First Thoughts on Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella by Joseph Conrad. At only 132 pages it is technically a novella and as I stated in a previous post, it was one of my favorite books in high school. It is written as a frame narrative with Conrad retelling the story of his main character Marlow, and his job as an ivory shipper on the Congo River. As Marlow floats down the Congo, he becomes almost obsessed with investigating Kurtz, an ivory-procurement agent. While brief the narrative of Heart of Darkness explores a variety of themes, most of which are, well, dark.  The darkness inherent in all men’s hearts, the evils of colonialism, racism, and savagery versus civilization all have parts to play here. I am going to be revisiting this book throughout the year, but upon my first read through in over 20 years I wanted to present some initial thoughts.

The first thing I was struck by, which I am sure went right over my head in Mr. L’s sophomore English class, is how deeply philosophical the text is. His constant juxtaposition of the wild and the civilized is really  more about man’s inner heart and outer facade. In a lot of ways it is reminiscent of Golding’s main theme in The Lord of the Flies: humanity stripped of its outer covering of culture is violent and frightening. At its core this is a religious theme about the inner fallen nature of man. As Marlow comes upon his first outpost along the Congo he sees this duality and remarks on it.

“And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck of earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.” 

Evil, or truth. The wilds of the Congo seem an apt stand in for man’s true nature which lies in wait for each of us. Civilization holds back the Congo- for a time. But in the end of course, Kurtz, Conrad’s symbol of composite man, is swallowed by that patiently waiting force.

This imagery comes back into play again and again, and as readers we are never quite sure of Conrad’s stance. While the rape and destruction of a native people is clearly on his mind, at the same time one can see his own moral ambiguity coming through the narrative. While on route to meet Kurtz for the first time Marlow’s steamboat is attacked. However, this is no fierce, animalistic repulsion of western civilization, but a pathetic and mournful affair.

“…from the depths of the woods went out such a tremulous and prolonged wail of mournful fear and utter despair as may be imagined to follow the flight of the last hope from earth.”

If Conrad wanted to show a proud and noble savage, the likes of which were both popular and familiar to his readers through such works as The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper, he could have painted this particular scene in a much more flattering way. Instead there is a realism the presages a more postmodern take on the colonial impulse.

Since the point of this year’s reading experiment is to try to read less broadly and more deeply, over the next few months I intend to try to delve a bit deeper into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Until then, if you have read this classic and have an opinion about it I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can find my on Twitter or G+.

Serious Reading of Current Events

One of my goals this year is to spend more time reading serious, thoughtful analysis of current affairs and less “news.” The idea is that while day-to-day stories may change, the essential nature of the current world doesn’t, and deeper thinking about the bigger issues of the day will actually be much more edifying than keeping up with the latest twists and turns of the U.S. Congress or the Euro-zone. With this in mind I recently read Voting Against Freedom by Joshua Kucera at the Wilson Quarterly.

Kucera’s basic premise is that if people had paid attention to how former Soviet Block nations responded to the fall of the U.S.S.R. they would not have been so quick to be cheerleaders for the “Arab Spring”. He makes an excellent case. He points out the fact that even though many of these countries could have gone the democratic route they did not. More importantly, they don’t see this as a failing of their respective nations.

Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project have found that the percentages of Lithuanians, Russians, and Ukrainians who believe that a “strong leader” is preferable to a democratic government have risen significantly over the past 20 years. A survey last year of 10 ex-Soviet states by the Russian research institute Integration found that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is even more popular in other parts of the former Soviet Union than in Russia itself. “People want a strong hand, stability, growth, and prosperity,” explained the institute’s director, Sergei Moroz.

As a long-established democracy (really a republic, but for the purposes of this argument democracy works) we in the U.S., and to a lesser degree Europe, tend to paper over how messy a democracy is. Many countries who have ousted former dictators through protest and revolution do not want more chaos. They crave stability, and the best way to achieve stability is through a benevolent strongman. To illustrate the point he convincingly contrasts Kyrgyzstan, widely described as an island of democracy in the former Soviet Block, to Kazakhstan which is still ruled by the same man who was in control in 1991. Needles to say Kazakhstan is stable, with a growing middle class while Kyrgyzstan struggles with various factions all trying to vie for power resulting in a lot of legislative chaos. 

When these nations look for societal models to copy they do not look to democracy and the west. After all, the closest democracy geographically is India, and it is anything but a glowing example of modernity and prosperity. A much brighter light is given off by the likes of Singapore, where a strong handed Communistic government is ushering in modernity. It isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it is stable (for the moment) and one can see the appeal to nations trying to rebuild. When they look at democracy they do not see a path to prosperity.

Sean Roberts, an anthropologist and Central Asia specialist at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, writes that “most citizens of Kazakhstan, and perhaps most post-Soviet peoples outside the Baltic states, engage the concept of democracy much as they embraced communism before—as a mostly empty ideological framework to facilitate deference to the authority and power of the state, not as a system of formal institutions that can effectively represent people’s interests and make governance more successful in serving the people.” Roberts further observes that “if many Americans saw in the end of the Cold War the victory of American ideals, per [Francis] Fukuyama’s ‘end of history,’ most former Soviet citizens viewed it more as an ‘end of ideology,’ or a sign that grand ideals are essentially incompatible with the realities of life.

To return to the main point of this post, why, as Egypt and the rest of the Middle East was rioting in the streets, did the U.S. and Europe cheer them on as if a wave of democratic reforms were all but assured? We had a perfect model to look to that was only 20 years in the past- hardly ancient history. In fact to countries in the old Soviet Block “the Arab Spring was seen from the beginning more as an outbreak of chaos and Islamist extremism.” Surely this view was not hidden away. Did scholars, pundits and thinkers from these nations not share these opinions? Why did no one listen?

Rather than listen to the pundits on CNN or the opinion makers at The Washington Post, we should be looking to recent history and global scholarship when trying to analyse current events.

The Curse of Too Many Books

Hi, my name is Steve and I am a serial over-reader. I collect books, read book, teach books and write about books. Much to the annoyance of my wife I even have a preference for decorating my house with books. Add to this habit the ever present reading material available online that is forever filling my Instapaper account and I have the constant makings of a reading bender. I made a concerted effort towards the end of 2012 to get my online reading diet under control, and that trend has continued. My RSS feed is now down to just 4 blogs and I have stopped following the daily back and forth of news coverage almost entirely. However, books still cloud my vision daily.

So this year I made something of a resolution to read less- decrease the breadth but increase the depth. I chose one book, The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and decided to read it slowly and often throughout the year. The last time I read Conrad was high school, but I remembered liking this title and it is a fairly short work that I could read multiple times throughout the year, making it the perfect choice for my experiment. I am doing things I have never done before like taking extensive marginalia, and looking up critical papers on Google Scholar. 2013 is going to be the year I become an expert on The Heart of Darkness. 

I plan to add in an additional title for study around midyear. That choice will cover some aspect of history that is applicable to our current state of affairs but that has the weight of time behind it. I am confident that quality time spent with works of classic tenor will provide more intellectual sustenance than the steady diet of popular history and best sellers that have often filled my plate. I want to read to better understand the world around me, not just to kill time in recondite pursuits.

After deciding on this tact for my year’s reading I found in serendipitous that I came across this quote from W.H. Auden the other day:

Again, while its a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paperbacks, first-rate color reproductions, and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused — and we do misuse it — can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb, and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind than yesterday’s newspaper.Secondary Worlds 

And this was written in 1967, well before the onslaught of digital media. One wonders what Auden would think of our current dilemma.