Out of Hours BJGP Library: Heart of Darkness

A JOURNEY INTO THE HUMAN ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE CONDITION David Misselbrook Heart Of Darkness RCSI Bahrain, PO Box 15503, Adliya, Kingdom of Bahrain. (First edition, 1899.) Penguin Classics E-mail: [email protected] deluxe edition, 2012, PB, 144pp, £7.99, 978-0143106586 him are eliminated as ruthlessly as in Stalin’s Russia. In recent decades Conrad has been criticised by African writers as portraying 19th-century Africans as less than human. In one sense they are right, but surely that is Conrad’s point? The removal of peer Conrad’s experience became the basis constraints reveals us as cruel and ruthless for his 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. — in Heart of Darkness it is the Europeans Conrad begins his tale on the Thames, who are the savages, not the Africans. with a rich and breathtaking picture of the No doubt we wish to see ourselves as river as a highway to the ends of the earth. more civilised than Kurtz. And we can What happens if one has all restraints Conrad’s protagonist Marlow is clearly his certainly see Conrad’s view of humanity removed? Do we at last flourish, to become alter ego in a partly autobiographical story. as our fin-de-siècle selves regretting our our true selves? Do we become happy? But by giving a fictional account he both fall from innocence and seeking to come to Or would our flaws turn us away from distances us from his experience and yet terms with Darwin. The history of the 20th both happiness and flourishing? Such a emphasises the inhumanity and disorder century though has hardly blunted Conrad’s question is usually meaningless. We are that he found as he travelled into the Congo. argument. The War is just one of social creatures embedded in relationship The book is the ultimate misanthropic so many episodes of madness beyond even networks that jointly determine our road trip. Marlow journeys upriver to find Conrad’s vision. behaviour and our path. But some unusual Kurtz, the company’s most profitable agent. So should we be optimistic or pessimistic individuals, often leaders, manage to The journey into Africa reflects Conrad’s about human nature? As CS Lewis puts it, achieve an unusual level of autonomy, journey into the human condition. In the surely being human is: totally dominating the led. Unrestrained. earlier part of the book Kurtz is much This usually ends in tears. talked about, a great success. He is making ‘... both honour enough to erect the head Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness huge profits for his imperial masters even if of the poorest beggar, and shame enough is often remembered as the inspiration his methods may be tough. Finally Marlow to bow the shoulders of the greatest for ’s 1979 film finds Kurtz, ill but still the absolute master emperor’.2 , the action transposed of the local Africans. His compound is to the and containing one of surrounded by the severed heads of those So we do not have to end with only. ’s last great roles. Heart Africans who have displeased or disobeyed Conrad’s verdict: ‘the horror, the horror’. of Darkness itself is easily forgotten, yet it him. Conrad portrays Kurtz as having lost remains a vividly pessimistic account of the all restraint in the pursuit of profit. Kurtz David Misselbrook, human condition. GP, Dean Emeritus of the Royal Society of Medicine, sees people as objects. Those who disobey In 1890 Joseph Conrad, a Pole who Past President FHPMP the Society of Apothecaries, had become a British citizen, captained Senior Lecturer in Family Medicine RCSI Medical University of Bahrain, and BJGP Senior Ethics a river boat up the Congo for a trading Advisor. company. The Belgian Congo was arguably the worst end of the spectrum of Western “The removal of peer . Conrad was an unusual man. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp16X686917 He wrote in fluent and flawless English, yet constraints reveals us Bertrand Russell found that he spoke: as cruel and ruthless — in Heart of Darkness it ‘... with a very strong foreign accent … He REFERENCES was an aristocratic Polish gentleman to his is the Europeans who 1. Russell B. The autobiography of Bertrand fingertips.’ 1 Russell. Abingdon: Routledge, 2000 [first are the savages, not the published 1950]. 2. Lewis CS. Prince Caspian. (The Chronicles Russell and Conrad became great Africans”. of Narnia, Book 4). : HarperCollins friends. Russell had an optimistic view of Children’s Books, 2009. human nature, an acute contrast to Conrad.

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