Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, May 05, 2016

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness 1 (Philosophy and Darkness)

In our last reading Socrates says “I have no leisure worth mentioning either for the affairs of the City or for my own estate; I dwell in utter poverty because of my service to God.”  His “service to God” consisted mostly of talking about philosophy to any Athenian who would listen.  Athens was the place to be if you wanted to be on the cutting edge of culture and learning.  It was the London of the ancient world.  Like many folks who live in London today, Socrates couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.  He flatly refused the option of being exiled to some dull provincial Geek colony.  No thank you very much.  Socrates couldn’t see himself pursuing philosophy in a backwater town somewhere in Thessaly.  He wanted to be where the action was and for a Greek philosopher that meant Athens, the center of the ancient Greek world.  Marlow was, in his own way, a philosopher too; but of a different kind than Socrates.  Socrates wanted to stay put and bloom where he was planted.  Marlow had a childhood dream of putting out to sea and visiting “the dark places of the earth.”  So when he became a man that’s exactly what he did.  “He was a seaman, but he was a wanderer, too, while most seaman lead, if one may so express it, a sedentary life.  Their minds are of the stay-at-home order, and their home is always with them (the ship) and so is their country (the sea)… But Marlow was not typical.”       

Marlow was not a typical sailor and he’s not a typical philosopher either.  Sitting on the deck of their ship in London, waiting for the tide to come in, Marlow remarks to his shipmates, “This also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  London has been described in many ways by many people but “one of the dark places of the earth” isn’t normally what comes to mind.  Marlow is talking about London before it became London; way back when it was nothing more than a wilderness to the civilized soldiers who manned the ranks of a Roman army led by Julius Caesar.  Marlow comments that “we live in the flicker… but darkness was here yesterday… imagine him here at the very end of the world… sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages; precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink…they must have been dying like flies here… but they were men enough to face the darkness… all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.  There’s no initiation either into such mysteries.  He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible.”
This is Joseph Conrad’s style of philosophy.  It doesn’t have the reasonableness of Aristotle or the polished prose of Plato.  But it’s philosophy.  Aristotle makes sense reading him in a nice comfortable library or in the security of our own homes.  And through Plato’s writings we can imagine Socrates talking about truth and justice in front of a crowd of well-educated Athenians.  Conrad wants to take philosophy out of that comfort zone.  Heart of Darkness has a simple question.  What good is philosophy “at the very end of the world… among sand-banks, marshes, forests, and savages?”  Conrad doesn’t expect us to answer that it’s no good at all.  Instead, he invites the reader to take a journey into darkness, to experience the darkness, to confront it for ourselves.  It not a pleasant journey and there’s no initiation into Conrad’s world; no Philosophy 101 course to prepare us beforehand.  We have to jump in feet first and, at least for a time, “live in the midst of the incomprehensible.”  We have to get a feel for the land and try to make sense of life on a brooding river surrounded by a dark forest.  It can be disorienting but it’s only by going into this darkness that we’re really prepared to ask the question.  What good is philosophy, here, in this dark place?  Well, how does a dark place like ancient London go on to produce a Shakespeare or a John Locke?  Aristotle and Plato shine like beacons of light in the darkness.  Once upon a time Athens was one of those dark places too.  That’s what philosophy is good for.


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