My usual interests and extracurricular pursuits have officially been commandeered.
I have completed one semester as a Master’s student in English. This has brought with it a brave new world of work, pain, sleepless nights, new interests, new insights, tears, joy, you name it it’s been in there. I’m loving every minute of it.
It does, however, cut into my blogging time. Which is part of why I’ve decided to broaden the focus of my work here. One of my professors this semester made the observation that if she doesn’t write something about what she’s reading, it doesn’t stick. I tend to agree. The act of writing makes your mind process things differently. It makes your brain juices digest all those scrumptious words on the page. It makes you translate a mental experience to a different kind of mental experience and, ultimately, a physical experience.
To achieve my Master’s, I am required to pass an exam. The exam is on this booklist. As I wasn’t an English major in my undergrad, most of these books I’ve never heard of much less read. I’ve decided that as a companion to this reading list, as I slowly chew my way through it, I’m going to keep a record here of some thoughts about what I’m reading. At least then, when I go to study for la grande exam of doom I’ll have something to look back on. And maybe someone will enjoy my ramblings.
First up: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
First published in 1899 in Blackwood’s Magazine as a three-part series, the novella was then published as a complete work in 1902. Having spent time as a steamboat captain on the Congo, Conrad used his experiences in Africa as a basis for the book.
The story is told in a nested narrative as a sailor named Marlowe relates his experience in the ivory trade to other passengers of an unknown steamboat. This structure, reminiscent of that of Frankenstein or The Canterbury Tales, frees Conrad from having to take direct responsibility for any ideas stated by the text. Whether or not he meant to, Conrad liberated himself via the nested narrative, the mask of the inner character can be said to deflect any fault in the novella from Conrad himself.
The novella itself is short and dense. Packed with imagery and metaphor, at times it almost feels surreal to read. Because of this drifty dream-like quality to the narrative, I had to be particularly careful to not allow my mind to wander into my own dreamland. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying the book (I actually did like it), it was that the boundary between this misty Congo river and my own hazy hallucinations was so thin that it was easy to forget. I had to re-read several passages due to having arrived at the end of the page and not being able to recollect what it was I had just read.
The major theme of the novella is supposedly the darkness of the dark continent (it is, after all, named for this), but other than throwing the word “dark” into a few passages I didn’t find this theme to be compelling or pervasive. Yes, the darkness of Africa is held against the light of civilization. Yes, civilization is supposed to bring light to dark places, etc. so on and so forth. I found a more pressing theme in the great silence of Africa. The jungle is constantly described as somewhere utterly quiet. Perhaps this is indicative of an ideal quality in its people; the people of Africa should remain as the country itself. Majestic, beautiful, and silent. They ought to have no voice, either in civilization or in their own home.
Funny enough the word “Africa” is never actually used in the book. Though this could be chalked up to the logic that no place names are used in the book, but I wonder what this says about sense of place in “the Dark Continent”. Does it not exist? Is one thing the same as another to the point that no word can describe place because place is interchangeable? Is Africa just too horrid to name?
I found myself reading in the school of Chinua Achebe (even before I realized there was a school of Chinua Achebe); this book does portray the African people in an utterly racist fashion. But can you blame it? I didn’t read Heart of Darkness thinking I would get a sermon on equality or some great enlightening “we are all equal” message. It was published in 1902 for chrissakes! This was a mere forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Conrad by no means lived in a “racially enlightened society” and we cannot expect forward thinking. If we did, such thinking would no longer be extraordinary.
So I did find the portrayal of the African in this book to be as something other than human. They are animals, robbed of language, sense and even human form. At their best, they are part of the majestic otherworldly Africa scenery. At their worst, they are savage brutes. The cannibals that Marlowe’s steamboat crew hires are treated better than the run-of-the-mill African native in this novella, both in action and in description.
Pre-Achebe, the common reading of Africa in Heart of Darkness was of a place for insanity. It was what drove Kurtz mad. This is true, the man likely suffered from some jungle fever, illness of malnourishment, or parasite. Kurtz’s death is a fitting end for a man who fashioned himself into some sort of jungle God in order to pillage Africa herself. The Europeans rape Africa for her ivory, and Africa fights back. The Dark Continent reclaimed Kurtz and as the steamboat which bears him back to civilization leaves Africa, his health ebbs. Africa, then, is a cruel mistress. She will be revenged upon her tormentors, one way or another.
Achebe invokes a metaphore in his essay which I find particularly poignant; “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray -- a carrier onto whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate. Consequently Africa is something to be avoided just as the picture has to be hidden away to safeguard the man's jeopardous integrity.” This also makes Africa the ultimate downfall of Europe. A single look into her dark, silent depths will kill the very image she was made to keep alive.
Perhaps the most pertinent to this blog, and of course the most interesting to me, are the brief glimpses and echoes of Shakespeare which I found within this book (oh shush, I find them all over). As Kurtz lays dying, Marlowe remarks, “His was in impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines” (86). I cannot help but hear echoes of Juliet’s “Me thinkes I see thee now, thou art so lowe, /As one dead in the bottome of a Tombe, /Either my eye-sight failes, or thou look'st pale.” The image of the far-away man, bellow the speaker, is pervasive in both these utterances.
A second parallel is found in Kurtz’s fiancé’s words upon hearing of his death. She laments, “I cannot believe that I shall never see him again, that nobody will see him again, never, never, never” (95). Read that and tell me you don’t see Lear over Cordelia’s body, “Why should a Dog, a Horse, a Rat haue life, /And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, /Neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer, neuer.” I suppose it shouldn’t be all too surprising as Conrad originally learned English by perusing Shakespeare (betchya didn’t know that… betchya didn’t really care either… ah well it could be a conversation starter at your next cocktail party).
So to wrap things up for today; Africa: Big, Dark and Silent. Joseph Conrad: utter racist, but who could really blame him? Shakespeare: Still relevant.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Modern Library Classics Paperback. New York: Random House, 1999.