The Metaphysical Dimension in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
Conrad has created Heart of Darkness in such a way that the literary devices of symbolism, imagery, paradox and personification act as a catalyst for bringing out the metaphysical meaning behind the literal text. The physical journey of Marlowe to Congo, the atrocities he witnesses there and the insight he gains – all of it is fleshed out and given emblematic form on a metaphysical dimension. Hence, the depth of this novel is not characterized by nor restricted to, one person’s journey to find the truth about the African Landscape. But, it is symbolic of how Nature herself brings out the Truth about humanity through the epiphanies of one man. Therefore, the novel operates on two levels: The first is outlined by the textural relaying of Marlowe’s story –the physical landscape in Marlowe’s journey is softened by the ambiguity, confusion and juxtaposing ideologies that he encounters in his quest for uncovering the truth behind those “white, blank spaces [Nature] on the map.” The second level however, shows us the map to the shrouded Metaphysical dimension – which exceeds our imagination and the collective social consciousness - wherein the tale goes beyond its literal meaning and starkly paints the “Truth about Man” in unflinching and brutal veracity.
Hence, unsurprisingly, it is the latter realm of meaning that evolves Marlowe’s understanding of the racial, social and emotional psyche from the physical mind-set, to the metaphysical one. As a result, it is not only his realizations that question the principals regarding Humanity and Humanitarianism, but also the realizations of the second narrator on the Nellie, Conrad himself during his own journey to Congo – and all those who read ‘Heart of Darkness,’ that raise objections and propel us to go deeper into our own reality and the reality of others.
From the very beginning of his journey, Marlowe has no set ideals or pre-conceived notions of what he is going to find once he reaches his destination. This in itself is a telling sign that Marlowe is one character who is not easily compartmentalized into any given category. Our illusions about him – as the protagonist of the story – being in control or knowing the facts regarding the different situations he encounters, are put to rest as we travel with him to Congo – just as clueless and ignorant as him. This is a deliberate act on behalf of Conrad who used this narrative style to blue-print the entire novel on an aura of ethereal impalpability.
This philosophical technique can also be traced with in the structure and diction of the novel. The White Men are described as “a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence.” The holiness associated with the word Pilgrims is tainted when they are described as “bewitched;” the altruistic ideology of the Colonizers is also put into question when their materialistic endeavors are unmasked by Marlowe. Descriptions of the outer landscape and the condition therein, are a reflection of the inner turmoil of the inhabitants, and vice versa. Marlowe is the only one who looks at the external shell of matters, and does not go into great depth to find the “kernel.”
Yet, ironically, Conrad has effectively brought about revolutionary insights through Marlowe’s unique adherence to looking at the tangible and the physical things around him. This dichotomy, which is reiterative of how Conrad embeds seemingly opposing forces as complimentary ideas, is what sustains the metaphysical and supernatural realm that encapsulates the novel’s essence.
Furthermore, it is through the personification of Nature and the power it wields in the non-naturalistic paradigm of metaphysics, that the African landscape comes alive. Mother Nature is described as – “the silent wilderness,” “something great and invincible,” “waiting patiently,” “a fantastical invasion” – which results in the words taking on paranormal connotations as a causal explanation. Conrad uses the White Man’s struggle to assert his domain in the “heart of darkness;” the European efforts at colonizing “an impenetrable forest … a mob of wooded islands” to highlight the metaphysical question at the core of this novel: Who is in control? Is the White Man superior or the African landscape? In the words of Marlowe: “Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us?”
Yet, the fact that the novel is exploring human nature, there can be no definitive answers. This is because reality is not what we comprehend it to be. On the one hand, we have the Colonizers trying to brutally tame the “savagery, the utter savagery” of the Black Men. But, on the other, we see how the Europeans were not able to survive for long in the African climate. Furthermore, their fascination with the wilderness around them was caused deliberately by the African landscape which alternated between being an “appeal [and] a menace” for them. In this context, “Vegetation [Europeans] rotted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
In terms of character development, Conrad puts focus on the inclination for the ‘absolute’ that is so characteristic of Human metaphysics, when we follow Marlowe’s determined yet doomed pursuit to name what he seeks and sees in Congo. Herein, the nature of truth is also explored. It appears that there is no such thing as definitive truth, but that reality is based on the concept of ‘further truth’ - because whatever you believe to be truth, you can always look farther and find more truths and realities of it in existence.
Following this idea, Marlowe’s observations about the Europeans and the Natives are brought to the forefront when he is making his way on the river Congo to meet Kurtz. He sees on the shore, White men rushing out with joyous shouts about ivory which is put into comparison by a view of the “naked savages dancing wildly” he encounters afterwards. He feels that he is “threading his way through the heart of darkness … he [is] travelling back in time, into prehistory.”
This idea is a result of him linking the primitiveness of man at the beginning of time, with the “enthusiastic outbreak” that the Natives’ dancing signified. Hence, looking at these opposing attitudes of the Whites and the Blacks, Marlowe believes that the Natives encapsulate the “Truth about Man” in its most natural form. Also, the White Man without his motley of civilized attire and supposedly polished behavior resembles the “cannibals” when his greed renders him a materialistic barbarian. Hence, this White and Black dichotomy is instrumental in bringing out the metaphysical aspect of the novel - how one’s nurture repels the other, but their “fascination with the abominable” brings a “remote kinship” between them.
However, this fascination leads to insanity which is a dominant metaphysical theme. This “madness” takes hold once the reality of the situation is realized, and the distinguishing racial and cultural lines are blurred. Those “blank spaces” of dark topography called ‘a place of negation and ignorance’ could turn out to be a reprieve from the civilized bonds tying one down – in which essence; it could be identified as a place of freedom. This fusion of paradoxes and the inability to understand these unnatural, metaphysical conundrums is what instigated the Europeans to accuse Marlowe and Kurtz as being mad, because they were the only two who understood the truth behind Congo and its on-goings.
Conrad highlights how the expectation that the “spiritual grace” of European Colonization will manifest itself - is an illusion. It wasn’t Spiritual Epiphanies that enlightened them to the Truth of the Natives and their treasure-riddled pastures. No, it was the unleashing of their inner animals in a place that further nurtured the darkness in their hearts and bound them to remain aimless “wanderers” who had no “noble cause” to save them. As a result, the animals within them rebelled and fought, without knowing who it fought against and why.
Similarly, the relationship between Marlowe and Kurtz – who is fashioned as a metaphysical character - is also significant as it is the driving force behind the novel’s plot and the story. Marlowe hears about Kurtz – through rumors and tales – from the other characters, before he gets to see him. Meeting Kurtz has become a priority for Marlowe as he makes his way through Congo; his level of interest increasing in this elusive figure described as a “remarkable person” and a “prodigy.” Therefore, it is quite shocking that when Marlowe does meet Kurtz, this “universal genius” is a “hollow man.” Physically, his vacantness can be attributed to the sickness that has left him gaunt and emaciated. But on a symbolic, metaphysical plane: Kurtz - described as the member of “the new gang of virtue,” has now morphed into “an animated image of death” due to his lack of integrity and social morality.
Herein, Conrad has used the metaphysical dynamics to bridge the vast gulf between expectation and reality – between illusion and truth - and thereby, making one the extension of the other because one’s assumptions and suppositions play a vital role in how one perceives reality.
It is the unseen, unknown and the incomprehensible sub-texts brought out in the Metaphysical dimension that renders this novel as a literary revolution. All our pre-conceived notions and bias are realigned and evaluated by the insights found within the text – so that the protection our carefully structured ideologies afford us is shattered and the reality of life and the human condition dawns upon us – transcendental and encompassing. Conrad has so effectively painted both the physical and the metaphysical dimensions to us that the awareness it cultivates is similar to the discernment that Marlowe makes in Congo when he says: “I have never seen anything so unreal in my life.”
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.
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- Sofia Arslan (Author), 2014, Metaphysical dimension in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/344965