Thursday, September 3, 2015

My Desert Island Book Would Have to Be Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is probably a book that has aroused, and continues to arouse, most literary critical debate, not to say polemic. This is partly because the story it tells has the visceral simplicity of great myth, and also because the book takes its narrator (Charles Marlow), and the reader, on a journey into the heart of Africa


Our encounter with Marlow's life-changing journey begins on the Thames in London, the great imperial capital, with his recollection of "the uttermost ends of the Earth". With brilliant economy, Conrad transports him to Congo on a quest that the writer himself undertook as a young man. There, working for the shadowy, but all-powerful "Company", Marlow hears of Mr Kurtz, who is described as a first-class Company servant. Once in the dark continent, Marlow is sent upriver to make contact with Kurtz, who is said to be very ill, and also to safeguard the security of the Inner Station. What he finds, after a gruelling journey to the interior, is a fellow European, who may or may not have gone mad, and who is worshipped as a god by the natives of the primitive interior. Kurtz, however, has paid a terrible price for his mastery. When Marlow finds him on his deathbed, he utters the famous and enigmatic last words: "The horror! The horror!"


This line is often said to refer to the atrocities Conrad himself witnessed in Congo as it suffered under the colonial administration of the Belgians. He himself is said to have remarked that his story was based on "experience, pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case". The metaphorical force of the story and the indifferent contempt of the African who announces "Mistah Kurtz – He dead" (brilliantly expropriated by TS Eliot) gives Heart of Darkness the most modern air of all the books that make up the movement called Modernism. Welcome to the 20th century, possibly English and American fiction's golden age.


Conrad's first and second languages were Polish and French, with his third language, English, not acquired until he was 20. English, however, was the medium he adopted to explore his youthful experience as a riverboat captain in Belgian Congo. Part of the work's strange hallucinatory atmosphere comes from the writer's struggle with a language that was not his mother tongue. He sometimes said he would have preferred to be a French novelist, and that English was a language without "clean edges". He once complained that "all English words are instruments for exciting blurred emotions". This, paradoxically, is perhaps what gives the book its famously enigmatic, and ambiguous, atmosphere.


Conrad finished writing Heart of Darkness on 9 February 1899. It was originally published as a three-part serialisation in Blackwood's Magazine from February to April 1899 (a commission for the 1,000th issue of the magazine), where it was promoted as a nautical tale by a writer whose work was at first (mistakenly) associated with the sea.

Heart of Darkness comes down to us in three other primary texts: a manuscript, a typescript and the final, revised version published in 1902. Not exactly a long story, and certainly not a novella, at barely 38,000 words long, it first appeared in volume form as part of a collection of stories that included Youth: A Narrative and The End of the Tether. It has become Conrad's most famous, controversial and influential work. The English and American writers who fell under its spell include TS Eliot (The Waste Land), Graham Greene (A Burnt-out Case), George Orwell (Nineteen-Eighty-Four) and William Golding (The Inheritors). It also inspired the Francis Ford Coppola 1979 film Apocalypse Now, a work of homage that continues to renew the contemporary fascination with the text.

None of Conrad's other books have inspired such veneration, especially in America, though some (including me) might want to place Nostromo (1904) higher up the pantheon. Critics have endlessly debated it. Chinua Achebe denounced it, in a famous 1975 lecture, as the work of "a bloody racist". Among the novels in this series, few novels occupy such an unassailable place on the list. It is a haunting, hypnotic masterpiece by a great writer who towers over the literature of the 20th century.

Heart of Darkness Quotes

“It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” 


“We live as we dream--alone....” 


“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.” 


“Your strength is just an accident owed to the weakness of others.” 


“No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream--alone.” 


“Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of inextinguishable regrets.” 


“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it -- I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” 

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” 


“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...” 

“The mind of man is capable of anything.” 

“The horror! The horror!” 



“We live in the flicker -- may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.” 

“You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appals me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget.” 

“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness” 


“They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.” 



“Even extreme grief may ultimately vent
itself in violence--but more generally takes the form of apathy” 


“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams...” 

“His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain -- why he did not instantly disappear.” 


“I couldn't have felt more of lonely desolation somehow, had I been robbed of a belief or had missed my destiny in life...” 

“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmostphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.” 


“Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.” 

“We live as we dream - alone. While the dream disappears, the life continues painfully.” 

“It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.” 


“the mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future” 

“We couldn't understand because we were too far... and could not remember because we were traveling in the night of first ages, those ages that had gone, leaving hardly a sign... and no memories.” 


“He hated all this, and somehow he couldn't get away.” 

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
The horror! The horror!” 


“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you, smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, "Come and find out".” 

“They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force--nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.” 


“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one's past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.” 



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