May 5, 2009

The CCLaP 100: "Heart of Darkness," by Joseph Conrad

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness (1902)
By Joseph Conrad
Book #28 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
The literal plotline of Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella Heart of Darkness (first published serially in 1899) is actually pretty simple: It's the story of a sailor named Marlow, who is hired by one of those Victorian-Age northern European trading companies to captain a boat up and down the Congo River in Africa, transporting company ivory to eventually be shipped back north; and while there, he is also to quietly recall their man Kurtz out in the middle of the jungle, the biggest ivory-gatherer in the company's history but who has recently been displaying a whole series of erratic behavior that's had his superiors more and more nervous (including not communicating for months at a time, rumors that he has started his own religion among the local villagers, and more). Ah, but it's when he actually gets to the Congo that this story turns a lot more complex; because far from being the civilizing presence the Empire-era British were touted back home as being in such backwater jungles, Marlow quickly realizes that it is the white people in Africa causing the majority of the problems, with a series of company stations along the river that get crazier and more abusive the farther inward that he and his mixed-race crew travel.

Once finally reaching Kurtz, then, after a series of surreal and darkly absurdist experiences, Marlow comes to realize the secret to the legitimately brilliant yet absolutely insane man's almost supernatural ability to gather ivory: namely, he has completely given up on the idea that Brits are in any way more civilized than the cannibals surrounding them, and has used Caucasian technology (steamboat whistles, etc) to install himself as an all-powerful god in their eyes, convincing them to wage bloody jihads against their neighbors and simply take all the ivory the other tribes have gathered over the years. And so as he makes his way back home with the raving, soon-to-be-dead Kurtz now on his boat, Marlow is left to wonder about the false veneer of 'polite society' that the British have so elaborately created for themselves, and to ponder whether it ultimately does a lot more harm to the world at large than good.

The argument for it being a classic:
There are so many ways that Heart of Darkness can be considered a classic, argue its fans, that it's hard to know where to even start. There's the obvious, to begin with, that this was one of the first projects ever by a white male to be critical of the then-all-powerful British Empire, paving the way at the turn of the 20th century for the growing anti-imperial sentiments that were to come; and then there's his surprisingly sophisticated look at race*, his embrace of the then-new field of psychology, the way he almost perfectly combines character and plot development into a legitimately thrilling potboiler. But even more important than all this, many say, Conrad was one of the heroes of an extremely important yet unsung age for the Western arts, and this novella an exquisite example of that age -- namely, the twenty-year period between the death of Queen Victoria and the end of World War One (1900 to 1920, in other words), when a series of daring and ultra-intelligent artists literally pulled the world kicking and screaming out of Victorianism and into the heady atmosphere of Modernism.

If it wasn't for books like these, argue its fans, ones that gently primed Western audiences to think of literature in much more complex and challenging ways, such next-generation artists as William Faulkner and Henry Miller would've fallen flat on their faces; and if not for these transitional artists embracing such concepts as moral relativism, our modern world of the arts today might still only consist of simplistic Victorian morality tales, where baddies literally wear black hats and go around twirling their mustaches in an evil manner. (Of course, there are some who argue that this rejection of the notion of absolute good and absolute evil is what directly led to the rise of fascism, which first started rearing its ugly head a mere twenty years after this book was first published; but that's a heated argument for another day.) These transitional artists may get short shrift nowadays, say their fans, but we actually owe the entire flavor of the contemporary arts to their groundbreaking work; and by being one of the best examples of that period, they argue, Heart of Darkness of course deserves the label of classic.

The argument against:
Of course, much like other artists of this period (see my review of The Man Who Was Thursday, for example), this entire argument can be turned on its head; that the works of this period are simply too obscure to be known as classics, simply too overshadowed by the Early Modernist masterpieces that came just a generation later. For example, critics argue, if not for the notorious adaptation of this story by Francis Ford Coppola into the 1979 Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, few people these days would even know of Joseph Conrad's existence; and while the novella may still remain a well-done and powerful tale (and I've come across few people online who argue otherwise), such obscurity simply does not justify a 'classic' status.

My verdict:
So since its shadow does loom so largely over this book, let's go ahead and directly address Coppola's much more well-known Apocalypse Now; because now that I've read the book, I've come to realize that the movie is not just an adaptation of the original public-domain story but a literal beat-for-beat ripoff, all the way down down to such modern-seeming subversive details as the Dennis Hopper character (an insane, drug-addicted fellow white male who lives out in the jungle with Kurtz, and worships him just like the local villagers do). And this is remarkable, that a book over a hundred years old would contain so many touches we usually associate with postmodernism; because to put it in perspective, keep in mind that this was written the same year as Bram Stoker's Dracula, within an age just in general where narrative literature mostly consisted of flowery simplistic fairytales. Or to use another example, look at all the ways this story has been interpreted over the years -- as a cautionary tale about the limits of empire, as a prescient look at race relations, as an examination of the secret black pit inside every human soul (and the pretty little lies called 'civilization' we tell ourselves to keep this black pit in check), as a simple historical tale based on Conrad's own experiences in the Congo; and now consider that at the time this book came out, most people found the entire concept of artistically analyzing a narrative fictional story to be ridiculous, kinda like how most people these days would find it ridiculous to examine the socio-religious subtext of a first-person-shooter videogame. It was writers like Conrad and books like Heart of Darkness that first started changing the public's mind about the artistic worth of long-form fiction; and as regular readers know, I have a soft spot in my heart for daring experimenters from transitional periods of artistic history, so of course I'm going to eat this novella up like the heavenly manna it is. I encourage everyone to check out not only this book but all the forgotten trailblazers of the early 20th century; it's a period of the arts that deserves to be better known and appreciated, especially here during its centennial anniversary.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Read even more about Heart of Darkness: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Since writing this essay, I've come to learn that there are a whole lot of people who consider Heart of Darkness to in fact be extremely racist, along the lines of, "Oh, I see -- so the 'enlightened' white people turn out to be no 'better' than the animal-like 'savages' we all 'know' black people to be. I see how it is." To these people, I would humbly remind them that historical context is key to understanding the arts, to not judge a book or movie by your own modern standards but against the prevailing attitudes society had at the time of the project's creation; to cite just one excellent example, how less than forty years before this book was written, it was perfectly legal to freaking own black people in the United States as if they were just another piece of property. When I say that this book has a "surprisingly sophisticated" attitude about race, I mean in relation to the other books and plays and songs that were coming out at the same time, in which it was simply assumed that black people were merely one step up from monkeys on the evolutionary scale, while white people were a completely different and much more enlightened species. The mere fact that Conrad calls white people the same barely-civilized animals as black people was actually a progressive attitude at the time for him to take, no matter what Chinua Achebe has to say about it.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:08 PM, May 5, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |