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December 11, 2004

"Heart of Darkness": Prescient Masterpiece of World Literature, Or Airy-Fairy Egghead Nonsense Like All Books Everywhere?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a remarkable book. I'd have to check, but I may be the first person to point this out. (I also think the Mona Lisa is a fine painting. I don't care whether anyone agrees with me or not.)

If you haven't read it, the book takes place in the late 1800s, and is mostly a story told by a British seaman named Marlow. He's such a famous literary creation that Raymond Chandler named his central character, the detective Philip Marlowe, after him.

Marlow tells a tale of traveling to the Congo to work for "the Company." He travels up river to the interior, where he meets Kurtz. Kurtz is one of the Company's stars... but in the interior, he has indulged in insane violence and "unspeakable rites." He lives in a house surrounded by stakes topped by the heads of decapitated Congolese.

There are two things that are revelatory about the book. Or at least, they're revelatory for those who haven't been on the receiving end of European colonialism.

First, those engaged in colonial endeavors always feel the world is full of darkness. To these people, the "heart of darkness" is located in the lands they colonize. Heart of Darkness subtly says: No. The heart of darkness is everywhere people are -- but definitely it's part of colonialism. The last sentence of the book, describing the Thames, is:

The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky -- seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

In other words, England, then the heart of the "civilized" world, is also the true heart of darkness.

Second, and most relevant for us today, Heart of Darkness examines how colonialists always believe they're doing something wonderful for the people they're colonizing. (See: the White Man's Burden.) Here's how Marlow describes Kurtz's writings about uplifting the natives:

The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence -- of words -- of burning noble words.

Specifically, Kurtz had written:

"By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded."

Of course, it doesn't work out that way. At the end of Kurtz's philanthropic blather, he has scrawled this:

"Exterminate all the brutes!"

Nevertheless, as Marlow explains, colonialists must hold onto the idea they're doing something wonderful and good:

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..."

So, is Heart of Darkness just a dumb 100 year-old book, totally irrelevant to the present? Or... does it have something extremely important to say about today's America, something we'd better pay attention to RIGHT NOW?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Trent Lott:

I ask Mississippians of all faiths to pray for all our coalition forces and the Iraqi people as they engage in an intense but noble battle against what is nothing but sheer evil.
-- Trent Lott, March 27, 2003

We went in there to free those people.
-- Trent Lott, April 15, 2003

If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens.
-- Trent Lott, October 28, 2003

Posted at December 11, 2004 06:04 PM | TrackBack

I've read some Joseph Conrad but not that one. I'll have to get a copy. Of course you are right, there's literaly thousands of books written a century a go or even much, much earlier that certainly have a direct statement on our current affairs. Humans really haven't changed much in the last several thousand years.

Posted by: Terrible at December 12, 2004 09:41 AM

I disagree with the use of Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now, depending on your frame of reference) since I do not believe the analogy is apt as the purpose of this was is different than the colonialization of the Congo.

However, the magniminity of Lott (and the others that have echoed this sentiment) is hilarious. Nothing like saying that we are going to save the Iraqis from the evil despot who has been holding them down in poverty and without freedom, and then destroying the entire infrastructure so that when they ultimately do have free elections, they will have nothing left. Gee, thanks guys!

Posted by: Brian at December 12, 2004 11:41 AM


What do you think the purpose of this war is? Myself, I'd say it's not so different from the colonization of the Congo.

Remember, King Leopold didn't say: let's colonize the Congo and steal their rubber and ivory, making me unbelievably rich! It was: let's help the poor Congolese, who are desperate for our assistance.

This goes way, way back. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was an Indian saying: "Come Over And Help Us."

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 12, 2004 05:37 PM

Ugh - I read both this and the Poisonwood Bible at around the same time when I was stationedi n Nigeria as a foreign service officer - grim reading. Good books, but not fun.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo at December 13, 2004 12:28 AM

I don't understand. Are we in Iraq as part of some plot to colonize the Congo?

Posted by: rutbag at December 13, 2004 01:13 AM


Thanks for reminding me about The Poisonwood Bible, which I've checked out from the library several times but failed to read. I've accumulated massive overdue fees for it, though, which is almost the same thing as reading it.


Have you ever read King Leopold's Ghost? That's an even better source of grimness. In fact, it made me go back and reread Heart of Darkness. Before reading King Leopold's Ghost I had no idea Kurtz was based on real people who put real Congolese heads on pikes.


Indeed we are in Iraq in order to colonize the Congo. Unfortunately, it's too complicated for me to explain.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at December 13, 2004 06:28 AM

As Colonel Cathcart said when the squadron balked at bombing the village, "Nobody cares more about those crummy wops than I do..."

Posted by: Tirebiter in Sector R at December 13, 2004 08:32 AM


You may not be aware of this. Conrad's Book, "Heart of Darkness," has been part of the high-school curriculum in the city of Calgary, Alberta, since I went to High School myself, in 1979-82.

Perhaps we do know something in Canada.

Posted by: Alexis at December 13, 2004 11:59 AM

You can download Heart of Darkness in plain text or pdf from more than one place on the web. Also critical essays, teaching guides, etc.

The web is so full of such marvelous things
that I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 13, 2004 12:42 PM

Egad! I read "King Leopold's Ghost" at my wife's behest, and I was quite angry. It gave me a better understanding of the more recent history of bloody strife in the Congo (history that is rarely recounted in the corporate trollop media), and how our wonderful Warriors of Democracy were able to help add to the chaos in the region. It also brings to mind (pardon the careening stream of consciousness here) an article I read in some periodical several years ago. Nikita Khruschev's son said something to the effect of "to us, you [the U.S.] were the 'Evil Empire'". I can see where the U.S.S.R. might have found plenty of fresh, ready-to-serve fodder for its anti-U.S. propaganda.

Posted by: The Church Secretary at December 13, 2004 02:54 PM

I'm still looking for a detailed comparison between Bush and Lord Jim. Seems obvious to me, but I'm too lazy to do it.

Posted by: oyster at December 13, 2004 03:27 PM

Many of us thought the age of imperialism was over as we grew up in the post-WWII, "post-colonial" era. But it's still alive and well and still doing its stuff. Napalm those natives! Loot those resources! Watch the Company's shares rise! Conrad caught it so well in HoD.

But I don't expect that GWB will do a Lord Jim and offer his own life to atone for the evil he has caused. Unfortunately.

Posted by: Caratacus at December 13, 2004 05:07 PM


George had best keep his eye on Cheney. I'm sure Karl could stage-manage something terribly effective.

Posted by: OtherDoug at December 13, 2004 11:16 PM

From one of my favorite curmudgeons, H. L. Mencken - newspaper editor, cynic, and apparently a prophet as well....

"...when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental - men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost....

....All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre - the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Excerpted from "Bayard vs. Lionheart" (July 26, 1920), a piece that's reprinted (pp. 17-21) in On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, a collection of essays he wrote for The Baltimore Evening Sun.

Posted by: Lorena at December 15, 2004 05:22 PM