indicate that Joseph Conrad's novella becomes the exemplary text of colonial exploration. Somerset Maugham may have set many of his books in the sweat and heat of the colonies, while V. S. Naipaul wrote numerous essays investigating colonial influence around the world, and Kipling as a writer would perhaps sum up the colonial figure more than anyone else. But Kipling's individual works do not seem to have the force of Heart of Darkness in conjuring up colonial power. Even Graham Greene's The Quiet American and A Burnt Out Case remain works of lesser importance.
Of course this is partly because of a film adaptation that suggested the preoccupations of Conrad's novella never went away, with Francis Coppola in Apocalpyse Now usingHeart of Darkness as a basis for understanding that Vientamese lives come cheap, and American expansionism is very costly. Yet a film based on the book itself by Nic Roeg made no impression at all. Perhaps the force of Heart of Darkness rests in it being a book of rumour, as if reflecting the power of Kurtz himself.
There are certain characters in literature who have a secondary role to play in the work but seem to possess an abiding presence within it: Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, and of course Kurtz here. They are all characters who turn up dramatically in the material, but their narrative forcefulness rests on their absence as much as on their presence, and we could almost imagine all four books written without any of these characters directly showing up in the material. They are imaginative forces as much as they are dramatic presences, and film has learnt a lot from this device: from The Wizard of Oz to Psycho, cinema knows how to create mystery through off-screen presence.
But few writers have pursued this mystery of presence with such rigour as Conrad inHeart of Darkness, even managing, by the end of the book, to suggest a new mystery all over again as Marlow returns to Europe and meets with Kurtz's fiancee. It has been a year since Kurtz's death, yet she is still in black. "But I do not. I cannot - I cannot believe - not yet. I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never." Both Marlow and the fiancee acknowledge that Kurtz is a man whom it was impossible not to love.
Heart of Darkness is of course a quest narrative with a clear purpose and a categorical jounrey, and at the same time possesses what literary theorist Gerard Genette would call homodiegetic narration. "The real question is whether or not the narrator can use the first person to designate one of his characters. We will therefore distinguish here two types of narrative: one with the narrator absent from the story he tells (example: Homer in The Illiad, or Flaubert in L'Education Sentimentale), the other with the narrator present as a character in the story he tells (example: Gil Blas, or Wuthering Heights.) I call the first type, for obvious reasons, heterodiegetic, and the second type homodiegetic." (Narrative Discourse) The story is told by a character within the story instead of outside it and, rather like Nick in The Great Gatsby, we have someone in thrall of the character whose story he narrates. Yet Heart of Darkness goes much further than The Great Gatsby in its homodiegesis in two ways. Firstly Nick gets to know Gatsby relatively early on in the story, while Marlow meets Kurtz near the end of Heart of Darkness. Secondly, we also have other homodiegetic perspectives on Kurtz, including a manager at a station post. "He is a prodigy" the manager says, "he is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." Later in the book and far into his journey, Marlow meets a Russian in multicoloured clothing: "some stuff that was brown holland probably, but it was covered with patches all over, with bright patches, blue, red, and yellow patches on the back, patches on the front, patches on elbows, on knees; coloured binding around his jacket, scarlet edging at the borrom of his trousers..." The man looks like a harlequin. This crazy sartorial sense matches his mad ramblings, but he has hardly been alone in his admiration of Kurtz; only the most hyperbolic in his expression of praise. "He could be very terrible. You can't judge Mr Kurtz as you would an ordinary man." "The tribe adored him", he says, as he talks of being nothing to Kurtz.
There are narrators within narrators here, creating a labyrinthine perspective with Kurtz a fully human minotaur whispered about by others and a potential dragon to be slaughtered by Marlow. Kurtz is the man for whom the colonial dream comes true as feverish nightmare, someone whose methods go against the company's policies, and whose desires are easily met. "The manager said afterwards that Mr Kurtz's methods had ruined the district" This might seem like an understatement after Marlow has witnessed numerous heads on sticks, but this doesn't necessarily suggest bad business practice; more that "they only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts..."
The advantage of several different narrative angles on Kurtz is that it allows for both mystery and hyperbole, without the one quite destroying the other. Marlow's place in the narrative is to muse over the nature of Kurtz's whereabouts and also his character. Enquring into the mystery of his existence is what holds the book together; but within the book others want to point up how exceptional he happens to be. By the end of the novella, or the beginning of the story as Marlow narrates it to others on a barge in the Thames, Marlow is himself torn between mystery and hyperbole. He is someone who perhaps in the eyes of others isn't that much of a storyteller as the book's primary narrator notes that they knew they were about to hear of "one of Marlow's inconclusive experiences", and that when Marlow says "I don't want to bother you much with what happened to me personally", the book's narrator thinks that Marlow showed "in this remark the weakness of many tellers of tales who seem so often unaware of what their audience would best like to hear." And no doubt there would be something in Marlow's telling that would exasperate sea farers looking for immediate excitement. He doesn't have a tale to offer that can snugly alleviate boredom; he has one instead that wonders if there are enigmas that no story can contain.
In this Heart of Darkness feels both modern and classical, written in 1899, it is part of what we could see as a tentative modernism: that Conrad, like Henry James, has one foot in each century, while other modernists are very much 20th century figures: Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence. It opens as if a story that can easily be told about the marvellous figure of Kurtz who ventured into the African continent, but ends as a existential enigma that acknowledges hearts of darkness are often of human orientation. Those listening to Marlow's anecdote might want a story with a clear conclusion, but instead they receive one that Marlow won't quite be able to talk out of himself.
It is perhaps this question of stories that we cannot quite talk out of ourselves that makesHeart of Darkness especially modern, with the 20th century novelist so often caught between two modes of narration, that of storytelling and confession. When Marlow says he doesn't want to bother his listeners much with what happened to him personally, he adds "yet to understand the effect it had on me you ought to know how I got out there, what I saw...it seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me." If Lawrence could say one should never trust the teller and trust the tale, and if we hear endlessly that a writer should show not tell, then Lawrence's remark is surely semi-ironic, and the latter notion very outmoded. Equally, Aristotle's ideas on conflict being vital to drama have to be tweaked: the inner conflict is in modern literature as pronounced as external tension. The 20th century couldn't easily hide the marks of Freud. The thicket of narrative perspectives, the various perceptions of Kurtz, pass also through a narrator whose value system has taken a knock during his adventure; that the very notion of adventure takes on a different hue. A hue he manages to convey to the initially sceptical and potentially bored narrator. "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of immense darkness."
We needn't be too wary when talking of the book's symbolism; Conrad puts it at the centre of the novella as he easily equates darkest Africa with the darkest of hearts, as Kurtz finds his id in the jungles of the Congo. What is more interesting is the ambivalence Conrad manages to convey towards who is responsible for these darkest of thoughts and deeds that become manifest. They are not simply a product of Kurtz's personality, nor of the continent's savagery. If it were a consequence of the former then there would be no need for the African setting; if it were the latter it would be a tale of racist narrative: that a white man turns nasty in a beastly environment. No, the tension rests in balancing Kurtz's personality with Africa's potential for a colonial mindset to feel itself a God, and if Marlow is so convoluted in his telling, and potentially so implicated in the tale told, it resides in this capacity in man given a certain power. "He had been absent for several months - getting himself adored, I suppose - and had come down unexpectedly with the intention to all appearances of making a raid either across the river or down stream."
At this stage Marlow is still looking to judge Kurtz, a little earlier proposing to the Russian that Kurtz was mad, while the Russians insist he thinks not. "Mr Kurtz couldn't be mad. If I had heard him talk only two days ago, I wouldn't dare hint at such a thing." By the end of his story, returning to Europe and meeting with Kurtz's fiancee, Marlow would be unlikely to possess his earlier air of dismissal. Has he too become possessed, internalising an aspect of Kurtz's personality, Kurtz's power over others? Deciding to give Kurtz's fiancee her portrait back and her letters, he wonders what his motives might be. "Curiosity? Yes; and also some other feelings perhaps. All that had been Kurtz's had passed out of my hands: his soul, his body, his station, his plans, his ivory, his career."
Perhaps Kurtz's power rests on his exemplification of a colonial mindset pushed to an optimum; that Marlow feels uncomfortably preoccupied with this man because he knows he is variation on him. Someone without necessarily the charm and charisma of the great Kurtz, but a man who has also sought adventure, money and business in other parts of the world. Edward Said suggests that Heart of Darkness "cannot just be a straight forward recital of Marlow's adventures; it is also a dramatization of Marlow himself, the former wanderer in colonial regions..." (Culture and Imperialism) As he tells his tale to various British figures aboard the boat, mainly made up of businessmen, as Said notes, the story suggests three modes of colonial existence. The first would be the individual out to make his fortune in the world; the second the empire builder who wishes to do great things for their country, and the third the man who loses his heart and mind in an environment he can never quite comprehend. Kurtz seems to have elements of all three; what does Marlow have? Kurtz is the cautionary tale for those who either seek adventure or wish to plunder, and Marlow tells it with the need to examine his own motives and conscience. At one moment he says: "I found myself lumped along with Kurtz as a partisan of methods for which the time was not ripe; I was unsound! Ah! But it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares." At another Marlow speaks of the conversations between Kurtz and the Russian. "I suppose Kurtz wanted an audience, because on a certain occasion, when encamped in the forest, they had talked all night, or more probably Kurtz had talked." Is this not eactly what Marlow is now doing as he tells his story?
If everyone accepts that Kurtz was a fabulous mind and a fascinating presence, then this counts for nothing as he dies in the jungles of Africa, perhaps not quite mad but certainly showing megalomaniacal tendencies while turning locals into natives, and then into slaves and worshippers. Marlow tells it as though his own mind might not be too sound as Conrad uses numerous exclamation marks and symbolism that plays on the mental image and the physical reality. The book's most famous lines are probably "the horror! The horror!", but exclamation marks are used throughout not to punctuate categorically (as we would expect in the hyperbolic) but almost as a question mark by other means. "Kurtz discoursed. A voice! A voice!...oh he struggled! He struggled!" Talking of an exchange with the station manager Marlow says: "he inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness." "Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose." The symbolic and the literal collapse into ambivalent images: "the brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz's life was running swiftly too, ebbbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time." "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." This blend of the symbolic and the literal is also evident in the passage we have quoted which ends the book, with its closing words: "to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."
Conrad has never been afraid of the exclamation mark, but here it functions like a limit point, a means by which to say that Marlow and everyone else cannot comprehend the mystery of Kurtz and must accept, instead of asking further questions, we should accept the inexplicable for what is. Rather than the question, better to pursue the metaphorical; perhaps to see in Kurtz someone who is a force of nature who requires nature to describe him. That as Kurtz becomes more and more entangled in the jungle environment, so Conrad's prose has to reflect that the anthropocentric loses its coordinates. Conrad may sometimes be accused of purple prose, of overly elaborate descriptions of nature, but inHeart of Darkness it pushes the language not into the purple but into the indeterminate, as if some literary version of the dissolution of figure and ground. When Rosemary Edmonds discusses the great Russian writer Pushkin's prose she says: "a word as to Pushkin's use of landscape, which he introduces only when it is needed as a physical setting. For him nature is a visual phenomenon, never to be endowed with emotional content in order to add to a mood..." (The Queen of Spades and Other Stories) In Heart of Darkness Conrad very much endows nature with emotional content.
This makes sense when a writer is working with unfamiliar terrain, when his characters come up against environments they aren't very familiar with. It becomes all the more so when that environment also makes one's values disintegrate and the gap between man and nature seem non-existent. Conrad's descriptive density tries to suggest a constant thicket of new perceptions. "Going up that river" Marlow says, "was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine." Further on Marlow notes: "the earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." Conrad's language constantly slips between the objevctive and the subjective, between realism and hints of pathetic fallacy and personification. The lack of joy in the sunshine suggests personification (giving human characteristic to nature), but also Marlow's feeling in the presence of it as pathetic fallacy: that the sun is joyless. This problem of subject and object is exemplified just after the unearthly comment. Talking of the natives he sees working endlessly, Marlow reckons "No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces: but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar." This of course can be seen as part of the book's potentially racist aspect. As Said says: "If we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other, non-imperialist alternatives, the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable."
Yet it is the presence of the unthinkable that is on the edge of thought that interests Conrad, evident when Marlow says "I looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities, weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity." As Marlow discusses the awfulness of hunger, he says that "superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the delivery of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity?" "It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly... "Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield." This is the sory of co-feeling on the edge of one's consciousness, not at its dead centre. We rarely need exclamation marks and animal metaphors to describe how we feel about our friends and family: their role in our inner comprehension is usually safe and secure. Of course if a child becomes involved in a radical movement and we happen to be conservative, if our wife leaves us for another man, we find it distressing, but the despair comes from the familiarity of the other that has suddenly become unfamiliar, alien, unknown. Marlow's description of the native people indicates the opposite; the unfamiliar one tries to familiarise oneself with: to find language that can bring the inexplicable closer. While many would see that the expansionist mindset and the exploitative use of African resources requires of the colonialist a failure to see the human in the people being exploited (as Said would say of Cecil Rhodes or Frederick Lugard), Marlow tries to see exactly that humanity. He seeks to find in a very basic primary need a means by which to comprehend the "savage clamour". Who wouldn't be savage given the situation and circumstances?
If Conrad's novella is of such importance it rests on its use of language and narrative method; yet we don't want to suggest this is an art for art's sake position. No, it is language that tries to find the means by which to create comprehension out of the immediately incomprehensible. Marlow tells his tale to people who wouldn't easily understand what he is talking about, and Marlow throughout makes clear why this would be so. He doesn't entirely undertsand it himself. Through Kurtz he shows someone who couldn't really understand it either; the book becomes about the exploration of selves in alien environments and rather than understanding the Other, instead fail to understand an aspect of their own identities. Conrad's purpose is to discover a narrative approach and a language register that will accommodate a world that can more easily be exploited than it can be undertsood. Many adventurers could come back from Africa with materials that showed their prowess, from ivory to minerals, even if in the earlier part of the 19th century it was hazardous before the discovery of Quinine for malaria. Yet this would be seen as no more than a bodily infection; the body weak against illness. Heart of Darkness is more interested in a weakness of the mind in the face of what it cannot comprehend. For that, Conrad suggests, only the talking cure will do, and yet will hardly itself suffice. But what can come out of the investigation is a book that refuses to see the Africans as non-human, yet acknowledges it cannot easily understand exactly what their humanity consists of. It absorbs Kurtz into its universe, and Marlow seems semi-transformed too.
© Tony McKibbin