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).)

Should we bowdlerize Lovecraft?

I like the way there’s always one fact you know about an author, even if you know nothing else about them. If you know only one thing about Jane Austen, for instance, it’s that she, the great writer on marriage & marriageability, was herself unmarried. If you know only one thing about Charles Dickens, the great writer on (and righter of) social wrongs, it’s that his father was imprisoned for debt and young Charles had to work in a blacking factory, an experience he loathed & feared for the rest of his life. If you know only one thing about H P Lovecraft, it’s that he was a racist. The main difference with the Lovecraft fact is that, while you can read the entire works of Dickens or Austen and never guess their particular fact, if you read enough Lovecraft, you’re sure to stub your toe against his enough times to grow more than wary. And if you do enjoy his fiction for its unique take on the weird, it always does feel like stubbing your toe — both painful & angry-making.

For anyone who likes to read old fantasy, horror, and weird fiction, it’s a constant hazard. Sometimes it seems that no sooner do you find an author you like, you discover some objectionable opinion they held. (Why is this such a hazard for fantasy, horror & weird fiction enthusiasts? Perhaps because we’re more likely to read the not-so-great writers in our genre’s past.) I remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first read David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor (1932) and encountered its passages — from an author who had previously written that “nationalities, and the patriotism that attends nationalities, are inconsistent with true mental freedom and progress” — having one of his characters explain how “Christ was blue-eyed, belonging by descent to the North”. (I also remember the sense of relief I felt when I read Tolkien’s letter to his would-be publishers in pre-WWII Germany who had asked if he had any Jewish blood; he replied that he was sorry he hadn’t, but would be proud to admit it if he had.) There’s a watershed at World War II, before which racism, and (in Britain) Imperialism and classism, were strewn quite freely through the works of so many writers. (Casual racism, of the “it’s the word we always used, we never meant anything by it” type was still the norm amongst my grandparents’ generation.)

But should we bowdlerize Lovecraft? No. Lovecraft’s racism is part of the man we encounter whenever we read his fiction, and as it’s often the most noticeable of his objectionable characteristics, perhaps that’s one reason for keeping it — it alerts us to the fact that these stories are not the products of an entirely healthy mind. The very thing that draws me to reading Lovecraft — his portrayal of a very bleak and inhuman, even anti-human, universe — is centred on his own intently-held fears and beliefs. Lovecraft had a deep terror of life (which I’m not saying was groundless), and particularly of the body, and in a sense it was only because his racism was, at the time, the most socially acceptable part of his profound world-rejection, life-rejection, and body-rejection, that it comes out so explicitly in his fiction.

Lovecraft’s horror of otherness — most crassly expressed in his fear of the foreign faces and cultures he found himself surrounded by in New York — is ultimately the horror of his own body, and the shadow part of his mind. There is in his fiction a mixed loathing for and longing for union with that “other” — as there always must be, the psyche seeking to heal its self-division — and so we get that moment at the end of “The Outsider” where the protagonist sees his own horrific form in a mirror (which is not simply the end of a cheap twist tale, but a depiction of how far a man can go to deny what he knows is most horrific about himself), but also all those fantasies of having one’s mind transplanted into other, alien bodies, which Lovecraft strained to imbue with horror whilst quite plainly longing to experience.

Should we not read Lovecraft, then? My interest in Lovecraft’s fiction is as much with the man who wrote it as the stories he produces, but I don’t at all mean that I admire him through and through. Lovecraft is the picture of a man struggling at the edge of life, caught between the desire to live and the impulse to reject it all. An intelligent, sensitive, self-limited man, he strove all his life to try and solve the very alien equation at the core of his own psychology. He certainly didn’t achieve perfection at any point, but I believe it’s possible to find in his fiction evidence for the very difficult self-healing, or self-unifying (“I am it and it is I”), process we all undergo, and which is all the more explicit in the works of artists and writers who address the darker realms of the mind. Which is also the reason we go to those works, to try and illuminate our own self-healing, self-unification, and the struggle that goes with it. All authors are fallible human beings, and it’s in none of our interests to pretend they aren’t, to make a cult of them, to revere them unreservedly. Far better that they teach us to be always wary of what we read, and work out our own values for ourselves.

As for whether we should admire such authors, quite often it’s not a question of admiration — it’s fascination, that combination of repugnance and attraction, as much as anything, that brings us back to the work of the most powerful artists. It’s seeing ourselves, in however warped, exaggerated, and difficult-to-take a form, that brings us to their work — just like Lovecraft’s ghoul seeing itself in a mirror. Certainly, that’s what brings me back to Lovecraft.