'I did not betray Mr Kurtz - it was ordered I should not betray him - it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.'
This book is literature: words made into art. If you enjoy sociology and want to use it to consider and weigh up factors of social relativism with it, that's fine, but vaguely annoying in a similar way as seeing someone using a good reproduction of Caravaggio's 'David and Goliath' to wipe up dog puke.
Conrad charts an interesting space here between Realism and Modernism, in that his style is realist, and he had commented on the close correlation between Marlow's journey and his own Congo experience, but I am convinced in the heavily ironic/allegoric underpinning of this plainly fantastic Western Canonical work. I believe Conrad left many clues and pointers: such as the lack of mention of 'Africa', the nested narrative focus between Marlow and the actual narrator of Conrad's tale, the way light and dark is used, and passages such as:
‘He [Kurtz] was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream…’
‘We live, as we dream – alone….’
It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice.
(And later, it’s only the Light of someone lighting a smoke that reveals otherwise…)
Not to mention some of the absurdities about the characters, maybe foremost regarding Kurtz and Kurtz’s harlequin, whose ‘…very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed…’ And he does just kind of disappear, with some last minuts supplies. You get the feeling that no-one else even saw him: that he was Marlow’s Tyler Durden… And it’s chiefly through this harlequin that Marlow learns about Kurtz, not from Kurtz himself, then tells a guy on a ship many years later, who then is telling us about him.
Heart of Darkness is an existential novella about the relationship between a self-conscious reason-able animal, and the unconscious reason-less environment it finds itself subject too. The Light of Reason and Civilization is a constructed one, an artificial creation that must lie to us to protect us and these bizarre faculties we have developed from the Horror of the Reality we are actually a part of, which recognizes not one wit of any of our high minded ideas.
Kurtz is the end result of a journey into ‘the interior’. The accountant, who first tells Marlow about Kurtz – ‘In the interior you will no doubt meet Mr Kurtz’ – is the end result of staying firmly fixed upon the exterior, ‘…a world of straight forward facts.’ Marlow’s very brief experience with Kurtz, ‘the remarkable man’ - involves a decision between remaining in the interior, or journeying out. There is no way out, however, so in choosing Marlow, Kurtz must die. Marlow survives only because he doesn’t take that final step into the darkness.
And he does betray Kurtz, in the very end. He chooses Humanity over Horror: Lies over Truth.
Allegory can be annoying, but when it is so lightly and subtley played with, and the characters are so human and fractured in their own ways, when you have such a pure realist dialogic kind of pulse to the action and the movement and the relationships - it is so touching when Marlow shares his shoes with Kurtz's (possibly imaginary) harlequin - then it's more than forgivable. It's art.