Jeff's Reviews > Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
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Jul 06, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: re-read
Read in May, 2011

For a few days after the U.S. finally managed to assassinate Osama bin Laden (1957-May 2, 2011), I felt like I really ought to write down my feelings about it, about vengeance, about the United States and its culture and its place in the world, about the young terrorists who so screwed my country up ten years ago, about my conflicted feelings about it all. It was a little too difficult; it was hard to even chat with friends and family about everything. The moment passed. I didn't have the energy to rage at the world about such a trivial thing as another dead horrible person.

But somehow I felt inspired to dust off an old copy of Heart of Darkness and see how it struck me as an adult. I can't exactly describe the connection between the two things, but it was definitely not a coincidence.

I had actually read Heart of Darkness a couple of times before, once in high school (senior year AP English?) and once in college, a year or two later. I adored it then. Along with Candide, it was one of the most influential books I read in high school, and had some impact on my overall worldview.

Obviously, I hadn't forgotten it over the years, but I didn't remember it with much precision. Re-reading after fifteen years or so, I was a little less impressed. It's kind of a clunky read, and the symbolism is a little over the top. In 1902, there was no such thing as FOX News or MSNBC, no Jon Stewarts or Glenn Becks, but there were plenty of savvy partisans who must have rolled their eyes at this book, which is only a hair short of being outright anti-colonialist propaganda. The section where the French man-of-war fired its guns ineffectively into the African shoreline is a classic moment where my modern ear just hears the howls of protest from the imperialists, the "oh, come on!"

But I am an anti-imperialist and also a believer that literature -- though political -- need not be partisan. And I still really like Heart of Darkness. And maybe the world really needed anti-colonialist propaganda in 1902!

The plot makes a little less sense than I remember, but the context is even more powerful to me now than it was when I was a teenager, now that I have grown so used to endless pointless warfare. I think where the novel falls short is in its lack of real depth. There are hints of grandeur in the story of Kurtz, the administrator who had so much potential. But only the barest hints. Heart of Darkness doesn't measure up to Moby-Dick, which explored a lot of the same territory with greater sophistication. Its treatment of the human soul, with its capacity for creating "the horror, the horror," is shallow. But its dreamy atmosphere and powerful indictment of the Belgian Congo (conveniently not any of the English colonies) are still pretty captivating.

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