A Critic at Large: The Trouble with “Heart of Darkness”

Here is an excerpt from a classic article written by David Denby published in The New Yorker (October 29, 1995). To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.  

Photograph Credit: Dmitri Kessel / Getty

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Is Joseph Conrad’s novel a critique of colonialism, or an example of it?

“Who here comes from a savage race?” Professor James Shapiro shouted at his students.

“We all come from Africa,” said the one African-American in the class, whom I’ll call Henry, calmly referring to the supposition among most anthropologists that human life originated in sub-Saharan Africa. What Henry was saying was that there are no racial hierarchies among peoples—that we’re all “savages.”

Shapiro smiled. It was not, I thought, exactly the answer he had been looking for, but it was a good answer. Then he was off again. “Are you natural?” he roared at a girl sitting near his end of the seminar table. “What are the constraints for you? What are the rivets? Why are you here getting civilized, reading Lit Hum?”

It was the end of the academic year, and the mood had grown agitated, burdened, portentous. In short, we were reading Joseph Conrad, the final author in Columbia’s Literature Humanities (or Lit Hum) course, one of the two famous “great books” courses that have long been required of all Columbia College undergraduates. Both Lit Hum and the other course, Contemporary Civilization, are devoted to the much ridiculed “narrative” of Western culture, the list of classics, which, in the case of Lit Hum, begins with Homer and ends, chronologically speaking, with Virginia Woolf. I was spending the year reading the same books and sitting in on the Lit Hum classes, which were taught entirely in sections; there were no lectures. At the end of the year, the individual instructors were allotted a week for a free choice. Some teachers chose works by Dostoyevsky or Mann or Gide or Borges. Shapiro, a Shakespeare scholar from the Department of English and Comparative Literature (his book “Shakespeare and the Jews” will be published by Columbia University Press in January), chose Conrad.

The terms of Shapiro’s rhetorical questions—savagery, civilization, constraints, rivets—were drawn from Conrad’s great novella of colonial depredation, “Heart of Darkness,” and the students, almost all of them freshmen, were electrified. Almost a hundred years old, and familiar to generations of readers, Conrad’s little book has lost none of its power to amaze and appall: it remains, in many places, an essential starting point for discussions of modernism, imperialism, the hypocrisies and glories of the West, and the ambiguities of “civilization.” Critics by the dozen have subjected it to symbolic, mythological, and psychoanalytic interpretation; T. S. Eliot used a line from it as an epigraph for “The Hollow Men,” and Hemingway and Faulkner were much impressed by it, as were Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola, who employed it as the ground plan for his despairing epic of Americans in Vietnam, “Apocalypse Now.”

In recent years, however, Conrad—and particularly “Heart of Darkness”—has fallen under a cloud of suspicion in the academy. In the curious language of the tribe, the book has become “a site of contestation.” After all, Conrad offered a nineteenth-century European’s view of Africans as primitive. He attacked Belgian imperialism and in the same breath seemed to praise the British variety. In 1975, the distinguished Nigerian novelist and essayist Chinua Achebe assailed “Heart of Darkness” as racist and called for its elimination from the canon of Western classics. And recently Edward W. Said, one of the most famous critics and scholars at Columbia today, has been raising hostile and undermining questions about it. Certainly Said is no breaker of canons. But if Conrad were somehow discredited, one could hardly imagine a more successful challenge to what the academic left has repeatedly deplored as the “hegemonic discourse” of the classic Western texts. There is also the inescapable question of justice to Conrad himself.

Written in a little more than two months, the last of 1898 and the first of 1899, “Heart of Darkness” is both the story of a journey and a kind of morbid fairy tale. Marlow, Conrad’s narrator and familiar alter ego, a British merchant seaman of the eighteen-nineties, travels up the Congo in the service of a rapacious Belgian trading company, hoping to retrieve the company’s brilliant representative and ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, who has mysteriously grown silent. The great Mr. Kurtz! In Africa, everyone gossips about him, envies him, and, with rare exception, loathes him. The flower of European civilization (“all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”), exemplar of light and compassion, journalist, artist, humanist, Kurtz has gone way upriver and at times well into the jungle, abandoning himself to certain . . . practices. Rifle in hand, he has set himself up as god or devil in ascendancy over the Africans. Conrad is notoriously vague about what Kurtz actually does, but if you said “kills some people, has sex with others, steals all the ivory,” you would not, I believe, be far wrong. In Kurtz, the alleged benevolence of colonialism has flowered into criminality. Marlow’s voyage from Europe to Africa and then upriver to Kurtz’s Inner Station is a revelation of the squalors and disasters of the colonial “mission”; it is also, in Marlow’s mind, a journey back to the beginning of creation, when nature reigned exuberant and unrestrained, and a trip figuratively down as well, through the levels of the self to repressed and unlawful desires. At death’s door, Marlow and Kurtz find each other.

Rereading a work of literature is often a shock, an encounter with an earlier self that has been revised, and I found that I was initially discomforted, as I had not been in the past, by the famous manner—the magnificent, alarmed, and (there is no other word) throbbing excitement of Conrad’s laboriously mastered English. Conrad was born in czarist-occupied Poland; though he heard English spoken as a boy (and his father translated Shakespeare), it was his third language, and his prose, now and then, betrays the propensity for high intellectual melodrama and rhymed abstraction (“the fascination of the abomination”) characteristic of his second language, French. Oh, inexorable, unutterable, unspeakable! The great British critic F. R. Leavis, who loved Conrad, ridiculed such sentences as “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” The sound, Leavis thought, was an overwrought, thrilled embrace of strangeness. (In Max Beerbohm’s parody: “Silence, the silence murmurous and unquiet of a tropical night, brooded over the hut that, baked through by the sun, sweated a vapour beneath the cynical light of the stars. . . . Within the hut the form of the white man, corpulent and pale, was covered with a mosquito-net that was itself illusory like everything else, only more so.”)

Read in isolation, some of Conrad’s sentences are certainly a howl, but one reads them in isolation only in criticism like Leavis’s or Achebe’s. Reading the tale straight through, I lost my discomfort after twenty pages or so and fell hopelessly under Conrad’s spell; thereafter, even his most heavily freighted constructions dropped into place, summing up the many specific matters that had come before. Marlow speaks:

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands. You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert and butted all day long against shoals trying to find the challenge till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants and water and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.”

In one sense, the writing now seemed close to the movies: it revelled in sensation and atmosphere, in extreme acts and grotesque violence (however indirectly presented), in shivering enigmas and richly phrased premonitions and frights. In other ways, though, “Heart of Darkness” was modernism at its most intellectually bracing, with tonalities, entirely contemporary and distanced, that I had failed to notice when I was younger—immense pride and immense contempt; a mood of barely contained revolt; and sardonic humor that verged on malevolence:

“I don’t pretend to say that steamboat floated all the time. More than once she had to wade for a bit, with twenty cannibals splashing around and pushing. We had enlisted some of these crew. Fine fellows—cannibals—in their place. They were men one could work with, and I am grateful to them. And, after all, they did not eat each other before my face: they had brought along a provision of chaps on the way for a hippo-meat which went rotten and made the mystery of the wilderness stink in my nostrils. Phoo! I can sniff it now. I had the Manager on board and three or four pilgrims [white traders] with their staves—all complete. Sometimes we came upon a station close by the bank clinging to the skirts of the unknown, and the white men rushing out of a tumble-down hovel with great gestures of joy and surprise and welcome seemed very strange, had the appearance of being held there captive by a spell. The word ‘ivory’ would ring in the air for a while—and on we went again into the silence, along empty reaches, round the still bends, between the high walls of our winding way, reverberating in hollow claps the ponderous beat of the stern-wheel.”

Out of sight of their countrymen back home, who continue to cloak the colonial mission in the language of Christian charity and improvement, the “pilgrims” have become rapacious and cruel. The cannibals eating hippo meat practice restraint; the Europeans do not. That was the point of Shapiro’s taunting initial sally: “savagery” is inherent in all of us, including the most “civilized,” for we live, according to Conrad, in a brief interlude between innumerable centuries of darkness and the darkness yet to come. Only the rivets, desperately needed to repair Marlow’s pathetic steamboat, offer stability—the rivets and the ship itself and the codes of seamanship and duty are all that hold life together in a time of moral anarchy. Marlow, meeting Kurtz at last, despises him for letting go—and at the same time, with breathtaking ambivalence, admires him for going all the way to the bottom of his soul and discovering there, at the point of death, a judgment of his own life. It is perhaps the most famous death scene written since Shakespeare:

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

“‘The horror! The horror!’”

Much dispute and occasional merriment have long attended the question of what, exactly, Kurtz means by the melodramatic exclamation “The horror!” But surely one of the things he means is his long revelling in “abominations”—is own internal collapse. Shapiro’s opening questions set up a reading of the novella that interrogated the Western civilization of which Kurtz is the supreme representative and of which the students, in their youthful way, were representatives as well.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Denby is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He served as a film critic for the magazine from 1998 to 2014. His first article for The New Yorker, “Does Homer Have Legs?,” published in 1993, grew into a book, “Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World,” about reading the literary canon at Columbia University. His other subjects for the magazine have included the Scottish Enlightenment, the writers Susan Sontag and James Agee, and the movie directors Clint Eastwood and the Coen brothers. In 1991, he received a National Magazine Award for three of his articles on high-end audio. Before joining The New Yorker, he was the film critic at New York magazine for twenty years; his writing has also appeared in The AtlanticThe New York Review of Books, and The New Republic.

He is the editor of “Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present” and the author of “American Sucker”; “Snark”; “Do the Movies Have a Future?,” a collection that includes his film criticism from the magazine; and “Lit Up,” a study of high-school English teaching. He is currently working on a group biography of four Jewish Americans: Leonard Bernstein, Betty Friedan, Norman Mailer, and Mel Brooks.

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