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Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

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<i>Heart of Darkness</i> by Joseph Conrad

There! Right there, on the edge, in the periphery, can you see them, see anything but them? There! Peering, always peering from the abyss, always leering from the void, the tiny, black, soulless eyes—like a wolf spider’s—pushing in, smothering, enveloping, practically inescapable, ubiquitous, claiming space on the page and in the mind, constricting Conrad’s words and leaning menacingly over Heart of Darkness as the jungle does over Marlow’s pilot house:

Quotation marks!

These tiny brackets, these predatory eye slits, these claustrophobic little tadpoles halt my every transition from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes sentence to sentence, send my hands reaching for the bottle of Xanax, which blazes orange in the shadows outside my reading lamp, a safety suit in the cold black sea…

Anxiety can be a heinous creature, a vicious albatross that transforms the simplest acts of living—waking up, walking outside, willful consideration of the future—into unbearable struggles with the mind. Its presence may be so brutal that even its absence becomes malicious; when not around, instead of relief, one feels dread, because it stalks, waiting for whatever innocuous trigger will allow it to strike. This continuous menace permeates every aspect of a sufferer’s life, creeping along the edges, constituting the environment, until it twists its victims inside out, rends them limb from limb, drives them mad. This anxious saturation doomed Kurtz, haunts Marlow, and inflicts on them what those bedeviling quotation marks impart upon the reader.

None escape the jungle intact.

Heart of Darkness is paradoxically slim, yet suffocatingly dense, in the same way as The Great Gatsby or a Tom Wolfe paragraph, except, where those encase the reader in a neon tube, Conrad closes the lid on a child’s tarantula terrarium, an environment composed of equal parts pulchritude and dread.

Draped in Conrad’s luxurious accoutrements we find a rather simple story, that of riverboat pilot Marlow steaming deeply into Africa to recover the ivory-rich, sanity-poor Kurtz from his station upriver.

“The reaches opened up before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return,” Marlow describes his journey.

Good Lord, could one imagine a more laconic and beautiful description of something so terrifying? Here is a man and a vessel and a carriage of human cargo chugging, slowly, irrevocably, into, well, the heart of darkness, into a wilderness that swallows them as “the sea closes over a diver.”

Marlow recounts the expedition with such eloquence as to spare the reader, upon first glancing, the true gravity of the situation; we believe Kurtz, or the natives, or the collision of cultures embodied by the juxtaposition of the two, or Empire itself to be the enemy, and they are, except all really turn out to be secondary to that infernal, all-swallowing saturation of anxiety that drives men mad, that drives the beating of Conrad’s Cimmerian heart, a beating which can scarcely be heard beneath the drums and Marlow’s loquaciousness, but assuredly goes on, just as our own heartbeats, hiding just beneath the surface.

When an anxiety attack strikes, when the all-encompassing existence we perceive turns malevolent, the thunderous beat of a racing heart often rises into the ears. Breathing becomes rapid, then ragged for the effort, and the body shrinks, recoils from looming walls, from straight lines obtaining curves—walls become crane-necked vultures, ceiling fans dangle claws. Oppression closes over one like that diver’s sea.

Widely regarded now as to be suffering from bipolar disorder, it would not be out of the question that Conrad, whose pre-writing careers make Heart of Darkness something of a roman a clef, would be intimately familiar with anxiety’s methods. Conrad’s quotation marks show their power here; they perch at the beginning of most every paragraph, minuscule fingers choking not only dialogue but exposition too, as inescapable as the jungle. Indeed, the only reprieve comes when Conrad’s narrator takes the reins, sitting on the Nellie off Gravesend, Kent, hovering delicately in the vast expanse where the Thames meets the sea, a place “the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint.” It’s the only environment Conrad’s characters speak of glowingly, the only place attributed beauty as well as power.

All action in the jungle or on the river comes wreathed with quotation marks, staggered by single quotes, surrounded like Marlow, Kurtz, the pilgrims, et.al. In saturating, untamable punctuation we find a taste of what broke Kurtz, of the smothering atmosphere that enervated him to the point of insanity:


“I tried to break the spell – the heavy, mute spell of the wilderness – that seemed to draw him [Kurtz] to its pitiless breast by the awakening of forgotten and brutal instincts, by the memory of gratified and monstrous passions. This alone, I was convinced, had driven him out to the edge of the forest, to the bush, towards the gleam of fires, the throb of drums, the drone of weird incantations; this alone had beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations … He had kicked himself loose of the earth. Confound the man! he had kicked the very earth to pieces … Believe me or not, his intelligence was perfectly clear … But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”

Kurtz was not necessarily an evil man. He did not rise to rank of demigod-cum-warlord for the love of Empire; he succumbed to the constant pressures of his environs, leveraging his formidable societal advantages into corporeal ones. Whipsawed by greed and hubris, he eventually faded away, an emaciated Wendigo who, by the time Marlow confronts him before the forest, trying to break the spell, is “not much heavier than a child.” The only power Kurtz has left, the last thin shreds of his Hermetic influences, lies in the place quotation marks traditionally signify: his voice.

Marlow, though, continues his tale beyond the jungle; the quotation marks dog his return to society, baying all the way, offering no respite, because here, too, the environment acts as antagonist. Marlow’s anxious existence becomes continuously haunted by Kurtz … by a kind of post-traumatic stress.

“I thought his memory was like the other memories of the dead that accumulate in a man’s life – a vague impress upon the brain of shadows that had fallen on it in their swift and final passage; but before the high and ponderous door, between the tall houses of a street as still and decorous as a well-kept alley in a cemetery, I had a vision of him on the stretcher, opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind. He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived – a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night, and draped nobly in the folds of a gorgeous eloquence. The vision seemed to enter the house with me – the stretcher, the phantom bearers, the wild crowd of obedient worshippers, the gloom of the forests, the glitter of the reach between the murky bends, the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart- the heart of a conquering darkness.”

One can only imagine how much more difficult Marlow’s fate would be in the present day, had the machinations of Kurtz’s supposed profession, journalism, then availed themselves to the myriad forms with which they permeate—and practically constitute—the zeitgeist now.

So long as the quotation marks are there, the solicitude and evils saturate, born aloft on those slight dyadic wings. The most harrowing moment of Heart of Darkness comes, of course, bedecked in the anxious accouterments – the quote marks carry the implications, both classical and novella-specific, of our punctuational tormentor. Face to face with Kurtz’s Intended, Marlow tearfully bequeaths to her Kurtz’s last words. Marlow has something to bear with her, ironically desiring what he cannot escape. And Marlow comes close to shattering, to finally giving way to the weight of anxiety canopied above him on the limbs of jungle trees and the eaves of buildings.

“I was at the point of crying at her, ‘Don’t you hear them?’ The dusk was repeating them in a persistent whisper all around us, in a whisper that seemed to swell menacingly like the first whisper of the rising wind. ‘The horror! The horror!’”

B. David Zarley is a book critic and freelance writer currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, The Atlantic Cities, The Chicago Reader, The Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter, @BdavidZarley.

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