The Darkness

If I wasn’t sure that Conrad intended the title of his story to be ambiguous, I’d be embarrassed by how hard I’m finding it to write about the Darkness in the story. On the simplest level the title seems to simply indicate Marlowe’s trip to the interior of Africa on the river boat since Africa was know as The Dark Continent in his time. By extension, darkness seems to represent the wilderness, and, thus, the savagery associated with wilderness ( a connection I find difficult to make since I’ve always thought of wilderness as an idyllic escape from civilization and city life). But, ultimately, it’s the darkness of the human heart that seems his main focus.

We find all three levels at the very beginning of the novel as Marlowe begins his tale:

Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him-all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”

Though I think the novel has much more to do with the greed that drives colonialism than with war itself, conquest almost invariably plays a part in colonialism. Countries seldom willingly give up their most valuable assets without persuasion. It’s not without reason that Conrad compares Kurtz’s “trade” efforts with an invading army. Historically, armies have opened up new trade opportunities, or, in the modern era, ensured that trade companies’ interests are protected.

Such invasions seem as old as history itself. Military superiority has historically allowed one group to exploit another, less-advanced group. Such advances also allow people to imagine that they are superior to cultures without matching weapons, and, thus, somehow justified in exploiting them.

Though Marlowe sees himself merely as a boat captain, his trip up the river recreates Kurtz’s voyage, and many of the same feelings:

“Going up that river was like traveling 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. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.

And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.

It’s hard for me not to identify this with the feelings I had in Vietnam. I’d never seen a jungle before and knowing the Viet Cong controlled the jungles made them ominous. With barely a hundred yards between our tracks and the jungle, every night that jungle became “an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” It was our enemy as surely as the Viet Cong was our enemy.

These feelings are impossible to ignore, but the inner feelings they evoke are much harder to define:

The inner truth is hidden-luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for–what is it?

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.

Whatever feelings the jungle evokes, those feelings are inextricably linked to the natives who inhabit the jungle. Whether the jungle calls to or evokes a savage response is never quite clear (the inner truth is hidden-luckily, luckily), but the invaders’ response seems to be more savage than would be allowed in a “civilized” war. One wonders if Conrad could have held the same view if he’d written after World War II, as savage a war as I could imagine.

Kurtz, the very symbol of European civilization, responds with a savagery that goes far beyond anything Marlowe or his employers ever imagined:

These round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing–food for thought and also for vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned to the house.

“I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr. Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him–some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core . . .. I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.

Since it’s obvious that Kurtz was obsessed with ivory, it’s significant that Marlowe notes that there was “nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there.” In fact the manager argues that this violence has destroyed the trade potential of the district. What then has the wilderness whispered that had “proved irresistibly fascinating?” What was “wanting in him?”

The temptation is to blame what happened to Kurtz on the jungle, the wilderness, but Conrad seems to believe that his soul had gone mad because it had been alone in the wilderness and had looked within itself:

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 had–for my sins, I suppose–to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it–I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. I kept my head pretty well; but when I had him at last stretched on the couch, I wiped my forehead, while my legs shook under me as though I had carried half a ton on my back down that hill. And yet I had only supported him, his bony arm clasped round my neck–and he was not much heavier than a child.

For Marlowe, and, thus, Conrad, the key to Kurtz’s violent behavior seems to have been that his soul “knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear.”

Despite all he’s seen of Kurtz’s behavior, Marlowe still sees Kurtz as a “remarkable man”

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 to be. I was within a hair’s breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up–he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candour, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth–the strange commingling of desire and hate.

because he was able to see inside himself and see “the horror.” Though it’s never clear what Kurtz glimpsed, we are told it consisted of a “strange commingling of desire and hate.”

4 thoughts on “The Darkness

  1. So far, I don’t have a comment. Still thinking about “the heart of darkness.” As I re-read your post, though, I did remember images from the film “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” and the uneasiness I felt as I watched that film, which must have been based on Conrad’s book. I don’t remember how that film ended. Might be time to watch it again, now that I am much older and have a different perspective than I did when I was in my 30’s.

    Well. I guess I do have a comment (-:

    • I looked at that movie, am, and I’m not sure it’s based on Conrad’s story, but, strangely enough, I kept thinking about the Spanish Conquistadors while reading this story — that and America’s own Robber Barons.

  2. My website/blog is quite new…it’s at blogspot, posted through google, etc., but I don’t know the url!! I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts about Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I thought I would suggest a book of essays by Toni Morrison, called “Playing in the Dark,” in which she ponders the way dark and light are used symbolically in the writings of “white” western literature, and the way those symbols seem strange and inexplicable to her, a “dark” woman.

    • I’ll add that book to my Amazon Wishlist. If I live long enough, I might actually read all the books I’ve got waiting there, but I’m not making any promises.

      I also corrected your url link so that other readers can check your website out if they click through.

What do you think?