Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness 2 (History and Darkness)

Joseph Conrad had a dark vision of the human condition.  If civilization is the culmination of human achievement then fire is a good symbol of his vision of civilization.  Conrad thinks we’re little better than savage cavemen sitting around a fire, surrounded on every side by a vast forest of darkness.  There’s no other light for hundreds of miles and darkness threatens to overwhelm us at any moment. The only thing standing between us and some terrible fate is this one little fire.  Most people never have time to think about such things; nor do we want to. We’re too busy making a living so we just huddle up closer to the fire.  Fire means comfort; cities, law and order, culture and the pleasures of living among other human beings.  But here’s the thought that worried Conrad.  What if the fire goes out?  Or, even worse, what if we forget how to make fire? 

History is the way we pass knowledge down from one generation to the next.  If civilization is like fire then history is like a torch.  We receive the torch from others.  It’s our job to keep the flame going and pass it on.  Conrad put it this way: “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.”  At least that’s the theory.  But theory belongs to philosophy, not to history.  When Socrates says “the unexamined life is not worth living” he’s speaking to everyone at all times in all places.  Philosophy deals with universal values but history deals with specific people doing specific things at specific times and places.  In this story a man named Marlow is heading down the Congo River on a steamboat around the turn of the nineteenth century to bring back a man named Kurtz.  It would not have been the same story if it had happened on the Mississippi River. 

And it wouldn’t have been the same story without the man named Kurtz.  In many ways he represents the best that Western civilization has to offer.  “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” and no doubt he was well-read in literature, philosophy and history and his painting showed him to be a very good artist as well.  Kurtz was a very cultured man and “as he was good enough to say himself, his sympathies were in the right place.”  He was on the right side of history according to the fashionable views of his time.  He was a member of the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs and was commissioned to write a report “for its future guidance.”  Marlow read the report and it had started out all full of optimism.  Kurtz wrote that “by the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.”  But something went terribly wrong.  He ended his report by scrawling a handwritten note in the margin: “exterminate the brutes!”  What had gone wrong?  For months on end no one heard from Kurtz.  There were rumors he was sick and “had recovered imperfectly.”  There were rumors he was not operating according to the rules of civilized behavior.  That’s why Marlow was captain of a steamboat sent to bring him back, back to civilization and the warmth of domesticated fire.                     

Here’s the special insight that makes Conrad’s story so disturbing.  What if the darkness isn’t out there somewhere, but inside; within us?  Kurtz isn’t the worst among us; he’s among the best.  He went down that river to bring the light of civilization to a dark land.  He went to bring trade and commerce along with the benefits of civilization; art, literature, history and philosophy.  But Kurtz brought darkness in with him.  Removed from the restraining influence of civilization he yielded to the primeval temptation of darkness heard long ago in Genesis (GB1) “ye shall be as gods.”  One of the lessons of history is that no civilization and no individual is exempt from the lessons of history.  The fire is fragile and civilization is just a thin veneer covering up vast darkness.  Scratch that surface and history seems to confirm Conrad’s bleak view of humanity.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

<< Home