‘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):
‘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):
‘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…’
In 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).)