The Horror! The Horror

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

This is another one of those books that I read back at university for my English subject. In fact it was one of the last books that we studied, and I must have taken an interest in it because I noted that I had underlined a few sentences that I found intriguing (or at least relevant to the course). Most of the time the last book of the year tends to get relegated to the 'I may or I may not' category because we are usually heading towards exam time and the last thing that we generally want to do is to learn something knew while at the same time we are trying to regurgitate everything that we had crammed into our heads over the year. However the novella captivated me – in fact it was one of the best stories that I head read all year (which is not really all that hard a feat since most of the books that we are forced to read for a subject tend not to be high on the 'I must read this because it looks awesome' list – they certainly weren't on mine).

Anyway, the story is about a ship's captain named Marlow who recounts a tale of a journey along down the Congo River (described in the book as being like a snake with its head in the ocean and its tale disappearing into the midst of the jungle) in search of the manager of a trading outpost named Kurtz (that is the manager, not the trading outpost). However, despite it being a story about a jungle trek into a wild and savage land it is certainly not an adventure story in the vein of King Solomon's Mines. In fact, my English lecture said that Conrad wrote this book as a reaction against the adventure novel and to challenge the romantic idea of exploring the heart of Africa.

To say that this book is beautifully written is an understatement, and for a work like this to have come from the pen of a man who had grown up in Russia and Poland, and spent much of his life as a merchant seaman, is astounding. In fact, it is quite surprising to see such a masterpiece come from somebody with a working class background, though as we read through this harrowing story, we can see that Conrad has drawn extensively upon his life at sea (though as far as I know he never actually made this trek, though he had travelled to quite a lot of exotic places).

Heart of Darkness is about the contrast between civilisation and savagery. At the opening, when Marlowe goes into one of the offices of the company who has hired him to seek out Kurtz, he makes a note of the map on the wall, commenting how glad he was to see that a bulk of the map had been coloured in red (representing the possessions of the British Empire). However this is contrasted in his description of the colony, where cliffs are being blasted for no particular purpose (though I would probably disagree, however Conrad is not necessarily discussing engineering requirements for the construction of a railway, but rather how technology is relentlessly destroying nature in a way that is not really required), and the starving natives being led around in chains, as if slavery was still alive and well. This picture is not a picture of civilisation, but one of savagery, and we haven't even entered the jungle yet.

However, the deeper we travel into the jungle, the more savage the environment becomes, not in the sense of the native population, but rather of nature itself. While the journey into the jungle may represent the attempt to civilise this savage land, what is really happening is that the land is turning its civilisers into savages. As it turns out Kurtz's response is not so much to civilise the inhabitants, but rather to 'exterminate all the brutes'. The pamphlet that he has been commissioned to write by the Society of the Suppression of Savage Customs, illustrates this with the bulk of it being a highly well written treatise only to reach the conclusion that the only solution is 'slash and burn'.

Yet are they travelling into a savage land, and what in fact is civilisation? I would suggest that civilisation is a place where we can feel safe, yet does this apply to us, or to everybody. The Belgiums were attempting to civilise the Congo (which never succeeded, because the Congo basin, even today, is far from being what one would consider safe – in fact it is one of the most dangerous areas in the world) yet in doing so they were destroying the land and enslaving the populace. While the Europeans were attempting to civilise the area, they were doing so with the barrel of a gun. As for the journey, yes they are attacked by natives, yet are the natives attacking the river boat because that is what they do – randomly attack things? Or are the responding in another way – namely defending their land against a foreign invader? I am sure if we were attacked by a foreign force we would pick up arms to defend ourselves, but would it not be the case that the foreigners would then label us as terrorists and insurgents who were fighting against freedom and prosperity? Was that not the situation in Iraq, when the insurgents began targeting the American occupiers, yet the media labelled them as terrorists?

Conrad seems to suggest that this will have an effect upon our mind, as is demonstrated with Kurtz's last words 'the horror, the horror'. Within his mind it was a war between civilisation and savagery, and by using savagery to impose civilisation, he was slowly becoming a savage himself. Is that not the case with most military occupations, that by becoming the invader, your mind begins to change, and that the human psyche is taken over by animal savagery? This can be seen with the events in Abu Graib, as well as Guantanamo Bay. While speaking out against torture and tyranny, they became torturers and tyrants themselves. Saddam would lock away political dissidents and brutalise them, yet the occupiers ended up doing the same thing, and while doing so they changed definitions so that we the viewing public could still feel comfortable and say 'at least we are not like them'.