Disgrace

Why is Disgrace a great novel?

Such a tough question to answer. I would always like to think that great novels share some things in common…usually. Great characters, great plot, and great –insert not-so-clearly-defined attribute of choice here–. This last bit depends on the person who bothers to care whether or not any of the novels he reads is “great” in the first place. Most people don’t do this, and that’s great too.

I’m not one of these people. I’ve been building this esoteric totem pole of literary greatness in my head ever since I threw my beat up paperback edition of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed against the wall after learning about the tragic fate of Nicolai Stravrogin. Those Russians’ll do that to ya.

OK. I’m weird. But for some reason I actually care about formulating this kind of pecking order – all for the benefit of myself and myself alone. And, of course, you, dear reader.
Don’t feel sorry for me. Instead, listen to what I have to say. And please disagree. There really is truly nothing more I like in this world is for someone to say to me, “You’re wrong, Speck. And let me show you why!”

You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a gauntlet crashing to a stone floor. Beautiful.

Anyway, back to Disgrace, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel 2003 by JM Coetzee. Go here if you need a precursor to what I am about to serve up for you. And whatever you do, do NOT click the Read More link below if you have not already read this magnificent little novel. I am brutal with spoilers. You have been warned.

Why is Disgrace a great novel? Such a tough question to answer. I would always like to think that great novels share some things in common…usually. Great characters, great plot, and great <insert not-so-clearly-defined attribute of choice here>. This last bit depends on the person who bothers to care whether or not any of the novels he reads is “great” in the first place. Most people don’t do this, and that’s great too. I’m not one of these people. I’ve been building this esoteric totem pole of literary greatness in my head ever since I threw my beat up paperback edition of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed against the wall after learning about the tragic fate of Nicolai Stravrogin. Those Russians’ll do that to ya. OK. I’m weird. But for some reason I actually care about formulating this kind of pecking order – all for the benefit of myself and myself alone. And, of course, you, dear reader. Don’t feel sorry for me. Instead, listen to what I have to say. And please disagree. There really is truly nothing more I like in this world is for someone to say to me, “You’re wrong, Speck. And let me show you why!” You hear that sound? It’s the sound of a gauntlet crashing to a stone floor. Beautiful. Anyway, back to Disgrace, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by JM Coetzee. Go here if you need a precursor to what I am about to serve up for you. And whatever you do, do NOT click the Read More link below if you have not already read this magnificent little novel. I am brutal with spoilers. You have been warned. OK. So why is Disgrace great? Scratch that. Why will it be a lasting contribution to Western Culture and thrill and horrify people for years and years after we’re all dead? (And this is basically what I mean when I say a novel is great). Because it has two great characters. It frames a fertile circumstance from which grows a terrifyingly inexorable plot. And it has the third quality that I require: guts. So let’s talk about the characters. It’s not enough in RC Speck’s little book-lined closet universe that characters be real to life or distinct or complex, although these properties are necessary of course. A character also has to be useful beyond the novel. He must stand for something else such that he can act on others as a beacon or a

Is scrub great where can i have research papers written for me made quick. Has meet don’t I skin… Ear. I nice. It to since a roductos the a I love up. Microwave doesn’t the it because product has to is! Just Experience. This to the hair would corneum on a also.

warning or something. If a person begins to a see little bit of Raskolnikov or Ahab or Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary in him or her, well, then maybe they’ll also be able to address certain issues in their lives. I mean, look at how each of them turned out: prison or or death. So with Disgrace, you have a thoroughly dissolute yet highly intelligent twice-divorced English professor in Cape Town, South Africa. His big worry is finding young women to bed after the high end call girl he was infatuated with had to give up the trade just to keep away from him. He finds one, one of his students, deflowers her quite desperately, and soon finds himself about to lose his job at the university. This civilized, effete lothario now teeters on the edge of…disgrace. His daughter is an independent-minded heavyset lesbian managing a farm by herself in the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa. She does her thing and no one can tell her otherwise. She’s smart, honest, willful, self-sufficient. These are good things, especially in a woman, right? Sure they are. That is, until she gets brutally raped by three Africans at the behest of her neighbor who plans to coerce her into becoming his second (or third) wife so he can have her farm. It is a jungle out there, after all. A woman all by herself like that could use his protection, if you know what I mean. It’s at this point when this strong, modern woman is teetering on the edge of…disgrace. So far we have also given away some of the plot, but the cement from which this particular blade of grass sprouts is 1990s post-Apartheid South Africa. A lot of grass can grow in one of those cracks. When the characters respond to the crisis, that’s when character, in a sense, becomes plot, or at least drives it. The father considers civilized methods of finding justice: appealing to the police, searching for the perps, confronting the neighbor, trying to convince his daughter to leave old RSA for good. Of course, none of it works with her. Not over there. Things are different over there. Forget it, Jake. It’s the Eastern Cape. And the daughter? Nothing. She heals. She mopes. And then she thinks she’ll give in. The woman who once would not deign to sleep with a man who might be kind and fair to her now agrees to bed down with the man who brutalized her in the most underhanded way possible just so he could break her spirit. Almost makes you think that nice guys actually do finish last, doesn’t it? There’s also a subplot with a stout, middle-aged married women who’s dedicated to treating and saving animals, especially dogs. She runs a kennel nearby and is friends with the daughter. The father at first is repulsed by the way she’s forced to put unwanted dogs down. He was also horrified at how his daughter’s rapists shot and killed all of her dogs before violating her (the same type of dog whites once trained to attack anyone in brown skin). But after having sordid trysts with her (on the kennel floor, no less), he gets over this killing dogs thing. It’s not a big deal anymore. They’ve both grown accustomed to their own state of disgrace. And it is heartbreaking. The daughter who once floated haughtily above it, now sinks like a stone. And the father treading water in it like the corrupt little man he’s become, sees what is happening. He sees! But it is too late. He’s too weakend from his own sins to

do anything but thrash. And then he gets sucked down too. I was missing both of them, bitterly, for days. And the guts portion of our program? Trying to connect the disgrace of these two characters to that of South Africa or the world beyond it. You can tackle this problem from any angle, and I mean any ideological angle, and come away with something…oh, what’s the word? Disgraceful…or useful. Take your pick.

Modern Lit and Me

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy modern literature. I’ve posted about recently published novels I’ve enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It’s just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn’t do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I’m talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don’t wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

My typical mantra when it comes to modern literature is that it usually disappoints. And by “modern” I mean anything published during or after 1960.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy modern literature. I’ve posted about recently published novels I’ve enjoyed here and here. There are others as well, of course. It’s just that with modern novels I tend to wrap my mind around them pretty easily and always find much to criticize. Upon reflection, the characters and situations seem to take a backseat to style of some sort, whether it’s structure, prose, or attitude. And to me, that’s cheap. Either that, or I have a blind spot where familiarity breeds contempt, and modern fiction just doesn’t do it for me for that reason.

Keep in mind I’m talking only about literary fiction, as opposed to genre or historical fiction. My favorite novels fall this category: Moby Dick, The Possessed, Huck Finn, The Secret Agent, The Plague. Pretty much the A-list from your high school AP lit and college survey classes. So finding the next great literary novel is a real holy grail for me. The search and its inevitable disappointments evoke a loneliness as well, making me feel, as Brian Wilson once sang, “I just wasn’t made for these times.”

Why do I react more strongly to-and feel closer too-long-winded Russian, English, or French novels from the 19th century than I do to the supposedly great works of today? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for fifteen years. I mean, I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I don’t want to live in the past. And I certainly don’t wear the burden of constant disappointment like a badge of honor. But when I meet someone who raves on and on about a fashionable literary novel that I know to be a piece of bombastic, pretentious hackwork, well, I can never take that person’s literary tastes seriously.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it?

Would it exonerate me a little if I said I couldn’t help it? That I am simply being honest? I certainly wouldn’t say this about other art forms. We are currently in a golden age of serial television. It’s my opinion that the 1990s produced the best situation comedies ever on television. The 1990s can also rival the 1970s for rock music. The best comic art (i.e., graphic novels) has been unsurpassed since the 1980s.

So it’s only literature. Only literature.

The thought that scares me is that the best literary novels were written from 1800 to around 1950 because that was the time when people needed them the most. This was also the period in which they had the most time for literary fiction. This was the Age of the Novel, so to speak, implying that the literary novel today is an antiquated art form that has lost whatever it had that made it crucial to Western culture. Either that, or our society has degraded to the point we can’t appreciate literary fiction the way we used to.

Both options stink, to be honest. And I am not inclined to wholly believe either of them. But the fact remains that a Moby Dick or a Crime and Punishment, if being peddled by an unknown author, would never get published these days. They wouldn’t be worth the risk a publisher would have to face getting them on bookstore shelves. And this is a Bad Thing.

Fortunately, every once in a while I find an amazing modern novel that gives me hope. I have found several that almost make it, as brilliant as they are. Very rarely do I find a novel that seems to be fully-formed as if it had just sprung from the head of Zeus. Disgrace by South African writer J.M. Coetzee is one such novel.

This is an infuriating, maddening novel that will haunt you. After reading it, I replayed it in my mind for days. It won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003, and I am surprised that something so raw and something so frankly racial could have garnered such a mainstream accolade. Further, something occurs in it that is so purely evil-and so devastating-that I dare not to give it away to those who haven’t read the book yet.

Suffice to say it’s in my top 5 novels (so far) published since 1960 (the others being A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, and Vienna Days by Kim du Toit).

In 1897, to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “Recessional” which more or less took account of the British Empire at the very zenith of its powers. You can read more about it here. The poem’s point was essentially…well, what is the point of poetry, anyway? Different people read into it different things. The Empire was God’s Will. The Empire is barely holding on. The Empire is too warlike. The Empire is about to fall apart.

This is the genius of Disgrace, only taking place in post-Apartheid South Africa. There’s a lot to talk about with regards to that, and will be the subject of an upcoming post.

The Land Breakers

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get its audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

This is a continuation of my Myth and Experience post from December 2010…

Film critic Andre Bazin once came up with an extremely useful analogy. If the purpose of the narrative arts is to get an audience across a stream, then the classical forms are bridges. Each stone, in its placement and dimensions, helps enable the bridge to hold as much as possible with as little as possible. This is elegance of vision and design. So in a good story, every action, every theme, every plot and subplot, and every detail should serve the higher purpose of unifying the experience for the audience.

Remember The Godfather Part II? Early on, old Frankie Pentangeli makes the trip to Vegas to ask Michael for help against the Rosato brothers who were encroaching on Corleone territory back in New York. While waiting for his audience with the young Don, Pentangeli searches the orchestra for one single Italian and, finding it bereft of his paisanos, attempts to lead it in some traditional Italian folk melody. The musicians have a hard time following until they come up with a very American equivalent: “Pop Goes the Weasel”. Pentangeli retreats from the stage in disgust.

So why is this important? Because on one hand you have an amusing scene, but on the other you have the introduction of a crucial theme: Michael Corleone’s separation from his roots and descent into evil. This theme is explored throughout the film, including the flashbacks to Michael’s father a generation ago in Little Italy and culminating with the murder of his brother Fredo. So the scene with the orchestra may not seem important right away, but in hindsight it is. It is a well-placed stone in the bridge that is the entire film.

Bazin’s point was that neorealist films like The Bicycle Thief were not like this at all. Instead of being bridges with some a priori purpose, they were more like rocks that just happen to lie in the stream. Their a posteriori purpose being to support your hands and feet as you amble across as best you can. The experience isn’t so much unified and schematic as real and apparently random just like life. Therein lies its power.

North Carolina writer John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is one such story.

Set in the late 1700’s, the story focuses on the first white settlers in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. There’s Mooney, the strong, silent, clear thinking farmer. His stubbornness keeps his family alive, but it could also kill him. His wife Lorry, pretty and tough, is haunted by a previous marriage and has a hard time not resenting her father who owns a plot of land nearby. Her father, Tinkler Harrison, owns a small number of slaves and much livestock and hence is a station above everyone else. Highly intelligent but pathologically shrewd, he married his teenage niece when he was in his 50s. His brother in-law Ernest is musical and lazy and reared a large brood of girls who suffer from the lack of a good father, or so Tinkler thinks. Their second-oldest Mina is truly beautiful, but restless and rebellious to a fault.

These and others are the people who have to break the land. The rocky, wild, mountainous land. Few today know what that means firsthand, including myself. But it is a gargantuan task that Ehle portrays with brutish clarity. It involves keeping wolves and foxes away from the livestock you’re raising in your backyard. It involves digging a proper privy so others can walk through the forest without incident. It involves knowing which roots and herbs can be used for medicine and which ones can kill you. It involves knowing how to keep your log cabin secure so snakes don’t enter in the dark of night and poison you. It involves keeping eggs and meat fresh for as long as possible in a wretched little kitchen that lacks even a window. It involves sitting on logs when sharing meals because you can’t spare the wood to build a table and chairs. It involves tracking down grizzly bears on their turf with knives and primitive rifles when they terrorize your community. It involves, to quote Rudyard Kipling, the ability to “watch the things you gave your life to broken/And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.”

So the novel strings together more or less unrelated vignettes like rocks in a stream as the land breakers build a town from literally nothing. The process is slow, and they could search for greener pastures in the lowlands. But they don’t. That land’s already been broken, you see. It wouldn’t belong to them.

The only semblance of myth and meaning in The Land Breakers can be found in a later chapter when the entire settlement, led by Mooney and Tinkler, resolves to deliver all their goods and livestock across tortuous and deadly terrain down to the nearest town. This is their very best, the dear dear product of years of bitter toil. It’s their only way of generating real wealth and showing the world, and themselves, that all their sacrifice wasn’t in vain. It’s also the only way to entice more settlers to come and break the land with them. So all the stories encountered thus far in the novel seem to ride on the line with this exodus. Ehle paints it as downright biblical – and it is. If it fails, the settlement is set back further into the wilderness with hearts and bodies, rather than the land, being broken.

The language is blunt and stripped-down but clever, the characters unforgettable, and the circumstances riveting and almost always dangerous. Anything florid or witty gets excised if it was ever there to begin with. By focusing on women as much as men, Ehle comes off as less macho than Hemingway who explored similar themes, but for whom the “Sacred Land” was mostly masculine territory. For The Land Breakers Ehle’s approach is appropriate. Part of the fascination of historical fiction is getting a sense of how people lived years ago, and women are of course no less fascinating than men.

Another important aspect of the novel is its (albeit innocent) political incorrectness. Published in the early 1960s, it portrays Mother Nature as an unforgiving monster who will swallow you whole and forget all about you if you let her. There is no nostalgia for nature in this novel. There is no concern for the rights of wild animals, the things that threaten to chip away at your prosperity or destroy it outright. And trees are there only to be chopped down for firewood, building material, or to make room for more settlers. When breaking the land you need all the help you can get, and sympathy for anything other than humans, pets, and livestock in such circumstances would be downright suicidal. The land breakers engage in an unremitting struggle with the beast that is Mother Nature, the only outcomes of which are either death or the privilege of waking up in the morning and continuing the struggle for another day. All for the vision and hope of what the settlement could one day be.

After you make the rocky journey across the stream that is The Land Breakers, you can look back and see the wet stones you clung to and cut your skin on. They are still just rocks, for the most part strewn across the water at random. Very few of them are well-placed. And that’s okay. For a brief time, thanks to the genius of John Ehle, you were a land breaker yourself. And you made it across the stream. You made it across the stream.

Most. Overrated. Novella. Ever.

So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here’s what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn’t have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that’s my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that’s my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you’re still with me by now you’ve probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much.

So I’m gonna tell you a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was on a boat with these other guys. And one of them, this guy Marlow, told the most amazing story ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that’s really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here’s what he said. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

Marlow here. I’m gonna tell you three guys a story. Really, it’s one of the most amazing stories ever. You want darkness? It’s full of darkness. Moreover it’s full of important darkness, like, the darkness of far-off uncharted territories that really the darkness in our own hearts, you know? So here it is then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you:

So there I was, there I was, there I was…in the Congo. Boy, was it dark. I was a steamship captain going up river to work at a trading station that deals in ivory. Not a whole lot happened, other than the darkness. Did I say that it was dark? Got waylaid for about a month. Met a few dubious individuals. They all talked about my future boss, Kurtz. Saw a lot of suffering. Still pretty dark. Heard that Kurtz was going nuts. Heard he took charge of a tribe. They attacked us with arrows. We found him. He was nuts, all right. And sick, muttering, “The horror! The horror!” right before he died. It was too bad, and still pretty dark over there. Didn’t have the heart to break his last words to his fiancé. So I told her he died calling her name.

So that’s my story. It would have been too dark to tell her the truth. Too dark.

When Marlow finally shut up, I looked out towards the horizon, and it was pretty dark.

So that’s my story. The end. Pretty dark, huh?

So I guess that if you’re still with me by now you’ve probably guessed that the most overrated novella ever must be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I have read this novella three times now. Or, I should say, I remember reading it three times. The story itself, not so much. If not for this blog post, which forces me to remember, I probably would have forgotten it once again. That’s because, frankly, it is a murky, forgettable story. While a lot happens from an ideological standpoint, very little happens from an objective standpoint, and that’s what I primarily care about.

Okay, so what does this mean? It means that if you are sympathetic with a certain ideology (in this case, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism), then Heart of Darkness leaves you with enough clues and themes to reinforce this ideology and make you feel vindicated after reading. But if you are completely ignorant or apathetic to this ideology, then the story will sink into tedium like quicksand.

More on this as we go along.

From a technical standpoint, my objections to the story are twofold: lack of action and unnecessary degrees of separation. Let’s get the latter one out of the way first, since it’s the more easily summarized.

Basically, you have three levels of separation (or complication) between the author and the story. It goes from author, to anonymous narrator, to Marlow, to the Congo, to the reader.

Now why do we need this? Couldn’t we just have made Marlow the narrator and have him tell the story as it happened? Couldn’t all of Conrad’s important plot points still be covered with this more direct approach? After all, it is Marlow’s story. All this anonymous narrator business and the fact that Marlow is recalling his African adventures of long ago before a curiously quiet group of colleagues only separates the reader further from the story.

I can think of one reason such a separation could increase the novella’s appeal: it reinforces the distance between Europe (where most of Conrad’s readers were located) and the locus of the story: Africa, the heart of darkness itself. Africa: haunted by the specter of colonialism and ravaged and raped by imperialism. Africa: where bad, greedy Europeans go to lose their souls and where good Europeans filled with good European good intentions supposedly go to lose their minds. In so doing Conrad increases the exotic nature of the story, enhances its sense of adventure and mystery, and makes a very clear point that despite taking place thousands of miles away, this heart of darkness really exists within all of us. You see? Far away become really really close. I believe literature professors refer to such an obvious literary device as irony.

Okay, so what?

This only matters if you are either a committed colonialist or a committed anti-colonialist (or imperialist, but whatever). This only matters if you subscribe to a certain ideology before reading the story. But what if you don’t? What if you’re neither pro- or anti- in this debate? What if you’re some 8th grade kid armed only with a tabula rasa and hopes that this story will have something interesting in it unlike the last dusty tome they just made you read? Better yet, what if you’re a literature lover in India or East Asia who’s looking for a universal story about the human condition and don’t have time to weigh yourself down beforehand with ideological English baggage from a hundred years ago?

In that case you would be out of luck. Wouldn’t you?

My second complaint is this: Nothing happens. Or, really, when things finally do start to happen towards the end of the story, the reader is too beaten down by boredom to care. Marlow gets a job in Africa. Goes there. Waits. Goes part of the way to Kurtz’s station. Waits some more. Goes a little further. Waits some more. Finds a book about shipping. Continues searching for Kurtz and waiting. Meets some raving Russian guy. Then the action begins: they get attacked by Kurtz’s tribe. One of the ship’s crew is killed. They find Kurtz. He escapes. They find him again and put him on the boat. He says, “The horror, the horror.” He dies. A year later, Marlow tells Kurtz’s still-grieving fiancé that his last words were her name.

Now, is it me? Or is this tea a little weak?

Of course, Conrad tries to liven it up by constantly reminding us of how dark it is along the Congo River, even in broad daylight, and converts his novella into a veritable thesaurus of darkness. He uses the words “dark”, “darkly”, or “darkness” 56 times both metaphorically and otherwise. “Black” he uses 33 times apart from a racial or skin-color context. Variations on “night” he uses 30 times. He uses “shadow” or “shadowy” 20 times and “gloom” or “gloomy” 14 times. Similar terms include “dusk”, “dim”, “murky”, “unlit”, “obscure”, and “pitch”.

I’m reminded of a Woody Guthrie album called Dustbowl Ballads wherein 8 out of the 15 songs all have “dust” in the title: “Dust Storm (Dust Storm Disaster)”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues”, “Dust Can’t Kill Me”. “Dust Pneumonia Blues”, “Dust Bowl Refugee”, “Dust Bowl Blues”, “Talkin’ Dust Bowl Blues (alternate take)”, and the ever-popular “Dusty Old Dust”. Something tells me that this is a concept album about dust.

The problem with this darkness motif in Heart of Darkness is not just that it is overdone and blatant, but that it is entirely manufactured by the author. It comes from Conrad, through the narrator, and finally through Marlow rather than stemming from the action itself. In other words, Conrad pulls it out of his bag of tricks in order to drum up tension and compensate for the chicken scratch plot line he’s making us follow. This happens in horror movies a lot, except in horror movies the payoff is never too far away. In Heart of Darkness there really is no payoff. With all the creepiness, with all the macabre language and depictions of foreboding landscapes, you’d expect some grand finale, some catastrophic yet thrilling event from which Marlow barely escapes a completely changed man. Instead, the story dissolves before your eyes like a dream upon waking. Instead, Marlow finds Kurtz and takes him away. An anticlimactic ending like this threatens to leave a reader wondering where the story went.

So if Heart of Darkness is so underwhelming, why is it canonized? Why is it force-fed to millions of high school students across the English-speaking world? Why is it considered great? Well, for one, it’s not a bad story by any means. It’s a serious work of historical importance. If you’re looking for a portrayal of colonialism in fiction, you could do a lot worse than Heart of Darkness. If you’re paying attention, you can also tease out a lot of meaning in the story’s recurring themes. You will have no trouble finding such exegeses on the internet. Also, I do kind of like how Conrad builds tension by having people incessantly talking, whispering, muttering, cursing the name of the mysterious Kurtz pages and pages before we meet him. H.P. Lovecraft uses a similar device pretty well in Call of Cthulhu and other stories, and may very well have taken a page or two out of the book of Joseph Conrad.

I think the main cause for the novella’s canonization however is ideological. Most people in the academy assign Heart of Darkness because they agree with its perceived ideological message: Colonialism is Bad, imperialism is Bad, and because Europeans engage in colonialism and imperialism they have become Bad. Their hearts have become full of darkness, you see.

Now, you may agree with this or not, but it does not refute the claim that Heart of Darkness is propped up by ideology for its chief appeal. This means it will not last as a work of fiction since the expanse of time exhausts all ideologies. At some point in the future, when readers will have less emotion invested in colonialism or imperialism, Heart of Darkness will have to stand on its merits. And when that happens it will be exposed for its manifest limitations, no matter how dark Joseph Conrad makes it out to be.