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Heart of Darkness - The Ex-Communicator

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December 30th, 2009


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10:20 am - Heart of Darkness
Over Christmas I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It's only about 100 pages long, and I really recommend it to anyone. It's well known as the inspiration for Apocalypse Now, though it's simpler and more direct than the film. It's set in the brutal regime set up by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century, which was the most exploitative of all European colonial powers. Here's some wikipedia for a quick summary of the situation.
The Congo Free State was a corporate state privately controlled by Leopold II, King of the Belgians through a dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine. Leopold was the sole shareholder and chairman, exploiting the state for rubber, copper and other minerals in the upper Lualaba River basin. The state included the entire area of the present Democratic Republic of the Congo and existed from 1885 to 1908, when it was annexed by the government of Belgium. Immensely profitable, the Congo Free State eventually earned infamy due to the brutal mistreatment of the local peoples and plunder of natural resources.

The Libertarian capitalist model of property as a relationship between an individual and material goods, unmediated by wider social obligation, can only exist at a frontier. The Congo was the most brutal expression of capitalism.
Villages who failed to meet the rubber collection quotas were required to pay the remaining amount in cut hands, where each hand would prove a kill. Sometimes the hands were collected by the soldiers of the Force Publique, sometimes by the villages themselves. There were even small wars where villages attacked neighbouring villages to gather hands, since their rubber quotas were too unrealistic to fill.
Along with Mark Twain, Booker T Robinson, and Bertrand Russell, Conrad set up the Congo Reform Movement to try to bring the regime to an end. This was eventually successful.

I wasn't going to write so much about the political context, but I got carried away.

Heart of Darkness is beautifully written, in Conrad's third language - he learned English in his twenties - bloody astonishing. Rather than the political message I have pursued here, it has an existential message. Conrad was influenced by Schopenhauer, who thought that all will and desire lead to suffering. The darkness that Marlowe - the protagonist - finds in the Congo, is a darkness that the Europeans brought with them. It is not in the African people, who are supposedly the savages, but within the savage greed of the Europeans, who express their unfettered wills, and thus the darkness within themselves.

As a nineteenth century novel the attitude to the black people of the Congo is mistaken, too patronising. Surely the local culture was just as complex as white society, but not understood or seen by the whites, but I think Conrad believes it to be a much simpler more childlike culture. Overall however his criticism is of colonialism, doing his best within the constraints of his time (IMHO). I think it is possible to read the racist language and thinking of the protagonist as a realistic reflection of what he is within his time.

The strong descriptive thread in the story is the beauty of the largely unexploited virgin forest, which is also a miasma of infection as far as the Europeans are concerned. Almost everyone is living on borrowed time, before they die of Malaria or Yellow Fever or something.

And the final thing I want to mention, which I think was very influential, is the way he leaves the worst horrors unstated. Obviously this was a reflection of the mores of the time, but it makes the whole story much more powerful. I think his style was taken on board by horror writers of the 20th century. For example, this sounds just like Lovecraft:
'This must have been before -- let us say -- his nerves went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites, which -- as far as I have reluctantly gathered from what I heard at various times -- were offered up to him.

I don't know why I haven't read any Conrad before, but this is a very good book.

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Comments:


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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:December 30th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
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I liked that book up until the moment when we actually met Kurtz. I've always felt Kurtz should have remained an unseen character.

I think Chinua Achebe has a long essay somewhere about the racist problem in the novel.
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From:communicator
Date:December 30th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
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Thanks I'll check that out.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:December 30th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC)
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It's called An Image of Africa; I can't find the text online but the wikipedia entry's here
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From:communicator
Date:December 30th, 2009 11:29 am (UTC)
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OK. Having read that I am inclined to disagree with Achebe's point. I think the novel portrays the African peoples as blank foils for the Europeans. Of course they were not blank before the invaders came, any more than the land was because the maps were. But I think the story is that the functioning society of the local peoples has been destroyed by European incursion - not that it is broken or savage to begin with, but that the Europeans have brought savagery with them. That was how I read it anyway. But of course I must read Achebe's work in full, and not judge him on a wikipedia summary.
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From:sheenaghpugh
Date:December 30th, 2009 12:10 pm (UTC)
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I think part of Achebe's gripe was precisely that it was all about Europeans, as if Africa were just some stage for them to act on. Of course Conrad would counter that that was the book he wanted to write and that Achebe was free to write the other one.
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From:dfordoom
Date:December 30th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
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Of course Conrad would counter that that was the book he wanted to write

I'd go with Conrad on that one. It's been a long while since I read it, but I seem to remember seeing it as more about the destructive effects of colonialism on the colonisers themselves. They find the heart of darkness within themselves. They're destroyed, morally and psychically. But it's a very very long time since I read it, so I may be quite wrong!
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From:happytune
Date:December 30th, 2009 03:36 pm (UTC)
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You /must/ read Things Fall Apart, which is in large part about the destruction of a functioning society. I have it - will bring it in next time I see you. Then read Looking on Darkness by Andre Brink. This issue about whites (including white Africans - see some excellent literary criticism of Nadine Gordimer who I like enormously) writing about pre-colonial and colonial societies is a strand that is explored in depth in the lit crit I've been exposed to as a white African. There's loads of thought-provoking stuff out there. Will dig it out!
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From:communicator
Date:December 30th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC)
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Thank you Of course this is something that you have thought about a lot. Have the visitors gone yet? I can't go anywhere at present, but do call by if you are coming back from the airport or whatever.
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From:happytune
Date:December 30th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC)
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They left this afternoon. As it is am heading down to Gloucester tomorrow - have seen a harp online that is looking pretty good. You still up for something after work with TW on the 4th? Can't wait to catch up with your holidays, and have SO much to bore you with. It was good to have the visitors, especially for SC, but between you, me and LJ I'm glad they've gone...
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From:communicator
Date:December 30th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
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the 4th, yes. I am going to a concert with H on Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, but if you want to meet up some other time over the weekend, then let me know.
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From:dfordoom
Date:December 30th, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
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don't know why I haven't read any Conrad before, but this is a very good book.

Read more Conrad!
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From:communicator
Date:December 30th, 2009 01:05 pm (UTC)
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Yes. I think I should go on to Nostromo next, in honour of Alien.
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From:dfordoom
Date:December 30th, 2009 01:07 pm (UTC)
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The Secret Agent is very good.

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