Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The title of Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness” refers both to the depths of the “Dark Continent,” Africa, which the story’s narrator Marlow penetrates looking for the mysterious trader Kurtz, and to the corrupt heart of Kurtz himself. The story’s most puzzling aspect concerns the way Kurtz changes, after only a few years in the jungle, from an idealist committed to helping the African natives to a colonial just as determined to exploit them. But, as Conrad demonstrates, the changes Kurtz undergoes have as much to do with the foundations of Western colonialism as they do with the corruption of one individual man.
Conrad wrote “Heart of Darkness” in 1902, when white culture was quite confident of its superiority, and there would have seemed nothing arrogant or bigoted about a white man’s intent to “redeem” heathen Africa from itself. In fact, the idea of native Africans having any culture worth preserving would have been considered laughable by even Conrad’s most educated readers. They probably wouldn’t even have noticed that Conrad treats his African characters with a great deal of dignity; along with Marlow, they are by far the most sympathetic characters in the book.
Kurtz, however, has no respect for the Africans. At first he treats them like naughty children in need of correction, but it is not long before he becomes so frustrated with this approach that he concludes that the only way conditions in Africa can be improved is to “Exterminate all the brutes!” If he can’t fix them, he apparently reasons, just throw them out. He does not realize that “the brutes”—meaning human beings—aren’t broken in the first place.
Kurtz certainly does enough exterminating—Marlow reports seeing what appeared at first to be round balls atop Kurtz’ fenceposts, but which later turn out to be impaled human heads—but what troubles Marlow even more is Kurtz’ fascination with dark primitive rites. We are never told precisely what these rites entail; Conrad leaves that to the morbidity of our own imaginations. But we are assured that Kurtz’ participation in them is utterly depraved.
At the time the book was published, Conrad’s readership would have easily condemned Kurtz for “sinking to the level” of the Africans, for turning his back on his superior Western heritage and “going native.” But is this really what Kurtz has done? Not at all. Conrad, who had been to the Congo and was much impressed with African culture, was not suggesting that African culture is itself depraved. In fact, he makes it quite clear that the indigenous culture was not depraved until Kurtz got there. Admittedly, long before Kurtz, African tribal rituals included death and dismemberment. But these acts were done in response to a religious connection with the earth and its powers, not out of a brutality born of greed and arrogance.
It was Kurtz and others like him who introduced into Africa an entirely different attitude which proved destructive to the natives’ spirituality. In addition, the white traders brought “advanced” technology such as guns, which, as they fell into native hands, gave the indigenous people no real advantage but held the potential of much harm. (Indeed, all of the promise of technology which was so extolled at the end of the nineteenth century is reduced in Conrad’s novel to nothing more than guns.) Before Kurtz came to Africa, the natives were presumed to have been living in a state of uncivilized innocence, which Conrad asserts was then corrupted by the “civilizing” influence of men like Kurtz.
In all likelihood, Kurtz was sent by the company on a commercial expedition with as little preparation as Marlow received. But Marlow went with no other thought in mind than to enjoy an adventure; Kurtz went into the “Heart of Darkness” to enlighten and change an entire people. In other words, Kurtz’ seriously misguided purpose was more damaging than Marlow’s lack of any purpose at all. It also set Kurtz up for a profound moral disintegration.
Kurtz wanted to redeem the natives because he felt that he was in possession of the Truth, with a capital T. His preconceived notion was that the primitive Africans were somehow dark in soul as well as in skin, and they needed to be enlightened. Obviously the black people Kurtz encountered were in no need of enlightenment at all, but his unbridled power over them, combined with his cultural and spiritual isolation in Africa, unhinged Kurtz’ brain and drove it into a darkness more profound than any he could ever have imagined.
Metaphorically, Kurtz could be said to represent everything that was wrong with society at the beginning of the twentieth century. Industrialism had changed society drastically, and the optimistic Victorians had promised that this change would bring great gains for all. New technology would reduce work and increase leisure; faster, safer travel would make the British Empire easier to manage; techniques of mass production, even when applied to social venues such as education and health care, would streamline the antiquated, time-consuming one-on-one procedures which had characterized human interaction up till then. It was possible, experts enthused, to render every aspect of life practical, uniform, and efficient, and with the twentieth century just on the horizon, no one doubted that this could be done.
Kurtz went to Africa with many of these goals in mind. Clearly, he felt, for the African natives to behave in this savage and superstitious fashion, something must be wrong with their thinking processes, and they needed to be retrained to think and behave like subservient Europeans. That he intended to do so is evident from his early report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, written soon after his arrival in Africa. In this paper, he asserts that the white man in Africa must “necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings---we approach them with the might as of a deity…. By the simple exercise of our will, we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.” Kurtz does not understand that the Africans are doing just fine all by themselves, and they do not need white missionaries and traders, who are completely ignorant of---and contemptuous of---African customs and beliefs, coming in trying to “do good.”
Kurtz never does understand this, really; as he marvels at how easily the natives can be manipulated, he remains ignorant of the real meaning of their ways. In his attempt to subjugate Africa, he becomes drawn into and finally overwhelmed by a culture he does not comprehend. Because he tried to out-native the natives, Kurtz is destroyed as well, descending too far into what became for him the “Heart of Darkness.”
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