Sunday, January 03, 2021

Heart of Darkness (1899)

Last time through Joseph Conrad's short but exceedingly dense novel I realized how entwined it can be taken in many ways with horror, doing the kinds of things Algernon Blackwood ("The Willows"), H.P. Lovecraft ("At the Mountains of Madness"), and David Lynch (Blue Velvet) before and after it do in terms of animating and super-charging landscapes and setting. I also realized, as Marlow struggles to get the steamboat up the river, how reminiscent it can be as well of Mark Twain's riverboat tales. It is ultimately a grand adventure tale with a necessarily dismal ending. The scene where the boat is stuck in fog—my favorite part—put me in a King Kong frame of mind, which lingered into the encounters with jungle and natives. Conrad's plodding, stultifying language is easier to take with patience (also required for swaths of 19th-century horror so I've had practice lately). I had to laugh early when even Marlow's listeners in the frame story groaned when they could tell he was about to launch into another one. Heart of Darkness insists that you read it slowly, which might account for why so many consider it a novel rather than the long story it is. All the good parts are embedded in long droning paragraphs but they will come to you if you let them. There are manifest problems with use of the N-word and with racism generally. At the same time, it is essentially a parable about colonialism so I'm willing to give it some license. To be clear, the "heart of darkness" is not anything about skin tone. The worst people here are white, which starts with the madman gone native inside his own head, Kurtz, but also includes the "pilgrims" traveling on the steamer, who enjoy taking potshots at natives from the boat, the way 19th-century Americans fired at buffalo from trains. Fans of Apocalypse Now may or may not like the novel (novella, whatever). I don't have much sense of that. My experience was that the Conrad disappointed me after the high-flying hallucinatory impact of the movie, but as I say I have often struggled with it. It is slow and ponderous yet full of insidiously great concrete detail, such as the heads spiked on the fence around Kurtz's house all facing the house. As the tale winds into the interior it finally casts an inexorable mesmerizing spell.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

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