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Heart of Darkness and Cultural Decline

heart-of-darkness

 

Heart of Darkness and Cultural Decline

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.

Gone

Just a love story I wrote.
 
The rain pattered against the top of the restaurant’s roof, and as she sat on the stool, her right leg crossed over her left, one hand on her thigh and the other cradling a glass of champagne, she imagined that someone up in Heaven was gently tapping on the ceiling as if it was a piano. Somewhere in the place a string quartet was gently performing a haunting Baroque piece, their performance nearly being drowned out by the sound of ordinary people conversing about their mundane lives between mouthfuls of chicken as their knives and forks clinked against their glass plates. The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, thirty at the most, but there was something in the way that she sat alone, her back against the bar, her eyes scanning the room and watching everyone else around her that hinted at the existence of a deep dissatisfaction with the essence of her life. Her hair was the colour of dark chocolate with a streak of blue in the side; her eyes were soft as grey pearls. She wasn’t particularly outstanding in any way – one could criticize all manner of things about her appearance – but oftentimes it is not a physical perfection that draws one human being to another in the way that I found myself drawn to her. This was not the primal lure of a particular body shape or a particular shaping of the nose, no. It was too dignified an attraction for that, too intellectually and spiritually encompassing to be simply the result of a haphazard, tardy lust. Glancing at her from the corner of the room, I knew that she was the one for me. That she was the perfect, faultless girl with whom my life would suddenly become infused with a meaning that I had never previously realized.
 
I placed my empty glass on a table before glancing back at her. She was still analyzing the room when our eyes locked for the briefest of moments. Although it could not have been more than half a second, the twinge of electricity which shivered down my spine during that time solidified my certainty that she was the perfect girl for me. I knew that fate lands her hands once, and once only, so grasping the moment, I maneuvered around the restaurant’s patrons and before long I was standing less than half a meter away from her face. Up close, she was pretty and not unremarkable, but if you were to ask me to describe something about her face, or her clothes, or her hair that really stood out, I would be at a loss for an answer. Her eyes were now gazing at me and her eyebrows were raised slightly. I opened my mouth – what was the best thing to say? Was I to comment on grand subjects such as philosophy? No, that would be unfitting for the situation. Maybe tell her some story about my life that she could find interesting? No, small talk would be defeating my purpose. Perhaps the best thing to do was to tell her outright that she was the perfect girl for me… but I convinced myself against it. It would only seem strange and eccentric.
 
“The music is good here, isn’t it?” I found myself saying. The girl blinked. 
“Yeah, I guess.”
I was about to reply when she cut me off.
“I’m waiting for someone. I’m hoping they’ll be here soon.”
“Oh,” I began, “well, I hope you enjoy your night.”
And that was the end of our conversation.
 
As I was walking towards the exit of the restaurant, I realized exactly what I should have said. It was a story about a boy and a girl that began with “Once upon a time” and ended with “She was gone.”
 
Once upon a time there was a young boy not older than 15.  He didn’t overly stand out – if you were to spot him in amongst a crowd of people, you would most likely not give him a second look. He was by almost all accounts, completely average. On one spring afternoon, he was jogging around the suburban shops when he saw his one true love walking towards the local post office. There was nothing incredibly outstanding about her – indeed, there was nothing excessively special about either of them. The girl was simply out to post a letter to someone and was wearing a Tweety-Bird t-shirt and a well-worn pair of jeans. Her orange-streaked hair was untied and was naturally wavy. Her mundane clothing was not chosen to make much of an impression, as there was no need to. Any other person would not have given her a second glance, but this girl was the boy’s one true love and as he walked towards her and her towards him, young as he was, he knew that he had found his perfect girl.
The two stopped in front of each other and met at the postbox, and as the girl placed the envelope into the slot, the boy touched her shoulder and said “Hi”. The moment the girl looked into the boy’s eyes – even though she was only fourteen – she knew that she had found her true love, her perfect boy with whom she would be willing to spend the entirety of her future with.
 
“Hey,” she responded, smiling gently. 
The boy offered her his hand, and together they walked down the street, hand in hand, with the rest of the world oblivious to the gentle intonation of fate that had just played out between the two.
 
The conversation between the two played out perfectly – every word was what the other person wanted to hear, every joke hit the right note, every topic was engaging, grasping and consuming. As the two talked about all manner of things, from philosophy to religion to their lives and their futures, the two fell deeper and deeper into a true and perfect love. The girl told the boy things that she had never told anyone else, and the boy shared his deepest worries, both with complete trust in the other. They walked through a park where the stone track was met by vibrant grass and handfuls of golden-brown honey-coloured leaves on the floor, where the towering trunks of hundred-year oaks on either side of the path offered a feeling of the most sublime grandeur, where the grass-green leaves waved about in the wind above them, creating an intricate dance of shadow on the ground below. It was as if the Earth had decided that the pair’s perfect love had to be accompanied with a perfect setting, and as the two sat down on a park bench before a pond, they felt a serene serendipity like none other.
 
 “I can’t believe that I found my true, perfect love” the girl said, “you know, just like that.” 
By now they were staring deep into each other’s eyes. The girl continued.
“I think that we don’t really have free will. I believe that, to an extent, you can predict what our lives are going to be just from analyzing what is happening right now. You know, the way how if I hadn’t met that person who I was writing a letter to, then I wouldn’t have had to send that letter, and then I wouldn’t have met you at the post office, and then we wouldn’t be here. But I did end up sending that letter, and I did meet you, and now I’m here – it’s almost as if meeting you was predetermined.”
The boy agreed to what the girl was saying, and the two decided to test their free will. After some time, they decided that if their love was really true and perfect, and if they were really meant to be together, then they should leave each other at that moment, with no way of contacting each other. That way, if Fate really meant for them to be together, then Fate would bring them together again in the future, and when they did, they would marry each other on the spot, no questions asked.
                                                                        . . .
So the two parted ways at the pond, and went back to their daily lives. The boy eventually finished school and went on to gain a stable job in finance. He married twice – the first marriage falling apart within a year, and the second one kept for convenience, as they already had school-aged children and a family. He spent much of his life working and travelling around the world, and at times with certain people, he felt love, sometimes great love, but never the perfect love which he had felt one summer’s day in his youth.
 
The girl grew on to study in art, and travelled overseas for years at a time, wondering around the globe. Eventually, after a number of failed relationships, she settled down and likewise started a family of her own. Her husband loved her more than she loved him, and like most of the other couples around her age, her marriage only continued because of their responsibility to their family, and not of love.
 
As the two grew towards their old age, each became sick and only partially recovered. Their bodies became frail, and their minds dampened with the pressure of the years. The love that they had felt throughout their lives had been comfortable and satisfying, but nowhere near truly perfect. One day, with the best of their years behind them, both the lady and the gentlemen were back travelling on the same street where they had both grown up.
The man was in a wheelchair, and wheeled himself towards the post office, and the lady hobbled along, leaning half her weight on a walking stick with every step. The two of them moved towards each other, and as the man looked into the lady’s eyes, and the lady gazed into the man’s, each felt a flicker of love flow throughout their body. For a moment, the man’s eyes lit up, the kindling of a romance in his heart, but the flame quickly tapered off. It had been too long, the number of years too many, for them to remember each other. The years of time had worked at their memories, until neither could remember the other. And just like that, the elderly man passed the elderly woman without saying a word.
The thing is, Fate really meant for them to be together. The love that they felt for each other was the truest, most perfect love that they would ever find. The boy was really ‘the one’ for the girl, and likewise, but they made the mistake of testing Fate when they already had each other. There was no remedy to their error, and Opportunity gave them no other handle to seize her by. Such is life.
                                                                        …
I turned around just before I walked out of the restaurant, and looked at where the lady had been sitting before. Who was it that she was looking for?  Maybe I could go back and talk to her again. I almost began to walk into the restaurant, but the stool where she sat was empty. She was gone.
 
Eric Xie

Good Grades, Enough Sleep, or a Social Life… Pick any two.

Facebook ‘likes’ are the greatest little cold reads. They are little statements that seem like incredibly personal and precise descriptions of the things that happen to us in the world that no-one talks about. They can be general truths that happen to everybody and are described in just a way that makes us think ‘I just did this haha’ or ‘That’s what always happens!’ or ‘I thought I was the only sneaky person that did this D:’ or ‘haha i do this kind of stuff all the time’ and the list goes on and on.

One of my favourites, and one that really interests me is the idea that teenagers can pick two out of:

1. Good Grades

2. Enough Sleep

3. A Social Life

This quote implies that performing well academically and fostering a social circle require so much time that to have any quality in these would be at the detriment to a healthy amount of sleep. At the same time, if you want to have enough sleep, you’re going to have to sacrifice either your social life or your academic performance.

A quick look through the hundreds of comments to this statement easily reveal that the majority of teenagers believe that they can only have two. But I’d like to take a step forward and say that that doesn’t have to be the case.

Can you, the person behind the screen reading these words right now, imagine a person who gets enough sleep, does well academically and has a social life? My guess is yes, and I’ll even go as far to guess that the picture of this person that you have in your mind is of someone who is (or will be) confident and successful in the world. Even more importantly, and what I really want to talk about, they’re going to be someone who has discipline and self-management skills. And what I really think the idea that you can only pick two out of Good Grades, Enough Sleep or A Social Life reveals that the majority of us don’t have the self-management skills or discipline to allow us to have all three.

Every single person in the entire world has the same amount of time in a day as you, me, and the person standing next to you. Every person has 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Yet some people (whether you know them or can imagine them) have enough time for grades, sleep and a social life, yet you may only have enough time for two. What gives?

My idea is self-management and discipline. You can’t manage time, since you can’t change or influence it. Every day has 24 hours in it. Every week has seven days in it. No-one’s going to change that (but when they do, my DeLorean shall be ready), but everyone can change themselves, and improve their self-management skills.

According to Roy Morgan Research, in an average week, Australians spend 21.8 hours watching TV and 9.5 hours on the Internet. That’s about 31.3 hours a week that’s spent not getting good grades, not getting enough sleep and not developing your social life (unless you’re on Facebook, but I’ll talk about that in a moment). So imagine that you’re someone who, according to the statement, has good grades, a social life, but not enough sleep. What we don’t realize is that it isn’t only grades and sleep that compete for our sleeping time, but also our leisure.

If the average Australian were to give up the hours spent watching TV and browsing the internet, an extra 30 hours a week. That’s about 4 extra hours that could be going to sleep, your social life or your grades every day. Think about what this means as a teenager. Perhaps you only get 5 hours sleep a night –> giving up hours and hours of television would mean that you’d get a beautiful nine hours a night. How would 30 extra hours of effort into your latest assessment task reflect on your grades? How would 30 hours of hanging out with your friends deepen your emotional connection with them?

How much of the time spent flicking through channels on TV, or liking ‘likes’ on Facebook really is worth it? Undoubtedly there will be some t.v shows that you want to watch, some people that you can only keep in contact with through Facebook, but at the same time, there are a lot of t.v shows we watch just to fill the time. There are games that we play just because we’ve nothing else to do (or because we’re procrastinating), and there are hours of intensive photo-stalking that really don’t matter that much, unless you’re anything like my uncle, but that’s another story.

What I’m trying to say is that it is indeed possible to have all good grades, enough sleep and a social life at the same time. In order to have them, however, people need the self-management skills and discipline to prioritize their activities and cut out the things that aren’t important to make time for the things that are. Watch the t.v shows that interest you, but consider cutting out the channel surfing that doesn’t maximize what you want. It’s about prioritizing the important things in your life, and then having the discipline to do first things first, without falling back into the routine of spending time on things that aren’t as important.

This is one of my favourite posts from my own blog – http://kulturconversation.blogspot.com.au/ Feel free to take a look 🙂

A Quick Introduction to the UnicornExpress

 

Welcome once again to the Melbourne Hig
Welcome once again to the Melbourne High School Competition Writing Blog.

Essentially, this can serve as a platform for past and present Melbourne High School students to exhibit their writing and provide a forum for students’ writing to have a readership base. In other words, we hope that this blog will be filled with the writing of keen, young, intelligent young adults, and that it can be a great place to give/ read feedback. 

To the MHS students, feel free to write anything you like – whether it’s a work of fiction, our favourite short stories, previous essays you may have thought were particularly good, reviews on things, rants about society (keep it classy), etc. You don’t have to write specifically for the blog, but you can.

Happy Blogging!