Perhaps the greatest travel novel, a masterpiece on the inner journey that accompanies the outer travels.
Heart of Darkness is largely inspired by Conrad’s travels in the Congo, deep in the heart of Africa, then known as the Dark Continent. He saw the colonial machine grinding away, bleeding Africa dry in the name of an ideal, a mission to civilise the natives. Ideas about exploitation of the undeveloped world were hardly in fashion at the turn of the twentieth century and it’s only in Conrad’s irony that he hints at his true feelings. The main narrator, Marlowe, reports of seeing a French battleship firing at some band or rebels on the coast.
‘There wasn’t even a shed there and there she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts… In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.’
Conrad’s character, Marlowe relates of his childhood passion for maps when Africa was full of white spaces yet to be explored. Now that he’s grown the white spaces have already been explored:
‘It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.’
This is the first hint that Joseph Conrad gives us of his intentions with Heart of Darkness. There is no real story to be told, only a process of the mind and heart to be unravelled. Marlowe ostensibly is joining the ranks of the Company and is commissioned to contact the lost agent, Kurtz, who was deep in country gathering ivory. Concern for the elephants had yet to be born in the public imagination and Conrad’s great mission is to describe the perils of isolation and immersion in a reality far greater than us. A feeling most travellers experience sooner or later.
The plot rolls along slowly with no great surprises or twists. Instead Joseph Conrad’s genius is to immerse us page by page into the Darkness found deep inside the human psyche and mirrored in his environment. Marlowe everywhere observes the brooding gloom of the jungle, the petty intrigue of the Station and the surreal waste and absurdity of the whole enterprise. One day a shed of the goods to barter with the natives – beads, blankets:
‘..burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash.’ An officer of the company runs past Marlowe with a bucket to gather water: ‘dipped about a quart of water and tore back again. I noticed there was a hole in the bottom of his pail.’
Marlowe finally makes his way up river in search of Kurtz, a legend who grows in the narrator’s imagination as he steers his steamboat torturously through the jungle. Conrad’s prose blends into poetry and he doesn’t let an adjective pass without darkening the mood a little more.
‘And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable intention brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.’
Conrad draws a jungle both personal and malevolent, a Darkness bound to undermine and corrupt the sanity of a saint. The longer the journey takes, the more surreal the twists of fate, the more the image of Kurtz grows in Marlowe’s mind and he longs to see what such a man would make of it all.
At length he finds Kurtz near to death’s door, a man who did not try to fight the Darkness but rather gave himself to it.
‘You should have heard him say ‘My ivory’. Oh yes, I heard him. ‘My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river my-‘ everything belonged to him. Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing to know was what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.’
It turns out that Kurtz has gone native and embraced the ‘unspeakable rites’ of the wilderness, falling out of favour with the Company as ‘unsound’. Marlowe finds himself also classed as ‘unsound’ after speaking up for Kurtz but remarks:
‘Ah, but it was something to have a choice of nightmares.’
Then he reflects that the journey towards Kurtz had never been just about the man himself.
‘I had turned to the wilderness really, not Mr Kurtz who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I were also buried in a grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night..’
In Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad weaves an existential nightmare from the realms of human doubt and suffering and makes it real for us. An unseen and terrible encounter with the immensity of the unknown is draped over the droll commentary of an old sailor and, step by step, we find ourselves on the brink along with Marlowe when he hears Kurtz’s final words;
‘The horror! The horror!’
It’s to be hoped that most travellers bring back more from their journeys than ‘a choice of nightmares’ but anyone who has gone seriously out there to their own personal Edge, knows that the only postcards to be written from there make very dark reading.
The way Conrad describes Marlowe’s return to Europe could well match the feelings of any traveler who returns home after too long away.
‘I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other… to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, because I was so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.”
The horror, the horror, indeed.