Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
The savage heart of Conrad
The savage heart of Conrad
Keywords: Literature, Race, Racial discrimination
Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness challenged many of the optimistic assumptions about human nature and human progress that prevailed at the start of the Edwardian age. Its profound pessimism did not strike a chord until the latter half of the twentieth century, reinforced by the memory of two World Wars, the Holocaust and the Gulag. The start of this new century finds Zenga Longmore as disturbed by Conrad’s novel as some of his contemporaries. For she sees it as the expression of a sinister shift in attitudes towards race, in which black Africans, and other “non-white” peoples, were not merely patronised or exploited, but robbed of their humanity. The true heart of darkness, she contends, is not to be found in Africa, but in the irrational fears of Europeans.
The pathological fear and hatred of Africans displayed in The Heart of Darkness is extreme even for its time. Before Conrad’s version of The Dark Continent enthralled the European imagination, the English image of Africa and her people derived mainly from the writings of David Livingstone and Charles Darwin. Darwin’s views were evident in The Descent of Man:
With civilised nations, the reduced size of the jaws from lessened use, the habitual play of different muscles serving to express different emotions, and the increased size of the brain from greater intellectual activity, have together produced a considerable effect on their (white man’s) general appearance in comparison with savages.
So inferior did Darwin consider the “savages“ that he questioned whether they belonged to the same species as Europeans. Livingstone, on the other hand regarded Africans as children, living in the Hobbesian state of nature. The African attachment to polygamy depressed him, the bare breasts of the women upset his innate Victorian sense of prudery, but, unlike Conrad, he regarded Africans as human beings – human beings in unfortunate circumstances. Livingstone’s judgement of the people he met in southern Africa appears in his Last Journals:
You will find with some drawbacks and wickedness a great deal to admire and love … Everyone who lives among them forgets that they are black and remembers that they are fellow men.
The myriad literary works on Africa which flooded the late Victorian market often portrayed African peoples as uncivilised, but they were considered to have individual personalities, ranging from humble to dignified to barbaric. Victorian children’s books were littered with stories of “dark-skinned African boys and girls“ who gratefully receive Sunday school lessons in Christianity. Barely-human creatures worshipping strange gods are pictured alongside noble African princes receiving The Bible from Queen Victoria’s own hand. The Heart of Darkness changed all that. In one stroke the book reduced the image of Africans into an amorphous mass of Tarzan-style movie extras, comically superstitious, frenziedly spearing and eating one another.
Published in 1902, Conrad’s “masterpiece“ appeared at the same period of history when King Leopold was violently decimating the Congolese population. It is estimated that over 10 million of the Congolese people were slaughtered in the Belgian quest for rubber and ivory. Conrad may have tried to report on the genocide he had actually witnessed during a journey he took down the Congo River in the late nineteenth century. However, his tale of European cruelty does not move the reader, because the ill-used Africans are so outlandishly brutish that one can only be grateful at their passing into extinction, just as one may be relieved that bears and wolves no longer stalk the English countryside.
The story opens in London. Marlow, a seaman, narrates his African adventures to a group of former sailors. The Thames, he reflects, was once “one of the dark places of the earth”. He imagines how the Romans must have felt as they travelled deep into the uncivilized world that was London in a bygone age, faced with “sand banks, marshes, forests, savages”. (That the Romans would have encountered iron-age Celtic potters, smelters and farmers seemed to have escaped the notice of the historically illiterate novelist.) Marlow then compares this imaginary Roman river-trip to his own experience travelling down the Congo River – “a black and incomprehensible frenzy” of Africans. “They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces … A whirl of black limbs … eyes rolling... prehistoric man cursing us”. The reader needs constant reminding that these creatures are not wild beasts. “What thrilled you was the thought of their humanity” … “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”. Paradoxically, Conrad seldom describes Africans in human terms, but as “niggers”, “savages”, and “devils”.
One “savage”, when dressed in western clothes appears to the author like “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs”. This dog-like creature can only be cajoled by Marlow into stoking the boiler by being told there is a demon in the machinery who needs to be fed. This image of the comic, superstitious African, unwittingly serving the white man through fear of invented mumbo-jumbo lived on in films and fiction for many a long year.
Humourless Conrad’s comic interlude is short-lived. Far from being funny, the savages are dangerous brutes who spear one another and frequently lapse into cannibalism:
“Catch ’im”, he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes and a flash of sharp teeth. “Catch ’im. Give ’im to us”. “To you, eh?”, I asked, “what would you do with them?” “Eat ’im!” he said, curtly.
Eventually Marlow meets the infamous Kurtz, an archetypal European liberal. Kurtz has metamorphosed into Lord of the Savages, ordering death and destruction on all who fail to further his own ambitious ends. He is a vile monster whose hut is surrounded by human skulls. The horror! He is behaving like an African savage! Civilization, Conrad is warning us, is a very delicate flower indeed. The barbarity of Africa has the deadly power to transform the once civilized Kurtz into a depraved fiend. This is the quintessential point of the book – colonialism is a bad thing, not because of Europe’s inhumane treatment of Africa and her people, but because of the corrupting influences Africa has on Europeans. Kurtz has become so monstrously degraded by Africa that he has even taken a native woman into his bed.
Like most writers of his generation who addressed the subject, Conrad had great difficulty dealing imaginatively with African women. The Victorian womanly ideal of gentleness, timidity and delicacy went against the African grain where strength and bravery are prized feminine qualities. The novel’s one and only African woman, Kurtz’s mistress, is a ludicrous product of Conrad’s over-heated imagination … “Savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent”, she glitters with flashing “barbaric ornaments”. She is a prototype of a Tribal Queen from a 1930s B movie starring Dorothy Dandridge or Josephine Baker. She has no language or personality, merely a compulsive habit of flinging her arms rigidly above her head and rolling her eyes. Her purpose in the narrative is to highlight both the level of Kurtz’s degradation, and the innocence of Kurtz’s lady love, a flower of white womanhood. As the book reaches its (welcome) end, Kurtz’s English fiancée “floats towards Marlow“ like a visitant from a purer and more celestial planet.
Left to pine in London, the English woman dresses demurely in mourning-black, sombrely opposed to the primitive glitter of the female savage. Unaware of the displeasing effect Africa has had on Kurtz’s personality, the English Rose pitifully asks Marlow about Kurtz’s last words. Marlow pretends they were about her. Kurtz’s actual last words were, famously, “The horror! The horror!” These words presumably describe the unspeakable savagery of African life, although there is nothing in the book to suggest that they were not referring to his English fiancée; judging by the syrupy way she is portrayed, they very well may have been. The story then closes with Marlow looking at the Thames and imagining “the great darkness” – the darkness of African-style savagery that once infested England; that could so easily return were the sensitive balance of European civilization to be upset.
It is odd to think that this book made, and continues to make such an impact. Some critics have suggested Conrad recorded what he actually saw. If this is the case, he saw no dwelling places, no markets, no farms, no local arts or crafts and most peculiar of all, heard no African language save “short grunting phrases”. Although he came across “niggers with faces like grotesque masks” aplenty, Conrad’s Congo was devoid of old people, children, and contained only one woman. Logic suggests that if the “black devils” had speared and eaten one another at such a rate, there would have been no one left for the likes of Kurtz to emulate. To assert this novel is an actual work of reportage is as silly as stating Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an eyewitness account of his travels through the Carpathian Mountains.
Of course, Conrad cannot shoulder the sole blame for creating an image of Africa as a land where wild savages corrupt and debase even the most well-meaning European, but he certainly helped to implant in the Western mind a terror and revulsion of “the Dark Continent”. His journey to the Congo undoubtedly had a profound effect on his philosophical outlook, stirring up a pathological fear and hatred of “niggers”. This loathing, which scars many of his books, was extreme even for its time, the Edwardian age, when bookshelves groaned beneath the weight of anthropological tomes portraying non-Europeans as an ape-like subspecies. His works, which include Lord Jim, The Secret Agent and The Nigger of The Narcissus, were frequently disparaged by the reviewers of his day, largely because of their pessimistic and extreme view of life.
In the last three decades, Africa has once again become newsworthy as a hellish maelstrom of famine, poverty and bloodshed. It is a telling fact that since images of the creativity and beauty of the continent are now as scarce in the media as they are in The Heart of Darkness, Conrad has become the darling of the conservative intellectual elite, hailed as one of the leading writers of the Modernist movement. Perhaps Conrad’s contempt for Africa and her people are comforting to the contemporary European liberal, assuaging any feelings of responsibility for the colonial and post-colonial traumas Africa has suffered. After all, if Africans are such civilization-threatening devils, with a total incapacity for improvement, Europeans had a moral right to invade and dispossess them. The problem is, as Kurtz demonstrates, the savages have a sinister habit of dragging their superiors down to their dark-hearted level.
Zenga LongmoreFeature/review writer, London, UK