Monday, June 20, 2011

We Have Met the Enemy: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness
"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is (unfortunately) best recognized in popular culture for providing the backstory for Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 movie, Apocalypse Now, which is a classic in its own right.  The novel is based, not in Cambodia, but in a part of the African Congo that was a private colony of King Leopold II of Belgium in the latter part of the nineteenth century.     

While waiting for the tide to turn at the mouth of the Thames, the protagonist, Charlie Marlow, notes to his fellow travelers that London and the Britons were once dark and untamed in the period just prior to Roman domination of the island.  Marlow proceeds to recount his experiences as a steamship captain in darkest colonial Africa and, specifically, the recovery of Kurtz, an ivory trader, journalist, and poet-philosopher, who is lost to the darkness of the jungle and his own mind.  The sometimes brutal treatment of the African natives plays a central role in the story, as does the chaos and lawlessness that results from unrestrained domination of one culture by another.  Themes of darkness and light are interwoven in both story and character to show that each of us and each of our enterprises, at some level, are infected by that tendency toward evil that is witnessed by Kurtz in the moments before he utters his final words: "The horror!  The horror!" 

Given the theme of European colonialism, the novel is broader than Apocalypse Now in the scope of its treatment.  And because it focused more specifically on the inherent duality within each human soul, the novel is also more terrifying.  Conrad is a master of prolonged tension and in the subtle treatment of difficult and controversial themes--including colonialism--and both the topic and the prose gradually work their way under the reader's skin until he's strung as tight as a bow.  But there's never a release, at least not one that completely diffuses the tension, and the reader is left with a feeling of unsettling anxiety long after the work is read.

Truth be told, Heart of Darkness is one of those few works that keep us up at night, not simply because of the story or its basis in colonial reality, but because of its undeniable application to human existence.  Does anyone share this reaction to the work?  What other works, if any, keep you up at night?   

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy Bloomsday, Everyone.

UlyssesIt's been a good, long while since I've posted a word here at The Literate Man.  My thanks to Aaron for picking up the slack.  The break wasn't intentional, but evolved out of (1) my misguided First Reading Challenge: The Aubrey/Maturin Series by Patrick O'Brian (I'm currently on book 13 of 21 and can read nothing else), and (2) final edits to on my own novel, The Last Will and Testament of Lemuel Higgins, which is in the final stages of editing and design prior to publication.

But I couldn't let Bloomsday pass without recycling TLM's reviews of Ulysses from late last year.  There were two: one relating reflections at the halfway point and one presenting a final review.  June 16, 1904, was the date that Joyce chose for Ulysses' protagonist, Leopold Bloom, to go rambling about Dublin and provide us with some of the most colorful scenes in all of English literature.  It also happens to be the day that James Joyce had his first date with his eventual wife, Nora Barnacle.  In any case, the date is celebrated worldwide (and particularly in Dublin) as Bloomsday in honor and recognition of Joyce's epic work and enduring genius. 

So raise a pint to Ulysses, number seven on TLM's Top Eight Novels for Men, and to James Joyce, one of the most honored (and divisive) authors in literary history.