Sunday, December 4, 2011
Thoughts: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
As soon as you get comfortable with the first few pages, it pulls the covering off your eyes, and you realize that this book will not be easy. In fact, this book will be pretty goddamn difficult.
I know practically nothing about Belgium, King Leopold (King Leopold II?!?), and the Congo, and this book is about an Englishman on a steamboat in the Congo. It doesn’t ease you into the action or the context of the story. It drops you right into the middle of it—right into the controversy between the ivory agents and everyone wondering what happened to the oh-so-mysterious Kurtz.
Yes, my friends, Kurtz might show up near the end of the book, but he’s a palpable presence right from the beginning.
This book shows the effects of imperialism on Africa, and how being part of a screwed up system can screw you up as well. All the other white men are arguing over who gets more money (ivory) and more credit, while Kurtz, in his far corner of Africa, is going batshit crazy. Tah-dah. I get how Conrad deplored imperialism, but I didn’t find that impressive. Not at all.
Sure, Conrad depicts how cruel the imperialists were to the Africans, but he portrays the latter with a sense of detachment. In some passages, he even refers to them as black things or black shadows in the wilderness. He doesn’t show them as individuals with feelings and thoughts.
In one scene, Marlow grieves over the death of his black helmsman, but also refers to him as “machinery.” The fact that the Africans are humans is acknowledged, but they aren’t considered equals. (And don’t even get me started on how women are portrayed in this book. That’s for an entirely different blog post.)
I still need more time to figure out what the heart of darkness really stands for. You know that feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite figure out what it is yet? That’s exactly how I feel about this book, like I’ve figured it out but don’t know how to tell you.
Does the heart of darkness refer to the evil acts of men in Africa? Or to the depravity of humans in general? A second read might clear things up, but I don’t think I’m rereading this book any time soon.