“What thing, most common of all, frightens men?
Ghosts, you say? White contours of the see-through kind floating through dim-lit corridors and lampless alleys? Nay, I think not.
Ghouls, you say? Phantoms from the past bound by rattling chains, clotted wounds and of unfulfilled vows, bemoaning? I do not concur.
Or death maybe? The ultimate, the penultimate. Would that, a response, appropriate enough be?
(Impeding all, exempting none
all good all bad it meets as one
A stab to the soul, as sharp as steel
the pang of end, ye’ll ever feel)
Nay, I say again even in knowledge, full, that death be feared by many in number. Fear of death is a petty fear, nonetheless.
‘tis but the unknown! Aye, the unknown, that frightens men, most common.”
I found Heart of Darkness to be a frightening novel.
I am not humoring the reader when I write that this seemingly puny book, a hundred and one pages thick and weighing less than the average smartphone, managed to scare (scar) the shit out of me, all for one reason- it laid bare, in my mind’s eye, the sheer gut-wrenching capacity that the unknown of our world holds for wreaking havoc.
And I think, it managed to scar (scare) me even more, for another bigger and indubitably eerie reason- the ‘unknown’ that was being laid bare in my mind’s eye was not external to me but within me. For, the unknown being described was human nature and its unpredictability.
Yes, my nature. Our nature. The nature of a being that has so advanced in its capacity to think, that it somehow fails to acknowledge the presence of darker, murkier dephts in its own mind; the dephts that remain unchartered, only so rules of society and morality may continue to be upheld.
A civilized society. The last line of our defence against the natural darkness, mayhap.
What then, is to happen of such depths when society is absent altogether? Or when its fruits are not too enticing for a man to continue to uphold its rules and regulations?
‘The horror! The horror!’, echoes from Kurtz, our antagonist, in his dying breath. Kurtz is a man for whom these dephts have not remained unchartered since years. He is a leader for others in an isolated part of the world where the semblance of society is not required to be maintained.
And it is in his last words that I found the phenomenon of human nature, in its darkest, best explained.
‘The horror! The horror!’
The book is presented to us, as a first person retelling of his experience to his crew, by Charles Marlow, a weathered steamboat captain who had been assigned with the task of relieving Mr. Kurtz of his duty as an Ivory trader in the forests of nineteenth century Congo. Cast into the African forests by his mission, Marlow encounters overwhelming absurdity in his surroundings that makes him question his own contentions of nature and men (in turn making the reader do the same).
Heart of Darkness is a novella. I say this only for the benefit of all who choose to heed the advise of a reader who has erred already in attempting to read it first as a full fledged novel. It ends on page one hundred and one and is supposed to be read as a story that is only a hundred odd pages long. Period.
I took two whole weeks to finish the damn thing.
And in that exhaustive process of trying to keep up with such a complex narrative for such a long time, I believe I failed miserably in grasping the essence of the style and plot in my first read. Then came one fine Sunday, when my folly struck me as quick and harsh as lightning.
And the second read, surprisingly, took a mere three hours despite the heavy Victorian era wordage.
As is the case with most existential narratives, Heart of Darkness does not have a moral to underline. It is simply an attempt to describe to the reader the irrationality of life. It is an attempt to scratch the surface of the darkness within us.
And it succeeds in doing so with such a distressing flow of gloom that the events narrated by Charles Marlow, the brutal deeds of Kurtz and the terror-inducing depiction of the Congo forests continue to haunt you for days after you are done reading.
A must read for all who can decipher its intent and wish to do so.