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Heart of starkness November 11, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, literature.
Tags: , , ,

"Roi des Belges," the steamer Conrad took up the Congo in 1890

“To the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous.”

—Joseph Conrad, “An Outpost of Progress”

Conrad understood those two distinct, neatly joined facets of a European man’s deterioration in central Africa.  All that was comfortable melted away; all that was alien grew grotesque and disturbing.

His 1898 story “Outpost of Progress” takes up the subject in an anecdotal way.  Of course the word “Progress” is ironic.  The two ill-prepared traders who are set down at a station by the river gradually learn that their trade involves the selling of men as well as the buying of tusks, and they sink into a moral cesspool, then destroy each other.  The story could have been told over gin on a colonial verandah, much as Somerset Maugham’s tropical characters did two decades later.

Heart of Darkness (1902) takes the same subject but blurs the edges, as J.M.W. Turner did in his landscapes of the Thames.  And Conrad’s novella about the murk of the Congo is wrapped inside a glimmering outer story set on a boat on the Thames.

Fighting Temeraire

"The Fighting Temeraire" by J.M.W. Turner

But no one could have described the moral desolation of Kurtz over a gin and tonic.  Conrad had to get us all into a trance, and he repeats himself, backtracks, elaborates. He wears on our nerves.  But we’ll never get rid of the image of the heads on stakes around the house in the midst of the jungle— and those words “The horror! The horror!” will never go away even if they’ve nearly become a joke.

I can see that Heart of Darkness is the greater work, but I recommend “An Outpost of Progress” for anyone who wants to understand the simple mechanics of what happened to those employees of the “Societe Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo.”

Joseph Conrad


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