Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Horror, the horror!

"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there--there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you--you so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
It’s easier to tear down than to build up, and so it’s easier to criticize someone else’s writing than it is to actually write something better. There it is, in black and white, an author’s hours upon hours of work, sweat, and tears. It’s placing their heart and mind on a pedestal for others to swing a stick at for any minor malfeasance.
This is why I normally try to talk about books I recommend. I’ll point out flaws, but an honest review is better than hyping up something only to disappoint you when you read it. I read a vast amount of books I don’t end up reviewing at all because it would be merely me with a stick in my hand. Life is too short to waste it on reading books you don’t love, and my life is too short to waste it on blogging about those books.
This entry is an exception, because another thing I like to do is go over classic literature with new eyes. Classics are hard to do this with, because most of us—even those who haven’t read them—have an idea how we should feel about a book from what teachers or other sources have implied. One of the most “preconceived” pieces of literature I encountered in my education and critical readings was Heart of Darkness.
I was assigned this greatest work of Joseph Conrad in my British Literature II class, which I took before Brit Lit I, and was one of the first literature courses I took as a wide-eyed freshman. Unlike several of my classmates who had read Darkness in high school, I’d never even heard of Joseph Conrad. As people began discussing the story I felt as if I were jumping into the conversation mid-sentence, with no idea what had come before.
"...we knew we were fated, before the ebb began to run, to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences."
The story begins as a narrative inside a narrative. The unnamed narrator, along with a Lawyer and Accountant, are listening to a story being told by the “protagonist” Marlow, of how he started out in his career. Desiring to travel and explore from childhood, Marlow insinuates himself into a riverboat captain’s position, which has recently been freed up by reason of the previous captain being murdered by natives for trying to beat their chieftain to death over some dispute about hens. 
Marlow arrives in Africa and finds two strange worlds ominously juxtaposed: that of the bureaucratic, profit-hungry colonists, and that of the “savages.” He finds the ship he was supposed to captain is sunken and undergoing apathetic and slow repairs. While Marlow is stuck at this station he begins to hear the name of Mr. Kurtz, who by all accounts is a star agent of the company, is a genius, is high-minded, and will go far. Vague terms, with very little description of how Kurtz has exemplified any of these traits. (At the end of the book, even Marlow admits he never quite knows what Kurtz did, although by this he means he doesn't know what profession Kurtz technically had.) Another characteristic attributed to Kurtz is that he’s somehow a “new brand” of colonist, one of some sort of moral superiority that will civilize the natives.
Eventually the steamboat is repaired and Marlow finally gets on his way toward the Inner Station where Kurtz is manager. The further inland they travel, the more ominous the atmosphere gets: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” In other words, things are quiet...too quiet.
By this time Marlow had become so interested in this legendary Kurtz that meeting him seems to be the sole reason for this journey, rather than exploration or even a mere job. But while Kurtz has several stalwart followers who still believe in his superior intellect and morality, this facade is quickly ripped away before Marlow’s eyes. Being commissioned to write a report to the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs,” Kurtz begins with lofty ideals, but this quickly unravels to the conclusion “exterminate the brutes!” That was his theory and advice; in practice, Kurtz has set himself up as a god among the natives, tyrannizing surrounding villages, beheading “rebels” and putting their heads on stakes.
Kurtz himself is ill and half-crazed, angry at the ship’s arrival and convinced that this interferes with his great scheme for his little empire. Somehow, however, the charisma of his words still entrap Marlow into being strangely loyal to him. They attempt to take Kurtz back with them on the ship, back to civilization and to get medical care. But it is too late. Kurtz dies, with his famous last words, “The horror! The horror!” 
Marlow himself gets sick and barely survives to tell this tale. He returns to civilization and settles all of Kurtz’s business, submitting the report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs (with the last line removed), giving over papers to be published, and talking with a cousin of Kurtz’s who says Kurtz was really a musician at heart. At last Marlow sees Kurtz’s Intended, a woman of impeccable faithfulness and virtue, who even a year after her fiance’s death is still in deep mourning for him. Because of this naive devotion, Marlow finds himself unable to tell her the truth about Kurtz. Trying to comfort her, saying that Kurtz’s words will live on as a legacy, he finds himself trapped into telling her Kurtz’s last words. He lies, saying they were her name.
Now wasn’t that just an uplifting tale?
There are many different ways that Darkness is taught, but I get the sense that the way I was taught in my high-minded, well-informed class is one of the more common: That this story was an allegory of evil Western colonization, and that, at the first opportunity, white people quickly descend into megalomaniacal racist monsters.
While maybe this is essentially true, upon rereading it (because I had to in order to do justice to the plot for this blog) I think that interpretation is wildly over-simplistic. When we interpret Heart of Darkness in this manner, the danger is implying that being in close proximity with "natives" made Kurtz go "native" himself or at least triggered that latent darkness inside him.
There are a lot of other passing remarks that allude to race relations and other contemporary thoughts during this time, including the Kiplingesque “White Man’s Burden” opinion that “civilized” cultures are responsible for raising up their “savage” inferiors and teaching them to be civilized themselves. Another common belief that was hinted upon is the idea of missionary work to these peoples.  

Lastly, I specifically reread this story looking for light-dark, black-white words that might clue me into what the Darkness in Heart of Darkness actually stood for, and honestly there are so many various instances that there are way more arguments than a simple Darkness = Racism = At the heart of every white person is a racist. And, as my next entry will attest, to do so is almost a sugarcoating of the reality that inspired Conrad to write this story in the first place.

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