Friday, January 10, 2014

Review of Heart Of Darkness

Heart Of Darkness didn’t live up to the hype for me. I got far more out of a study of the themes, background, and historical significance than I did out of an enjoyment on the first read. There were quite a few outstanding lines, but the narrative is maudlin and slow. I’m sure it was very progressive for its time in provocative content and style, especially for tying in psychological observation and analysis, and I’m sure that’s why even its form, which now has been repeated and surpassed, is so appreciated by many to this day. It is one of those books which I believe now belongs, stylistically at least, to early 20th century literature, although the message is still going strong.

In it, Conrad called out European colonialism, narcissism, and conventional morality for what it was: an arrogant illusion of sanity and progress. Heart Of Darkness was a mordant accusation against western modernism which pretended to be able to tame what is wild in humanity and what is unknown in the universe. It shows how flimsy is our pretense of appearing to be in control and in ‘the know’. We aren’t. We will always be far from understanding the universe if only by virtue of the fact that we are ‘in’ it, and cannot distance ourselves far enough from it and ourselves to achieve complete comprehension of our situation. We are thralls to mystery and the eternal unknown within which we lie buried, and which will forever expand itself through the cosmic wormhole running straight through the center of our being.

Conrad uses this novella as a set-up for exploring the dark and cognitively unassimilated parts of our psyche and existence, and this is what he calls the “Fascination Of the Abomination.”

“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…”

What we can’t understand, what we can’t fathom, fascinates us, draws us; and yet it is deep within us the inescapable and uncharted territories of the human soul and unconscious mind. The civilized person recoils at the thought of the natural world as an untamed force, but Conrad takes us far inland, into the jungle, where large-framed pictures can’t hide the holes, and aerosol disinfectants can’t mask the rank, bacterial growth of the inhumane, intractable, and inscrutable features of Nature.

What can save one from despair in the face of this abominable incomprehension? Conrad mocks the pseudo-answers of habits and custom. “Mind, none of us would feel exactly like this [lost]. What saves us is efficiency—the devotion to efficiency.” This idea of custom as the salve to our angst is echoed later in the play by Beckett, Waiting For Godot, who wrote that “habit is a great deadener” which stifles thoughts and questions about life’s meaning which cause us distress. The great unknowns of 1) foreign minds and powers in the universe that threaten to cause one harm, and 2) the post-modern search for the purpose and meaning of life, may appear like two different things, but each one causes a certain amount of anxiety, and  both are responded to by developing methods and customs that help us feel like we belong and have a handle on things. An interesting moment in the narrative comes when Marlow comes across a book in a shelter in the dark, usurping jungle which was written on the banal subject of nautical methods; and finds that the “singleness of intention” and “honest concern for the right way of going to work” makes him “forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real.”

The whole point of this story is for the sailor in Conrad to pistol-whip his safe, landlubber-readers with the question: how thin is the so-called ‘veneer of civilization’? He exposes culture as a thin coating which peels in the heat of privation and conflict, and quickly flakes away leaving only the real, bitter, and irreducible ‘hungers’ of the carnal instincts. “No [moral] fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze…It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition of one’s soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true.” His infrared scope identifies the vital organs for the kill when he refers to modern man as “stepping delicately between the butcher [food] and the policeman [safety].” Shot through the heart, and Conrad’s to blame!!

There certainly appears to be some Victorian misogyny and probably some racism infecting the fin de siècle psychical baggage Conrad carries with him, but I do agree with Joyce Carol Oates who wrote in the introduction that he was much more advanced than others in is era, and did much to bring to consciousness the shortcomings of European imperialism and bias. Specifically he challenged the moral-spiritual squalor of Victorian decorum and opulence, and the tendency of Europeans to believe that they were morally superior to the rest of the less developed parts of the world by right of privileged birth and by dubious evidence of material success.

Conrad was intrigued with the contrast between the bewitchment of the untamed wild (the “fascination of abomination,” and the “horror” of Mr. Kurtz), and the cavalier complaisance of domesticated and dissociated society (European greed, and the melodrama of Mr. Kurtz’s fiancée). As an author he may have been experimenting with the idea of how to get back to the raw primordial forces of nature and the unconscious without sacrificing the discipline and stability of reason and community. The Wild is not as safe as it is powerful. “I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity [the dark jungle] looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace… Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?” And in the end, Marlow returns to his society, to his people and his customs and his habits. As if nothing ever happened.  But the spectacle of his conscious duplicity is made very explicit in his final conversation with Kurtz’ fiancée-widow which caricatures the European attitude so wonderfully and magnifies Conrad’s disgust for upper-class theatrics and hypocrisy. A year after Kurtz’s death his engaged is still melodramatically woeful about her loss. She practically swoons all over the place in front of Marlow boasting of Kurtz’s fine modern ideals and righteous superiority, and begs of Marlow to corroborate her convictions about her husband’s worth.  Marlow watches her histrionics and finally decides to play to them. Instead of revealing to her that he saw the transmogrification of Kurtz and had witnessed his final words in which he acknowledged the deep and writhing darkness that is life—“Horror! Horror!”—he instead dumbs down the climactic ending of Kurtz and tells instead that he died whispering her name to the very end. Isn’t that nice. But he’s shocked and obviously disappointed that the ceiling doesn’t cave in on him, or more importantly, on anyone else for lying the civilized lie of hypocrisy and egocentrism. “The heavens do not fall for such a trifle.”

Did Conrad desire a peeling away of civilization’s mask, and a return to the freedom, mystery, and power of the wild in some sense? Yes and no. I think he saw in it, as did many modern psychologists and philosophers, a raw, unharnessed force that could potentially help to enhance creativity and vigor; or it could be very destructive. Mr. Kurtz went feral, to his own demise and to the demise of others around him, but he successfully escaped the cheap substitute of being a decent citizen which couldn’t quite satisfy the primal instinct for adventure, mystery, and power. Then again, he killed and died. So, there’s that. Tipping the scale either way brings extreme ennui, angst of meaninglessness, suffering, or death.
And for anyone who doesn’t know, anything Conrad can do, London can do better, and with less words. Jack London wrote The Call Of the Wild and The Sea Wolf on this same topic, and his authorial execution of the ‘return to the wild’ theme, which was his specialty, is much more muscular and sportive in nearly all of his works. Conrad is much more wordy and formal in his narrative, while London lets loose with a cunning, creativity, and pompous confidence that makes his words cut to the quick and soar above careful writers like Conrad.

Search your feelings Luke. You know it’s true. Just my humble opinion. But I’m right.

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