Thursday, April 21, 2005

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This is one of those “Norton Critical Editions” that includes the text, background and sources, and criticism all in the same volume. I had a hard time getting into the text itself, but liked some of the criticism. One of the critics, Ian Watt, says this about the text:

The physical universe began in darkness, and will end in it; the same holds true for the world of human history, which is dark in the sense of being obscure, amoral, and without purpose; and so, essentially is man. Through some fortuitous and inexplicable development, however, men have occasionally been able to bring light to this darkness in the form of civilization—a structure of behavior and belief which can sometimes keep the darkness at bay. But this containing action is highly precarious, because the operations of darkness are much more active, numerous, and omnipresent, both in society and in the individual, than civilized people usually suppose. They must learn that light is not only a lesser force than darkness in power, magnitude, and duration, but is in some way subordinate to it, or included within it; in short, that the darkness which Marlow discovers in the wilderness, in Kurtz and in himself, is the primary and all encompassing reality of the universe.

Now that’s a book I would like to read. Is Heart of Darkness that? Well, yes, I guess it is, but Watt’s essay, Impressionism and Symbolism in Heart of Darkness, engaged my attention much more effectively than Conrad’s text did. In the same essay, Watt also says this:

We must deal gently with human fictions, as we quietly curse their folly under our breath; since no faith can be had which will move mountains, the faith which ignores that had better be cherished.

That’s in reference to Marlow’s lie to the Intended at the end of the novel. Wrapped again in the cocoon of civilization, even Marlow himself, who starts off equating lying with dying, can’t bring himself to tell Kurtz’s fiancée the truth about Kurtz’s death and last words, for to do so would destroy the illusion of light in which the Intended and all like her live. But the quote translates well, I think, to an understanding of why so many people cling to organized religion even when they know, I believe, that the people who run it and lord over them are no closer to God than they are. Since no faith can be found that moves mountains, cherish the one that ignores them, indeed.

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Despite my difficulty with the text of Heart of Darkness itself, here are a couple of quotes that managed to shine through the darkness to register on my brain:

...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone…

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You can’t understand? How could you—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbor can be heard whispering of public opinion.

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Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.

And this from the criticism section; this time, Joseph Conrad himself writing about Henry James:

Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting—on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth. But let that pass. A historian may be an artist too, and a novelist is a historian, the preserver, the keeper, the expounder, of human experience.

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