A Horror, A Horror!

Heart of Darkness (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)I recently re-read the Joseph Conrad novella Heart of Darkness, a perennial classic and the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Having first read this powerful piece in high school, there was much I had forgotten. I am glad to have revisited it. This time it really hit home: just how relative its themes of greed, corruption, and redemption are in today's world. We may draw a comparison to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the world's hunger for oil and its consequences, or even to the megalomania we've seen recently that has been the ruin of US and other market economies.

Conrad's story takes place in 19th century colonial Africa; a virtual free-for-all for holding companies and the like scrambling to lay claims on precious minerals (gold, silver) and other natural resources (ivory, slaves) in its vast untapped interior. The problem for these greed machines was finding personnel willing or ignorant enough to brave the "darkness": wild animals, disease, uncivilized tribal societies (some cannibalistic). Kurtz was one such individual who travels downriver into the thicket to set up a station for his employers, but experiences a taste of totemic worship, he being the totem. His sad tale is told by Marlow, a "seaman" and a "wanderer" who was employed by the same administrative company as Kurtz.
"...their administration," says Marlow "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."

Marlow relates his experiences on the vast interior river (Congo?) which culminate in his search, along with the company manager and a native crew, for the elusive Kurtz who had terminated communication with the civilized world months before. After finally finding an ailing Kurtz downriver, Marlow's own obsession with just listening to this fellow comes to fruition in a haze of disenchantment. Delusion and dementia, along with his adoring natives, have claimed him, But Marlow, at the urging of the manager, must retrieve Kurtz (and his ivory) to the company's outpost. It is on the way back, after a reckless escape, that Kurtz will utter those infamous and harrowing last words: "The horror, the horror."

For me Kurtz represents the iconic Soldier led into the great Darkness of some war (Iraq) or material venture (oil) perpetrated by the "conquerors" (guess who). In this analogy, Kurtz's ultimate madness relates to the current epidemic of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) we see in our troops returning from the war zones.Unfortunately Kurtz's "horror" is being experienced, in some manner, by thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets today. These are just disillusioned kids returning home to their families without jobs, without limbs, without peace of mind; with nightmares. So who is Marlow, in this tale? Is he us?

In Heart of Darkness Marlow finally must face Kurtz's grieving fiancee back in London. She entreats him to assure her of Kurtz's final moments, since he was, must have been, her loved one's friend.
"Your were with him -- to the last?" she asks.
"'To the very end,' I said, shakily. 'I heard his very last words...' I stopped in a fright.
"'Repeat them,' she murmured in a heart-broken tone. 'I want --I want -- something -- something -- to -- to live with.'
Marlow is suddenly faced with a dilemma. And so are we. Will we lie as Marlow does or will we face the ugly truth?