Saturday, March 12, 2016

March's Book: Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Literature (1899 - 130 pp.)

Heart of Darkness is yet another entry for the "he hadn't already read that?!" category. It's been covered by so many scholars I don't need to summarize the views on Europe and Africa it advances. How I look at it, instead, is from the perspective of a fellow author. Therefore, I am going to focus most on Conrad's structure, from the way he structures his paragraphs down to his witticisms and turns of phrase.

The book provides more great insights into human life that appear, scattershot, throughout Marlow's story. The travel through Africa is not all that exciting in itself, but the observations Conrad makes resonate 117 years later.

Heart of Darkness's main flaw is its tendency toward run-on paragraphs. After a few pages of the same paragraph, the reader can forget who is speaking, as Conrad uses personal pronouns frequently. Minor plot points are blurs. Some egregiously long paragraphs occur on pages 11-12 (419 words, which I thought notable when I was that early in the book), 32-34 (526 words) and 58-60 (700 words, or longer than a typical high-school five-paragraph essay). The worst offender, however, is a 1750-word paragraph that is longer than every entry in the history of this blog except one. (65-69) Many of these passages border on unreadable

I am, of course, a devotee of the one-liner. Conrad is brilliant at these, in stark contrast to his long paragraphs. Here are some of my favourites.

On uncertainty: "He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable." (7)

Marlow's description of a Roman citizen inspecting an inland post, as an analogy to his own journey, shows just how much people hate uncertainty. This is the most poetic I've ever seen risk-aversion described.

On colonialism: "We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb..." (20-21)

This is a chilling quotation because of how realistic it is. The Congo Free State, which is widely considered to be the book's setting, was not a pleasant place. Leopold II of Belgium had stated economic motives for ruling it, linking the human rights abuses and the resource production. Conrad's phrase "the merry dance of death and trade" shows how casually many Europeans of the day considered the Scramble for Africa, although Leopold was vilified even then.

On work: "I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work— the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means." (45-46)

As some say, work is identity (see "D. Policy Considerations"). Work can consume an inordinate amount of time, but it can also represent taking advantage of a special opportunity. Being able to introspect based on the completion of often difficult tasks, finding "your own reality", can make you different from anyone else or part of a greater whole. The connection between doing something and being something is all that keeps Marlow going on the improbable voyage down the Congo. This connection can make an arduous job with a good reputation workable, or a fun job with a bad reputation unworkable.

On learning: "‘But when one is young one must see things, gather experience, ideas; enlarge the mind.’" (88)

This should be on posters on classroom walls, determined cat-style. The only think I'd change is that I think it should be done at all ages. I certainly try my best.

On death: "I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine." (117)

Conrad's bleakness here is something of a thesis for the entire book, and for Conrad's riverboat journeys that inspired it. Reality is often far less glamorous than the news, human rights abuses included.

Reading is an opportunity to learn, and I learned something here. An ulster (108) is apparently a long, loose, heavy overcoat, as per I'll have to look for them next time I take the train.

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 4

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