• Literary Criticism: Another Look at Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

    Another Look at Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

    By Harold O. Wilson

    In her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley says, “Heart of Darkness is a good example of how the best-intentioned most respected piece of fiction can develop into a social document when attitudes change and history overtakes the thematic material of a given work of art. A hundred years after publication, Conrad’s repeated images of the Africans Marlow meets in his journey up the Congo River seems racist and inhumane.”  She concludes her analysis with, “My own view, however, is that because the novella is artistically flawed—because the balance between thematic material and narrative material is off—Heart of Darkness will remain an interesting historical document but a bad work of art.”When Smiley says the balance between thematic material and narrative material is off, she is referring to her statement that, “Conrad substitutes eloquence for details and incidents.” She wants more particulars and argues that Conrad is more interested in making a point than telling a story.

    Well, every fiction writer worth reading has a point to make—it’s called “the theme” of the work and the story is laid open to expose the theme it expresses. Smiley is wrong—Conrad has done a brilliant job of telling a story that exposes what I find to be a significant theme. I do not mean to suggest that this is the only theme one could explore in Heart of Darkness, there are many others. I will argue, however, that the following is a major theme and perhaps the dominant one in the novella: The Victorian concept of the manifest destiny of “civilized man” based on individual will-power and a hubris of social progress is rational, intelligent and clear, but at its heart it is mad. Kurtz is the mirror of this society, “his intelligence was perfectly clear,” Marlow says,”—concentrated, it is true upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear;… But 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 saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.”

    Smiley focuses her critique on Marlow, then tells us, “And then there is Kurtz,” but goes on to recount not what she thinks of Kurtz but to analyze Marlow’s relationship to Kurtz. Kurtz is the key to this novella, however, and even though what we know about him we learn from Marlow, there is enough to send our minds whirling.

    “The horror! The horror!” are Kurtz’s last words. “True, he had made that last stride,” Marlow says, “ he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry—much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory!”  What does Kurtz see as he peers over the threshold?  What does he understand that elicits such terror?  And why does Marlow consider his cry, “The horror! The horror!” a victory?

    Eric Fromm’s existential dichotomies might provide a helpful lens through which to examine Kurtz’s discovery. In his book, Man for Himself, Fromm suggests that humans are faced with three existential dichotomies—existential because they are rooted in the very nature of our existence. In contrast Fromm also suggests that there are historical dichotomies which we can control and change. These historical dichotomies are interesting but needn’t concern us in this analysis. The three existential dichotomies are basically as follows: (1) The most fundamental dichotomy is the one between life and death. The fact that we have to die is incompatible with the experience of life. It is like an insolent slap in the face. To avoid this contradiction we create ideologies and illusions that deny the reality of death. (2) The second dichotomy is that we are full of all human potentialities but the short duration of our lives does not permit their full realization. We are not going to achieve all that we feel we can or need to accomplish. (3) The third is the fact that we are alone and yet related to others at the same time. We are ultimately alone but we cannot know ourselves apart from others and we cannot develop our full potential without them.

    These dichotomies result from the fact that our self-awareness, reason and imagination have separated us from the rest of nature. We are in fact the aliens in the universe. Fromm suggests, “There is no ‘innate drive, for progress in man; it is the contradiction in his existence that makes him proceed on the way he has set out. Having lost ‘paradise,’ the unity with nature, he has become the eternal wanderer….He must give account to himself of himself and the meaning of his existence.”

    This heavy existential view of life was decidedly not the general concept of human existence in Victorian England when Conrad was writing Heart of Darkness or when it was published in 1902. Belief in “progress” was the dominant characteristic of the period. Conrad is writing in a day of unprecedented peace, prosperity and economic expansion. It had its counterpart in Europe called the belle-époque. Victorian optimism was encouraged by the unprescidented expansion of human power in material, intellectual, and spiritual areas and the prosperity and growth it generated confirmed for the Victorians the nobility of “civilized” man and the power of his will. It formed the psychological underpinnings of both the colonialist and imperialist expansions of the time and contributed significantly to the creation of the British Empire. Freud was the first to give the lie to this concept of unbridled will and then the whole idea of progress and the nobility of civilized man came crashing down in the very real horror of 1914—for Europe anyway. We are hard learners, however, and Vietnam was an unfortunate American replay of the hubris of that Victorian period. With that in mind it’s easy to see how Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now is a remake of Heart of Darkness.

    It is with the confidence of the Victorian mindset, however, that Kurtz goes to the Congo to engage in the ivory trade. What happens to him? Marlow tells us that Kurtz stepped over the edge and looked into the invisible. Marlow looked as well, but he was permitted to draw back his foot. “Perhaps all the wisdom and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.” I would suggest that Kurtz looked into the face of his own deterioration and death and found nothing inside but an invisible emptiness. He is shocked, and dismayed. Marlow tells us, “I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense hopeless despair.”

    All his work, all the ivory stacked in the boat that he argues is his, all the killing, all, was for nothing and finally means nothing. Thus his hopeless despair rests also in the second dichotomy—he has not achieved his great “idea” and because he cannot hope to turn again as T.S. Elliott says in Ash Wednesday, “And place is always and only place / And what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place…” he experiences his finitude in an intense hopeless despair. He is confronted with the utter futility of his work and the reality of his solitude. “Alone in the wilderness, his soul had looked within itself and gone mad.”  Kurtz has written an insipid pamphlet on civilizing the natives declaring the benefits of benevolence and good treatment. At the bottom of the pamphlet he has scrawled “Exterminate the brutes!” a last attempt to escape the great contradictions by destroying the universe. “Confound the man!” Marlow says, “He had kicked the very earth to pieces.”

    Kurtz ends up a man alone with no illusions, no pretense, no faith, and no fear, struggling alone with his soul. So why does Marlow consider this a victory?  I would suggest it is because Kurtz had the courage to look over the edge and confront the invisible nothingness he saw. Unfortunately, all Kurtz experiences is the horror. He sees nothing positive or creative in this loss of illusion. He remains defiant. “On his face,” Marlow says, “ is the “expression of somber pride, of ruthless power,…” Kurtz faces the horror but does not come out on the other side and Conrad appears ambivalent about any positive aspect to Kurtz’s shattered illusions. Freud exposed the illusion of Victorian “progress” and the fallacy of self-righteous will-power only to come down on the side of determinism. It took existentialist philosophers like Camus and Sartre after the carnage of two world wars to reveal the liberating aspects of Kurtz’s “horror.” For the present analysis, however, let the words of Elliott suffice, “Because I cannot hope to turn again / Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice…”

    Marlow struggles mightily with his encounter with Kurtz but he doesn’t get it either. He was close, but he truly drew back his foot. In the final analysis, Marlow opts for an illusion he knows is not true and he lies to the Intended. “Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once,” she says. “He drew men towards him by what was best in them.” And Marlow, “’Yes, I know,’ I said with something like despair in my heart, but bowing my head before the faith that was in her, before that great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her—from which I could not even defend myself.” Then he told her that the last word Kurtz spoke was her name.

    Because she does not grasp the heft of Heart of Darkness, Jane Smiley chooses to bicker over small things and is generally wrong about these as well.  She argues that “Conrad’s habit of individualizing whites and generalizing blacks, arrogating consciousness and intellect solely to Europeans no longer rates the respect it once received…”  She accuses Conrad of being a sentimentalist, that is rather than observe, he projects his own fears and wishes onto an object then reacts to it as though it were real. Her example of this is the way he treats women in the novella. Now, two things need to be said here. First, Conrad generalizes whites; the “pilgrims” are one example, and he does individualize indigenous people in the novella. Examples include the man dying in the shadows under the trees with the “bit of white worsted round his neck” to whom Marlow gives a biscuit. Another is the magnificent ambiguous woman parading on the bank at Kurtz’s station who, ”walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed clothes, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments…She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.”  Then there is Marlow’s helmsman who dies from the spear thrust. “He steered for me,” Marlow says, “I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken.”  Finally, there are the cannibals who serve as crew on the boat. They are starving to death and Marlow marvels at their restraint in not killing the rest of the crew in order to eat.

    Second, concerning Marlow’s attitude toward women, there is a subtle point to be made here. Marlow comments about his aunt, “It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be….” Smiley says of this, “Such a remark could be made only by a man who had never actually listened to a woman or observed any of the women around him on any street in any city in Europe.” Not necessarily. This remark could have been made by any man in Victorian England. Women were held in a special position at that time. They did live in a world of their own. Compressed into a small box, they were considered inferior to men except morally, brought up sexually ignorant, and kept under the watchful eye of their mothers. In this “world of their own” they were trained to have no opinions and educated to be submissive to authority (men). The role they were assigned in life was to marry and have children. So Marlow’s comment about his aunt and his need to “protect” the Intended by lying to her marks him as a man of the Victorian era. Even though Marlow cannot be equated with Conrad, it might be true that Conrad shared this view of women. But one would have to make a search of his literature to see if that is the case.

    So it is in fact Smiley who is the sentimentalist; projecting her own feelings and values on a fictional character playing out the role assigned him by another era; then goes further and projects these views on the author as well.

    Heart of Darkness is not about the role of women in society, it is not about racism, it is not about civilization versus nature, and finally, it is not a historical document as Smiley contends. If Heart of Darknesscan be characterized at all, it is a picture of the psychological sickness Conrad saw at the core of Victorian society exemplified by the shattering disillusion of one of its products when confronted with the darkness of his own mortality. Its best analogue today, remains in fact the hubris that powered the Vietnam War. Francis Ford Coppola was correct to equate Vietnam with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

    “I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself….,” could well be said about 1967 America.


    NOTE: For more information on Freud and will-power in Victorian England, see Rollo May’s Love and Will.


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