Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is tale of a journey up the Congo River to an isolated European outpost, one of many ivory depots in the West African jungle. Marlowe, the narrator and captain of a cargo steamer bound for the ‘Inner Station’ has been fascinated by the apocryphal stories of Kurtz, the manager of the station. Kurtz had been described as a genius, a madman, a god, a tyrant and the most prolific purveyor of ivory in all of West Africa. Why had he, without any particular education or profession, come to this remote, primitive and savage place? What was he really like?
Marlowe begins to find out after he meets the white manager who works Kurtz’s estate.
I returned deliberately to the first [heads] I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber…
I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him—some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence.
Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last—only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.... I put down the glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.‘The wilderness had found him out early’, said Marlowe, reflecting on the impenetrable jungle closing in the river for miles.
The smell of mud, of primeval mud, by Jove! was in my nostrils, the high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes; there were shiny patches on the black creek. The moon had spread over everything a thin layer of silver—over the rank grass, over the mud, upon the wall of matted vegetation standing higher than the wall of a temple, over the great river I could see through a somber gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur.
All this was great, expectant, mute… I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at [me] were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk, and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there? I could see a little ivory coming out from there, and I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there.“The horror, the horror’, whispered by Kurtz just before his death, was his final acceptance of his untamed, primitive soul and the inescapable barbarity of it. The wilderness was not just an environment, but something alive, a complete, integral organism both prehistoric and terrifying in which men who, equally primeval and uncivilized, were reminders of humanity’s savage beginnings.
Kurtz never tamed the men or the jungle but ruled over both through fear, intimidation, and an expression of absolute and indomitable will. As death approached he understood that he had neither civilized, nor exploited, nor governed; but by means of the same primitive savagery, he expressed the same amorality of a universally violent, aggressive, and insatiable human nature as he found in the natives.
The discovery was not one of moral redemption but tragedy. Not only had his life of brutal rule, greed, and arrogation of supreme and divine authority meant nothing in face of its similarity to so many others; but although he had “come out with moral ideas of some sort”, at his end he could only conclude that a life of such universal barbaric similarity had to be both horrific and meaningless.
The manager of Kurtz’s Inner Station is completely enthralled by Kurtz. “You don’t talk to the man”, he says. “You listen.”
Kurtz was eloquent, brilliant, and convincing; and while Marlowe never learned what exactly Kurtz talked about, he became more intrigued. The man was not only a demi-god, an amoral warrior, and an uncompromising tyrant; but a philosopher, painter, poet, and orator.
Marlowe could not reconcile such civilized sophistication with such human indifference. Yet he admired Kurtz for having met the equally amoral, indifferent, and implacable jungle on its own terms.
For Marlowe the struggle was nothing less than one between a Nietzschean Superman and the innately and supremely powerful forces of Nature embodied by the jungle. Kurtz only at the end of his life realizef that there was no winning or losing, no dominance or submission, no civilization or savagery; only one universal, inescapable world of darkness.
“The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.
They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.
And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.
Yet to others Kurtz was not the man he himself knew. If he was a pagan, tribal, primitive god to the natives of the forest, he was very Christian to the Europeans around him. Not only had he come with a mission of civilization and morality, but spoke divinely – his was the Word, and by speaking it, he spoke higher wisdom and value into being:
The man presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. 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? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out preeminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.In the end Marlowe, even for the briefest moment, understands all. He understands Kurtz and the indomitable and essential primitiveness of the jungle, the struggle between the two; and perhaps most importantly the common unpleasantly violent and primitive nature of all men.
“I think I would have raised an outcry if I had believed my eyes. But I didn’t believe them at first—the thing seemed so impossible. The fact is I was completely unnerved by a sheer blank fright, pure abstract terror, unconnected with any distinct shape of physical danger. What made this emotion so overpowering was—how shall I define it?—the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable to thought and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly.
This lasted of course the merest fraction of a second, and then the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre, or something of the kind, which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing. It pacified me, in fact, so much that I did not raise an alarm.One hopes for a final epiphany or revelation about meaning and purpose before one dies; but most are disappointed and at best realizing the futility of the search. Some like Ivan Ilyich, the main character in the Tolstoy short story of that name, are indifferent to the question itself; but get a rude awakening as death approaches. Ivan has ordered his life such that there would be no uncomfortable angles, unexplained absences, or querulous moments. He would have to think of nothing more serious than his comfort, the admiration of his colleagues, and the patient attendance of his wife and children. As he lies dying, realizing the futility of his emotional borders, he becomes afraid of death; but in his final moments realizing there is nothing to fear.
In place of death there was light.
"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
"It is finished!" said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Few of us have Kurtz’s courage – the resolve to look beyond personal accouterments and accidents of place and birth to the frighteningly incomprehensible but knowable. Kurtz never understood the wilderness or the men who lived within it; nor did he fully understand how he expressed his own primitive nature; but at least he saw, recognized, and accepted it. Conrad never explains exactly why Kurtz’s final vision is so horrific; but his metaphors are clear. Despite civilizing attempts to ‘restrain’ human primal, evil natures, we cannot. Few of us are like Nietzsche’s Supermen who revel in them; and although Kurtz was a Superman for most of his life, he cannot keep the jungle and the heart of darkness away.