Sunday, 23 August 2015

Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad


Don't know about you but I suspect it's not possible to read Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness nowadays without thinking of Apocalypse Now. There are obvious differences, of course, the main one being Conrad's novel is set in Africa whilst Coppola's film is set in Vietnam/Cambodia but there are episodes in the book that are fully translated into the film such as, for example, when the boat is attacked by a volley of arrows and the helmsman is killed by a spear. When reading this part of the book it's difficult to not envisage the scene from the film.
Kurtz is obviously there in both book and film as is also the character as played by Dennis Hopper though there are differences. Conrad describes Kurtz as being extremely tall - at least seven foot to be precise - and obviously that doesn't put you in mind of Brando. Hopper plays his character almost exactly as Conrad wrote it except that in the book he's actually a Russian, dressed like some kind of harlequin figure.
The really interesting thing about Heart Of Darkness, however, is in the way that over time the meaning of it has been interpreted and re-interpreted.

Conrad based the book on his own experiences when working as a captain on a steamboat travelling up the Congo, so with this in mind it can easily be read exactly as it comes off the page with nothing between the lines. Whilst this might be the way to read non-fiction, Heart Of Darkness is absolutely a work of fiction and should be read as such with all the layers, devices, subtext, metaphors and multiple dimensions that any good novel can come loaded with.

A huge amount has already been written about Heart Of Darkness and there's no end of analysis of it on the Internet so is there any point in me adding to the confusion, I wonder? Have I anything particularly insightful to say about it where so many of much better education than I have failed?
Let's give it a go, shall we?

The pivotal point of the book comes with Kurtz on his deathbed uttering the words "The horror! The horror!" and this can be taken as the summation of his vision of life and the world as a whole or of a certain aspect of it. Whatever suits the reader, really.
Just as significant, however, is when the narrator, Marlow, sees the heads on the stakes outside of Kurtz's house and he thinks to himself: 'I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist - obviously - in the sunshine.'

If Heart Of Darkness is being read as a metaphor then time and place doesn't matter, hence it being successfully transferred in Apocalypse Now to 1970's Vietnam. So if this is the case then it can also be successfully transferred to our modern-day world as in, for example, the war in Iraq where over 500,000 people have died. Or to the civil war in Syria where so far over 210,000 people have died. Or to modern-day hunger and the fact that over 800 million people in the world don't have enough to eat. And so on and so forth.
These are the 'subtle horrors' that are barely considered by the majority of people yet are absolute realities.
The atrocities of Islamic State, the police killings of black people in America, the paedophilia of those in power in Britain; this is the 'pure, uncomplicated savagery' on full view 'in the sunshine'. The modern-day equivalent of Kurtz's heads on stakes. And in the book, the heads aren't facing outwards from Kurtz's house so as to serve as some kind of warning to others but are facing inwards, towards Kurtz's house...

Conrad ends his book with Marlow visiting Kurtz's fiancé so as to pass on some letters and when she asks him what Kurtz's last words were, rather than telling the truth he tells her the last word Kurtz pronounced was her name. It's a lie but Marlow feels the truth would be 'too dark - too dark altogether...'. He feels 'the horror' of Kurtz's vision is best left unmentioned and to let others remain oblivious of it, though ultimately he's unable to remain silent and ends up telling his story to fellow passengers on a boat on the river Thames, which is where the book begins.

Heart Of Darkness is claustrophobic, haunting, and grim but stands as a masterpiece of twentieth-century writing. If, as some academics have said that Conrad's intention was to expose the crimes of imperialism then the book does indeed do that but that's just one aspect of it. The power of Heart Of Darkness and what keeps it remaining a subject of academic discussion to this day is that for a book that deals almost exclusively in black and white with no grey areas in-between, its true intention and meaning isn't black and white in the slightest. Which means that all anyone can do is to read it themselves and draw their own conclusions from it.

So - sorry about this - but essentially if you've not done so already then you're just going to have to read Heart Of Darkness yourself one day...
John Serpico

'Read it myself? Oh, the horror, the horror..'

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