Sunday, May 03, 2009

Book Look: Heart of Darkness

Book Look: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Another try at books on tape (if you will) from the good folks at The recordings at Librivox seem to be hit or miss. I tried Murders of the Rue Morgue but the cadence of the reading was very strange, loaded with mid-sentence pauses that were too distracting. I also tried Inferno but it was read in a metered poetry and read very fast, or at least too fast for me to keep track of. I say without the intent to complain. Librivox costs nothing and the readers are clearly dedicated volunteers who are to be appreciated.

Heart of Darkness is very well read, and a stunner it is. If you are like me, you're only exposure to this story had been the variation that is called Apocalypse Now. Great cinema, for sure, but having read -- or more properly, heard -- Heart of Darkness, the movie doesn't hold a candle to the book.

The schoolbook analysis of Heart of Darkness is that it is a story of a man discovering the fact that we all have a darkness within us and that give the right circumstances we all fall back to primitive cruelty. Standard study questions might be "Are we nothing more than a thin layer of civilization over a savage and empty heart?" or "Is civilization even a thin layer, or is it just a variation on savagery as basic as any other?" Through Marlow's description, we know that Kurtz found those circumstances and turned away from morality. We also know that in his journey to find Kurtz, Marlow was pushed to a similar brink but returned (maybe).

I suppose that is correct as far as it goes, but then what. If the point is really that given the right circumstances, everyone could turn savage the story would be nothing more than fodder for a freshman-level Survey of Western Literature. I suspect Conrad had something deeper on his mind.

If it is true that our hearts are dark and we are little more than savages ourselves, then what does that say about value, knowledge, and reason itself? If in the end there is nothing more than primal instincts and cruelty, then there is nothing at all. All of our beliefs are false constructs to delude ourselves that there is meaning beyond our animalistic existence. In contemporary parlance, we are nothing except a bundle of ancient developments in evolutionary psychology. The dark heart comes not from the potential for savagery, but what the savagery implies about our own existence. (It should be noted that Conrad was Russian, and all this strikes me as very Russian.)

Marlow does escape surrendering to cruelty, but he is haunted by the possibility that it is to no purpose. Early on in the story Marlow makes a stark claim that he detests a lie. Yet in the end, he lies to Kurtz's fianc‚ to ease her pain. From this act, it would seem Marlow hasn't given in to the uncaring emptiness, although he cannot explain why. He appears to have reconciled his vision of existential futility with the need to live in the world as it is; something Kurtz could never do. From the final line of the story, Conrad seems to be saying that life goes on with these answers, but the darkness is still everywhere, waiting.

Disturbing philosophical observations aside, Heart of Darkness is beautifully written. The gloomy and dire atmospherics are mesmerizing. From a historical point of view, Conrad was one of the early post-Victorians. At a time when the standard fiction involved florid, formally constructed prose filled with detailed documentation, Conrad wrote almost colloquially. He was unconcerned with details other than to the extent they moved the story along or contributed to the tone he was trying to achieve. He forewent direct description for hints and allusions. His focus was the internal journey of his character, in keeping with the rise of the concepts of conscious and unconscious psychology that were gaining prevalence at the turn of the last century.

As Francis Ford Coppolla realized, Heart of Darkness transcends time. Marlow even notes at the beginning that a similar story could have occurred at any point in history. Reading it is a both a disturbing and rewarding experience. Which begs a question: If existence is truly empty and the heart of everything is dark, how could a work like this exist?