Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Heart of Darkness

I know what you’re thinking—finally, a relatively short post! Sometimes you need to keep things short and sweet—or in this case, sour. Before I dive into the book, let me tell you about the author. Joseph Conrad was orphaned at the meager age of eleven, losing both parents to tuberculosis. Of note, the name Conrad was penned when he began his writing career in 1894—an Anglican twist on his Polish middle name Konrad. He possessed an early knack for geography which translated into a maritime career in adulthood (undoubtedly influencing this novel). Throughout his life, his reticence masked a deep emotional struggle, culminating in a failed suicide attempt at the age of twenty. Somewhere, Albert Camus is rolling his eyes in his grave. He shot his chest like he wrote this book— well-intentioned but missing the mark a bit.

            I can totally see why people like it. It has several elements of a worthwhile book: ominous setting, mysterious plot, impressive syntax, ambiguous morality, and intriguing narration. Unfortunately, it was boring as hell. The story goes a little something like this: the main character, Marlow, recounts his experiences working for an ivory trading company stationed in Central Africa. He is generally taken aback by the workers he encounters, finding their greediness distasteful and their attitudes lazy. In the midst of it all, he often hears of an enigmatic Mr. Kurtz—the chief of a station nearby. When Mr. Kurtz falls ill, Marlow and his men must come to the rescue. The journey proves treacherous, as most sea voyages do, and upon arrival it is apparent that Kurtz has gone mad and is responsible for much of their trouble. Marlow is shocked by how Kurtz has utilized his power as the intrusive white man to manipulate the “savage” natives. In the end, the team successfully takes Kurtz with them, raining bullets on the natives in their departure. Kurtz dies on the ship, muttering his famous last words, “the horror! The horror!” (Conrad, 178).

            The most redeeming thing about Kurtz is that he’s honest about being a jerk. He doesn’t try and shroud his tactics of suppression and intimidation with fluffed-up imperialistic excuses. While Marlow is openly revolted by Kurtz’s methods, he is similarly at fault. He sees the Africans as a means to an end but in less overt ways. Hence Marlow’s ambivalent feelings towards Kurtz—he isn’t necessarily down with Kurtz putting the native’s heads on sticks but can sort of sympathize with the reasoning. Kurtz’s madness is merely one dot in the backdrop of a more widespread madness that drives dark, evil colonial endeavors. So, what truly constitutes barbarism? The natives, with their undisciplined, uncivilized culture…or their invaders, with their violent domination?

What the book boils down to: a semantically well-written commentary on darkness and its dehumanization. The African jungle-- bereft of sunlight. Mankind—bereft of the ability to truly see other humans, i.e. the failure to recognize the natives as individuals worth recognizing. That’s true and all… but hand me any history book and I can come to the same realization. The novel was pretty heavy. Not physically—it’s actually only 84 pages—but the content itself seemed burdensome. Most of the time, the impetus to pick it back up stemmed more from the sentiment that “I should read this because it’s a classic” or “I should read this because it’ll be good for me and I’ll learn something”… and not necessarily because of a genuine desire to read it.

I feel sort of bad shitting all over it because he’s a really good writer. I swear! At one point, he describes the sky as a “benign immensity of unstained light” while I’m all like, “yeah, the sky is blue like that ocean water drink at Sonic” (Conrad, 104). Clearly, this guy is quite sophisticated. But a storyteller? Not so much. This could have something to do with the fact that stories about life at sea generally put me to sleep. Unless there is some sort of man-eating water dragon or you throw Johnny Depp with dreadlocks into the mix, who cares about how the wind is affecting the sails or how the riverbank is shaped? All in all, I give the novel 2 out of 5 camel humps. I want to give it more because I know all of the symbolism and the metaphors are every English teacher’s wet dream but I can’t pretend to have enjoyed it just because I respect Conrad’s ability to write a pretty sentence.

*Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002. Print.

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