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In Defence of Conrad – Heart of Darkness & DR Congo

March 22, 2009

Heart of DarknessI’d like to briefly outline my views on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because I feel it is often misused within the press as a frame for the DR Congo.  It’s by no means in-depth or complete, but I’d like to get my ideas down.  Any others are most welcome, of course.

Joseph Conrad’s Hearts of Darkness (1902) is the novella detailing Marlow’s journey as a ferry-boat captain, employed by a Belgian trading company.  The river is never named but it is likely to be the Congo River.  Themes from this book are many: symbolic between light and dark, psychological as a journey about the inner self, mythical as the idea of humanity and political as a criticism of imperialism.

I see this book mentioned many times when I trace articles about the DR Congo, and for many this is worrying.  To some it is worrying because this book can be viewed as racist, as Nigerian Chinua Achebe commented:

‘Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting, as when he gives us this brief description: “A black arms”—as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so relenting is Conrad’s obsession.’

For modern society indeed the usage of ‘nigger’ is unacceptable, but this was written in the 1800s; a time when such a word was common place.  There is a framed narrative present – it is not Conrad saying such things, it is Marlow.  In fact, Conrad is mocking his own society throughout the story.  At the start of the novel, comparisons are drawn between the Romans and the new imperialists in Africa:

‘they grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got’

Through a political frame, this book can be read as the critique of the ignorance and greed of European colonialists.   The novella is scathing of colonialism, written at a time when the public began to fear colonialism wasn’t working like it once did.

The theme of light and darkness are more complex than one may first think.  Light is the indication of deceit; when something glitters it is not through beauty or goodness, but because something is hiding beneath the surface.  Something often dangerous.

‘The haze is translucent, still, eerie, as though the sky was covered with white gauze.’

Therefore, in a sense, light is the darkness: perhaps symbolism for the Europeans in Africa.  Europeans represent darkness and evil.  The parallels drawn with the economic centre London, and the River Thames in particular, are also interesting.

London is referred to as a ‘monstrous town’ and sees a gloom settled over the city, dimming the light.  One can sense that this darkness upon the economic and political power centre represents Conrad’s criticism of all of Europe.

Hearts of Darkness is a story of the white mans’ greed, not of an imagined ‘African savagery’; imagery such as this was merely an openly used device of the time.   I’ll underline again the fact that Marlow was a character device, not the voice of Conrad.  Conrad said:

‘Heart of Darkness is experience…pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.’

Ultimately, I think Conrad’s point was that there is a mystery to our existence that we may never fathom – a real heart of darkness.   These themes are as potent now as ever when we think about the Western world and DR Congo.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2009 9:54 pm

    Great and thought provoking article Simon! I haven’t read Heart of Darkness yet but it’s on my to-read list in the next couple of weeks; I’ll let you know my own comments once I’ve completed it. Keep-up the good work and see you around Twitter.

  2. Simon permalink*
    March 22, 2009 10:31 pm

    Thanks for that – and thanks for posting The Independent article: ‘A glimmer of hope in the dark heart of Africa?’

    It’s a great example of how powerful Conrad’s vision remains to be.

    • March 22, 2009 10:34 pm

      You’re welcome, I also tweeted your own article too, separately.

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