This is the third time I’ve read this novella: once when I was in the Navy and had just watched Apocalypse Now, and again in college where we discussed the racist and colonial aspect of the novel. I have to admit each time I “enjoy” the novella just a little less each time, perhaps because I know the story so well from a few different points of view. The language is still beautiful, the racism still troubling, the theme is still inscrutable, but for whatever reason I don’t feel as if the novella speaks to me as it did when I was younger.
I’m by no means old, but at 42 I am, hopefully, more mature, more settled, and more unwilling to dash off into the world and rip every treasure out of the ground I can get my hands on. I am, such as the “intended” in the novel, a bit more willing to be lied to but only because I’ve seen the truth (at least a little bit) about how the world really works and am getting weary of “the horror” of it all.
A younger me would have been glad to drop everything, rush off into the proverbial jungle and conquer as much as I could all the while looking past the pain I was inflicting on the world around me and being quite arrogant in my actions. I would have said what I was doing was for the better of the world at large. That’s probably why I joined the Navy when I was 18 because I wanted adventure and didn’t much think about who would be at the receiving end of a giant marine cannon or how my own country’s national policy might be seen as arrogant by another sovereign nation.
The older me sees it as all a terrible game that can never be stopped because you can’t impart that wisdom to a younger generation. Young men will always want to rush headlong for glory, be it for money or extremism and nobody, especially the old, will tell them otherwise.
And this is what so much of Western Civilization is based upon: brute, youthful, arrogant force imposed on the bewildered and weak. And this is what, I believe, Conrad, at least in part, was trying to tell us: that the “civilized west” is terrible. It is terrible because it is based on lies. And that lie is that we have somehow conquered something, have driven out the darkness, that we are somehow better than people who live in grass huts.
But Conrad takes pains to show us we are not better, in fact we are the oppressors who are brutish and cruel and who lie to each other at every turn. We never see the natives act this way to each other, even the cannibals seem downright civilized. The white men gossip and can’t even manage to get a parcel of needed rivets from point A to point B. The white men are mad, mad with greed, hatred, and jealousy.
This is the way of the West, this is what drove the Romans to conquer Britain, and it’s what drove the Colonial Empires to conquer Africa and South America.
But what drives this greed? Perhaps this insatiable desire to kill and conquer is because, as Kurtz recognized, the “horror” of the darkness is so close at hand, lives right along the bank of the river, that the only way to keep from reverting to an animal state is to continually fire a cannon into its depth, no matter how absurd the outcome.
And perhaps we’d be happier if we just gave up civilization, gave up the lies and the greed, took up a bow and arrow and lived off the land? Seems far fetched, but every native in the novel who gets a little too close to Western Civilization dies.
But here lies the problem: is then the novel racist because it says all the black people in it are simple savages? This has been Chinua Achebe’s (and many other’s) argument against the novel because it does not elevate the native black Africans to the level of white compassion. But why would they want to be? Look how terrible the white Westerners behave! Why is a more “primitive” way of life less dignified than the man who in the middle of a steaming jungle still keeps a starched color and a pure white petticoat? I’d argue the Westerners are the real savages.
Now this is all very extreme and I’m not advocating a return to the Savannah, but it’s important to keep in mind how silly we all are, how improbable our culture is, and how useless it really is in the end of all things. That’s why the lie at the end of the novel is so important because it speaks to how we manage to live everyday knowing we are all going to die and our cities will all crumble, that lie is the lie we have to tell ourselves to keep living otherwise we’d go mad like Kurtz.
And that’s why I didn’t quite enjoy this novella as much as I did previously because I found thinking about the futility of beating back the heart of darkness to be depressing and civilized men to be more savage than the hungriest cannibal.