Daniel has wanted to be a writer ever since he was in elementary school.He has published stories and articles in such magazines as Slipstream, Black Petals, Spindrift, Zygote in my Coffee, and Leading Edge Science Fiction. He has written four books: The Sage and the Scarecrow (a novel), the Lexical Funk (a short story collection), Reejecttion (short story/ essay collection), and The Ghosts of Nagasaki (a novel).
Reading Like a Writer
A cliche is a cliche is a cliche. But cliches also contain bits of folk wisdom. And perhaps the greatest bit of folk wisdom for writers -- there are really only two ways to learn how to write: read (like a writer) and write.
Reading like a writer can be difficult. It means paying attention.
As I read the Heart of Darkness (twice), I did my best to pay attention and to think about the elements that made this book great. What lessons (as a writer) did I learn as I was reading this book?
Since this book came with an author biography that prefaced that actual story, the first lessons I learned were in the biography of Conrad himself: he wrote 31 books; he based his stories on life experiences; and English was not his first language, so he struggled. So, writers need to be disciplined, they need to be constantly working, and they need to lead interesting lives (when possible).
Since this is the first Joseph Conrad book I’ve read, a couple of questions lingered: How often does he use the same characters in his books? What kinds of themes come up again and again? Do these themes have get worn out in his writing?
The Heart of the “Heart of Darkness”
At the heart of the book, of course, is the colonial issue -- the conflict between the high-minded ideals of humanitarianism and Christian charity and the baser motives of territorial and resource acquisition. Like any good book, the story does not try to resolve the conflict, but rather keeps dramatic tension moving throughout the story. A good story should make a compelling narrative that is inexplicable in other forms.
Is this humanitarianism merely a veneer? One would think so, after all, the darkness “conquers” both Kurtz and Marlow (as well as others) in various situations. And the naked greed of colonial Europe is often in plain site. Though the simple interpretation of people succumbing to darkness doesn’t always work in the story as Marlow frequently shows guarded admiration for those who are able to adjust to their surroundings. Thus the conundrum: those who adapt to the darkness can survive, but in the process their ideals are corrupted.
The novel also unsettles our ability to come up with rational causal chains. Did European rapaciousness cause the darkness, or did the harsh wilderness strip away idealism until the rapaciousness was the only thing left? Is the darkness internal, something that is brought into the wilderness or does the wilderness condition the colonials to be part of the darkness?
Constructivist explanations of co-constitution give us another explanatory avenue, but one that is not wholly fulfilling by the criteria of positivist (modern) science.
Could a book like this exist today?
The book is well-crafted, but one still can doubt whether a book written in this style would be considered literature today. First, there is the high moral tone of the book. Morality tales rarely are considered literature today. What is ironic is that the classic morality tales of yesterday are considered a kind of barbarism today (a hint at the degree to which we have become a post-modern society?). Of course, moralism survives today in historical fiction, romantic literature, and perhaps religious fiction -- but these are considered genre fictions and are often looked on as lower forms of literature for better or worse. One also can question whether Conrad’s use of alliteration and dramatic repetition would be considered literary.
One also has to wonder whether a character like Kurtz could exist in modern literature. Certainly, a character like Kurtz was used in the film Apocalypse Now. But what about a modern business man? Gordon Gecko wasn’t a Kurtz because he didn’t feel he had to negotiate two contradictory ideals. Greed was good, so there was never any internal conflict. Where would we go to find this internal conflict again? Modern development projects? War again? I saw hints of the Kurtz character, surprisingly, in a State Department official represented in The Kite Runner. If you have a chance to read the Kite Runner please pay close attention to a little scene toward the end of the book where the main character approaches a State Department official. I think this scene is illustrative (and will get you thinking again about good and evil in the modern era).
Another mechanism (trope?) that might not hold up by modern standards is the romantic invocation of the sea. Conrad writes, “for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny” (page 4). Would this stand up to modern scrutiny, or would we label this as something more fitting of historical fiction?
On the use of Marlow as a narrator
Marlow tells the story of the Heart of Darkness. Thus, the story is one long monologue often interrupted by Marlow’s own reflections on how the events of the story have impacted him personally. From the beginning, Marlow’s credibility as a narrator is thrown into doubt. Conrad lets us know that Marlow does not always understand the needs of his listeners (in other words, he is a self-centered story-teller. Then again, what story-teller isn’t?).
One could fault this story for breaking the rule of “show, don’t tell.” Marlow provides a lot of commentary, including his own interpretations of what is happening. One could think of a narrator as a kind of workaround of the old writing rule of “show, don’t tell.” A narration can be both dialogue and prose, pulling you into a story and out of a story into another story happening in the present; the two story-telling as a framing story can work with the original story in dynamic ways. In the case of Heart of Darkness, the story outside of the story gave me the impression that there would be many more kinds of darknesses as long as there were ships to go to faraway places.
Perhaps one of the other characters (the brickmaker) summarizes Kurtz best by saying, he is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.” It is ironic that the brickmaker says these words because there is more than a touch of (perhaps unintentional) irony here. All these things represent supposedly the best of modern man, but all of these are also the accouterments of the unrelenting ambition of modern society -- to conquer and rationalize. Indeed, if we think of modernity as one kind of darkness and the wilderness as another, each in their own way with conquering tendencies, then we can see Kurtz and the natives as two kinds of darknesses meeting. Kurtz conquered the village, which conquered him in a different way in turn.
What was Kurtz in the end? Marlow (Conrad’s mouthpiece) writes: “There was nothing either above or below him, and I knew it. He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces.” (page 100). How can we explain this passage? He is the best of people, he is the worst of people. In his very lowness, there was nothing higher. Again, we are presented with the instructable.
Kurtz is also, however, a person without a core (other than raw ambition). After all, in the waning pages of the book a colleague of Kurtz says that he would have made a great politician. When asked for which party, his colleague answers, “Any party...he was an extremist.” (page 110). In other words, he would have joined any party, so long as that party offered him the possibility of satiating his ambitions.
Of course ivory is the ultimate symbol of the modern functionalist logic. In the end, the quantifiable amounts of ivory extracted is what matters, but ivory could just as well be replaced with oil, diamonds, rare earth elements, or “devil knows what else” (your reviewer says ironically with a wink).
The Parts of the Book that Linger and Linger and…
The first hint at dramatic and incongruous contrasts: the boat captain who Marlow is to replace. “Fresleven--that was the fellow’s name, a Dane--thought himself wronged somehow in the bargain, so he went ashore and started to hammer the chief of the village with a stick. Oh, it didn’t surprise me in the least to hear this, and at the same time to be told that Fresleven was the gentlest, quietest creature that ever walked on two legs.” This quote comes early in the book (page 10). It sets up the dramatic contrasts that will occur with major characters later in the book. It’s a great use of a minor character to set the scene for more major events to come.
Depictions of realistic horror. In referring to the conditions of black workers when he arrived: “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.” (Page 22). This depiction of the work site stands up against any depiction of modern horror, including depictions in holocaust literature. Later we see the contrast between this death and decay and the well regulated columns of numbers in the accountant’s books, which are, as Conrad puts it, in “apple pie order” (page 24). For the accountant, the groans of the sick people distract his attention and make it difficult for him to finish his work.
Another passage that stuck out to me was the one that described the brickmaker, another peripheral character in the book. “I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe” (page 37). For some reason, I could picture the character even without knowing altogether who Mephistopheles was. You can check out references to Mephistopheles in this wikipedia entry here.
The character Marlow’s frustration at not being able to find rivets to fix his boat. This small detail and the great length it takes up in the book lends credibility to a tale of struggle in an African colony. I can truly see how missing just one or two essential things can drive a person insane. This is the kind of detail that could only have been taken from real life.
To get something done “by hook or by crook” (page 53). This is such a great phrase that I’m surprised people don’t use it anymore. I think I shall use it right now. I’ll get this review written by hook or by crook.
The constant invocation of the rotten hippo meat -- like the use of the rivets -- is a detail that brings the story to life.
Another Great River
My notes on this book run on and on like a great river (it could be the Congo; it could be the Thames). Surely, the quantity of ideas is something that could be recorded in an accountant’s book (though unfortunately, they are nowhere near worth their weight in ivory). Surely though, this quantity signifies a thing, trite but true: to read a good book once is no good; one must read it again. One must learn to write by reading carefully, as a writer would, reverse engineering it, until it is a thing that you have written again with your own eyes. Only in this way can you allow the darkness of literary genius conquer you.