Heart of Darkness.  The book by Joseph Conrad:
I have only a brief comment to make on this landmark novel about a trip to Africa.  Joseph Conrad once took a job as a riverboat pilot on the Congo.  The job did not work out well.  The boat was not in running order and Conrad fell ill, but he stayed long enough to get a first impression of the place and later worked it into his book.

The story is narrated by a man named Marlow, who is talking to some other men on a boat on the Thames.  A story within a story permits the author to express things a character might not say.  For instance the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning is a monologue by a Duke.  The Duke’s vanity and cruelty are clearly seen by the narrative consciousness of the poem and are efficiently conveyed to the reader even though the Duke himself is unaware of just how he appears. 

Many years ago I wrote an essay for an English class about Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”  I pointed out that the keystone words, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” are spoken simultaneously by the narrative consciousness, the narrator, the traveler, the sculptor and Ozymandias himself, each viewing the artifact in question in a larger context than the one before and finding a different meaning each time.  I shall spare you.  I did not get a good grade for the paper.  Maybe I should have written something funnier. 

Conrad has Marlow describe his adventure, invoking a familiar set of characteristics one might call the Standard Model of Savage.  You know.  They speak a different language.  Eat unwholesome food.  Jump around and make a lot of noise.  Dress outlandishly.  Get into wars.  Mutilate themselves one way or another.  Engage in cannibalism.  Believe quite dubious concepts, such as that the boiler on the riverboat is powered by a demon inside.  At this late date, one is tempted to take exception with the cannibalism but otherwise to remark, “Who doesn’t?”  But we have the advantage of Conrad’s own insight. 

Although the behavior of the African natives was expected to be troubling to anyone in London a hundred years ago, Marlow was particularly troubled by this sequence of logic: 1) These are primitive people at an early stage of development.  2) They are acting like savages.  3) Yet they are obviously human.  4) I am human.  5) Perhaps I am the aberrant one.  6) Maybe I ought to be acting like them.  And the narrative consciousness completes the line of reasoning with, “And maybe our stately civilization is a thin veneer over the savagery that is at our heart.”

The first proposition is, of course, one of those dubious concepts.  Although UN statistics would place the residents along the Congo at that time among the “least developed” people, there seems little doubt that humans have lived continuously in Africa longer than anywhere else.  Their culture was highly developed. 

More to the point, the vigorous antics of the residents, which filled Marlow and others with such horror, were not some natural and unspoiled state of humanity.  They were perfectly aware of the fact, or had developed their routines in response to the fact, that much of what they were doing was going to alienate people.  We are not that different from each other.  I once knew a woman who had spent some time doing charity work as a nurse on the same continent.  She showed me a film of some of her experiences.  There was a robust and handsome young man, whom she disdained but who had clearly drawn her attention.  There were a number of clips of him.  On one clip, he was the star in a celebration.  He was dressed up as a devil and was prancing around clearly loving being the center or attention.  Occasionally he would make a gesture of clawing dystonically at the audience with his six inch fingernails.  He was deliberately acting weird.

In other words, his costume meant exactly the same thing to him as it did to me.  “This is really scary.” 

I am sure you see where this is going.  The whole ceremony was effectively a message to outsiders, “Get out and stay out.  Don’t tamper with our gene pool.  If we were to accept outsiders, we would reduce our vital ability to have babies.”

This was evidently not the conscious opinion of the young man.  There was also a clip of him, soberly dressed, presenting her behind her camera with a bouquet of utterly beautiful tropical flowers.  From the tender look on his face, he would have had no hesitation about stirring up the gene pool.  And yet the message from the community he sometimes represented was quite the opposite.

In other words, Marlow was right.  There was a common emotional ground between his own culture and that of the Congo river people who so profoundly troubled him.  But in a manner of speaking, not only may the British habit of civilized behavior be a thin veneer; the cavorting savage behavior was a veneer, too.

There have been 1,669 visitors so far.

Home page.