Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Variations upon Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’

By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published August 24, 2017

As the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love slouches into the dog days of late August, the world seems far removed from that season’s innocent plea for peace and love.

Hate crimes, terrorism, the complex burdens of the past and even the threat of nuclear war are all announced and assailed upon us in a barrage of bulletins, email blasts and tweets.

It appears that the tweet is on its way to becoming the primary means of discourse among human beings. Perhaps that is appropriate, in these dark August days when a shadow literally stretches across the continental United States.

When human communication is reduced to something we term a tweet, I can’t help thinking of T.S. Eliot, and his closing lines of “The Hollow Men”:

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Eliot’s poem, like most of his best work, seeks to unify fragments from an assortment of literary and cultural allusions. “The Hollow Men” incorporates multiple references to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” with snippets of prayers and other poems, all of which seek to lend meaning to the “hollow men, the stuffed men.” Yet the literary work most on Eliot’s mind—even in one of the poem’s epigraphs—seems to be Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece “Heart of Darkness.”

“Heart of Darkness” was first published in 1899 and remains one of Conrad’s most enduring works, a book which has cast its influence across multiple genres, in a variety of contexts, and it retains its importance in our own time.

Conrad was born a Roman Catholic, in Russia, to Polish parents. His cosmopolitan beginning seemed to indicate his destiny. After he was orphaned at age 11, he was educated in Polish and Swiss schools and then went to sea on French ships. At age 21, he went to England to avoid service in the French military and served for many years as a British mariner. While at sea for the British, Conrad taught himself English. Readers of Conrad continue to marvel that the writer, who is almost universally recognized as one of the greatest masters of modern English prose, wrote in a language that was not his native tongue. Conrad wrote a number of great books in English, and he became a British citizen. He was recommended for knighthood but did not accept the honor. At his death, he was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Canterbury.

Novel reflected author’s own life

“Heart of Darkness,” like much of Conrad’s work, draws upon his own experiences. In 1890, Conrad made a voyage up the Congo River into the region where Belgian trading companies were making a fortune while cruelly exploiting the native people. Much of the action in “Heart of Darkness” is closely based upon horrific events that Conrad witnessed, and indeed Conrad was damaged both emotionally and physically by what he observed. Writing about his experiences enabled him to confront his own darkness.

The novel is designed around a frame narration within which the character Marlow does most of the storytelling. Docked on a vessel on the Thames river, Marlow tells his fellow crew members the story of his voyage up the Congo to locate an ivory trader, Kurtz, who had apparently gone mad. As Marlow recalls the events of the past, he makes frequent references to the people and moments that serve to develop the novel’s many themes.

Darkness, for Conrad, has many interpretations. On one level, the novel is about the imperialist colonial view of Africa itself. This racist interpretation of Africa as a place bereft of any insight or intelligence horrified Conrad, who though a Catholic, struggled throughout his life to balance skepticism with idealism. Marlow’s views of the Africans are not Conrad’s views, yet the writer felt he had to embody Marlow and Kurtz with the bigotry and insanity he had witnessed.

Darkness, then, also equates with what Nathaniel Hawthorne called the darkness of the human heart in conflict with itself. Within the singular nature of any human being exists the capacity for both good and evil. We are not divided into two sides; instead, one whole being can incline toward benevolence or brilliance, malevolence or madness, hence the need for a redeemer who can preserve the better aspect of our nature.

Marlow and Kurtz are different, yet Conrad renders them as equals in a larger sphere. Though he is sickened by what Kurtz has become, Marlow also marvels at Kurtz’s intellect and capacity for language. Within the dying madman Kurtz, Marlow, though sane, sees an aspect of himself. The novel becomes a wavering examination of the complexity of human beings as people socialized and primal, worthy and unworthy, enduring and doomed.

Book influenced artists, poets

For a book set both upon the cusp of the sea and upon a river, this wavering quality captures both the literal rhythm of water and the archetypal symbol of the river as passageway and quest. It is easy to see why the novel has fascinated so many artists, from Orson Welles, who attempted to make “Heart of Darkness” as his first film, to Francis Ford Coppola, who adapted the book for his own masterpiece “Apocalypse Now.”

Each of these artists, like Eliot, saw the same conflict that Conrad understood. Speaking of a bureaucrat he meets on his journey, Marlow says, “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.” This is the essential darkness of the book, a conception of human beings as pitiful and empty. Marlow is stricken by the idea that man might be hollow; Kurtz, too is horrified by that possibility. Indeed, his last words are “The horror! The horror!”

Eliot’s original epigraph to his great long poem, “The Wasteland,” included in fact Kurtz’s dying words and Marlow’s rumination upon them: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?”

Coppola ends “Apocalypse Now” the same way Eliot intended to begin “The Wasteland,” when his Colonel Kurtz, before his own death, also utters, “The horror! The horror!” Not accidentally, of course, Coppola also shows Colonel Kurtz reading Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Conrad, Eliot, Coppola: three Catholics, three men living in different periods of crisis, three artists in search of meaning in a world that seems seized by darkness. That quest for redemption marked Eliot’s entire life. It endowed even the very making of “Apocalypse Now” with mystery and vision.

Conrad himself reveals Marlow straining to find meaning in Kurtz’s life: “I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up—he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor; it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper.”

‘When language fails, we fail’

A whisper. A whimper. A tweet. Eliot describes his hollow men as having “dried voices, that when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless.” This failure of language—a failure revealed in “Heart of Darkness,” in Eliot’s poetry, even in the silence and the babbling that characterize Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”—all point to an even more horrifying failure, the collapse of the human and the humane. When language fails, we fail.

William Faulkner “declined to accept the end of man” because, he said, we possess both a voice and a soul; for Faulkner, the two were inseparable.

In our own time, Stephen Hawking, who has no voice himself, has urged us to “keep talking.” For all he knows about the universe, Hawking emphasizes the importance of language. And Eliot, familiar with the deep past that is itself timeless, as familiar with that mystery as he was with Western culture, was able in his last great poetry of the “Four Quartets” not to recoil from horror but to embrace redemption.

Quoting Dame Julian of Norwich, a great Catholic mystic, Eliot echoes St. Julian’s transcendent proclamation: “And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well when the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.”

Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and its enduring and challenging legacy, point to the fact that even in the midst of evil, God can summon good. This goodness endures in the essence of the Word, the transcendent divine Word made flesh, which speaks truth always to a darkness that cannot overcome it.

David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.