Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” had a curious reception from his contemporaries. The book was actually lauded as a critique of a specific type of uncivilised adventurer, as well as praised for the books only female character’s “sensibility” and “domesticity”.
When Conrad set the novel in the Belgian Congo, it was easy for the masters of Colonialism to overlook the central message of the book – that colonialism does corrupt, and that it does corrupt both the practitioners and the sufferers of it. In a way, this very Victorian book that is full of stern adventurers and such, is a very modernist book full of doubt and questioning and fluid moralities.
Conrad’s origins may have had something to do with being able to say something that must have been very offensive to his contemporaries, and have them miss the point and even praise the message from a totally incorrect point of view.
Conrad was Polish, not British. His actual name was Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, and he was born in Polish Ukraine in 1857. From the age of 17 he would wander the world as a seaman, most of it on British boats. This was what lead him to become a British national, and fulfil his desire to write books. While I was reading the book last night, I was thinking about it. I knew he was a foreigner, and googled a bit about him.
And it struck me that maybe there is no coincidence that a naturalised Pole would write the book. Maybe the English of the time did not have enough of a perspective of themselves to write it.
And perhaps the perspective was so set that the critics would praise the book, not getting the point because it was just inconceivable that colonialism could be bad and wicked. A blinkered society took what it could from the book, and in the end the blindness to the message undermined the society itself.
I can relate to Conrad in a way that maybe few others in my school can, or in this town. I am this weird hybrid that is considered a Swede here in England, and an Englishman in Sweden. Sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like to belong entirely to one place, instead of being this odd bird that nobody can place.
It goes back to cultural assumptions that we all make that we don’t critically examine because we’re so used to them. I mean, do we spend any effort analysing the colour of grass? Or the paper quality of a newspaper?
It just is, and we don’t even dismiss those things. It never even enters our minds, filtered out by the brain that doesn’t waste energy on the obvious. We don’t even hear the sounds of a town after a while because our brain filters it out. Much in the same way that our brain filters out that which is commonly assumed.
You have this Polish Ukrainian that can come in and see that the empress, Victoria, sits naked on her throne, lording over an empire over which the sun never sets. The lords, the affluent, the commoners do not even think about the good Queen’s lack of clothing, because it is as it should be, because it is as it always has been. It’s like the colour of grass.
Is that a valuable, and even lasting, condition? Does my hybridness wear off after a while? Will I become one of the masses huddled under umbrellas and roofed buildings in this weather, oblivious to the obvious?
Or is there a value in trying to maintain the separateness, a self-imposed apartness if you will? Not that I could ever consider myself a Conrad, or any other foreign writer in English, but to me it seems like it would be a good trade-off to maintain perspective and a fresh eye, if I just was willing to let go of the idea that it would forever make me stand on the outside looking in.