Sunshine Recorder

They trespassed upon my thoughts. They were intruders whose knowledge of life was to me an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew. Their bearing, which was simply the bearing of commonplace individuals going about their business in the assurance of perfect safety, was offensive to me like the outrageous flauntings of folly in the face of a danger it is unable to comprehend. I had no particular desire to enlighten them, but I had some difficulty in restraining myself from laughing in their faces, so full of stupid importance.
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Link: BBC's In Our Time: Heart of Darkness

Melvyn Bragg will be discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Written in 1899, Heart of Darkness is a fascinating fin de siecle critique of colonialism and man’s greed. Conrad draws on his own adventures for the plot. The story’s main narrator is Marlow, a merchant seaman who pilots a steamship upriver in what is largely assumed to be the Belgian Congo. He finds the scramble for Africa well underway, with Europeans desperately competing to make their fortunes from ivory. Marlow’s journey takes him into the interior of this mysterious silent continent. After a dangerous passage he finally arrives at the company’s most remote trading station. It is reigned over by Kurtz, a white man who seems to have become a kind of God figure to the local people. Marlow is fascinated by him, preferring his messianic ravings to the petty treachery and mercenarism of the other white traders. On the journey back, Kurtz dies, whispering “the horror, the horror”.

The interpretation of these words has perplexed readers ever since and the book has prompted a diverse range of readings from the psychoanalytical, that sees the novella as a metaphor for the journey into the subconscious, to feminist readings that examine how Conrad excludes female characters and focuses on the male consciousness.

Conrad wrote; “My task is, above all, to make you see”. So did he intend this novella to provoke a discussion of the immorality and rapacity at the centre of colonialism? Was he questioning the hero’s welcome given to those famous explorers who came back from “civilising” Africa, as they saw it? Or was he, as the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe put it, “guilty of preposterous and perverse arrogance in reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

With Susan Jones, Fellow and Tutor in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford; Robert Hampson, Professor of Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London; Laurence Davies, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English at Glasgow University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -somewhere- far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
These chaps were not much account, really. They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze, and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force—nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. 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 pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…
— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

We Were Wanderers on a Prehistoric Earth: A Short FilmInspired by Joseph Conrad

The palpable menace that permeates Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been edited out of the narration in this short film, made for Tourism Malaysia by British filmmaker James W. Griffiths. What remains is a poetic sense of wonder for a natural world that is no longer frightening, no longer in need of being subdued. In the original, the twisting and turning sentences are like a microcosm of a journey up the winding Congo River, into the metaphorical darkness that lies at the heart of all men. Out of the stillness of the page, Conrad’s imagination washes over us in a rolling wave of words:

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.

Griffiths can be forgiven for defanging Conrad. We Were Wanderers on a Prehistoric Earth is a beautiful film, a quiet meditation on the unspoiled rainforest of West Malaysia shot in November by cinematographer Christopher Moon, who also collaborated with Griffiths on last year’s award-winning Nokia cellphone film Splitscreen. The music is by Lennert Busch, the sound design is by Mauricio d’Orey, and Conrad’s words are spoken by Terry Burns.