Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Review -- HEART OF DARKNESS (and THE SECRET SHARER) by Joseph Conrad

"...Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly that there was a camp somewhere of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."
Images like this permeate the whole of Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness. First serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899, it tells the story of a certain Marlowe (probably the same Marlowe as featured in Lord Jim) who captained a steamboat on a river voyage somewhere in Africa (probably the Congo River we are given to infer). A stunning piece of imagery, Conrad explores the themes of imperialism and the innate blackness within the depths of the human soul in this brief yet heavy work. Conrad exerts an incredibly raw and pessimistic power over the reader throughout the novel. Its bleak tone is fitting for its grim subjects and themes. Conrad drew a great deal upon his own experiences as a captain of a river steamer in King Leopold's Belgian Congo in writing this book, and it feels more as if Marlowe is Conrad's mouthpiece through which he is venting the pessimism and pain of his experiences.

Heart of Darkness is about enlightenment. It is incredibly symbolic. It is also incredibly bleak and tinged with a sort of hopelessness regarding human nature and our ability to deceive ourselves. Conrad utilizes the technique of frame narrative--a story within a story, both told in first person. The nameless narrator recalls the tale once told to him by Marlowe during a friendly evening boating on the Thames. Throughout Marlowe's tale, the sun dips below the horizon shrouding the Thames in darkness.

The parallel should be obvious to anyone. The Thames is a mirror image of the Congo. Marlowe begins his tale by drawing the parallel between the African river and the Thames by describing Roman imperialism and exploitation of Britannia. Similarly to Rome, the Belgians have been carving into central Africa on an expedition of acquisition and exploitation, and outfit into which Marlowe signs.

The entire escapade is based on the acquisition of ivory. This luxury item appears to be the entire drive behind the colonization effort of the Congo region. That ivory is white contrasts it with the overall theme of darkness and shadow with which Marlowe shrouds his narrative. The ivory is acquired through death, obviously (death of the animal in specific, and the death of overworked native laborers in general), and this continues to build upon the entire concept of decay and entropy through exploitation.

The Europeans haven't simply walked into a backwards world, they've gone and turned the entire world upside-down for the Africans. Marlowe never comes out and says it, but it becomes clear to the reader that the indigenous peoples of the Congo have no concept of contractual obligation or legal binding. They agree to serve for a time, and some seem to stay on almost as slaves while others decide that they've had enough and wander off into the forests. The entire acquisition of ivory seems to be something beyond the ken of the natives, and is equally matched by the seemingly meaningless tasks (as even Marlowe observes) to which they are often assigned, or their rather simplistic and animistic view of their surroundings.
"He [Marlowe's engineer] ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge. He was useful because he had been instructed; and what he knew was this--that should the water in that transparent thing disappear, the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance. So he sweated and watched the glass fearfully..."
The forest produces and swallows natives like some sort of monstrous, primordial, Lovecraftian entity. Marlowe often describes the natives appearing from and disappearing into the jungle almost as if they are produced ex nihilo and sucked back into the nothingness that was before they briefly flickered to life to serve the jungle's purpose.

Darkness is the central theme of the book, and is paralleled by river journeys. Marlowe's journey into the Congo is forshadowed by the Romans' anecdotal venture up the Thames into savage, prehistoric Britannia. These voyages are metaphoric. Marlowe's voyage is as much inside of himself as it is external--the darkness of inner Africa is a reflection of the dark, sinister greed and tendency for self-deception that is natural to humankind. This savagery doesn't recognize barbarism or civilization, but is universal. Marlowe's passage along the river is also a sort of voyage into death and darkness of a different sort--a kind of trip along the River Styx. He journeys into the realm of the dead and returns to the world of the living forever changed and unable to see the living world with the same sort of foolish innocence as everyone else does.

I've deliberately held off on discussing Kurtz, because Kurtz is, by his very nature, a schizophrenic. He vacillates between being superhuman and messianic, and subhuman and brutal. The natives have come to fall beneath his spell and serve him unquestioningly, providing him with the ivory with which he supplies the Belgian company. His methods are a strange contradiction of absolute tyranny and an apparent desire to civilize and discipline the natives along European lines. He rules over them like a god, and they obey him unquestioningly, even when Marlowe and the station manager come to take his sickened, emaciated form on board the steamer to return him to Europe. Through it all, though, Kurtz is the most honest and straightforward character Marlowe encounters. Kurtz alone has his eyes fully open to reality. Not even the Russian Marlowe encounters, who acts as a sort of John the Baptist to Kurtz's Christ, is fully awakened to reality as Kurtz. Kurtz is also the most frustrated of the characters.

Marlowe (and by extension Conrad) is often described as being a racist for his prolific use of (nowadays) controversial racial epithets. But to view his use of this sort of terminology and its usage as directly analogous to similar terms used by racists in mid-20th century America would be anachronistic at best. Conrad wrote this novel at the very end of the 19th century, and in a much more European (and colonial) milieu, quite different in theme and mood from mid-20th century American culture. Indeed, once the reader can get past his/her own involuntary revulsion, it becomes quite clear that Marlowe's character has a far greater respect for the "savages" than for the white men. The "pilgrims" that he carries on his steamer are a fearful, bullying company that fires ineffectual volleys into the forest with their Winchester rifles. The exploited Africans are depicted as fully human, if incredibly different and difficult for Marlowe to comprehend. Yet by the end of the novella, Marlowe is quite alienated from white and civilized society, primarily due to their perfidy, duplicity, and wanton greed.

Marlowe also has a very strained relationship with women.
"It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if theyw ere to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over."
After his voyage into Africa, Marlowe's a distinctly changed man with a radically altered perception of reality. He experiences no small amount of frustration through his interactions with women because of this--19th century women, especially those of "respectable society" were essentially simpletons raised to live off of gossip and decadence and perpetually dwell in a fantasy world. Marlowe's encounter with Kurtz' Intended is perhaps the most straining and difficult social interaction he experiences in the entire book. Instead of being honest and truthful to her--which would have been cruel yet honorable--Marlowe instead opts to be "civilized" and duplicitous--he lies to her and tells her exactly what she wants to hear rather than shatter her delicate fantasy-world, knowing full-well that she'd never understand the truth nor why he would have had to speak it.

This draws the narrative into a sort of circle--Marlowe ends up where he began: civilized, unemployed, and on land in Europe. But his perception is changed--he now understands a much deeper truth and meaning. He's seen the heart of darkness that resides in every human soul, and he's met the one tragic figure who seemed to be trying to tame and channel that darkness into something constructive.

Heart of Darkness takes up a good 115 pages of the Bantam Classics volume I read. The remainder is devoted to 1912's 51-page-length short story, "The Secret Sharer." This story has a much more autobiographical function than Heart of Darkness, and through it, Conrad seems to be working through a lot of his own personal difficulties and memories having served as a captain on a ship. The story is much more straightforward, but is still a deep study of the effects of trust and mistrust on people in such a confined world as a ship at sea.

The unnamed captain encounters a man having escaped from another vessel, a former first mate who had killed a man for insolence and by doing so managed to save that ship. Nevertheless, the murder of necessity branded this man a homicide in the eyes of the perfidious crew. This man takes refuge with the captain and hides in his cabin, narrowly and repeatedly escaping the watchful eyes of the ship's steward and suspicious officers on board. The two characters, both young, one a new captain just recently raised to this commission, are almost mirror images of one-another, perhaps prompting the nameless captain's trust of the equally nameless refugee.

The two men's trust and bond is forged--they two are both strangers aboard the vessel, and the captain is as untrusted on his own ship (since he's so new) as the former first mate had been on his. They adapt their daily lives to the necessities of living (and hiding) on board the ship while the captain tries to devise a way to let the first mate escape to land and safety without compromising his own position.

Heart of Darkness and "The Secret Sharer" both have different styles of prose. Through Marlowe's narration, Conrad allows Heart of Darkness to descend into long soliloquies and soap-box moments. Marlowe demonstrates a penchant for waxing philosophical and employing a great deal of metaphor and simile.
"...I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is--that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself--that comes too late--a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it be. ..."
Marlowe's digressions from the action and into contemplation usually run about one to one-and-a-half pages in length (this is but a part of a typical segment nearer the end of the story). In contrast, the nameless captain of "The Secret Sharer" does no such thing. He's much less descriptive, more terse and tense in his voice, and doesn't narrate with the same bitterness and cynicism that Marlowe possesses.

This ability to write in different voices, and consistently so throughout an entire story, is actually quite impressive. In Heart of Darkness, Marlowe's lengthy, bitter descriptiveness and dark tonality give the story a weighty character that is nicely contrasted by the boldness and tension of "The Secret Sharer." The former is a far more philosophical one, while the second possesses a much more immediate and personal emotionality.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Style A-
Substance A+
Overall A

"The Secret Sharer" by Joseph Conrad
Style B+
Substance A
Overall A-

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