I just finished re-reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) for my Summer class on the British Modern period. I believe it may have been the first time I read it since High School, certainly since undergrad, and I have to say … what? I was surprised that it wasn’t as interesting as I remember it being. I mean it’s impeccably written, I was fairly transfixed by it, not squirming in my seat like I do when I read other things (we’ll get to one of those soon enough), but something is missing. I don’t remember feeling this ho-hum toward it in High School though, and you’d think my tastes would have grown. Basically I remember feeling positively toward it, and I thought it would get better now that I’m more “highly educated,” but I sat there page after page wondering when it was going to get interesting. Then the second it did the author just kind of pulls back and everything fades out, tossing in a smattering of romance, if it can so-be-called. Kurtz went nutso in the Congo, did you know he had a fiancee at home? Everyone thinks he’s the swellest, you know. Do I know that? I feel like I do not. After all the buildup you want to hear Kurtz speak for himself, but maybe Conrad couldn’t write dialog worthy of such a mesmerizing figure, so he left it out. If it is intentionally supposed to make me feel mesmerized by its conspicuous absence, mission not accomplished.
If you’ve never read it, the summary of Heart of Darkness on Wikipedia is entirely adequate. The text itself isn’t the most interesting thing about the novel; what I find interesting are the reactions to it that have rippled out after its publication. I just heard of Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” not from this class mind you, and I’m very much wanting to read it. (Update: I read it and here is my reaction.) I also believe that it clearly influenced the forest scene in Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. Here’s the thing though, there are professors who teach Conrad, and professors who teach Achebe.
Heart of Darkness is a classic, it should be read, absolutely, but there just isn’t any emotional resonance to it, at least not for me. More than that, it feels very much of its time: British people are here to “civilize” the Congo! Africans are scary! Their primitive landscape drives British people mad with its inescapable darkness! It’s hard to feel anything about that other than befuddlement, probably because a fear of Africans doesn’t exactly loom large in our consciousness anymore. In the novel this “fear” is not a critique, by the way, it’s sincere. Conrad was kind of – to put it mildly – freaked out by Africans. (A Conrad quote from the Achebe Wiki entry is too racist for me to reprint, but should be read if you care to understand my accusation.) There’s nothing that expresses my inability to get excited about this text better than the fact that I – who you all know to be uber verbose – have pretty much nothing else to say about it.
PS: I found the Achebe article online if you’d like to read it, I hope to tackle it this weekend.