Born in 1946, David McNaughton had the good fortune to go to an excellent state grammar school in Nottingham which inspired in him a life-long love of literature and philosophy. He has been teaching philosophy in universities for 40 years - first at Keele and now at Florida State University. He misses many things about Britain, but is relieved and delighted to have escaped from the UK higher education system. His other interests include listening to music, watching cricket and fell-walking. Opportunities for the last two are somewhat limited in Florida, so he returns to the Lake District each summer. His main philosophical work is in ethics and in philosophy of religion. David is the author of Moral Vision. He is currently writing a book on forgiveness with Eve Garrard. Here he discusses Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
David McNaughton on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I first read Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I was fifteen, and I have been haunted by it ever since. Certain scenes are engraved in my memory: Marlow, with 'the pose of a Buddha preaching'; the ship firing aimlessly at the African bush; the old knitters of black wool in the city that resembled a whited sepulchre; the row of heads on posts. Perhaps even more insistently, phrases and whole sentences echo in my consciousness. That the book has lingered in my porous memory is not wholly explained by the fact that I had to study it for 'O' level, for other set books have long ago vanished without trace. Nor, indeed, though I am ashamed to confess it, am I a devotee of Conrad's works as a whole. To me, the extraordinary power of this book lies in the flawless marriage of form and content. The horrific bleakness of its vision is perfectly captured by Conrad's incantatory language.
What first attracted me to the book was its intense atmosphere. From the beginning, Conrad's language conjures up a sense of brooding, ominous, stifling darkness that builds like an insistent drumbeat to the crescendo of Kurtz's last words. Almost every paragraph is crafted to intensify the effect: patterns of words and phrases that evoke darkness and mystery are repeated with variations, so that they echo and re-echo. The effect is almost symphonic, the reiterated images and phrases acting as leitmotifs. Only Macbeth can match it for the relentless evocation of darkness and evil.
The opening scene, which provides the setting for Marlow's tale, brilliantly establishes the mood. The air 'seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth'. Only the river escapes the darkness; it has 'the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth'. We expect, then, a tale of distant travel to dark places, but Marlow reminds us that the darkness is close; it hems us in on all sides. '"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."' Light is evanescent as a lightning flash: 'We live in the flicker... But darkness was here yesterday.' Conrad's incantatory style is already in full flower; the words 'brooding' and 'gloom' (or their cognates) are frequently repeated. But this conscious repetition is the result not of poverty of language but of intensity of theme. You might as well complain about the frequency of words evoking darkness in Macbeth, or Beethoven's endless return to the opening phrase in the first movement of his fifth symphony.
Central themes of Marlow's narrative are futility, absurdity, hypocrisy, self-deception, evil and mystery. Darkness does double duty: it signifies both evil and mystery. It is impenetrable. The whole colonial enterprise is portrayed, not only as cruel and pitiless, but also as inefficient, chaotic and absurd. Plenty of rivets where they are not wanted; none where they are. On the voyage out Marlow passes a gunboat futilely firing into an impenetrable and seemingly uninhabited jungle. 'In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent... Nothing happened. Nothing could happen.' The ill treatment of the natives is justified by categorizing them as rebels or criminals – terms that, torn from their original context, make no sense to those to whom they are applied. The people Marlow meets are small-minded, self-important schemers and charlatans who disguise from themselves the rape and pillage in which they are engaged. Long before Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, Conrad portrays the type of the petty bureaucrat whose absorption in daily tasks blinds him to the enormities of colonialism. At best, they are comic ('He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear'); at their worst, their attempts at evil - though they do real harm - are hollow and pathetic ('this papier-mache Mephistopheles'). They are the devotees of 'a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.'
Not so Kurtz; his is the evil of greatness gone wrong. Round him still hangs the glory of the fallen archangel. He is great, gifted, eloquent, but fatally flawed, like all tragic heroes: 'there was something wanting in him - some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.' The wilderness 'had found him out early', had 'whispered to him things about himself which he did not know'. Not only is he unable to restrain his lusts, but he is consumed by the sin of pride - the placing of self at the centre of existence: '"My intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my" - everything belonged to him.' In fact we never discover what Kurtz's original ideals were. When he finds Kurtz, Marlow is in a dream-like state, perhaps brought on by fever. He cannot accurately recall what Kurtz talked about; he is mesmerized by the style, but the substance eludes him. This is no accident, for Conrad makes it clear that Kurtz is a man for whom the spellbinding declamation of passionate conviction is more important than the thing declaimed. 'He electrified large meetings. He had faith... He could get himself to believe anything... He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.' Marlow's vagueness about the content of his talks with Kurtz also serves Conrad's narrative purpose. To be specific would not only dispel the mystery, but also risk bathos. Marlow's hints ('It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence') leave all to the reader's imagination.
Yet, for Marlow, Kurtz was a 'remarkable man'. He had 'kicked himself loose of the earth'. Like Satan he stands alone, self-sufficient, believing in nothing outside of 'himself - his own exalted and incredible degradation.' He had attained enlightenment; looked into the abyss of things and seen the horror of them. 'He had summed up - he had judged. "The horror!"... this was the expression of some sort of belief;... it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth.' Of that final cry Marlow says: 'It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory!'
Conrad's vision was bleak, perhaps partly as a result of his experiences in the Congo which supply the basis for Heart of Darkness. He summed up his credo thus:
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die... There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that... is always but a vain and floating appearance... A moment, a twinkling of an eye and nothing remains - but a clot of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.
There could scarcely be a more resounding rejection of religion and morality. Yet, to my mind, Heart of Darkness is a deeply religious and moral work, despite rejecting God and morality. One who rejects all meaning in life may see the world as 'just one damn thing after another'. But to Conrad there is mystery at the heart of things; a mystery that is awe-inspiring and magnificent. It offers nothing by way of comfort or reassurance, but Conrad's attitude to it is reverential and almost mystical. In him we have the religious attitude without its normal object.
And, despite the lack of any external moral authority, it matters how one lives. There is moral struggle and even, as we have seen, moral victory. Conrad expressed his 'conviction that the world... rests on a few very simple ideas.' Chief among these is the 'idea of Fidelity'. Marlow's unpretentious integrity stands in sharp contrast to the moral posturing of those he encounters. Like his near namesake, Philip Marlowe, he can walk the mean streets without himself being mean. '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... It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.' Being true to one's self-forged beliefs replaces morality. 'He must meet that stuff with his own true stuff - with his own inborn strength. Principles won't do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags - rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.' Conrad's response to his bleak vision prefigures the later response of the existentialist privileging of authenticity.
For Marlow there is also the possibility of redemption, not so much through work itself, as through one's commitment to that work. '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.' Here again, Conrad anticipates an existentialist motif which is especially prominent in Camus. As Camus later wrote: 'We must imagine Sisyphus happy.' I strongly suspect that Conrad's attempt to combine his nihilistic vision with his passionate commitment to the need for a 'deliberate belief' to which one must remain true would not survive the cool gaze of philosophical scrutiny. His leading ideas are in tension. It is, of course, a tribute to the power of Conrad's writing that in Heart of Darkness they seem fused in indissoluble unity.
Nowadays, it is perhaps impossible to discuss Heart of Darkness without mentioning the question of racism. But when I first read the book in 1963, that issue was invisible to me. I was raised on Little Black Sambo, collected 'golliwogs' from Robertson's jam, and was given a money box in the shape of a caricature of a negroid head. Yet my parents were good-hearted, humane, liberal people who were appalled by the notices on signs offering rooms to rent that read 'No coloured; no Irish'. In retrospect such insensitivity, wholly typical of its time, seems incomprehensible. One cannot read this novel today and fail to see why the charge of racism has been levelled against it. It is not just the frequent repetition of the 'N' word, but the attitude of the narrator (and, one assumes, of Conrad himself) to Africans that is disturbing in many ways. It is by turns patronizing and fearful. Worse, the Africans are barely human. 'No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman.' There is no room to discuss this properly, but I want to say three things in Conrad's defence.
First, Conrad's racism is mild by the standards of the time. I have already pointed out that 50 years ago enlightened people could fail to see racism when it was staring them in the face. How much more difficult 100 years ago. Second, Conrad is sympathetic to the plight of the colonized and exploited Africans in ways that were, I think, well ahead of his time. Third, he not only exposed the evils of colonialism, at times he suggests that 'civilization' is only a veneer; in the opening scene, darkness broods over the 'greatest town on earth'. London, the heart of Western civilization, is a 'monstrous town... marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.' Darkness is not confined to Africa or to 'prehistoric' peoples; darkness is at the heart of the world, and in the hearts of men.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]