"Heart of Darkness" as Conrad's Journey to the Self or Autobiographical Elements in the "Heart of Darkness"

"Heart of Darkness" as Conrad’s journey to the Self
Autobiographical elements in the "Heart of Darkness"

Heart of Darkness is the most famous of Joseph Conrad’s personal novels: a pilgrim’s progress for a pessimistic and psychological age. After having finished the main draft of the novel, Conrad had remarked, “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal”. The living nightmare of 1890 seems to have affected Conrad quite as importantly as the Andre Gide’s Congo experience 36 years later. The autobiographical basis of the narrative is well known and its introspective bias obvious. This is Conrad’s longest journey into self. But it would do well to remember that Heart of Darkness is also a sensitive vivid travelogue and a comment on “the vilest scramble for lost that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”. (Albert Gerard).
The novel thus has its important public side as an angry document on absurd and brutal exploitation. In the characters of Marlowe and Kurtz, we see one of the greatest of Conrad’s many moments of compassionate rendering. Significantly, all that narrated has been gathered from the hinterland of Conrad’s own experiences during his Congo exploration.
Heart of Darkness is a record of things seen and done. But also Conrad was reacting to the humanitarian pretences of some of the looters precisely as the novelist today reacts to the moralism of cold propaganda. Then it was ivory poured down from the heart of darkness, now it is uranium. Conrad shrewdly recognized an institution amply developed in Nostromo – that deception is most sinister when it becomes self-deception and the propagandist takes seriously his own fictions. The conservative Conrad speaks through the journalist who says that Kurtz’s proper sphere ought to have been politics on the popular side. But the book as we all know has been almost a fictionalized real life experience of the novelist with a strong didactic note imbibed rather positively in it.
Conrad, like many other novelists today, was both drawn to idealism and repelled by its hypocritical abuse. He shows Marlow committing himself to the yet unseen agent partly because Kurtz had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort. Later, when he discovers what has happened to Kurtz’s moral ideas, he remains faithful to the “nightmare of my choice”. In Under Western Eyes, Sophia makes a distinction between those who burn and those who not and remarks that it is sometimes better to burn. Kurtz who had made himself literally one of the devils of the land and who in solitude had kept himself loose of the earth, burns while the others not. This clearly indicates that ‘Heart of Darkness’ combines a Victorian ethic and late Victorian fear of the white men’s deterioration with a distinctly catholic psychology. Marlow believes that we are protected from ourselves by society with its loves and watchful neighbours and in their different degrees. The pilgrims and Kurtz share this hollowness.
In any event, one has to recognize that the story is not primarily about Kurtz or about the brutality of Belgian officials but about Marlow and its narrator. To what extent it also expresses that Joseph Conrad, the biographer, might considerably recover; it is doubtless and insoluble question. However, the autobiographical slant is clear from the fact that Conrad did visit Congo in 1890 and this belated enactment was itself profoundly disapproved by his own uncle and guardian. Yet Conrad hoped to attain command of the expedition ship even after he had returned from the invigilatory voyage dramatized in the novel. Thus the adventurous Conrad and Conrad the moralist may have experienced collision. Substantially and in its central emphasis, ‘Heart of Darkness’ concerns Marlow and his journey towards and through certain facets of the self. Marlow, the Conrad surrogately reiterates often enough that he is recounting a spiritual voyage of self discovery. He remarks casually but crucially that he did not know himself before setting out and that he likes to work for the chance it provides to: “find yourself … what one other man can ever know”.
At the material and superficial level, the journey is through the temptation of atavism – a remote kinship with the “wild and passionate uproar” of a trace of response to it, of a final rejection of the “fascination of the abomination”. Marlow’s temptation is made concrete through his exposure to Kurtz, an idealist who has fully responded to the wilderness: a potential and fallen self. At the climax, Marlow follows Kurtz ashore, confounds the beat of the drum with the beating of his heart and goes through the ordeal of looking into Kurtz’s ‘mad soul’. The late Victorian reader and possibly Conrad himself who take this more seriously, than we could literally believe at merely in Kurtz’s deterioration and also in the sudden subversion of the heart of materialistic fiction. Certain circumstances of Marlow’s voyage, looking through these terms resemblances Conrad’s maritime experiences. Here, we have presumably entered an era of unconscious creation, the dream is true but the tiller may have no idea why it is so. Possibly a psychic need as well as literary tact compelled Conrad to defer the meeting between Marlow and Kurtz for some three thousand words after announcing that it took place.
The incorporation and the alliance between Marlow and Kurtz became material in the end as the identification of the self. Hence, the shocks Marlow experiences when he finds Kurtz’s cabin empty, his secret sharer gone a part of himself, had vanished, “what made this emotion so overpowering was – how shall I define it…”He follows the crawling Kurtz through the grass, comes upon him – “long, pale, indistinct like a vapour exhaled by the earth”. When Marlow finds it hard to define the moral shock he received on seeing the empty cabin or when he says he does not know why he was jealous of sharing his experience we can take him literally, and in a sense be thankful for his uncertainty. ‘Heart of Darkness’ takes us into a deeper region of the mind, quite similar to the psychic union between Legatt and his secret sharer in Conrad’s short story, “The Secret Sharer”. We ought to share F.R. Leavis, who emphasizes the fact that Conrad was probably staring at the devil when he transmuted his experiences into fictionalized form.


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