December 10, 2001
After returning from a voyage in the Congo of Africa, Joseph Conrad said "Before the Congo I was a mere animal," and implied that only a select few of the rest of society have risen above the animal state. Conrad had a bout
with malaria, and while recovering went through radical changes in thinking.
He began to despise his fellow Belgians, and for a time he was furious with
them for their very existence. Leonard Dean's collection of Conrad's
letters show the writer's scorn of regular society after his journey:
"Everything is repellent to me here. Men and things, but especially
men...all have a gift for getting on my nerves." (103) Conrad eventually
accepted himself as one of these people, and began to work on Heart of
Darkness, a cathartic novel based on his journal written in the Congo. He
wrote about Marlow, who will take a journey into the Congo and into his own
soul, in an attempt to discuss the evil he experienced in Africa. Conrad
presents a situation that he and Marlow both know, and that the average
listener can't comprehend. Conrad was appalled and shaken by what he saw
being practiced in the Congo, and by his statement cements his belief that a
man cannot truly understand, sympathize, or feel anything significant on
the emotional level unless he has also experienced the dark and the diseased
side of himself. Everything up to that point is only scratching the surface
of human nature. A human being needs suffering and experience with
depravity before he is able to appreciate and embrace what is good in
himself. He is only an animal up until that point.
Marlow goes to Africa on a quest, though he isn't aware of it. Jerome Thale compared Marlow to a holy crusader: "Marlow, the central figure, is like a knight seeking the grail, and his journey even to the end follows the
archetype." (176) Like any man on a quest, Marlow faces obstacles and challenges, which, as Thale says, mount as the object of the quest grows
nearer. "Kurtz is the grail at the end of the quest...and only Marlow--the
faithful pilgrim--experiences an illumination." (181) He is searching for
his grail, but on the way he finds out more about himself, and reveals this
in his story. Kurtz is a shabby grail to behold, and arguably not worth the
effort it took to retrieve him, except that he can offer Marlow a brief
glimpse at his nature. "The grail is an effulgence of light, and it gives
an illumination to those who can see it." (176) This light isn't always
what the persuer thought it would be, and Marlow's discovery is bittersweet.
Thale supported Kurtz's pronouncement of his own state:
And the discovery of the self is the discovery of one's freedom. Away from the grooves that society provides for keeping us safely in a state of subsisting, we can discover that we are free to be, to do anything, good or evil. For the mystic it means the freedom to love God. For Kurtz it means the freedom to become his own diabolical god. This radical freedom as it exists in Kurtz seems to Marlow both exalting and revolting. Exalting, because it makes man human, revolting because in Kurtz it is so perverted and so absolute as to exceed all human limits and become inhuman. (178)
Marlow triumphs over Kurtz because he has restraint and humility. As Thale sees it: "...we can sum up the two aspects of Kurtz's freedom in the phrase 'I am.' ...to say "I am," is to say that I exist, to say that I am free and have immense possibilities in my grasp... 'I am' is the phrase which only God can utter, because only God exists simply and completely." (178) This was a
mistake Kurtz tumbled headfirst into; by commanding rituals in his name and
by declaring himself, he overstepped his bounds. Marlow also "is", but he
never becomes arrogant enough to state this aloud or in thought. Marlow begins to learn in the Congo, but he is still trying to hide
behind the veil of civilization when he refuses to see and refuses to learn more of what is happening around him. Stephen Reid acknowledges that "Marlow does not know specifically what the unspeakable rites are--he will not learn. The point is that if one is going to admire the bestial in man, it is safer not
to know too much about it." (54) Marlow still has a way to go on his road
before he can call himself a human being, and to do this he has to look at
and accept his own urges to go for "a howl and a dance." (Conrad 60) At
some point during the journey in the Congo, Marlow and Kurtz both become
human. The difference between them is that Marlow has restraint, while
Kurtz only has his desires left, and no reason to deny them. Marlow goes on
to meditate on what he has learned, but Kurtz sinks further and further into
his megalomania and dies. When Marlow is chasing Kurtz and going towards
the bonfire, he is presented with the chance to go and look on the things
Kurtz has commanded, but he declines. (At what point did Kurtz become a
human being, but instead of being content, keep going?) What is beyond
human, and did Kurtz get there? The answer must be no, because Marlow
survives and emerges as a wiser man.
Marlow's transformation is taking place while he listens to Kurtz's last
words, as a survivor from the Gulags tells from personal experience: "And so
it happened that Kornfeld's prophetic words were his last words on earth,
and those words lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that
kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders." (Solzhenitsyn). Marlow
is equally incapable of shrugging off Kurtz's words. They must be acted upon
and laid to rest before Marlow can begin to get on with his life outside of
Africa. This task is the final process in becoming a human being, one who
understands truth and lies, and the need for both. Hearing Kurtz's
valediction inspires Marlow to do better. He has also faced death, and
though he couldn't think of a comment to make, he returned from the brink
and went on to cope with his ordeal, instead of reverting to savagery, as Thale
points out, "for Kurtz has accepted his freedom, has become human, but he
has not evaluated what being human means." (178) This lack of logic in such
a powerful man is a dangerous thing.
Maria Alvarez argues that "...he (Conrad) wants to communicate his great conviction that, even if man fails in his attempts at authenticity, the very struggle to attain it gives intensity to an otherwise plain and inauthentic
existence," and this is the essence of Heart of Darkness. Even though Kurtz
succumbed to evil, he remains a remarkable man because he actually existed,
as opposed to the people who are born, stagnate, and die. This is the trait
that Marlow most admires in Kurtz and so he feels "it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice," (Conrad 109) and this is what wins his loyalty.
Albert Guerard compares Conrad to the Holocaust writers, noting "more important may be the guilt of complicity, just such a guilt as many
novelists of the Second World War have been obliged to work off." (114) An
animal would have no need to work off guilt but Conrad did. He agonized
over what he experienced, and that is the first proof of his
newly-discovered humanity. Marlow does not understand who he is and "
remarks casually but crucially that he did not know himself before setting
out," (115) and neither did Conrad. Even though Marlow doesn't understand
himself, or what he wants, he has an uncanny instinct to shy away from what
he doesn't want, seeing that "Anything would seem preferable to the demoralized greed and total cynicism of the others... Kurtz burns while the other devils rot." (113) This, in Marlow's eyes, is what makes Kurtz such an acceptable monstrosity, that even though he has sunken to a rarely seen level of
vileness, he sinks with complete abandon, instead of denying himself. Even
though Kurtz has aligned himself with the Barons of Hell, his total
acceptance of the self has a profound influence on Marlow. Guerard claims
"The hollow man, whose evil is the evil of vacancy, succumbs," (114) and
this holds true for Marlow who initially appears to admire the Station
Manager and his backbone, but he (and Conrad) later professes to despise these
Marlow has a chance to meet with his dark side but he passes this up. If he does this out of fear, or out of wisdom, it doesn't make a difference. He
is able to reject his primitive self, even if his only saving grace is
having work to do, and unlike Kurtz he returned to society. Marlow
completes his circle when he returns to Belgium, and goes to visit The
Intended. He tells a lie, which contradicts everything he previously
believed about himself, to preserve an idea. He throws principle to the
wind for the sake of Innocence, which he sees for the first time represented
in human form, and understands Innocence as something worth protecting.
Marlow is more of a person than most will ever be. He went into the Congo with convictions lacking justification, but he came back wiser and sadder. He is decidely a better man, and a better human being. He retains humility, but realizes he knows something that others will see only as "the spectral illumination of moonshine," (Conrad 7), but he tries to teach them
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Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer. New York: Bantam
Dean, Leonard F. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Background and
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Evans, Robert O., "Conrad's Underworld". Cambridge: Purdue Research
Guerard, Albert J., "The Journey Within", 1958. Cambridge Mass: Harvard
Hewitt, Douglas, "Reassessment of Heart of Darkness". Cambridge: Bowes &
Bowes Publishers Ltd., 1952.
Modern Fiction Studies, IX, No. 4 Winter '63-64. Cambridge: Purdue Research
Reid, Stephen A., "The 'Unspeakable Rites in Heart of Darkness,"
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander, "What I Learned in the Gulag." Excerpted and
abridged from The Gulag Archipelago
Telgen, Diane, Novels for Students. 2 vols. Detroit: Gale Researcher, 1997.
Thale, Jerome, "Marlow's Quest," 1955. Toronto: University of Toronto
Quarterly, XXIV July.