I love a good book. I especially love a book that kicks my butt and hands it back to me, along with a few things to think about. There is no better kind of book.
But, admittedly, there is a subset of these books that I used to avoid: those that tackled the issue of race. Part of me did not because there is something in me that just cannot understand the mindset of one who thinks themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s utterly ridiculous. Part of me avoided the issue because the books themselves showed a side of mankind that I would, admittedly, like to pretend didn’t exist at all. These books depicted all the terrible things a man–of any color–is capable of.
I read stories and books here and there throughout school when I was made to. I did not absorb them well, and whenever I had the choice, I choiced out of them. Then, in college, I read The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt. It was exactly the kind of book that I didn’t want to read. It reminded me of everything I hated about American history: the justifications, the rationalizations, the blatant mistreatment of anyone perceived as “different” when–in fact–it was the “ruling class” that was different. I hated every moment of reading that book. I still didn’t understand the attitude. I became physically sick at the bigotry and violence. It was a well-written book. The Marrow of Tradition is what one of my professors calls “a book that should never be read for the first time.”
Thankfully, when book buy-back came around some months later, I immediately balked at selling my copy of Marrow. There was another that I should have kept (The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells), but at least this one I knew to be a keeper. The experience, so dreadful during it, had turned into a life-changing one in retrospect. I still didn’t understand the attitudes, I still felt ill at the violence, but I knew myself better. I had come to understand. So I kept the book, and began looking for others like it.
Then, just a few weeks ago, my little brother recommended Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad to me. He said that it was much what I was looking for in this blog and gave me a very sketched outline of the plot. I knew, just from that bare sentence, that this was going to be one of those books I described in the beginning. It surely was, as evidenced by the fact that I was tempted to SparkNotes the book earlier last week. Once again, the attitudes were something my brain rejected before I could even really think about why they were there, the moving was slow because of the depravities I didn’t want to face. Ultimately, it was just not the sort of book I would have ever read on my own even two years ago. It was a difficult read now, but I’m beginning to learn. Running from history doesn’t help anything; the past doesn’t go away just because I don’t like it. Much like The Marrow of Tradition in my Senior year of college and Myths of Light by Joseph Campbell for my first book this year: the experience wasn’t enjoyable, but it was good.
I think the way I feel about these books that make me feel so raw inside is expressed perfectly by a quote from the book itself:
[We spoke in] common everyday words–the familiar, vague sounds exchanged on everyday waking life. But what of that? They had behind them, to my mind, the terrific suggestiveness of words heard in dreams, of phrases spoken in nightmares.
This is the terrible power of words: everyday language can terrorize and horrify as well as, if not better, than any grand language. After all, it’s every day routine that we expect no trouble from, so we expect no trouble from our common words.
One of the things I loved best about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the consistent inconsistencies. The frame of the novella is a sailor listening to the yarn of another sailor, Marlow. But, Marlow is the true narrator and it is his story in first person that takes up most of the pages. However, as is often the fault in oral storytelling, Marlow will wander into the weeds quite a bit, then come back around (or be brought back ’round) to his story. Also, in his eagerness, he’ll skip ahead several hours or days in his timeline, only to go back and try to fill in the details he missed. This can be confusing at times, but this is storytelling at it’s truest! I was raised by a storyteller, whose father before him was the grand ruling storyteller. I would often find myself sitting by my grandfather’s side at family gatherings, listening to stories I had heard a hundred times, but never the same way twice. Especially as Grandpa got older, he would wander farther in his vein before making it back to his story. Sometimes, he never did. I almost heard his voice narrating this, as he was an old sailor himself.
Something that absolutely amazed me was how respectful Marlow was of the indigenous peoples in the Congo. His language was a product of the time. Racial slurs that I would never hear nowadays peppered his speech, though not regularly. However, his actions were respectful and–in many ways–in awe of the men who were there long before he and his company. Also, he was universally horrified by the treatment of the natives at the hands of his fellow white compatriots. He attempted, in small ways that would have been ever so significant then, to advocate for them. It was a difficult thing to watch Marlow give up the fight to protect the memory of the wasted man named Kurtz.
Kurtz is despicable. The few lines that the reader gets to read of his treatise on the treatment of the natives are horrific. The worst is the line where he advocates mock deification of the whites to the superstitious and unexposed tribes. He encourages those explorers who follow to subject these tribes to fear-mongering through self-proclaimed apotheosis! This infuriates me. In order to keep order in his divine dominion, rather than use knobs for his finials on his fence posts, Kurtz used shrunken heads. He badgered whites into this religious fervor and observance with threats of physical harm or death. He was the worst kind of despicable.
And yet, there is a part of him the reader is meant to sympathize with. He is being cheated of that which he was given by the natives by his company. He says, quite plaintively to Marlow, “All I want is justice.” There is a sense there is something owed to the man, as the company stranded him and expected him to maintain all human civility without companionship for months. Yes, there was certainly harm done to Kurtz and his depravity may not even be entirely his fault.
This is certainly the conclusion Marlow comes to. He’s forced to bear the burden of Kurtz’s poison and horror on his own. All the others around him were either killed or so horrified by him that they had not stopped to think that there may still be a man behind that horror. Alone, Marlow is left to tie up the loose ends of this poisonous memory. And, at the last, when he is given a chance to tell the truth, he spares Kurtz’s intended the horror and takes it all on his own. The heart of darkness in this book was far less Kurtz’s, but the one given to Marlow to bear.
It was a difficult read, a good read. I may not yet fully be ready to face what is there, but I am beginning to understand.