Heart of Darkness (1899) is a novel with a strong vectorial component. The steamboat pushes the narrative further down Congo river, in order to find the enigmatic Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader gone berserk.
The mysterious realm of exuberant nature plays an important part on captain Charles Marlow’s journey. Marlow is confronted with manifold voices, strange and unsettling noises, thick fog, smoke, subtle vibrations in the air; ephemeral, but insisting forces penetrating every cell. The border between his rational mind and the invasive spirit of the vast unknown territories begins to overlap; Marlow gets into a pensive-synaesthesic way of listening to the beautiful, but hostile environment.
Under Marlow’s guidance, we glide in and out of the Ur-forrest-force; a twilight zone of unknown extent. Conrad glimpses into a non-modern, primal environment, he offers insights into a world beyond materiality, a world where spirits, enigmatic entities rule. In this place, opposites like the rational/irrational are suspended.
Here I don’t want to re-tell the novel’s plot or think about colonial dimensions, but focus on some haunting passages that come with the advanced stage of the journey. Conrad describes intense moments where the baffling jungle scenery seems to shift into abstraction. There is a sense of animation in the writing, of masks hiding layers of truths. Phantasmagorical appearances haunt the surroundings, the graspable and the spirit level blend together.
Worth noting with regards to Heart of Darkness, an essay by Dieter Roelstraete on www.e-flux.com/journal/jena-revisited-ten-tentative-tenets/ where he explores 10 ephemeral, floating concepts: 1. The Evanescent, 2. The Oceanic, 3. The Vertiginous, 4. The Olympian, 5. The Reticular, 6. The Inflationary, 7. The Atmospheric, 8. The Nebulous, 9. The Faustian and 10. The Meteorological, The Ironic, and the Abysmal.
Roelstraete ends with ‘And so we arrive at our final destination, namely Grand Hotel Irony, just down the road from Grand Hotel Abyss—and how very unsurprising that it should be bathing in the late-afternoon glow of “self-aware lucidities,” which perhaps begs one question above all: whence our fear of the light?’
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (my underlining):
It was as unreal as everything else – as the philanthropic pretense of the whole concern, as their talk, as their government, as their show of work.
This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see – you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…”
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.
We were wanderers on prehistoric earth, that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.
The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. (…) we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of the first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.
The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.
A complaining clamor, modulated in savage discords, filled our ears. The sheer unexpectedness of it made my hair stir under my cap. I don’t know how it struck the others: to me it seemed as though the mist itself had screamed, so suddenly and apparently from all sides at once, did this tumultuous and mournful uproar arise.
The rest of the world was nowhere, as far as our eyes and ears were concerned. Just nowhere. Gone, disappeared; swept off without leaving a whisper or a shadow behind.
I saw vague forms of men running bent double, leaping, gliding, distinct, incomplete, evanescent.
I made a strange discovery that I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing. It didn’t say to myself, ‘Now I will never see him,’ or ‘Now I will never shake him by the hand,’ but, ‘now I will never hear him.’ The man presented himself as a voice.
The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words – the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.
A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard – him – it – this voice – other voices – all of them were so little more than voices – and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense. Voices – voices – even the girl herself – now – ”
The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove! – breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. (…)
All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz (…)
This was the unbounded power of eloquence – of words – of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method.
His face was like the autumn sky, overcast one moment and bright the next.
The consciousness of there being people in that bush, so silent, so quiet – as silent and quiet as the ruined house on the hill – made me uneasy.
The woods were unmoved, like a mask – heavy, like the closed door of a prison – they looked with their air of hidden knowledge, of patient expectation, of unapproachable silence.
It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.
The stretcher shook as the bearers staggered forward again, and almost at the same time I noticed that the crowd of savages was vanishing without any perceptible movement of retreat, as if the forest that had ejected these beings so suddenly had drawn them in again as the breath is drawn in a long aspiration.
And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.
She stood looking at us without a stir, and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.
I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone – and to this day I don’t know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that experience.
This clearly was not a case for fisticuffs, even apart from the very natural aversion I had to beat that Shadow – this wandering and tormented thing.
The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too, ebbing, ebbing out of his heart into the sea of inexorable time.
…and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal.
It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing.
Update (Oct 2014):
Thomas Ligotti write about Heart of Darkness in his ‘Conspiracy against the Human Race’:
In Heart of Darkness (1902), for example, he pulls at the collar of psychological realism, plying his genius for nuance and stealing up to the very border of supernaturalism. By proceeding thus, Conrad impresses upon his audience the consciousness of a horror that goes beyond the human and takes in all of being. (p. 207)
But Kurtz is not just a bestial headman managing a trading post in Africa. His whole meaning as a character is much more than that. What the brutally atavistic Kurtz signifies to Marlow surpasses the ‘wickedness of men’ and deposits the steamboat captain on the threshold of an occult truth about the underpinnings of the only reality he has ever known – the anchoring fictions of civilization. (p. 208-209)
In Heart of Darkness, Conrad did not cede ‘the horror’ a local habitation and a name (example: The Creature from the Black Lagoon), but artfully suggested a malignity conjoining the latent turpitude of human beings with that active in being itself.