On my spring break plane ride I dove into Joseph Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness so that my adventure to Santa Cruz could parallel Charles Marlow's adventure through the African jungle. For this blog post I have decided to measure the creativity of this novel as a whole up to some of the common dichotomies identified in creative individuals. Heart of Darkness became the basis for one of the greatest films of all time - Apocalypse Now. I will use some of the beautiful images from that film to accompany the text here.
Imagination and Reality
These opposing concepts represent Heart of Darkness as a creative work most effectively. At the age of 31 Joseph Conrad worked on a trading steamboat on the Congo River. On this journey he witnessed some of the cruelty and savagery associated with the slave and ivory trade. These real experiences which were documented further in the history book King Leopold's Ghost informed Conrad's writing. The mix of imagination into this reality brought to us the legendary character Colonel Kurtz as well as his many graphic surroundings.
Wisdom and Naivety
This is the dichotomy which is most apparent in the protagonist and narrator of most of the novel – Charles Marlow. The character is introduced in his background as a reasonably experienced traveler and boat captain. Throughout his journey to Kurtz’s island he encounters a number of other men involved in the ivory trade who seem incompetent and foolish to him. For much of the book, we are provided with an image of a worthy and wise storyteller. It is the darkness of British Imperialism to which Marlow is naïve. He is shocked at the images of Africans left to die in the jungle as well as the severed heads mounted on spears outside of Kurtz’s “palace”. Perhaps this contrast in Marlow reflects the very dichotomy within the creative himself – Conrad. Conrad is obviously an intelligent writer, though he reminds us through this character that there is always an opportunity to be surprised in this world.
Joy and Suffering
The classic creative mix of agony and ecstasy is poured out of Conrad and into the island of Colonel Kurtz. In the novel Kurtz has established himself as a God among the locals by thrilling them with his “wisdom”, but also by terrifying them. Here is a quote from Marlow describing one of his adorers.
“It was curious to see his mingled eagerness and reluctance to speak of Kurtz. The man filled his life, occupied his thoughts, swayed his emotions.”
Even within the character Kurtz there is the dichotic mix. He is described as a worshipped man who has attained more treasured ivory than he can handle. He lives with every amenity the African jungle can offer him. However, his famous last words which end up haunting Marlow are – “The horror, the horror!” As the centerpiece of the plot, Kurtz is a mythically incredible yet horribly dark figure.