Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Who is the savage?

Marlowe, a young Englishman seeking his fortune, accepts a position as riverboat captain for a Belgian ivory exporting concern. His journey to the interior of the African continent is arduous, lengthy, surrounded by all encompassing growth of the jungle. The natives he encounters have filed teeth and scarifications, content with cheap beads for salary. The whites cling to their starched linens and dream of riches. Along the way Marlowe hears admiring tales of the company’s most effective station master, Kurtz, who brings in more ivory than all the others combined. On the way to Kurtz’s compound, the ship is attacked by arrows. Soon Marlowe discerns that those are not fenceposts surrounding Kurtz’s house – those are severed heads. Kurtz has made himself into a god. The river boat returns the dying Kurtz to civilization. Marlowe makes a special trip to visiting Kurtz’s fiancĂ©, lying to her about the final words on Kurtz’s lips.

The set up reminded me of the set up of The Turn of the Screw: a story inside of a story – like the Decameron. A group of people gathered together, one of them with a spooky yarn. I admire the structure, skillfully beginning with the image of the lonely Roman soldier in the wilderness, the savage Celts hiding in the grasses. A lot of this story takes place in the dark. Delaying the entrance of Kurtz nearly to the very end is also effective. And the descriptions of the river and its banks (both in England and Africa) are simply beautiful. Finally, as in James, some of the scenes are truly scary – the fog surrounding the boat – the natives screaming on the shore.

The only “normal” sensibility here is the world of the white man. White women are deluded, living in their sentimental bubble. Marlowe starts with the starry eyed maiden aunt and ends with the completely deluded “My Intended.” Marlowe realizes what he truly encounters is folly. The Europeans have great plans that come to naught when faced with the remoteness, the heat, the completely different orientation. The silliness of the French gunboat firing into the foliage. The ineffectiveness of the European guns, of the European consciousness in making a dent in the mysterious fecundity which is Africa.

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