Heart of Darkness

This is a review of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

What presumption, to review at this date a classic like Heart of Darkness. Not only am I going ahead with a review, but I have the audacity to tell you I didn’t like it and why I can’t join the horde telling us how great it is.

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899. It is an indictment of the brutalizing effects of colonization on both the colonizers and the exploited peoples of the colonized country. Commentary on the book suggests that it is based on Conrad’s own experiences on the Congo, but the book itself is not so clear as to the journey’s destination. Instead, it intends to evoke any European/American exploitation of less “civilized” lands.

I put “civilized” in quote marks to make another of the points that Conrad was trying to make. He puts the whole story in the mouth of a narrator who is actually sitting with his shipmates at anchor in the Thames. The idea, we’re to suppose, is that the upper reaches of the Congo is no less civilized in reality than the homeland of the exploitative colonizers.

The whole book is the journey of the narrator to retrieve a company man far upriver, about whom rumors swirl. The savagery which we are wont to impute to the natives of that distant land are actually exceeded by the European, Kurtz, who has gone to live among them to exploit their labor and natural resources. Kurtz’s memorable last words were “the horror, the horror.” In a final sentimental overlay onto the reality of the savagery, the narrator lies to Kurtz’s widow in her mourning, telling her that her name was the last thing on Kurtz’s lips.

The story-line was appropriated in the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, set this time upriver in war-time Vietnam/Cambodia, with Marlon Brando as Kurtz. The war and its devastation is thus impliedly a parallel to the peace-time colonization of the 150 or so years preceding. The suggestion is that the Vietnam War was only a more concentrated version of European/American exploitation of indigenous peoples. If you saw the movie, you may remember the famous line of Ltc. Kilgore (Robert Duvall): “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

I could take issue with the whole anti-colonial stance. In retrospect, we have doubts about efforts to take civilization to parts of the world that seemed to the west to be less civilized. The brief against it is primarily the resentment it created, even if it did, in most instances, create more material well-being. In generations past, the validity of colonizing efforts was measured against western values, not against those of the indigenous peoples, and that was a mistake, on balance, even when well-intentioned. Missionary efforts would have been better confined to the spiritual mission, rather than attempting to export western values along with the Gospel.

But the harshness of Conrad’s criticism of colonialism is not my main criticism of his novel. This is my third or fourth time through the novel, and it seems as vague and moody and emotion-driven and murky as ever. I just don’t like the writing, even though I know that Conrad wrote this way for his purposes particular to this book. In his words, he sought to give the book

a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

Maybe he succeeded, by his own standard, but I didn’t like it.

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