Michael Palmer

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Report of an Aesthetic Realism class on:
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
By Michael Palmer


     On May 9, 1975, Eli Siegel discussed one of the important literary works of the 20th century, Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad, who lived from 1857 to 1924.   In its suspense, its mystery, its powerful use of the English language, this story has affected people deeply and also made for some of the greatest controversy in the history of literature.   Critics have puzzled over its meaning and the essense of the main character, Mr. Kurtz. 

     Heart of Darkness is a story told by Charles Marlow to men on a cruising yawl on the Thames River, near London. Mr. Siegel saw Marlow as standing for Joseph Conrad himself. Marlow had been a riverboat pilot for a European Trading Company on what seems to be--although it is never named--the Congo River in Africa.  He describes the several stages of his journey, seeing Europeans, known as "Pilgrims" horribly using people in the Congo as slaves, putting them literally in chains and even killing some--all for the purpose of taking riches, mostly ivory, from the country.  Marlow hears about Mr. Kurtz from different people he meets during the journey.  Kurtz runs a trading station for the Company and has supplied more ivory than anyone else.   Meanwhile he is a person who has knowledge about art and culture, and is cared for very much by the Africans who are feared and treated with contempt by other Europeans. Marlow determines to meet Kurtz, and near the end of the story he does-- but Kurtz, very ill, soon dies uttering his mysterious final words: "The horror! the horror!" 

     The meaning of these words, and the character of Kurtz is what critics have debated.  As this lecture was being studied, Marion Fennell, a student in the class, told of a book of critiques of Heart of Darkness, edited by Harold Bloom, she had been reading; and she gave a summary on what various critics say of this novel: "Many see Kurtz as having given in to the worst instincts of man--he is referred to as an "abominable hero," "the hollow man," and "a Dantesque sort of devil." 

     But in this lecture, Mr. Siegel, using many passages from the story, showed something so different: that Kurtz, whom he called "one of the great characters in 20th century fiction," stands for the best thing in man.  Despite being in the midst of some of the most horrible aspects of European colonialism in Africa, Kurtz is after something very good.

     About the meaning of Heart of Darkness, Mr. Siegel said: 

"If you go deep into your heart, you will find something like landscape, something not seen.  What Kurtz wanted to do was to see that the world can be liked."
And about Kurtz's final words, "The horror! the horror!" Mr. Siegel said: 
"What this means is key to the work.   It is taken to mean, as [the critic H.L.] Mencken implied, that when you go deep you find nothing--no meaning.   [But] the attitude of Aesthetic Realism is that the individual mind has so far been horribly unjust to reality, including the reality that is not oneself--and that is the horror."
      "The large thing in this story," Mr. Siegel said, is that there have been objections to acquisition, possessiveness.   One [objection] is the kind that Thoreau and Emerson had--that [acquisition] is not fitting for man.  Conrad," Mr. Siegel continued, "is one of the persons, as was Galsworthy, who was against acquisition."  Then Mr. Siegel read this description from Heart of Darkness of what a particular group of Europeans was doing to the resources of the Congo.   Marlow says: 
"This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to secrecy....to tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."
"This is Conrad talking as a very Left person, Mr. Siegel said.  "Exploitation," he stated, "is the same as robbery."  And he pointed out that Kurtz doesn't get along with the acquisitive people, even as he works for the Company and is their top ivory-getter.   They mistrust Kurtz's interest in the people of the Congo, and the fact that they care for him.  "I cannot say that Conrad makes complete sense of this," Mr. Siegel observed, "but he's trying to deal with it."   Kurtz, he explained, was after aesthetics--the oneness of opposites.   He felt, "You've got to be entirely for yourself....But God you can't be mean!   You have to be interested in whatever lives." "This is the question of Aesthetic Realism," Mr. Siegel said, "how not to be a heel and also not be a misguided idealist; how you can be interested in yourself and what exists in a beautiful fashion.   The implication is that Kurtz was trying to do this in the Congo."  That Kurtz was interested in knowing the world, not acquiring it, can be seen in the words of a young Russian man whom Marlow meets as his boat draws near Kurtz's station.   The Russian says of Kurtz: 
"We talked of everything," he said, quite transported at the recollection.  "I forgot there was such a thing as sleep.  The night did not seem to last an hour.   Everything! Everything, of love, too."  "Ah, he talked to you of love!," I said, much amused.  "It isn't what you think," he cried almost passionately.  "It was general.  He made me see things--things."'
That phrase, "He made me see things," Mr. Siegel said, "is important."   "A love of things," he explained, "is equivalent to love of the world."  The Russian also says about Kurtz:  "Ah, I'll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry--his own, too....Oh, he enlarged my mind."

     When Marlow finally reaches the station, he sees around Kurtz's house, poles containing the remains of shrunken human skulls.   Critics have pointed to this, along with his getting of ivory, as evidence that Kurtz has "given in to evil."   But the native Africans revere Kurtz, and don't want him to leave, though he has become gravely ill.   And Marlow sees Kurtz is angry at the acquisitive people around him--the Africans working with the company manager.   Marlow says: 

"It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze."
Commented Mr. Siegel, 
"These men are made of bronze, not feeling anything--those given to acquisition.   It is a fight, it always has been, and Conrad was interested in it.  The desire in Kurtz [was] to see what the world was like, and also to have a good effect.   What is more important, to know the world honestly or to have it?  Mind is interested in knowing the world."
     As Kurtz is carried towards Marlow, there appears on the shore what Conrad describes as "a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman...savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent," with "a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow."     This woman, Mr. Siegel said, "represents the beauty of Africa."  She appears tragic and grief-stricken at the possibility of Kurtz's departure.  This is another way that Joseph Conrad has Kurtz standing for the oneness of something primitive and something cultured. 

      Marlow persuades Kurtz to leave the jungle for medical assistance, and during the trip back down the river, he and Kurtz talk for hours.  Kurtz tells of his plans for the future and of his "Intended," the girl he plans to marry.  But as the boat is stopped for repairs, Kurtz's condition worsens and he dies.  Marlow, who later came close to death himself from an illness, tells of the profound effect Kurtz's final moments had on him: 

"Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness."
"I don't think Conrad," commented Mr. Siegel "if there wasn't love in Kurtz, would talk of his having 'a glance piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.'   This is kindness, good will....Kurtz did have the acquisitive in him, but he tried to make some sense of his desire to be useful, his desire to be kind, and his ability."

     Eli Siegel's comprehension of the character of Kurtz was new--the way his seeing of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler was.  He said about Heart of Darkness:  "Conrad is not clear about Kurtz...but there is the feeling that Kurtz stands for all the possible goodness of the world, as Hedda Gabler does." 

     The final part of Heart of Darkness, Mr. Siegel read in its entirety, saying "it is as poetic a part of the book as any."  Marlow, back in London, speaks with Kurtz's cousin and a journalist, and learns that Kurtz also had enormous talents as a musician and as a political leader.   He then visits the woman Kurtz planned to marry, who is not named, but referred to throughout the book as "the Intended."

"Who was not his friend who had heard him speak once?" he asks her, and she replies:  "He drew men towards him by what was best in them." She looked at me with intensity.  "It is a gift of the great."
The way Kurtz is spoken about, Mr. Siegel pointed out, is not the way an author would describe someone he sees as having sold out.  "Mencken felt the hero of Conrad was dramatic nullity," Mr. Siegel explained, but the way this woman speaks "is not an advocate of nullity."  And he said, with great feeling, "You can almost tear up the floor when you see what people haven't seen in Kurtz."  The Intended says to Marlow: 
"You were with him--to the last?" "To the very end," I said shakily. "I heard his very last words"--I stopped in a fright. "Repeat them," she murmured in a heartbroken tone.  "I want--I want--something--something to--live with..." "Don't you understand, I loved him--I loved him--I loved him." I pulled myself together and spoke slowly.  "The last word he pronounced was--your name."  I heard a light sigh and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry of inconceivable triumph and unspeakable pain...."I knew it--I was sure!"...she knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping..."
Said Mr. Siegel: "So [Kurtz's last words] 'The horror' are changed into 'I love you." And I think the deep reason for this is in what Mr. Siegel said next: 
"What is the deepest and most secret thing in the world?  Does it speak well of the world? Aesthetic Realism says it is the oneness of opposites, and I am asking for honesty about that.  The large thing is to look at this story and be critical of everything related to it, including what I'm saying."
He then read what various critics have said about this story, including the English novelist, E.M. Forster, and the American critic, H.L. Mencken, who writes: 
"The exact point of the story of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness is that it is pointless.  Kurtz's death is as meaningless as his life.  The moral of such a story is a wholesale negation of all morals."
As a person who once felt the world was basically meaningless, and that evil seemed to be the strongest thing, I am glad to have had the chance to study what Mr. Siegel was showing in this class---that the world can be liked only by wanting to know it in its fulness--both what is good and what is bad, evil or ugly.  He concluded this great lecture by saying: 
"The chief thing in behalf of the world is that reality is a oneness of opposites and the oneness of opposites is the same as all value in the world--the same as beauty, the same as goodness, the same as kindness."
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