Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Short Take: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Reactions vary to Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about the depravities of colonialism in the Belgian Congo. The common take--which has made it a mainstay of high-school and college literature classes--is that the book is an atmospheric, richly written examination of the potential for evil in us all. But one may find it an exercise in portentous obscurantism, and the prose laughably pompous and overwrought. The larger point, essentially a reiteration of Nietzsche’s “gaze long into the abyss, and the abyss gazes also into you,” seems more imposed on the material than effectively dramatized. The story follows ship captain Charlie Marlow as he undertakes a steamboat mission up the Congo River. He has been charged with finding (and hopefully rescuing) the ivory trader Kurtz, a company up-and-comer who is highly regarded by their employers. Conrad’s critique of colonialism has some powerful moments, such as Marlow’s encounter with the “grove of death,” a copse at a company trading station where several native African workers, exhausted and starving, have been left to die. And there are gripping adventure set pieces, such as the scene in which the steamboat, caught in a fog bank, comes under attack from a wilderness tribe. These scenes work because Conrad shows rather than tells. The book falls down because he too often does the opposite. The biggest failure is with the depiction of Kurtz, who is an explicit symbol of Western civilization brought low by the amorality of conquest. Conrad attempts to render Kurtz’s virtues by portraying others’ admiring views of him, but if one isn’t inclined to see charisma as a necessarily positive trait, it falls flat. The reader isn’t made to feel what makes Kurtz a "remarkable" individual, and so his descent into evil carries little weight. His death’s-door epiphany--“The horror! The horror!”--is memorably ominous, but it’s ultimately too vague. Hinting at profundity doesn’t make something profound. One’s immersion in the story isn’t helped by the overblown, gratuitously tony language. Lines such as “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention” are both ridiculously pretentious and meaningless. The book comes off like a lot of metaphysical gravy getting poured on a thin slice of meat. Conrad’s later works, such as Lord Jim (also featuring Marlow) and The Secret Agent, seem far more substantial and disciplined.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to compare that to Booth Tarkington 's first book published in 1899 as well, " The Gentleman From Indiana."