Sometimes you can make a cheese sandwich, pick up a book, and change the way you think about life. More often, you can make two, open the computer, and read Postcards from Yo Momma. The former infinitely rare and precious experience is preferred, but it’s impossible to manufacture. You cannot prime yourself for epiphany, even if the the book is pithy, the mustard piquant, and you’ve arranged yourself prettily, nay, beatifically, in a sunbeam.
I have tried it many times with Heart of Darkness, which is a work that feels like it should impart some kind of something. Every time I open the book I think, like a young man bound for the colonies, “My god, I’ve really started something.” And every time I open the book I raise a crust to Joseph Conrad the polyglot, who in this novel gives a fine demonstration of the fact that some brains are different than others. Some brains take words in any language and make minions of them (others make mincemeat). Conrad, in a third language, wrote one of the most epic beginnings ever. I challenge someone to find a second paragraph that portends such greatness:
The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
It keeps going like this, all his words perfectly arranged, the narrative artfully made. And yet in spite of Conrad’s virtuosity, by the middle of this slim but theme-sodden novel, I usually find myself musing on the accomplishments of Martin Sheen, wishing I hadn’t made so many unhelpful underlines in my copy, wondering if the first sandwich feels lonely in my gullet, and realizing I missed the part (again) that explains who the Pilgrims are. This last read, I sent myself into a paroxysm of giggles by imagining one of the fellows on deck cutting Marlow off halfway with an emphatic cry of “Boooo-ring.”
I actually did have an epiphany this last time, but it was not the kind I had been trying for. I did not glean arcane truths and readerly thrills from the novel. No, I realized that my feeling about Heart of Darkness is not hate, but something akin to contempt, the contempt bred of school-day familiarity.
Unless things have changed considerably in the last few years, if you go to college and study literature, you will encounter this novel. You will see it in a class that builds it up, then you will see it in a class that tears it down. You will talk about the Other, and the Intended, and the Horror. You will make much of colonial ineptitude and Conrad’s startling frankness re: it. You will read Chinua Achebe (then several years later you will read him again and marvel at how fucked up the world, and you, must have been to necessitate the writing of an essay pointing out that Conrad was racist). At the end of it all, you will do a group project on Apocalypse Now.
Heart of Darkness is not bad or boring, but it bores me, badly. I almost feel guilty getting bored, because I think Conrad had significant things to say. And he had a sense of humor, a grim one, my favorite kind. He knew, for example, that many colonials were idiots and that Marlow was an inspired windbag. But I get bored, and think how I can pare the story down to just a few words: “White man oppresses black man, is oppressed in turn by jungle mysteries.”
I will never regret studying literature. Reading novels is fundamental to my particular brand of personhood, and so it’s important to understand how they work and why they do and what they tell us about the world. And studying Heart of Darkness is important and I’m glad I did it. But I suspect there’s nothing like prolonged study to turn some books stale for some people. Indeed my copy of Heart of Darkness, one of those scholarly critical editions, is an object lesson in making novels loathsome by burdening them with six different levels of pointless annotations and distracting hieroglyphics, and entombing them in essays that total several hundred pages longer than the novel itself.
Of course, as we are told by the lovable old salt, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are! They live in a world of their own and there had never been anything like it and never can be.” I know intellectually, in my fragile bird brain, that Heart of Darkness is a Great Work. But I don’t know it in my own, less inscrutable heart.