All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.


That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.

Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.

As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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.

True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.

Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.

The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.

Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”.  On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.

The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.

Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.

The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a  vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”

That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.

I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.

As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.

Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.

In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –

“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.

The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..

Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.

Other reviews

None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).



Filed under Conrad, Joseph

28 responses to “All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent and very thoughtful piece. It’s a long time since I read this – back when my offspring were studying at school – and I think I would have to revisit it to get some perspective. I do remember it as being very bleak and brutal, though – but I wonder whether Conrad speaking through Marlow is using the latter as a tool to convey the attitudes of the time and not giving us his own real feelings?

  2. It’s a very good question. I did give some thought to that, but the piece was already getting a bit long.

    Nothing we read is direct Conrad. It’s an unnamed narrator’s retelling of Marlow’s account. That insolent black head comment is Marlow speaking to his audience, not Conrad speaking directly to us.

    Obviously then that raises the question of whether I’m confusing author and character – the cardinal flaw of book reviewing (well, one of the cardinal flaws, up there with just recapping or just saying whether you liked it or not without saying why).

    On this occasion I don’t think it matters. I have no view on Conrad himself – I’ve not studied his life at all. The text though is the text. There’s nothing here to undermine Marlow’s attitudes. There’s no suggestion he’s in any way an unreliable narrator. There’s no subversion of him or suggestion that his analysis may be lacking. Basically we just have his account served straight.

    The result is that while I can’t say if Conrad was racist I am pretty comfortable saying that I think this is a racist text. That doesn’t mean I think it should be banned or not read or anything any more than I think say HP Lovecraft (whose writing I adore) should be banned or not read. It is why I say ultimately that for me it’s a good book but not great. This deserves to be a Penguin Classic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed.

    Also, according to wikipedia one contemporary reviewer apparently criticised it for “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery” which I think is pretty fair. It’s bleak, brutal and powerful but I’ve read better written books in terms of prose style.

  3. I must re-read this, obviously. I’ve strong memories of the book, but I hadn’t remembered it as inherently racist. Plenty of the Classics are. (Pity I don’t have any lecture / college notes these days to refer back to and remind me what I thought at the time of first reading.)

  4. Well, plenty would argue that it isn’t and I wouldn’t dismiss those arguments as obviously wrong. Kaggsy is spot on that it’s Marlow’s words we’re reading, not Conrad’s, and while I don’t think that ultimately makes a difference that clearly is open to argument.

    To be honest, one could easily write essays on it (and many have, including you it sounds like). I figured all I could sensibly do was write my personal reaction which wasn’t entirely favourable.

    On twitter I was linked to a paragraph from a judicial ruling by the Supreme Court of India, which reads:

    ” As we heard the instant matters before us, we could not but help be reminded of the novella, “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, who perceived darkness at three levels:
    (1) the darkness of the forest, representing a struggle for life and the sublime; (ii) the darkness of colonial expansion for resources; and finally (iii) the darkness, represented by inhumanity and evil, to which individual human beings are capable of descending, when supreme and unaccounted force is vested, rationalized by a warped world view that parades itself as pragmatic and inevitable, in each individual level of command. Set against the backdrop of resource rich darkness of the African tropical forests, the brutal ivory trade sought to be expanded by the imperialist-capitalist expansionary policy of
    European powers, Joseph Conrad describes the grisly, and the macabre states of mind and justifications advanced by men, who secure and wield force without reason, sans humanity, and any sense of balance. The main perpetrator in the novella, Kurtz, breathes his last with the words: “The horror! The horror!”

    Conrad characterized the actual circumstances in Congo between 1890 and 1910, based on his personal experiences there, as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.””

    That’s a pretty good and pithy analysis, and kinder than mine. Still, if one can’t rely on supreme court justices for a good and pithy analysis on whom can one rely?

  5. As someone who has yet to read Conrad, I’ve been looking at this one or The Secret Agent as a possibility for the future. Given your comments on the racism here, I’ll definitely opt for Secret Agent. The “improved specimen” quote is pretty shocking, and it sounds as though that’s quite tame relative to some of the other depictions of black people in the novel. I’m really glad you reviewed this, Max – an excellent critique as ever.

  6. The Secret Agent will probably be my next Conrad. This is still worth reading – it’s such a referenced text after all even if most of those referencing it probably haven’t read it.

  7. I’m a bit shocked. I knew that there was depiction of racism in the text but I never assumed it could be Conrad’s own view. I’ll have to read it. I wanted to anyway. My edition doesn’t conatin Youth but a part of Conrad’s Congo Diary, That should make matters clear. I hope.
    Very interesting to read your reactions.

  8. The Secret Agent is a good one (there’s a film version too if interested). I’ve read Heart of darkness several times and for each reading, its power knocked me over once again.

  9. Caroline, I think my argument was more that the text was racist. Kaggsy’s right that I can’t actually speak to Conrad’s views, but I can speak to the text.

    I’d be fascinated to read how the Congo Diary reads, but if he intended a criticism of Marlow’s outlook I don’t think he pulled that bit off.

    Guy, absolutely re the film though I want to read it first. Glad you got more from Heart than me.

  10. One point I could perhaps have brought out better: I don’t see any necessary conflict between being racist and being anti-mistreatment of the people you’re racist towards. It’s a question as much of whether you see them as equal, as the same kind of being.

    Here it’s clear Marlow is appalled by the abuse he sees, but his concern is closer to an animal rights concern than a human rights one. It’s implied that his view is that with the passage of centuries the locals might be as the Europeans, that they’re simply profoundly backwards, so the difference isn’t inherently insurmountable in the long run but at the time of his telling his tale he clearly doesn’t see the locals as simply people of another culture with less developed technology. There’s no sense the locals have any interiority.

  11. Alastair Savage

    Kaggsy’s comment is very insightful and makes me want to read the book all over again. Perhaps Conrad is using Marlow as a mirror for the racist attitudes of the time – what other man would wish to work in those conditions? I’m reminded of the loathsome character in Old Goriot whose ambition is to go out to the tropics and make a fortune by pure exploitation of other people.
    Certainly, reading the book I had the feeling that Conrad was on the side of right and justice, and determined to expose the colonial oppression that many people then and now would prefer to think wasn’t happening.
    There are some wonderful passages in this book. I always remember the passage about the blank spaces on the map of the world, calling adventurers to explore them.

  12. It’s certainly a potential reading Alastair, but not mine (obviously given the post). I don’t think he does anything to undermine Marlow which I think would be necessary for that approach to work, so if that was the intent I don’t think it comes off.

    It’s also interesting that Marlow is the same character with the same setup in Youth, where he is clearly meant to be reasonably sympathetic. There’s also the bit at the end with Kurtz’ widow, which I think creates a very direct contrast between Kurtz’ two women – one civilised and one “savage”.

    The text definitely exposes the ugliness of colonial oppression, though it’s worth remembering that even many of those were very pro colonialism at the time were appalled by Belgium’s brutality. Leopold’s Belgium was one of the great crimes of the 19th Century.

    The blank spaces quote is good. There’s plenty of good writing here certainly. Frankly if there weren’t it wouldn’t be worth criticising.

  13. Alastair Savage

    I have to confess to being a Conrad fan, even despite those endless hallucinogenic sentences that he loves so much. I’ve not only been to his grave (in Canterbury) but also his old house in the village of Bishopsbourne in Kent, where there is a carving in his memory outside the building.
    I get the sense that you’re done with Conrad now but I do recommend his autobiography ‘A Personal Record’, which was reprinted by Faber and Faber a few years back. He describes the fantastic wealth that he was born into, and his strange life journey as he set off to sea aboard foreign ships.

  14. Not at all! I plan to read The Secret Agent and I might well read more by him. I’m a sucker for nautical tales for one thing.

    Despite those endless hallucinogenic sentences, or because? Endless hallucinogenic sentences sounds to me like a selling point.

    The thing is just because I found the work racist doesn’t mean I find it without merit. I see it as a serious flaw, but I made a comparison to Lovecraft above (only in this regard by the way) whose work is intrinsically racist and yet which I think is both important and very much worth reading.

    Here I think the text denies the Africans individuality, which is for me a problem. Lovecraft however derives much of the power of his fiction from pure xenophobia (sometimes very effectively, occasionally unintentionally comically). The Shadow over Innsmouth is in part an allegory about fears of miscegenation. The Horror at Red Hook doesn’t bother being allegorical. Lovecraft remains important even so.

    If Lovecraft, why not Conrad who does much more here than just that which I criticise him for?

  15. Alastair Savage

    I agree and I have the same struggles with Lovecraft too. I’m reading The Magus by John Fowles at the moment which has similar problems. It’s a beautiful book but there is an element of racism (unintended at the time because the narrator argues that he is not a ‘racialist’ at all) which is why it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

  16. Not being English, but Polish, I can’t help but feel that Conrad’s view of colonialism might be slightly more jaundiced than that of his adopted countrymen. In a sense Heart of Darkness inverts the British Empire myth where the British civilise an uncivilised country and instead a European is uncivilised by his colonial adventure. Once you enter into this civilised / uncivilised dichotomy, however, racist attitudes are always a danger as these might be perceived as racially inherent.
    As Achebe says “The kind of liberalism espoused here by Marlow/Conrad touched all the best minds of the age in England, Europe and America” (a statement that is in itself rather sweeping) so perhaps Conrad can be forgiven.
    Glad to hear you’re planning to read The Secret Agent – my favourite Conrad.

  17. lizzysiddal

    I disagree with Achebe. I don’t assume that Conrad is racist from the text at all.

  18. Strongly disagree with your take Max. Conrad, writing in 1924 about European activity in Africa: “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”

    Conrad was (briefly) a friend and confidant of Roger Casement, who documented the horrors of Belgian rule in Congo and held the regime of Leopold to account.

    Conrad’s other works are (in my view) distinguished by their humane and ambiguous depiction of human character and motivation. Are we to believe that he uniquely revealed such crude and objectionable views in this book?

    If we take your straight-line interpretation Marlowe-Conrad-racist then surely we must also deprecate Rushdie for blasphemy, Roth for misogyny, Coetzee for apartheid apologia?

    I also struggle with that straight line conclusion, as I know you prefer to avoid bringing biographical inputs into the work. Why then is it here so evident that what Marlowe says is what Conrad thinks or believes? Must a writer signpost their distance from a character or narrator for us to distinguish them? We’ve been spoonfed unreliable narrators in 20th century fiction, to the extent that it is a simplistic and (arguably) irresponsible device for an author. Conrad pre-dates that, and is a far more sophisticated artist then many pull-the-rug practitioners who followed. Can we not still see that, or are our own preferences and expectations getting in the way?

    And yet we should forgive Celine, Pound, Debray (for example), self-confessed extremists, for their views and consider their writing in isolation? The Lovecraft thing is also extremely puzzling. HPL *was* a racist, as his personal writing and correspondence make clear. Yet I can’t recall any of his stories exhibiting this trait (I’ve only read a few, I admit). Conrad was *not* a racist, yet is being condemned on the basis of a piece of powerful fiction. This doesn’t make sense to me.

  19. On an ipad so this’ll be a little briefer than I’d prefer.

    I’m not arguing that Conrad the man was racist, but that this text is. It’s very clearly anti-Colonialist, or at least anti-Colonialism as practiced by Belgium in the Congo (and many who generally supported Colonialism thought that particular manifestation horrifying). That’s not the same though as not being racist.

    The key concerns here in terms of moral objection are to the cruelty expressed to the locals and the effect inflicting such cruelty has on the Europeans. Neither requires that the locals are seen as equivalent or equal human beings, and in the text they’re not. Objecting to treating a being cruelly doesn’t mean you necessarily see that being as an equal.

    In the text nothing undermines Marlow. Nothing suggests any unreliability in his narrative (though I agree that nowadays the unreliable narrator is something of a cliche) or that his perspective on the locals is anything other than fair. No indigenous character gets any meaningful voice – generally they get no voice at all.

    As I discuss above, the text/Marlow doesn’t appear to see Africans as biologically inferior. He sees it as a developmental issue, with them still in the barbarism we left behind. Part of the danger of Colonialism is reviving that primitivism within ourselves. He clearly does see them as inferior however, perhaps curably so in time but decisively so at the time of the narrative.

    Did Conrad agree? I don’t know and I don’t opine on that. I don’t necessarily equate Marlow to Conrad. I also though don’t think it matters because the text is what it is and nothing in this text suggests any alternative perspective.

    I’ll talk to HPL another time since typing on this thing is a pain. The stories which for me most illustrate his racism are the brilliant Shadow over Innsmouth which I would argue is in large part about fears of miscegenation, the decent Horror at Red Hook (well, I quite like it anyway), the fairly poor Polaris and the frankly awful and best avoided The Street which rarely appears in HPL collections for very good reasons (as much because it’s one of his weakest stories as for it being horribly racist).

    Thanks for frankly disagreeing. I do genuinely appreciate it.

    I’ll read The Secret Agent in the not too distant future. Whether we agree on the flaws here or not I didn’t suggest that Conrad can’t write.

  20. I share your views about the novel, and about the Achebe essay – but Edward Said (of all people) has a much more sympathetic take in ‘Culture and Imperialism’. Said essentially views Conrad to be a fairly profound critic of Empire, but ultimately constrained by his intellectual horizon – and he makes the argument that Marlow’s voice is not Conrad’s voice, and is not meant to be.

  21. Fascinating post and discussion about a book I’ve never heard about. I feel a bit silly to write that but it’s true. And I wonder how it’s even possible. I’ll ask around to see if it’s just me or if it isn’t that well-known in France.

    Obviously, I haven’t read the book and I don’t know if it’s racist or not and whether the character reflects Conrad’s thoughts.

    “Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.” Believe me, you can hear the same here about French colonisation. Colonisation was just wrong, for me it’s as simple as that. There is not argument that can justify what European did in all continents. There’s no justification to stealing people’s land and freedom.

    I don’t know how it is in the UK but here, it’s like we’re putting our heads in the sand and refuse to talk about it. I don’t think there’s a French equivalent to Conrad’s book, especially written in 1899. At least, it has the merit to tell what was going on.
    I remember a comment at the end of my billet about The Last Frontier by Howard Fast and the fact that the Indians have no voice in Fast’s book. It’s true and I wonder if it was intentional, like taking baby steps. First you tackle the facts to have your readership properly horrified and then you go further about the lack of equal treatment.

    If Conrad had drawn a more “human” character, would the public have taken seriously the other part about the exploitation of the country? Or would have they discarded him as a gentle idealist who exagerates everything? Would the book have been audible? Or even published?

    PS: I’m currently reading The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras which is another take on colonisation. I haven’t finished it yet but I think it’s worth reading.

  22. Conrad’s definitely a critic of Empire, there’s no question of that. I don’t think that gets the text off the racism charge though.

    As noted above, I don’t necessarily equate Marlow with Conrad, but Marlow is the only voice in the text and nothing in the text detracts from that voice so I don’t think it actually matters. Conrad might well have thought Marlow a disgusting bigot, but the text doesn’t distance itself from Marlow’s views.

    So for me the question isn’t was Conrad racist, which I’m not remotely equipped to answer, but is the text racist which I think it is. Others obviously (and fairly forcefully) disagree.

    Emma, I think you ask a fascinating question. Could Marlow have had other (better) attitudes and the book still fly in its period? I don’t know and it’s thought provoking. It’s challenging enough to open eyes to the brutalities of colonialism without at the same time trying to make them accept blacks as equal to whites. Trying both could simply be too much weight for one novel.

    Baby steps as you say.

    I do think you’d find this interesting to read. The atrocities are largely off-screen and it’s never gratuitous. Plus, look at the comments, it provokes passion which is no bad thing.

  23. Thanks for the discussion Max.

    I appreciate you are distinguishing between the character and the author, but I am still struggling with this notion of a “racist text” as something existing in and of itself. How could that be? How can a book embody an “ism” without being in some way polemical, or having a purpose to set out or spread a world view, opinion, mind-set – or proceeding from a personality that deeply embodies the “ism” in question? And if that is the case, don’t we come back to the need to identify where such a polemic would germinate in the writer’s mind?

    As I’ve tried to say above, I just don’t believe that’s credible in Conrad’s case. Maybe I am misunderstanding what you mean by the term. I think there is a lot that can be excavated about Marlow himself that could cause you to question how and why he presents certain things in the (absolutely deeply unpleasant) way that he does. But it’s more subtle than having some obvious signpost or mechanism whereby Conrad says “I don’t agree with this exact view or description!”

  24. For me the distinction between text and author is a fairly important one. I grant it sounds odd to talk of a text being sexist or racist or whatever, but we don’t hesitate to talk of a text as being upbeat say or bleak. Texts can have emotional weight, and once written they exist independently of their intent.

    Perhaps it would be better to say I think the language used is racist. Blacks are described with hostility, condescension or in aggregation. Individuality is rarely granted, and when it is it’s done in an ugly way (“improved specimen”, “insolent black head”).

    If we can have racist language (and I think we can), logically we can have a racist text made from that language. I think this to an extent reflects ordinary life. If I type a post or a comment commenting on racial issues I might inadvertently use arguably racist language even if my intent isn’t remotely racist. For example my first draft of this piece referred to the Congolese as natives but that’s a word weighted with significance (frankly more so than I really understand) so I took it back out. We can mean well, but our words once on the (virtual) page might not reflect our intent quite as we’d hoped.

    So, I don’t expect some sympathetic black character to walk on stage rebutting Marlow. That would be facile. I don’t think though if Conrad’s intent was to undermine Marlow that he achieves that here, or at least not sufficiently well as to overcome an easier and more direct reading.

    I’m not saying at all by the way that one can’t construct that interpretation (as I constructed the above interpretation), but I think it’s a less natural construction. Achebe was with me on that as is Gautambhatia it seems, Edward Said (as pointed out above) would have been against me arguing as he does that Conrad preserves an “ironic distance” ( and obviously that’s not where you are either.

    Said argues among other things:

    “Conrad does not give us the sense that he could imagine a fully
    realized alternative to imperialism the natives he wrote about in Africa, Asia, or America were incapable of independence, and because he seemed to imagine that European tutelage was a given, he could not foresee what would take place when it came to at end.
    But come to an end it would, if only because -like all human effort, like speech itself- it would have its moment, then it would have to pass, Since Conrad dates imperialism, shows its contingency, records its illusions and tremendous violence and waste (as in Nostromo), he permits his later readers to imagine something other than an Africa carved up into dozens of European colonies, even if, for his own pan, he had little notion of what
    that Africa might be.”

    Anyway, intent is a bit of a red herring to me. Conrad for all I know could have meant us to find Marlow loathsome when used in Heart (as opposed to in Youth where he’s clearly sympathetic). He may have meant us to find him sympathetic in Heart too. He may have meant us to find him flawed, blinded to how his own prejudices contribute to the evils he condemns (arguably you could make a good reading that way as I think you’d argue). Or, as Emma suggests, Conrad may just have thought that he could only do so much in one book and here attacked colonialism figuring if he attacked racist attitudes at the same time he’d just be moving too far for his audience.

    I don’t know. All I know is the language that’s used which I think whether well meaning or not ends up being racist. For me, if we’re meant to distance from Marlow I don’t think Conrad quite pulls that off.

    I’ll give Lord Jim or The Secret Agent (probably the latter as it sounds fun) a go in the not too distant future. I’d actually be quite tempted by a collection of nautical yarns if he did those, less literary but Youth while very much the lesser work is actually pretty fun.

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  26. H

    I’ve come late to this discussion but feel I have to comment.

    Firstly, I think you’ve given a good summation of the novel, though I disagree with some of your conclusions.

    It seems the novel has by and large been reduced to arguments about whether it’s racist or not, which is unfortunate. Reading in our (generally) enlightened times the racist imagery and language jumps out at you and seems shocking. By the mores of today’s society Marlow at the very least is a casual racist. I think that’s very much beside the point – or perhaps part of a separate point.

    For a start the novel is not directly about racism, but about the evils of colonialism, about exploitation, and the insidious effects of so-called civilisation coming up against raw and untamed nature. There’s barely a decent character in the novel, and the best of them is Marlow because he at least has self-possession and insight.

    Marlow would be called racist today (and Conrad?), but the attitude he displays is consistent with the times the novel was set in. In other words, it is true to its time, which is enough to offend many modern sensibilities. Does that make it right? I think the answer to that depends on if you take a moral or literary perspective on the text.

    If I were to re-write the novel today from a 21st-century perspective and eliminate all the racism and make the symbolic figures into real characters then the fundamental nature and impact of the book would be completely different.

    For Marlow the natives are cyphers. They can’t be known because they come from a place unknowable (to him, to us, to 19th-century convention). He sees them not with the educated and enlightened eyes of our times, but rather through the narrow and paternalistic focus of the day. To him they represent something primitive and tribal, as does the encroaching jungle, thick and dark, a barrier between this world and the unknown world beyond; and the boat wending it’s way down the river away from what is known and deeper into uncertainty and mystery. The natives are inexplicable to him, and that’s a great part of the story. Remove that, enlighten the characters, and the mystery is diluted.

    It’s a story about men in a boat journeying to somewhere they don’t belong and don’t understand, towards one of their own ‘gone native’, and mad from the experience. They are isolated and ignorant and alone in the middle of all this dark unknown, and only Marlow has any words to describe it.

    I was struck when you wrote this was not a great book because it was racist. I disagree with that on two counts. In the first place, as I’ve described, the racial attitude is true to the time, but also integral to the story. You could very easily apply it as a metaphor to what we see daily about us.

    In the second place since when do we need to approve of the narrator? Does every narrator need to meet approved character traits? Literature is replete with unreliable narrators, and narrators of bad character or of dirty deed. This is fiction, not dogma. If we are to apply 21st century standards upon centuries of literature there are going to be some very disappointed readers.

  27. Hi H,

    Thanks for the comment. To be clear, I don’t care if Marlow is racist or not (obviously he is by modern standards, arguably not so much by the standards of the time, but it’s not an interesting question). I don’t see approval of the narrator as necessary or relevant, nor do I require narrators that I sympathise with.

    My argument wasn’t that Marlow is racist, which is neither here nor there, but that the text is racist. I distinguish between the text and Conrad, I’m commenting on what was actually written.

    The novel is clearly anti-colonialist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t also be racist. That combination now seems peculiar, but in the 19th and early 20th Century much less so. The idea that a race could be inferior but that even so it was wrong to exploit them was fairly mainstream back then.

    I think when you say “enlighten the characters, and the mystery is diluted” that you have a very good point. The natives have to be incomprehensible for the story to work, but I don’t think that necessarily invalidates Achebe’s (or my) concerns that the result is to reduce a people to an often undifferentiated mass of limbs.

    My key objection to the novel wasn’t Marlow’s beliefs, but this paragraph of my review:

    “As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.”

    Also, I just don’t think this has the psychological insight or subtlety of say The Secret Agent, which I was much more impressed by. That felt meatier than this.

    Anyway, thanks again for the detailed response and argument back. Very happy to see it.

  28. Pingback: All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz – saeedkhanblog

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