Notes on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”

In 1890, Józef Teodor Nałęcz Konrad Korzeniowski, polish sailor of noble origins, travels in the Congo Free State, colonial enterprise of the king of Belgium. The atrocities he witnesses trouble his mind and conscience to the point that he falls into a depression. Years later (1899), Józef, who has settled down in England and has changed his name in Joseph Conrad, writes and publishes “Heart of Darkness”, in which he faces his demons and crystallizes his pessimism about colonial ventures.
I have recently re-read the novel, and for the first time in its original english version. It is a short novel, just about 100 pages in my edition, and yet it took me weeks to finish it. The language certainly played a role in that (Conrad uses a choice of words that is way broader than that used by many mother-tongue English writers), as well as the writing style, foggy, at times almost a stream of consciousness. Yet the main reason why I struggled with the reading is because some of Conrad’s demons are also mine, and some of the questions on human nature he struggles with are also my struggle.
It would be tempting to mark the novel as a criticism of colonialism and move on, but the content and the message of “Heart of Darkness” is more complex, nuanced, and hard to focus than that.
The novel is the first-person account given by Marlow, a sailor, of his experience while on appointment for a colonial company in Africa, when he had to rescue one of the Company’s agents who became ill in the remote depths of the Company’s territories.
As he approaches the location of his appointment as the captain of a river steamboat, Marlow witnesses more and more examples suggesting that the colonial enterprise is tainted by cruelty and folly. Indigenous people are enslaved and exploited to their death, often for carrying out seemingly pointless activities. Almost none of the Company employees he meets seem to successfully carry out the job they were hired for, or indeed any job at all. Instead they spend their time spying on each other, competing slyly and conspiring for climbing the ranks of the Company hierarchy. They are there to gain personal wealth and power. The economical interest of the Company is not their first concern, and the supposed, self-appointed civilizing role of the Company is barely in their minds.
As he approaches his Station of appointment, a name comes to his ears more and more often: Kurtz, the agent of one of the Company’s most remote stations. His name is pronounced like that of a myth, “a first-class agent”, “a very remarkable person”, “a prodigy”, who not only sends great quantities of ivory, but is also regarded as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress”. Yet Kurtz has broken contact with the mother Station, rumours want him ill and he may need to be rescued. To captain a steamboat upriver to fetch Kurtz becomes Marlow’s mission.
When Marlow finds Kurtz, deep into the jungle, the man is ill in both his body and spirit. He lives with the “savages”, who hold him as a sort of earthly, moody deity, being at the same time their ruler and their captive. Marlow’s account becomes less and less clear, recalling undefined feelings, half-perceived sensations, unresolved attempts at making sense of what he witness, of what Kurtz has become, of who Kurtz really is.
Finally, the ill, raving Kurtz is dragged to the boat, but he dies on the way back. “Who is Kurtz?” is the question that remains open. In Europe and in the least wild of the Company’s territories, everybody regard him as a person full of greatness. Yet, Marlow has seen him gone rogue. Marlow recalls: “His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens! […] it had gone mad”. Free from the safety nets provided by the civilized world, and from the restraints of society, Kurtz had abandoned himself to his lowest drives. In that, Kurtz is no different from the other employees of the Company. But contrarily to them, he is “a remarkable person”: his strength allows him to stand and overcome the harshness of the country, his will  allows him to put into action what his weak colleagues could at most fantasize of. Alas, Kurtz is also more self-conscious, and he is stationed deep in the jungle, in the Heart of Darkness, a place that does not allow cheating, that reflects his true nature, and that does not allow for distractions, excuses, or ways out. He sees his true self, he has no way of looking away.
I see “Heart of Darkness” as a pessimist yet unresolved investigation over human nature.
Just as Kurtz saw his true self reflected in the wilderness as in a mirror for the soul, reading the novel produces a similar experience in the reader. Both the wilderness (for Kurtz) and the novel (for the reader) provide a place for reflection, but neither provide answers. Kurtz’s last words, “The horror! The horror!” are not an answer but a scream of despair, of frustrated impotence in finding an answer on who is he, on what made he become what he became. As a reader, I found myself tempted to make Kurtz’s words my own.
As a final, personal note, I must say that I read the novel in a peculiar situation, that is while roaming remote forests myself. I was reading of Marlow’s descent into the Hart of Darkness of Congo, and at the same time I was fightning my way through the jungles of Borneo. Most readers would read of Kurtz facing his demons, they would have a glimpse of their own, but they would also have the chance of closing the book and finding theirselves in the comforting familiarity of society. I was either facing my true self by identifying Kurtz’s struggle with my own, or by looking at the reflection of my soul returned by the jungle that was around me. This is perhaps one of those books to read with a “safe place” available to find shelter in.