'... Inside like a kernel?: Literary sources of 'Heart of Darkness.'
Such echoes from childhood enhance the tale immeasurably. The comparison, far from disparaging one of the most sophisticated novels of the past century, demonstrates the sure touch of a true artist who knows how to bring home to his readers the intricacies, the spread and abundance of his vision. The comparison may readily be carried further. Marlow, at the outset concerned to remedy his current situation, is not unlike the Third Son (or other castaway) who sets out into the world to seek his fortune, encountering all manner of bizarre figures as they cross his path. As a rule, these volunteer advice, often ambiguous, frequently contradictory (whether within itself or at odds with the counsel of others) but while the Third Son listens, he habitually applies a grain of salt. He is, after all, to be the survivor, and to carry away the treasure as a matter of course. In the folk-tales, it is obvious that Our Man (however dubious a character himself) must overthrow an adversary of the blackest dye; in Heart of Darkness, the moral complexities at stake culminate in a transcendent combat, where the ordinary champion of commonplace decency can claim he has wrestled with a soul: by imputation, a heart of darkness. To endorse the allegoric quality of certain folk-tales, Marlow's story too sets us recognizably among the plain objects of everyday life (a bucket, a staff, or a candle, perhaps) but retains the same capacity to invest any one of them, suddenly, with extraordinary potential of undefined proportions. This is at all times Conrad's distinctive gift, but it is familiar from long ago. Perhaps we accept Marlow's impressions less sceptically because we were once habituated to similar demands on our unstinting belief.
The latent suggestion of childhood's miraculous stories can scarcely be accidental, nor its accompanying invocation of the world of dreams. Conrad links the two when, writing his Last Essays, in 'Geography and Some Explorers' he leads up to a story he told long before in A Personal Record. The experience which resulted in Heart of Darkness all began, he writes, in his boyhood's daydreams. (2) Fascinated by maps, he was particularly drawn to the unfilled expanse left vacant in the centre of Africa, and took a vow to travel there himself one day. As he ponders the urge of humankind to go out into the unknown, his remarks on geography adumbrate the stimulus it offered for a boy's imagination:
Like other sciences it has fought its way to truth through a long series of errors. It has suffered from the love of the marvellous, from our credulity, from rash and unwarrantable assumptions, from the play of unbridled fancy. (p. 2)
He expressly notes medieval cartography in its 'ponderous childish way' of illustrating unexplored territories with the weirdly inviting creatures of fantasy. Since his novel allots to Marlow the same boyhood idealistic compulsion to visit an uncharted realm, it can scarcely be coincidental that the tale remotely evokes not only the world of magic but also the world (and the literary genre) of dreams.
Indeed, the curving river with its little pockets of settlements scattered on the banks can be likened to the traditional hall flanked with many closed doors that Conrad employs on more than one occasion (in The Arrow of Gold, for example, at his lodging-house, or in Under Western Eyes at the residence of Madame de S--). Notably, in both these cases, the floor of the hall is paved in black and white, but Heart of Darkness already has its own explicit background in those counterbalanced colours. Each time, the hall with shut doors (like Alice in Wonderland's) greets youthful inexperience, of M. George in the one tale or of Miss Haldin in the other, and sets the scene for some episode that has the illogicality and yet the emotional coherence of a dream. Such a dream-sequence continues throughout a novel where even the predictable format of the Company's organization turns out in practice to be an exercise in absurdity. As in a dream, too, those commonplace objects, or remarks, or events that have been endowed with ulterior significance increasingly impress their potency on our consciousness. We, like Marlow, are unable to resist the growing unease they occasion, just as we must succumb to the growing charisma of Kurtz: lowering and impalpable, but massy. The threat lies in our inability to escape, and in its disproportionate, indistinct, but expanding compass. By degrees, Conrad introduces a nightmare quality into his tale. Just as his boyhood's dream had later been shattered, so Marlow is disillusioned once adult life offers the chance to fulfil his early romantic commitment. In a way, as children they reflect the naivety of Europe's rosy illusions; once disabused, they see the cataclysmic reality which followed on.
Conrad's overwhelming achievement as a supremely talented novelist becomes more clearly visible if his work is compared with its fellows in more adult dream-literature of the time. Two of these, stories by Kipling published in 1888 among the four that comprise The Phantom Rickshaw and Other Eerie Tales, concentrate purely on nightmares. 'The Phantom Rickshaw' and 'The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes' have a deeply disturbing atmosphere, a darkness lit by lurid gleams, not wholly unlike Conrad's novel. Moreover, they are successful works, especially in employing very few stage properties to achieve their horrific effects. But their end is in themselves, whereas Conrad's nightmare impressions stimulate a fuller understanding of the realities that underlie his tale. Still, very probably Conrad knew Kipling's pair, because one of the remaining two stories is 'The Man Who Would be King', ably demonstrated by David Stewart to share with Heart of Darkness both a regard for current colonial issues and a similar outlook. (3) In this story, by contrast, the dream-atmosphere arises largely from the initial delusions of the principal characters, rather than from the foreseeable tragedy which eventuates in grim realism. To compare the wholly nightmarish and fevered, we may look at another contemporary tale, Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. As in the two horror stories cited above, however, the topic is not 'of our time distinctly': the general subject that Conrad proposed for his forthcoming publication in Blackwood's Magazine. (4) All three predecessors focus simply on delineating some aspect of the human condition. Nevertheless, the strange kinship between Kurtz and Marlow despite their conflicting viewpoints provides an additional link with Jekyll and Hyde, as does its suggestion of outward respectability screening vice.
In the dichotomy Conrad's novel presents between the chimera of a godly and 'civilizing' mission that duped the European public, and the hidden juggernaut of rapacious exploitation in the Congo, undoubtedly a contrast between the idealism of childhood and adult disillusion forms a significant part of the design. If we link childhood with the dream-character of the book, we might well question what exactly were the 'boy's daydreams' described in Conrad's late essay on geography. The relevant passage seems to warrant analysis once again:
One day, putting my finger on a spot in the very middle of the then white heart of Africa, I declared that some day I would go there. My chums' chaffing was perfectly justifiable. I myself was ashamed of having been betrayed into mere vapouring. Nothing was further from my wildest hopes. Yet it is a fact that, about eighteen years afterwards, a wretched little stern-wheel steamboat I commanded lay moored to the bank of an African river.
[...] I was glad to be alone on deck, smoking the pipe of peace after an anxious day. The subdued thundering mutter of the Stanley Falls hung in the heavy night air of the last navigable reach of the Upper Congo. [...] I said to myself with awe, 'This is the very spot of my boyish boast.'
A great melancholy descended on me. Yes, this was the very spot. But there was no shadowy friend to stand by my side in the night of the enormous wilderness, no great haunting memory, but only the unholy recollection of a prosaic newspaper 'stunt' and the distasteful knowledge of the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration. What an end to the idealized realities of a boy's daydreams! [...] I have smoked a pipe of peace at midnight in the very heart of the African continent, and felt very lonely there. (pp. 16-17)
Who was the 'shadowy friend' whom he had expected to stand beside him, and who had left a 'great haunting memory'? Since immediately prior to this passage Conrad has been speaking of David Livingstone, 'the most venerated perhaps of all the objects of my early geographical enthusiasm', we may suppose he means this pioneer of 'human conscience and geographical exploration'. That is the view held by the perceptive Andrea White: 'Here he notes the contrast between his veneration for Livingstone [...] and his disgust at Stanley's "newspaper stunt" that has cheapened and diminished the great man's intents'. (5) Ian Watt agrees, though in more general terms: 'There now stood at his side, "no great haunting memory", such as the explorers of the past would have left, but the corruption of that ideal by Stanley.' (6) But then, since late in life these explorers were still warm in his memory, Livingstone or any other of them could have stood beside him in 1890; what prevented it? Instead, one such lasting remembrance is replaced by a very different recollection, according to the text. Since the essay earlier explained that as a child, 'in the world of [...] imagination which I was entering it was [explorers] and not the characters of famous fiction who were my first friends' (p. 15), so that all alike appealed through his books, we have only to look back exactly eighteen years to find a potential friend who receives never a mention in the essay, but resides in the pages of How I Found Livingstone, published in 1872. It was Stanley, the hero of boyhood's fantasizing, who had left both the 'great haunting memory' and the 'unholy recollection'. The time-span in the essay is significant, because in A Personal Record Conrad assigns his boyhood's vow (taken alone, in that account) to 1868, saying it was 'after a quarter of a century or so' that he reached the spot where, in the passage above, he places the final realization: of course, that was Stanley Falls. There his own recent experience forced him to confront actuality, the personage soon to be revealed to the world. No wonder the figment and the reality intermingled as Heart of Darkness eventuated, with its subtly shifting ambiguities. Above, Conrad gives the necessary clues for those who would seek the novel through its author's own African experience. From Felix Driver (7) and others we can learn in full the lapse Stanley gradually suffered in popular esteem. It gathered impetus once the public heard of the Belgians' activities in the Congo Free State following Stanley's exploration on their behalf. Yet by contrast, Jacques Darras senses the importance of fiction in Conrad's vision, intuitively likening Marlow to an Alice in Wonderland, 'but a grown-up Alice visiting a land of horrors'. (8) He perceives topsy-turviness in the novel as well, opening his commentary on the influence of medieval romance in Conrad's tale with Don Quixote; yet even he compares Marlow's 'quest' to a Livingstone seeking Stanley (p. 66).
Of course, it is now well recognized that Stanley has some connection with the shaping of Heart of Darkness, so much so that in the introduction to his Penguin edition (1995) Robert Hampson suggests that Stanley's In Darkest Africa constitutes an 'intertext' for Conrad's tale (p. xvi). After all, it tells the story of Stanley's expedition up the Congo, completed a month or so before Conrad himself arrived there. Undoubtedly, that account does have echoes in Heart of Darkness: its atmosphere is sombre and ominous, as privation and suffering reduce the numbers of the little party. The high grass is 'suffocating'; 'the sun was hidden by the dark portents of storms'; they are confronted by a 'black wall of forest'. (9) Fever, attacks by natives, or sheer starvation beset them, and nothing worries a grimly resolute Stanley more than the lack of self-restraint that takes its toll, and the general unreliability of his dwindling band as he leads them on in danger and doubt through the almost impenetrable jungle. Until the survivors reach Emin Pasha (a man of many accomplishments but questionable integrity) the story is itself a sort of nightmare, where men go forwards because they cannot go back.
However, despite the unflinching determination that brought Stanley to his goal, his ruthlessness is certainly apparent; besides, his reputation at home was already somewhat tarnished. Here appears no boyhood's hero, to revive a maturer Conrad's memories. But from How I Found Livingstone, what a paladin emerges! Not, regrettably, in the venerable, benign, frail missionary, but in the youthful knighterrant who spurs devotedly to his rescue (funded by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald), pursuing his secret mission as a man inspired throughout a rip-roaring and genuinely gripping narrative. It reads well, in its practised way: no wonder if on one Polish teenager it made such an impression as could not be obliterated despite the passage of years. (10)
Not just pure inference supports this conclusion. The internal evidence is overwhelming, and far exceeds the common experience of early travellers only to be expected. Those who doubt this will find on investigation that what follows is the merest selection of verbal, structural, or atmospheric concurrences between the texts of How I Found Livingstone and Heart of Darkness. In terms of the novel's dual ambivalence, what is chiefly interesting is that Stanley generally reminds us of Marlow, but occasionally of Kurtz, while even Livingstone can recall Kurtz at certain times. For example, when Stanley disembarked at his starting-point, Zanzibar, he found that the locals by no means shared his veneration for the missionary explorer. The British Consul and Resident in Zanzibar, a former companion of Livingstone's, remarked: 'He keeps neither notes nor journals; it is very seldom he takes observations [...]. He should come home, and let a younger man take his place' (p. 15). At this juncture Stanley was unable to dispute the asseveration, although he contested it later, but Kurtz produces only a single document for all his time with the Company, whose representative, calling on Marlow, finds it unacceptable. We know, too, that at least one young agent at the Central Station has plans to appropriate Kurtz's power in the area by stepping into his shoes.
Like Kurtz, Livingstone enjoyed his solitude. Indeed, the Resident also alleged that given the opportunity, he would 'put a hundred miles of swamp' between himself and any colleague. 'I have seen him in hot water with fellows so often', the Consul remarks, 'and that is principally the reason, I think, he hates to have anyone with him' (p. 15). On the steamboat Marlow involuntarily overhears the manager of Central Station tell the brickmaker that Kurtz has sacked the assistant sent him, writing brusquely: 'I had rather be alone than have the kind of men you can dispose of with me' (p. 56).
Again, Kurtz displays an equivalent reluctance to return. Marlow learns from the same conversation that on the depletion of his stores Kurtz had accompanied his clerk with a consignment of ivory for miles down-river, when suddenly he returned. Musing over this information, Marlow reveals an early view of Kurtz that mirrors Conrad's of Livingstone, not Stanley's. Marlow foreshadows the late essay when he pictures
the lone white man turning his back suddenly on the headquarters, on relief, on thoughts of home--perhaps; setting his face towards the depths of the wilderness, towards his empty and desolate station. I did not know the motive. Perhaps he was just simply a fine fellow who stuck to his work for its own sake. (p. 57)
They say Kurtz is ill, just as Livingstone was rumoured to be, and indeed at length proved: partly, his Journals show, because he was out of supplies. Stanley's arrival with replenishments can have achieved only a temporary improvement, so in his geography essay Conrad is echoing Marlow's thoughts when he combines the circumstances, producing a similar ambience when he describes 'an old man [...] pacing wearily at the head of a few black followers [...] towards the dark native hut on the Congo headwaters in which he died, clinging in his very last hour to his heart's unappeased desire for the sources of the Nile' (p. 16). Later, the essay refers to this 'fatal delusion' that had him 'refusing to go home any more'. But Marlow as yet has no sure knowledge of Kurtz's delusions.
Just as he maintains his private vision of Kurtz despite malicious comments, so Stanley held undeviatingly to his own view of the man he sought. 'Livingstone's was a character that I venerated, that called forth all my enthusiasm, that evoked nothing but sincerest admiration', he records (p. 429). As already stated, Conrad employs both 'venerated' and 'enthusiasm' to express his own feelings late in life. Stanley, for his part, took little notice of the Resident's continued criticism. On inquiring whether Livingstone were modest about his achievements, he was told: 'Oh, he knows the value of his own discoveries; no man better. He is not quite an angel' (p. 15). Kurtz also is to appear 'not quite an angel'; although Marlow, like Stanley, remains 'loyal [...] to the last' (p. 114). Stanley neatly dismissed the innuendos of the Resident and others by prefacing his account with a comprehensive rebuke: 'The good Europeans of Zanzibar, in the absence of legitimate matter, were never slow to avail themselves of the least bit of scandal, in order to make the evenings pleasant and agreeable' (p. 14). Already he reminds us of what Marlow observes among the Company agents at the Central Station; already he is swift in Livingstone's defence.
Towards the close of his story, Stanley takes up his theme once more: 'Can you wonder that I like this man, whose face is the reflex of his nature, whose heart is essentially all goodness, whose aims are so high' (p. 560; my italics). At this point, we begin to find Livingstone contrasted with the Kurtz who emerges by the end of the tale. Kurtz, as already noted from his Intended's eulogy to Marlow, had had high aims: 'Of all his promise, and of all his greatness, of his generous mind, of his noble heart, nothing remains. [...] You know what vast plans he had' (p. 121). There she echoes the words, if not the ideas, of Kurtz ('I had immense plans' (p. 106)) but on his dying face Marlow has seen only pride, power, terror, and despair. Yet even that last has its counterpoise in Livingstone, because we learn from Stanley, more than once, that for the missionary explorer despair was 'out of the question': as indeed he himself writes in the thanks to James Gordon Bennett that Stanley includes with his narrative for good measure (p. 617).
The book's general connections with Heart of Darkness are not far to seek. Astonished at the ill-feeling his proposed rescue had generated, Stanley was led to an interesting conclusion:
While I was travelling in Africa, upon an errand that I supposed, in my innocence, would have commended itself to most Christians, there were people praying for my failure. It is wonderful what little difference exists between civilization and barbarism-what a thin line divides some white men from negro savages. (p. 650)
Much the same reflection occurs at times to Marlow, who, however, declines the 'howl and a dance' Stanley seems to have indulged in one night before his triumphant return to the coast, 'a wild dance altogether' he reminisces (p. 620). But on arrival Stanley had noted something that stands in his favour and perhaps years later influenced the equivocal attitudes of Heart of Darkness:
To a white stranger about penetrating Africa, it is a most interesting walk through the negro quarters. [...] For here he begins to learn the necessity of admitting that negroes are men, like himself, though of a different colour; that they have [...] tastes and feelings, in common with all human nature. (p. 9)
Marlow is similarly impressed by his walk through the grove of dying natives, but here we can see Conrad's genius for artistic economy, as in the one small scene he scores Stanley's point by inference with unforgettably moving detail, while at the same time demonstrating the devastation caused by these same white intruders, who so readily overstepped the thin line between civilization and barbarism.
Stanley's narrative continues, however, cheerfully throughout; those who feel the growing unease of the doctor's sinister farewell to Marlow ('Du calme, du calme' and then not 'Au revoir' but 'Adieu') and of warnings from others who know the tropics will be heartened by Stanley's stalwart resistance. Outspoken, he expressed 'wonder at the apathy and inertness [...] of men embued with the progressive and stirring instincts of the white people, who yet allow themselves to dwindle into pallid phantoms of their kind, into hypochondriacal invalids, into hopeless believers in the deadliness of the climate' (p. 17). The American Consul took him up on his opinions: 'It is all very well for you to talk about energy and all that kind of thing, but I assure you that a residence of four or five years [...] would make you feel that it was a hopeless task to resist the example by which the most energetic spirits are subdued, and to which they must submit in time' (p. 17). The basic fatalism recalls the Swedish captain's words to Marlow of the man who hanged himself: 'The sun too much for him, or the country perhaps' (p. 32). As for Stanley, he never waited to learn. Slicing like some Alexander through the tentacles of delays, local decorum, incompetence, shortage of necessities, and general disorderliness that seemed likely to impede his departure, he briskly set out. He was therefore probably entitled to his view on reaching the mainland that the caravan dispatched a hundred days earlier for Livingstone's relief by the British Resident, but still lingering on the coast, was being delayed by rather more than negligence. He hints broadly (p. 63) at precisely the sort of thing that Marlow ponders at the Central Station, regarding the wreck of his steamer and waiting (contrary to Conrad's own experience) the equivalent period of three months on the promised materials for repair. The steamer, after all, is bound for the relief of Kurtz.
Obviously, in this Stanley compares with Marlow by his 'devotion to efficiency' (p. 20). Marlow claims that that is the saving factor, while Stanley by implication praises just that quality in Livingstone, in terms that would have appealed to Conrad, Marlow, and the listeners on board the Nellie between whom was the bond of the sea. 'The missionary, to be successful, must know his duties as well as a thorough sailor must know how to reef, hand, and steer' (p. 235), as Stanley had observed while in the navy. He pursues the point later: 'It is a principle with Livingstone to do well what he undertakes to do' (p. 438). That is the antithesis of the 'unsound method' attributed to Kurtz (p. 101), and moreover it demonstrates a connection between the outlooks of Livingstone and Stanley, a link which the latter is at some pains to establish throughout his account. From what Stanley tells us, we are to understand that he and Livingstone were twin souls, missionary and man of mission bound together by the same ideals, fired by the same purposes, and united in endeavour. Indeed, evidence to support that impression accrues throughout the report of a hair-raising journey.
Readers may see for themselves, almost with incredulity, how Stanley found his way to the elusive white man through constant hardship, frequent danger, recurring sickness, threats from local warlords, and other apparently insuperable problems, all straightforwardly reported, and may share his jubilation on reaching his goal, quite genuinely (Livingstone's Journal attests it) in the nick of time. 'Livingstone--true, noble Christian, generous-hearted, frank man--acted like a hero, invited me to his house, said he was glad to see me, and got well on purpose to prove the truth of his statement "You have brought new life unto me"' (p. 560).
He records, indeed, as strange an admiration for Livingstone as Marlow experiences for Kurtz. He quotes from his diary to show the intensity of his emotions:
March 13th. The last day of my stay with Livingstone has come and gone, and the last night we shall be together is present, and I cannot evade the morrow! I feel as though I would rebel against the fate which drives me away from him. [...] My days seem to have been spent in an Elysian field; otherwise, why should I so keenly regret the near approach of the parting hour? [...] the farewell may be for ever! FOR EVER? And 'FOR EVER' echo the reverberations of a woful whisper.
I have noted down all he has said tonight; but the reader shall not share it with me. It is mine! (p. 623)
This, it must be admitted, is devotion of an unusual order. Yet Livingstone, for all he had been released from malnutrition and sickness, is noticeably much quieter in his comments about Stanley in his Journal:
[28th October 1871] I am not of a demonstrative turn; as cold, indeed, as we islanders are usually reputed to be, but this disinterested kindness of Mr Bennett, so nobly carried into effect by Mr Stanley, was simply overwhelming. I really do feel extremely grateful, and at the same time I am a little ashamed at not being more worthy of the generosity. Mr Stanley has done his part with untiring energy; good judgment in the teeth of very serious obstacles. (11)
His reserve is more to be remarked than his conventional reactions. There is no hint here or in the ensuing entries of any especial regard from the older man for the younger; after noting their joint exploration, he writes simply, '14th March.--Mr. Stanley leaves.' On this evidence, with hindsight we may begin to suspect that Livingstone (although something of a prickly personality himself, with whom Conrad deals very gently) had in fact seen rather more clearly into Stanley's character than had the rest of the world at that time. Returning to Stanley's effusion above, we now wonder whether it were only a laboured attempt to convey popularly acceptable sentiments by a man devoid of feeling. The two conflicting interpretations open to us suggest a quandary that might well have occasioned Conrad's own struggle for a resolution, renewed during Heart of Darkness. Of course, what is beyond question is that Stanley treasured and safely delivered the papers entrusted to him, as Marlow in turn cares for Kurtz's; while back in Europe, Stanley, too, defended the name of the man he had gone to find, to the best of his ability. His as well was a voice that could not be silenced. But we may alternatively consider that the documents were Stanley's only hard evidence of success, and that he built his subsequent career on the Livingstone expedition.
Marlow is provided with no such motive, selflessly committed as once Conrad had supposed his boyhood's hero to be. Yet his Stanley was ultimately rejected, though perhaps not altogether by 1899. Still, we who remember in general Stanley's professions of a wholehearted esteem for Livingstone most cordially reciprocated may now associate him with the man who, as the visiting journalist divulged to Marlow, 'could get himself to believe anything--anything' (p. 116). Certainly, Stanley shared with Kurtz the strange distinction of being 'a journalist who could paint'. Those qualifications can scarcely have recommended Kurtz to a responsible administrative position in a commercial enterprise, yet, to our recurrent surprise, so Marlow had thought of him, having seen his portrait of the Intended and brushing off professional criticism of his writing. It is almost as though Conrad had spoken the line, not Marlow. For Stanley could certainly write, and into the bargain employ a pencil: the advertisement for How I Found Livingstone tells us that the illustrations are based on sketches by the author.
One of them deserves attention. It depicts a porter carrying Livingstone's precious papers across a river on the return trip, while Stanley himself stands on the bank, revolver in hand. The caption reads: 'Look out! You drop that box--I'll shoot you.' It recalls, from much earlier in the tale, a glimpse of the personality who led his porters on their long trek: 'One of my pagazis, wearied and sick, fell, and never rose again. The last of the caravan passed him before he died. Fortunately so, otherwise we must have committed the barbarism of leaving him unburied, whilst knowing he was dead' (p. 186). That description of barbarism prompts a recollection that when reporting disturbances Stanley normally specifies which whip he used to quell them. Little wonder that Conrad pours his scalding contempt so freely on Europe's utterly heartless assumptions of God-given superiority. In that respect we can perceive, even in Stanley's account, an individual who might have recommended himself to the manager of the Central Station, declaring: 'Men who come out here should have no entrails' (p. 42). A distant allusion of Conrad's to the Biblical 'bowels of mercies'? Superficially the manager's words refer to dysentery or similar tropical afflictions, but they also comprise sensitivity (the downfall of Marlow and his creator); besides, the symbolism is there to remind us of any who are 'hollow at the core'. But presumably the rare glimpses of his hero's pitiless attitude escaped the notice of the young Pole (just as children pass with indifference over frightful violence in their fairy stories) in the general fervour Stanley stirs for the purposes of his narrative.
The atmosphere Stanley contrives, 'painting' his story with professional skill, must inevitably have made a lasting impression on an adolescent idealist. The impression engendered is of great forests and perpetually sunlit plains: proper to a mighty continent, and a fitting stage for the two redoubtable figures on whom all attention is concentrated, so that they reach epic proportions. When read uncritically, this book has ineluctible allure in the old Imperial tradition of great-hearted derring-do.
Among incidental parallels with Heart of Darkness, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Stanley actually employs the term 'harlequin' for the ambiguously behaved Unyamwezi vizier of a district sultan both formidable and devious (pp. 189-90), while some features of the Russian's personality may be observed in one John William Shaw, discharged Third Mate: an unruly member of Stanley's party who on one occasion attempted to shoot him. That is Stanley's version; the Russian's is that Kurtz was the man who resorted to firearms to clinch an argument. But finally, there is one passage in Stanley's account that cannot be directly related to Heart of Darkness and yet seems to have an echo in what Marlow is never quite able to say, while aboard the Nellie a listener waited 'on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue' (p. 50) to this instance of 'Marlow's inconclusive experiences' (p. 21). Stanley for once paused to look back on a past of many vicissitudes:
Reminiscences of yet a young life's battles and hard struggles came surging into the mind in quick succession; events of boyhood, of youth, and manhood; perils, travels, scenes, joys, and sorrows; loves and hates; friendships and indifferences. My mind followed the various and rapid transition of my life's passages; it drew the lengthy, erratic, sinuous lines of travel my footsteps had passed over. If I had drawn them on the sandy floor, what enigmatical problems they had been to those around me, and what plain, readable, intelligent histories they had been to me! (p. 273)
It is hard to refrain from supplying the familiar symbolism of Heart of Darkness to this extract. There are the footsteps that recall a novel where feet and footwear recur continually; there the sinuous curves, as of the river; there the 'sandy floor' to parallel the dust of mortal existence Conrad so often uses. Not improbably the passage discloses something of what Marlow is striving for when he exclaims: 'It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning - its subtle and penetrating essence' (p. 50). Here, quite possibly he is in part expressing the emotion of the author as he wrote. When we are able to see in Heart of Darkness the influence of How I Found Livingstone, we may at least better understand Conrad's own Congo experience: as the 'great haunting memory' of boyhood's phantom hero wrestled with his appalled adult appraisal of the devastation facilitated by the real adventurer.
Nevertheless, in consideration we need to be aware that this antithesis presumably found its way into the novel as an externalization or illustration of something more deeply felt, more widely applicable. Arriving in Africa, Conrad was no youthful innocent but a man of thirty-three, travelled, versed in varieties of human nature, and relatively well read. He was also a man of principle ripened in experience: orphaned by the premature death of his parents for their beliefs, bred to the sea where men worked together of necessity, subject to a disciplined governance, where to resist beyond a certain point was to invite retribution brutal and expeditious (by no means wholly unlike Stanley's) for the sake of the common endeavour. Such men were conscious of serving an end greater than themselves, none more than the captain, who was responsible to the ship, the men, the owners, and the voyage. The concept he upheld was as real to him as the material objects around him; if he were Conrad he could articulate it and mediate on its implications. It happened that his first venture inland challenged him with the subversion of all the principles he lived by, as his novel's framework on the Nellie reminds us. The story, Marlow's Buddhist appearance notwithstanding, draws on Zoroastrianism in its adherence to Law, Method, System, with Uprightness and Truth corresponding to the Light that battles with Darkness. That darkness finds representation in the crass attitude of puerile opportunism (for the childishness in this novel, like everything else, cuts two ways) where unbridled self-aggrandisement frustrated any intelligent ultimate purpose, and outraged the justly considering Master Mariner by its fragmentation. Chaos resulted: never to be glimpsed in entirety, only through accruing incidents. Trying to expound his torment in adjustment, Marlow says:
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, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams. (p. 50)
It sounds very like the universal experience of achieving maturity through a lesser or greater confrontation with the nightmares that underlie everyday life. Shock after shock awaited Marlow and his creator before him. Had they expected to enter a land of Misrule, like seasoned officers they could have faced it squarely without further ado. But like us all, they were blinkered by idealism still intact: romantic, too, in harbouring a boyhood's vow its originator had interwoven with a 'great haunting memory'. The sensitive critic Jean-Aubry, noting that Conrad's preparations to depart for the Congo coincided with the world's to welcome Stanley home, writes: 'This atmosphere of adventure and discovery revived Conrad's childish enthusiasms and kindled the imagination of the young Pole, in whom the spirit of a novelist was just beginning to awake.' (12)
In his conflicting reactions to Stanley Conrad had a novel. But he was not yet a novelist, nor practised in finding outlet for turbulent feelings in fictional configurations. His first book, Almayer's Folly, was awaiting completion before appearing in 1895; only after three more major publications did he turn, in 1898, to this 'subject [...] of our time'. It may be that to crystallize the surging contradictions of this particular nightmare he needed the stimulus of another novel. Whatever the cause, a very considerable influence on the shaping of Heart of Darkness can be seen not so much in Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde as in its successor of 1889, The Master of Ballantrae, (13) more often compared with The Secret Sharer. The verbal similarities between the novels are as significant as those between Stanley's text and Conrad's, if fewer, while Stevenson's plot in conclusion bears a remarkable likeness to the format Conrad adapted from life.
The story tells of the fascination exerted by the ill-will of the Master of Ballantrae, James Durie, over his younger brother Henry. James, heir to Lord Durrisdeer, is his father's favourite, since he is blest in accomplishments, charm, and social graces (for all he proves a thorough ne'er-do-well), while his brother has little to recommend him at first sight. The contrast is heavily underscored because the narrative comes chiefly from the faithful steward of the house, Ephraim Mackellar, a staunch supporter of the quiet, self-disciplined Henry. In 1745 James follows Prince Charles Edward to Culloden, after which he is missing, presumed dead. This proves to be the first of three successive reports of his death. The intervals between are spent by those at home in mending matters (for Henry, painstaking and thorough, takes over the estate and marries the heiress Alison, originally James's destined bride) and by the Master in flamboyant adventures abroad, whence he arrives unscathed to demand such funds as greatly reduce the family fortunes. His occasional visits to Ballantrae he employs in delicately torturing Henry, and ultimately, after the death of his fond father, the whole establishment, who are ready enough to pay him for his absence but at length themselves are driven abroad to escape him. Needless to say, they do not.
At this juncture a clear parallel with the plot of Heart of Darkness emerges. Following a lengthy embranglement between the principal characters in New York, the Master departs for the hinterland with the only remaining friend from his travels, a Hindu servant, to find a pirate hoard buried long ago. Henry, by this time half-crazed from his brother's incessant psychological persecution, becomes the pursuer. His little party travels up-river to the wilderness, seeking someone akin yet alienated who commands a hidden (and illicit) treasure. After hardships and danger from local tribes they learn from some desperadoes, Ballantrae's recent associates, that he is again believed dead. Henry refuses to credit the account and sure enough, arrived at the grave they find the Hindu resuscitating the supposed corpse. It stirs only momentarily, but in that instant Henry expires of shock, and his brother succumbs at once thereafter.
So ends what is now regarded largely as a thriller for teenagers, laced with the uncanny for good measure, but was a work taken seriously in its day, which undoubtedly impresses with the gathering disquietude of its atmosphere as the enthralment of the younger brother to the older increases perceptibly and convincingly. We seem to be given a hint that Ballantrae came to Conrad's mind in composing the account of his night at Stanley Falls for Last Essays, because he twice uses the term 'pipe of peace'. That expression, unnoticed as slang, derives from the customs of North American Indians, as Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable confirms. Quite possibly Conrad's thoughts as he wrote had reverted momentarily to Stevenson's. For their two works, so very different in quality, nevertheless take up certain points from a comparable angle.
It would seem well worth while to study this text in some detail, partly to understand how far Conrad exceeds Stevenson in artistry, and partly to see whether further answers can be found to some of the questions that still hang over a reading of Heart of Darkness. For example, as Kurtz becomes progressively denigrated, why does the worth of Marlow not shine forth more visibly? He is, after all, the Champion who faces Kurtz at the crisis, as soul strives against soul. Some answer has been attempted in my comparison with folk-tales, for the hero who slays the dragon is rarely more than a Third Son with a heart of gold but no particular aptitudes, and is far more often a typical veteran soldier or run-of-the-mill peasant, simply a representative of common humanity. Stevenson does give a full answer, inasmuch as Henry resolutely continues to uphold his duty of service to all his family obligations, despite his brother's persistence in animosity; further, like Marlow, he evinces a 'devotion to efficiency' that allows him to succeed with any responsibility he undertakes. An ordinary enough laird's son, he is staunch and enduring, as opposed to James, who will not trouble himself to maintain successes achieved largely through momentary displays of brilliance.
However, he is certainly brilliant, and in this he supplies an express reminder of Heart of Darkness. One of those whose memoirs eke out Mackellar's narrative, a Colonel Burke who, many years a companion of the Master, also lives on his wits and charm, describes him in words exceedingly familiar by their tenor: 'Ballantrae is a gentleman of the most eminent natural abilities, and a man that I admire, and that I revere, to the very ground he treads on' (p. 115). Later in the same chapter he enlarges on the point: 'The Master is a man whose genius I admire beyond expression' (p. 125). Both remarks recall that 'universal genius' Mr Kurtz. Not impossibly, Marlow's failure to discover the latter's profession among all his early enterprises stems from Ballantrae, by turns a distinguished soldier, courtier, buccaneer, and traveller: for Conrad, perhaps, echoing Stanley's own polyglot career in youth. Ballantrae's exertions when required, moreover, as in his gruelling march through dangerous territory to escape the pirates, may have recalled Stanley's expeditions. Further, Ballantrae's cynical indifference to all honours and to all honour unless for immediate profit may again have struck Conrad. Returned from the Congo, he was able to observe Stanley's continuing fortunes, including election to Parliament in 1895; to deduce, against all youthful beliefs, that Stanley was gradually abandoning ideals of honourable service in the cause of scientific and moral enlightenment (if in truth he had ever harboured them) while voicing its terms, so the cause might instead serve his own ends. No wonder, then, if Conrad were impressed by one of Stevenson's illuminating probes into human nature, when at the close of Chapter 3 he reveals Ballantrae's means of persuasion: 'It is one of the worst things of sentiment, that the voice grows to be more important than the words, and the speaker than that which is spoken' (p. 157). For of course Kurtz, who on the platform 'electrified large meetings' (p. 116), to a narrating Marlow 'presented himself as a voice' (p. 79). Marlow reflects in that same passage after the attack on the steamboat: 'I had never imagined him as doing, you know, but as discoursing.' Equally, Mackellar, as he voyages unwillingly across the Atlantic with Ballantrae in Chapter 9, observes that the man seems to crave an audience: any audience, so he can go on speaking:
He loved the note of his own tongue. [...] I have seen him driven, when I proved recalcitrant, to long discourses with the skipper; and this, although the man plainly testified his weariness, fiddling miserably with both hand and foot, and replying only with a grunt.
(p. 264; my italics)
Possibly this has something to say of Kurtz's prolonged discussions with the Russian: we recall that he has 'no restraint'. In any case, it reflects on those who prefer 'discourse' to dedication and to well-earned distinction.
It may well be that Ballantrae's character as a thorough adventurer gives additional force to some of Marlow's unobtrusive comments about his visit to the Intended. Initially, Ballantrae is destined to no more than his inheritance at home augmented by marriage to his wealthy kinswoman Alison. Kurtz, by his proposal, seems to have fostered similar plans, because 'he wasn't rich enough or something' (p. 120) to satisfy his Intended's family; moreover, during the call to a well-appointed apartment Marlow reflects that 'he had given me some reason to infer that it was his impatience of comparative poverty that drove him out there'. The remarks reveal him, too, as a fortune-hunter early and late, in both meanings of the term. Only in time did opportunity open wider prospects to him, as to Stanley and Ballantrae. When at last Mackellar in New York attempts to bribe Ballantrae to return to Europe, the refusal specifies James's 'inordinate ambition' (p. 303), while to Kurtz, man of 'vast plans', came on his sickbed 'images of wealth and fame revolving obsequiously round his unextinguishable gift of noble and lofty expression' (p. 110). For both in finality the result is to precipitate the despair that Livingstone eschewed. When, in the wilderness, Ballantrae disputes for leadership with the gang of ruffians, he turns at one point from them lest they see on his face 'the beginnings of despair' (p. 338), while it is 'hopeless despair' (p. 112), we recall, that at the end is displayed on the face of Kurtz.
Patently the root cause is the same. For we find it, again on the Atlantic crossing, in Stevenson's most significant contribution to Heart of Darkness. Mackellar, trying to define his own feelings towards Ballantrae, records:
Sometimes my gorge rose against him as though he were deformed--and sometimes I would draw away as though from something partly spectral. I had moments when I thought of him as a man of pasteboard--as though, if one should strike smartly through the buckram of his countenance, there would be found a mere vacuity within. This horror [...] vastly increased my detestation of his neighbourhood. (pp. 263-64)
That very closely resembles Marlow's description of the 'papier-mache Mephistopheles' (p. 48), interestingly enough applied in the first instance to the brickmaker, since it appears to him that 'if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe'. Pasteboard, buckram, and papier-mache are of a kind in this context, but Conrad's choice, laminated as it is, evokes the rotten linen swathings of a mummy: hence he informs his metaphor with the taint of corruption and death. Moreover, although by using the word 'deformed' Stevenson hints at Shakespeare's Richard III (who descants on his own deformity) and then labours for the other-worldly in his 'spectral', Conrad sweeps both into one, as 'Mephistopheles' recalls that other Marlowe's Faustus. Play, repugnance, and the selling of souls to diabolical agencies all combine to superb artistic effect: to strike a chord that will reverberate later as Kurtz, too, proves 'hollow at the core'. The comparison demonstrates Conrad's enhanced comprehension in concept, his strength and grace of expression. To be sure, Stevenson is tied to the narrative of down-to-earth Mackellar, but Conrad also is constrained by Marlow's cast of mind.
There remains another remark, inconspicuous in itself, that seems to have worked powerfully on Conrad's awareness, and led him towards his concluding pages, where he utterly transforms something that arises naturally during Stevenson's tale. In the last chapter of Ballantrae, during the weary search through the dark forests of the wilds, Henry's mind fails him increasingly, so responsibility for sending news home falls on Mackellar. He writes to the present Lady Durrisdeer, Alison, originally promised (and truly devoted) to Ballantrae: 'What to tell my lady and in what words, and how far to be false and how far cruel, was a thing that kept me often from my slumber' (pp. 320-21). I use italics, because the words bring all too clearly to mind a similar problem for Marlow as eventually he calls on Kurtz's Intended. Forced to a lie in response to her question, he too implies that his dereliction of uprightness has cost much sleep. He leaves his reason (of an alternative 'too dark altogether') almost as a plea to his hearers on the Nellie.
Marlow's struggle between heartfelt admiration and inevitable condemnation is never more apparent than in his discussion with the Intended, which through retrospect brings his tale to culmination. Implicit in it is a matter that Stevenson deals with directly; although Conrad in his turn had no mind for definitive pronouncement, even if it had been in Marlow's nature to utter what Mackellar's forthrightness could typically produce once challenged. But perhaps a perception not dissimilar is indicated in his novel: suggested if not fully limned for appreciation. As in Chapter 8 the Master leaves Durrisdeer for the last time,
'Ah! Mackellar,' said he, 'do you think I have never a regret?'
'I do not think you could be so bad a man,' said I, 'if you had not all the machinery to be a good one.'
'No, not all,' says he: 'not all. You are there in error. The malady of not wanting, my evangelist.' But methought he sighed as he mounted again into the chaise. (p. 259)
The whole of this last vital instance from The Master of Ballantrae prompts an additional answer to queries into Kurtz's continuing magnetism: queries that hover imperceptibly over efforts to achieve a finer comprehension of Heart of Darkness. For even the detail here is telling: just as Ballantrae throws at Mackellar the sardonic appellation of 'my evangelist' (probably, despite the glance at his Puritan creed, in the sense of 'chronicler') so Marlow's aunt embarrasses that narrator in her media-inspired enthusiasm by her implied comparison with an 'apostle'. This enables Conrad's irony, while he raises the whole question of well-deserving achievement, to fall on interestedly applied religion as well as parvenu religiosity, and to recall a subject 'of our time.'
Conrad's novel proved, in the outreaching illumination of his dispersive vision, to extend far beyond specific cases and again beyond current issues to their metaphysical resonance. Comparison with his sources shows that he was more than a novelist in grasp, in apprehension and sensitivity, for by rarefaction and commingling he evinces a poet's power to achieve, through shifting transference, a cohesive unity. We may have known this already, but we can realize it afresh as we perceive how his art excels in its imaginative ability to stir the human heart, to prompt an unceasing quest for truth. The extra-dimensional fairy stories, Kipling stories, and Ballantrae oVered vehicles for fashioning the full response of Heart of Darkness to the (fallen) hero of How I Found Livingstone, as they moved in his consciousness with a host of other considerations not pertinent here. All play a part in disclosing the intricacies and profundity of his design. But what he has done in composition we can see for ourselves, as preternatural horrors and resultant desperate resistance, striving for supremacy, find an exquisite resolution in beauty. The meaning of this tale 'was not inside like a kernel but outside [...] as a glow brings out a haze' (p. 18). In Conrad's poetic crucible, one great haunting memory is transformed into another.
(1) Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. by Robert Hampson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995). Quotations are taken from this edition.
(2) 'Geography and Some Explorers', in Last Essays (London: Dent, 1955).
(3) David H. Stewart, 'Kipling, Conrad and the Dark Heart', Kipling Journal, 67. 265 (March 1993), 22-32.
(4) Letter to William Blackwood, 31 December 1898, 'Conrad on "Heart of Darkness"', The Critical Heritage: Conrad, ed. by Norman Sherry (London: Routledge, 1973).
(5) Andrea White, Joseph Conrad and the Adventure Tradition: Constructing and Deconstructing the Imperial Subject (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 191.
(6) Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), p. 146.
(7) Felix Driver, 'Henry Morton Stanley and his Critics: Geography, Exploration and Empire', Past and Present, 133 (November 1991), 134-66.
(8) Jacques Darras, Joseph Conrad and the West: Signs of Empire (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 38.
(9) H. M. Stanley, In Darkest Africa (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1890), pp. 54, 62, 96.
(10) H. M. Stanley, How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures, and Discoveries in Central Africa (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1872).
(11) The Last Journals of David Livingstone, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1874), II, 156.
(12) G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: Life and Letters, 2 vols (New York: Doubleday, 1927), I, 122.
(13) Robert Louis Stevenson, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima Edition, xiv; The Master of Ballantrae (London: Heinemann with others, 1922).
<ADD> ROSALIND S. MEYER NEWBURY </ADD>
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|Author:||Meyer, Rosalind S.|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 1998|
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