Exploring the Limits of the Human Soul, in Two Books
The books are: “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad; and, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather. Among other parallel attributes, the two novels show us the geopolitical forces of the times and places of their narration.
“Heart…” is well known, but “Death…” is not as much, and should be, if for no other reason than as an antidote to the visions Joseph Conrad conveys to us. There are, however, other reasons, discussed further below.
A book important to one’s understanding of Conrad’s experiences and his development of “Heart of Darkness” is “The Dawn Watch,” by Maya Jasanoff, who “brilliantly places Conrad as a pioneer of understanding the forces that shape the modern world… Captain Korzeniowski [Conrad’s original Polish name] meant to stay three years in the Congo, but after just five months of navigating the great waterways between Kinshasha and Kisangani, he resigned, chronically ill and an emotional wreck. He retired to Switzerland “in a state of psychological and moral despair” convinced of “the universal potential for savagery, and the hollowness of civilisation…” But he brought back more from the expedition than dysentery and depression. The notes and jottings the captain had made on his journey infiltrated their way first into the manuscript of a novel named “Almayer’s Folly” that he worked on upriver to keep himself from boredom and madness; then into a short story called An “Outpost of Progress”; and finally, in 1899, into what would become his most famous novel, Heart of Darkness. (Source)
The Europeans who had invaded and enslaved the peoples along the Congo River were not constrained by ordinary social structures—only by the commercial considerations imposed by the Belgian company who bought and marketed the ivory they took, stole, from the country; they were otherwise free to act as they will, becoming beasts, in the worst sense of the word.
Marlowe, the narrator of “Heart of Darkness,” as he proceeds hundreds of miles up the river toward Kurtz, describes the jungle in vivid details, and the horror that its alien nature directly imparts to him.
Kurtz has lived for years as the only European (with one unimportant exception), further up the Congo River in a jungle distant from anything that could possibly be called civilization. He has seen into the depths of his own soul and has therefore seen the truth of the soul in all humans, and he has acted upon what he finds there. He has become as a god to the people he lives with. The ‘truths’ are what Kurtz imparts before his death to Marlowe. Kurtz’s final words are “The horror, the horror.”
In contrast, the book “Death…” provides loving and colorful detail of the mountains, hills, and desert of southwestern USA, especially New Mexico of the mid-19th Century, even though similarly alien to the protagonists of the story, two French Catholic missionary priests.
The two books are much alike in at least one respect: poetic use of the language. The opening pages of “Heart…” are like a tone poem in its description of the London harbor at dusk, and in other passages. Likewise, in “Death…” the author, Cather, flows her words over the page in loving paeans to the land, especially, and to the human interactions of the two priests. I want to read aloud portions of both books to a receptive audience.
The human interactions of the priests include those with the church hierarchy in Italy, the native peoples of the land, the Mexican settlers with their mixed Spanish heritage, and “American” military, settlers and outlaws.
The priests, especially the archbishop, are exemplars of humility, kindness and wisdom. They are not superior humans but, have a characteristic not found in the Europeans in the Congo: they are respectful of life—all life—and of the earth.
The priests and their love of the people and the land, as depicted by Willa Cather, become objects of the reader’s love. Whereas, poor Marlowe is pitied, yet the reader is hopeful that he will recover and will have gained a degree of enlightenment which will comfort and sustain him.
The real meaning of enlightenment is to gaze with undimmed eyes on all darkness—Nikos Kazantzakis.