NB: This is something I wrote for the Signal Express; the original link can be found http://thesignalexpress.com.au/archives/2359. Hope you enjoy it 🙂
If you’ve ever listened to the voice of the dormant English professor in the back of your head telling you to read more and decided it was time to research lists of the ‘Greatest Books ever Written’, you’d find most list Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness somewhere near the top. Set in the heart of the African Congo during the era of European colonisation, it follows the story of the enigmatic protagonist Charlie Marlow as he works for a Belgian trading company, transporting ivory downriver.
Before I delve into the plot of Heart of Darkness, I would just like to note that the novella was written over one hundred years ago. Compared to many of the action-packed page-turners of today, Conrad’s ‘masterpiece’ may at first read as if it were written in Polish and put through Google Translate fifteen times. It lacks guns, magic, romance and even seems to lack a plot. So why is it considered one of the greatest books ever written, and part of the Western canon?
You’ll have to read on to find out.
The story begins with a number of men sitting on a yawl (a kind of boat) on the River Thames, Charlie Marlow among them. He is the only one of them still a sailor – the only one who “still followed the sea”, the anonymous narrator informs us. Marlow then begins to tell his friends a story about a job he had taken in the past, which brought him to the heart of Africa.
Working for a company known simply as ‘The Company’, Marlow’s official job was to transport ivory via steamboat. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Not quite. Heart of Darkness is set during the Imperial colonisation of Africa, a time during which White people were aiding in the ‘civilisation’ of the Africans. The distinction here is clear – the European imperialists considered themselves superior to the ‘uncivilised’ and ‘savage’ native African. As Marlow travels deeper and deeper into the Congo, he sees external signs of this distinction: agents of the European Company are seen commanding chain-gangs of overworked natives, with brutality and cruelty never too far away.
To add to this, Marlow quickly hears about an idealistic man named Kurtz, who pulls in “more ivory than all the other agents combined”. A lone Russian Trader describes him as a man who has “enlarged his mind”, but generally Kurtz is shrouded in enigmatic mystery until Marlow arrives at his station to learn that Kurtz is, essentially, a man who has gone insane.
Having convinced the natives he was some kind of god, Kurtz reveals himself to us as someone who has immersed himself in an incredible darkness and savagery. He leads brutal raids on the surrounding territories, engages in “unspeakable rites” and sacrifices and there are drying heads on stakes around his house. Even the natives fear Kurtz, but Marlow and his crew decide to take him on board and depart back towards the mouth of the Congo. Once on board, though, Kurtz becomes progressively more ill, and Marlow is both fascinated and repulsed by him.
So what makes this book the masterpiece that it is? In short, its ideas. Many have considered Heart of Darkness an exploration into the nature and depths of the darkness and evil within each and every one of us. The natives of Heart of Darkness are considered savages, yet in many ways they are no more brutal nor cruel than the supposedly civilised imperialists. Kurtz is portrayed as a man who has embraced the darkness inherent in humanity instead of wearing the façade of civilisation that the rest of us wear, but at the same time he is described as a “remarkable” person who gathers many admirers.
But does a novella like Heart of Darkness have any other place in the world apart from gathering dust on an English professor’s bookshelf, or to torture literature students? A hundred years ago, it may have been considered popular reading, but culture, like fashion, changes quickly. As a purely academic endeavour, reading Heart of Darkness is like eating a buffet of foreign delicacies – it can be overwhelming, and you may not initially know why the food you’re eating is considered a delicacy, but after you’ve digested it, you can begin to appreciate it. However, compared to many popular novels of today (read: page-turning bestsellers), Heart of Darkness can be described in one word: boring.
Is this sentiment a result of how our culture has progressed from intellectually heavy and rewarding material to the lower-brow obsessions of today? Perhaps. With the progressive introduction of newer technologies we have become increasingly able to access more and more content far more quickly than ever before. As a result, the content that now constitutes our culture needs to be able to grab our attentions and satisfy our entertainment urges more than ever before. Effectively, our entertainment has become instantly gratifying and insanely amusing, but relatively lacking in intellectuality.
Take the continuation of a show such as Jersey Shore, and the discontinuation of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Jersey Shore emphasises elements such as women getting punched by drunken men, a partying lifestyle and the size of particular male cast members’ abdominal muscles. These elements are amusing and attention-grabbing, and allow us to entertain a notion of superiority. But they do nothing for our minds.
On the other hand, Whedon used his space drama Firefly to explore ideas such as human fallacy and the fact that “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today”. Consider the depth of a discontinued show such as this alongside the success of arguably less intellectual shows such as Jersey Shore.
Maybe, in the world of modern technology with its endless amount of ever-present stimulation at our fingertips, only the most interesting, attention-grabbing content survives. If a supermodel walked into your room right now, it’s likely your attention will shift towards him/her, and the conclusion of this article will remain unread. Although this article could provide some form of insight, the supermodel is surely a more attractive focus, and perhaps the same thing is happening in our culture today.
So instead of watching the next episode of Jersey Shore, perhaps it’s time to pull out dust off your copy of Heart of Darkness.