Finished reading Heart of Darkness today. In my last post, I wrote about how the movie Apocalypse Now seems to have appropriated my reading of the novella, my sense of the book’s meaning.
As I finished the book, I realized that I was less satisfied with it than on previous readings. It wasn’t the novel I remembered, the exploration of the dark places of the human heart and mind. It wasn’t as foreboding as the film that lifted its plot and some of its characters from the Congo to Vietnam. Kurtz, for instance, is less than menacing in the book, unlike Brando’s portrayal in the film. In the book, Kurtz is somewhat pitiful.
It was not a horrible read, as far as language goes. It often was filled with lush images and original language, as this passage demonstrates:
The great wall of vegetation an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his existence.
Those images are as strong as the images of shadow and light rolling and flickering inside Kurtz’s compound in the movie, evoking the sense that some menacing force is out there in the jungle, and we really shouldn’t get off the goddamn boat, not if we want to survive. And Conrad’s prose is clean, for the most part. Few clunky sentences exist.
Still, something seemed not quite right. I found myself irritated by the constant repetition, in one way or another, of the phrase “heart of darkeness,” even breaking its way into the final sentence:
The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.
Moreover, Conrad falsely attempts to lead the reader into a mood, into sharing with Marlow a fellow-feeling of horror and dread. Jane Smiley notes Conrad’s failure is sentimentality. He tends, she says, “to generalize from [false] feelings rather than to actually observe what is around him . . . .”
The narrator Marlow doesn’t observe, Smiley says, he places over the actual landscape his feelings about the darkness within the jungle, not looking for what is really present within (perhaps explaining the frequent repetition of “heart of darkness;” it’s already a fear present within Marlow), a common tendency of sentimentalists, as Smiley notes:
Sentimentality is often defined as fake or exaggerated feeling, but it also may be seen as feeling that has no basis in the sentimentalist’s actual experience — he does not truly observe or perceive the object, but rather projects fears or wishes onto the object and then reacts to them as if they were real.
Smiley seems to be right about Marlow’s narrative: It left me missing the horror Marlow believes he witnesses in the jungle. It seems clear that before Marlow set off on his journey upriver he already felt and knew what he was going to experience without actually exploring, without discovering if there really is a menace, a horror in the jungle.