"Oh, these months! Well, never mind. Various things happened. One evening a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don't know what else, burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash. I was smoking my pipe quietly by my dismantled steamer, and saw them all cutting capers in the light, with their arms lifted high, when the stout man with moustaches came tearing down to the river, a tin pail in his hand, assured me that everybody was 'behaving splendidly, splendidly,' dipped about a quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail.
"I strolled up. There was no hurry. You see the thing had gone off like a box of matches. It had been hopeless from the very first. The flame had leaped high, driven everybody back, lighted up everything - and collapsed. The shed was already a heap of embers glowing fiercely. A nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly. I saw him, later, for several days, sitting in a bit of shade looking very sick and trying to recover himself: afterwards he arose and went out - and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again. As I approached the glow from the dark I found myself at the back of two men, talking. I heard the name of Kurtz pronounced, then the words, 'take advantage of this unfortunate accident.' (pp. 33-34)
Oftentimes, we can read a terribly moving work of literature at the wrong time in our lives. For many of us, works such as Joseph Conrad's 1898-1899 short novel Heart of Darkness contain no power to move or to sicken us because several of us have not experienced privations and depravity of that scale or have witnessed it being done at the most brutal and personal of levels. Some never bother revisiting those works to see just why they have been pushed upon us so ardently by our literature teachers and professors. Yet sometimes, for some of us at least, we get that urge to revisit our classics assignments and to review with a more mature perspective these works. For myself, my recent re-read of Conrad's most (in)famous work was an illuminating experience.
The passage I quote above, taken from around the two-thirds mark of the first chapter, is representative of several of this story's themes. Set in the deepest, darkest Congo (how fraught with negative connotations the words "deepest, darkest" are today) during the time of Belgian King Leopold II's brutal personal operation of that so-called colony, Heart of Darkness deals with our own reluctant confrontations with our most sinister desires and insensitive actions. Yet for some, these insidious forces are so pervasive that they see even in the author himself the most callous of disregard for the African tribes who are brutalized and marginalized both during this time and within the novel itself.
The story opens on an autobiographical note: the narrator, Marlow, is commissioned to sail up the Congo to search for the missing Kurtz (Conrad once had to do something similar during his time as a crewmember). As Marlow searches for evidence of Kurtz's wereabouts, he uncovers several chilling scenes such as the one above. Ultimately, Heart of Darkness becomes not a quest to find a lost white man but rather an ambiguous exploration of the cavalier brutality endemic during the aftermath to "the Scramble for Africa." Time and time again, Marlow emphasizes the surroundings yet pauses when he comes to narrating what he witnesses. The shack may be on fire, vividly described, yet only "A nigger was being beaten near by. They said he had caused the fire in some way; be that as it may, he was screeching most horribly." serves to show the human impact of this event. An African, so reduced to the contemptuous "nigger," beaten like a dog so there would be someone to blame for the fire, before the wilderness swallows him whole.
This scene, among others, often is cited as evidence of Conrad's own racist tendencies. Although I do not subscribe to Chinua Achebe's interpretations of this story, what is striking is just how more powerful and chilling such scenes are because of the evilness with which we have now endowed the epithet of "nigger." Such an ugly term that degrades whole cultures, reducing a spectrum of cultures and civilizations to a single surface layer of skin. Perhaps Heart of Darkness has become even more meaningful for us during the past fifty years because of the ugliness with which we see that insulting word.
Yet if Heart of Darkness were only about man's inhumanity toward men, it would not be as enduring of a work across the globe. One writer, I forget whom, argued once that the vast majority of SF, particularly that of the New Wave era, would not be possible without the existence of Heart of Darkness. There is something to that. J.G. Ballard's more famous works, including his early novel The Drowned World, owes much to the psychological tensions inherent in Marlow's recounting of what he witnessed as he traveled up the Congo. Kurtz himself, although he practically has no screen time, lurks as a quasi-human, quasi-monstrous presence through this novel. Sometimes the Devil appears before us without his horns and when he dares to show them, we become aghast at him...and at our own follies.
Conrad's prose is eloquent without obfuscating the thematic thrust of this story. His portrayal of the horrors which Marlow experiences are done deftly, leaving just enough gaps here and there for us to plug ourselves into those horrific moments. Marlow's narration, long as it seems in places, serves to ease us into the situation, creating a model which future writers would follow in outlining traumas experienced. Although some of the narrative elements are a bit antiquated or downright offensive to some, on the whole Heart of Darkness contains a terrible power to it that forces us to consider (or reconsider) just how we live and are. Highly recommended.