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Mention the name of Joseph Conrad and the answering response will commonly invoke his celebrated African novella of 1899, ‘Heart of Darkness’. If the work has acquired an iconic status comparable to that of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), its title has by contrast become something of a tired cliché in being so repeatedly used by newspaper headline-makers. Conrad, who modestly hoped that the work might have a continuing ‘vibration’, would have been astonished by these contemporary reverberations.
The story’s emergence as a twentieth-century ‘classic’ forms a first stage in the history of its remarkable after-life. A key moment arrived with T. S. Eliot’s use of a fragment from ‘Heart of Darkness’ as an epigraph to his poem, ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). Eliot’s epigraph signals a temporary kinship and establishes a bridge between two works, but it also probably signifies a more intangible sense of indebtedness -- to Conrad as an important founder-member of a tradition of British Modernist writing.
The story’s major re-discovery dates from the 1950s when its apocalyptic symbolism and existentialist uncertainty seem to have entered the collective consciousness of a generation who lived through the Second World War or were coming to terms with its legacy. As one critic of the time put it, the story had become ‘a Pilgrim’s Progress for our pessimistic and psychologizing age’ (Guerard, p. 33). Its more recent impact has been equally dramatic, if more controversial. Now standing at the centre of a wider contemporary debate about race, imperialism and feminism, its æsthetic dimensions and experimental character have almost been left behind. It has acquired the character of an awkward problem-novel, a standard text in the classroom and -- for better or worse -- a litmus-test for a variety of theoretical preoccupations. As a modern quest parable translated into many languages, it has simultaneously had a powerful generative effect upon twentieth-century writers and film-makers, inspiring emulations, adaptations and counter-versions.
Conrad’s direct and indirect engagement with things African has a long pre-history. It extends as far back as his childhood, when the young Pole pored over maps of the continent, devoured tales of the first European explorers in Africa and vicariously shared the perils of Dr Livingstone’s travels. Like all dreams of heroic adventure, this one was destined to meet with a rude awakening. In 1890, towards the end of his career as a merchant seaman, the thirty-three-year-old Conrad signed a long-term contract to work for a Belgian company in the Congo Free State. The country he entered had since 1885 been the personal possession of King Leopold II of Belgium who, under the guise of a philanthropic concern to bring ‘light’ to the ‘dark’ continent, was brutally engaged in what Conrad later described as ‘the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration’ (Last Essays, p. 17).
Conrad’s growing desire to return to Europe was unexpectedly realized when he suffered a physical breakdown: plagued with the after-effects of dysentery and malaria, he ended his stay after seven months, returned to a period of hospitalization in London and suffered a legacy of ill-health for the rest of his life. His first-hand encounter with the effects of Leopold’s rule in the Congo almost certainly left him with deeper scars: according to a close friend, the episode formed ‘the turning-point in his mental life’, shaped ‘his transformation from a sailor to a writer’ and ‘swept away the generous illusions of his youth’ (Garnett, p. xii).
One of the products of this period was The Congo Diary (reprinted in this edition), Conrad’s record of his daily movements during the first part of his stay. Severely factual and never intended for publication, the diary nevertheless offers his earliest written account of a peopled Africa and may have been kept to preserve material that would be of use to the later writer.
Conrad’s first African work, ‘An Outpost of Progress’, was composed six years later. A fine short story in its own right, ‘An Outpost’ also represents an important stage in Conrad’s attempt to fashion a serious and grown-up colonial fiction distinct from the boyish adventure stories of G. A. Henty and Rider Haggard. From his early Eastern novels, the story inherits the large spectacle of the European abroad, removed from the constraints of the Western ‘crowd’, isolated in the wilderness and undergoing swift collapse. Here, however, the predicament is shaped by an acutely political awareness, with the focus partly upon its two carefully chosen types (a bureaucrat and a soldier) and partly upon the representative imperialist fictions arriving from Europe with them.
The degeneration of the two supposed ‘light-bringers’ is remorseless: they arrive in Africa voicing the conventional view that as racially superior Europeans they have the right and duty to civilize ‘backward’ peoples, but ironies emerge when it transpires that, as two of Europe’s failed rejects, they are happy to cultivate failure, content with their fellowship in idleness and oblivious to the civilized litter they leave around an increasingly inefficient trading-post. Ultimately, however, the strengths of the story as a polemic -- its aloof omniscient narration, singleness of focus and sparkling sarcasm -- also serve to define its limits. In Conrad’s later view, ‘An Outpost’ was mainly an important stepping-stone towards ‘Heart of Darkness’, in which an English narrator, Marlow, agitatedly reflects upon an earlier visit to Africa and his quest there towards the charismatic European trader, Kurtz. According to Conrad, his return to an African subject coincided with a widening sense of its possibilities and was accompanied by an intense ‘nightmare feeling’ (Letters, II, 162).
Enigmatic though ‘Heart of Darkness’ may finally prove to be, its early episodes are remarkable for their trenchant topicality. At the outset of composition, Conrad described the story as being of ‘our time distinc[t]ly’ in its concern with the ‘criminality of inefficiency and pure selfishness when tackling the civilizing work in Africa’ (Letters, II, 140-41). For his subject, he again returned to what was bluntly described in a coinage of 1884 as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, one resulting in the systematic annexation and exploitation of Africa by European powers during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
At an early point, the story offers a summary of these developments. The map of Central Africa available to the youthful Marlow presents it as a white blankness, an unexplored and unnamed terra incognita. To the older Marlow, the area has become, presumably as a result of European expansion, a more impenetrable and menacing ‘place of darkness’ (p. 00), while yet another map of the continent presents him with a multi-coloured chart, its pattern the visible evidence of European territorial possessions. Even more topically, the story’s opening sequences confronted its first readers with echoes of their most recent newspaper-headlines -- as in references to the building of a railway or to expanding trade-syndicates or to increasing militarization in Africa, as signalled by the presence of mercenary soldiers and a blockading French gun-boat.
This sense of topical issue is, however, most marked in Marlow’s acerbic quarrel with manifestations of the period’s sophisticated propaganda machinery, of which the popular press formed a crucial cog. ‘Heart of Darkness’ was written against a background of recent imperial celebration of a feverishly utopian kind. Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 occasioned an exaltation of the British Empire and the importance of the imperial idea to the country’s future as an international power. In her diary for that year, Beatrice Webb summarized the social mood: ‘Imperialism in the air! -- all classes drunk with sight seeing and hysterical loyalty’ (p. 140). Articles in the New Review evoke the wider note of intoxicated eulogy in lauding the Queen as ‘the Great White Mother, the fame of whose virtue has won the loyalty of native races as the genius of Alexander or a Napoleon never could’ and characterizing the British Imperial idea as an onerous religious destiny: ‘Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression’ (Thierry, p. 318). A stream of propaganda also emanated from Brussels, where, as Conrad later observed, Leopold had commandeered press opinion -- by, in effect, colonizing its language -- in order to engineer an outrageous ‘newspaper “stunt”’ (Last Essays, p. 17).
The story’s early progress from Europe to Africa offers a virtual initiation into the contagious power of the period’s official imperial propaganda -- in the anonymous narrator’s eulogy to the River Thames, in the colourful hyperbole picked up by Marlow’s aunt from her newspapers and through a variety of European voices in Africa. Sharing his creator’s sense of the power of the printed word, Marlow is acutely aware of its journalistic misuse in rendering people essentially blinkered and insentient. Its invasive power is further suggested by the fact that for most of these speakers such rhetoric is a reflexive act: they are not, on the whole, individuals seeking to use hyperbole to disguise an unsavoury truth, but inert victims and instruments of linguistic coercion.
Marlow’s counter-response takes a number of forms: sometimes he simply speaks plainly of newspaper ‘rot’, often he notes the spurious authority given to bureaucratic functionaries in Africa by their naming (as in the case of the euphemistically-styled ‘Workers’ or ‘agents’), while elsewhere he is shocked by the outrageous incongruities thrown up by the unthinking use of cliché. For example, his grim mirth at hearing from the Harlequin that the heads on stakes belong to ‘rebels’ prompts the comment: ‘Rebels! What would be the next definition I was to hear? There had been enemies, criminals, workers -- and these were rebels. Those rebellious heads looked very subdued to me on their sticks’.
If much of the best imaginative literature thrives on the exposure of what George Orwell termed Newspeak, it also abhors a vacuum. Silences usually prevailed in the popular press of the 1890s about the exact working-nature of European rule in Africa and its effect upon her indigenous peoples and customs. By 1897, however, damning facts about the Congo were beginning to filter into British newspapers, as in The Times of 13 May, which reported an ex-Congo missionary’s testimony that ‘gross atrocities were perpetrated by the soldiers of the State on the natives, amounting in some cases to shooting and in others to mutilation, for refusal to labour in the gathering of indiarubber. Whole villages were spoliated and destroyed’ (p. 7). The first part of Conrad’s story belongs to this early move towards silence-breaking: ‘I have a voice ...; and for good or evil mine is the speech that cannot be silenced’.
Marlow’s initiation into Africa allots him a role not unlike that of an on-the-spot foreign correspondent, with his own independent sense of what is newsworthy: he watches, listens, reports on his interviews and trusts in the power of hard, definite particulars. The picture of Africa to emerge combines the image of a messily organized scramble for ‘loot’ with that of a chaotic war-zone littered with upturned rusting trucks, abandoned drainage-pipes and gaping craters. He also allows space for voices unheard in the newspapers of the time -- those of the European ‘agents’, traders and other hangers-on. These voices range from the brickmaker and his version of justice -- ‘Transgression -- punishment -- bang! Pitiless, pitiless. That’s the only way’ -- to Marlow’s companion and his reasons for being in Africa -- ‘To make money, of course. What do you think? -- and include a description of the agents’ collective voice: ‘The word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse’.
The sense given of a narrator wishing to recover an Africa lost, ignored or silenced culminates in the description of the ‘grove of death’:
[The African workers] were dying slowly -- it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now--nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. ...; Near the same tree two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence. (p. 00)
Like a poem by Wilfred Owen from the First World War battlefront, this heightened reportage quickly dispenses with the rattle of official verbiage in order to recover unreported facts -- in this case, of wasted African lives. The sense of waste is intensified by the wider context. Marlow has just passed through a rubbish-tip for discarded pipes and rusty machinery, and the implication is that the worn-out Africans have been similarly discarded: having served their function, they are thrown away like disposable objects. Crass labels discarded, Marlow assimilates the details of human waste into an extended elegy, with an invitation to complete it by recalling a picture of Bosch-like extremity.
In conjunction with other contemporary events, ‘Heart of Darkness’ played no small part in effecting a linguistic change that, in turn, reflected a wider shift in attitudes. In 1897, the words ‘Imperial’ and ‘Imperialism’ (both normally capitalized) carried hardly any pejorative meanings and, with their Latin equivalents (Imperium et Libertas), formed a natural part of the period’s rhetoric. But by 1903, in the aftermath of the Boer War and when the scandal of the Congo caused E. D. Morel to found the Congo Reform Association, the terms began to acquire less reputable associations and could no longer be used as a form of unthinking national self-congratulation.
During its composition, ‘Heart of Darkness’ developed like a ‘genii from the bottle’ in ways that seem to have surprised Conrad himself, prompting him later to feel that its last two instalments were ‘wrapped up in secondary notions’ (Letters, II, 146, 157). One sign of its changing character is that Marlow, predominantly a detached figure in Part 1, becomes with his journey upriver an involved participant, increasingly excited, feverish and panic-stricken. Simultaneously, he is obsessed by the charismatic voice of Kurtz, a spectral figure who actively dominates the later part of the story. With these developments, the pattern of the quest becomes more...
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