Heart of Darkness

I’ve just read Joseph Conrad’s 1899 Novella Heart of Darkness. I found it thoroughly depressing, though I anticipate drawing little sympathy for having selected a book with so tenebrous a title. Charlie Marlow leaves darkest London to go to the dark continent, meeting many dark characters and practices along the way. He seeks the enigmatic Mr Kurtz, who turns out to be a disappointingly dark character himself. Conrad’s a strange writer- darkness permeates every aspect of the book.

Critics call it an attack on imperialism, though modern writers criticise the text itself for its treatment of blacks. Aside from the contemporary fashion for ascribing racism to everything simply on the sole merits of its existence, the book deals with a period in which race became increasingly paramount. Forty years of Darwin’s biology had neatly translated into sociology and eugenics. Some writers were calling for the preservation of superior races and nations. The same year as the Anglo-Polish Conrad published his Heart of Darkness, Anglo-German Houston Stewart Chamberlain published Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (‘The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century’) in which he advocated race theory, with Arians being on top, and Jews and blacks at the bottom. One of his most loyal readers was a young Austrian artist who put these theories into practice 40 years later.

Denying the creator God and the elevated status of his special creatures sanctions the horrors of the mid-twentieth century. Conrad’s novel is dark because not a single character has recourse to Him who is Light of the world. Spiritual references are found throughout the text, but his characters inhabit a Christless vacuum. Little wonder they kill, exploit and harm.

While we have hearts of darkness, we will continue to hate, manipulate and discriminate. Only the Light can effect reformation and transformation, bringing a love for God and fellow man. It isn’t statues and street names which are the problem; it goes far deeper than that.

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