Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness, 3 (2012)

There’s somewhat of a letdown when Marlow and the reader finally encounter Kurtz in part three of the story. All that’s left of Kurtz by now is a shell of a man. He’s sick and is, in fact, dying. He’s been out in the wilderness for too long; both his body and his mind have suffered from the strain. Still, Kurtz is a remarkable man. So is Marlow in his own kind of way. Marlow’s commentary on life and death are much more instructive to readers than Kurtz’s strange pronouncements. Contemplating Kurtz’s fate here’s how Marlow sums up his own destiny: My destiny! Droll thing life is; that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself; that comes too late; a crop of unextinguishable regrets. This is not encouraging. Socrates encourages us to know ourselves, to examine our lives and see what we find. The way Socrates tells it we find encouragement through philosophical inquiry. Marlow seems to be responding: that’s bunk. Go ahead, examine yourself. You will not like what you find. That’s why this little story is called “heart of darkness” because what we will come to know is a very unpleasant truth; not only about ourselves but about all human beings. And that’s if we’re lucky. That’s the MOST we can hope for. Kurtz was one of the lucky ones and came to see himself as he really was and the world as it really is: dark and forbidding. The reality is that the end-game is the same for all of us. We all face death, no matter if it’s the desolation of Kurtz’s station or in a fancy home back in the “civilized” world. Death calls on all alike. This world is a hard place to find your footing and death is no different. Marlow explains: I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. Death is our adversary and we will lose that fight. Like Kurtz, we will have our shot at life. Kurtz had big plans and he was a remarkably gifted and talented man. But he failed. How much more will ordinary people fail? What Marlow admires about Kurtz is that Kurtz took a stand. He had something to say and he said it. That’s something. Marlow wonders what he might have to say when he faces death himself and here’s what he found: I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. Great books aren’t always uplifting and death is a theme that can’t be ignored. But Conrad’s conclusion is an unusually pessimistic outlook in the western tradition. Our previous reading may provide a clue why. The Gospel of Luke proclaims that Jesus came to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death... When Marlow is taking Kurtz back downstream to the station he overhears Kurtz saying to himself: I am lying here in the dark waiting for death. The Gospel message provides a way out of this dead-end worldview and has given hope to millions of followers of Jesus who also waited for death. In the reading before Luke, Socrates voluntarily chooses death over exile as his punishment. The reading from Aristotle On Happiness warns us not to call any man happy until after he’s already died. We don’t know what kind of ending anyone will ultimately come to. Kurtz was a man of many talents and had a bright future ahead of him. But his end came on a steamboat in a muddy river in the middle of nowhere and his dying words were The horror! The horror! Perhaps at the very end he could see his whole life in perspective. It doesn’t have to be that way. In Rothschild’s Fiddle the anti-Semitic Jacob also knows he’s dying and sees how mean-spirited he was during his lifetime. But he tries to make amends as best he can by giving his beloved violin to the Jew they called Rothschild. Another excellent story on this theme is Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. Conrad will not appeal to every reader. But like Kurtz, Conrad was a remarkable writer.


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