Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

josephconradHeart of Darkness (1899) ends with a moment in which its protagonist and narrator Marlow, returned to Europe after his adventure in the Congo, feels alienated from his fellow human beings:

‘I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams. They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretence, 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 outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend.’

There’s a similar moment at the end of HG Wells’s books from the same time. This is from The War of the Worlds (1898):

wells_wotw_penguin1971‘I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher-boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal… Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer… I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body…’

Or, in The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896):

wells_iodm_penguin1973‘Then I look about me at my fellow-men; and I go in fear. I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion; that these seeming men and women about me are indeed men and women,—men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct and the slaves of no fantastic Law,—beings altogether different from the Beast Folk. Yet I shrink from them… When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered “Big Thinks,” even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be…’

higgs_strangerIn each case, an adventure into darkness has given the narrator a double vision of the world or humankind: the civilised surface and the horror beneath. Usually, Conrad’s novella is read as being about how Kurtz, sent to the Congo by the Company to plunder it for ivory, allowed himself to become debased by the supposed savagery of the region. But on a recent re-read of Heart of Darkness, I was also making my way through John Higgs’s book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the 20th Century, and the two books kept chiming together. The chief characteristic of the 20th century, for Higgs, was its loss of any shared central ‘omphalos’ — belief, political system, or cultural perspective — with the result that societies are reduced to nothing but a collection of dissociated individuals, each of whose needs become their own centre, with no larger, more encompassing ideal to bind them together. Higgs’s chapter on ‘Growth’ goes into the idea of how corporations, empowered by the legal fiction that they are individuals, with equal rights to human individuals (though incapable of being imprisoned, or of dying of old age), ‘had no choice but to become undying, unjailable profit-taking machines’. And I think the real darkness Kurtz encounters when he heads down the Congo to rape the natural world of its resources, is the one he brought with him. Unlike the other ‘pilgrims’ (as the narrator Marlow refers to the other Company agents) who are kicking their heels while they wait for an opportunity to pillage some ivory and make their personal fortunes, Kurtz has taken the Company’s driving need for profit as a fervent belief and philosophical ideal — his ‘omphalos’ — and it has made him the most successful ivory-gatherer in the Congo. But it has also made him the most spiritually bankrupt, and utterly dehumanised creature Marlow has ever met. Kurtz has raped the world and debased the people of the Congo to serve his and the Company’s need, and has dehumanised himself in the process. This is not a vision of Imperialistic Europe, but of 20th century corporate man, who serves the need to increase his employer’s profit and believes in nothing else, no other ideals, not even the worth of his fellow human beings.

Returning to Europe, Marlow is brought up short when he visits Kurtz’s ‘Intended’, and finds her talking of her fiancé’s nobility, his vision, his love, and his greatness, when all Marlow has seen is the depths to which a human being can go if he has the capacity to believe in an ideal that is, at heart, utterly corrupt.

HG Wells had his narrators see different hearts of darkness — the ‘Beast in Man’ (John Higgs says that the foregrounding of the previously-hidden id was a defining mark of the 20th century) in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the way that civilised Europeans might be treated as they themselves treated those they ‘colonised’, when sufficiently powerful yet uncaring aliens invade in The War of the Worlds — but there’s an undeniable feeling that, as the 19th century moved into the 20th, there were idealistic shocks to come, and Wells and Conrad, prophetic writers both, were sensing the early-warning tremors.

Apocalypse Now! is one of my favourite films, and I only really understood Heart of Darkness once I’d seen its transplanting of Conrad’s tale to the US war in Vietnam. But, in a sense, it weakens the story, implying that it takes special conditions, such as war, to reveal the heart of darkness. Conrad’s novel may take place in what was then seen, at the time, by his intended audience, as an exotic distant land, but it’s about everyday things, not war: it’s about work, and the corporations who provide us with employment, and how serving them may lead us to dehumanise ourselves and others, even as we ravage the world in the name of profit.

(John Higgs’s interview with Alan Moore, about H P Lovecraft and the 20th Century, is worth a watch on YouTube (23 minutes).)


Stag Boy by William Rayner

Stag Boy, cover art by Michael Heslop

Stag-men of various sorts have been popping up on this site from time to time, from the antler-wearing shaman of Robin of Sherwood, to Herne the Hunter in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, or the bothersome creature of imagination and sexuality that intrudes upon the narrator’s life in Patricia McKillip’s Stepping Out of the Shadows. In William Rayner’s Stag Boy (first published in 1972), fifteen-year-old Jim Hooper returns to the farm he grew up in to convalesce after life in nearby Wolverhampton begins to affect his health. There, he finds his childhood friend Mary Rawle being courted by Edward Blake, two years older, richer, and far more worldly than Jim, as well as being ‘tall and strongly made, a good rugger player and a first-rate horseman.’ Jim can’t help but feel trapped by the boy-ness of his own adolescent body:

‘Then he looked down at his whitening knuckles, the narrowness of his wrists, and felt a choking anger at being shut up in such a poor thing of a body. He was overtaken by a longing so enormous it shook him physically… His spirit, if it could only get free, he felt sure would be as strong and wild as a hawk.’

An idle wish made in a ruined witch’s cottage leads him to find an ancient, stag-horned helmet which, when worn, allows Jim to share in the life of the ‘black stag’ — a creature of local repute, and the prize target of the hunt (to which both Mary Rawle and Edward Blake belong). While he’s one with the stag, Jim can lend it his intelligence, meaning it can out-think the hunt instead of just trying to out-run them; and being with the stag plugs Jim into the natural power and dignity of this king-animal’s physicality, which rubs off on him as his own body starts to mature and he gains in confidence.

At first, Mary’s not interested in Jim. To her, he’s part of the past, a relic of her childhood and of the closed-in, dead-end world of ‘the moor and the woods’. Edward makes her feel grown-up, and seems like the gateway to the adult life she’s always dreamed of living, one of:

‘parties and dances… famous people, amusing people, rich people, and something new and exciting would happen every day.’

But Jim brings the black stag to stand outside her window at night, tempting her to touch it, even ride it. At first she resists:

‘I don’t want strange things in my life… I don’t want my life to be different… It’s like stepping out of a lighted room into the dark.’

‘How much more comfortable it was when you had the right dreams, the ones that people understood and sympathised with.’ But she can’t ignore the wonder of a stag of such power and dignity and gentleness that lets her ride it, or Jim’s uncanny connection with it. At this point, Jim and Mary’s relationship becomes a world of its own, a secret that binds the two of them, and goes beyond her dreams of ‘parties and dances’ to something that mixes physicality and vulnerability, intimacy and meaning:

‘They were timid, too much aware of other people’s opinions and of their own youth and ignorance. Only in their wordless journeys through the dark did all worries and embarrassment fall away, leaving them free and happy, and innocent.’

But the stag’s animal nature threatens to unbalance Jim. That strength and nobility can veer into arrogance and an animal sexuality Jim has to fight to control. And now it’s the stag that calls Jim when it needs him, not the other way round, and its need is desperate. The hunt, fed up of hearing about this ‘proud, mettlesome, outrageous beast’ parading itself openly through populated towns, bringing traffic to a standstill and running rings round them whenever they chase it, is intent on bagging this creature before the season’s over. And what will happen if Jim is joined to it when it’s killed?

Part of the strength of this short YA novel comes from how naked the central metaphor is. Contact with the stag connects Jim with his own burgeoning masculinity (it’s significant that his father is dead) and adolescent sexuality. It teaches him the natural confidence and strength he ought to feel, but can also at times be a wild ride with forces that will not be tamed, or contained, or made civilised. Jim has to learn how to set the limit, how to be fully human not merely an animal, before he’s overtaken.

Although William Rayner’s sympathies are obviously with the black stag in its conflict with the hunt, by the end of the book, when it’s obvious Jim has to separate himself from the influence of the stag, the hunt takes its place as part of the natural order of things, particularly when contrasted to what Rayner sees as even more degenerate ways of taming nature. The hunt is ‘the ritual that should attend [the stag’s] death’, as it means death with dignity, and this is contrasted with the artificial, constricted life of battery hens and, beyond that, human lives in cities with their:

‘…endless mazes of streets, the houses like cages, that world of hutches and batteries and stunted lives.’

‘To deny nature — that was the worst sin, the sin against life’ — but, in the end, to live as a human being, Jim must civilise the more powerful natural impulses. A balance has to be found against the force of male adolescence, and so of course it’s Mary, finally, who redeems him, despite being told ‘This is not a thing for women.’

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

Like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and The Owl Service, Stag Boy is another YA novel from the 60s and early 70s that explores the clash between modernity and tradition, nature and civility, by having normal, vulnerable teenagers trying to adjust to themselves and their burgeoning adolescence, while facing forces of folklore, myth, and the supernatural. And it’s a good mix.

I can’t find out much about William Rayner, other than that he was born in 1929. Stag Boy came out in hardback (in 1972) and paperback (1976), both with the same cover by Mike Heslop (who also did my favourite cover for The Dark is Rising). And, if you’re looking at that cover and thinking, ‘Isn’t that…?’, well, the answer is yes, it is. Heslop used a photo of David Bowie as a reference. (One more influence by Bowie on 1970s YA.)