I originally published this on 10 Oct 2012
Have you seen the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ by Francis Ford Coppola? It’s based on Heart Of Darkness. I didn’t know that when I started reading the book, but something clicked when I read that the central character was going up river in search of someone named Kurtz.
If you have seen the film ‘Apocalypse Now’, then you get an idea of the journey into the deepest, darkest unknown. The film is, of course, set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The book, however, is set in Africa and the central character isn’t an assassin like in ‘Apocalypse Now’.
But like in the film, Kurtz is a mystical character and a central feature of his character is that he knows horror and has an opinion on how to deal with horror.
What makes the book worth reading is the way Conrad writes and the small observations about human character that don’t tolerate fools gladly.
I could go on, but I haven’t the inclination. I was never interested to read this book when I was younger – and more’s the pity. It is a great book. A giant of a book – and quite a slim volume, though not necessarily a fast read.
Conrad first published it as a three-part serial in a magazine in 1899, so the Africa he describes is a darker place than we perhaps think of today. Back then, everything beyond the trees that lined the river bank was in the heart of darkness.
And now in 2016, prompted by someone who is just now reading the book, I am thinking again about the heart of darkness. I am thinking about it in the context of this planet.
There are other contexts and the book weaves those in – darkness of the soul, of the character. But sticking with planet Earth, it seems to me that the image brought up by the phrase is not fixed.
One man’s heart of darkness is another man’s back yard.
So the viewpoint is always that of someone who finds the environment of the heart of darkness too real, to hard to bear. It is the point of view of someone who normally lives in a privileged bubble of comparative ease.
There’s an argument for saying that someone who lives on the poor fringes of ‘civilised’ society is better equipped for the heart of darkness.
The play, The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie, deals with this. Shipwrecked on a desert island, the master and his family are incapable of looking after themselves and the manservant (Chrichton) becomes the leader because he is better equipped for practical things.
After their rescue and return to normality, the master of the house finds it difficult to continue in his role with Chrichton around the place because he is a reminder that the ‘natural’ order of things is not a fixed star in the heavens.
I’ve diverted from where I was going with my thoughts, which are these. That on this the last day of 2016, the vast majority of us in the comfortable West probably believe that there is no heart of darkness any more.
Everywhere has been investigated, drilled into, photographed, written about. The planet is our playground and the mystery has gone down a notch.
Perhaps that is part of why we find it so easy to kill off species without remorse.