Where Lies the Heart of Darkness?

Notes For a Lecture


The central conundrum at the heart of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness  is: Why does Marlowe, the narrator, so admire the brutal Kurtz, as do others in the story [such as the Russian trader, the general manager]?

-This is a puzzle because Marlowe is portrayed as a reflective, upright and intelligent man. And yet Marlowe respects and even admires Kurtz, who is portrayed as the personification of evil, a modern Lucifer.

Resolving this conundrum allows us to understand the complex moral principle that Conrad wishes to establish through his novella – for the work is, above all, a reflection on morality. To understand the conundrum, I contend, we must penetrate to Conrad’s deepest level of meaning. But before tackling this puzzle, I turn to establishing the context in which it is set.

B. AT THE MOST OBVIOUS. LEVEL: This is an adventure yarn about strange and shocking events that occur in the interior of the Congo Free State in the 1880s.

The Setting: The #CongoFreeState existed from 1884, when King Leopold II was awarded this vast territory as a personal fiefdom by the Great Powers at the Congress of Berlin, to 1908, when Leopold ceded the territory to Belgium, and it became a colony like the rest of Africa at that time.

LeopoldII justified his rule by reference to Europe’s civilizing mission in Africa – in his words, “to open to civilization the only part of the globe where Christianity has not yet penetrated and to pierce the darkness which envelops the entire population.” Yet the reality was very different. Leopold and the companies he established or authorized mercilessly exploited the Congo’s natural wealth and people for personal and corporate profit.

The story that Marlowe relates reveals the cruelty of everyday life for Africans, who are pressed into forced labour, abandoned to die when they fall ill, and flogged for not meeting their quotas or for transgressing a rule established by the European overlords. We also know, from the historical record, that the companies even engaged in mutilation of Africans who did not toe the line.

Conrad was clearly a critic of European rule in Africa. The story might be interpreted as suggesting that the heart of darkness lay, not only in Africa, but also in Brussels and the other European capitals. But this does not seem to be Conrad’s intent, because the novella is premised on the idea that Africans were, indeed, in need of a civilizing mission. Conrad’s point is that the Belgians utheory failed in carrying out this mission in the Congo.
Thus, at the most obvious level, H of D tells an intriguing tale of what transpired in the interior of the Congo during the years of misrule under Leopold II, recording graphic details of the brutality of this period.

C. BUT AT A DEEPER LEVEL, there is a second level of meaning: the H of D is a reflection on a descent into hell. Civilization, it appears, is only skin deep.

There are clear parallels between Marlowe’s journey up the Congo river and Dante’s journey into the inferno.

The outer station, located a few miles up the Congo River from where Marlowe lands in Africa, is akin to Limbo in Dante’s hell. The middle station, filled with avaricious company men and scenes of extreme exploitation,is the equivalent of Upper Hell in Dante’s epic poem.

Finally, Kurtz’s inner station, depicted as the farthest outpost of “civilization” and reachable only by the river, is Dante’s Nether Hell, with Kurtz in the role of Lucifer. The European traders who accompany Marlowe he now refers to as “Pilgrims”, as if Marlowe’s boat is transporting the company men on a pilgrimage into Hell. The object of this pilgrimage is Kurtz himself, renowned as the trader who brings in more ivory than all the other traders combined. Kurtz has not been seen or heard from in a considerable time, and rumours of bizarre events at the outer station had reached the ears of the general manager.

II. At this deeper level of meaning, we understand the discomforting truth that even the most cultivated, idealistic and accomplished person may, under certain conditions, commit the vilest crimes.

Kurtz is portrayed as a cultivated man. He is widely read, a talented artist and musician, a published journalist, and a fine speaker, and moreover someone who is attracted to #Africa not only by the prospect of wealth but also by the high-minded intention of morally uplifting the supposedly benighted Africans. Intelligence, refinement and good intentions are thus not sufficient defence against the hell that lies within us.

Kurtz succumbs to evil when he realizes that, by manipulating supposedly “savage” customs and applying brutal force, he can exercise god-like control over the peoples who occupy the territory adjacent to his station. It is through the violent suppression of neighbouring tribes that he manages to accumulate immense stocks of ivory. To achieve this god-like status , Kurtz throws off all moral restraints.

In short, the immense darkness to which Conrad frequently alludes emanates from the awareness, or rather the intimation, of the abyss – of the moral void that opens up when people shrug off the rather superficially imposed moral order. It is because the restraints are fragile that we are brought to recognize our capacity for criminal acts. A Czech writer expresses a similar idea when he lyrically refers to the “unbearable lightness of being.”

III. This theme of the capacity for evil that lurks within apparently well-intentioned, people is one that often surfaces in contemporary fiction. The horror of the Holocaust and of the various #genocides of the 20th century have made us uncomfortably aware of the fragility of moral restraints.

Apocalypse Now, a movie based closely on H of D but using the setting of the VN war, is an obvious case in point.

Another more recent exploration of the same theme is an acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad. The anti-hero is a mild-mannered chemistry teacher, Walter White. Walter initially employs his advanced scientific knowledge to produce a very pure variety of crystal meth in order to pay the hospital bills occasioned by his lung cancer, and thus not leave his family bankrupt. He thus undertakes a criminal career with the best of intentions and with a limited goal. But one thing leads to another. Walter discovers that he is actually well suited for a criminal vocation. He is able to manipulate people, to be ruthless when necessary, to lie convincingly and to use his intelligence to outsmart opponents. And, at the end, he, like Kurtz, acknowledges the evil he has wrought. He admits that what he did, he did, not for his family but for himself, for the power it accorded him. He then dies, as does Kurtz in the novella.

In sum: Conrad’s story dramatizes this theme of the fall in a compelling way.

IV. Yet there is a disquieting sub-text of Conrad’s moral tale: racism. The African is the ‘other,’ the model of primitiveness, of savagery to which Kurtz descends. Indeed, Africans are portrayed as a primitive force of nature. And there are many disparaging observations made of Africans, which serve to dehumanize them. (Quote a couple.)

Yes, Conrad shows us that civilization is only a thin veneer, that Europeans, thrown into the bush, can revert to a barbaric nature. To that extent, Conrad is critical of #colonialism and its purported civilizing mission.

But, sadly, Conrad reflects the conventional racism afflicting Europeans (and white N. Americans) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For all one may applaud his artistry in revealing a moral truth, one must also stop to lament his racist assumptions.

Indeed, one might argue that Conrad gets the story wrong. It is surely King Leopold II and his European underlings who actually more fully represent the heart of darkness. The brutality they practised in the Congo Free State, and to a lesser degree in the Belgian Congo, created a ghastly precedent whose shadow is still evident in the atrocities committed in the contemporary civil wars in the Congo. The Belgians were terrible failures as colonial overlords. All their colonies in Africa – #Congo, Rwanda and Burundi – have descended into violence and brutality in the post-colonial era. Slavery, forced labour, forced taxation, severe punishments, banishment from traditional lands, and a secure belief in racial superiority are the true heart of darkness.

D. BE THAT AS IS MAY, there is, to my mind, a third layer of meaning in H of D, and in some ways, the moral viewpoint presented at this final level is the most controversial.

Here we approach the heart of the matter, the reason why Marlowe and others (such as the bizarre Russian trader) have such respect for, and loyalty towards, Kurtz, despite his fall from grace. Marlowe is very clear in his allegiance. He states that he had a choice of two “nightmares”, and he opted for the nightmare that Kurtz represents.

What are the 2 nightmares, and why does Marlowe chose one rather than the other?

The manager and, by extension, the “Pilgrims” (in their hellish pilgrimage) exemplify one nightmare. The manager is a stolid bureaucrat who oversees an enterprise that wreaks great suffering on local communities. The manager and the Pilgrims, are motivated by greed, careerism and sometimes just plain fun (as in the case of the Pilgrims who fire their rifles into the assembled Africans after Kurtz dies). The manager and his staff may profess conventional morality and the civilizing mission, but they act with impunity and without further reflection to perpetrate cruel acts. It is significant that the only criticism the manager has of Kurtz’s brutal approach is that the latter practised “unsound methods”. The issue for him is simply the most efficacious methods for collecting ivory without inciting unrest; there is no hint of moral reproof for Kurtz’s heinous behaviour. In my view, this first nightmare is personified in the 20th century by Adolf Eichmann, and refers to what Hannah Arendt aptly describes as “the banality of evil.”

The second nightmare is represented by Kurtz. What is it about Kurtz’s approach that, for Marlowe, makes it preferable to that of the manager and the traders? Why is Marlowe so drawn to Kurtz, and why does he feel such loyalty, despite Kurtz’s brutality?
-The difference in the two nightmares is two-fold. First, Kurtz set out for Africa driven by an idea, not by avarice or self-promotion: the moral uplift of supposedly benighted Africans needing to be weaned off their “savage practices”. He fell into the moral abyss, but unlike the manager, his fall was in the service of an ethical calling. Secondly, Kurtz seems to have a self-awareness that the manager and his staff lack. With Kurtz’s final words, “the horror, the horror”, he appears to acknowledge his infamy. Marlowe thus opts for Kurtz, both for his fall from greatness and his final courage in acknowledging his evil. Kurtz is not a hypocrite, unlike the manager. It is thus better, so Conrad seems to be saying, to descend into evil in pursuit of a noble design than simply out of careerist ambition.

Marlowe is changed by his experiences in Congo. He comes to believe it is essential to live honestly by a code, to never deviate. But, ironically, he does deviate from his code when he lies to Kurtz’s “intended” at the end of their meeting in Brussels. When she asks Marlowe to recount Kurtz’s final words, he cannot bring himself to tell the truth to this innocent woman. So he tells her that Kurtz uttered her name in his final breath – and she is pleased. But Marlowe is discomforted because he has broken his own code in the service of a noble end, just as Kurtz did. While Marlowe’s deviation is not of the same order as that of Kurtz, it follows the same logic. Thus, he feels badly.

Should we accept Conrad’s moral viewpoint, as expressed in the choice between these 2 nightmares? I don’t think so.

If #Eichmann represents the first nightmare, we can join Marlowe in rejecting it. We are now very aware of the banality of evil.

But surely the Kurtz nightmare deserves equal or even greater condemnation. It is not the case that a person who commits atrocities in the name of a higher purpose is of a superior moral standing to the manager with his mundane, opportunistic and self-regarding calculations. If Eichmann personifies the first nightmare, Hitler, Stalin and Mao personify the second. These three felt themselves called to a higher purpose, whether racial purity or the emancipation of the proletariat, and each committed unspeakable crimes in apparent pursuit of an idea. Each, like Kurtz, was fundamentally drawn to power and would do whatever was needed to maintain that power. We do not know if any of them expressed any self-awareness in their final breath (the horror, the horror), but it is at least possible that they did so. Regardless, brutal acts committed in the name of an idea surely do not deserve any special consideration. Evil is evil, even if not banal.

Ultimately, Conrad’s moral calculus is unpersuasive. He tells a powerful tale, he alerts us to the ever-present possibility of falling into the moral abyss, but he does not provide us with a defensible moral compass. To that extent, this ambitious work of fiction fails.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).