Review. "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad.

Mankind portrait and fragility of civilization


Yuri K. Shestopaloff


There are books and Books. This one, according to a uniformly favorable public opinion, is certainly a Book, although such uniformity of opinions - sometimes - raises questions. The thing is that apparently I was not lucky to come across such a review of this book which could seem to me thoughtful and insightful enough to adequately reflect on the depth and profoundness of the story itself and exposed characters, their ideas, perception of the world, as well as their dealings, sometimes startling and bewildering, but that always felt as real as life itself only could be.

       Joseph Conrad is Polish, an experienced sea sailor, who did the described trip up the river in Congo at the end of 19th century (at that time it was Belgian Congo), although the real circumstances of the expedition were somewhat different. For such a fiction book, the actual differences with the real unwinding of events are not important, since the flow of a literary story is often dictated by a different logic than the one actual events proceeded by. What is much more important is that the prototypes of most personages are real. It is much easier to invent a plot of a story than to fill it by real people and their real actions. However, once the personage is known (and introducing a real one - maybe with some minor changes - has a great advantage in this regard), then, his actions follow its own logic consistent with a personage’s integral character, while the writer (well, a good writer) can do nothing but to follow his creation.

       Most good books have to be read at least twice. For this book, this is not even an option - it must be read several times before the comprehension of the story - comprehension staggering, enlightening and, at the same time, shuddering your mind and soul - occurs. It is only once I read the whole story and began to understand how close the boundaries of the real Darkness are, both for the whole civilization and a man alone, only then I could decipher what really stays behind Marlow’s words at the beginning about Roman legions, which once came to England to also encounter Darkness and Wilderness. It is only after reading the whole book that one pays due attention to certain thoughts and sees earlier events in a certain light. Such is Marlow’s comment of overseas conquests carried by England in old days: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea - something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . ".

       What the reader really could grasp from the very first lines is that the book is worth reading, just because it is written by an intelligent man. Such a rich and precise language and multilayered thoughtfulness can come only from a clever person, who understands this world and human nature, and who definitely has the necessary prerequisites for such an adventurous exploration as studying mankind’s limitations and strengths. From the very first pages, it becomes obvious that such a level of intelligence and insight cannot be obtained by training or education alone, which are mere means of erecting buildings, while natural intelligence is that material that forms the foundation and the whole frame and all architectural adornments of the building. The reader should make no mistake about this. It is not brilliance, but real talent and intelligence that stay behind this remarkable literary creation, so that the final result, the book, and the instruments used for its "carving" are in perfect and commensurate harmony.


       There are many threads in this book. Some of them are short, such as about the bonds, of which friendship could be one name, established between Marlow and his helmsman, "a pure fool", as Marlow called him with a great regret, and who was killed pierced by a spear. Despite their conciseness, such threads deserve separate discussions; by all means, they are not insignificant. However, in a short review, it is impossible to consider all these different themes, which enlighten, highlight, or, on the contrary, degrade human nature and its greatest, but also most vulnerable creation - civilization. So, the author of this opus will unwind the threads of this remarkable narration which are most appealing to his own likings and interests, these are the limits and boundaries circling the existence of each man and the whole civilization. We won’t answer with absolute certainty what does it mean to be a civilized man, or what civilization is about, but due to the book of Joseph Conrad and our own judgment, we will be able to shed light on some moments of truth, which are not really exposed in our everyday lives, but which, nonetheless, form the basis of our existence, tirelessly working on making the world we live in; the world, which we really do not know much about.


Devotion to efficiency as a cornerstone of civilization

The readers’ journey starts at estuary of Thames, in view of a great city, London, which is presented to the reader as an apex of civilization, a solar plexus from which numerous sea ways, like sensitive nerves, busily go to every corner of the globe. We feel this city as something alive, like a monstrous and watchful animal, which is always on guard, always on duty, and so are his creatures, city’s inhabitants. Even from the board of yacht, on which Marlow narrates his story, we can sense and weigh the sheer size and massive tissue of this monster, submerged in the gloomy dusk of the evening. We feel its breath, the steady and intense breath of a workable and unstoppable machine, almost subconsciously propelling its hard and harsh movement through centuries of overseas conquests and personal and national progression.

       Although the city seems immense, we do not feel its invincibility, but rather that every next step, in time or in space, required work, work, work… And there are no guarantees of city’s existence and movement other than that.  Marlow imagines a Roman, who once had to survive in a conquered wilderness: "He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination - you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate." It is still difficult for a reader to entirely comprehend this image, the message in it, the described feelings, and, nevertheless, the bell makes the first ring, and a vague sense of insecurity of this monster city, of its dependency on something yet unknown, but which is undoubtedly beyond its control, appears when Marlow says: "What saves us is efficiency - the devotion to efficiency", which is a note of a profound importance; in fact, the one that summarizes quintessence of progress as such. It might be not an obvious thought at first, but let us imagine the opposite. Then, what would the result be? The answer might look trivial - inefficiency. However, the consequences are not, because inefficiency leads to inevitable waste and leakage of resources, of all kinds, such as energy, materials, buildings, roads, etc, and, above all, to deterioration of humans’ abilities, including their social organization, one of the most fragile creations in this world.

       Humankind is not always efficient, far from that, and it cannot be otherwise, since doing anything, and especially for the first time, is by nature an iterative and incremental process, as any learning always is. However, we live in an ever changing world, be it a surrounding landscape, unavoidably aging people, aging Earth - whatever, nothing is fixed, and everything will alter, given an appropriate amount of time. Moreover, the everlasting change is not only our observation, but, indeed, this is a fundamental law of Nature. Thus, mankind’s existence is a continuous challenge, an incessant and forced adaptation to more and more new things, to the permanent flow of change, regardless of whether we are willing to do this or not. This is why it is so important to mark the word devotion in Marlow’s thoughtful observation. Because of the eternal motion of everything, we cannot reach precise efficiency, never ever, but we struggle to reduce the gap between it and our real achievements, strengthening and stressing all our abilities and available resources to do that. The devotion to efficiency is not just a felicitous phrase but something real, imbedded into human nature and guardedly fostered and preserved through treacherous evolutional paths of those creatures, which one day became human beings, and which still labor through the same deceitful networks of murky evolutional passages. (Although some might feel, but only for a while, that they arrived at a final destination, some Mankind Eldorado. No. Never.)

       Devotion to efficiency is a genetically carved mechanism, the basis of survival and adaptation created by these mere necessities and developed through harsh evolutional history of our ancestors. It is a cornerstone of all technological and scientific advances, as well as personal and societal development. Impeding and suppressing development of devotion to efficiency affects, in a highly negative and damaging way, the essence, the spirit of progress, mangles and destroys personalities and societies. Unfortunately, there are so many ways of abusing devotion to efficiency, and so many fiends, like rapacity, envy, folly, ignorance - you name it, are awaiting weak human souls to take them to other routes, most of which lead to destruction.

       This remarkable feature, devotion to efficiency, does not exist alone, but it is always intimately coupled with and guided by a purpose. Purposes, obviously, can be quite different and even antagonistic; constructive and destructive. As any other profound and decisive feature of any living creature, this devotion to efficiency takes many forms, of which we mentioned a few already, and it also has many scales. One of the first striking experiences of Marlow was encountering "Company’s Chief accountant" at the base station, when Marlow arrives in Congo: "When near the buildings I met a white man, in such an unexpected elegance of get-up that in the first moment I took him for a sort of vision. … He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear. … I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character. He had been out nearly three years; and, later on, I could not help asking him how he managed to sport such linen. He had just the faintest blush, and said modestly, 'I've been teaching one of the native women about the station. It was difficult. She had a distaste for the work.' This man had verily accomplished something. And he was devoted to his books, which were in apple-pie order."

       And here we come to a notion of scale and hierarchy. There are not many individuals who can, like the Chief accountant, "accomplish something". However, his efficiency was necessary for the overall enterprise of the Company, but not sufficient. It is only when individual aspirations for efficiency are united and lined up on the basis of a common craving for efficiency and common cause, and when they are arranged in a conjugated hierarchy, only then the whole enterprise could survive and prosper. Conflicting goals and aspirations destroy any affair, any entity. Unrelated strives introduce a chaos and eventually also lead to obliteration of a placeholder and of the original cause. When united under an umbrella of a certain enterprise, conflicting or unrelated goals, as a rule of thumb, consume resources of the enterprise. It’s a simple arithmetic subtraction: if the goal of one participant from ten is conflicting with enterprise objective, then the whole enterprise loses 20% of its resources and abilities, since conflicting purposes have to be compensated by at least the same resources (in fact, usually destructive actions require disproportionably more resources to counter them, just because destruction is a much easier affair). If the aspirations of two participants, from ten, conflict with the common cause, then the group loses 40% of its resources and abilities. When five participants from ten pursue their own antagonistic goals, the enterprise efficiency drops to zero. Even when goals are not conflicting, and they are just different and unrelated to a common cause, there is no big difference, since those unrelated strives eat the same resources, as conflicting goals, so that our arithmetical results will not change much in this case too. You may want to keep in mind this consideration when reading the book, which provides lots of insights in this regard. People create states, people create nations, companies, but it is also people who destroy the same states, nations, companies, etc. Where is this boundary which marks the transition from creation to destruction? In the middle of human diversity? Not really. It is closer to an upper limit of human development. In fact, much closer. @@@

       So much about devotion to efficiency and related things, such as goals and resources. Now, let us turn to Marlow’s observations during his adventurous descent from civilization to wilderness.


The Company

We need to know few things about the Company. The ultimate goal of the company is ivory; the more the better. This is its intention and this striving drives many events and pulls many threads in the book. The hiring of Marlow was like a self-fulfilling purpose for people in the head office. They were just cold-hearted suppliers of human material to feed the jungles in exchange for ivory. This is it. Still, there was a sense of purpose and feeling of a working machine. There was still a breath of civilization, but this time it was cold and ominous. The machine was fulfilling its purpose. Yes, it mostly supplied human material of second and lower grades, but that was expectable - who else could go to such a damned place? Adventurers, of which there are not many among people, but mostly those in despair and aspired by hope.


Sea trip

This is where we first meet absurdity and inefficiency on a large scale. In fact, both first made an appearance in the halls of Company’s headquarters. Meeting with a French man-of-war marks another phase, another qualitative proportion between inefficiency, absurdity and civilization’s virtues: "Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long eight-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech - and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives - he called them enemies! - hidden out of sight somewhere. … We gave her letters (I heard the men in that lonely ship were dying of fever at the rate of three a day) and went on."

       That ship, an awkward representative of civilization, when stripped of many attributes of civilization, like a qualified medical service, in fact, becomes its remnant, which preserves some sporadic features of a civilized world, like military discipline and obedience, but once detached from the world it once belonged to, the ship and actions of its crew became irrational, chaotic and meaningless. And nonetheless, this is a reflection of civilization, of its inherent and well respected military component, although seen in a curved mirror and stripped off its usual adornments (well, largely false ones).



And finally, after a sea trip, Marlow arrives at the base station. The forces of civilization weaken further, one step down - all its attributes, good and bad. We read: "I've seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men - men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly. How insidious he could be, too, I was only to find out several months later and a thousand miles farther. For a moment I stood appalled, as though by a warning."

       Yes, civilization feeds fiendish infernal forces and progressive aspirations. Both need resources. The less resources, the weaker civilization, or its mirror, or parody become as a whole, because devils, evil and goodness are all fed from the same cauldron. Or a pot. Or a puddle.

       The evidences of weakened civilization, rather its remnants, are abundant: "I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn't a quarry or a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don't know. Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in the hillside. I discovered that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn't one that was not broken. It was a wanton smash-up."

       Or this one: "I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass, then found a path leading up the hill. It turned aside for the bowlders, and also for an undersized railway-truck lying there on its back with its wheels in the air. One was off. The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal. I came upon more pieces of decaying machinery, a stack of rusty rails."

       And still, something functions. It looks like it hangs on the verge of an immanent collapse, but nonetheless functions: "Everything else in the station was in a muddle, - heads, things, buildings. Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and departed; a stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads, and brass-wire set into the depths of darkness, and in return came a precious trickle of ivory." It is like some house in which first electrical lights are turned off, one by one, then a gas furnace, then a water supply, but still somebody lives there, using candle for light, a wood burning stove for heat and cooking, and bringing water from the lake in a bucket. Less people, less energy, less intelligence, knowledge, skills, desire, and things start to deteriorate, but they still mimic civilization, preserving some features, although many in a grotesque form. Connection with headquarters is weakened by a distance, by quality of people representing the Company, by climate, wilderness, etc, so that instructions coming from the headquarters are mangled, misinterpreted and many are simply ignored. At the same time, many instructions and plans themselves are unrealistic and do not account for realities of the situation, which overwhelmingly is a mess.

       Civilization, first of all, is defined by people. In fact, civilization is the people. But these people are of a second grade. And so they created a second grade image of civilization, an image which is rampant, shabby, balancing on the verge of breakup. They cut off all necessities of civilization, emptied its body and left a hollow shadow of it. This is where the first row of supports, which keeps people civilized en masse, is removed, and now this whole mass is allowed to slip to the edge of wilderness. It is still a way to final depredation, but the first step is obviously made. Few people remain truly civilized, such as Chief accountant and Marlow himself. These people have their own internal supports, which do not permit them to slip to the now allowed second grade civilization level, which hardly can be called even a half-civilized life. The rest, unconsciously and immediately, without any inertia, degraded and adjusted to the lowest level of humanity which the environment so mercifully permitted. We say "environment", but these are people who created it, and then the environment started to work on them.

       View of former black workers left to die in a grove, which is still as death only could be, is terrible, but this level of treatment of people is like a trademark of this gloomy place: "Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair." And then a sound of explosion, a purposeless one, imitating work, came amidst this still horror: "Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die."

       And nonetheless, there was a continuation, an intimate relationship between this unenviable place and civilization left by Marlow, because the former was a logical extension of it, its child, which just inherited, by virtue of circumstances, not the best features of its parents.



In order to get to a ship, Marlow joined the caravan and committed to a long land trip. It was a lonely way, although the presence of civilization, of its conquistadors’ spirit, was felt, but rather in a strange, irrational way. But it was undoubtedly there: "No use telling you much about that. Paths, paths, everywhere; a stamped-in network of paths spreading over the empty land, through long grass, through burnt grass, through thickets, down and up chilly ravines, up and down stony hills ablaze with heat; and a solitude, a solitude, nobody, not a hut. The population had cleared out a long time ago. Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to traveling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. Only here the dwellings were gone too."   

       Finally, Marlow arrives at a starting point of his river voyage. However, the ship is drawn and Marlow has to somehow repair it. The circumstances of this shipwrecking present a vivid demonstration of incapacities of "pilgrims", workers of the station, headed by a manager. They play certain roles, preserve appearance of normality of the situation, they even behave "splendidly, splendidly", as they assure everybody and themselves, during their stupid wrecking of the ship, but their incapability is in drastic and obvious contrast with the requirements imposed by the surroundings. Pilgrims are just not up to the task, far from that. However, they do not understand this their inherent flaw and continue to behave themselves as if they truly match the real situation, power of jungles and tropic climate. In fact, they even do not think of power of wild nature surrounding them, because they do not know what this is about and that it exists at all. They do what they used to do all their lives, when they lived in a civilized world - pushing others by elbows, playing politics and making short lived unions with each other and against each other. None of them is actually equipped with skills to properly counteract real dangers of the wilderness. When an uncle of the manager arrived, apparently invited by the manager for a dubious adventure for a profit, both are so ultimately confident in their abilities to succeed in this practically unknown to them wilderness, that such possible dangers are not even discussed. The grieve outcome of such ignorance is quite conclusive: "In a few days the Eldorado Expedition went into the patient wilderness, that closed upon it as the sea closes over a diver. Long afterwards the news came that all the donkeys were dead. I know nothing as to the fate of the less valuable animals. They, no doubt, like the rest of us, found what they deserved."

       This quotation, besides its direct purpose to illustrate how these ignorant people, without giving a thought, can embark to the task they are absolutely not up to, deserves more attention for another reason. The blunt manner of Marlow’s speaking, which accurately and deeply reflects on psychological and societal aspects, is in itself a remarkable phenomenon to discuss. In his narration, Marlow uncovers the outmost depths of human souls and societal life from a perspective of an intelligent, observable and decent person with high moral virtues. These personal features are definitely not for a show, but rather they are natural for Marlow, like breathing. He says in the same way as he thinks. It might look like a bit of cynicism, but in the context of his narration it is not. It is just plain necessary for Marlow to tell this story truly, how he really sees it, and to directly convey his vision to listeners, without polishing. Of course, it is also a highly personal and unique style, and, for such a man, whose behavior is guided by his inherent values, it could not be otherwise. In this regard, it is noteworthy that at some point of his narration Marlow receives a remark from one of his listeners - "Try to be civil, Marlow, growled the voice." However, it is so difficult to balance on the edge of objectivity and civility in case of Marlow’s story. In everyday life, we need civility, which comes in many forms; this is a necessity of life, in order to make more or less comfortable our own lives, and to provide functioning of the world around us without jerks, through respecting human values, customs and societal virtues. Civility in a conduct is a way of supporting civilization. And the rule - not everything for showing, not all emotions and thoughts for exposition and discussion - is one of the most common pillars of civilized societies. There are restrictions, conventions, customs and other constraints which are instruments of supporting stable society. However, if real things and real motives are masked too much by these restrictive measures, or even worse, suppressed, which often happens in too conservative communities and even whole countries, then it makes no good for a society either - somehow, personal and societal problems have to be exposed in order to be solved. Hidden diseases tend to become worse.



When Marlow, eventually, after weeks and weeks of waiting, received rivets and repaired the ship, the expedition moved up the river Congo, into the interior of a continent. Marlow heard several times already about Kurtz. This man intrigued Marlow; he was obviously a man above average, but who was he really? Marlow knew already from a Chief accountant on the coast station that Kurtz sends more ivory than anybody else. In fact, half of all ivory came from Kurtz.

       It is worth to mention one of the glitches of civilization which blinked at Marlow when they discovered a shack on the bank of the river and a pile of prepared wood. It was a book, left by Russian, one of the important personages in this story, besides Marlow himself and Kurtz (although not well understood by many authors of reviews and introductions written for the book, of which I came across). It was a book. A professional book, but it was more than that: "Within, Towson or Towser was inquiring earnestly into the breaking strain of ships' chains and tackle, and other such matters. Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light. The simple old sailor, with his talk of chains and purchases, made me forget the jungle and the pilgrims in a delicious sensation of having come upon something unmistakably real. Such a book being there was wonderful enough; but still more astounding were the notes penciled in the margin, and plainly referring to the text. I couldn't believe my eyes! They were in cipher! Yes, it looked like cipher. Fancy a man lugging with him a book of that description into this nowhere and studying it - and making notes - in cipher at that! It was an extravagant mystery. … I assure you to leave off reading was like tearing myself away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship." This is a revealing remark in this quotation - "luminous with another than a professional light", which directly relates to our study of civilization. This "earnest inquiry" is what civilization about - about summation, accumulation and preservation of many such earnest inquiries by many truly civilized people, each in his domain. It is these people, who some day produced a new qualitative state of humankind - a civilization. And, at the same time, this is the way of supporting and reproducing civilization, in its every aspect - earnest inquiries by civilized people. No such people - no civilization. However, as every precious and truly valuable thing, this light is very vulnerable; it requires a delicate and not readily available environment, but not many people could understand this.

       Events began unrolling fast and there was some menace and tension hanging in the air, when the ship eventually began approaching the Kurtz’s station: "… we were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse". A sudden attack of local tribes, when the ship was passing a narrow channel, was launched. Marlow’s helmsman was killed, but the dangers were far from over. They just have begun. Marlow’s recollection about his helmsman is so deeply human that it touches the inner depths of one’s soul, pierces it with a painful regret: "I missed my late helmsman awfully, - I missed him even while his body was still lying in the pilot-house. Perhaps you will think it passing strange this regret for a savage who was no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don't you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back - a help - an instrument. It was a kind of partnership. He steered for me - I had to look after him, I worried about his deficiencies, and thus a subtle bond had been created, of which I only became aware when it was suddenly broken. And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory - like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment."

       The ending phase of the story is actually about three contrasting and equally important personages (Kurtz, Russian and Marlow) for our study of limits and constraints of civilization as such, when eventually all of its restraints are left behind the impenetrable, over a thousand of kilometers deep, wall of wild jungles. Now, all civilization supports are removed, and so everybody will settle exactly in a position which is defined entirely by his inner civility. This part of the story is even more so valuable as these personages were actual people, whom the author met in his real trip. It is here, in the inner depths of jungles, where a man becomes as much civilized as his inner human core is. Kurtz is a profoundly dramatic figure in this story. A man of many virtues, he was lured into a wilderness of his surroundings and accepted it by his ancient instincts of a savage, becoming a part of jungles himself. As Marlow noted observing local men on the banks and feeling a "remote kinship" with them: "The mind of man is capable of anything - because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future." Kurtz’s mind definitely carried lots of ancient past: "But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core. . . .". In fact, with his arsenal of firearms, Kurtz conquered the surrounding territories, bringing the tribes to submission. For them, he became like a god, to whom they worshiped. The tragedy was not so much in such a disgrace of a capable man, but in Kurtz’s understanding of his ultimate fall and his reflections on that. He tried to go back to civilization, when he embarked on a river trip, but then, after traveling few hundred miles, turned back, pulled back by the wilderness, which occupied a large part of his soul. It is lake remnants of a civilized man, capable to understand what he is doing, preserving his analytical skills up to the very moment of death, coexisting in him together with his wild and barbaric nature: "His ascendancy was extraordinary. The camps of these people surrounded the place, and the chiefs came every day to see him. They would crawl. . . . 'I don't want to know anything of the ceremonies used when approaching Mr. Kurtz,' I (Marlow) shouted. Curious, this feeling that came over me that such details would be more intolerable than those heads drying on the stakes under Mr. Kurtz's windows. After all, that was only a savage sight, while I seemed at one bound to have been transported into some lightless region of subtle

horrors, where pure, uncomplicated savagery was a positive relief, being something that had a right to exist - obviously - in the sunshine."

       The tragedy is also that Kurtz was not a simple man, with a light coating of civilization on him, who would be expected to irreversibly become a savage once the environment is changed. He was not, and so the more terrible his transformation is: "Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honor; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can't forget him, though I am not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him (Marlow means his helmsman)."

       The scene of Kurt’s death, with some imagination, may strike a reader to the marrow bone: "Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, - he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath - "The horror! The horror!" "

       Despite all savagery acts what Kurtz did, a man who is able to say such words at a moment of his death is by all measures an outstanding person. This is why it is worth to quote a long passage, because of its multidimensional meaningfulness, when Marlow begins talking about his almost deadly disease: "However, as you see, I did not go to join Kurtz there and then. I did not. I remained to dream the nightmare out to the end, and to show my loyalty to Kurtz once more. Destiny. My destiny! Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself - that comes too late - a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair's-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. 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. He had summed up - he had judged. 'The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth - the strange commingling of desire and hate. And it is not my own extremity I remember best - a vision of grayness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things - even of this pain itself. No! It is his extremity that I seem to have lived through. True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible. Perhaps! I like to think my summing-up would not have been a word of careless contempt. Better his cry - much better. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions. But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last, and even beyond, when a long time after I heard once more, not his own voice, but the echo of his magnificent eloquence thrown to me from a soul as translucently pure as a cliff of crystal."

       What would happen if Kurtz would not leave a civilized world? He would be a normal and most likely successful man. Those civilization supports which he lacked inside himself would be readily available outside and kept him checked within the boundaries which civilized world imposes on each of us. And then the question rises - if Kurtz, a man obviously above average, so easily and almost willingly slipped into wilderness and darkness, then what about humankind as a whole? How strong are those supports which keep civilization at its present level? Would not be mindless wild bombardments of other nations by supposedly civilized people a sign of destruction of some supports which civilization so strongly depends upon? Does a new electronic toy for adults compensate for a degrading education? Does a possession of a cellular phone make people more civilized, more happy, more efficient and enforces civilization? How strong is actually civilization? How much internal resources for reproduction, not to say for a progress, does it have? What is the minimum efficiency level required not to begin slipping into wilderness? So many unanswered questions…



Underappreciated personage, and, in many instances, not understood by critics, Russian, indeed, is a miracle in the overall story. A man, so inherently and harmonically civilized, that norms of civilization became his essence, his soul. It feels that he was born as such, with a predisposition for civilization, with such a brain that he needed only little instructions to go to this world as a civilized man. It was such a strong natural setup of his young, 25 years old, soul, that jungles have no effect on him even after he spent two years in this dark wilderness, which so quickly overpowered Kurtz. Here is what Marlow feels: "I looked at him, lost in astonishment. There he was before me, in motley, as though he had absconded from a troupe of mimes, enthusiastic, fabulous. His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain - why he did not instantly disappear. 'I went a little farther,' he said, 'then still a little farther—till I had gone so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I can manage. You take Kurtz away quick - quick - I tell you.' The glamour of youth enveloped his particolored rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months - for years - his life hadn't been worth a day's purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearance indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity. I was seduced into something like admiration - like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this be-patched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that, even while he was talking to you, you forgot that it was he - the man before your eyes—who had gone through these things."

       The scene of his departure is one of the jewels of the book, it need not to be commented: "He informed me, lowering his voice, that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack to be made on the steamer. 'He hated sometimes the idea of being taken away - and then again. . . . But I don't understand these

matters. I am a simple man. He thought it would scare you away - that you would give it up, thinking him dead. I could not stop him. Oh, I had an awful time of it this last month.' 'Very well,' I said. 'He is all right now.' 'Ye-e-es,' he muttered, not very convinced apparently. 'Thanks,' said I; 'I shall keep my eyes open.' 'But quiet - eh?' he urged, anxiously. 'It would be awful for his reputation if anybody here - ' I

promised a complete discretion with great gravity. 'I have a canoe and three black fellows waiting not very far. I am off. Could you give me a few Martini-Henry cartridges?' I could, and did, with proper secrecy. He helped himself, with a wink at me, to a handful of my tobacco. 'Between sailors - you know - good English tobacco.' At the door of the pilot-house he turned round - ' I say, haven't you a pair of shoes you could spare?' He raised one leg. 'Look.' The soles were tied with knotted strings sandal-wise under his bare feet. I rooted out an old pair, at which he looked with admiration before tucking it under his left arm. One of his pockets (bright red) was bulging with cartridges, from the other (dark blue) peeped 'Towson's Inquiry,' &c., &c. He seemed to think himself excellently well equipped for a renewed encounter with the wilderness. 'Ah! I'll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry - his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!' He rolled his eyes at the recollection of these delights. 'Oh, he enlarged my mind!' 'Goodby,' said I. He shook hands and vanished in the night. Sometimes I ask myself whether I had ever really seen him - whether it was possible to meet such a phenomenon! . . ."


       The third personage is Marlow himself. Although we spend with him the whole story, he is still somehow not fully… (well, here is the best word I could find for that - cognized). Marlow himself is a phenomenon, an outstanding, astonishing phenomenon of a profoundly decent, intelligent and civilized man. In the last respect, he is very similar to Russian. Marlow is a lonely person, but lonely because few people can simultaneously match his decency, intelligence, observance and, above all, his high level moral virtues, his almost painful (maybe without "almost") desire for a better, more clever and more human world. Does he know this world too well in order to hope for that? Apparently, he does. And here is the last, repeated, quote of our essay which might shed light on Marlow’s unique an utterly human personality - at least for some of us: "Droll thing life is - that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself - that comes too late - a crop of unextinguishable regrets."