The Book of Unspeakable Horror
September 6, 2009 § Leave a comment
Joseph Conrad was Polish by parentage, Ukrainian by birthplace, fluent and well-read in French, and English by naturalization. It is this multi-lingualism, I suspect, that has helped earn him a name as one of the best English novelists ever. To paraphrase his contemporary, Rudyard Kipling: What can they say in English, who only English speak?
Like Kipling, Conrad wrote for an England at the peak of its colonial pomp. Its soldiers, sea-men and traders bestrode the world like so many Colossuses, returning home laden with gleaming treasure and strange tales of dark-skinned foreigners and their barbaric customs, stories that were lapped up with morbid curiosity and horrified fascination by an eager public. Like Kipling, Conrad has been accused (most famously, by Chinua Achebe) of racism; Like Kipling, Conrad has been defended vigorously by those who have maintained that his characters speak for themselves and not for him.
A much-travelled man himself, Conrad seems acutely aware that the things he describes in his short stories are utterly alien to his readers, and so makes it his objective to bring to them, in great detail, the sights, smells and sounds that they will probably never experience first-hand. His stories are as dense with descriptions as the undergrowth of the dark Congolese jungles through which his characters pass, and require as much discipline and willpower to navigate as the great unruly water-bodies against which his protagonists struggle manfully. Every blade of jungle grass is in sharp focus, and you can almost taste the salt in the howling sea-winds he conjures up.
And yet, as you recede from the sensory descriptions that he supplies so plentifully, into the realm of human actions, motives and emotions, Conrad becomes fuzzier and more obscure. For instance, The Heart of Darkness revolves around the allegedly horrible deeds of the uber-Colonialist Kuntz. “The horror! The horror!” a character cries – but we are never once told what those deeds are.
Retreat even further, to the question of what the stories actually mean – and the landscape gets murkier still. You don’t get any help from the author, the characters, or the plot. The closest hint I could discern was a line where a character in one of the stories says:
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
That, in very broad terms, sums up the plot of Conrad’s stories in this volume – I think.
I’ve also heard it said, with some truth, in my opinion, that the stories are about the nature of language itself – what it is capable of describing directly and well (things – the trees, the waves, the wind), what it can merely allude to, indirectly (emotions – otherness, horror, courage), and whereof it must remain silent (meaning, truth).
Unhappily, much of this is lost on readers like us. Our media, our soap operas, our B-grade horror movies have inured us to surfeit – they have spoonfed us to the gills with maudlin melodrama, ketchup gore and sensationalist headlines. Our literary taste-buds are benumbed by this gluttony, we can no longer appreciate the subtler scents and fleeting flavors of an earlier generation. Harold Bloom once made the point about audiences in Shakespeare‘s day being “superior to us”. “They knew how to listen“, he said. “Most of us do not, in our overvisual culture.” So it is with Conrad. More attentive readers than we can weigh every word for significance and allusion, and get more out of Conrad. We, on the other hand, wait for the author to tell us exactly what he means, and when that doesn’t happen, we get bewildered, impatient and irritable.
We, modern mankind, having gained the moon, the internet and the High Definition Home Theater system, are unquestionably far the poorer for this loss.