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Why does Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ continue to cast such a fiendish spell on everyone who reads it?
By David Miller
Like some deeply bruised cloud hovering thunderously above a summer picnic, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness threatens us still, more than a century since its publication.
Few works have entertained, excited and troubled minds as much. It has inspired music – including a forthcoming opera by Tarik O’Regan – and spawned numerous radio, theatre, film and television adaptations, the most famous being Apocalypse Now. TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men did more for the work’s projection towards a readership, quoting the phrase: “Mistah Kurtz, he dead.” It infused Ronan Bennett’s The Catastrophist and haunts both John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener and The Mission Song. VS Naipaul and Graham Greene were swept up by it, as were Nick Davies in writing Dark Heart along with Sven Lindquist’s Exterminate All the Brutes, Michaela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, and Tim Butcher’s Blood River. This weekend, at the Festival Hall in London, there will be two five-hour readings of the book, complete with piano accompaniment.
What is it about Heart of Darkness that has this horrid hold on our consciousness?
Conrad’s novella takes place one night on a boat by the Thames, a mesmerising tale of one man’s search for another. Published in 1899, it sprang from his experience in the Congo nine years before. What became Heart of Darkness begins then, with Conrad noting the rapacious, violent nature of ivory-trading and colonialism. In July 1890 he spent day after day looking at decomposing bodies, skeletons tied to posts, men shot: he wrote, when a 13-year-old boy came in with a gun wound to his head, that he would be “glad to see the end of this stupid tramp”. The “tramp” went on, and Conrad watched men die, dreams end and, as his Congo journey came to its close, he noted in a letter: “I have lived long enough to realise that life is full of griefs and sorrows which no one can escape.” Afterwards, he was spent: there was a cost – weakened physical health and an exhausted mental state that would bubble up into breakdown 20 years later but which, a decade after, strangely became a defining work of our literature.
Conrad’s narrator Marlow tells some old friends how he went looking for Kurtz, a trader who has lost his values, murderously corrupted by his power over his subjects. Kurtz is lost to himself, as well as the girl he is betrothed to. He is lost to society and becomes the still point in an earning world where money and power are all. Marlow seeks Kurtz out and finds that all is corroded and corrosive. The journey ends with Kurtz’s death, and Marlow escapes the immediate aftermath to come home and visit Kurtz’s fiancée. When she asks what Kurtz’s last words were, Marlow tells a white lie, saying Kurtz spoke her name before he died. The words he actually uttered were his expression of what life is, what meaning is, and are four of the more potent ever written in English: “The horror! The horror!”
It is a simple tale, told with a startling, new complexity, full of digression and observation. Read today, it almost crackles with a sense of news. Here is a station manager:
“There was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy – a smile – not a smile – I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant.”
Not a bad description of YouTube’s Gordon Brown.
Yet there is more in the text – moments when, writing from an abyss, Conrad wrenches himself and his reader back to sanity: “The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage – who can tell? – but truth – truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder — the man knows, and can look on without a wink.”
Or again: “I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.”
Conrad’s novella has been raked over by scholars and other commentators. In 1975, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe voiced in a lecture about the book that Conrad was a “bloody racist” – a viciously dim observation about a Victorian Anglo-Pole writing in his third language who himself had begun to question colonialism. That moment propelled Heart of Darkness into being something not read for pleasure but something analysed and written about by the academic brigade. Since then more has been written about these 40,000 words than anything else Conrad penned.
Once experienced, it is hard to let Heart of Darkness go. A masterpiece of surprise, of expression and psychological nuance, of fury at colonial expansion and of how men make the least of life, the novella is like a poem, endlessly readable and worthy of rereading. Academics need write nothing more about it for another century. It should be handed back to readers simply to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Conrad composed a book where we see ourselves, darkly. Its relevance echoes forever, fizzing with understanding us then and there, and here and now, written for us all to live with today, whenever ”today’’ will be www.telegraph.co.uk
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