Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

CONRAD 3: Heart of Darkness (Literature and Darkness)

Heart of Darkness is a story and it’s a good story.  Herodotus tells a good story too in his Persian Wars (GB2) but that’s history, not literature.  Nietzsche also tells a good story in Thus Spake Zarathustra (GB5) but that’s philosophy, not literature.  Conrad’s main goal is not to tell us about the past or to analyze ideas.  His goal is to create a work of art that moves the reader on a different level.  How well he succeeds depends entirely on his ability to create a world in the mind of the reader; how well he can conjure up images and form meaningful scenes made out of nothing but words.  How well did Conrad succeed in doing this in his story, Heart of Darkness?        

In Chapter 3 the scene has Kurtz on a riverboat heading back down the river, back to civilization.  He’s very sick, in more ways than one.  Marlow says “his intelligence was perfectly clear; concentrated, it is true, upon himself with horrible intensity, yet clear… But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”  Marlow thought Kurtz was insane.  The runaway Russian sailor-adventurer disagreed.  He told Marlow “You can’t judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man.”  Why not?  The Declaration of Independence (IGB2) says “all men are created equal” and should be judged by the same laws.  Why use a different standard for Kurtz?  Conrad doesn’t say.  This isn’t a book about political philosophy and Conrad isn’t writing a treatise on equality.  He’s telling a story that focuses on one extraordinary man dying on a riverboat in a dark land far from home.

Death is the ultimate heart of darkness.  History chronicles plenty of deaths.  In Herodotus lots of people die in battle, by drowning, and by disease.  Philosophy also has a lot to say on the subject of death.  In Plato’s Apology (GB1) Socrates thinks death is one of two things: total oblivion or else a place where good people go to be rewarded and bad people go to be punished.  The German philosopher Schopenhauer (GB3) thinks death is a release from the burden of living.  In Rothschild’s Fiddle (GB1) Martha seems to agree.  She’s glad to be leaving her mean-spirited husband Jacob and her impoverished existence in their miserable Russian hut.  Toward the end of his own life Jacob reflects on how empty his life had been.  In that way he’s similar to Kurtz.  The result was a song of sadness that touched the hearts of everyone who heard it.  That’s what art can do.  Thousands upon thousands of people died in Herodotus’ history.  What were any of them thinking about in the last few minutes of life?  We don’t know.  Conrad doesn’t show us what death is like in abstract terms but how it confronts one individual person on an intensely personal level.  For Kurtz it was a dark confrontation.  Marlow heard him mumble “I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.”  Marlow didn’t see oblivion reflected on Kurtz’s face; or reward, or punishment either.  Just “an intense and hopeless despair.”  The last words Marlow heard him say were “The horror! The horror!”  Kurtz faced death the same way he faced life.  That’s what impressed Marlow.  “He had summed up; he had judged.  The horror!  He was a remarkable man.”  Kurtz was remarkable because he told the truth.  Death is horrible.  What was so horrible for Kurtz?  Leaving behind all his unfinished plans?  Facing darkness alone?  The knowledge that his life had been wasted on greed, lust and power?  We don’t know for sure but we all go down that same dark road eventually.  And we travel alone, like Kurtz.  Marlow says death “is the most unexciting contest you can imagine… without spectators, without clamour, without glory.”  All of Kurtz’s ambitious plans, all his ivory and power and glory, all his learning, his “intended” and everything else were of no help to him in the end.  Everyone goes down that same dark road and everyone ends up in the same dark place; in the grave, the real heart of darkness.  Conrad’s bleak vision is a remarkably dark literary achievement. 


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