No one reads classics; and when they do and talk about it, you wish they hadn’t. Usually, you cannot tell when bright angels fall noiselessly to sullen earth. But Heart of Darkness fell in 1977. In a celebrated speech Chinua Achebe called Conrad “a bloody imperialist” and the worst sort racist, a liberal who hides behind a mask of tolerance. [1] “Bloody imperialist” in British parlance does not mean “covered in blood”; it means “fucking imperialist.” And so, a great anti-imperialist novel seems fated to be misunderstood and rarely read. Achebe claimed not to be a book banner and included Conrad’s novel in his literature courses; however, I think we know how it was read, and what kindness was there for the student who read it otherwise.

I attended a lecture on Conrad and Imperialism by Edward Said around that time. [2] Said sported a polished manner and British loftiness despite leading, in imagination, the third-world bloody revolution (“bloody” means bloody). I picture Said now in his muted tweed jacket, and thinking at the time that this mantle of power cost more than the car I drove to Bryn Mawr to hear him. These were my Communist days, so I was reading theories of Imperialism, by left-wing and other authors. [3] I had also just published a long essay on Lord Jim.[4] And since I am foolhardy, it was a good bet I would not sit quietly once Said allowed questions.

My comments were unprepared but scholarly and respectful. I cited instances in Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1899) and “An Outpost of Progress” (1897) where Conrad mocked European imperialism and condemned the beastliness of Belgian slaughter in the Congo. Though my remarks were limited by time and setting, I situated them in the context of the Boer War and the jingoism it excited.[5]

It would be pretty to think these remarks were acknowledged respectfully. Instead, I was singled out as a racist imperialist plant. Didn’t I know that Conrad wrote “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and used that word throughout Heart of Darkness? And not realize how offended members of that audience were that I praised a writer who used it. One large and menacing African-American woman raged at me. Members of the audience vied for Said’s approval and for my destruction, as they each competed, there on Philadelphia’s posh Main Line, for the forward ranks of bloody rebellion against “the man.”

In years since, I have taught Heart of Darkness often. I hoped to dislodge student prejudices and clear the way to understanding, without success. The “N” word stops discussions. The problem is serious. Heart of Darkness reveals so much about our time and place as we sit comfortably at the center of a savage empire – a supermarket nearby, policemen everywhere, and flat screens transmitting congratulatory visions of the world. No contemporary narrative does as powerful a job dismantling the confidence of our damned ventures abroad. Even Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), though a great homage to Heart of Darkness, offers only an incomplete rendering of Conrad’s original.[6]

Achebe protested Conrad’s depiction of Africa, but Heart of Darkness analyses European diseases. At most, it portrays Africa in the European imagination. Sadly, Achebe’s expectations for emerging Africa mock his hopes. His “African Trilogy ” – Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), and Arrow of God (1964) — depicting broad corruption, provides a mere hint of degradations apparent since Achebe wrote. [7] Said’s confidence that Palestinian revolt would spark an anti-imperialist revolution hasn’t worn well either.

Marlow, Conrad’s fictional witness, testifies to European savagery. From the French warship lobbing shells into the jungle, to the “Grove of Death” where African laborers expire, to the random gunplay directed at the locals. Kurtz himself, the idealist transformed into a beast, writes the obituary — “Exterminate the brutes” (p. 50)[8] A humanitarian crusade against King Leopold’s Congo brutality had become a global movement, joined by writers, including Twain and Conrad. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad notes this deadly mayhem. His target, however, is far more dangerous to the imperialist venture.

Marlow tells his listeners – the Director of Companies and his legal and accounting confederates – what they want to ignore. The savagery and rot are not “out there” alone but pervade London and Brussels and wherever colonialism is reshaping the global system with its “merry dance of death and trade” (p. 14). Brussels is a “whited sepulcher,” full of rot, dry bones and madness, and sustained by idealisms scarcely disguising the slaughter and mayhem.[9] Marlow, like other youths, attracted to adventure in exotic places, is ready-made for “ripping yarns” of empire.[10]

Marlow is most repelled by the waste of it all. The “flabby devil”, the sheer disorganization created by empire’s demented business, disgusts him. Those who operate this system of pillage pursue their careers, without regard for costs. The Manager of the Central Station plots against the corporation, and accountants cook quarterly reports to boost their visibility to headquarters. Kurtz, who is productive, is their enemy. The corporate net, headquartered in Brussels, is so far-flung that no one knows what happens at the distant outposts of progress. The corporation has its own momentum, without concern for efficiency, productivity, or even profits. It is Kafka’s mad machinery; but Conrad, a hardy realist, connects the dots– rusted railcars un-ended like dying animals, bolts of calico in place of rivets, hollow men molded to corporate delusions, corpulent pioneers, wheezing on dense jungle trails, dreaming of advancement while they collapse … the flabby devil.

In Achebe’s view, Conrad believes Britain is exempt from this rot, that where the map shows red, order is well maintained. However, Marlow’s story threatens his British masters, settled there at Gravesend as the light dims and falters. The rot is inevitable. It destroyed Roman imperial ventures, sank Spanish galleons, and dooms modern inheritors of imperial illusions. Marlow’s listeners complain, and though Marlow softens his tale strategically, his irony damns them. Organize men into these global ventures, where purposes become incomprehensible and agents of progress go native, and no codes of honor can prevail. The hard-headed managers live on illusions, no more real than the feeble romances of “The Intended” or the silly heart-felt concern of Marlow’s aunt. Europe’s grandeur and security rests on a fragile surface; deadly snags lurk beneath, threatening to tear it to pieces.

Marlow tells his tale to four listeners aboard a pleasure yacht at Gravesend in the dying light.[11] London is “the greatest town on earth,” the Thames leading outward to the world (p. 3). An unnamed narrator tells the story of Marlow telling his tale. We know nothing about him, but his understanding differs from Marlow’s. The narrator tells us that the Director of Companies, standing at the helm, appears a perfect ship’s captain to them all, but Marlow would never accord him this honor. Like the others, the narrator has not taken Marlow’s journey.

Marlow begins by challenging jingoistic chatter from the deep perspective of history. Empires rise and fall. Britain was a wild and savage place when Roman soldiers subdued its people fifteen hundred years ago.[12] Britains were savages and the Romans were empire builders, making fortunes and careers along the pestilential Thames. Marlow claims the Romans failed, lacking the administrative skills Britains boast of. But the Romans did well in Britain and ruled for nearly four centuries. Marlow is playing to his listeners’ nationalism. But Marlow’s goal is to excite uneasiness in them just as Conrad is leading his readers into disturbing doubts and prying apart their confidence.

For most readers Heart of Darkness tells a story about Kurtz and features an African queen. But two-thirds of it is complete before Kurtz appears, and the queen has few paragraphs. Readers suggest, too, that Conrad exposes the slaughter of Africans, an expose of King Leopold’s Congo depredations. While the “Grove of Death” and Kurtz’s participation in local warfare support this claim, Conrad’s interests are elsewhere. Conrad exposes the rot of empire among Europeans and the confusion suffered by European societies tied to these ventures. Imperialism is bad for the Congo, but it is ruinous for Brussels and London. As we are learning, globalism infects all participants.

Marlow begins his nightmare journey in Brussels. The “whited sepulcher” gleams on the surface but stinks of corruption within. The central administrative office is strangely staffed … a ironic functionary, two women knitting black wool, a doctor measuring each agent’s cranium to study the effects of their adventures, and the CEO, a portly little man whose pudgy fist handles millions. The core is hollow, an image Conrad embraces. European bodies are bloated and fatigued, their minds distracted by peculiar pastimes and evasive ironies. Brussels talks of noble causes; its bitter heart burns for profits.

Journeying outward, Marlow observes a French warship, hurling small shells into the immensity of dense jungle. A fellow passenger explains “enemies” are there, permitting Europeans to assault them. As in our world, persons targeted for murder are “enemy combatants,” and their friends killed with them, “collateral damage.” In the language of empire, those in the way are “enemies”; those who resist “criminals.”[13]

Arriving at the Outer Station, Marlow meets the “flabby devil” that lords over empire: railway cars rust in the weeds up-ended like dead animals, work teams dynamite a hillside by mistake, and the “Grove of Death” shelters dying African workers, withering from starvation and exhaustion. Global production, then as now, squanders resources, despoils the land, and torments expendable labor, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, an unpleasant result of free trade and the laws of global capitalism.[14]

The Accountant of the Outer Station maintains order amidst insanity. He is dapper despite dust and heat. His books supply an impeccable account of imaginary profit and loss. He prevails by abstracting himself from his settings. He objects to dying agents left off in his quarters because their groans distract him. The Impeccable Accountant is a cog in the great wheel and exists for his discrete function within the ensemble of functions and purposes. We should recognize him, after a century of calamities — the efficient functionary “only doing his job.”

The Central Station is disorderly: workers await shipments of critical supplies and receive quantities of useless items. Provisioners dump whatever brings profits. Conrad, in 1899, knows that provisioning empire is an independent force running on its own. The Eldorado Exploring Expedition is the feeble forerunner of KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root), a construction corporation flourishing amidst our Middle East debacles and world-wide. Conrad knew that empire is a thriving business opportunity and takes its momentum from those interests. The Manager’s uncle leads the EEE, making clear the close connection between the agents of empire and the business community profiting from it.

The business of the Central Station is jockeying for advantage within the Corporation. Here Kurtz’s name first appears. The Manager and his acolytes consider Kurtz a threat because Kurtz has succeeded in producing ivory. You would think that would help their careers, but Kurtz operates alone. The agents sent to help Kurtz are inefficient, unimaginative, and spies for their corporate masters. Worse yet, the Manager believes corporate executives in Brussels favor Kurtz. He assumes Kurtz wants his job. The Brickmaker-who-makes-no-bricks fears working for Kurtz, who abides no nonsense. Although Marlow wants only to restore the boat and get on with his mission, the Manager mistrusts him because the people who favor Kurtz recommended him. The brickmaker associates Marlow with the “virtue” crowd, who justify imperialism’s pillaging with notions of humane progress. Marlow finds the machinations of these petty Machiavels humorous, but they define the “Flabby Devil” misruling the global economy.

Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle, discussing ridding themselves of troublesome competitors who threaten their project. These agents of progress are a law unto themselves. They will arrange to have this troublesome fellow hanged: the uncle explains, “Anything can be done in this country … nobody here … can endanger your position.” When Kurtz threatens to murder the Harlequin and take his ivory, Marlow says “he did it because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him.”

Marlow’s listeners object to his indictment of imperialism. One grumbles when Marlow sympathizes with African suffering. Marlow, recalling coming upon a deserted African village, notes that English villagers would abandon their homes, too, at news of invaders conscripting workers for deadly labor. Marlow observes too the circumstances of Africans transitioning from idol worship to attending a boiler’s pressure gauge. He praises the cannibals’ restraint and takes these workers as human beings. This drives one listener to ask sarcastically why Marlow didn’t just join them for a dance and a shout. Marlow answers he was too busy watching the river for snags and shallows, but he does not say he would not have joined them. Marlow is surprised at the bond of humanity he feels for them.

His British masters, however, have deeper objections. Marlow associates the secure metropolitan center with the deadly madness that makes its comforts possible. There are surface appearances, the pleasant world we think we live in, and the deeper waters full of snags and shallows. Marlow treads carefully, but at times implicates the corporate masters who listen to his tale. He muses that the jungle looks on mockingly at his silly efforts and then comments that it watches them, too … “you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for – what is it? Half a crown a tumble …” And out of the darkness comes a growling voice “try to be civil, Marlow.” At that, Marlow recovers his care for boundary of offence and seems to apologize: “I beg your pardon. I forget the heartache that makes up the rest of the price. And indeed what does the price matter if the trick be done well. You do your tricks very well” (p. 34). This apology, wrapped in cheek, concedes nothing.

Another listener objects that Marlow’s account of an attack is absurd. Marlow responds: “Absurd … Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal–you hear–normal from year’s end to year’s end. And you say, Absurd!”(p. 47). Civilization refuses to acknowledge the slaughter that supports its ease and safety. A visit below these surfaces threatens everything we think we know. This is the cost of imperialism: we cannot acknowledge our realities; we are shocked by coffins returning from abroad and the occasional slaughter brought home to our streets.

Marlow’s employers would prefer not to know. They might chuckle when Marlow describes Brussels as a town where people are “hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other” (p. 70) However, Marlow’s tale implicates London and the surfaces his listeners trust in for moral and intellectual equilibrium. These illusions require ideas of law and order that evaporate where profits accumulate: “You can’t understand. How could you?–with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums” (p. 49) The law, custom, and public opinion masks the violence applied to those who cannot resist. And Kurtz’s mother, after all, was half English.

When we reject Heart of Darkness because of the “N” word, or an affront to women, or to pan-African pride, we ignore Conrad’s insights. Chinua Achebe and Edward Said, both of a particular brilliance, are dead. The discussion we need is thinner for their passing. However, their revolutionism has proved a fantasy while Conrad’s novel has sturdy historical foundation and continuing predictive power. The oppositional press, the one that owes nobody anything and tells the truth, delivers footnotes to Conrad daily.

Last modified 5 September 2013