First published in 1899, #158 The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is available for free on Project Gutenberg and on Kindle.
The Heart of Darkness is a very short book – somewhere between 60 and 120 pages depending on the edition. In it, a man named Marlowe tells the story of a period he spent working as a riverboat captain in Africa. He chronicles his own ‘descent into savagery’ and return, and that of a trader, named Kurtz, who goes too deep into the ‘heart of darkness’ and cannot escape.
I don’t recommend this book and I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this review because I simply don’t have the expertise or right through experience to cover the topic well. However, I pledged to read the book, as it’s on the list, and publish my reaction to it, which this is. To be very brief: I think this is an absolutely racist work and the only reason to read it is to bear witness to the institutional horrors of European colonialism, and its acceptance by the leading lights of society.
In this story, black Africans are, at best, described as savages. They are constantly mistreated, abused and murdered by the white characters. Although this happens largely off-screen, the language used to describe them, and the overall tone and attitude to the black characters and their country is grim.
Early on, Marlowe says:
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.
which is one of the things I can agree with. However, he immediately continues:
What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before,and offer a sacrifice to… [Emphasis mine]
And there I’ve lost him again. Having read the rest of the book, he seems to be suggesting that this is all worthwhile, in some way, that a company, with the support of their government, invading another country, abusing and murdering and massacring the local people, destroying their forms of government and bringing disease, is all OK because of some ideal. I can’t even figure out which one he’s talking about, honestly, although I did reread the section. Patriotism? Christianity? Capitalism? Whiteness? Progress? The Company? I don’t know.
Marlowe does have flashes of insight, where he almost treats the black Africans he is surrounded by as people. For example, noting the desolation of the local area, he wryly notes:
Well, if a lot of mysterious [Africans] armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. [Yeah, he didn’t say Africans. You can guess what he did say or look it up]
Even when he’s describing local workers he respects, it’s not great. Here are the examples I found:
I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.
Marlowe has worked with this man for months on end – at least on two of the voyages and probably the three previous to that – and when he dies, he tips him overboard like rubbish and there’s no mention of anyone telling his family.
At one point, he realises that a good part of his crew are starving – the white men have thrown their rations overboard because they smell (Marlowe supports this) and as they’ve seen few villages and stop more rarely, the crew have had no opportunity to replace the lost food, despite their generous pay of 27 inches of brass wire per week. And yet they haven’t rioted. Marlowe can’t figure out why – he’s been hungry himself, and knows how grim it is:
Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us — they were thirty to five — and have a good tuck-in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh the consequences, with courage, with stength…
For a moment – bracketed by a comment about how he was feverish and a little ill – he says:
I looked at them as you would on any human being.
Then he goes back to wondering why they didn’t eat him – they’re indiscriminate cannibals, you see, would eat anybody:
Restraint! What possible restraint? Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear — or some kind of primitive honour? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze…It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. [emphasis mine]
Why, Marlowe, I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve said. Bit of a reluctant compliment, but we’ll take it.
Conrad: wrong about everybody
If you ever complain about racism, sexism and other forms of ass-hattery in the ‘Great Works’, someone will generally turn up to point out that the author ‘is only a product of their time (so stop complaining)’, that they, personally, ‘didn’t notice that (so it doesn’t exist / isn’t that bad)’ or ‘it’s a brilliant example of something and beautiful and wonderful in every other way anyway (so shut up)’. I have a little sympathy for these people (at least when they start talking) because what they’re usually saying is: I love it, don’t ruin it. And I’ve done that: I’ve been the insensitive one trying to defend something deeply flawed against reasonable criticism. It’s not a pleasant feeling when something you’ve enjoyed turns out to be rotten.
Conrad’s work seems to me to be rotten through and through. He’s got this major distaste for anyone who is not a white man from a (short) list of acceptable nations. Everyone else gets short shrift, while even the despicable white dudes get a more nuanced description than the rest of us. Let’s hear Marlowe on women. His aunt has just got him a job he really, really wants, so he’s probably pretty pleased with her and the world in general, right? Here he goes:
It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.
I… what? Which women? All women? Working class women? Black women in Africa? I can only assume he means white, middle class women – you know, the ones who are almost human, apart from the delusions and incompetence. Handily, if you replace a few words, you have an apt review of the book:
It’s queer how out of touch with truth CONRAD is. He lives in a world of his own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. If he were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. The confounded fact the rest of us have been living (and thinking) ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole think over.