“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness…”
Joseph Conrad’s famous tale concerns an expedition up the Congo River. The mission: to repatriate a company agent. And with each bend in that jungle river, the protagonist’s belief system proves increasingly unreliable.
The Heart of Darkness…the perfect metaphor for the hero’s journey.
And the writer’s.
I don’t know about you, but I begin Page One with no idea how I’ll feel when the ordeal is over.
I don’t write to explain—I write to find out.
The narrator, Marlowe, is dispatched upriver to investigate a rogue ivory trader named Kurtz.
And who is this mysterious Kurtz? We don’t learn much about him. That’s okay because Kurtz is only the goal.
Only the goal?
The goal sets the quest in motion. The goal is the hero’s excuse for getting out of bed in the morning. But the quest is…
The hero’s journey to the truth about himself.
Up the Congo, Marlowe finds “truth stripped of its cloak of time.” Losing his cultural and moral coordinates, Marlowe must…
“meet that truth with his own true self—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do.”
Up the Congo, the narrator’s conventional scruples are exposed as mere “acquisitions”. He likens his principles to…“clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake.”
Marlowe’s precious belief systems are…
“Incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily.”
Lucky, yes, because the underlying reality is shocking.
“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster [European society], but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly…”
Rumours surrounding Kurtz suggest that he, too, has become “monstrous and free”. Does that make him a madman or a sage? Marlowe struggles to get his mind around it.
The meeting of Marlowe and Kurtz only adds to the uncertainty. Speaking of his life in the jungle, Kurtz, before he dies, famously comments, “The horror! The horror!”
Was Kurtz reacting to cannibalistic rites he may have observed during his jungle sojourn? Or perhaps to horrors perpetrated by himself. Or was it something worse?
Kurtz was on the verge of some great discovery, we’re told. He seemed to have gained insight into the meaning of life.
“The horror!” he says.
Was Kurtz reacting to life’s meaninglessness? Or was he in awe of the human organism itself?
- Horrified that humans should be wired so as to be shielded from the truth.
- Horrified by the suffering we must endure to glimpse the truth.
- Horrified that seeing the light requires a journey to the heart of darkness.
Every good story leads us all—protagonist, writer, reader—to within shouting distance of this glorious horror.
I’ve discovered that this is…
Why I write.
Up the Congo—is the central image lending meaning to my insights in an upcoming eBook about the journey to the dark heart of fiction. I’ll be developing some of the book’s material in future blog posts.
You can keep me honest as I go…by subscribing to this blog (top of page) and chiming in with your comments.