Friday, April 9, 2010

Introducing Heart of Darkness

We are starting to read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, first published in 1902. The story reflects the physical and psychological shock Conrad himself experienced in 1890, when he worked briefly in the Belgian Congo. The narrator, Marlow, describes a journey he took on an African river. Assigned by an ivory company to take command of a cargo boat stranded in the interior, Marlow makes his way through the treacherous forest, witnessing the brutalization of the natives by white traders and hearing tantalizing stories of a Mr. Kurtz, the company's most successful representative. He reaches Kurtz's compound in a remote outpost only to see a row of human heads mounted on poles. In this alien context, unbound by the strictures of his own culture, Kurtz has exchanged his soul for a bloody sovereignty, but a mortal illness is bringing his reign of terror to a close. As Marlow transports him downriver, Kurtz delivers an arrogant and empty explanation of his deeds as a visionary quest. To the narrator Kurtz's dying words, "The horror! The horror!" represent despair at the encounter with human depravity--the heart of darkness.

What are the terrible things we do to each other?
Freud's Theory of Instincts:  Freud says that we all have these impulses inside of us, but we don't do them because we repress them. Are there instances you can recall where you had a dark, depraved thought but stopped yourself from acting upon it?

Reading selection from Phil Caputo's A Rumor of War. This selection speaks to the Mai Lai massacre, a U.S. atrocity during the Vietnam War revealing Lt. Calley who "plunged all the way down, discovering in the bottommost depths a capity for malice they probably never suspected was there".

In Conrad's novel, Kurtz succumbs to anger, destruction, and hatred while gaining power in the process. Some people are capable of anything.  All people can succumb to disturbing behaviors.

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe famously criticized Heart of Darkness in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", saying the novella de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture and reduced them to a metaphorical extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture. Listen to a recent NPR interview with Chinua Achebe on All Things Considered.

A lively debate:  is this a racist book?

No comments:

Post a Comment

New Trier Organic Garden