Monday, January 7, 2008

Essay :: History and Civilization in Heart of Darkness

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote on Heart of Darkness. It doesn't necessarily represent my own thoughts on the subject but it is, I think, accurate to what Joseph Conrad was saying in his novella. Enjoy.

History is too large a topic and too large a word simply to throw around. The word needs to be limited, defined, its scope narrowed, before it can become an effective hermeneutical tool. In this essay, history will refer to the story that people tell themselves about themselves, to the reported story of human events rather than to a scientific or otherwise objective account of events; it will be treated as a theme, as something Joseph Conrad is interested in discussing and commenting upon in Heart of Darkness. The study and representation of history is one of humanity’s chief ways of understanding itself. In this way, history is very similar to, and functions in much the same way as, a myth, that is, an informative and identity-creating story.

Unfortunately, Conrad’s treatment of history in Heart of Darkness is rather cynical and unflattering; it tends to uncoil history and to reveal an ugly truth that is living inside of it. If it is true that history is written by the victors than history, like economics, is very much the tool of the ruling class, an ideological broadsword used rather inelegantly to hack and bludgeon into submission those who would challenge authority. This means, then, that history is probably largely artificial, a construct laid over the consciousness of a people in order to control them. History exists only in the human mind, a point Conrad seems to make very early on in the novella. The unknown narrator, before Marlow even speaks, contemplates time and the image of the river Thames and says, “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth? … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs of empires.” The river, and perhaps the whole earth, is indifferent to time; it stands still and simply is while people scurry about, build and collapse empires, and pass away.

In the novella, history and time are tied to civilization and to progress. London is emblematically the present and represents all the achievements and glories of civilized humanity; the jungle is the past, it is nature in its purest form, devoid of human subjection and control. The Thames, however, flows through London, reminding the unknown narrator that all of this, all of civilization, merely stands rather precariously on the edge an all-consuming jungle ready to retake what was taken from it the moment that civilization falters. William Blake said that where man is not nature is barren; Conrad seems to agree, but only to an extent. Nature will inevitably reclaim that which belongs to it and is careless of humanity’s so-called achievements. Nature is not domesticated by civilization and time, it is merely temporarily caged by it.

This combination of time and civilization means, however, that by stepping out of civilization one is also stepping out of time or at least stepping backwards inside of it. Indeed, this is exactly how Marlow describes the journey to Kurtz, as a peeling back not only of civilization but also of time. He says, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.” By stepping back in time and out of civilization, Kurtz and even Marlow open themselves up to see who they really are; they cut themselves off from whatever “humanizing” influence civilization may have and risk losing themselves in nature, in the basest and most savages impulses of “purified” human nature, nature that is without the guiding and restraining influence of history. Marlow feels this movement, feels the change happening around and inside of him as they travel back in time along the Congo. He says, in what really amounts to a scathing critique of human achievement, “We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were travelling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign-and no memories.” The creation of identity afforded to humanity by time and history is, Marlow discovers and Conrad suggests, largely illusory and artificial. History is a fence thrown up in the hopes of stopping an eternal tide, a self-deception that allows us to function as a society but which may crumble the moment we venture outside of our permitted bounds.

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