Take Another Piece of My Heart of Darkness
It’s not that “Heart” was bad, but I remember loving it the first time I read it.
If either of our readers don’t know, “Heart of Darkness” is Joseph Conrad’s fictional account of a ferry boat captain’s dealings with ivory traders in Africa.
The captain, Marlow, follows the unnamed (but presumed to be the Congo) river until he reaches the acclaimed Kurtz. He’s instructed to recover Kurtz who’s deep in “savage” country.
Kurtz’s reputation precedes him. He’s brilliant, rumored to run the ivory company some day, but has an unethical way of gathering his ivory.
He would convince the native Africans that he was a god, and they would give him whatever he wanted.
When I read “Heart” in college, I thought it was a wonderful tale about the dangers of greed. A 72-page parable with the ultimate moral that life is horrible once you lose perspective.
But when I reread “Heart,” the prose felt bloated and soporific. I fell asleep twice while reading. (In all fairness, I could just be exhausted this week.)
Before, it seemed murky.
Now, it seemed imprecise.
Before, it seemed ambiguous and mature.
Now, it reads like propaganda against the country of Africa and those who would colonize it. (The latter bothers me less.)
Smarter people have analyzed the racist overtones in “Heart.” Chinua Achebe once wrote, “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.”
Conrad, through Marlow, often describes the “savages” of Africa as just human enough to recognize as a “distant kinship.” The only African who receives something passing as a compliment is a woman, some sort of mistress to Kurtz.
Marlow calls her “savage” and “superb.” She’s woman enough to be beautiful, but not white enough to be tamed. (It’s not unlike Stevie Wonder’s tongue-in-cheek line. “His sister’s black but she is sho nuff pretty.”)
Racist authors don’t upset me. I recently quoted my disbelief in “moral” and “immoral” fiction. Ernest Hemingway was six sorts of a misogynist and I enjoyed his writing (though understand and respect why Tricia would not.)
What bothers me about “Heart of Darkness” is simpler than that. Conrad has no affection for his subject matter. He clearly does not love Africa or the people within it, whether they be born there or colonists.
And if he doesn’t care for his subject matter, how can we?
-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com
P.S. I swear, that's the last time I use that Janis Joplin reference.
P.P.S. I'm about to watch the series finale of "Scrubs." Afterward, I intend to mourn my loss with sherbet.