Dark Places

By Stan Persky | December 17, 2007

John Stape, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad (Bond St. Books / Doubleday Canada, 378 p., $35.95, 2007)

Michael Gorra, ed., The Portable Conrad (Penguin, 702 p., $21.50, 2007)

I didn’t really appreciate Joseph Conrad’s famous Heart of Darkness –– so famous that its title has become a cliché for anyone travelling to a seemingly remote patch of the planet — the first time around, when it was a staple on college reading lists. As V.S. Naipaul says (in a 1974 essay, “Conrad’s Darkness”), “It has taken me a long time to come round to Conrad.” Likewise. The full impact of Heart of Darkness didn’t hit me until, a quarter century after my college days, I took it along on a post-Communist journalistic trip to Albania in 1991. It was a couple of months after the half-century old regime of Enver Hoxha and his followers had been toppled, but not before that dictatorship had left the southern European country that was my destination “one of the dark places on the earth,” as Marlow, the narrator of Conrad’s Congo tale, puts it.

After my days of traipsing through the tropical swelter of Tirana, Albania, interviewing people who had been as badly used as the people in Conrad’s story, each evening I repaired to my hotel room, alternately working on a piece of reportage and slowly reading Heart of Darkness.

The parallels between the Congo in the 1890s and Albania a century  later were as eerie as those Francis Ford Coppola had identified in Apocalypse Now, his film about Vietnam, based on Conrad’s yarn. The system and methods (a term much employed by Conrad) used in Communist Albania had been almost as brutal as those in King Leopold of Belgium’s Congo; the Communist regime had paraded under flags of “humanitarianism” and “progress” as  had the imperialistic venture in Africa; and the Communist leader, Enver Hoxha, was ultimately as mad and barbaric as the figure of Kurtz in Conrad’s story. Of course, the parallels weren’t exact: Conrad was in the Congo in the midst of the process, whereas I was in Albania, merely picking up the historical pieces, after it had ended and an uncertain post-Communist future was yet to take shape. But here, too, one could shudder, as did Kurtz, “The horror, the horror!” When I mentioned my observations to my Albanian hosts, a pair of translators who had, among many other works, translated Conrad, they punctured my pretensions with gentle irony, remarking, “And perhaps you think you are Marlow?” Well, yes, I did.

By the time I finished the last pages of Conrad’s novella as the airplane was touching down in mercifully cool and damp Berlin, Germany (my European base at the time), I recognized that the literary 20th century begins — at least in English-language writing — with Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s fictional account of the Congo, an early work by the Polish-born veteran seaman then in his early 40s, was first serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine (or Maga, as it was known) in early 1899, and the tale was included in a volume of Conrad novellas and stories in 1902. It’s a harrowing critique of European imperialism
in Africa in the 1890s, and Conrad, in a later note, stressed its literalness, claiming he had presented “a record of experience… pushed a little (and only a very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.” The book remains pre-eminent among an astonishing outburst of masterpieces that emerged from Conrad’s pen in quick succession.

Conrad was an unlikely and belated author, and his writing in English was a third language (after Polish and French). He had not merely an annus mirabilis, but a miraculous decade that stretched from the fin de siecle through the first years of the 20th century: “An Outpost of Progress” (1897, his first African story), was followed by The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897, his third novel but the first breakthrough one), Tales of Unrest (1898), “Youth” (1898), “Heart of Darkness” (1899), Lord Jim (1900), Youth (1902, in which Heart of Darkness first appeared in book form), Typhoon and Other Stories (1903), Nostromo (1904), all the way to The Secret Agent (1907), with some journalism thrown in along the way, sailing at a brisk literary clip of about a book a year.

Conrad is a transition figure to literary Modernisn, comparable in some
ways to Cezanne in painting and Mahler in music. The subject matter of Heart of Darkness, a portrait of imperialist depredation in Africa, as well as a
dissection of the moral challenge it imposes on both its narrator, Marlow, and the rest of us, sets the theme for the globalized geopolitics of the new century. If, as historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it in The Age of Extremes, it was a “short 20th century,” extending from 1914 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991,
nonetheless it was the imperial scramble for loot in the last decades of the previous century, Conrad’s topic in Heart of Darkness, that grounds the cataclysm of World War I.

In terms of genre, Conrad is technically interesting here, with his tale-within-a-tale: an unnamed narrator, spending an evening of conversation on a cruising yawl moored in London’s Thames River, reports the story told in first person by Charles Marlow about his Congo voyage. Equally, Conrad’s form is not the doorstopper, realist novel of the previous century, but a terse novella, something closer to reportage, and an ironic pastiche of the conventional and popular adventure tale. Though Conrad would be touted as a typical practitioner of the exotic sea story genre (“a superior yarn-spinner for boys,” as one critic describes the false promotional image), that wasn’t what he
was up to at all.

In the preface to his “Narcissus” novel, he says that the writer’s job is “to make you hear, to make you feel — is, before all, to make you see.” But in Heart of Darkness, Marlow asks his listeners if they can “see the story. Do you see
anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain
attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation.” As Conrad editor Michael Gorra remarks, “That awareness of the intractability of language–that concern with the very possibility of representation–makes Conrad an exemplary figure in the history of modernism.” Finally, psychologically and philosophically, Conrad exhibits the coming era’s sense of ontological uncertainty and the “century of pain, anxiety and despair on the part of writers” that has been called “the crisis of Modernism,” by Gabriel Josipovici in a recent essay (“Fail again, fail better,” Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 30, 2007). About writing itself, Conrad said, late in life, “A
dreadful doubt hangs over the whole achievement of literature” (quoted in Giles Foden, “The moral agent,” The Guardian, Dec. 1, 2007).

On all counts, then, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness inaugurates
the literary 20th century, though of course it’s not the only line of
inquiry. Such disparate but contemporary volumes published in 1900 as
Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (displacing the rational psyche to an unconscious interior), and L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz

(anticipating the Emerald City of technology) suggest other approaches
to the “new,” as will the modernist masters in succeeding decades:
Pound, Stein, Proust, Joyce, Yeats, Woolf, Eliot and the rest, all the
way to Samuel Beckett at mid-century (at which point there’s a further
turn to “post”-thises-and-thats).


The 150th anniversary of Conrad’s birth in December 1857 is being marked, among other memorabilia, by John Stape’s biography, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, and by a new edition of Conrad’s writing, edited by Michael Gorra, The Portable Conrad, the first revision of that anthology in more than half a century.

Stape, a peripatetic Conrad scholar sometimes based in Vancouver, and the editor of a couple of volumes of The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad and The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, offers a brief workmanlike biography (the text is just over 250 pages) rather than the currently fashionable bulky literary life. Stape is appropriately cautious about biographical speculation not backed up by evidence, is insistent that we don’t know an awful lot about Conrad’s interior life until he’s well into his thirties, and points out that there’s plenty of literary criticism available, and thus critical biography is “not an angle pursued here.” Rather, his biography is
“deliberately constrained, addressing not the work and the life, but… the lives,
in the hope of offering a portrait of a man who was so unremittingly
private.” Conrad recognized himself as having three lives, as Pole,
seaman, and writer, but Stape is also interested in his other roles as
husband, father, friend, and as a neurasthenic, troubled, often blocked
literary lion.

Stape’s biography seems competent enough, but on the whole it’s
disappointing. The very idea of writing about a literary figure and
regarding critical biography as “not an angle” to be “pursued here”
strikes me as thoroughly wrong-headed. Really, what’s there to say
about a writer, especially one whose early life of sea adventures is
admittedly factually murky, and only available through retrospective
fictions, if you’re not going to discuss the books? True, there are
heaps of recurrent family illnesses, sinkholes of financial troubles,
and various shufflings from the rural Kent county family home to London
and back. But it simply doesn’t make sense not to treat the writing as
primary. I’ve already said more about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
in the few paragraphs above than Stape manages in his entire biography.
Maybe those recent biographies that “have tended to bloat,” from which
Stape differentiates his own work, have some virtues of their own after

The thumbnail sketch of Conrad’s life, though often spotty in terms of
evidence, roughly goes like this: Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad
Korzeniowski in the obscure town of Berdichev, in what is now Ukraine
(about 150 km. southwest of Kiev) on Dec. 3, 1857. His father, Apollo
Korzeniowski, was a gentry class Polish patriot–though Poland had been
dismembered by the great powers 60 years before and no longer existed
on the maps of Europe–who was exiled to a remote outpost in Russia for
the crime of nationalist political activities, when Conrad was only a
child. As a result of their sufferings in exile, both his parents died
early. He was raised by relatives in Cracow, and was blessed by a
guardian uncle, Tadeuz Bobrowski, who rescued the youth from various
scrapes and supported Conrad’s powerful yearning to go to sea.

At 16, Conrad moved to the French seaport of Marseilles, signed on
aboard a ship, and began the next of his “several” lives. Over the next
two decades he would rise to become a captain in the British merchant
marine (he also became a British citizen), and made voyages to a
variety of distant ports, mostly in the “East,” including in Malaysia,
Thailand, India, Indonesia, and Australia. However, the development of
steam shipping replaced sail, and made the job market for sea-going
officers much tighter, which explains how in 1890 Conrad came to be a
freshwater riverboat captain in the Congo. There were a couple more
years of steaming, and increasing bouts of unemployment, but just
before his Congo experience, Conrad embarked on the third and crucial
phase of his life.

The thing we most want to know–what impelled Conrad to turn to
writing?–remains, according to Stape “an intractable mystery.” Conrad
apparently wrote an early piece for a magazine short-story competition
in 1886, Stape says, but little else. By 1889, shortly before his Congo
journey, Conrad began writing his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, and lugged the manuscript around with him for the next five years before it was published in 1895, followed by An Outcast of the Islands the next year, and the first of the short stories, “An Outpost of Progress.” The rest is literary history, although one wishes that Stape had been willing to tell more of it.

There’s also a lot of domestic and social history. Conrad married in
1896, fathered two sons, and eventually moved into the literary world
where he was friends with Edward Garnett, John Galsworthy, Stephen
Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, H.G. Wells, and others.
Fortunately, as the sea trade was diminishing, the literacy trade was
burgeoning, and the well-paid serialized story in magazines aimed at a
late-Victorian expanded literate readership saved Conrad from penury,
since his novels, though well reviewed, only sold modestly. Finally,
there was a breakthrough American best-seller, Chance, in 1913, and a final decade of what almost everyone agrees was artistic decline, culminating in Conrad’s death in 1924.

If you’re looking for a brief account of Conrad’s life, Stape’s book
will do, but if you want a full portrait biography, including the rich
geopolitical context crucial to understanding Conrad’s writings and a
serious critical discussion of the writings themselves, you’ll have to
go elsewhere.

Michael Gorra’s version of The Portable Conrad is a much less tendentious affair. Gorra, who’s written After Empire, about Naipaul and Salmon Rushdie, and a very good political travel book about contemporary Germany, The Bells in Their Silence, attempts to provide us with a “Conrad our contemporary” anthology for the 21st century. He includes “The Secret Sharer,” the “Narcissus” novel, some stories, Heart of Darkness, The Secret Agent,
and scraps from the letters, essays, and autobiographical reflections,
as well as an intelligent introduction. As with any anthology, I
suppose one could come up with some complaints and quibbles, or wish
that the 700-page “portable” were even longer (and thus less portable),
but there’s really no need to do so.


Apart from reading (and periodically re-reading) Heart of Darkness,
the one possibly interesting external feature of it is the history of
how we’ve read it. In the chapter on Conrad in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost
(1998), his account of the colonial horror in the Congo, he notes that
“high school teachers and college professors who have discussed [Heart of Darkness]
in thousands of classrooms over the years tend to do so in terms of
Freud, Jung and Nietzsche; of classical myth, Victorian innocence and
original sin; of postmodernism, postcolonialism, and
poststructuralism… We read it as a parable for all times and

Gorra makes a similar point in his useful account of the “reception” of
Conrad. Early critics defined Marlow’s journey up the Congo, says
Gorra, “in terms of a ‘night journey into the unconscious, and
confrontation of an entity within the self.'” While there was
occasional recognition of the story’s “public side,” it tended to be
discounted “in favour of concentrating on the work’s ‘introspective
plunge,’ its account of a ‘spiritual voyage’ toward an ineffable
horror.” Some version of this reading, acknowledges Gorra, “was taught
to several generations of American students. I got it myself in the
twelfth grade and remember my teacher’s insistence that the tale’s
inscrutable intentions were far too subtle for us to grasp.”

The best account of such a typical initial encounter with Conrad is contained in Brian Fawcett’s Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow
(1986). “I was first forced to deal with the story as part of the
requirements for a freshman university literature course,” he recalls.
The professor “informed me that the story was about The Darkness–the
secret one that resides in the recesses of every human mind… I hated
Joseph Conrad and his story. Even more, I hated the idea, as offered by
my professor, that there was darkness at the core of the human psyche,”
Fawcett writes.

Oddly, it was a thorough-going attack on Conrad that contributed to a re-reading of Heart of Darkness
that broke with the psychologizing of “darkness” and moved toward a
more historicized sense of what the author and the story were
investigating. As Gorra says, “Nothing written about Conrad [since the
mid-20th century] has been so influential as Chinua Achebe’s 1975
essay, ‘An Image of Africa.'” In it, Achebe, the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart, denounces Conrad as “a bloody racist” and attacks Heart of Darkness
as “an offensive and totally deplorable book” that promotes racial
intolerance and is therefore to be condemned. If in the view of earlier
readers, “the Congo provides but a background for Marlow’s voyage into
the soul, for the Nigerian novelist it is central, a land with its own
peoples and histories… Yet, in some sense Achebe… agrees that in
‘Heart of Darkness’ Africa itself plays but a minimal role.” That is,
Achebe claims that Conrad doesn’t really tell us anything about Africa,
but merely uses it as a backdrop for his psychologizing, racism, and
whatever else. Gorra goes on to display some sympathy with later
critics of “Africanist discourse” who deplore the making of Africa
“into a primativist metaphor for man’s original state.”

The best response to Achebe, indeed a pretty thorough refutation, is
Cedric Watts’s 1983 essay, “‘A Bloody Racist’: About Achebe’s View of
Conrad,” (reiterated in Watts’s 1990 edition of Heart of Darkness),
in which he goes, chapter and verse, through Achebe’s damning quotes
from Conrad, and restores them to context. Of course, as Watts readily
admits, Conrad shared some or perhaps many of the Victorian attitudes
that we now understand as “racism,” but when you actually read the
story as it unfolds, something else emerges.

In his first encounter with Africans, Marlow is aboard a ship off the
African coast, heading toward the Congo, and is reflecting on his
alienation from his fellow passengers and the ship’s officers when he
notices that “now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary
contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see
from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang;
their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque
masks–these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an
intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf
along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a
great comfort to look at.”

The rightful presence of the Africans sharply contrasts with the human
hollowness Marlow finds among the white officials he meets once he
finally arrives at the Congo trading station. His portrait of the
abysmally oppressive conditions of the often dying black workers
impressed into service at the trading station is also without racial
contempt.: “Six black men advanced in a file, toiling up the path. They
walked erect and slow, balancing small baskets full of earth on their
heads… and all were connected together with a chain whose bights
swung between them, rhythmically clinking.”

If Achebe’s attack is finally of only relatively minor use, it at least
helped to turn the discussion from symbols and psychology to a
refocusing on the book’s literal subject matter. Though Watts dismissed
the brunt of Achebe’s racism charges, he was never in doubt that the
book was about real rather than virtual evils. As he says, “The satiric
indictment of colonialism in Africa is graphically clear at first
reading, as is the mockery of the myopic arrogance of Europeans in
daring to impose themselves on alien territory.”

Other readers, like Fawcett in his Cambodia, figured it out
for themselves, with a little historical and literary help. “I was
thirty before I finally came to read Conrad, and even then it was the
result of a fortunate accident.” He “blundered” onto Mark Twain’s 1905
pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy: “The subject was the
Belgian Congo, and within a few pages I recognized that I’d seriously
misjudged Joseph Conrad. The heart of darkness he’d written about had a
physical location and was a complex of material events and
consequences. It was secret, but it wasn’t psychological… I learned
that the Congo river basin had been the site of perhaps the most
extensive series of massacres in human history.” Fawcett adds, “As a
writer, Conrad was to provide the world with its first and perhaps most
profound glimpses into the contrary nature of reality in the 20th
century: that an almost identical barbarity grows out of an
overabundance of technological wealth as comes from its relative
absence.” That observation is succeeded by a lengthy and persuasive
effort, the subject of Fawcett’s own book, to understand the relations
between the massacre in Cambodia in the 1970s and the erosion of
intelligence in the digitalized Global Village.

Cedric Watts had similar things to say about Conrad’s “valuably
sceptical account of imperialism.” He reminds us that Marlow declares
that “the conquest of the earth… mostly means the taking it away from
those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than
ourselves,” and that the Congo narrative shows that “the conquest of
the earth” is, in Marlow’s own words, predominantly “robbery with
violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale.”

Furthermore, says Watts, “In practice, Heart of Darkness
contributed to the international protest campaign which eventually
resulted in the curbing of Belgian excesses in the Congo.” The leader
of the Congo Reform Association, E.D. Morel, called it “the most
powerful thing ever written on the subject,” and Conrad sent an
encouraging letter to Morel’s collaborator in the campaign, Roger
Casement (whom Conrad had met and admired in the Congo in 1890). Conrad
wrote to Casement, “The fact remains that… there exists in Africa a
Congo state, created by the act of European powers, where ruthless,
systematic cruelty toward the blacks is the basis of administration…
Of course, you may make any use you like of what I write to you.”

That isn’t quite good enough for Edward Said, who offers what is the most politically sophisticated reading of Conrad in Culture and Imperialism (1993), an analysis that extends the insights of Said’s earlier and well-known Orientalism. Said, however, doesn’t start from Achebe’s view that Heart of Darkness
is a “totally deplorable” book; rather he takes Conrad as having
written one of the “great products of the creative or interpretive
imagination,” and then moves on to show the relationship between
culture and empire.

What Said emphasizes is Conrad’s “conflicted” position of being both a
critic of imperialism, while remaining within, in many senses, the
imperialist world-view. Not only is Conrad more sensitive to Belgian
imperialism than he is to the English variety (which, as a loyal
naturalised Brit, he tended to discount), but he’s unable to imagine
“non-imperialist alternatives.” As Said says, “Conrad could probably
never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist
world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see
of the non-European at the time… Conrad scrupulously recorded the
differences between the disgraces of Belgian and British colonial
attitudes, but he could only imagine the world carved up into one or
another Western sphere of dominion.”

The consequence of Conrad’s ideological ambiguity is that it
subsequently has “made it possible to derive two possible arguments,
two visions, in the post-colonial world that succeeded his.” Said puts
it this way: “One argument allows the old imperial enterprise full
scope to play itself out conventionally… The second argument… sees
itself as Conrad saw his own narratives, local to a time and place,
neither unconditionally true or unqualifiedly certain… Since Conrad dates
imperialism, shows its contingency, records its illusions and
tremendous violence and waste, he permits his later readers to imagine
something other than an Africa carved up into dozens of European
colonies, even if, for his own part, he had little notion of what that
Africa might be.” Further, “by accentuating the discrepency between the
official ‘idea’ of empire and the remarkably disorienting actually of
Africa, Marlow unsettles the reader’s sense not only of the very idea
of empire, but of something more basic, reality itself.”

In the end, “Conrad’s tragic limitation is that even though he could
see clearly that on one level imperialism was essentially pure
dominance and land-grabbing, he could not then conclude that
imperialism had to end so that ‘natives’ could lead lives free from
European domination. As a creature of his time, Conrad could not grant
the natives their freedom, despite his severe critique of the
imperialism that enslaved them.” Said’s persuasive dialectic assumes,
from the outset, the premise of the causality of the
imperialist-dominated dark places.

Michael Gorra also returns us to the notion that the “darkness” is a
real place of real slaughter, not merely a metaphor for the state of
our psyches. “Conrad saw what would come,” he says. “He charts the
upheaval and restlessness produced by the world system, an incipient
global society, at the very moment it comes into being… It is a
system so powerful that it can either supersede governments or bend
them to its will.”

As Adam Hochschild uses Conrad’s text, “Whatever the rich levels of
meaning the book has as literature, for our purposes what is notable is
how precise and detailed a description it is of ‘the actual facts of
the case.'” Hochschild, in focusing on the historical horror of the
Congo, continues to oppose treating Conrad’s story as a sort of parable
in the way Coppola’s Vietnam film does, and no doubt he would be
equally disdainful of my notion of the parallels to it that I perceived
in Albania. Here, I think he’s wrong. Heart of Darkness is both a “record of experience,” as Conrad says, and a possible paradigm.

In recognizing again the reality Conrad urges us not to forget, there’s
no need to ignore the “rich levels of meaning” the book has, or the
importance of the experience in Conrad’s own life. The Congo
experience, which lasted barely six months and nearly killed him, was a
turning point in his life, and it had something to do with his becoming
a writer with something more than the then unfinished manuscript of his
first novel. As Conrad told his friend Edward Garnett years later,
before he went to Africa he had “not a thought in [my] head… I was a
perfect animal.”

A century and a half after Conrad’s birth, we are able to see slightly
better not only that the 20th century in literature begins with
Conrad’s insistently literal story, but also that the “dark places” are
real, and that they are to be found not just in our psyches but on the
earth itself.


Vancouver, Dec. 17, 2007.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

Posted in: ,

More from Stan Persky: