Thursday, August 26, 2010

Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

There are few writers I enjoy reading for more than Joseph Conrad. The style he pursues in some of his stories is one of abandoning the modern, along with the illusion of safety that it gives us. Today our Twitter, Facebook and Ipod-toting world seeks excitement, life and drama through the misery of others - viewed comfortably through a television screen. We have no feelings of our own so we want others to live those feelings for us. Yet when those things that give us security aren't there anymore, we're faced with something rather uncomfortable. It is this discomfort that seemed to fascinate Conrad and he explores it in his writings in a number of ways. In one story, urbane and quite mild-mannered individuals gradually descend into madness as they squabble and fight; in another the superstitions of the native become real and vivid the more immersed you are in his world. Conrad builds on a theme that is quite prevalent for writers of his time; the primitive has always had a certain romance for Western writers, as if modernity had stolen some vital part of their humanity, and they seek to recapture this lost emotion through their writings - hence the fascination with the original human; the noble savage.

Yet in times like these one must be careful in admiring the simplicity and raw honesty of the noble savage - especially if that savage is in a cave in the Tora Bora mountains or pirating off the coast of Somalia. When that happens it is almost as if we are ourselves part of a story; we become the backdrop of the story. This uncaring, easily shocked majority who do not understand or care for the discoveries made by the protagonist refuse to recognise heroism or bravery in the backward and unfashionable. It is amazing how quickly people revert back to such positions when they are made uncomfortable. In a way, writers like Conrad are not just exploring vague ideas of human nature; they are actually narrating a reality. They are telling us that this is what people are like and this is how they behave.

The famous film, "Apocalypse Now", was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story, "Heart of Darkness". I liked that film before I knew why I should and today I like that film still. As part of the generation that has seen the attacks of September the 11th, the "War on Terror" and "Shock and Awe", I can't help but wonder whether we are sailing up our own river, back to a primordial and savage past that we thought we left forever and that was far away. To some, feelings like this become terrifying and the finality of everything in such a realm bring out the best and worst in people. I remember reading once about a US senator who was shot down over North Korea. He later reminisced that as he parachuted into the darkness, he thought to himself, "You are entering the land of Epictetus (a Stoic philosopher)". What he meant is that life here is no longer about your loved ones, or about the things you did when life was good. He knew that here it is about victory or defeat - not even death - for it is possible to be victorious even whilst losing your life. I think from these mixed feelings of despair, hopelessness and futility heroism can be born. Look at the classical world - whether Greek, Persian, Indian or Chinese - and you see how this terrifying and unpredictable world produced utter villains or heroic champions, characters that have shaped our world today. Yet I talk about these things and I am neither; but it comforts me to know that I'm not the only one fascinated by the savage cruelty of such a real world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Conrad's The Secret Agent is another good one. I think it conveyed the paranoia and suspicion in the UK very well in the wake of attack fears and actual attacks post 9/11.