Only a victim of imperialism could have written the novel Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad was, therefore, eminently qualified. For he was born in Poland, a European victim of European imperialism. Between Russia, Prussia and Austria, Poland was carved up three times - in 1772, 1793 and 1795. After the last partition, Poland ceased to exist as a state (until resurrected again after World War I). His father, Apollo Nalecz Korzeniowski, was a poet and a patriot. He was one of the organisers of the secret City Committee of Warsaw, which, in 1863, as the National Central Committee, led the rebellion against Russian domination. Apollo was arrested by the Russians in 1861 and exiled to Vologda in northern Russia, followed by his family. Although permitted to move to a milder climate, his mother died of tuberculosis, hastened to death by the pitiless weather which nearly killed her four-year old son on the way to his father.
The death of his wife, and the failure of the insurrection, devastated Apollo, withering his creativity. Broken in body and mind, he became a mere translator. The father's Polish renditions of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray provided the son's first introduction to English literature. Apollo died of tuberculosis in Cracow in 1869.
"Those who read me," wrote Conrad about himself, "know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests, notably among others, on the idea of Fidelity." And, like the Polonaise, we find a Chopinesque dedication to the fact that 'Poland is not so much a state as a state of mind' in the reiterated idea of Fidelity throughout his novels — the stateless child is father to the faithful man. Sometimes, it takes the shape of fidelity of man and woman (Victory, 1915); now, that of loyalty to a sinking ship (Lord Jim, 1900); or the thwarted fidelity of brother and sister when pitted against the state and career (Under Western Eyes, 1911). But his most fascinating study was the inner breakdown of loyalty to civilisation itself masquerading otherwise — imperialism.
Heart of Darkness begins with no sense of having begun, but ended, in some way. We find Marlow and a few nautical friends in a meditative mood at the mouth of the Thames. The imagery itself suggests a finish, rather than a start, as the sun sinks over the river. "Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun."
The sense of history reveals itself artistically as profound rest, as memory, not imagination, as wisdom after the event, not the event itself. "The owl of Minerva takes its flight as the light of day is failing." We find Hegel's observation literally rendered.
The anger of the west to the approach of the sun is quickly reinforced by Marlow's remark, "And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth." One can almost hear the Roman legions tramping up and down England, building roads, those ancient railways. "I was thinking of very old times. When the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago - the other day…"
Having blended Art and History — imagery and memory — Marlow indulges briefly in Philosophy. He contrasts the plundering Romans with the evangelic European. "They grabbed what they could for the sake of what was to be got…. The conquest of the earth, … is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only…."
And the idea was (as it continues to be today) to wean "those ignorant millions from their horrid ways", as his aunt tells him after securing him a job at the 'Company'. When Marlow hints that the company is run for profit, she retorts, 'The labourer is worthy of his hire".
For, just as Christianity had emerged as the conscience of Rome, so Europe would like to present its credentials as the conscience of the world. And this is to be achieved with the simple trick of pointing to their "horrid ways", and saying "This is what you are, but that is what you ought to be." If you accept this sacerdotal manner of looking at yourself —or your culture— you'll soon come to loathe yourself, especially if you've also been robbed in the process. The new imperialism is different from the old; it is conscientious, not pure. Its aim is not just orderly depredation, but orderly depredation disguised as a benediction for the deprived.
Notice the concatenation of events as far as the Belgian Congo is concerned. Dr. Livingstone embraced the natives whole-heartedly; but, for them, it was a fatal embrace. Hard on his heels followed Henry Stanley, the first time as journalist, the second time as the agent of Leopold II of Belgium — love had paved the way for curiosity, the quest for information had given way to the quest for ivory, to greed. The usual sequence of Empire in other parts of the world had been reversed in the case of the Congo — the trader, raider and priest came there in reverse order. And last of all, everywhere, and in all ages, comes the artist.
For Kurtz had gone out a Livingstone and ended up compounded with Stanley. "Hadn't I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together?" And this of a man who had been entrusted by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to make a report! Aptly, his mother was half-English, father half-French. "All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz."
All Europe contributed to the unmaking of Kurtz, also. A young man, driven by 'comparative poverty' into realising his powers of speech and persuasion, knowing his own talent for enriching others, and the necessity for couching greed in noble terms - he'd gone into the heart of darkness to discover himself. And what he had found was "The horror! The horror!"
What had horrified Kurtz was his own apotheosis — the antithesis of state. On the one hand, Europe acknowledged him to be a universal genius. On the other, the natives "adored him", to the extent that the chiefs crawled up to him, and let him hang human heads on wooden posts around his hut!
The Russian who finds him — and worships him — is on an average between the two continents. The Russian sailor is a Conradesque stroke of genius. Through him, we see Kurtz, the man-god in uncomfortable equipoise.
|1772||First Partition of Poland|
|1793||Second Partition of Poland|
|1795||Third Partition of Poland (Poland ceases to exist)|
|1857||Conrad born in Berdichev, Poland, Russian Empire|
|1861||Conrad's father arrested, later exiled to Russia|
|1830, 1846, 1863||Three insurrections by Poles against Tsarist domination — each revolt fails|
|1902||Heart of Darkness published|
|1918||Polish Republic restored|
|1939||Hitler attacks Poland|
|1952||Soviet-style constitution adopted|
|1989||First non-communist Prime Minister of Poland (from Solidarity) since 1945|
|1994||Poland joins the European Union|
It is odd that Conrad should make a Russian the archangel to Kurtz, so to speak,
for Conrad hated Russia. After all, Conrad's father, as we noted, had been persecuted, like many Poles, by the Russians. His only novel about Russia, Under Western Eyes, had become, in his opinion, a little too objective due to a scrupulous attempt to keep his feelings under control. Bertrand Russell remarked, rather narrowly, that Conrad's only philosophy in life was a 'passionate hatred of Russia'. But in Darkness, a Russian, for that same reason, was the ideal being to objectify Kurtz. From Marlow, who had never known Kurtz at all, to the men at the station, who had known him briefly, we finally reach the Russian sailor, who had known him the longest and deepest, in Africa. Of course, it is no coincidence that, like Marlow, he too is a sailor, to make the transition easier for the reader; indeed, there soon develops an almost fraternal relationship between them. In fact, the sailor is Conrad, the objective Pole, transformed into a Russian awed by the awesome power and appeal of imperialism. Such is the attempt of the artistic temperament to come to terms with its own demons. The other person, living, who had known Kurtz was his Intended, and hardly knew him at all. His mother had died recently, nursed by his Intended.
The sailor's admiration for Kurtz soon transmits itself to Marlow, though for a different reason. "The most you can hope from it (life) is some knowledge of yourself…," says Marlow, and, consequently, some knowledge of life. And what's more, Kurtz was also able to put that knowledge into words, "The horror! The horror!"
And the knowledge of life that he gleans is the darkness of pure subjectivity, of statelessness. In the attempt to approximate Christ, who represents the consciousness of all men, Kurtz attempts to be God himself. That the natives thought him such was natural, with his arsenal of advanced weapons. His return to paganism was the return to Zeus of the thunderbolt. It is this darkness of pure subjectivity, of the stateless man, that is the heart of darkness. "I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint...."
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