June 11, 2009

book love: Heart of Darkness "its an extravagant mystery"


Heart of Darkness. A short story, by Joseph Conrad, its existence revealed to me via "Apocalypse Now". Somewhere, sometime, long long ago - this bit of trivia flitted into my head and remained there, no further attempt undertaken on my part to search for the inspiration upon which this staggeringly monumental film is based.

Francis Ford Coppola´s wife did an amazing documentary, about the filming of AN, titled "Hearts of Darkness".

The following two excerpts from the book, in my mind, sum up this "first novella of the 20th century", praised as such in the preface of my Penguin edition:

"The mind of man is capable of anything - because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future"

"Its an extravagant mystery"

The story 
Written in the I-as-Protagonist narrative, a sailor, Marlow, on board a ship bound for London, recounts his African adventures to his fellow crew members, as they wait for the tide to carry the vessel toward the final leg of its journey.

Marlow´s tale is about his journey as captain of a steamboat in Africa. Hired by some trading company, his mission is to travel up river to bring back a man called Kurtz, an ivory trader. Marlow encounters obstacles of varying difficulties along the way - one major glitch being the intended means of travel - the steamboat - has sunk. Its eventually salvaged, the absence of rivets making it just as useless semi-hovering above the water as it was while stuck in the thick molasses-like embrace of river mud. The daily anticipated arrival of these iron screws stretches into an almost unbearably agonizing two months. Boredom alleviated by catching snippets of gossip from various mercenaries who seem to know about Kurtz.

Finally, the journey up river begins, the river itself described as a snake. While in a biblical context, its the snake succumbing to the snake charmer ie human power over animal power. In this story, the humans fall prey to the hypnotic light-less void of the wild. In the solitary world of shadow, Marlow perceives the dense wilderness as the key to the knowledge of good and evil. Constant references to dark and light allude to the search of truth in light, and truth in darkness. They are to be found in both. Or so Marlow gradually discovers. Shades of gray.

The book is filled with veiled references and obscure obscure-ness. For example, as the steamboat finally reaches the Kurtz outpost, after being nearly skewered (at Kurtz´s command Marlow later finds out) the captain and his "pilgrims" (the heroic- always-ready-with-a-rifle white guys) see a dispassionately vast collection of skulls dangling along the huts, like Christmas lights. (Although I expect they didn´t have Christmas lights back then. And especially not there. Ok, going off topic here.) Relics, souvenirs of atrocities Kurtz had committed as an ivory trader? You never find out. I assumed he was responsible.

The additional crew on Marlow´s boat are described as cannibals and Marlow mentally commends them for not giving into temptation by eating the juicy-looking white guys. Fresh hippo meat is in the boat´s hold but as the trip progresses, the transition to hippo jerky doesn´t go too well, the stench proving unbearable. The pilgrims toss the lot overboard. Again, respect voiced (the inside-his-head voice) by Marlow at the cannibals abstinence and resistance of partaking of the conveniently available source of fresh meat.

I wasn´t much the wiser at the end of the book as to why Kurtz and "horror, horror" were always uttered in a single breath. I mean, I am a bit wiser but I´m not. So, weird. It's just not that straightforward of a read.

I guess what Marlow, or rather Conrad, is trying to say is that "civilization is nothing but a veneer hiding the savage reality of human condition". Is Kurtz the true face of the imperialist objectives Europe had in Africa? Yet is deemed by the civilized colonists to be a problem to be dealt with, gotten rid of due to his overt as opposed to covert actions?

I am assuming that the inherent hypocrisy used to justify imperialism is just that. Kurtz is strangely open and honest about his suppression and extermination of the indigenous population, of his method of ruling through violence and intimidation. Regretful at the end? Maybe not. A victim or an instigator of the pervasive double-standard?

Therein lies the object of this story.......I guess. Never really knowing what the hell is going on. In a case of discrepant awareness, the audience or the reader often knows more than the characters, or know about a pending event before the character(s). With this story, its kind of like reverse discrepant awareness. The reader never knows anything.

Definitely an interesting read, although I found it difficult through to the end, the correct terminology being ambiguity.

Maybe therein lies the secret: can there ever be a clear right and wrong? Is something right when done under the opaque cloak of civility? And wrong when executed from the depths of human nature? Don´t the surrounding circumstances have to be considered?

Anyway, some inspiringly excellent writing nonetheless, taken in bits and pieces.

Here some excerpts:

"His aspect was worried, and his head was as bald as the palm of my hand; but his hair in falling seemed to have stuck to his chin, and has prospered in the new locality for his beard hung down to his waist. "

"Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless with hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; .......To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe"

I think that last sentence pretty much defines colonialism. Just wrong.

Further passages describe the trip upriver, the jungle, to the extent that you feel the steamy heat, as the boat is gradually swallowed by the land, the further inland - into the proverbial heart - it travels:

"In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver"

"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. The air was warm, heavy, thick, sluggish"

"Sometimes we came upon a station close by the bank, clinging to the skirts of the unknown........"

"It was very quiet there. At night sometimes the roll of drums behind the curtain of trees would run up the river...""

"When the sun rose there was a white fog, very warm and clammy, and more blinding than the night. It did not shift or drive, it was just there, standing all round you like something solid. "

Conrad´s only slightly deeper venture into a female character is at the end during Marlow´s extremely uncomfortable encounter with Kurtz´s financé:

"I noticed she was not very young - I mean not girlish. she has a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering. "
"the Dark eyes..their glance was guileless, profound, confident, and trustful. She carried her sorrowful head as though she were proud of that sorrow..."
"A look of awful desolation came upon her face that I perceived she was one of those creatures that are not the playthings of Time"
"...only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illuminated by the inextinguishable light of belief and love"
"And the girl talked, easing her pain in the certitude of my sympathy; she talked as thirsty men drink"

Many questions left darting around in the mind. Maybe I should re-visit the movie. Or re-read the book. Or both.