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Heart Of Darkness White Lies

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Heart of Darkness: White Lies

Joseph Conrad's slender volume Heart of Darkness, published serially in Blackwood's Magazine in

1899, has probably received more critical attention per page than any other prose work. Layer

after layer has been examined and analysed, and continually they seem to lead on to

increasingly abstract strata. Critics have demonstrated how Marlow, fundamentally unreliable

and partial in his capacity of first-person narrator, becomes involved in the action and is

gradually changed by the events he describes. Using time-shifts and varying vantage points, he

takes the puzzled readers as well as the listeners on board the Nellie along the borderlines of

consciousness and reality. Like the narrator, we are allowed to "peep over the edge" into the

dark abyss, as it were, but still the novel teases like a dream, contradictory and intriguing.

According to E. M. Forster, among others, Conrad's obscurity mediates a kind of double vision

caused by discrepancies between his nearer and his further vision: "What is so elusive about

him is that he is always promising to make some general philosophic statement about the

universe, and then refraining with a gruff disclaimer" (Forster, 134-5).

The novel, concluding

with Marlow's lie to the Intended, is expressive of a sense of utter disillusionment, in stark

contrast with nineteenth-century historians' optimistic view of humanity continually moving

towards full understanding. In Conrad's book, paradoxically, ultimate truth is expressed

through a lie. In keeping with the ambience of fin de si3cle, on psychological, social and

religious reading levels the storyline heads towards "the end" in the sense of ultimate darkness,

a condition of meaninglessness and nihilism, negating all civilized values.

Part of the puzzlement which has been felt about this story has come about as a result

of dividing it into a series of interrelated layers, and the fact that in the first half of the book

there is a predominant emphasis on the picture of colonialism, whereas in the second half we

find a concentration on the implied author's notions of existential unease and metaphysical

evil. Whether critics prefer predominantly psychological, archetypal or political

interpretations, they broadly agree that the novel is strangely "modern" in outlook and

obviously resists simple readings. Clearly, it explores characteristic Conradian themes such as

the concept of "evil" and the hazardous predicament of social isolation. It is true that Conrad

has been criticized for being vague and unclear, but it has also been argued that the notion of

evil can never be fully defined, and that the book becomes "powerful precisely to the extent

that it is not precise"; its mistiness is part of the structure and Kurtz's unspeakable rites must

necessarily "remain unspoken" (Murfin, 101, and Cox, 56). Consequently, when discussing the

notion of "white lies" in the context of Conrad's novel this discussion will offer no new

varieties of psychological or religious interpretation. Instead it will focus on aspects of fin de

si3cle in the author's political, social and private background. Besides internationally wellknown

Conrad criticism I will also draw from historical source material contained in the

Swedish writer cum journalist Sven Lindqvist's part documentary part autobiographical book

Utrota varenda j#vel ("Exterminate all the brutes").

Rightly or wrongly, recent criticism has maintained that Joseph Conrad should be regarded

primarily as a political novelist. Certainly all his major novels % at least on one reading level %

concern themselves with man as a social being, involved in events and situations of a political

character. We should keep in mind that Conrad's political, philosophical and moral outlook

remained essentially Slavic or Central European, not Anglo-Saxon. His themes, in other

contexts too, concern the connection between knowledge and doubt in a manner reminiscient

of Dostoevsky or Kafka, Thomas Mann or Camus, all writers of short fictions dealing with

mental dissolution, or of philosphers such as Nietzsche, Schopenhauer or, later, Wittgenstein,

preoccupied with the relationship between will power and moral and social responsibility.

Certainly he did not share G. B. Shaw's optimistic "life-force" credo regarding Darwinian

evolution. Instead, to judge from his letters and diaries, he saw society as "basically criminal,"

crime as "a necessary condition of organized living," and man as an "evil animal." Kurtz and

Marlow both illustrate how the horror of man's life is perpetuated by lying and continuous

deception. As Thomas Brook argues, "Conrad's art approaches the truth . . . not by stating it but

reminding us of the lie that accompanies every effort to name the truth"

(Brook,

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