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Author Topic: [114] Heart of Darkness--Joseph Conrad  (Read 7304 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: September 02, 2011, 09:27:03 AM »

The Horror!  The Horror!
September 2, 2011

I rate Apocalypse Now! as one of the greatest movies ever made.  I knew Coppola had based his masterpiece on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but, with the settings so different, I didn't think they could have resembled each other very much.  As I read it, though, I saw that Coppola had taken several scenes and much of the dialogue straight from Conrad.  Most importantly, though, he imbued the movie with the properly cynical spirit of the novella.

I didn't remember much about Conrad's book from having read it in high school.  Mostly I recall the mood of traveling up the mysterious Congo into uncharted territory.  But, clearly, as a high school student, I had missed important matters, like the absurd and cruel methods of oppression used by the Europeans in their efforts to “settle” Africa.  I had missed the madness at the center of the story, a madness that engulfed Kurtz and made inroads into Marlow's psyche.  I had missed the very heart of the darkness within each of us that Conrad had exposed.  I must have kept waiting for a plot to emerge and drummed my fingers at what I took to be a long and confusing setup.  When I finished, I remember thinking, “What happened?  Did I miss the story?”

This time, though, I saw that everything matters.  The opening incidents do much more than get Marlow into a boat.  They establish some characteristics of “civilization” that, when he comes to know Kurtz better, will increasingly repel him: bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and manipulation.  They also establish the role of women in Marlow's world: powerful, behind-the-scenes players, guided by unrealistic fantasies that men must not shatter.  Men, too, can dream, he seems to say, but reality soon sets them straight.

As a young man, Marlow became fascinated by the “blank spots” on the map of Africa, and managed to become skipper of a Belgian steam ship in the Congo.  One of the inland traders had come into question, suspected of “unsound methods,” and Marlow journeyed upstream to investigate and bring this person, a Mr. Kurtz, back to civilization.  On his journey, Marlow witnessed the madness and senseless brutality of colonialism.  But I thought it odd that the hypocrisy of colonialism bothered him more than its inhumanity.  At one point, he declared that he hated lying above all other things: “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me.  There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.  It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.” (p. 77)

Thus, when Marlow met Mr. Kurtz, who had dropped all pretense of being on a trading and civilizing mission, he found Kurtz's naked brutality almost admirable.  Kurtz had stopped trading for ivory, and simply raided villages to take it by force (“unsound methods”).  By the time Marlow arrived, Kurtz had decorated his residence with the severed heads of those who had opposed him.  He participated in horrific rituals that encourage the worship of himself as a deity.  In the midst of all this (about which Marlow learned from a garrulous Russian trader) he arrived to find Kurtz very ill, so he attempted to take him back to civilization.  Kurtz died along the way, and Marlow nearly died of illness himself.  On his deathbed, Kurtz left Marlow with the burden of carrying out his testamentary wishes, and Marlow ultimately sided with Kurtz against the pressures brought by the disappointed heirs.

By the end of the story, Marlow has noted cynically all the distorted versions of Kurtz he has heard from the many people he had to deal with.  But, when faced with the delusions of Kurtz's bereaved fiancee, instead of blurting out the truth, he confirmed her romantic fantasy of Kurtz as a moral, noble, and humanitarian martyr to the cause of civilization.  Thus, in the end, Marlow has become exactly that which he most hated: a liar and hypocrite.

Despite the fact that the beginning makes more sense, I still find it somewhat odd.  The tale opens as the unnamed narrator sails up the Thames with a small handful of other passengers.  One of them, Marlow, comments that this river, too, once flowed into the heart of darkness for Roman explorers and conquerors.  After a long pause, Marlow then told the story of his own youthful journey.  Conrad creates a nondescript person apart from himself to narrate a mature Marlow's narration of his first voyage.  Why does Conrad distance himself from the youthful Marlow of the story?  Perhaps what he has to reveal horrifies him too much for him to face it directly.  He must look at it obliquely, like the face of the Medusa, only tolerable as a reflection.

  Marlow discovers that he admires Kurtz because the supposedly “mad” killer has merely seen through what all the Europeans had concealed from themselves.  Europe's presence in the Congo had little to do with bringing the light of civilization into the savage darkness.  Europe wanted plunder and nothing else.  Kurtz saw through to the one central value: ivory at whatever cost in human life.

Heart of Darkness contains much to mull over, and forces us to look with a suspicious eye to our own national motives in interfering with other countries “for their own good.”  The Vietnam War illustrates one such moment in recent American history.  Apocalypse Now! as a story of hypocritical imperialism, could not have had a better model than Conrad's tale.  Even though I still have many unanswered questions about Heart of Darkness, I certainly enjoyed reading it this time much more than I had in high school, and I suspect that modern high-school students who attempt it without some historical background (or without at least having seen Coppola's movie) will find it just as puzzling as I did at their age.

« Last Edit: September 02, 2011, 09:50:37 AM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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