“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, 1902

I began Conrad’s clas­sic tale as a follow-up to last month’s State of Won­der by Ann Patch­ett. Her hero­ine trav­eled to the most remote reach­es of the Ama­zon; all sto­ries that make the trip from the bland­ness of civ­i­liza­tion (Min­neso­ta in Patchett’s case) owe a debt to Conrad’s clas­sic tale of a steam­boat trip far up the Con­go River.

The book cer­tain­ly has its odd­i­ties, start­ing with the nar­ra­tive voice: we are lis­ten­ing to a sto­ry told aboard a ship on the Thames that is wait­ing for a change of tide to send it on its way out to sea. The narrator-within-the-story, Mar­lowe, tells the entire tale in flash­back, with Con­rad only occa­sion­al­ly com­ing up for air to the deck of the Thames boat (Heart of Dark­ness was writ­ten as a three-part ser­i­al; I assume these nar­ra­tive breaks are the stitch­ing between installments).

I had heard much about this book over the years so I was curi­ous to see the exact nature of the deprav­i­ties upon which the infa­mous Kurtz had indulged him­self. But two-thirds of the way through the book I real­ized we were nev­er to real­ly learn them. We know there’s a remote camp by a lake and an African tribe that regards him as some kind of demi-god, and we hear tell that he’s law­less toward oth­er Euro­peans and single-minded in his quest for ivory. But these are all bare­ly more than hint­ed glimpses.

The sto­ry turns out to be not so much about Kurtz as it is about Mar­lows’ imag­in­ings as he gets deep­er into the con­ti­nent and gath­ers clues about the mys­tery man at the top of the riv­er. I found this to be a relief, as Con­rad seems almost as unin­ter­est­ed in flesh­ing out the Africans along the way. Kurtz is a bril­liant civ­i­lized man; in the jun­gle his sav­agery is unleashed and he becomes a force unto himself.

I had to deal with a being to whom I could not appeal in the name of any­thing high or low. I had, even like the n******, to invoke him – him­self his own exalt­ed and incred­i­ble degra­da­tion. 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. He was alone, and I before him did not know whether I stood on the ground or float­ed in the air.

Yes, this is a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of a psy­chopath. If this were a mod­ern Show­time or AMC tele­vi­sion show, this would be the start of the action: the pro­duc­ers, writ­ers, and actors would leave lit­tle gore or deprav­i­ty to the imag­i­na­tion. But for Con­rad this is the moral­i­ty tale at the heart of the book. Short­ly after being found, Kurtz con­ve­nient­ly dies and our nar­ra­tor sails back down­stream, going (we are help­ful­ly told) twice the speed as before, back out to the ocean and civilization.

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