Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 1 (2012)

Aristotle wrote a very convincing and persuasive philosophical treatise on happiness. It’s very common-sense and down to earth. But it’s still philosophy. Here’s a sample: What is the aim of politics? Both the common man and the cultivated man call it happiness. They understand happiness to be the same thing as “living well” and “doing well.” But when it comes to defining what happiness is, they disagree, and the answer given by ordinary people is different from the answer given by philosophers. As long as we’re just reading about happiness this theory sounds good; but how well does philosophy hold up in real life? This is a question Joseph Conrad pondered in his masterpiece Heart of Darkness. A sailor named Marlowe goes out looking not so much for happiness but for… what? Adventure? Money? The meaning of life? Marlowe’s not even sure himself. Aristotle says we’re all looking for happiness, we just don’t agree what it is. But in the real world the search for happiness becomes translated (or diluted) into the much humbler task of just trying to earn a living. Most people are just trying to find a job that will pay the bills. The characters in this story are not philosophers; they’re sailors, businessmen, clerks, managers. Are they “living well” or “doing well” as Aristotle put it? Early in the story Marlowe meets a minor character who embodies this search for happiness Aristotle is speaking of. Here are Marlowe’s words: I shook hands with this miracle, and I learned he was the Company's chief accountant, and that all the book-keeping was done at this station… I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years… Thus this man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order. This man wasn’t a philosopher. He was an accountant. And he was very good at what he did. Everything around him was in chaos and falling to pieces. But his books “were in apple-pie order.” Aristotle would certainly have appreciated a man who was good at his job. But Conrad is asking a more probing question: so what? What good are starched shirts and good bookkeeping when the whole operation is in reality a futile flailing about in the darkness? Philosophers tell us that thinking is good and Socrates explicitly says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But sailors like Conrad may have a different philosophy: I watched the coast. Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you -- smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, 'Come and find out.' This is not the noble voice of philosophy calling us. This is an ominous voice luring us into a possible trap or into a dark world from whence we’ll never return. Socrates may have seen the sunny highlands of philosophy but Conrad saw a heart of darkness. It might be best not to go too deeply into that jungle. But Conrad is like Socrates in this way: he wants us to think about what we’re doing before we get in over our heads. Conrad can be as blunt as a steamboat stuck on a river bottom. … I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see, you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? This is not philosophy but the story of a remarkable man named Kurtz. Kurtz has gone far up the dark river to… do what? There are rumors back at the station that something has gone terribly wrong. Kurtz is not “doing well.” He may have gone too far into the darkness. Kurtz may have become darkness. This story sheds light on Luke’s gospel message of Jesus: To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide (their) feet into the way of peace. Luke is asking the same question: do you see the man? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?


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