A cliche is a cliche is a cliche. But cliches also contain bits of folk wisdom. And perhaps the greatest bit of folk wisdom for writers -- there are really only two ways to learn how to write: read (like a writer) and write.
Reading like a writer can be difficult. It means paying attention. As I read Heart of Darkness (twice), I did my best to pay attention and to think about the elements that made this book great. What lessons (as a writer) did I learn as I was reading this book?
Since this book came with an author biography that prefaced the story, the first lessons I learned were in the biography of Conrad himself: he wrote 31 books; he based his stories on life experiences; and English was not his first language...so he struggled. So, writers need to be disciplined, they need to be constantly working, and they need to lead interesting lives (when possible).
The Heart of the Heart of Darkness.
At the heart of the book, of course, is the colonial issue -- the conflict between the high-minded ideals of humanitarianism and Christian charity and the baser motives of territorial and resource acquisition. Like any good book, the story does not try to resolve the conflict but rather keeps dramatic tension moving throughout the story. A good story should make a compelling narrative that is inexplicable in other forms.
Is this humanitarianism merely a veneer? One would think so. After all, the darkness "conquers" both Kurtz and Marlow (as well as others) in various situations. And the naked greed of colonial Europe is often in plain site. Though the simple interpretation of people succumbing to darkness doesn't always work in the story as Marlow frequently shows guarded admiration for those who are able to adjust to their surroundings. Thus the conundrum: those who adapt to the darkness can survive, but in the process their ideals are corrupted.
The novel also unsettles our ability to come up with rational causal chains. Did European rapaciousness cause the darkness or did the harsh wilderness strip away idealism until the rapaciousness was the only thing left? Is the darkness internal, something that is brought into the wilderness or does the wilderness condition the colonials to be part of the darkness?
Could a book like this exist today?
The book is well-crafted, but one still can doubt whether a book written in this style would be considered literature today. First, there is the high moral tone of the book. Morality tales rarely are considered literature today. What is ironic is that the classic morality tales of yesterday are considered a kind of barbarism today (a hint at the degree to which we have become a post-modern society?). Of course, moralism survives today in historical fiction, romantic literature, and perhaps religious fiction, but these are considered genre fictions and are often looked on as lower forms of literature for better or worse. One also can question whether Conrad's use of alliteration and dramatic repetition would be considered literary.
One also has to wonder whether a character like Kurtz could exist in modern literature. Certainly, a character like Kurtz was used in the film Apocalypse Now. But what about a modern business man? Gordon Gecko wasn't a Kurtz because he didn't feel he had to negotiate two contradictory ideals. Greed was good, so there was never any internal conflict. Where would we go to find this internal conflict again? Modern development projects? War again? I saw hints of the Kurtz character, surprisingly, in a State Department official represented in The Kite Runner. If you have a chance to read The Kite Runner, please pay close attention to a little scene toward the end of the book where the main character approaches a State Department official. I think this scene captures the problem of good and evil in our time.
Perhaps one of the other characters (the brickmaker) summarizes Kurtz best by saying he is "an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else." It is ironic that the brickmaker says these words because there is more than a touch of (perhaps unintentional) irony here. All these things represent supposedly the best of modern man, but all of these are also the accouterments of the unrelenting ambition of modern society -- to conquer and rationalize. Indeed, if we think of modernity as one kind of darkness and the wilderness as another, each in their own way with conquering tendencies, then we can see Kurtz and the natives as two kinds of darknesses meeting. Kurtz conquered the village, which conquered him in a different way.
What was Kurtz in the end? Marlow (Conrad's mouthpiece) writes: "There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces" (page 100). How can we explain this passage? He is the best of people, he is the worst of people. In his very lowness, there was nothing higher. Again, we are presented with the inscrutable.
Kurtz is also, however, a person without a core (other than raw ambition). After all, in the waning pages of the book a colleague of Kurtz says that he would have made a great politician. When asked for which party, his colleague answers, "Any party...he was an extremist" (page 110). In other words, he would have joined any party, so long as that party offered him the possibility of satiating his ambitions.
The Parts of the Book that Linger and Linger and...
The first hint at dramatic and incongruous contrasts: the boat captain who Marlow is to replace. "Fresleven--that was the fellow's name, a Dane--thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn't surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs." This quote comes early in the book (page 10). It sets up the dramatic contrasts that will occur with major characters later in the book. It's a great use of a minor character to set the scene for more major events to come.
Depictions of realistic horror. In referring to the conditions of black workers when he arrived: "They were dying slowly--it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now,--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom." (Page 22). This depiction of the work site stands up against any depiction of modern horror, including depictions in holocaust literature. Later we see the contrast between this death and decay and the well-regulated columns of numbers in the accountant's books, which are, as Conrad puts it, in "apple pie order" (page 24). For the accountant, the groans of the sick people distract his attention and make it difficult for him to finish his work.
Another passage that impressed me was the one that described the brickmaker, another peripheral character in the book. "I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe" (page 37). For some reason, I could picture the character even without knowing altogether who Mephistopheles was.
Another Great River
My notes on this book run on and on like a great river (it could be the Congo; it could be the Thames). Surely, the quantity of ideas is something that could be recorded in an accountant's book (though unfortunately, they are nowhere near worth their weight in ivory). Surely though, this quantity signifies a thing, trite but true: to read a good book once is no good; one must read it again. One must learn to write by reading carefully, as a writer would, reverse engineering it, until it is a thing that you have written again with your own eyes. Only in this way can you allow the darkness of literary genius to conquer you.
YOU ARE READING
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