Conrad warns us of the “fascination of the abomination” and the “regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate”(Conrad 6) that would ensue when we encounter the truly wild other out there. The “map” to man’s interior that Conrad draws takes us to a shamanistic dawn where “herds of men” followed the visions of an “alpha male” until he dropped. We know this because shamanism arose at a time when humans emulated wolf packs and lion prides or lone hunters--the bear and the solitary cats.
Mircea Eliade, in A History of Religious Ideas (Vol. 1), states the shaman “is able to penetrate even into the source of animal life, the bony element.” “The so-called X-ray drawings, ...showing the skeleton...of the animal, have also been referred to shamanism.” (Eliade 18) This too is taken up in the opening pages of Conrad as a template for the thorough accounting later in the text. The men awaiting the tide toying with “bones,” in the form of dominoes(Conrad 3), a prelude to the bones Kurtz seems to find all over the dark interior, are using the tools of the shaman. Eliade also points out that the shaman/hunter was probably employed by early agricultural societies as hunter/guardian. (Eliade 35) Kurtz is such a shaman as we have described. He does our killing for us.
What Conrad proposes in his synopsis, contained in the first few pages of Heart of Darkness, and posits in the body of the work, is that the man society chooses to send to the brink of civilization must be extra-ordinary, a man capable of staring into the dark chaos of nature and making sense of that darkness. The individual, and shamans were the first individuals, must also choose to enter the darkness, as Kurtz and Marlow chose, and, upon entering the darkness, if no sense can be made of it the individual must impose one.
At the threshold of the twentieth century, when exploitation of colonies was still widely spread and the problem of abuse of natural resources and native inhabitants was largely ignored, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness invites us to reflect on and ask ourselves when does progress and expansion become rape.
Joseph Conrad presents us with this, unfortunately, ageless book. It sheds a bright light onto the inherit darkness of our human inclinations, stripped of pretense, in the middle of the jungle where those savage tendencies are provided with a fertile ground.
The combination of greed, climate and the demoralizing effect of frontier life brought out the worst in people. They were raping the land, practically stealing the ivory from the natives, whom they were treating like slaves, or even worse than slaves, for slaves in America were an expensive commodity and therefore it was in the best interest of slave-owners to keep them well fed and healthy; these poor chaps, however, were allowed to starve to death once they fell ill.
And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die. They 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 cast 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. These moribund shapes were free as air - and nearly as thin. (Conrad 14)
The natives were cannibals, but in contrast, had higher moral standards than some of the raiders, who were plundering their country and even though they were paid "royally", for their services, with useless wire with which they were expected to procure food, they did not stoop so low as to threaten the lives of the pilgrims, even when they were bordering on starvation.
They had given them every week three pieces of brass wire, about nine inches long; and the theory was they were to buy their provisions with that currency in river-side villages. You can see how that worked. There were either no villages, or the people were hostile, or the director, who like the rest of us fed out of tins, with an occasional old he-goat thrown in, didn’t want to stop the steamer for some more or less recondite reasons. So, unless they swallowed the wire itself, or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don’t see what good their extravagant salary could be to them. ... - ... Why in the name of all the gnawing devils of hunger they didn’t go for us - they were thirty to five - and have a good tuck in for once, amazes me now when I think of it. (Conrad 37)
Technology and progress, in contrast with simple existence of the indigenous inhabitants of the land, afforded the colonists a God-like powers over the natives. Hidden behind a veil of lofty ideas like expansion and progress, colonists were committing unspeakable atrocities, not unlike the treatment of Native Americans in our own country.
But there is hope. At the time when racism wasn’t even a pejorative term and belittling attitude toward the "savages" was just an ordinary fact of life, you can see the change taking place in Marlow’s attitude toward the natives; he misses his helmsman, a man, whom he called "improved specimen" (Conrad 33), who was watching the steam boiler of the boat and who was killed by Kurtz follower’s spear. Marlow surprises himself thinking of this man as his equal.
Many of us, today, would benefit from just such a change of outlook. It seems as though time is standing still and even today, we are ridden with hate and prejudice toward each other based on foolish ideas and ideals.
Conrad effectively evokes a dream like image of the jungle by using language. He uses strong words to describe the natives appearances, characteristics and presumed behavior.
Very common in his descriptions are the use of very strong and erotic words like "wild " and "intense". For example the description of a boat load of natives paddling down stream is distinctly primitive. He says "they shouted, and sang… their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had grotesque masks…but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality and intense energy of movement…"(78). In contrast a comparison, to the author’s description of a white, affluent, suggestively desirable race, made them appear artificial, sloppy and lethargic. Clearly seen in the following phrase, "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly"(81).
Another obvious implication
of a primitive and savage culture using language, which gives the reader
the illusion of wilderness, is the author's use of the word cannibals.
By using the word cannibal the author implies a savage and uncivilized
race, since both the word and the act are abrasive. Especially in context
with the period this text was written in, 1910. Back then, the idea of
natives in the jungle was a proven fact not a rumor or fantasy.
Already afraid of this reality the use of the word made the image of the native more frightening and convoluted. Whereas today, cannibals are hardly threatening at all since the likelihood of their existence is purely fiction. Ironically, Conrad is able to combine the use of this word with a very tender and humorous description of his crew, "Fine fellows - cannibals-in their place. They were men one could work with…And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they brought along a provision of hippo-meat"(104).
A last description of a native is of Marlow’s companion the "savage who was fireman"(106). He too was described to imbue the image of a savage as society had presupposed a native would look like. Marlow describes his native physical traits, beginning with a description of his teeth. He said " -and he had filed teeth, too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet"(106).
Clapping hands, dancing
and singing seem to be the predominate characteristics of this culture
and as such labeled scandalous behavior for that time. In contrast a lot
can be assumed about the methods of recreation and disposition of the white
man. However today, since we all clap our hands, sing and dance it could
hardly be believed that the savage natives were very different from us
The natural world of David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous is quite different. It does not stand apart, dark and foreboding, using its "enigmatic forces" (99) to leave us barren. Instead, the sense of loss stems from the fact we have severed "our ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth" (10); choosing to surround ourselves with the deafening rumbles of our technology, we have become unable to hear its eloquent murmurs. By forgetting our nonhuman nature and that our essence is entwined with that of the earth’s, we can no longer "give voice to the world from our experienced situation within it" (47). Only by "remember[ing]...the organic basis of our thoughts and intelligence" (47) can we once more understand nature’s perspicuous rhythms, restoring our sense of wonder and reestablishing the link to our magical inheritance.
There are some of us who
have never forgotten the magical quiddity of our nature, and through the
ages have chosen to "work with the malleable texture of perception" (5).
They are the shamans and sorcerers, "voyager[s] in the intermediate realm
between the human and the more-than-human worlds" (7); they are the keepers
of the forgotten language, the bearers of the "secret knowledge of the
earth" (Castaneda 81). Though they have remained at the periphery of their
communities, shrouded in mystery and sometimes feared, it is our culture
that at best has ridiculed them and at worst has demonized them. We see
them as mysterious emanations from a dark, impenetrable world, failing
to understand that they "cultivate [the] ability to shift out of [their]
common state of consciousness precisely to make contact with the other
organic forms of sensitivity and awareness with which human existence is
entwined" (9). An ability that we all share and can make part of our awareness
if only we can remember our sensuous essence.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Castaneda, Carlos. The Fire From Within. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Signet Classic, 1997.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad is a story that connects the audience to the narrator’s senses. We come to understand the environment, the setting, the other charters, and Kurtz strictly from the narrator’s point-of-view, as he experiences things.
We are locked out of Conrad’s (the narrator in this case) world, allowed to feel only what he let’s us, see the savages as he does, through his eyes, feel with his body. We are not able to see how the world views him. Is he seen as superior, a drone, a sailor? His dreamlike consciousness navigates us, the readers, down the river as if we are a part of the flow of things, ripples in the water, patches of the darkness.
Conrad uses language to paint images in our minds. He poignantly uses metaphors like, “In exterior he resembled a butcher in a poor neighborhood” (57) to animate those images, allow them to breath a bit.
His choice of words and word combinations, his poetic tone, and suave style and smooth transitions craft a sensual experience. He is on the surface talking about the exploration of man in Africa with all of its physical and moral dilemma, and yet the underbelly is the interior of man, an endeavor to touch the reader at his core. “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” (104) When Conrad says that the “germs of empires” floated into man’s head , ebbing down the river into the mystery of an unknown earth, his metaphors appeal emotionally to something serious, a commentary on the heart of man. (67)
Our senses are serenely assaulted with tastes and surfaces, sounds and images. The “tremor of far-off drums,” the “silence driven away by the stamping of our feet,” and the “heads on the stakes” are sensual. When you read: “she rang under my feet like an empty Huntley & Palmer biscuit-tin kicked along the gutter,” I can see it and hear it and almost feel the vibrations of the tin. (99)
The darkness, reader as part of the darkness: The darkness of man, is meant to be universal. All men can relate to the drums, there’s a great passage where Conrad explicitly says so, “Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you - you so remote from the night of first ages - could comprehend.” (109) There are implicit phrases as well, woven neatly around the events. “I assure you that never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless, and so dark.” (135) The narrator himself wonders about his own darkness. The darkness is related in the book to health, success, savages, and humanity.
Memory verses sense of memory: His story couldn’t be real memories, but perceptions of the memories, mutated with time, flourished by the total experience. We know that Conrad himself had similar experiences to the narrator of his story. The writer’s memory has been fictionalized.
The rape of the land, the consequences to the sole, the temptation of solitude, were a dark challenge, constructing moral dilemmas. Kurtz discovered, “He was empty inside.” His dying words, “the horror, the horror” displays what he was inside at the end.
There was a homologous hegemony. For as much as the natives were influenced by the white men’s guns and mechanical wonders, the whites didn’t have a chance of not being influenced. “(White) men that come out here should have no entrails.” (90) They were savages, even the pisher assistant to Kurtz, who couldn’t discern taking the human heads off the stakes in the ground. He thought he wasn’t corrupt like the others, he perceived himself as being in control. But the jungle and savages changed the white men. They became wild and uncivilized. For all of their manicuring and white collared shirts, their symbolic clinging to systems that didn’t apply, they acted as beasts. “His starched collars and got-up shirt fronts were achievements of character.” (85)
“Just kill this guy if we need to...there are no laws here.” There were laws. There were natural laws. The geographically transplanted white men were so far removed from imposed structured laws, that they were ill equipped to survive in nature, to respond to the innate laws of nature. Civilized man no longer saw himself as part of nature. He was not just separate but superior and impious. They irresponsibly answered to no one. They were corrupt and they imprisoned the natives, stole from them, plundered the earth’s ivory, murdered anyone they wanted to, and so forth. Historically, Europeans couldn’t have had any hope of avoiding becoming human slave traders having had no preconceived respect for any aspect of nature.
Conrad’s description sums it up,
<-back to language
<-back to socio-eco
<-back to health
<-back to humans
<-back to keefer