246. TMTF Reviews: Heart of Darkness

A few days ago, a coworker and I had an interesting discussion about lunatic asylums, survival horror games and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

My coworker had just finished a survival horror game set in an insane asylum. (Survival horror is a scary genre of video games.) It reminded me of an article that questioned the use of lunatics in horror fiction. While some victims of mental illness are certainly dangerous, it’s unfair to stereotype them all as murderers, cannibals or psychopaths. Most lunatics are innocent people suffering from mental disorders. Compassion, not fear, is the appropriate response.

My coworker’s game was apparently an excellent (and terrifying) artistic work, but its scares came at the cost of demonizing and dehumanizing an entire group of people.

That reminds me of something.

Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a great book, but not a good one. Its impressive style and thematic complexity come at the cost of human dignity.

Heart of Darkness is the tale of Charles Marlow, a nineteenth-century sailor who tells of his fateful trip up an African river in search of ivory. Marlow captained a steamboat deep into the dark, wild heart of the inscrutable African continent, meeting indolent Europeans and barbaric Africans—and one very terrible man, the tortured Mr. Kurtz. It is Kurtz who embodies the eloquence of Europe and the savagery of Africa, and Kurtz whose ambition and cruelty are finally summed up in four whispered words: “The horror! The horror!”

As I told my coworker, I thought Heart of Darkness was a fine artistic work, just like his game. My book made its point about human depravity; his game was very scary; both works achieved their ends. However, both works accomplished their goals only by exaggerating and debasing a group of people. His demonized the lunatic. Mine demonized the African.

At first, I didn’t think twice about Conrad’s stereotyped Africans. Racism was almost universal among the Europeans of his day. It was my cousin who recommended this thought-provoking essay by Chinua Achebe. Achebe, an African, showed me how Heart of Darkness creates a stark, racist contrast between the white European and the black African. Kurtz is horrifying because he—a cultured European—descends into the savage brutality of those wild Africans.

I get it. For Heart of Darkness to work, it needs that contrast. For savagery to seem savage, it must be compared to sophistication. Kurtz has fallen from Point A to Point B, and the reader can’t appreciate how far he falls unless she sees both points. Sane, sensible Marlow is Point A. There must be a cruel, primitive Point B—and Heart of Darkness makes Africans its Point B. The book debases Africa’s people not out of malice, but out of necessity.

That doesn’t make it right.

That is my fundamental criticism of the book. How could it have been fixed? Well, Marlow might not have sought Kurtz in the dark heart of Africa—the dark heart of London would have sufficed. There were plenty of debased, primitive Europeans in Conrad’s day.

Heart of Darkness makes its point very well. Kurtz is a fascinating character, and he’s prefigured so well throughout the story that I was almost as eager as Marlow to meet him. While the book’s contrast of Europe and Africa is morally questionable, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s artistically excellent.

The book’s style is either great or horrible, depending on the reader. Conrad’s writing is dense and slow. Thoughtful readers will probably savor it. Impatient readers will hate it. Conrad has a tendency to wax meditative for pages and then say something crucial to the plot in just a few sentences. I repeatedly overshot important information because Conrad’s style had lulled me into a literary stupor.

Heart of Darkness is a great literary work—but is it a good book? I don’t think so.

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