Winston's Reviews > Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
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Feb 06, 11

Kurz's final utterance “the horror, the horror”, in its unvarnished despair, underscores the ambiguity of Conrad's inexplicable darkness. Kurz, the god man, is never fully revealed in the Congo's impenetrable wildenerness and the mystery of his ambitions or motivations; in death's final possession, only that primeval emotion affirms any materiality to his existence. It is this dark ambiguity to which some elusive form is given by Kurz's shadows of words and impressions (who “couldn't write a bit – but heavens! How that man could talk!), whose substance was faith and the power to “get himself to belive anything” (a precient commentary on post 9/11 politics, with allusions to Kurtz's “extremist” leanings and his demagogical propensity to lead any political party).

Conrad's darkness may be less a metaphor for evil than ambiguity and the futility of meaning. As the narrator Marlow reflects, “Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.” Kurz embodies that magic of rhetoric to impart hope and purpose to his fellows and himself – ephemera at best, that “the most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late - a crop of unextinguishable regrets”.

Conrad imbues in Kurz the political confusion of colonial Europe, eager to exploit wealth and fame, yet probably guilty or proud to admit the untamed darkness of its civilisation. The ambition revolves around the “unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression”, a “hollow sham”; Kurz is described as sometimes being “contemptibly childish”, seeking profit and the recognition of his ability, but taking care of the “motives – right motives – always”. (Another penetrating commentary on contemporary colonial politics exemplified by American violence in the cause of democratic freedom.)

The ambiguous darkness permeates the heart of nature and humanity, and frustrates any attempt at meaning, order or purpose. The White Man's Burden to tame and civilise the jungles and “hearts of wild men” is vanity, first destesting the incomprehensible, then falling into “fascination of the abomination”, exposing the dark heart of civilisation to be no more than “robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale” perpetuated by “men going at it blind”, ironically, as it is “very proper for those who tackle a darkness”; a murderous racism “redeemed” by an “unselfish belief in the idea”.

Kurz, the “emissary of pity”, the “guidance of the cause intrusted by Europe”, loses his very “singleness of purpose” in the midst of pillage. The substance of his “horror” is never intimated. Was Kurtz confronted by the futility of his intended purpose to civilise the dumb savage (“each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing” - yet another comment on the ruthless futilty of market economics and efficiencies in today's amoral consumerism?) and his unbridled greed and descent to violence that exposed the roots of his own savagery, concealed from the presumed enlightenment of his intellect? Or was he frustrated by his failure as saviour to defend the savage kingdom he had delivered into order, thwarted by the greater encroaching darkness of his own kind? In the darkness of his own heart, he could have realised that “we live, as we dream, alone”; Marlow alludes early in his narrative that “it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence,- that which makes its truth, its meaning”. Man's impenetrable self, the hollow abyss of disconnection, Marlow shields from Kurtz's fiance (his “Intended”), lying (as much as he attested to hating lies) that her name was what Kurtz last uttered. Marlow give voice to the isolation of every man in the heart of his existence: “I don't like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work,- the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know.”

In the hidden depths of the human soul (the 'id'?) rest the potential for an unconstrained freedom that defies reason, the fear of which sublimates into attempts to subjugate external reality - a visible darkness “monstrous and free” in the Congo. Horror was not instilled by the apparent inhumanity of these savages, but the very “suspicion of their not being inhuman”, which thwarted repression of the unknown and unleashed inner realities of “kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”, forcing one to “admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages could comprehend”.

In the heart of darkness lies a truth that can only be faced with a “deliberate belief”, not espoused principles, sentiments or acquisitions. Savegery and civilisation are illusory distinctions in the harsh light of scrutiny; the European colonisers were motivated by the violent greed of a benevolent civilisation, while the dignified savages exercised equal restraint of their impulses in their unbridled freedom (Marlow cites the case of cannibals on his steamer who could have overwhelmed their European masters in their hunger, but did not). Kurtz represents this moral collapse; he, the product of European civilisation and social retraint, once loosed in the wild Congan jungle without police or the judgment of his civilised society, soon forsakes the altruistic argument that “we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at,... can exert a power for good practically unbounded” for the blank exhortation to “exterminate the brutes!” and open rebellion against his own kind, seeking refuge among the brutes he hated and yet couldn't leave. Kurtz had become the ego fractured by the unfettered freedom of the primitive impulse ('id') and the repressive restraints of a flawed morality ('superego') and “magnificent eloquence”; “the wildenerness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance.” The wilderness elicited his primitive self, “whispered to him things about himself he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude”. Away from the social and moral structure of his civilisation, he had succumbed to the brutality, sef-gratification and degradation of his soul, deprived of faith and fear, yet “struggling with itself”.

The god man, in seeking to be an absolute god, was driven to madness by the dark void of his soul and empty beliefs of his own construction.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Josh (new) - added it

Josh Ang When so much can be said of a slim volume like this book, I am stoked to pick it up again to partake of its richness - and I'll try to savour it this time =)

Winston Haunting, to say the least, and lingers long after it is read. A slim volume that has much to say indeed, so much so that I cannot but let it speak for itself, hence the copious quotations!

Tsung Wei Very profound review. Even more erudite than the text itself! But do you think there may be too many metaphors or themes imbued into this story? I think the author's intention, his intended audience and the historical context of the story are important in the understanding of it. Conrad was a seaman before embarking on his second life as a writer. My guess is that he is more of an observer than philosopher, his text more literal than metaphorical. His other novels might give more clues but I haven't read them.

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