A month or two ago I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and let me tell you; IT IS HORRIFYING.
It is not horrifying in the sense that there’s a bunch of murder (although there is), or because there are some gruesome details (although there are). Heart of Darkness is utterly terrifying because it is based on historical truth. What happens in Heart of Darkness only illustrates what REAL MEN did in the REAL WORLD.
The story follows a young man named Marlow and his tale of when he piloted a steam boat on the Congo River for an ivory trading company. Along his way down the river he hears accounts of a man named Kurtz who supposedly does “remarkable” work for the company. As Marlow travels from station to station down the river, the myth of Kurtz continues to grow, but when Marlow finally meets this legend of a man, he discovers that it is Kurtz’s cruelty and brutality that make him legendary. Marlow is appalled by gruesome, lightless world Kurtz and men like him had created around the Congo River.
The following passage is one of the most bone-chilling passages in this book. It is an excerpt of a conversation between Marlow and a Russian adventurer who lives alone in the Congo wilderness, but is a great admirer of Kurtz. On stakes outside Kurtz’s dwelling, Marlow sees the disembodied heads of some natives and asks the Russian adventurer why the natives were not enraged that the heads of their murdered brothers were on constant display.
The admirer of Mr. Kurtz was a bit crestfallen. In a hurried, indistinct voice he began to assure me he had not dared to take these—say, symbols—down. He was not afraid of the natives; they would not stir till Mr. Kurtz gave the word. His [Kurtz’s] ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these people surrounded this place, and the chiefs came everyday to see him. They would crawl…“I don’t want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz,” I shouted. Curious, this feeling that came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz’s windows. After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist—obviously—in the sunshine.
This passage fully illustrates the surrealistic grotesqueness of colonial Congo.
Thinking themselves the height of civilization and God-chosen instructors sent to humanize the “savages,” colonizers called native life barbaric, unnatural, and ungodly. Now, every part of such a ludicrous philosophy is debatable, but really it’s irrelevant to the reality shown by the above passage, which is that even if the native way of life was savage (which it wasn’t), it was better than the “lightless region of subtle horrors” that the land had become. Mr. Kurtz, the archetype for ruthless and cruel colonizers all over the land, would go to any length to satisfy his lust for ivory and make a profit, even deify himself. Dismemberment pales in comparison to the horrible manipulation of colonizing fear-mongers like Kurtz. At least those men died knowing their enemy. At least those dried heads died more honorably than their enslaved brethren were allowed to live. “After all, that was only savagery…something that had a right to exist…in the sunshine.”
Joseph Conrad is an amazingly talented author. The imagery and language used in Heart of Darkness is unforgettable.
What book’s language or imagery had a profound impact on you? Share in the comments!