Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

CONRAD: An Outpost of Progress

One of the most unpopular selections in the Great Books Adult Series set is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Why? Depending on who you talk to the story is too long, too boring or too depressing. But An Outpost of Progress is different. It’s shorter. Otherwise it’s just as bleak and hopeless as Heart of Darkness. Even the themes are the same: two civilized white men journey into the deepest parts of Africa and confront an alien culture. The result is disturbing to many readers. Still, it’s important to read Conrad for at least three reasons: (1) he’s a master of English prose, (2) he’s out of fashion, and (3) he’s included in the Great Books set. Let’s take them in order. First, Conrad knows how to write. He knows how to weave an enchanting spell around the reader. Many readers claim that he’s boring. And they’re right, but only in this sense: any really long journey is going to be filled with hours and hours of sheer boredom. Conrad knows how to make you FEEL it in just a few short pages. As Conrad explains My task is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel; it is, before all to make you SEE. That, and no more, and it is everything. If Conrad seems boring it’s because he knows what he’s doing. He intends for you to be “bored” for a reason. He’s setting the stage for you to FEEL like the characters in the story. Second, Conrad falls into a class of writers who used to be read a lot but have fallen out of favor in recent times. Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway also fall into this category. Why? It’s hard to say but probably because the message they bring is not welcomed in modern America. Conrad says Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. A culture in love with iPods and Netflicks isn’t really interested in ideas that are old as the hills. They want the latest upgrade. But there’s also a deeper reason. In many ways Conrad is a subversive writer, only in reverse. He says I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The revolutionary… (has a) hard, absolute optimism that is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains. This is not the kind of language that will motivate a social activist. Many Americans believe deeply in progress. They think we can make things “better” and Joseph Conrad is having none of that. Reading his stories is like reading The Book of Job only without the happy ending. Finally, some of us read Conrad just because he’s included in the Great Books set. Who picks up a book and says “you know I think I’ll read this long, boring, depressing story?” But it’s included in the Great Books for a reason. Conrad believes life is hard and mostly dark. Thomas Hobbes agreed. Gorky’s story about Chelkash is like that too. They’re starkly opposed to Rousseau’s or Thoreau’s notion that life can be rosy if only we shed the inhibitions of civilization and learn to be ourselves. We need to be more like the Noble Savage and live according to nature. To this idea Conrad can only shake his head and say: really? Let me tell you a little story. An Outpost of Progress shows us what life would be like in a state of nature. Here’s your noble savage, a man named Makola, who cherished in his innermost heart the worship of evil spirits… He got on very well with his god. Perhaps he had propitiated him by a promise of more white men to play with, by and by… In Conrad’s opinion the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. This is not the message of Rousseau or Henry David Thoreau. In Conrad’s opinion civilization is a blessing, but with a twist. “Progress” is an illusion. We say we believe in it but we actually live by ideas that are as old as the hills. Civilization is only a thin veneer covering up primitive passions. Two very ordinary white station masters found this out the hard way: Progress was calling to Kayerts from the river. Progress and civilization and all the virtues. They signed on to go into dark, primitive Africa for six months and make lots of money. Neither of them ever came back. This is classic Conrad.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh dear. Just a few hours ago, I abandoned the Heart of Darkness due to it's progressive boredom. However, in light of this article, I'll give it another chance :) Perhaps Conrad IS worth reading. c

8/09/2011 10:16 PM  

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