I first picked up Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when I was looking for something interesting to read on a long night plane ride. I loathe flying especially since I get airsick, so whenever I must fly I always make sure to take some medication for motion sickness. Ordinarily this has the somewhat mundane effect of putting me to sleep, although the process usually takes a while. So while I waited for the soporific effect of the drugs to send me to that empty silence, I picked up the book I had brought with me and began to read.
It occurred to me later that I had done it all wrong. Picking up Heart of Darkness when you want something to read and pass the time, is kind of like playing Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto when you feel bored. These are the kinds of books you need to read in a class, in a book club, or at least with people who have studied them for years and can tell you what you’re getting into. There are books we read, and then there are books we are supposed to study in their proper literary and historical context, all while appreciating the symbolism that a professor has been taught to find. It’s not that Heart of Darkness is a confusing book, nor is it a very long book since it clocks in at just around 38,000 words. It’s supposed to be one of those books that you can’t just read, you need someone to explain it to you.
However, there is something strangely thrilling about trespassing on the hallowed threshold of the grand mausoleum of literature. Certainly you may miss the symbols, you may not get the historical context, and you will certainly not be able to appreciate how the author’s own life influenced the work. But when you read a book that has been socially reserved for study you encounter it as it is, rough and wild. It surprises and shocks you. It makes you laugh, and it makes you wonder. There is a singular joy in reading a book to be caught up in it, no matter how frightening or bizarre might be its subject matter.
Make no mistake, the title Heart of Darkness is apt and the book takes us to some very dark places. It tells the story of the narrator, Marlow, and how he is hired by “The Company” as a steamboat captain on the Congo River some time in the 19th century. Marlow is tasked with going up the river, deep into the heart of African Jungle, and finding a Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz had been one of the Company’s most successful traders of ivory but something strange had happened to him. So Marlow captains a steamboat up the river to see what has become of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz.
Now one of the most interesting parts details how Marlow got his new job in the first place, all thanks to his Aunt.
“It appeared, however, I was also one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle. There had been a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time, and the excellent woman, living right in the rush of all that humbug, got carried off her feet. She talked about ‘weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways,’ till, upon my word, she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.” (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Chapter I (1899; Project Gutenberg, 2006), par. 28, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/526/pg526.html)
Of course, Marlow’s aunt has a strange kind of optimistic racism working for her. She has bizarre notions about the good work that Marlow will do. It seems that there needs to be some kind of moral justification for the ivory trade. The notion that the Company intends to bring the light of civilization is just what is needed to cover over their barely concealed economic motivations. Of course, it isn’t the Company or Marlow who is confused, it’s Marlow’s aunt.
I find that Marlow’s aunt reflects the strange bias of the well-intentioned person. It seems that the better our intentions are, the more they break with reality. In the story Marlow eventually finds Kurtz, and Kurtz is even more idealistic than Marlow’s aunt. Kurtz struggles to hold onto his beautiful dream in light of the relentless difficulties he encounters. Yet while Marlow’s aunt remains optimistically naïve, Kurtz takes matters into his own hands and he is not afraid to do whatever it takes to bring about his mission. Needless to say, the heart of darkness might not be the heart of the African continent. It might be the heart of the Europeans who thought that their mission was to save Africa by any means necessary.
The book was very sobering, and I remember finishing it while my plane was still in the air. I gazed out at the dark night sky, and I remembered the feeling of the book. I felt the sheer weight of the pages, and the immense burden of the story. Not for nothing do they tell you to read this book in the safety and comfort of the presence of others. A good story has the power to transport you to other worlds, but sometimes it has the unmitigated audacity to force a confrontation with the very world you already inhabit.