Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Interpretive Note On Heart Of Darkness


So I finished rereading Heart Of Darkness. I'm again fighting not to drown in the many-sidedness of its theme as I'm yanked back to the same problem I had 50 years ago or so, of trying to work out its mind-stretching meaning.

Here's a small stab at that with two questions, the first bristling with its own internal questions.

First Question:

When Kurtz says "The horror! The horror!" what's he exactly, or, better, not exactly, saying? Is it a condemning judgment of the wild and murderous chaos that has overtaken him and what he has done in that? Or is it a final realization, if he has not realized it before, that in his path from ambitious, enlightened, piety-filled, multi talented, intellectual European liberal to a heedless, savagely wanton, murdering, despot-God to the natives who worship him, his existence, all that he has done, is without meaning? Does he dying behold into the absurdity of the world? 

Could it be both? Is it something else? Do the first two exclude each other on the basis that the latter, seeing nihilism, precludes any moral judgment, that meaninglessness is literally the case? Or does the first evidence such life destroying rapacity that the only conclusion can be that if man can do such evil, then nothing morally matters. 

It's to be remembered that Marlow for all his condemnation of Kurtz is entranced by him, is in thrall to him, counts him remarkable, feels needful of defending him and keeping his meaning protected. It's to be remembered that much of this devotion comes from Kurtz's dying words, while Marlow then can say nothing. 

Here's my convoluted view. Camus in his afterward to The Stranger makes a big deal about Mersault's unflinching honesty and committment to his own truths, even at the possible cost of his life--he's an atheist; nothing really matters; he has no real feelings of remorse; we all die, so what's the point? But if it doesn't matter, as the world is absurd since we all die, then what matters this unflinching integrity that has Camus likening Mersault to a kind of Algerian Christ? What is the ground for virtue; why even privilege integrity? Isn't this the very fundamental and obvious contradiction in asburdism or nihilism? It's an intellectual abstraction entirely belied by our, all people's, experience and necessarily leads to its own reductio ad absurdum.

But Conrad, I argue, avoids this contradiction in Heart Of Darkness. When Kurtz repeats "The horror!" he intones his shocked realization of the harsh collapse of all things into abject meaningless and of the then murderous, rapacious sum of all that he has done. The meaninglessness is underlined by the manager's boy's announcement in a scathing tone of utter dismissiveness, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead."

But for Marlow, himself driven to the depths of existential despair by Kurtz who's “kicked himself loose of the earth" such that Marlow figuratively loses the sense of whether he's up or down, Kurtz's dying words offer him an awful truth. They offer him a clear glimpse into a terrifying, soul destroying abyss beyond judgments of good and evil but yet qualified by some inchoate sense of rightness signified by the capacity for judgment implicit in "The horror! The horror!" 

Second Question

It flows from the answer to the first. Why does Marlow in the end lie to Kurtz's "intended," allowing her to maintain the illusion of Kurt's shining goodness, that in the end Kurtz is the same man he was when he left fort the Congo? Marlow despises lies. The worst extrapolation from them is that all of normative life is a lie, just like the lie that rapacious imperialist purpose is imbued with high moral purpose. Marlow struggles against that extrapolation throughout. He fights a losing cause and loses himself in it until, as opposed to the master story teller who keeps his companions spell bound with his story throughout, he's, as noted, speechless at Kurtz's dying. Which is to say, he's without anything to say; which is to say, nothing means anything to him that's worth saying.

At the long last scene, as the room darkens about Marlow and Kurtz's intended, as she's still wearing black in grief a year later, he is physically revulsed by her clamoring devotion to her image of Kurtz. Marlow is revulsed by and torn between the prospects of shattering her illusion or lying to her, lies, most broadly, in one way implicating the meaninglessness of all things, but, in another way, keeping meaninglessness at bay by the myths, other lies, necessary to civilized life, protecting it from the heart of darkness. Marlow is double visioned. He has learned from Kurtz's dying words the yoked together paradox of the horror of the emptiness of things and the horror of depredation driving out all moral meaning, the latter dotted with the seeds of judgment. 

And so Marlow lies, allows the grieving lady her blatantly false image of Kurtz, in 180 degree contrast to the truth. And in this, doesn't Marlow make a small bid for some slight glimmer of life continuing amidst the enveloping darkness:

....The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness....?

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