Is it deep in Africa, along the nineteenth century Congo River?
Is it in the bronze people who drum and dance among those shores?
Perhaps it is in the uncivilized world in general – in Britain before the Romans conquered it.
Or maybe it is confined to Mr. Kurtz, that overpowering voice whose dark heart accomplished terrors along the aforementioned Congo.
Joseph Conrad suggests all of the above in his influential story The Heart of Darkness.
Marlowe, our narrator, introduces the idea that darkness might be a place when he opens his story by reflecting on the Thames:
“And this also,” said Marlowe, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
Again and again, Marlowe describes the encroaching forests along the bank of the Congo as an impenetrable darkness.
This, then, is darkness – unexplored, uncivilized places. These dark places infect the souls of the men within, turning them savage as the bronze men and their Mr. Kurtz.
It’s an appealing thought, that darkness is external.
Darkness is a place, free of civilization. Spend too much time isolated from civilization and you too will become dark.
But Marlowe’s story belies this interpretation, suggests a whole nother one.
Darkness is inside Mr. Kurtz. It is his passions that are the heart of darkness – the Congo only served to release his evil passions from the society that constrained them.
“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 like this interpretation, like to recoil in horror at the blackness of Kurtz’s soul, at the hollow core which enabled him to perform such evil as he did. I like to think him some kind of psychopath, with unusual lusts and lack of restraint.
But the thought niggles at my mind, burrows deep and will not be satisfied. For is not the heart of darkness in me?
I do not make those around me worship me, do not go to any length to obtain treasure, do not openly obsess over my reputation and fame. But that is only because I do not have Mr. Kurtz’s eloquence, his ability to convince anyone to my greatness. That is only because I am not unrestrained by society and culture as Mr. Kurtz was. My heart is just as lustful, just as hollow, just as absolutely dark.
This is what I must conclude from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
~Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.”
~Jeremiah 17:5 (ESV)