RogerBW's Blog

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad 06 September 2021

1899 novella. Charles Marlow takes a steamboat up the Congo to the aid of the ivory-agent, Mr Kurtz…

So well yes. With Apocalypse Now coming up on Ribbon of Memes, it seemed like a good idea to read the story that had formed part of the inspiration for it.

And, well, I can see how it might catch the imagination of a lively lad, with its lurid prose, its horrors of foreign lands and people, its flirtations with the alluring spectre of madness, its near-ignorance of women… I've certainly known people who met Conrad at a formative age and became fans for life. In my own case, perhaps fortunately, I'd already read H. P. Lovecraft, who does all these things frankly rather better, and with tentacles.

Yes, all right, Conrad's narrator does have his very slight moments of noticing that not all European adventures into Africa are good:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

But even then he immediately drops the ball:

What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.

I.e., at least as I read it, "Because we are going out to civilise them, it's just fine to take all the loot and murder them on an industrial scale. It's only those people who just want the loot without bestowing their civilising influence who are bad." Of course when Conrad wrote this most people didn't know just how bad the Belgian Congo in particular had been, indeed was still being; things that were regarded by critics as exaggeration to show the narrator's psychological state are simple reportage of Conrad's own experience, though he never corrected this misapprehension. Conrad himself had lived in conquered territory (a section of the former Kingdom of Poland that had been part of the Russian Empire for less than a century) and had perhaps a better perspective on how it felt to be the depised local under a foreign boot-heel than the English Marlow does, but since nearly the whole thing's in Marlow's voice it's probably pointless to speculate further. In any case, the black characters here barely speak…

It works, more or less, on its own terms. But is it worth reading now, if you haven't already? I really can't see much value in it; if you need any of the moral lessons, there are better ways to get them.

Freely available from Standard Ebooks and Project Gutenberg.

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