Monday, February 6, 2012

Heart of Darkness (1899)

     For some reason, I cannot seem to warm up to the writing style of Joseph Conrad.  It isn't just that he is obviously in love with the relationship between man and ship (or boat, if the waterway is too small to accommodate a ship), though having not been raised in the Victorian Age of the British Empire – or a contemporary witness to it – the Sea and its ways holds little mythic power over me.  It seems to be more in relation to his needing to spend too much time to make too subtle an allusion to the point he is desperately trying to make.  And like with "The Secret Sharer" (1910) – the short story that was bundled with Heart of Darkness (1899) in the Signet Classics book I purchased half a decade ago – Heart of Darkness spends too much time being about man and ship instead of the nature of man.
     That is not to say that Heart of Darkness is without point.  There is something pure in Conrad's exploration of the nature of colonialism, especially in Africa.  However, he wrote the story at the tail end of the 19th Century, before the machinery of real destruction could be brought to bear on the Dark Continent.  I read it in the 21st Century, after having taken a post-Colonial period Africa history class (taught by an honest-to-God African who was wounded in a civil war largely created by the actions of the English while lording over the locals).  The book is not going to mean the same thing to me that it would before the Colonial Period came to an end.  Add to that the fact that I have Apocalypse Now (1979) as a competing format of exploring the same concepts.
     Lets face it – the absurdity of a benevolent war is a far riper target than the criticism of treating Africans as property at the beginning of the 20th Century; I would wager most Europeans didn't regard the Africans as people, per se.  Having Colonel Kilgore herding scared villagers into an amphibious APC – a metal monster of sorts – while the announcement, in English, repeats that the US Army is there to return the people to the bosom of the government of South Vietnam.  For good measure, the Army is going to burn the village to the ground just to show how serious they are about saving the people.  That scene captures the madness of what is going on (for Apocalypse Now) better than anything Conrad could craft for Heart of Darkness.  Yes, he has Marlow describe disparate scenes that show how enterprise is not directed in a proper European fashion, but he seems to walk away from the underlying point so that he can ruminate more on boats.
     Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, isn't even really a character.  He is an objective.  There is no reason why Marlow comes to imagine him as a voice dwelling at a native temple upriver (but it is good imagery).  What is much worse, Kurtz's famous last lines – "The horror!  The horror!" – don't have nearly the depth of meaning that they should, and that is because there is no real interaction with the man.  Kurtz's story becomes lost in the fretting over a new breed of morality that may have taken root back in Europe and Marlow is seen in country as a threat of things to come.  But nothing is ever to come.
     There is something profound in the grave concern over the letters and such of Kurtz being tied directly to gaining access to his strategy to better exploit the region.  Conrad hints at what Kurtz had been up to – certainly it would not be an easy topic of conversation amongst the men who thought of themselves as civilized – but he doesn't let the terribleness of it sink in, immediately shifting focus to the effort to leave the area, and for Marlow to get back to London.
     Oftentimes I complain about how a movie will take excellent source material and ruin it because the writer(s) and director are sure that they (or he or she) can do better.  In the case of Apocalypse Now, I think John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola exceeded the source material.  That is not to ignore some of the indulgences of the film, or how it is essentially tied to the war instead of a prevailing view towards others who live on the land you want to despoil; Heart of Darkness is more timeless, but its understanding of its own underlying economy seems wanting.  Where Conrad does not give his Kurtz his due in explaining how he fosters a cult of personality, Apocalypse Now sets the stage so that there could be no other conclusion of Kurtz being cut-off from command.
     Okay, I'm aware that I am being a special kind of ass when I purposely conflate the novella and the film.  I would prefer the reason be that Conrad simply was unable to convey the true depredations and inhumanity of European colonialism (especially in the Congo), but it is much more likely that the imprint the film had on a much younger me predisposes me toward favoring it.  The Colonel sending soldier out to surf during combat speaks more of madness to me than the aimless blasting away at the cliff face or recklessness with material supplies of the novella.  Then again, the movie is from my culture.  It should speak directly to me.
     Of the literature I've read in the year and a half of the Reading Projects, Heart of Darkness was probably my least favorite (though it is nowhere near as difficult a read as Beowulf was).  I am certainly in no hurry to read any Conrad in the near future.  Still, I have heard good things about both The Inheritors (1901) and Nostromo (1904) – the former a collaboration with Ford Madox Ford, whose The Good Soldier () is currently on the to read list – so I cannot rule out more Conrad altogether.  But I do know that there is something in the style that doesn't sit right with me.  Maybe I have been spoiled by the short, strong, masculine sentences that Hemingway helped usher into fashion.

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