Thursday, March 24, 2016

Hearts of Darkness

Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, was originally published as "The Heart of Darkness" beginning in February of 1899 in Blackwood's Magazine. It appeared in book form in 1902, minus the "The" in the title. Numerous critics have hailed it as the essential book of the twentieth century; T.S. Eliot quoted one of its key lines in "The Hollow Men," and it was famously adapted for film by Frances Ford Coppola in 1979 as Apocalypse Now. It has become a grim epitome for a grim era, but is also one of the most economically and beautifully crafted novellas in English.

Which is no mean feat, considering that its author, Joseph Conrad, was born J√≥zef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland, and that English was his third language (after Polish and French). Writing was also his second career, after a lengthy one as a seaman, rising from ordinary seaman to mate to Master from 1878 to 1886. In the process, he taught himself English, changed his name, and embarked on a long-sought career as a writer.

In one of his last essays, "Geography and Some Explorers," Conrad looked back on his boyhood romance of the sea, and of story. He credited the birth of both to his reading of a book by Frances Leopold McClinctok, The Voyage of the Fox in Arctic Seas, which described the final trials of the ill-fated Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, who vanished -- along with his ships the Erebus and Terror and 128 men -- in the frozen wilderness, with no man returning alive and some considerable evidence that his men turned to cannibalism in their last despair. Conrad cites this book in the essay, declaring that
"The great spirit of the realities of the story sent me off on the romantic explorations of my inner self; to the discovery of the taste for poring over land and sea maps; revealed to me the existence of a latent devotion to geography."
And the first of Conrad's journeys inspired by this devotion was the (then undiscovered) "heart" of Africa, which was as yet a blank upon the map. By the time he reached adulthood and was able to reach that spot, it was no longer "dark" in the sense of being unknown, but "dark" in that it lay in the midst of the Belgian Congo, a late African colony established by the King of Belgium as his private preserve, and one of the most corrupt, brutal, and ill-managed colonies in the history of European expansion. Like his character Marlow, he piloted a "tramp" steamer up the Congo, and witnessed firsthand man's inhumanity to man.

Today, the whole world has been "explored," and there are no blanks upon our maps -- no place you can't zoom in on in Google Earth. And yet, that strange human hunger for the unknown persists, whether it is in the pursuit of space exploration, the renewed efforts to chart and understand the depths of the world's oceans, or the scientific question to learn the causes and consequences of global warming at the earth's poles. As much as Jekyll carried Hyde within him, we carry within ourselves the anonymous ghosts of the brutality of Empires past, the anger and uncertainty of an unstable present world, and the hopes and aspirations of those old explorers who, as Conrad says at the conclusion of his essay, bore within them "a spark of that sacred fire."

So again, one must ask: is civilization, as the poet Ezra Pound once wrote, a "botched" job, an "old hag gone in the teeth"? Or is it our only hope for the better future? Coppola expolores this question in his film Apocalypse Now, looking back only a decade or so from 1979 to 1969 and the brutality of the Vietnam war. What of today? With all the conflicts in the world, and American forces once again in harm's way in wars, such as Afghanistan, which have lasted longer than any other war ever fought by the United States, what the answer is today matters deeply, and still we find Conrad's vision is remarkably prophetic. What do you think?

Sunday, March 6, 2016


James Joyce's Dubliners -- a collection of short stories originally completed around 1905, but not published until nine years later -- is widely regarded as one of the finest works of its kind. As with all of Joyce's works, it seeks after the essence of "dear old dirty Dublin," the city in and near which Joyce had grown up, and the city -- though he left Ireland never to return -- in which he still dwelt in his imagination, and was the essential core of every one of his later works.

Dublin in 1904 was a bustling city, with all kinds of shops and commerce which brought the goods of the world to its doors. And yet, at the same time, it was home to some of the darkest and dingiest slums of its day, corridors of hopelessness from which many never fully emerged. Joyce himself had travelled through at least two of its social classes, thanks to the wavering fortunes of his father; he'd enjoyed both a middle-class home and a semi-private education at Clongowes Wood Academy, and far poorer quarters along with the cold water and thrashings at the O'Connell School operated by the Christian Brothers. The Jesuits were intellectual in bent, and Joyce much preferred them; the loss of his place there and return to dismal life in Dublin were hard on him.

But the change did Joyce a favor; having been dislocated from his class and his comrades, he experienced a crisis of faith with his religion, and was thus better prepared than most to see Ireland in a multi-dimensional way, and to be drawn into the European modernist movement. Unlike other writers of his generation, he never gravitated to the nationalism of the Young Ireland movement and its successors, and had nothing but disdain for the attempt at the revival of Irish Gaelic literature and culture (at one point in "The Dead," the main character pointedly objects to the notion that Irish is "his" language). One can readily imagine Joyce, his eyesight poor and always growing poorer, peering through thick-lensed spectacles at the plight of the people about him, whose lives were strictly circumscribed by poverty, strict Catholic morality, and the consciousness that Ireland was a subjugated nation, claimed by the English and with her harps on its flag.

There is nothing supernatural in these stories -- only the extreme inner consciousness of loss, of the fragility of beauty, of the fleeting nature of life's few pleasures.  In Araby, we follow a desperately shy and isolated young man through his day, and into the night on a trolley in a doomed attempt to find a fitting gift for the girl he loves but can barely speak with. In Clay, we play a little game -- a game about destiny, family, and (yes) death. And in The Dead, we come full circle, looking within and without the walls of polite Dublin society, and witness the emergence of a newly urgent sense of identity that, though certainly Irish, rejects the cultural conventions of "Irishness."