Heart of Darkness

by zunguzungu

In order to argue what Roosevelt is in the dissertation, I found I had to produce a capsule summary of the Heart of Darkness myth of Africa so that I can argue Roosevelt to be doing a different kind of Africa myth. For your edification, therefore, this is how I paraphrase Heart of Darkness in 400 words:

The experience of the Congo produced a sense in the West of an African “darkness” that reflected the dark truth of the civilized world’s ego-ideals: from Conrad through to Fanon’s critique of it, Africa as “Heart of Darkness” told a story of the African as civilized man’s id, as the humanity buried under civilized morality and work discipline. The essential hollowness of Marlow’s faith in work, after all, can settle onto the revelation of what Kurtz truly is because buried beneath the veneer of civilization is the truth we seek to avoid looking too closely at: while Kurtz throws off the shackles of civilization and “go[es] ashore for a howl and a dance,” therefore, Marlow’s restraint is precisely a function of having closed his mind to anything but “surface-truth[s]” and stayed busy.

In this account of human maturity, the African within represents the undisciplined, unrestrained animal essence over which a thin but ultimately insubstantial gloss of human civilization has been cast. And the kind of growing understanding that Heart of Darkness charts is of Marlow’s increasing realization — and horror — at the truth of himself and of all civilized man, a truth which can only be dealt with lying (or, perhaps, by fiction), by closing his eyes (and those of Kurtz’ intended) to a truth which “would have been too dark — too dark altogether.” In other words, the enlightenment which Marlow has received — three times described as a kind of Buddha — is that denial is better than looking too close at reality; “going at it blind,” he reflects, is the proper way to “tackle a darkness.”

Conrad’s account of what Fanon called the “Black who slumbers in every White,” therefore, produces horror because it narrates “maturity” as a (male) realization of the more-real real beneath and the violent discipline produced in response. The beautiful illusions of the ego, therefore, only cover over the libidinal horror that still essentially motivates even the most (ostensibly) idealistic efforts to civilize and liberate; the evangelical illusions of Conrad’s women, after all, are what keeps them “out of it — completely” but which, Marlow eventually decides, must be cultivated as the only buffer against the darkness. “We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own,” he writes, “lest ours gets worse.” But even a shining example of European civilization like Kurtz is, ultimately, nothing more than “a dog in a parody of breeches,” an animal pretending to be human.