Fear and loathing in the Congo

Surprise! Instead of finishing one of the items on my now-reading-list, I decided to go for a little amuse-bouche and read Joseph Conrad‘s novella Heart of Darkness instead—not that there is very much amusing about this story.

Heart of Darkness (1899) is a real blast from the past for me. It was one of the set texts for a module I took as a first year student back in 2007–2008. I didn’t get very much out of it then, mostly because I was fresh from school and unaccustomed to reading fiction of this level in English. Because of that, rereading it was really experiencing it properly for the first time.

The story is of course so well-known. It’s recited in first person by Marlow, a seaman and explorer, who tells to his fellow sailors, perched on the deck of the cruising yawl Nellie in the Thames, of his nightmarish adventure in the Congo. Marlow, who wants to see for himself the enthralling river Congo, which on the map, unexplored and empty around its banks, resembles

an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land.


Map showing David Livingstone’s travels in Africa (1873)

Marlow’s journey is a descent into the inexplicable and terrifying strangeness of both humanity and the lush African forest—an analogy of losing one’s mind. The two ladies knitting black wool outside of the ivory trading offices in Brussels (the Congo Free State was in a personal union with the Kingdom of Belgium) are his first encounter with the dreamlike strangeness:

I began to feel slightly uneasy. You know I am not used to such ceremonies, and there was something ominous in the atmosphere. It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy—I don’t know—something not quite right; and I was glad to get out. In the outer room the two women knitted black wool feverishly. People were arriving, and the younger one was walking back and forth introducing them. The old one sat on her chair. Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a cat reposed on her lap. She wore a starched white affair on her head, had a wart of one cheek, and silver-rimmed spectacles hung on the tip of her nose. She glanced at me above the glasses. The swift and indifferent placidity of that look troubled me. Two youths with foolish and cheery countenances were being piloted over, and she threw at them the same quick glance of unconcerned wisdom. She seemed to know all about them and about me too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinising the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way.

At this door, Marlow gets to choose between normality, a life of cats and foot-warmers, of not knowing the darkness of the human soul, and entering a dream he will never be able to completely shake off. He chooses the latter, and is met inside by a doctor who wants to measure his head:

‘I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,’ he said. ‘And when they come back too?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I never see them,’ he remarked; ‘and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.’

It’s interesting how this scene relates to the practice of using craniometry to study not just personality, but also to demonstrate what was considered evidence of the inferiority of non-white races.


Marlow is granted permission to leave for Africa, where his mission and obsession becomes to travel on a steamboat up the river to meet Kurtz, a legendary ivory trader and commander of a trading post deep in the Congolese jungle. Kurtz, who begins as a full-blooded imperialist and writes a report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, has descended into madness and is treated as a demigod figure by a local tribe.

To me, Heart of Darkness isn’t a wildly exciting book in the sense that the characters don’t do very much (well, there is one spear attack…). Marlow spends weeks waiting for spare parts for his steamboat before he can go upriver. Once they start moving, they are met with days and days of unchanging views of the the river and the impenetrable, hostile vegetation on its banks. Instead, the story is about what Marlow witnesses and experiences, and the effects it has on him. He sees shrunk heads on spikes and bonfires with natives dancing around them. He hears wild sounds and calls from the jungle. He spends time at a station that is a “scene of inhabited devastation”, with “black people moving about like ants” and railway trucks lying on their back, looking “as dead as the carcass of some animal” in the midst of inexplicable and seemingly pointless holes in the ground. While business, importing ivory, proceeds with great success, everything and everyone around it is falling apart. The great exception and contrast to these surroundings is the Company’s chief accountant Marlow meets:

His appearance was certainly that of a hairdressers’s dummy; but in the great demoralisation of the land he kept up his appearance. That’s backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.

(Marlow later finds out these are the work of a native woman he has taught out of her “distaste of the work”.)

For me, perhaps the most striking and surprising feature of this novella isn’t Kurtz, but Conrad’s, who himself commanded a steamboat in Congo, depiction of the natives. There’s no denying that they’re often described in inhuman terms. However, I felt that Marlow at many points exhibits sympathy towards them. He is of course scared of them, but at the same time they seem to in their mysteriousness arouse a degree of admiration in him. I might just be imagining, but I think I also perceived similarities between his character and way of speaking, and the hard-boiled protagonists of classic detective novels who almost approach self-irony:

[Marlow is travelling by foot in a group where natives are carrying a sick man on a hammock] As he weighed sixteen stone I had no end of rows with the carriers. They jibbed, ran away, sneaked off with their loads in the night—quite a mutiny. So, one evening, I made a speech in English with gestures not one of which was lost to the sixty pairs of eyes before me, and the next morning I started the hammock off in front all right. An hour afterwards I cam upon the whole concern wrecked in a bush—man, hammock, groans, blankets, horrors. The heavy pole had skinned his poor nose. He was very anxious for me to kill somebody, but there wasn’t the shadow of a carrier near. I remembered the old doctor,—’It would be interesting for science to watch the mental changes of individuals, on the spot.’ I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting.

There’s so much desperate, horrible comedy in this scene!


A steamboat on the river Congo, c. 1905


For such a short story, Heart of Darkness has an incredible number of layers one could write about. To pick one more, I was struck by the fear that the vegetation around the river causes in Marlow, compared to the perhaps admiration we’d feel towards nature today. Of course, for Marlow thickness of the jungle that conceals what he fears, whereas for us it’d be an object of interest, BBC nature documentary style. Perhaps this means we’ve managed to conquer it, and label the unknown?

Conrad’s writing is thoroughly impressive, and Heart of Darkness a classic, so if you haven’t read it already you really should!


Heart of Darkness elsewhere

The Guardian: Heart of Darkness is number 32 on their list of the 100 best novels

Salon: We are still plagued by “Heart of Darkness”: Conrad’s ambiguous masterpiece haunts the new “Beasts of No Nation,” and almost every other Western work about Africa’s troubles

The Independent

joseph_conradJoseph Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857–1924) was a Polish-British writer. He wrote stories and novels, many with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an impassive, inscrutable universe. Conrad is considered an early modernist, though his works still contain elements of nineteenth-century realism.

(Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Conrad)




(featured image: Congo rainforest)


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