Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness isn’t just a critique of imperialism – it’s a commentary on masculinity and its place in society.
With the exception of Hamlet, I have read Heart of Darkness more than any other book. I like to think I know it fairly well. Unlike Hamlet, which peaked in my affections around the second or third read and now, at 6 careful read-throughs, is an object of great loathing, Heart of Darkness always seems to have something more for the reader. The first time I read Heart of Darkness was in high school, and i hated it. The weird narrative structure, the incessant philosophical tangents, Kurtz existing in general – it wasn’t for me. But by the second read, I had come around to understanding why it is great, and on the third read, it became my favorite book, only unseated last year by The Master and Margarita. I thought I would write my first blog post about something I love to make things easier.
“In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center ” – Tyler Durden
Some important context: This was my first time reading HoD since reading Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, something that brought Conrad’s book into a totally new critical light for me. Palahniuk’s sexy, quotable Mr. Hyde is Tyler Durden, the narrator’s evil split personality and sometime alter ego, who wages a war against the materialism of 1990’s America by inducting other disenfranchised men into an underground fight club that becomes increasingly cult-like as it fights back against the world telling its members that they are the sum of their possessions.
Tyler Durden dreams of a world where the alpha male is not the most educated, or the richest, or a fortunate son, but the mightiest hunter, the classical conqueror, the silverback. He is unsuccessful in the modern world and so desires a return to form – to an era where seizing power is not only accepted and viable, but respected. He wishes to fight for his supremacy, as he is sure can beat the shit out of those Wall Street boys with their silky shirts and boat shoes and steal the supermodels from their sides. Tyler believes himself to be the prime example of manhood as defined by the world he lives in, and is incensed that the “real man” is not what makes for a successful person in today’s society. In short, he’s tired of playing someone else’s game.
“All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” – Marlow
Fight Club does not allow Tyler to successfully create a splinter society, so we never see the classical conqueror in action. Kurtz, however, inhabits a microcosm where his brutality is a boon. Working as an agent in Africa collecting ivory for import to Europe, Kurtz is unlike others in his field. He is highly praised and extremely successful, obtaining more ivory for his company than any other agent. However, he is secretive, always in the field and seldom returning from “the heart of darkness” to reap the fruits of his labor. As the narrator, Marlow, learns more in his quest to locate Kurtz and bring him home, he comes to understand that the other Europeans in Africa hold Kurtz at arm’s length, and that something is not right about the man. They are happy to leave him to his own devices as long as the ivory keeps flowing in, but it has stopped, and they want him brought in.
When Marlow discovers Kurtz in a remote African village far down the river, it is Tyler Durden’s fantasy played out, to the horror of the narrator’s Victorian sensibilities: Kurtz has conquered and subjugated the entire village, who worship him as a god. He has the heads of disobedient natives mounted on sharpened sticks around his dwelling, and they bring him tithes of ivory to remain in his good graces. Kurtz views his conquest and his ivory as the rewards of his own blood and sweat, staunchly refusing to return to “civilization” with Marlow. He refuses to continue to be a cog in another man’s machine, only receiving a small portion of the profits from his labor. Kurtz’s rejection of the company that gives him cause to stay out in the “heart of darkness” is the last in a long list of rejections of the trappings of civilized life, and he dies refusing to return.
Heart of Darkness provides the perfect setting for Tyler Durden’s fantasy to play out through the lens of a “civilized” individual because of the enormous developmental gap of the Victorian era; Marlow, experiencing Africa for the first time, with its vast swaths of untouched land, regards it as a primitive, savage place, the titular “heart of darkness”, where the light of civilization has yet to touch. His Eurocentric, ultimately racist conclusions about the place provide the perfect dichotomy with which to explore the role of classical masculinity. Kurtz is afforded considerable social capital because of his effectiveness in the capitalist machine, the very machine that Tyler Durden rejects. The Victorian era was one of the first where capitalism afforded real social mobility, and it became both a trend and a concern, with novels like Great Expectations dealing with the varying reactions to individuals of “new money”, and English aristocracy sheepishly marrying their daughters to wealthy American industrialists of low birth. Though more concerned than any previous era with the accumulation of wealth, Victorian Europe was still obsessed with its own notion of civilization: the term “gentleman” could now apply to a commoner, and social norms dictated that both men and women strive to be exemplars of civility. Classic masculinity gave way to values such as piety, education, and discretion. Kurtz only succeeds by acting as a classical conqueror because his behavior is deemed profitable by his company. Seeing himself as subordinate to no man, Kurtz embraces Durden’s philosophy by shaking off the chains of his employer to enjoy the full product of his labor (his ivory hoard) because he is seduced by the primal intoxication that his newfound position as the alpha male provides, a position that Tyler only partially carves out for himself as the leader of the Fight Club.