Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
The West is the best.
Get here, and we’ll do the rest.
Jim Morrison, The End
There are books I return to because they are works of genius, and others from a residual fondness. Then there are those books that cater to both needs, the ones that won’t let you be, that pull on your bedclothes on the blackest of nights. Such is Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness.
Known to cinema audiences via the refracting lens of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Conrad’s novella will be familiar to undergraduates of a certain age. Now, it is doubtless verboten on campus, as many books by reviled dead white males are. More will become so as progressivism tightens its grip on the universities. Imagine Conrad’s Nigger of the Narcissus on a contemporary syllabus.
Conrad, famously a man of the sea himself, based the tale on his own experiences as the stand-in skipper on a Belgian cargo ship on the (then) Belgian Congo in 1890. The captain of the Roi des Belges fell ill, and Conrad was appointed to take his place. Curiously, although he experienced some of the famous ‘horror’ of the interior’s barbarism, it was only when Conrad returned to London that he fell victim to depression, complaining, ironically, of ‘the hot, noisy and dissipated night of my neighbourhood’, that being Gillingham Street between Victoria and Pimlico. I lived round the corner for some years, and saluted the blue plaque on number 17 whenever I passed it.
Perhaps it was the focus of captaincy held that mental enervation at bay in the jungle, which might explain the wonderful reflection in Heart of Darkness on work;
‘I don’t like work – no man does – but I like what is in the work, - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – what no other man can ever know.’
Conrad’s narrator, Marlow (curiously the same name as Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe), tells his companions of his journey into the interior of the Belgian Congo to report on an ivory trader called Kurtz. A reluctant company man, Marlow comes across Kurtz’s infamous ‘unsound method’, as the European man struggles for sanity and mental order amid chaos, a stranger in a strange land. Value systems, normative cultural standards and Western behavioural protocols are suspended – or, in the case of Kurtz, forfeit – in this primeval state of nature. Marlow travels from acceptance of what a ‘[d]roll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose’ to the dread realisation that he no longer belongs to ‘a world of straightforward facts.’
Of course, if the book were to be read at university, it would be as an example of the evils of colonialism rather than the existential tract it is.
In the modern world, shaped and designed as it is by the PR people in the media and governing classes, the ‘narrative’ (which is what the Left have instead of ‘the truth’ or ‘the facts’) dictates that colonisation is a Great Evil, up there with racism and micro-aggression. Applying my First Law of Political Discourse – that you can more or less reverse anything that the Left holds to be historically true – one realises that, of course, colonialism was a thorough benison for every country fortunate enough to be colonised. An Indian speaker to the Oxford Union the other day was bleating about reparations for the British occupation under the Raj. Fine. Take the money, provided that you expunge your country of all British influence. Tear up your roads, renounce your legal system, undo your agriculture and go back to your Rousseauist paradise, if such it was. And we’ll stop funding your space programme, if that’s okay with you. Robert Mugabe, I note, is now inviting white farmers back onto the land he seized before economic collapse and 500 billion per cent inflation (the actual figure, not hyperbole).
If the British, Belgians, Dutch, Portugese and Spanish were sometimes brutal, then that was the nature of life then. There is no trans-temporal moral equivalence. And moral equivalence is Kurtz’s conundrum. Can morality function in a lawless world? This is the whisper that ‘echoed loudly within [Kurtz] because he was hollow at the core’.
In a week which has seen the publication in that progressivist rag The Guardian of a piece proposing that ISIS are cool because they fly in the face of capitalism, Conrad’s International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs would be busy indeed, although more likely to be prosecuted for racism than receive government funding. Kurtz has been commissioned to write a report on his findings for this fictional society, a report that thrills Marlow with its eloquence. We might ourselves take heed of the mad Kurtz. Of the report, Marlow says;
‘There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the page…’
This marginalia travels into Coppola’s film, and Western leaders – when they begin considering ISIS as what they are instead of trying to protect brand Islam by dissociating them from Mohammedanism – would do well to consider the Kurtzian imperative:
‘Exterminate all the brutes!’
Like Nabokov, Conrad was an eastern European who became one of the greatest prose stylists writing in English, and can be read purely for pleasure in addition to existential insight. And, like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Kurtz is a troubled European who has gone into the least hospitable, most frightening interior of all; his own.
Colonialism is incidental to Heart of Darkness. It is a book about the dissolution of the European soul, and should be read and read again as such now that there is no longer need to travel up the Congo to view savage customs. YouTube now provides that service, until ISIS videos are removed, ostensibly as user service, in actuality to protect brand Islam. Exterminate all the brutes, indeed.