Why 'Heart of Darkness' is a timeless treasure

Despite accusations of racism, this story about the effects of horror and evil is as captivating in 2024 as it was when it was written 125 years ago.

Why 'Heart of Darkness' is a timeless treasure

A great work of art never dies. Great books, such as Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness, continue to be revisited, re-read, and studied afresh, even though it was written in 1899 and published in 1902.

The story covers British sailor Charles Marlow’s expedition on board a steamboat into the African jungle in search of an ivory trader called Mr Kurtz. Marlow’s mission is to rescue Kurtz and bring him back to civilisation, but Kurtz does not want to leave. He is worshipped by the Africans he lives with and orders them to attack the steamboat. Marlow eventually manages to bring Kurtz back, but he dies on the way to England, uttering his famous last words: “The horror, the horror.”

On publication, the book was met with indifference, but over the years, its reputation grew, and by the 1960s, it was a staple text in schools. Today, it is regularly listed as one of the best books ever written in English.

Mixed reception

Yet, over the past 120 years, it has had a mixed reception, owing principally to its depictions of race. In 1977, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously criticised it, describing both it and the author as “racist” for the “image of Africa” portrayed. In 1993, Palestinian-American philosopher, academic, and literary critic Edward Said defended the novel, adding context and explaining that Conrad’s writing was bound to a certain time and place.

Heart of Darkness undoubtedly contains racist expressions of the kind used by Europeans, Arabs, Asians, and Westerners at the end of the 19th century. In 1899, the Universal Charter on Human Rights of 1948 was still almost half a century away. However, from our 2024 vantage point, it seems odd that we should demand that authors of that era speak in the language of ours. They could do no other than use the lingua of their day. Erase that, and we erase humanity’s heritage.

It seems odd that we should demand that authors of a past era to speak in the language of ours.

Although a great writer, Achebe seems to have been wrong when he universally applies Said's theory of post-colonialism. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how such a literary tour de force can be accused of embodying colonialism.

Missing the point

Some scholars who study this book become so engrossed in issues of racism and colonialism that they forget the main reason it was written: to explore the exceptional personalities Conrad encountered during his own voyages.

Kurtz, a central character, is described by Conrad as having "gone native" and "turned into a savage," yet in the context of the book, 'savage' does not carry the same racist connotation it carries today; rather, it means 'indigenous' or 'native'.

Kurtz's final words sum up what he saw and did. Arriving at Kurtz's station, Marlow sees a row of Africans' heads impaled on spears—the heads of enemies, it turns out. On his way up the river, he had been told of Kurtz's methods being "unsound". Marlow becomes convinced that Kurtz has gone "mad".

This rogue ivory trader had grown to hate Western civilisation and found the life of the "savages" to be truer and more respectable. He chose to stay in a state of majesty and beauty, and over time, he began to be seen as a god, which is how he came to imagine himself and portray himself.

Inspiring character

The character of Kurtz has fascinated artists ever since Conrad created him, leading to several adaptations, including the most well-known: Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 cinematic triumph Apocalypse Now, starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando. This takes Conrad's story but sets it in the Vietnam War. In it, Kurtz's character is a special forces commander gone rogue, and Marlow's character (renamed Willard) is a special forces soldier sent to kill him.

Kurtz has fascinated artists ever since Conrad created him, leading to several popular cinematic adaptations.

The film reflects the self-flagellation and farce of Vietnam, with several scenes having now entered the cultural lexicon, including the officer (played by Robert Duvall) who "loves the smell of napalm in the morning", thus trivialising the invasion. Coppola insisted that Brando play Kurtz, paying him millions of dollars for a month's filming in the Philippines. In truth, Brando is exactly who you imagine when you imagine Kurtz.

In the film, Kurtz is described as "broken", a moral man destroyed by an evil he later embraced, exhausted by existence, searching for the easiest way to salvation, looking for someone to love and then kill him. Curiously, Brando's biographer described the film star as having been "so deeply hurt, so deeply scarred" by the world and the fame that his acting brought, adding that Brando wanted to "take his revenge" on it.

A similar character to Kurtz can be found in Michael Blake's novel Dances with Wolves, about an American officer who, after the Civil War, turns into a supporter of the indigenous people, even refusing to speak English when he is captured.

Another adaptation is Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall. The film tells the story of Tristan, the son of an American officer who fights in World War I and witnesses horror and evil. The experience tears him apart and envelops him in madness as he crosses into indigenous life. Here again, the indigenous people appear as the face of innocence before their corruption at the hands of the West.

On that note, it seems apt to remember Conrad's famous phrase: "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."

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