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Humanity’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’

Karen Swallow Prior on why Joseph Conrad's novel matters today
Joseph Conrad

Literature professor Karen Swallow Prior is editor of a new series of classic novels reprinted with questions and commentary to guide Christian reflection and discussion on the material. The first two books in the series are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I re-read Heart of Darkness recently for the first time since high school in the 1980s, and though it was published in 1899, as the European colonial era was heading for crisis, I was deeply struck by how resonant it is with our own time and place. Last week I interviewed Dr. Prior by e-mail about the novel, and why it matters today:

RD: Why did you choose Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as one of the first books released in your new series?

KSP: Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite works to teach, especially in my literature survey courses which have a lot of students who aren’t English majors. Heart of Darkness—although a difficult, dense work—grapples with a lot of history and ideas that I think are of interest to a more general, though thoughtful, audience. Some of these ideas, which I discuss in more detail in the introduction, are colonialism, existentialism, and modernism. They sound heady, but once they are explained, it’s easy and fascinating to see how these ideas are at work not only in the novel but in the world today.

I chose this novel to debut the series along with Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility because I like the way the two works balance one another out: a dark, gritty novel along with one centered family and love. They have in common attempts to correct human faults and foibles, one in a manner that disturbs, the other in a way that delights.

The entire series will consist of six volumes. The other titles I will include are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and a token American novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (I do reserve the right to change my mind, though.)

I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and was startled, here in middle-age, to discover how fresh it was, and relevant to our own time. We’ll get into this in a second, but let me ask first: how is it that a novel, especially one from 1899, can tell us more about the age in which we live than the morning paper? 

By sheer coincidence, Rod, we are having this conversation in the midst of one of the darkest weeks in our nation, at least in my own memory: a tragic case of police brutality and days of protests, riots, and looting that have followed in the wake of anger and grief. One of the central questions asked by Heart of Darkness is this: “What does it mean to be civilized?” The story works to unravel all our tidy notions of who is civilized and who is not, and what we turn into when we lose our external restraints along with the inner ones. I can’t think of a more helpful way to understand what we are witnessing in the news and on our streets right now than to read a work of literature like Heart of Darkness.

We learn from stories better than from headlines because instead of being about “us,” stories are about “them.” And because they aren’t about us—at least on the surface—they offer the critical distance it sometimes takes to recognize hard truths about ourselves. This is exactly why the Bible’s King David, who couldn’t recognize the sin in his own life, could see the great injustice in the story the prophet Nathan told David about the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb. We are often like King David. We can’t see our own sin as reported in the daily news, but we can see it in stories about other people, especially in other times. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the truth is “too bright” for us. Stories tell the truth “slant,” like an “explanation kind.”

Further, from our finite, subjective perspectives, it’s natural to see things that happened before we were alive to witness them as “ancient history” or as “unprecedented” (ahem). We can read about events from 100 or so years ago and they seem so long ago. Yet, because they actually aren’t that long ago—and because the human condition doesn’t change—they ring familiar, even if that familiarity doesn’t register on a conscious level. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To read a novel about the past is to read today’s headlines.

What does Conrad’s narrative tell us about the myth of progress in the 19th century West?

 This is one of the richest aspects of the story Conrad tells. Conrad was writing at the end of the Victorian era, a period nicknamed the “age of progress.” And what human progress seemed possible at that time! The Industrial Revolution changed people’s lives in physical, tangible ways more dramatically than even the digital revolution has changed ours. Social and political progress was similarly revolutionary. Children’s and women’s wellbeing began to be protected by law. Education became available to all. A few more people were allowed to vote. And it seemed the sun would never set, so they said, on the British Empire. But then Conrad came along to remind us that the human condition never changes.

What does it tell us about the myth of progress today?

 There are competing ideas about progress. The liberal narrative is that the human condition can improve—if only we have more education, more funding, more tolerance, more whatever. The fundamentalist narrative (which the Bible does not actually support) is that things are always getting worse, and that society is on a continuous decline. Contrary to these two narratives, I think we can look at human history and see how we gain can ground in one area, (women can vote, own land, and go to college!) and decline in another (we kill unborn babies on a grand scale!). The human condition overall is constant. The particulars change, but it seems like for every step forward we take a step back. No matter how advanced our science, technology, and medicine become, the human heart will not progress.

Some of the false hope of progress stems, perhaps, from the metaphor of the machine that has dominated our thinking since the Enlightenment. Machines are great—but human beings are not machines. The technological advances simply do not have parallels in human beings. Our failure to make that distinction has had many implications for how we think about education, especially higher education, and the humanities. Indeed, perhaps the more we think the human condition can progress, the less accomplished we become in the humanities: poetry, painting, music, sculpture, and philosophy.

I have been reading a lot this past year about the cultural conditions in Europe that led to totalitarianism in the 20th century. The route to totalitarianism led through World War I, of course. It’s eerie to see how the art and literature of the prewar era contained so many premonitions of what was coming. Is it possible to see Mr. Kurtz as the Twentieth Century Man? If so, how?

That is a perfect description of Kurtz. Without giving too much away for anyone who has yet to read the book, we can definitely say that Kurtz set up his own sort of primitive totalitarian regime. And he was able to do this because, Conrad shows, what we call “civilization” turns out in the story to be little more than a pair of dress shoes you take off as soon as no one is around to see you. “Civilization” came to replace the goodness that is possible only through a genuine conversion that changes one on the inside and is not merely external conformity. Conrad was able to see where existentialism inevitably leads: only to, in the words of Marlow, the narrator, a “choice of nightmares.”  Heart of Darkness is the story of one Twentieth Century Man. What we have now in the next century, is a society of Twenty First Century Men, all lobbing their choices of nightmares at one another in motions that eventually settle into the kind of polarization that characterizes our political, social, and religious life.

Excellent twentieth century dystopian works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World showed us the world we were headed for (and, arguably, may have reached). But Heart of Darkness predicted how we were going to get there.

Before I re-read your edition of HOD, I watched “Apocalypse Now” for the first time since the 1980s. As moviegoers know, it is Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the Conrad novel, set in Vietnam, late in the American war there. The sense of the exhaustion of Western civilization (as represented by the US military) was really intense. It is impossible to miss parallels in our own country today, in 2020. What aspects of contemporary American life do you see illuminated by Heart of Darkness?

 The world Conrad depicts is divided into binary categories: civilized and uncivilized, light and dark, White and Black, Europe and the rest of the world. Conrad’s narrative shows how these categories are utterly inadequate. Such systemization is in some ways the essence of modernity, and it brought the world many gifts.  But while some of our binary categories reflect the created order, others actually contradict it. Kurtz, by putting all his ideological and moral eggs into one categorical basket, so to speak, becomes the thing he started out standing against. One hundred years later, we are still attempting to understand ourselves and solve our problems using exhausted categories. The political polarization we live in today, while exacerbated by various factors, is ultimately merely an exaggeration of our binary political system. The two parties have utterly collapsed into each other—bringing so many other categories into that destructive force.

The novel clearly shows the failure of the European colonial project, the mission civilisitrice. But Conrad does this without valorizing the African natives either. It seems to me that Conrad can’t be slotted easily into an anti-colonial left-wing critique. How is the novel read by liberals and progressives today?

 The work’s ability to defy the categories we operate by today is the very thing that makes it complicated and intriguing—and that requires the reader to do hard thinking beyond any given categories and critiques. Heart of Darkness is by no means an anti-colonial, left-wing critique of the West. In fact, as I discuss in my introduction to the text, the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe considers it to be a racist text. And it is in many ways. But Heart of Darkness is likewise as powerful a critique of White Supremacy as one might find in its age, and perhaps ours. For Conrad, the race binary is another of those exhausted constructs.

What did Conrad mean by having his narrator, Marlowe, say that “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”? 

 It’s not the term that was used at the time Conrad was writing, and it’s not one that many people are comfortable of using in broad application, but he is really talking about what I mentioned above, White Supremacy, which, first, assumes that all European ways of knowing, learning, governing, and “progressing” are superior—and then uncritically asserts that assumption on the rest of the world. Such an assumption is a form of pride in the end, the kind of pride that can lead to one trying to become like God—or become a god. Let the reader (who has already read Heart of Darkness—or Milton, or the Bible) understand.

Finally, you have produced this critical edition of Heart of Darkness as a Christian scholar, for Christian readers. What do you hope Christians take from this book?

 I hope they can see the way some aspects of modernity—from Victorianism to existentialism to modernism–are woven into the fabric of the modern American church (particularly, evangelicalism, which is my own tradition). Heart of Darkness can help us to distinguish, as Samuel Johnson put it, “that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established.” I think we need that kind of distinction right now, more than ever—this week, this election, this century.

But, beyond all this, my real goal for this book and the series it’s part of is to entice and equip people, Christians especially, to read good literature! Christians are a people of the Word. Christians, of all people, are the ones who should recognize the power and beauty of created things because we know its ultimate source. Great literature is challenging to read, to be sure. In a world filled with tantalizing amusements that require nothing from us in return, we all need some encouragement to think a little harder and dig a little deeper in order to gain the rich rewards and rich pleasures that come when we experience—and even more when we learn to enjoy—good art.

Karen Swallow Prior (@KSprior), the only person I know with cooler glasses than I have, is editor of new Christian study editions of Heart of Darkness and Sense and Sensibility.



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